Telling the Stories that Matter: May 27 – Julius the Veteran, Martyr, Soldier

We know far less about the conversion of Julius than we do about his military service. This makes sense in a way because those who were keeping records of the man were infinitely more interested in his service to Rome than his conversion to Jesus. Somewhere during his twenty-seven years of military service in the Roman army he converted to Christianity even though it was an increasingly unpopular faith. During those twenty-seven years of service to Rome he was an active participant in seven different military campaigns. To survive one or two campaigns as a soldier in Rome’s service was notable because it easily signified a special level of battlefield awareness and competency. To survive seven campaigns was astounding for a soldier who risked the fearsome teeth of battle regularly and set Julius up as a notable feature of his legion and as a minor celebrity among the other soldiers. That’s what makes their betrayal so surprising.

They had known he was a Christian shortly following his conversion because his whole outlook and approach to life seemed to change in the blink of an eye. But when he was fighting by their side they had no trouble with his beliefs–perhaps they even thought his new faith might earn them some special luck or protection. It wasn’t until after that seventh campaign that a group of his fellow soldiers accused him of being a Christian before the prefect Maximus. Since the punishment for disloyalty to the Roman faith was death, this was the kind of accusation that was not made lightly. Perhaps the soldiers stood to gain from Julius’ absence or perhaps they simply had grown tired of his changed life. Regardless, he was dragged before the prefect and accused of treason by placing his faith and trust in Jesus–one of the many masters of which the empire did not approve. Maximus stood before one of the best soldiers he knew and a group of accusing soldiers whose mouths could be his own downfall if word got out that Maximus could not tame one Christian. So, he made the threat of death that all prefects knew as their most fierce weapon and openly ridiculed the faith of Julius asking, “Who is this Jesus that you–a soldier who has faced death time and time again–are willing to die quietly for him?”

Julius responded, “It was he who died for our sins to give us eternal life. This same man, Christ, is God and abides for ever and ever. Whoever believes in Him will have eternal life; whoever denies Him will have eternal punishment.” In those brief sentences, Julius made his confession before Rome and professed the Faith he knew and in which he trusted his soul and life. Maximus’ face turned red in embarrassment that his ridicule had been turned to a confession and he looked over quickly at the faces of Julius’ accusers. Maximus knew that these men would tell the story of what happened here with Julius and that Maximus couldn’t afford to look weak before soldiers who valued strength above all things. So, he approached Julius with rage in face but deceit in his heart. It must have looked like a quiet threat but in those whispered words Maximus offered Julius a large sum of money and a position of power if he would deny his faith and sacrifice to the Roman gods. It would look powerful for Maximus to whisper in Julius’ ear and suddenly effect his conversion and would make a great story for Julius’ accusers to tell. When Julius refused the bribe openly, though, Maximus’ plan fell apart in front of him. In a rage he commanded his guards to decapitate not only Julius but also seven other Christians being held in prison for the crime of faith. Having proven that he could not convert the Christians, Maximus proved that he could rob them of their lives. This passed for power in Rome and made for a better story in the opinion of Maximus. Julius died in the year 255 at Dorostorum on the lower Danube River as a martyr and example of what the world thought about those whose faith was in mysteries.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: May 21 – Rita of Cascia, Wife, Mother, Nun

Rita’s received the kind of spiritual education that can only be received in the home and by the careful guidance of a loving mother (Amata) and father (Antonio). Antonio and Amata were eager to pass on the faith that had gripped them to their only daughter and took nearly every chance that presented itself to demonstrate and explain what it was they believed. At a young age, Rita professed the faith of her parents and made it her own. When asked what she wanted to do with her life she quickly responded that she wanted to become a nun. But as the only child–and a daughter, as well—this could be a frightening prospect for her parents. Antonio and Amata worried that there would be nobody to take care of them when they were old if their daughter–their only child–disappeared behind the walls of a convent and undertook a vow of poverty. So, instead, they arranged for Rita to marry a man whose promise was strong, but not as strong as his temper and tongue. Rita married Paolo Mancini at the wishes of her mother and father and began to forge a life as a wife and soon to be mother.

Rita gave birth to two sons by her husband Paolo: Giangiacomo Antonio and Paolo Maria. Regrettably, life with her husband was not easy or pleasant. He was verbally abusive to her and nearly everyone with whom he came into contact. He was nominally Christian but his faith extended no further than his occasional words and meager attendance on Sunday. But Rita knew that love was a transforming force and so she endeavored to love him even when he was unlovable. Furthermore, she spent her life raising Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria in the faith in which she had been raised. Day in and day out her love had a slow and steady effect on those around her. It took nearly eighteen years but eventually Rita’s husband came to profess a vibrant and saving faith that changed his outlook and approach to life. Rita’s love had led Paolo to God’s love and this transformed Paolo’s corruption into redemption. Yet, tragedy was right around the corner and soon after his conversion he was murdered by those he worked with–perhaps because of the chance that had occurred in his life. Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria were both adults by this time and so they vowed a vendetta against the murderers of their father.

Rita knew well the spiritual carnage that would be wrought in the lives of her sons if they followed through on their disastrous vendetta. She begged them to renounce it and abandon the lie that said vengeance would “make things even.” Rita knew well that more violence would not solve the problem and would only amplify the tragedy and in this she knew the power and value of peace.When Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria refused to abandon their awful course, Rita did the only thing she knew to do: pray. She prayed that God’s will would be done and that he sons would be saved from spiritual death because of their haste and fury. They were Christians and so she prayed that–no matter the cost–they not be allowed to destroy their faith with rash actions.Within the year Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria died of natural causes and with a sudden unexpectedness. Rita understood this to be God saving her sons from impending sin and destruction. Following the death of Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria, Rita worked hard to reconcile the rest of her family with her husband’s murderer.She was successful in this and retired to a convent as a nun and spiritual leader.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: May 15 – Peter Maurin, Teacher, Visionary, Radical

Peter Maurin’s mother and father were poor farmers in a village named Oultet in Southern France. As is often the case for those who make their living by the land, life was a challenge from sunrise and sundown that was punctuated with many moments of uncertainty and rare moments of quiet confidence. He was one of twenty-four children that indubitably did their best to help on the farm and fill each other’s lives with the comfort and solace of the community of family. When he was sixteen, though, Peter departed his family home and joined up with a Christian group called “The Institute of the Brothers of Christian Schools.” He trained to be a teacher and to move into some community in need of education and guidance and start a school. They professed vows of simplicity and piety as well as a passion for educating and caring for the poor. He found this life fulfilling but just as he was really beginning to enjoy the community he was conscripted into mandatory military service. He was uncomfortable with the nature of the relationship between politics and religion–how the State so often took upon itself the cloak of the Church in a manipulative and dangerous way–and this thread would run through the remainder of his life.When he was released from his mandatory service he found out, with much frustration, that the French government was shutting down religious schools throughout the country. Peter responded by joining a lay group known as Le Sillon which advocated for worker’s rights and democratic ideals. Though he tried to assimilate into Le Sillon he could not escape the pervasive suspicion that the conflation of politics and religion created problems. So, in 1909 he emigrated to Canada to escape the political life that so dominated his existence in France.

He had chosen Canada–specifically Saskatchewan–because they did not have obligatory military service or conscription and, so, it seemed to hold the promise of a life of piety without politics. He built a home and shared it with others but soon found that the life of escape was not one to which he was called even if he was still called to a life of poverty. He left Saskatchewan and began taking odd jobs in the United States or, in hard times, wherever he could find them. He worked hard and asked for little. When he was able and life and funds permitted him to do so he would go to New York and teach the poor the skills they might desperately need. Often, he was unpaid for this service because of the expansive quality of the poverty he struggled against. He would spend his time teaching in the public library or sharing his life and experiences with people on the streets. He had minimized his own interaction with politics while emphasizing his own relationship with his God and his Faith. One of the people whom he regularly had conversation with gave him the name and address of a new convert and freelance writer by the name of Dorothy Day. Peter sought out Dorothy and his life took another turn.

The two developed an intense and passionate relationship as two friends and beloved coworkers in the Kingdom of God. Dorothy was a gifted writer and Peter had ideas that had true potential to rock the world. Before they did anything, though, Peter insisted that Dorothy receive an education about how to look at the world through truly Christian eyes. It was always Peter’s insistence that the Kingdom of God operated on a different set of values and procedures. He didn’t think that the old world and the corrupt systems needed to be conquered so much as allowed to destroy themselves.Peter taught Dorothy and others that the Christian way was to focus upon piety and faith and allow broken systems to self-destruct. This is how Peter and Dorothy proceeded and this is how Peter finally understood himself to escape the worst part of the painful grasp of the political machines. The two of them started The Catholic Worker and it soon became a widely read and appreciated newspaper. Through the paper, Peter advocated a return to the practice of Christian hospitality, the increased importance of farms, and the value of community among other things.Insisting that “there is no unemployment on the land,” Peter moved to a communal farm in Pennsylvania and spent the remainder of his days aiding in the publication of The Catholic Worker, teaching those willing to hear, and advocating for the poor against systems that tried to undo them all. He died in 1949 and was buried in a second-hand suit in a donated grave.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: May 9 – Pachomius, Monastic, Hermit, Founder of Communities

Pachomius was raised in a non-Christian family and like many of his contemporaries and peers he was taught to view the Christians as subversive radicals in need of suppression and, at times, extermination. He had been taught that strange mixture of hatred and fear that can only be the product of a social program designed to vilify a largely unknown, “problem-making” group. As was the habit of Rome, there was a conscription movement sweeping through Egypt near the date Pachomius turned twenty years old. Being an ideal candidate for forced service in the Roman legions, Pachomius was picked up and carried to a nearby prison where he could be held in preparation for his forced servitude to the empire. He did not want to fight or make war but it had been determined by the powers-that-be that he would be willing to shed his blood as a down-payment on imperial dreams and aspirations. Being held in a prison against his will–not as a prisoner but as a conscripted soldier–led Pachomius to a painful kind of desperation until one day he was visited by Christians bearing food and blankets. They gave these costly gifts away to the soon-to-be-soldiers and said they did so because their Lord loved all people and taught his followers to do the same. Pachomius was struck by this simple act of charity and pity and vowed to investigate the Christian way of life when he finished his forced servitude.

Luckily for Pachomius, he had a very uneventful time of service in the Roman military. He was released after only two years and in obedience to his earlier vow–and the now demanding memory–he sought out some of the hated Christians to learn of their way. In only a matter of time he was converted to the Christian Faith which promised that the way of life led through the way of death and that resurrection was in the power of their Lord. He learned the way of radical love and reckless charity that had first gathered his attention and now understood more fully why they had reached out to him in the first place. After his baptism he spent a significant amount of time learning his new found faith and devotion. After nearly three years in study of and service to his Lord he sought out an ascetic and monk and hermit named Palaemon. This study prepared him to become a Christian leader and teacher and he took to Palaemon’s teachings and rigors with eagerness. He learned the life of a hermit and monk from Palaemon for seven years before one fateful night when he heard a voice.The voice–which Pachomius knew to be the voice of God–told him to build a community for hermits. This was a ludicrous idea at the time because the very substance of the eremitical idea was to forsake community for solitude. But Pachomius was not one to argue with a divine command or his own calling. So, he set out to build a community for hermits.

Pachomius was the first monastic to call upon other Christians and monastics to live in community with each other and share all of their possessions. Though it must have been slow at first, Pachomius’ community grew quickly and was soon filled with monastics who were devoting their lives one to another and joining together as one Body to serve their one Lord.Pachomius wrote a guide for how a monastic should best live the life of prayer and service within the community. This became known as the rule of the monastery and it maintained the social cohesion of the people gathered together. The monastics began calling Pachomius “abba” (father) and this became more of a title than a moniker after some time.This is where we get the word abbot for the spiritual overseer of a Christian community. Soon the monasteries were expanding throughout Egypt. As each one filled up, they would send out a small group of missionary monks to travel and establish another monastery with another abbot or abbess. When Pachomius died in the year 348, there were nearly 3,000 monasteries throughout Egypt. Over the next generation it continued to spread and left Egypt until it numbered nearly 7,000 monasteries.

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Warm, Winter Nights

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There is a kind of unsteady relief in the blessing of a warm, winter night. It’s a short-lived and bittersweet blessing, but it’s beautiful in its own way nonetheless. Walking the streets during an unseasonably warm couple of weeks this past December, we saw more than a handful of signs of the unexpected warmth among our brothers and sisters for whom the winter is more than an inconvenience—for whom the winter is a predator, stalking the shadows of dilapidated houses and windy alleys. The blessing of a warm, winter night is in the temporary relief it gives to those for whom safe and warm shelter is not assured.
Some of our brothers and sisters long for a warm, winter night. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” Carla insisted to me over dinner after a particularly cold night. As I began to ask her what had been troubling her, assuming that she must be suffering from insomnia, she continued, “if I lay down to sleep, I’ll die.” That’s when I realized, for the first time, that some of our sisters and brothers must walk all night long during the winter months to avoid the dangers of exposure. Some take shelter in gas stations, or other businesses open at that time of night, until they are shooed out for a variety of reasons. A warm, winter night gives the blessing of sleep and rest to Carla and others who know too intimately the experience of late night walks to nowhere in particular.

Warm, winter nights mean that we’ll see Laurence around the neighborhood doing any one of a number of small, side jobs that he does when the weather is nice enough. For Laurence, winter means most days spent indoors and only going out when absolutely necessary—it means a pile of blankets and a space heater wrestling with poorly insulated walls, and a drafty bedroom abandoned until spring. A warm, winter night gives the blessing of freedom to Laurence and others who make do with what they have and hope for spring.

The morning after a warm, winter night means that I’ll probably see David sitting in his usual spot downtown and scanning the doorways and corners for familiar faces. Maybe he’ll smile at me if it’s a good day and invite me to stop for a minute and talk. We’ll talk about whatever the news of the neighborhood is and ask after each other’s dear ones. I’ll invite him to dinner and hope that that’s a good day, too. But maybe when he sees me coming, he’ll suddenly find himself preoccupied with his shoes or the newspaper, if it’s a bad day and he doesn’t want company. Instead of talking, I’ll sit nearby and put my headphones in so he knows it’s okay not to talk if he doesn’t want to. A warm, winter night gives the blessing of knowing and being known to David and others who are supported socially by conversation and quiet presence alike.

Of course, our little community will also give thanks for warm, winter nights because it will mean relief in the middle of the marathon that is winter at Grace and Main. As temperatures dip in Southside Virginia every fall, Grace and Main turns its focus to providing shelter by any means possible. We continue with our meals, prayers, and other commitments, but our hearts gradually make a turn toward those who might have found the summer and fall bearable but now face the frighteningly real possibility of freezing to death. Along with our hearts, our common fund and shared resources turn toward the work of providing even more shelter—not just in our homes, but in hotel rooms and apartments throughout the city. For us, a warm, winter night gives the blessing of a tiny bit more confidence that the winter will run out before our resources do.

But a warm, winter night seems such a meager blessing when held up against the seeming enormity of the winter. The warmth will not last. The cold will creep its way back in. But, during last December’s warm stretch, I was reminded by Diane at one of our meals that a bittersweet blessing is still a blessing. As the book of James puts it, “Every good and perfect gift is from above…” As Diane puts it, “we’ve got to give thanks for everything, even the crumbs.”

She’s right, we’ve got to learn to give thanks even for the crumbs—a few nights of sleep and rest; a couple of days of work; a conversation or comfortable silence; and a little more confidence that God is working all things together for good. But that doesn’t mean that we take our eyes off of the daily bread for which we earnestly pray and work—safe and secure shelter regardless of the season; stable jobs with living wages; genuine, loving community that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable; and the blossoming of the Kingdom of God in every nook and cranny of our neighborhoods.

There is a kind of unsteady relief in the blessing of a warm, winter night. It’s a short-lived and bittersweet blessing, but it’s beautiful in its own way nonetheless, and we give thanks for it.

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