Consumed for Christ: St. Alexander of Comana

11 Aug

“Oh, the Charcoal Burner has tales to tell!”
~
A.A. Milne

“It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.”
~
Neil Young

Planning a cookout? If you don’t have a gas grill, you’ll be stocking up on charcoal briquettes. But what if you lived in an age before Kroger and convenience stores?

In the old days, you’d be doing business with the local collier – that is, somebody who dealt in coal and probably manufactured it himself. It’s an ancient skill that involves carefully stacking wood in a conical shape, covering it with soil or sod, and then slow-burning the heap to oxidize it. The charcoal burner, as he’s also called, has to stay close to his pile to maintain an optimal level of heat – not letting the flame go out, for example, and not letting it turn into an outright conflagration. Thus, the process is typically messy, arduous, and isolating. Imagine a loner hanging around a smoky mound all day, poking at glowing embers, tamping down a blaze here and there, and then handling the end product before lugging it to market.

Get the picture? You might buy your coal from that guy, but you probably won’t be inviting him to your cookout.

You’d also be unlikely to choose that guy as your bishop, but today (August 11) we celebrate just such a man. St. Alexander of Comana was a third-century charcoal burner in the region of Pontus – now northeastern Turkey on the coast of the Black Sea. He was a nobody, grimy and living on the fringe. Perhaps he was even a bit intimidating, as those who live on the outskirts of acceptable society often are. Folks avoided Alexander, and they disparaged his sooty countenance and career.

But his outward grubbiness obscured an inward purity and piety. In fact, Alexander was quite a scholar, and he’d purposely taken up a lowly occupation to avoid acclaim and to focus on spiritual pursuits.

The saint’s true character came to light when the Comana community sought a new bishop and enlisted the aid of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (“Wonderworker”) – a story recorded by St. Gregory of Nyssa in his life of Thaumaturgus. A variety of candidates, esteemed for their poise and social status, were presented to St. Gregory for his approval. Yet Gregory, concerned more about virtue than human vanity, rejected the lot. Comana’s leaders were indignant. “If you order that we pass over persons picked from the city,” they jested, “we will accept a man from the crowd for the office of priesthood. Then you must summon Alexander the charcoal maker to preside as priest.”

It was a bluff St. Gregory couldn’t resist, and he asked that Alexander be brought forward immediately.  The gentry laughed derisively as the filthy man approached the saint, but Gregory swiftly discerned that the humble laborer was in fact a holy man well equipped to serve as spiritual shepherd. Alexander was made bishop on the spot, and his subsequent wise pastoral administration amply justified St. Gregory’s confidence and prompt consecration.

It’s a terrific yarn with built-in lessons about attending to interior qualities instead of judging exterior superficialities – in others as well as ourselves. What’s more, there’s a clear poetic resonance between Alexander’s later role as bishop and his prior ascetic practices. He was basically a recluse that made charcoal, and what is charcoal used for? It’s for heat and light and the preparation of food. Those are the very things we expect to receive from the Church and her pastors: the warmth of Christ-centered community, the enlightenment of truth, and the sustenance of the sacraments. By all accounts, St. Alexander was an exemplary episcopal conduit of those gifts, and it’s likely his prior years of solitary prayer and study around his woodpiles helped prepare him for that ministry.

But there’s even more here, for charcoal has also been utilized in the torture and killing of Christ’s faithful. Just yesterday we celebrated the feast of St. Lawrence, Roman deacon and martyr, also from the third century. He famously rounded up the poor to present to Emperor Valerian who’d demanded the “treasures” of the church. It was an object lesson lost on the emperor, and he directed that Lawrence pay for his insolence by a slow, agonizing death: roasted alive over white hot coals.

Bishop Alexander avoided the gridiron, but he did suffer martyrdom by fire during the Diocletian persecutions. Here, again, his coal-burning past presaged his ecclesial future, although Alexander’s actual martyrdom was simply the culmination of a lifetime of selflessness and sacrifice – an immolation, of sorts, of anything that would keep him from Christ. It’s essentially what we hear in today’s Gospel: “Sell your belongings and give alms,” Jesus tells us. “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”

The Lord goes on to direct his disciples to “light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return.” Following Alexander’s example, we must do likewise.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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German Lesson in a Graveyard

7 Aug

“Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life.”
~ Caryll Houselander

Read more…

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A Patron for Codependents: St. Samson of Dol (d. 565)

28 Jul

“We can live without drugs and alcohol, but…people are more complicated than substances.”
~ Dr. Kristi Pikiewicz

St. Samson was a big deal. Born in Wales, educated by monks, and seemingly destined for leadership, Samson was “perhaps the most important British missionary of the 6th century,” according to David Farmer, and “an excellent example of the wandering Celtic monk-bishop.” He established new abbeys, reformed older ones, preached the Gospel boldly, and ably led the flocks entrusted to him.

Although he pined for a hermit’s life in the wilderness, Samson ended his days in Dol, Brittany, where he established a monastic missionary outpost and served as an irregular episcopal ordinary. We might not be very familiar with St. Samson in the States, but his feast (July 28) is celebrated throughout the British Isles and beyond, and there are numerous European parishes named for him. A stellar saint, to be sure!

But I’m guessing there’s a shadow side to his story that’s easy to overlook.

After his initial formation and ordination in the abbey of Llanwit, Samson transferred to the community on Caldey Island where he took up duties as cellarer – a kind of steward of the monastery’s foodstuffs and drink. This is significant, because Caldey’s Abbot, St. Pyr, seems to have had a bit of a drinking problem – and the cellarer would’ve been the first to know about it. The annals tell of Pyr getting so snockered one night that he stumbled into a well and died as a result of the fall. And since such spectacular episodes of intoxication are highly unlikely to be isolated events, Abbot Pyr probably had been battling the bottle long before his mortal mishap.

Now, Pyr’s lack of temperance and unseemly end might cast some doubt on the suitability of his saintly designation – a title ascribed to him by tradition rather than formal canonization. We have to remember, though, that those who struggle with substance abuse and addiction are still called to become saints and, what’s more, can become saints. Truly, everyone can become a saint – even me, even you – and God gives us the grace to do so.

But besides questions related to Pyr’s habits and holiness, what fascinates me about his story is that the abbot’s propensity to over imbibe must’ve been an open secret in the cloister. Sure, Samson the cellarer knew, but so did everybody else – how could they not? A monastery is an intimate family, after all, and the abbot is the dad – in Pyr’s case, a dad crippled by addiction. How did Samson and his confreres deal with that?

It seems to me that it could very well have been a classic case of codependency.

Codependency is a controversial term these days, but it was all the rage not that long ago. It can apply to almost any flavor of dysfunctional family system, but it’s especially associated with alcoholic homes.

I know of it firsthand because my dad was an alcoholic. Like so many in that situation, I was clueless about the chaos at home and its connections to the booze. The family strife, the erratic behaviors, the cover-ups and pain – I naturally assumed that it was all normal. That it was what all families experienced. Why would I think otherwise?

Then my mom talked to me one night about something called Al-Anon – an organization that provides support for folks who live with alcoholics. She’d been in touch with them and was getting involved, looking for help. “There’s also a group for teenagers,” she told me. “Maybe you should consider going.”

I never did. Somehow, I still managed to get through high school and college, and then launched into the adventure of my own adulthood. I moved here and there, became a Catholic, dated off and on, and tried my hand at various pursuits. But there was definitely a gnawing void within – I was hurting, in agony.

At some point, somebody (my mom? a co-worker?) got me to read Janet Woititz’s 1983 book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and it was a game changer. What she described – the enabling, the duplicity, the stress, the craziness – really resonated. It prompted me to finally reach out for help – like my mother did so many years before – and I was able to separate my problems from my dad’s. He continued to struggle with his addiction, alternating between sobriety and drinking the rest of his life (rest in peace, dad), but I got to the place where I could see it as his struggle, not mine.

I loved my father, although sometimes I regret not loving him better – not to mention plenty of other regrets. Most of the time, however, thanks to writers like Woititz and a host of counselors, I can focus on the present and today’s challenges – the ones associated with being a husband, father, worker, and would-be saint. That’s plenty to deal with, and I’d like to think that my efforts honor my dad and the best parts of his legacy that live on in me.

St. Samson seems to have gone through a similar transformation. Whatever brand of codependent exigencies that preceded Pyr’s tragic demise, Samson stepped up and set a new course afterwards. He took up the abbot’s crozier and attempted to clean house at Caldey, but the community’s dysfunctional patterns were too entrenched and, in the words of Farmer, Samson “accordingly resigned the abbacy in disgust.” That action freed him up to seek out new opportunities to exercise his gifts, which led to the many foundations and apostolates he became associated with.

Clearly Samson strived to become the spiritual father that the impaired Pyr couldn’t quite manage. He left the brokenness of his past behind and forged a new path, striving to draw everyone he encountered closer to Christ. It seems that wherever he went, flourishing followed, and the honor in which his name is held to this day is testimony to how God worked in and through him.

“Ask and you will receive,” Jesus assures us in the Gospel today, “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Those are precisely the promises that enabled St. Samson to move on from his unhealthy roots to a more glorious future.

They’re the same promises that we broken folk can rely on today.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

A Feast Day for Discerners: Ss. Clelia Barbieri and Henry II

13 Jul

When I hear people say things like “God told me this” or “I think the Spirit is saying that,” I just shake my head. The Lord doesn’t work with me that way. In fact, more often than not, my prayers are generally met with yawning silence – or at least what I interpret as yawning silence. In my head, I know he hears me. In my heart, I know he answers me, one way or other. But in my day to day experience? Crickets. Mainly crickets.

That was especially true when I was struggling with my vocational direction in the years after I joined the Church. At first, it seemed obvious: I was young, single, male, devout – and the Church needed more priests. So, duh, go to seminary, already! Become a priest! Q.E.D. (or something else equally Latin-y for emphasis)!

Not so fast. I met roadblock after roadblock, despite praying up a storm. “God, here I am,” I’d complain. “Ready to come to the Church’s rescue! What’s the holdup? Why the hassle?” (chirp, chirp) It seemed like he wasn’t answering my prayers – that he was ignoring my generous offers to pursue ordination or maybe just overlooking them. But, that couldn’t be: He’s God, after all. What else could possibly be going on?

Then I met Nancy. We fell in love, married, and welcomed a van full of terrific kids over the years. “Ah,” I said to myself after some time. “Now I get it.”

Sound familiar? Maybe you, too, had a turbulent vocational journey. Maybe your path was equally serpentine and mystifying – maybe it still is now. Or maybe yours was more like a beeline. Regardless, today is your day – our day – for today we commemorate a couple saintly intercessors with definite discernment fortes, although with opposite emphases.

St. Clelia Barbieri is from the “God told me” side of vocational assuredness. She was born in 1847 near Bologna, Italy. Hers was a pious, working class family, but their poverty meant that everybody had to chip in. Hence, the youthful Clelia received training from her mother in spinning, sewing, and weaving, although the training was coupled with a thorough grounding in the Faith and sound habits of prayer. She grew up toiling alongside her family while contemplating the things of God, and so when she asked her mother, “How can I become a saint?” she already had her answer.

She was already doing it.

Because of her solid early formation and spiritual maturity, Clelia was allowed to make her first Holy Communion when she turned eleven (at a time when most Catholics had to wait until near adulthood), and she began experiencing spiritual ecstasies and rhapsodic episodes. Even so, she carried on as before in her labors, and her selfless charity and cheerfulness made her a favorite among her co-workers and peers.

Clelia rebuffed all offers of marriage, choosing instead to become a lay leader in the Christian Catechism Workers movement, spreading the Gospel among the sick and poor.  A coterie of like-minded women in the movement gathered around Clelia, and in 1868 the saint – a mere 21 years old – organized them into a community dedicated to prayer and apostolic works.

This band was the nucleus of what would become known as the Little Sisters of the Mother of Sorrows, a religious community that not only outlasted Clelia’s premature death from tuberculosis on July 13, 1870, but has continued to thrive in Italy and around the world. St. Paul VI beatified Clelia in 1968, and St. John Paul II canonized her in 1989.

So here’s a women who seemed to have no doubts whatsoever about her religious calling from her youngest years – a vocational assurance that led her to become, according to her Vatican biography, the “youngest founder of a religious order in the history of the Church.” Fine – and we count on her prayers for clarity and discernment as we bumble along in our own more pedestrian spiritual meanderings. But is there anybody else up there that we can, you know, relate to more? Some saintly somebody that has a history of fits and starts more comparable to our own?

Why, yes, you’re in luck – and his feast happens to coincide with Clelia’s.

It’s St. Henry II, ruler, warrior, and religious reformer. Of royal German blood, Henry was groomed to rule, but he had a natural disposition oriented to prayer and piety. He inherited the imperial title in 1002, Pope Benedict VIII crowned him Holy Roman Emperor in 1014, and Henry did his best to balance the demands of his office with the demands of the Gospel until his death in 1024.

Yet, Henry’s true vocation was to the married state, though not fatherhood. In 998, he wed Cunigunde of Luxembourg (herself a saint) and Henry was truly devoted to his queen. Yet, it was a childless marriage, and there’s some speculation that the couple’s lack of issue was due to their taking vows of perpetual continence. This would help explain the tradition that Henry, exasperated by the demands of statecraft, sought to abandon his throne by vowing obedience to the abbot of St. Vanne at Verdun. “The abbot accepted the emperor’s obedience,” reads Coulson, “but, in return, commanded him to go on ruling the Empire.”

It’s because of this story that St. Henry has been adopted as the patron of those rejected by religious orders. Nonetheless, despite apparent vocational wavering this way and that, Henry persisted in pursuing holiness and he won the crown of sanctity – even in the midst of bearing the crown of rulership.

That’s the kind of perseverance at the heart of all Christian callings, regardless of whether we’re Clelias with straight vocational trajectories, or Henrys with jagged ones. It’s summed up well in the first reading from Henry’s memorial Mass today. “You have been told,” writes Micah, “what the LORD requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Now there’s a divine directive that we can bank on, crickets or no crickets.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Note to Amber: The Stuff of Nursing

2 Jul

“We should see Christ in others, and nothing else, and love them. There can never be enough of it.”
~ Dorothy Day

Read more…

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Sola Which Scriptura?

27 Jun

“On what ground do we receive the Canon as it comes to us but on the authority of the Church?”
~ Bl. John Henry Newman

Read more…

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Of Baby Spit-Up, Paternity, and Piety

19 Jun

Want to find parents of newborns in a crowd? Look for shoulder stains, especially on dads.

When my kids were babies, I was usually the last to know when a white splotch appeared on my upper back. Invariably it was at church, and we were passing around kids in a vain attempt to moderate the pew disturbances, and I’d end up with the youngest peering past my neck as she bounced in the BabyBjörn. Maybe I was trying to pay attention to the homily; maybe I was just trying to stay awake. Regardless, when the bouncing produced the inevitable blurp on my shirt, I’d remain oblivious, and the folks in the pew behind would enjoy a little little chuckle at my expense.

But I didn’t mind, because I was always proud of my shoulder spit-up stains. Even now, when I’m privileged to hold other people’s babies, I firmly rebuff offers of burping cloths. “Naah,” I say. “If she spits up, I’ll wear it as a badge of honor!” And I mean it. Shoulder spots that stem from cradling infants are marks of distinction. They say to the world, “I was entrusted for a time with a fragile imago Dei, and here’s proof!”

Of course, if my only claim to fame as a dad is that I’ve been known to sport spit on my shirt, then I’d have nothing to brag about. But hopefully that intermittent badge of honor was a decent hint of what I did shoulder in my paternal vocation – that I worked hard to provide for my family, for instance, and that I took pains to model the very virtues and discipline I called on my children to embrace.

In a sense, I’d like to think that spit-up residuals (and their moral equivalent) were clandestinely present all the time, not just when they visibly appeared during Sunday Mass. Fatherhood is about love, love entails sacrifice, and sacrifice always leaves scars of one kind or another. Sometimes you see them; most the time you don’t. But if they’re there, you’ll know it, because you’ll glimpse their associated fruits in the family.

The life of St. Juliana Falconieri, whose feast is today (June 19), illustrates what I’m getting at in a particularly vivid way. Born in 1270, Juliana was from a prominent, pious Florentine family. Her uncle, St. Alexis, was one of the Seven Founders of the Servites, and he took charge of Juliana’s religious formation after her father died prematurely. Inspired by her uncle, Juliana founded a women’s branch of the Servites while still a teen, but she waited to fully inaugurate its communal dimension until her mother died in 1305.

St. Juliana and her sisters led a life of fervent prayer and mortification which sustained them as they tirelessly cared for the sick. Juliana herself was particularly selfless in that work, and her example of service inspired her sisters whom she also led as superior for over 30 years until her death.

At the very end of her life, Juliana was unable to keep down solid food, and so she was deprived of the Holy Eucharist. Consequently, she made an unusual request: that a priest lay out a corporal on her chest and place a consecrated host there. “Shortly afterwards the Host disappeared and Juliana expired,” according to legend, “and the image of a cross, such as had been on the Host, was found on her breast.” This extraordinary occurrence is attested in the collect for Juliana’s feast, and images of the saint typically feature a communion host on her habit.

But that visible sign of communion with Christ would’ve meant little if it hadn’t penetrated into the life of Juliana and blossomed into Christlike charity. As it was, the outward sign was eminently backed up by an inward disposition that led, in turn, to Juliana’s generous outward actions. In any case, the extraordinary sign was truly extra: It wasn’t for Juliana’s benefit, but for ours. Today, it acts as a reminder of what’s supposed to happen in and through all of us who receive the Lord.

It’s the same idea that we encounter in today’s Gospel – the very Gospel we read on Ash Wednesday every year. “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them,” Jesus tells his disciples (Mt 6.1). So, give alms in secret, pray in a closet, fast with a smile on your face – which goes along with dads caring for their families behind the scenes.

But if somebody does happen to see us do those things – if somebody, for instance, spies the Lenten ashes on your forehead or the spit-up on your shoulder – don’t try to hide it. Be glad that your life can be a sign that points others to Christ, and then do your best to back up that sign with the hidden life it’s supposed to represent.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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