Telling the Stories that Matter: August 30 – Jeanne Jugan, Little Sister of the Poor, Teacher, Blessed

Jeanne Jugan was born in Brittany, France, in the late 18 century. Her father died when she was young and this forced Jeanne’s mother and sisters to take care of the large Jugan family. She was devoted to her family and helped to provide for their needs in whatever ways she could. As the sixth of eight children, however, she was one of the younger ones. She wasn’t called to be a surrogate mother but, rather, a little sister to her family.

When she was sixteen, she took a job as a maid for a local countess. These circumstances could have been bad for Jeanne–as they had been for so many other young women–but the countess was a devoted Christian who saw a kindred spirit in young Jeanne. The countess was very active in visiting the sick and the needy and providing for their various needs. Though Jeanne was hired as a kitchen-maid, at the request of the countess she began traveling with her to visit the sick and poor and assist in providing for their needs.The older countess used her young maid to help her in providing the love and support needed by those they visited. Jeanne was not called to be a countess and benefactor but, rather, a little sister to the countess.

Several years later, Jeanne would take a job caring for an elderly woman in the community.They, too, recognized a similarity in each other and began to work together intimately to provide for the poor and unfortunate in the area. Further, under the elderly lady’s direction, they began to teach catechesis to the interested children in the community. This was a chance for Jeanne to serve as a leader to some but still be guided by those whom she loved and who loved her. Jeanne did teach the faith to the people and was, in many ways, a teacher at heart but she was not called to be a schoolmaster but, rather, a little sister to her elderly friend until she died and went to her rest in God.

Jeanne would, then, join with another elderly lady–Francoise Aubert–to rent a small cottage. They were joined by Virginie Tredaniel–a seventeen-year-old orphaned girl. These three women joined together in regular prayer and reflection. Their small Christian community offered hospitality to any who might request it and offered teaching to all who were interested. Upon one occasion, Jeanne brought a blind widow into their home and slept on the floor so that the widow could sleep in her bed. As she slept on the floor and her widowed friend slept comfortably for the first time in who knows how long, she felt the call that had been on her life for so long. She was not called to succeed by the standards of the world but, rather, to be a little sister to widows and the elderly. Any elderly woman was welcome and well-provided for in their home. They were fed and loved. This community would daily and beg for assistance to provide for those in their care. They became known as the “Little Sisters of the Poor.”

When Jeanne died, in 1879, there were nearly 2500 little sisters spread across the world providing assistance, love, and hospitality to widows and the elderly. In all things, Jeanne lived by an ethic of love and sacrifice for others. She had learned from an early age that Christians should be known for their love and that there was far more to love than words and good intentions. She was a little sister to many and an example to all.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 25 – Genesius, Actor, Martyr, Convert

Genesius was not raised in a Christian family but he was a member of a class of people who were not highly esteemed or respected–actors and comedians. He sacrificed to the Roman gods and said all the right things but the Roman world seemed to offer him no opportunities to attain its great reward of wealth and a life of leisure and influence. Diocletian had made it clear that it would not be profitable–or even safe–to be a Christian but he had not been very clear on how anybody else could attain the rewards of the Empire. Genesius was an enterprising man and deduced that Diocletian would be making a rare trip to Rome to celebrate the 20th year of his rule and devised a plan. Knowing Diocletian’s hatred of Christians, he endeavored to work with his troupe and develop an improvisational comedy act mocking Christians and their rites. He expected that this would convince the Emperor to smile upon him and earn him the rewards of the Empire and so he cast himself in the role of the main character with the intention of viciously satirizing Christian practice.

Using his skills as an actor, Genesius was able to become involved in Christian circles to perform the research necessary to do the act well. He was taking significant risk to do so–Christians were being persecuted and arrested–but he knew that he could always offer sacrifice quickly if captured and keep his freedom. Genesius convinced the Christian leaders that he was sincere and began to be educated by them about what it was they believed and trusted.While a catechumen of the Church, he learned about the Church’s mysteries and rites–including baptism. The idea of sacramental rebirth by water intrigued Genesius who decided to focus the act upon this rite in particular. After he had received enough information to do the show, he stopped attending the meetings and classes of the people he had duped.

On the day of the show, the troupe was excited because Diocletian was present for the performance. Knowing that he loved comedy, the troupe knew that Diocletian’s amusement meant their success and benefit. They took the stage and the mockery commenced much to Diocletian’s delight. Genesius played a Christian in the catechumenate and his fellow actors played the stereotypes and comedic parts to the hilt. Subtle and not-so-subtle satire of the Christians pleased Diocletian as the actors must have been aware as they performed. Genesius–in character–requested baptism and an actor playing a priest came out from the wings of the stage area. Much laughter accompanied the baptism of Genesius but something changed as the water left the priest’s bowl and poured over Genesius’ head. Genesius saw a vision and all of his catechumenate came to bear upon his soul. He found himself painfully aware that he was mocking something that had taken seen in his heart and that he found himself truly to believe. He was being converted even as he mocked his newfound Lord and Savior. He had professed his faith in mockery but now it was made real as he found that the seed of faith planted by his time with the Christians had bloomed within him.

Actors playing soldiers came forward and gripped Genesius by the shoulders. They noticed that something had changed about Genesius’ demeanor who had stopped delivering lines and, instead, was staring into space at some unseen vision. They continued on with the play likely thinking that Genesius was planning some particular gag or, perhaps, in accordance with the maxim: “the show must go on.” They dragged him before the feet of Diocletian in the audience and presented him to the Emperor. Thinking it hilarious and excited to have a part in the show, Diocletian demanded the same of Genesius as he had demanded of so many Christians–denial of their faith and sacrifice to the Roman gods. Genesius looked up into the face of Diocletian and said, “I can deny neither my faith nor my Lord Jesus Christ.” Nervous laughter stole through the crowd and Diocletian looked to his aides with confusion in his eyes–he didn’t get it. The other actors froze knowing that Genesius had left the script–he was supposed to have agreed to the Emperor’s demands and make a mockery of all that had preceded and been said.

Diocletian did not like that he thought a joke was being played on him and so he had soldiers–real soldiers–come out and bind Genesius before the crowd. It may not be funny but he refused to allow some actor to rob him of his dignity and aura of fear and adoration. He demanded Genesius’ denial under threat of torture as audience and acting troupe looked on. Genesius responded: “There’s nothing you can do or threaten to remove Jesus Christ from my heart and my mouth. Once I mocked his holy name and now I detest and regret that time. I came so late to the Kingdom and cannot leave it now.” On Diocletian’s order, Genesius was beheaded and made a martyr. He had not received the rewards of Rome but he had received the rewards of the Kingdom of God. He had earned the Martyr’s Crown.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 21 – Abraham of Smolensk, Orphan Monk, Falsely Accused, Vindicated

Abraham was born to wealthy parents in the 12th century, so you might say he
was fortunate. However, his parents died when he was very young and he was left to live with others in Smolensk, Russia, who loved him but who could never replace his father and mother in his life. Abraham was raised in the Church and was familiar with its teachings from a young age. Perhaps, his guardians thought that the Church, with all its many brothers and sisters, could be the family that Abraham needed so desperately. In many ways, it was, but it never made up for his deceased parents and their absence in his life. When he was deemed “old enough” to make decisions about his family fortune, he could only think of one thing to do with all that wealth–he gave it to the poor, took up the life of a monk, and moved to the Bogoroditskaya Monastery. He grew into his calling and vocation and was known as a forceful and convicting preacher, as well as being a scholar of the scriptures and the Church’s teachings concerning the scriptures.

But what he was best known for during his service at Bogoroditskaya was his ministry to the poor and sick that always seemed to be growing. Abraham’s genuine affection for those in trouble and need made him stand out from the average monk at Bogoroditskaya at the time and attracted much attention to his compassionate care from both those in need and other clergy. We could offer many reasons why his upbringing and fatherless and motherless childhood led Abraham to care for such as those whom he loved, but one thing is for certain beyond all other things: whatever it was that formed Abraham, formed him to be more loving and more caring–to be more like his savior, Jesus Christ. Many of Abraham’s peers and colleagues at Bogoroditskaya became jealous of, or convicted by, his compassionate care and genuine love for those who were troubled. Consequently, they leveled charges of heresy and pride against him, insisting that what was genuine was actually corrupt. Abraham’s enemies had reasoned that it was better to put out the light he produced, than to have others see clearly what little light shone from their hearts. The wealthy condemned Abraham for preaching against poverty and greed. After all, when your god is your wealth or your security, then even love and grace must bleed upon your altar. So, an investigation was opened into the character and orthodoxy of Abraham. Abraham avoided the conflict by moving and joining the Monks of the Holy Cross.

But, the accusations followed Abraham and soon he was forbidden to preach. Even though two consecutive investigations acquitted him of any wrongdoing, he was stripped of all priestly functions by his bishop and sent back to Bogoroditskaya to be obedient to his superiors and abandon his ministry to the sick and poor. But, soon a drought gripped Smolensk and the people cried for the Church to pray to God to grant rain to the city and its

fields. When the Church assured the people that it would though, the people demanded that Abraham be asked to do so because they knew personally what great love Abraham held for them. Because of the outpouring of support, the bishop reopened Abraham’s investigation, cleared him of all charges, and renewed him to his priestly role and ministry to the sick and the poor. After Abraham prayed with the people for rain, he hadn’t made it back to his cell when the first drops of rain began to fall on Smolensk. Abraham spent the rest of his life teaching and caring for the poor and the sick, because he had learned the power of love in the lives of those who need it so much. Abraham the fatherless and motherless had become father and mother to so many in need of God’s love and grace and that had made all the difference in the world.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 14 – Maximillian Kolbe, Martyr, Prisoner #16670, Lover of Life

Maximillian Kolbe was born Rajmund Kolbe in part of Poland that was, at the time, part of the Russian empire. His father–Julius–and mother–Maria–moved the family around in an attempt to find both freedom and a measure of stability. They worked a variety of jobs before Julius enlisted in a Polish force that hoped to fight and gain the independence of Poland from Russia. Rajmund and one of his brothers decided to become priests and did so by sneaking across the border into Austria-Hungary. There, they studied in seminary in preparation. When Rajmund took the vows that began his process of becoming a priest, he changed his name to Maximillian. This was, in a way, a new birth into life that was free of Rajmund’s fear of the Empire and the oppression it so easily dealt in. It was a turning point for Maximillian.

Eventually, Maximillian would be ordained a priest and he would return to Poland. However, now Poland was a free nation andMaximillian was a spiritual leader who knew how best to resist an Empire. This would come in handy when, years later, the Third Reich began to sweep into Poland bringing death and destruction to Jews, outcasts, and those who resisted the Empire. Maximillian used the radio station he had founded and supervised to vilify the encroaching Nazis. Further, he used the resources and buildings at his disposal to provide shelter and sanctuary to more than 2,000 Jewish refugees. He refused to submit to an Empire that demanded submission or torturous death. This kind of resistance to the Empire was, is, and will always be noticed by the powers. Consequently, the Gestapo came–hiding behind their titles and uniforms that were supposed to make their evil actions legitimate–and arrested Maximillian. He was shipped to prison and, then, to Auschwitz.

They tried to strip him of his identity. They did not call him Maximillian–his chosen Christian name. They did not call him Rajmund–the name his family had given him. They called him prisoner #16670. They hoped that they could quell this resistance by crushing the spirit of one who refused to submit. Whereas they could have used their power and simply killed him, they hoped to crush his will and make an example of him. In the case of Maximillian, they failed.

Eventually, one of the men in Maximillian’s block was found missing. The Nazis were enraged at the idea of a person escaping their exquisitely crafted hell and their rage flowed out in a series of commands: ten random people from that block would forfeit their lives as punishment–by starvation in a locked bunker. They rounded up ten men and paraded these condemned ones before the inhabitants of Auschwitz. They proclaimed the cause of their death–the “missing” man who would later be found dead in a latrine–and hoped to spread fear through the people like a poison to destroy their hope and capacity for cooperation with each other. The Empire dealt in terms of death and was skilled at wielding it willfully.

One of the men–Franciszek Gajowniczek–cried out in fear and desperation for his wife and children that he would leave behind. The hearts of the Nazis were not moved but the heart of Maximillian was. Maximillian stepped forward and volunteered to die in the man’s place. Maximillian–lover of life that he was–hoped to purchase the life and future of another man with his own excruciating death. The Nazis agreed to this for whatever reason and led the ten men into a bunker, locked the door, and gave the men over to death and desperation. Maximillian led the condemned in songs and prayers while they slowly died from starvation and dehydration. After three weeks of torturous death, Maximillilan and three others were still alive and still singing and praying. They were weak and they were, most assuredly, dying and yet they were offering love to their executioners. The guards removed them from the bunker and injected them with carbolic acid. They died there on August 14th, 1941. Though the Nazis dealt in death and believed themselves powerful, Maximillian dealt in love and life and knew the true power of a redeemed heart willing to make sacrifice for another.Maximillian died that day but he resisted and defeated an Empire that couldn’t begin to comprehend the redemption and conversion at work in Maximillian.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 7 – St. Victricius, Soldier of Peace, Bishop

Victricius was born the son of a Roman Legionnaire. Like his father, he was set aside for military service to the Empire. He was trained from a young age to serve the Emperor and execute his directives. He followed in his father’s footsteps and was on a path that led to acclaim, wealth, relative comfort, and power over other people.But, his path was interrupted when he began speaking with Christians like St. Martin of Tours. They introduced him to a crucified and suffering King. They told stories about heroic and willing martyrs and missionaries. They followed after a crucified king. To give honor to a victim of crucifixion was nonsense to those within the Empire–especially to those who had crucified others. And, yet, they spoke of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world and Victricius was intrigued.

They spoke of how the “warrior” they followed carried no sword and, yet, was still powerful.They shared the way of their Lord which proclaimed love stronger than death, sacrifice as true peace, love of enemies, and the revolutionary ideas of Jesus’ ministry and message. Victricius, though conditioned by the Empire to reject such ridiculous notions as power through love and forgiveness, converted to Christianity. In his moment of conversion he began the process of changing who he was into who God was calling him to be.

Moved by his conversion, he laid down his weapons in front of his fellow roman soldiers on the parade ground. This action, though misunderstood by those without eyes to see, was a testament to his conversion and his conviction that security and peace gained through manipulation and dominance were not, truly, worth having. He was arrested. The Empire hoped that he would come to his senses when his military upbringing jarred with his arrest and, yet, Victricius’ conversion had taken hold in his life and he accepted it. He was charged with desertion and, yet, was not shamed by it.Their attempts at manipulation and dominance did not cause Victricius’ submission to their gospel. Recognizing that they had not been able to manipulate his mind or emotions to deny Jesus, they decided to appeal to their more familiar weapon: pain and threat of death.

They beat him severely–hoping that the pain would cause him to give in. They hoped to purchase his repatriation with a promise to stop the pain and, yet, Victricius simply accepted the beating without giving into their demands. They hoped to manipulate him but his conversion was already at work in his life showing him that their power was fleeting at best and not, truly, able to provide any peace or redemption. He rejected their paltry offerings of momentary “comfort” knowing that true comfort transcends pain–true peace transcends domination. Though they undoubtedly would have moved on to execution, for some reason they did not execute Victricius. Instead, they hoped to exile him. Perhaps, they were afraid of the message it would send if one of their chosen soldiers had rejected their deceit and been converted by the Christians. Perhaps, they hoped to shame him by stripping him of his title and, thereby, produce his rejection of Christianity. Regardless, he was not executed.

Victricius went on to be a traveling preacher for many years. He preached to the Flanders, Hainault, and Brabant peoples before, eventually, being name Bishop of Rouen in 386. His reputation as a peacemaker was notable. He was, occasionally, called to various places to provide mediation and peace between disagreeing parties.This man of war–trained by the Empire to engage in the Empire’s gospel–had become a man of peace. He had given up a gospel of power through control, safety through dominance, happiness through material goods, and justice through vengeance and retribution. Instead, he had embraced the Christian Gospel: Jesus was born, lived, died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, was raised again after three days, and was seen by many prior to his ascension. These facts had changed his mind and life–and the minds and lives of many others.

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How You Should Be Walking

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Derek is hard to describe, but I’ll try. The first time I met him, he wanted to know if I could “lay down a beat” for him to freestyle over. He had had an idea for a new rap while walking to the meal in our home and was ready to try it out. Derek has a way of entering a new and unfamiliar place with confidence, his eyes darting to the left and right to take in his environment as quickly as possible. He is an astounding judge of character most times, but is also eager to assume the best of people even when his instincts suggest differently. Derek walks with an understated strut that we’ve learned to recognize from a block away, knowing him by his walk before we can hear him yelling our names. Derek has a sense of style that defies imitation, shifting subtly from day to day with his newest clothing creations—composed of other people’s castoffs and often given away shortly after their debut—but remaining consistent to a few themes, such as his penchant for handmade necklaces and redesigned skullcaps. Regardless of what’s going on in Derek’s life on any given day, he always asks me how my daughter is in the first minute or two of any of our conversations. He’s eager for us to know he loves us and tells us regularly.

Derek was one of the thirteen people who used to live at the apartment building that we called “Little Calcutta” and wrote about here previously. After four years of sharing countless meals together, planting flowers in the courtyard, taking turns playing the guitar on the porches of roach infested apartments that often lacked running water, and talking very seriously about what the tenants deserved, the tenants were ready to ask for better. Derek was one of the key leaders who helped cultivate justice in that neglected place and he did it with all of his characteristic soft-hearted swagger and persistent hopefulness. When the building was condemned, Derek celebrated alongside everybody and debuted new art and new fashion.

But, the condemnation of the building meant that once again Derek was facing the possibility of homelessness. For years, Derek had drifted between homelessness and near-homelessness, between lack of security and the hope of security. Though there are a particular set of material, social, and health challenges that vex Derek, it’s far too simple to say that those challenges are why Derek has struggled with homelessness. The reality is that Derek’s struggle with homelessness says just as much—if not more—about our society as it does about Derek.

We’ve been taught to expect people like Derek to act desperate and servile. We’ve learned to trade support and assistance, from positions of power and control, for dignity and flattering gratitude. Too often, we ask the Dereks to be somebody else, because we don’t know what to do with who they are. Sadly, when they don’t, can’t, or won’t fit themselves into a broken set of expectations for those in need, we write them off as ungrateful or undeserving. This certainly isn’t justice, and it’s hard even to call it charity. Rather, it’s something of a transaction where we trade some of our surplus resources for good feelings, and the Dereks of the world trade dignity and agency for whatever we’ve chosen to give. Frankly, it’s a bad trade for everybody involved, but it seems to be one we’re all accustomed to making.

So, we did what we’ve done dozens of times before and started going with Derek to make applications at better apartment buildings and to put together the documents and paperwork that he’d need to find a place to lay his head in relative security. The former tenants of Little Calcutta had ten days to find somewhere to go and we were able to relocate most within a week, but Derek kept being turned down for a variety of reasons. Finally, with only a few days left until the building was finally boarded up—a victory worth celebrating in its own right—one of our leaders, Ed, sat in yet another waiting room with Derek as his application was scrutinized in private. As Derek paced the room, Ed noticed that Derek’s shoelaces were tied together, forcing him to shuffle his feet to avoid tripping. Thinking this was a fashion choice, Ed asked Derek, “What’s up with your shoelaces? They make you walk like you’re shackled.”

Derek, normally cheerful and playful, turned his downcast eyes to Ed and responded, “That’s how I feel, that’s how I should be walking.”

So, what do you do when your brother makes that kind of confession to you? You wish it wasn’t true, but then you cry because, for the moment, it is. Then you tie your own shoelaces together, because it’s not just the Dereks of the world that are shackled by our broken way of looking at poverty, homelessness, justice, and charity. You tie your shoelaces together and shuffle through the next few days alongside the brother or sister that God gave you, because when that’s how you feel, that’s how you should be walking.

Together, we got there and Derek found a place to take shelter with less than 24 hours to spare. He untied his laces, he joined us at yet another meal and for prayers, and we all gave thanks that for a little while, everything was alright. That night, as we dropped him off, he walked back to his new home with victory on his shoulders, the love of his community around him, and with that familiar strut which fits him so well. After all, if that’s how you feel, that’s how you should be walking.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 2 – Basil of Moscow, the Blessed, Wonderworker, Prophet

In 1468, Basil was born near Moscow to a poor family of serfs. Their poverty had a lasting impact upon Basil in a variety of ways: 1) Basil learned what it meant to be impoverished, 2) Basil was not tempted to affluent disregard like so many of his contemporaries, and 3) Basil gained a powerful prophetic voice by virtue of his upbringing. In spite of their poverty they arranged to have their son sent off to be apprenticed to a cobbler. Making and repairing shoes would not be a luxurious or respectable job but it would be a way to make a steady living.

Though he was a cobbler by profession, he was a holy fool by vocation. As a holy fool, he followed in the footsteps of Ezekiel the Prophet and engaged in foolishness in a prophetic fashion. By refusing to live by people’s expectations, he constantly challenged people to reconsider what they felt and believed. A holy fool redefines foolishness.

For example, Basil would walk barefoot through the streets of Moscow during the blazing Summer. He would, seemingly without cause or rationale, turn over a table of food or pour out jugs of wine. Only later would it be found out that the food was improperly cooked or the wine poisonous. With their limited knowledge, the people would judge Basil to be an idiot and an incompetent but this was because they could not see and understand what Basil could. Until they would learn, they would beat and abuse Basil. Basil, in the fashion of his Lord and Savior, would accept these punishments wordlessly and compassionately. Though he was saving their lives, they abused him. In their ignorance, they scorned their salvation–a beautiful image for those who might reflect upon the life and death of Jesus.

Once, there was a merchant who had fallen upon hard times when thieves had stolen everything he owned. He was penniless and, yet, his clothes suggested his former wealth. As he begged alms on the street for food and assistance, people would pass him by thinking he was nothing more than a greedy and evil man. He could not simply lose his clothes as they were all he had left and, yet, he would not receive any help because the people knew him by what he had before he lost it. Basil, with the true-sight of a holy fool and prophet, recognized the merchant for what had happened. He gave the man a great gift he had received. The merchant went, sold it, and was able to buy back all that had been stolen from him. Basil was able to see the heart of the person when everybody else saw only the appearance. Once again, Basil understood what others missed.

Perhaps the greatest feat of this holy fool was his encounter with Ivan the Terrible. Ivan attended church services but Basil was unconvinced that it was anything more than a show of pseudo-spirituality for political purposes. Ivan had earned the title “the Terrible” butBasil had no fear of this man who spent time in church services daydreaming about building palaces. During Lent, when the people were not eating meat, Basil approached Ivan at dinner and slammed down a large piece of bloody meat on the table in front of Ivan. Ivan protested that he did not eat meat for it was Lent. Basil responded, “You eat and drink the blood and flesh of those you kill and torture…” Ivan, in an unexpected turn, did not punish Basil. Instead, he would be a pall-bearer at Basil’s eventual funeral.

For the people of Moscow, Basil was an oddity that one hoped to avoid for the most part. His tearful prayers over the houses of sinners and outcasts must surely have gathered some confusion and derision. And, yet, Basil was comfortable in his calling as a fool for Christ. He saw what others could not or would not see. His values were not the same as the world’s. He was a citizen of the Kingdom of God and his life was foolishness to the people he sojourned among.

from Blogger