Telling the Stories that Matter: July 27 – Panteleimon, Martyr, Physician, Opponent of Death

Pantaleon (meaning “like a lion in all things”) was born to a non-Christian father and Christian mother in Nicomedia in 275 CE. His mother repeatedly shared the Christian faith and way with him throughout his childhood but he fell away from his mother’s beliefs and never claimed them as his own. His academic pursuits and able intellect led him to study medicine. His skill in the field was apparent from the beginning and his practice gained attention from many people–including the emperor Maximian. It was, in fact, as a physician that he was first reached by the convicting faith of his mother. Hermolaus, a physician himself, appealed to him arguing that Jesus was “the great physician” and, therefore, worthy of emulation and great consideration.

Hermolaus connected the life and viewpoint of Pantaleon to that of his childhood and his mother’s teachings. For Pantaleon, this resulted not only in the changing of his name to Panteleimon (meaning “mercy for everyone”) but, also, the changing of his approach to medicine. By bridging the gap between Panteleimon’s childhood and his identity,Hermolaus unleashed a great healer upon not only the persecuted Christians but, also, the sick and suffering. Panteleimon truly did offer mercy for anyone and everyone. Though he was employed by Maximian he offered healing and mercy even to the poorest of the poor.

Eventually, he was denounced to the authorities and charged with being a Christian. Given Panteleimon’s incredible reputation as a healer and worker of good, the emperor Maximian hoped to convince Panteleimon to renounce his faith and become an apostate–a well-rewarded and highly-regarded apostate. Panteleimon refused to deny the faith he once had cast aside and, instead, he confessed it boldly regardless of what he stood to lose in doing so.

Further, he challenged the imperial delusions to a test. He challenged Maximian’s best doctors to a challenge: there was a certain paralytic who was considered unable to be healed–Panteleimon invited this man in and gave the doctors sufficient time to try all that they knew to heal the man’s paralysis. Though they were esteemed in imperial eyes, the doctors failed. Panteleimon offered prayer and requested healing and the man stood up free from paralysis. Perhaps Panteleimon expected to be released or to convert Maximian but this was not to be as hatred and shame had filled the heart of Maximian. Maximian–so lost in imperial delusions and unable truly to see life–labeled this healing as trickery and sorcery. He had the healed paralytic executed in a show of savage domination and power.

As punishment for healing the paralytic and being a Christian, Maximian brought some of Panteleimon’s friends–including Hermolaus–before himself and threatened them with beheading if Panteleimon would not renounce his faith. These men were martyred as Panteleimon stood strong and proclaimed that there is more to life than a heartbeat and more to death than a grave. In doing this, Maximian made a statement about life and death and made the point that the empire’s power was death and the control of it. However, even as he condemned Panteleimon–instrument of life and mercy to so many and his own personal physician–to death, his power of death could not restrain the power of life held by the God of Panteleimon.

In anger and desperation for power, Maximian ordered Panteleimon beheaded to make his point concerning death and power. As Panteleimon prayed, the blade failed to cut his neck. As he finished his prayer, Panteleimon heard a voice from heaven calling him home and he lovingly permitted the soldiers to execute him. Having shown the power of life over death and God over the empire, Panteleimon was beheaded and martyred as a servant of life and opponent of the power of death in the year 303.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 24 – John Newton, Ex-Slaver and Lost Cause

John Newton was born on July 24th, 1725, to a family of affluence that had grown rich on the backs of slaves. Though his mother died young from tuberculosis, it was his father’s desire that John should become a slave master in the family business on a sugar plantation. Before this could occur, however, John was pressed into service to the empire as a naval officer. For whatever reason, John tried to desert and was punished severely: 96 lashes, humiliation in front of the whole crew, and demotion to the status of servant. John’s well-planned life that had been formed quickly by the desires of his father and the values of imperial England was falling down around him.

His pain turned him to thought of suicide but he refrained from a quick d
eath and tried to throw himself into a dark abyss one choice at a time instead. He requested to be transferred to a slave ship and made a servant of a slaver. His self-imposed punishment and exile was ended, however, when his father sent a crew to recover him. On his way back to England aboard the Greyhound, a terrible storm descended upon them. John had only just changed places with another man when the man was swept overboard and drowned. Having read Thomas a Kempis’Imitation of Christ and in a great panic John prayed to God in desperation for grace and protection. After the terrible storm had passed, that night, he began reading the scriptures and feelings the beginning of his conversion. Whereas the promises and plans of the world had failed him and left him empty, the promises and plans of God began a process of conversion.

He would, eventually, become an Anglican priest—though not until June 17th, 1764—and experience God’s grace and formation as he continued the process of conversion from who he was into what God was making him into. Throughout John Newton’s story it is evident that his conversion was a slow and steady process that involved the persistent formation and repair of all that was broken about him. In fact, it was only after years of being a priest and continuing in relationship and conversation with other Christians that John eventually renounced the slavery that he had grown up under.

Some have criticized John Newton for dwelling in sin even as he claimed the mantle of Christian.Charges of hypocrisy are not unheard when telling the story of John Newton. Even though John later regretted his commitment to the slavery he had engaged in and supported, it cannot be simply overlooked. Yet, it only serves to strengthen the power of his story: conversion is a process that takes time whereby we are made more into the image God has for us. Though John’s continued support of slavery is distasteful for us, it must be remembered that unlike many people who struggled with the issue he did renounce it–better late than never. Also, it makes the story more real and more honest because it so closely resembles the struggles of all Christians in the process of conversion away from the world’s image and into God’s image. Perhaps this is why so many Christians have connected with his hymn “Faith’s review and expectation”—you might know it as “Amazing Grace.” Perhaps, it is that Christians can sing along with John Newton confidently:

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 16 – The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne

Constance was only one of the sixteen women who were now facing their own imminent deaths at the hands of those who were the self-proclaimed enlightened minds of a new world order. Yet, she was the youngest and least experienced of all of the women. Constance was still in her novitiate with the Carmelite order when they had been arrested and dragged before a judge to answer charges of treason, espionage, and fanaticism.Thus, Constance was distressed that she would face death without having ever professed her vows as a nun. However, the prioress of the community–Teresa–invited Constance to profess her vows with the community as the older and more experienced women reconsecrated themselves in service to God at the foot of the guillotine. Having finally become a full member of that sacred community, Constance was more than willing to ascend the steps to the revolution’s enlightened butchery, but first she knelt before her prioress and asked for permission to go and die as a martyr for their common Lord Jesus.When Teresa granted her permission, Constance stood quickly and walked confidently up the stairs while singing the hymn “Laudate Dominum omnes gentes”–“All peoples praise the Lord.” Fifteen other voices joined with her as Constance set her own neck in the path of the suspended blade but the rest of the crowd remained deathly silent. Once the blade had fallen and made Constance a martyr, there were only fifteen voices left to sing the hymn.

The women had once lived peaceful lives in a cloistered community of service and devotion. They fed the poor, treated the sick, and offered love to their enemies. But, in 1792 there had been a revolution in France that overthrew the absolute monarchy and aristocracy that strongly favored Roman Catholic clergy and monastics. In the aftermath of that upheaval, the new leaders had favored a viciously anti-religious government that discounted all expressions of faith regardless of their goodness or peacefulness. They ruled by more modern ideas and according to the teachings of those thinkers we call members of “the Enlightenment.”The nuns of Compiegne had not fought against the revolutionaries and had, in fact, helped to reduce oppression upon the poor and hurting but in the aftermath of the revolution their vows of allegiance to Jesus Christ meant that they were targets for elimination. At first, they were simply outlawed but they continued to meet in secret in spite of the commands of the new government. Eventually, they were arrested and tried. In accordance with the demands of Robespierre, their trial and sentencing happened in less than twenty-four hours. The charges were trumped up and they were eventually found guilty of the catch-all crime for those the revolutionaries detested: “fanaticism.”

As each woman climbed the steps that led to her death and martyrdom there was one less voice singing the hymns that sustained them and spoke beautifully of the faith that motivated their actions. The crowd remained silent as they watched each woman approach their death with courage and forgive their executioners. Their song became a trio and then a duet but it had lost none of its passion. Finally, it was a solo performance by Teresa, the prioress of a community of martyrs. Teresa ascended the stairs and followed in the footsteps of Constance and all the other faithful women who had died in the last few hours. She continued the song they had shared. When Teresa finished the song, she offered forgiveness to the executioner and surrendered her neck to the guillotine with a quiet prayer. The lever was pulled and the blade, having not grown tired of carnage, rushed to kill Teresa and reunite her with her sisters in the presence of God.With the death of the last nun, the crowd remained silent and began to leave that place with doubts in their mind–who would claim such savagery as enlightened when it was covered over in the blood of sixteen innocent and loving women? As they left the place, one of the crowd observed, “Look at them and see if they do not have the air of angels! By my faith, if these women did not all go straight to Paradise, then no one is there!” As the crowd left, perhaps some went away humming the hymn the women had sung and left behind for the crowd as an inheritance of a Kingdom-not-of-this-world.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 10 – Felicitas and her Seven Sons, Martyrs

Felicitas was well acquainted with the costs of her faith. She had lost her beloved husband in service to the Church–likely to the transforming furnace of martyrdom–and been left behind to raise her seven sons without his help. She was very wealthy thanks to the considerable financial resources that she and her husband had accumulated together. Of course, like nearly all of the early Christians, she understood herself–and her husband as well when he was alive–to be a steward of gifts given to the Church. The Church was obligated to pour itself out for others and its stewards were charged with putting the wealth and valuables of the Church into the hands of those in need of God’s gifts and blessings. She provided food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless and in doing so she advanced the Kingdom of God among a people outcast from polite Roman society. But those who had something to lose with the advancement of the Kingdom of God–those with power and influence in the empire–were understandably uncomfortable with Felicitas and her seven sons: Januarius, Felix, Philip, Silvanus, Alexander, Vitalius and Marcial. If they wanted to stop her and her sons then they would have to devise a plan to manipulate those who had the power to put an end to Felicitas and her seven sons.

So, the priestly advisers to the emperor Marcus Aurelius plotted against Felicitas and decided that she could be forced into denying her faith and affirming the values of Rome if the leverage was sufficient. They dressed up in their most impressive ceremonial regalia and came before Marcus Aurelius with deceit in mind. They insisted that the gods demanded a sacrifice to appease their terrible anger and stay their horrible wrath. Furthermore, they said that there was a particular woman being called upon by the gods to make this sacrifice: Felicitas. Marcus Aurelius conceded to their demands and called upon the prefect of Rome–Publius–to arrest Felicitas and force her to make sacrifice to the Roman gods.When they brought her in, they decided to bring her seven sons along with her to serve as leverage because they had heard of her considerable commitment to the God of the Christians and suspected that she might resist their demands–they had no idea how right they were. At first, they simply demanded that she do it to appease the gods of Rome and protect its people. But Felicitas identified their deception for what it was and so Publius questioned her sons, as well. Publius was furious to find out that her sons were equally as devoted to the Christian faith. He didn’t want to report his failure to Marcus Aurelius–especially considering the glares he was receiving from the emperor’s advisors–and so he decided to try one more tactic.

Labeling Felicitas and her seven sons as traitors to Rome, Publius commanded them to make sacrifice or suffer the consequences. One by one, the sons were dragged before the judges appointed by Publius and forced to kneel to accept their punishment. Publius offered to stay his wrath if Felicitas would make sacrifice and then, each time when Felicitas refused, he ordered the executioners to kill one of her sons. First, her eldest son Januarius was whipped to death while Felicitas was forced to watch. He forgave his murderers and professed his faith and each of his brothers followed in his footsteps. Each of them knew that it was their calling to profess their faith in God’s mercy and grace even if it cost them their lives. Each of them knew that it was their mother’s calling to refuse sacrifice no matter the cost. Second, they beat Felix to death with a club. When this proved especially gruesome, they decided to beat Philip to death with the same club. Amazed that Felicitas still refused to make sacrifice, they threw Silvanus from the balcony and he died on impact with the ground. Fifth, sixth, and seventh, they beheaded Alexander, Vitalis, and Martialis as if they had grown tired of slaughter and simply wanted the task done. Finally, when Felicitas still refused to make sacrifice, they threw her into prison for several months hopefully to dwell in her grief. When she was brought again before Publius she maintained the faith that had cost the lives of her seven sons and was herself killed for it. Felicitas and her seven sons knew the costs associated with faith in Jesus and paid them willingly and eagerly because it was meager in comparison to the rewards of their calling.

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