Category: Saints and Heroes of the Faith

John Donne Effigy

(John Donne Effigy by Nicholas Stone, 1631, at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London)

 

Valentine’s Day once again turns our thoughts to romantic love. Interestingly, one of the UK Telegraph’s “10 Best Love Poems” was penned by a man of seeming contradictions: A man who could capture erotic impulses in words that resound in elegance, he also embraced the Christian faith, becoming a priest and one of his era’s best spokesmen for the faith.

John Donne (1573-1631) was born in the Elizabethan era, a time of prosperity and of the flowering of literature in England. Donne’s writings shine along with those of his contemporaries William Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, and Sir Francis Bacon.

The poem selected by the Telegraph for special honor is “The Good Morrow” published in his 1633 collection Songs and Sonnets. I love the second stanza:

If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.

For Donne it was a deep and abiding love that altered the course of his life. While working for Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, he fell in love with Anne More, Egerton’s niece. They secretly married without the approval of her father, for which Donne was fired and prevented from obtaining a government position. He lived in poverty, struggling to provide for a rapidly growing family (Anne bore him 12 children). In 1614, formally blocked by King James I from any employment outside of the Church, John Donne took on holy orders.

By all accounts, Donne was a very devoted husband. James Kiefer, in his online sketch of the life of Donne, has opined: From the above information, the reader might conclude that Donne’s professed religious belief was mere opportunism. But the evidence of his poetry is that, long before his ordination, and probably beginning with his marriage, his thoughts were turned toward holiness, and he saw in his wife Anne (as Dante had earlier seen in Beatrice) a glimpse of the glory of God, and in human love a revelation of the nature of Divine Love.

Donne was devastated by Anne’s death in 1617. He vowed never to marry again, despite the troubles that would cause in raising his children. He threw his energies fully into his priestly work, rising quickly to the post of Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He gained fame for his sermons, and was regarded in his day as the best preacher in England. Phrases from his writings remain familiar to us today, such as “death be not proud”, “for whom the bell tolls” and “no man is an island”. Here is an excerpt:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promentory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death dimishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne–meditation 17)

He fell ill of stomach cancer, but managed to rise from his death bed on Feb 25, 1631, to deliver a final sermon entitled “Death’s Duell,” to a stunned audience at Whitehall Palace. Izaak Walton, in his The Life of Dr. John Donne, wrote: “When to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body, and a dying face.” His publisher called it “The Doctors Owne Funerall Sermon.” Donne exhorted his hearers with these final words:

There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.

A marble effigy of Donne made soon after his death can be viewed at St Paul’s cathedral, where it survived the 1666 Great Fire of London. He is remembered with a feast day in the Anglican Church calendar, on March 31.

Santa Claus, that chubby old chuckler who flies around on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and drops through chimneys delivering gifts, has become the iconic symbol of Christmas. There is an almost perverse cultural overemphasis on “believing in Santa”, even as the incarnation of Jesus the Son of God falls further and further away from our collective consciousness.

The spectacular fantasy film “The Polar Express”, based on the beloved children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, is a good example of the cultural pressure to uphold the Santa myth. The protagonist, a boy who is struggling with doubts about the reality of Santa, is invited to ride on a mysterious train to the North Pole. A creepy hobo he meets on the train asks him, “What’s your take the big guy?” The whole point of the yarn is of course to decry disbelief in Santa. A web page on WikiHow tells you how to “Keep Your Child Believing in Santa.”

Even Christians play along with the Santa myth, as it is passionately defended in an article I ran across entitled “Why I Believe in Santa (And My Kids Will Too)” by Hannah Giselbach:

You get where I’m going with this. The thought of having an intervention every time your children use their imaginations is ill-advised and rather silly. Why, then, are we so afraid to let our children imagine and pretend when it comes to Santa Claus? Pretending isn’t always lying. One very sad and dismal day, your children won’t play with dolls anymore. They won’t run, elated, arms flailing when they see Mickey Mouse at Disney World. One day, your children will grow up and understand that all the things they used to play with and pretend with are not actually real. I beg of you, don’t take away that magic prematurely. It will happen when it happens. And I’ve never once met an adult who felt betrayed by their parents who “lied” to them about Santa when they were children. Not once! I have, however, met adults who feel deprived of a major part of childhood because their parents felt the need to dispel their belief and encourage their questioning doubt at a very young age.

This approach, of winking and saying “it’s a good lie” or “it’s just pretend” makes me a bit squeamish. Also it seems unnecessary. In my own family we have reveled in the imagination of “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” without trying to maintain that they are real and true. I don’t want to be a spoiler of enchanting ideas, or an enemy of imagination, but neither will I tell a bald-faced lie to someone, especially a child. Especially as Christians, the myth of Santa is not the place to stake our flag of truth, lest we lose all credibility on more important things, such as the Resurrection.

This is not merely a frivolous worry. Philosopher David Kyle Johnson, associate professor at King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA, wrote an opinion article entitled “Sorry, Virginia” in the Baltimore Sun, in which he stated:

Parents should stop teaching their kids to believe in Santa Claus. Reading stories about Santa is fine, and encouraging generosity and imagination is great. But tricking children into believing that an omniscient fat man, with a red suit and rosy cheeks, will slide down the chimney bestowing presents on Dec. 24 is just flat-out immoral. First of all, it’s lying. It’s one thing to lie to save someone’s life, but stop kidding yourself. “It’s fun to watch the kids get excited” is hardly a noble cause. Nor is it harmless. I’ve amassed recollections of “finding out the truth about Santa,” and many were stories of genuine embarrassment and resentment. The systematic deception makes children feel taken advantage of or like the butt of a joke. In contrast to the opinion of Ms. Giselbach, prof Johnson has collected stories of harm done by the lie, and you can read about this here.

An article published in Lancet Psychiatry also hypothesizes that lying to kids about Santa may be harmful. As reported in The Guardian:

Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia and co-author, said: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”

Even more, from a Christian perspective, is this: The more of our time and brain space we give to the “Santa” myth, and by extension to the plastic and commercial “X-mas” of our culture, the more we distract from–nay, rob from–the glory of Christ’s birth. Pastor and author John Piper, of “Desiring God” fame, responded to the question of Santa by first recounting the fact that Christmas celebrates that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, that he came to give his life a ransom for many, and that through his death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.

So the birth of the Son of God, the very God, very man, is simply stunning and glorious and infinitely serious, an overflow of the happy news. The angel called it “good news of great joy” — great joy, not small joy, not a little bit of joy, but great joy (Luke 2:10).

…It is mindboggling to me that any Christian would even contemplate such a trade, that we would divert attention away from the incarnation of the God of the universe into this world to save us and our children. . . . Not only is Santa Claus not true — and Jesus is very truth himself — but compared to Jesus, Santa is simply pitiful, and our kids should be helped to see this.
(Desiringgod.org).

I’ll return to the question posed by that ghostly hobo, “What’s your take on the big guy?”

When this came up for me, when my kids were toddlers, I pondered how to honor Santa, without lying, and without sucking away the magic of the season. I purchased a lovely little book by Julie Stiegemeyer entitled Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend, published by Concordia Publishing in 2007. This is a very readable book with charming illustrations, which I found helpful. It links Santa with the historical St. Nicholas, relating him to the real meaning of Christmas at the end of the story.

If asked, “do you believe in Santa?” or “is Santa real?” I will say “yes”. “Santa” is real of course, as he is based on a real person known to us as St. Nicholas, a fourth century Christian bishop in the town of Myra, now part of modern day Turkey. He was recognized as a “saint” by the church. He was remembered for his generosity of spirit, and so giving gifts in his honor is fitting. St. Nicholas now lives, presumably, in heaven. That “Santa” is as real as you and I.

However, if I am pressed and asked whether Santa is literally a fat guy in a red suit from the North Pole who drops down chimneys, then I can’t lie about this. My answer is “no”; that “Santa” is as real as Darth Vader, Princess Bubblegum, and Mickey Mouse. I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

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O Myghell! by grace of Cryst Iesu
Callid among angelis þe hevenly champioun,
Be a prerogatyf synguler of vertu,
Held a batayll, venquysshed the dragoun,
Be thow our sheld and our proteccyoun
In euery myschef of daungeris infernall,
Dyffende our party, presente our orisoun,
Vp to the lord that gouerneth all.

– John Lydgate

(Image and verse are Public Domain)

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Boats laze on beautiful cold waters, overlooked by the turrets of an ancient walled city. Today Konstanz is primarily known as a tourist destination. It is something of a byway, a diversion from the bustle of other parts of Europe. This was not always so. Behind the calming ripples of the lake and the charming medieval facades lurks a riveting tale.

By the early 15th century, power struggles in Europe had led to an unprecedented crisis in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. At this time there were not two but three claimants to the title of Pope. Each one commanded the loyalty of some of the states of Europe. The pope from Avignon, Benedikt XIII, had been abandoned by France but was still recognized by Aragon, Castile, Sicily, and Scotland. John XXIII was acknowledged as pope by France, England, Bohemia, Portugal, parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and numerous Northern Italian city states, including Florence and Venice. Gregory XII was still favored by Poland, Bavaria and parts of Germany.

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(The Konzilgebäude in Konstanz, Site of the Council)

A council was convened in 1414 at the imperial city of Konstanz in order to settle this mess once and for all. The subsequent proceedings saw the resignation or deposition of all three popes, and the election of the future Martin V as pope over the reunified western church. Gregory XII seems to have made out the best, being granted a bishopric and status as legate of Acosta, where he lived out his final years in peace. His cardinals were allowed to retain their status, thus satisfying the concerns of his powerful backers.

Benedikt refused to step down and was deposed and excommunicated by the council; He was forced to flee to Pensicola Castle, under the protection of the King of Aragon. There he died in 1423.

In a dramatic move, Pope John XXIII fled Konstanz disguised as a postman. Ultimately he was captured in Freiburg and returned to Konstanz, where he was tried and found guilty for a sordid list of crimes, including piracy, rape, incest, and heresy. His release from imprisonment was only secured after a huge ransom was paid by the Medici family of Florence. He died just a few months later, and was enshrined in one of the most magnificent tombs in Christendom.

In a high water mark for “conciliarism”, the council granted itself primacy over the affairs of the church. The famous decree Haec Sancta Synodus, made the bold claim that the council obtained its authority directly from Jesus Christ. The text can be read here. For a brief moment, an alternative power structure could have emerged in the West, in which popes submitted to a higher authority of councils. This was not to be, as the overreach and increasingly radical direction advocated by the next council in Siena essentially frightened the pope and heads of state. Papal supremacy was reasserted.

Intersecting with this moment in history is an important commemoration for Protestant Christians. It was at this council that John Wycliffe was condemned (posthumously) as a heretic in 1415. His writings were banned and it was ordered that his body should be removed from consecrated ground. Later, in 1428 this order was carried out and his corpse was exhumed, burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift.

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(Engraving of Jan Hus)

More memorably, the reformer John Hus was summoned in person to defend his teachings before the council. Hus had been influenced by Wycliffe, and had arisen as a popular voice for reform in Bohemia. He had enjoyed the support of common people as well as the nobility. The Council condemned him as a heretic and turned him over to be executed. Although he had been promised safe conduct to and from the meeting, he was told afterward that promises made to heretics were non-binding. The stone on which he was burned to death can be seen today.

Poggius Floretini, a Roman Catholic priest, described Hus’s death in a letter to a friend, Leonhard Nikolai:

Then Hus sang in verse, with an elated voice, like the psalmist in the thirty-first psalm, reading from a paper in his hands: “In thee, O Lord, I put my trust, bow down thine ear to me.” With such Christian prayers, Hus arrived at the stake, looking at it without fear. He climbed upon it, after two assistants of the hangman had torn his clothes from him and had clad him into a shirt drenched with pitch. At that moment, one of the electors, Prince Ludwig of the Palatinate, rode up and pleaded with Hus to recant, so that he might be spared a death in the flames. But Hus replied: “Today you will roast a lean goose, but hundred years from now you will hear a swan sing, whom you will leave unroasted and no trap or net will catch him for you.” Full of pity and filled with much admiration, the Prince turned away.
(From “the original Bohemian”, blog by Andrew Wilson at ThinkTheology).

It is interesting that “Hus” sounds like the Czech word for “goose”. He launched a movement that succeeded in breaking Bohemia away from Roman Catholic control. He was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, and his works influenced Martin Luther almost exactly one century later.

(Note: Images used are in the public domain)

If only the U.S. Episcopal Church had more such leaders it might have retained an evangelical zeal and orthodox theology, and avoided its current trajectory toward progressivism.

“With God’s grace and wisdom Bishop Salmon turned the Diocese of South Carolina, once a theological battlefield, into a family with our eyes on Christ.” (Rev David Dubay, on this remembrance page of the website for the Diocese of South Carolina).

Five years ago, a hail of bullets ended the life of a remarkable man in Pakistan. Shabaz Bhatti, aged 42, was a cabinet member, the only Christian elevated to such status in the Pakistani government. As minister for minorities, he spoke out against religious persecution, and particularly the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He was prominent among the defenders of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death for blasphemy against Mohammed, and currently languishes in prison.

Prior to his death Bhatti had made a video to be released upon the occasion of his death. More on this, including the video footage, can be found in Christianity Today:

“I’m ready to die for a cause,” Bhatti said. “I’m living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles.”

“…I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of ‘cross’ and I follow Him to the cross. Pray for me and for my life.”

As the fifth year anniversary of his martyrdom is marked, an effort is underway to elevate him to greater recognition within his own church. The Catholic Herald reports:

“He spoke with faith and demonstrated courage. Thanks to him the voice of Pakistan’s Christians was heard. He paved the way for us. He was a good Catholic and gave his life for his mission,” Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi said at a March 2 ceremony marking the anniversary of Bhatti’s death.

The Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi has begun collecting testimonies about Bhatti to enquire into his martyrdom and sanctity.

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Look up Paul Anderson in Wikipedia and you’ll see the story of a man of amazing strength:

In 1955, at the height of the Cold War, Anderson, as winner of the USA National Amateur Athletic Union Weightlifting Championship, traveled to the Soviet Union, where weightlifting was a popular sport, for an international weightlifting competition. In a newsreel of the event shown in the United States the narrator, Bud Palmer, commented as follows: “Then, up to the bar stepped a great ball of a man, Paul Anderson.” Palmer said, “The Russians snickered as Anderson gripped the bar which was set at 402.5 pounds, an unheard-of lift. But their snickers quickly changed to awe and all-out cheers as up went the bar and Anderson lifted the heaviest weight overhead of any human in history.” The Russians referred to him as a “wonder of nature”.

Disappointingly, the remainder of that Wikipedia article somewhat underplays the role of faith in his life. More than a mere “wonder of nature”, he was also a man of deep faith in Christ.

He went on to win the gold medal at the Olympics the following year, despite an ear infection and a high fever. As one source put it, a weakened Anderson, facing defeat, decided to “call upon God’s strength”:
Before his third and final attempt, Paul Anderson called on God for extra help and strength. Later he would say, “It wasn’t making a bargain, I needed help.” As those tree-trunk legs and massive arms moved into motion with renewed strength he hoisted the bar high over his head. The once sick, frail boy from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains was now the “Strongest Man in the World.”(read more here).

He devoted much of the rest of his life to sharing his Christian testimony. After impressive feats such as back lifting 6270 lb, or benching 480 lb, he would say, “I am nothing without the strength of Christ.” He married a devout Christian woman named Glenda and devoted himself to raising money for a youth home in Vidalia, Georgia. He died of his kidney ailment (Bright’s disease) in 1994.

More information about this remarkable man can be found at the websites for Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Lorica of Saint Patrick

geograph-181800-by-Chris-Eilbeck

The “lorica of St Patrick” is a prayer or incantation for divine protection (“lorica” meant “breastplate”).  These verses have been attributed to Saint Patrick, the 5th century evangelist who is now the patron saint of Ireland, and whose feast is celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike.  It is also now a hymn, which is commonly sung on Trinity Sunday (for obvious reasons).

In honor of Saint Patrick’s feast day I offer this prayer.  You may find this and prayers of other famous Christians at our website: http://www.theundergroundchurch.net/prayer/famousprayers.html

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In preachings of the apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
From snares of the devil,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who desires me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and evil,
Against every cruel merciless power that opposes my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.
Christ shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that reward may come to me in abundance.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation

(St. Patrick, 387-461; This particular version is popular on the internet though I am not sure of the original translator; it is found in Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Lindisfarne Press, 1992, p 78.  There is a truncated version posted at Beliefnet).

(The photo above is © Copyright Chris Eilbeck and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence).

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Feb 1 is the feast day of St. Brigit of Kildare, Ireland (453-523).  She is controversial (some scholars believe that she didn’t really exist, but is a Christianization of the pagan goddess named “Brigid”; though she is well attested by numerous sources).  She is believed to have born into slavery to a druid, but was returned to her parents around age 10.  She was an abbess, who founded several monasteries, including in about 480 AD the “cell dara” (Kildare), the “church of the oak hill”.   This foundation became a center of learning, and eventually a cathedral city. She is said to have been generous toward the poor and to women.

There is an amusing but touching prayer attributed to St. Brigid (probably written later):

I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.

I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.

White cups of love I’d give them
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.

I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake.
I’d like Jesus to love me too.

I’d like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around.
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.

I’d sit with the men, the women and God
There by the lake of beer.
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.

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I am not sure of the source but one website notes that this is from an 11th century Irish poem attributed to St Brigit taken from a manuscript in the Burgundian Library, Brussels and edited and translated by O’Curry.  From http://www.brigitsforge.co.uk/st_ffraid.htm.

Well, I agree with the sentiment.  And next time I pick up a glass, I’ll think of St. Brigid and her Irish homeland.