Friday, June 17, 2016

Basil the Great, on Repentance

[I’m exploring the Fathers of the Church for insights into hospitality. I have published a list of ideas about hospitality in the Old Testament, and the New. Now Tradition. Hence Basil.]
                St. Basil wrote a powerful call to repentance, to communal repentance, during a drought. I found the frame a little odd, but the insights powerful.
                For most of human history, I guess, people have tried to figure out what as on God’s mind when the weather changed. I don’t really know how to get inside that. I think of weather as being a kind of neutral background, like the moon and stars. But politics, on the other hand: that’s a huge force, about as predictable as the weather. I think there are connections between my (our, your, their) attitudes and actions in one corner of a social fabric, and politics in a different corner of the same fabric. The connections are often hidden in the murk, but they are there. So when I read a sermon by St. Basil about repentance during a drought, I’m a little puzzled, but not completely baffled. I don’t look at a flood or a drought, and then repent. But I can look at my poor, divided nation and ask, “What’s wrong with me, or with us? What did we do wrong?” So with just a little quibble, I’m on same page as Basil. We’re in a hell of a mess: what do we do now?
                To begin, Basil says we should pray, and trust God. Amen. Then what? Be fervent in prayer: we sinned enthusiastically, so repent with equal or greater enthusiasm. But what does that look like? Well, to begin, he says, repent the way the prophets of old taught us to repent. Take care of strangers and orphans and widows. Rip up unjust contracts, and cancel any debts that have high interest rates. Find someone like Elijah the Tishbite to pray for you – someone skinny, broke, shoeless, and homeless, but prayerful and upright. If they pray for you, that’s serious help, because God listens to people like that! That’s what repentance looks like.
                It’s the detail about care for strangers that I’m most interested in, at the moment. Specifically what should we do? Basil says we should wash their feet, rinsing away the dust of travel. I take that as suggestive, not prescriptive. I think if you start washing people’s feet, you’ll get arrested for sexual harassment or something, and go to jail. It’s a gesture, and gestures change from one culture to another. But I think the point is clear: social repentance begins with real acts of service for people in real need – kids without dads, abandoned women, and immigrants or refugees whose homelands no longer sustain them.
                I was startled when references to the trio –widows, orphans, and strangers, found together all over the Old Testament – seemed to disappear in the New Testament. The fiery demand to take care of strangers is still there, although it is usually expressed in other terms (for example, “Who’s my neighbor?”) But whatever happened in the New Testament, the trio is back in Patristic teaching.
                St Basil the Great: repentance for social evils begins with fervent prayer, and then care for people in need – the most obvious being strangers on the road.

[I found this sermon – or “oration” – in On Social Justice by St Basil the Great, translated by C. Paul Schroeder, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Yonkers, New York. It is #38 in their Popular Patristics Series. Permission to use: pending.]

Initial reactions to hospitality in Basil

St. Basil was such a great man! His approach to justice has the fire and freshness of the prophets! Pope Paul VI, in his pleas for the people of developing nations, often used Basil’s writing.
I’ve been reading his sermon, “I will tear down my barns.”
Example: “Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, but did not.”
He makes me dance!
BUT! BUT! Look at this weird thing that the great St Basil, Basil the Great, in his great writing, did! When he explains why you should take care of the poor, he quite properly ties his teaching to the words of the Lord. Jesus, describing the day of judgment, says … and Basil mentions the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked, about whom Jesus said, what you do for them, you do for me, and what you failed to do for them, you failed to do for me. I am not criticizing; I’m just taking note: Basil mentions three of the six precepts of the Lord, the first and second and fourth. The pattern of skipping the third – welcome strangers – shows up in the best and most eloquent of the Fathers who pleaded for justice! He didn’t pretend that he had the whole list; he quoted three of the six. And those three were about items that you can HAVE – own, store, share – not DO. To welcome the stranger or to visit the sick and imprisoned – those are things you can DO. So Basil’s choice makes sense. I’m not criticizing.
I’m just disappointed, because I wanted his eloquence applied to the issue of hospitality.

Hospitality in the Didache

                The Didache is a short catechism summarizing the beliefs and rituals and structure of the Church, that may have been written in the first century AD. It’s short, perhaps 3,000 words in English, shorter in the original Greek; it is often presented in a chapter format, with 16 chapters; but each “chapter” is a single paragraph.
                It summaries the commandments under two headings, love of God and love of neighbor. But the details do not follow any other familiar list. The section on love of God includes many details from the Sermon on the Mount, and the section on the love of neighbor overlaps the neighbor-oriented half of the Ten Commandments. But it’s not a neat and tidy fit.
                The teaching on sharing is forceful. If someone asks you for something, give it to them, and let it go! And don’t try to retrieve it! Because God wants us to share the blessings that he has given to us.
                Elsewhere: You should be ready to give away what you have, as payment for your sins.
                And elsewhere: Don’t hesitate to give, and don’t damage the gift by complaining! Be confident that you will come to know the true Giver of all good gifts.
                And elsewhere: share everything with your brother. In fact, don’t even assert ownership! If you share imperishable and eternal gifts with your brothers, then you should share the perishable goods in the meantime.
                Some of the teaching in the Didache starts out familiar, then veers. “Don’t fast like the hypocrites,” it says. We think we know where that’s going: the next line is, be discreet. Nope! “They fast on Monday and Thursday.” Okay. What are we supposed to do? Fast every day? Fast when we have sinned (every day?)? Fast more, three times a week? Less: once a month? Fast before a feast? No, we should fast on Wednesday and Friday. No explanation given. (One can perhaps surmise that the point is to imitate the strengths of the Jewish Pharisees, but to develop and protect a separate identity.)
                The call to love your neighbor is not quite as lofty as the Sermon on the Mount. It divides people up in four categories: those we hate, those we try to fix, those we pray for, and those we love more than life itself. Those we hate: ZERO. Those we love more than life itself: that may or may not be a large group. As to the middle two groups: there’s no explanation of the difference between them.
                The Didache has much to say about itinerant preachers. Much of it is simple and sweet: if they seem to be chasing money or comfort, they are frauds. And the teaching about welcoming strangers appears in this context – and indeed, it may refer specifically and solely to visiting missionaries. If someone comes “in the name of the Lord,” make him welcome. But what does that mean: “in the name of the Lord”?
                The expansive Hebrew concept of welcome for immigrants is not in the Didache. Instead, it says that if a visitor is just passing through, you should take good care of this person – for two or three days. And if the newcomer wants to settle down, that’s probably fine – if he has a craft and wants to work. If he doesn’t have a trade, that’s a problem: Christians should not live idle among you. Bottom line, with all visitors: use your judgment. And the text repeats over and over: genuine prophets and true teachers are entitled to support, like any workman, but watch out for frauds!
                In sum, the Didache calls eloquently for great generosity – but within a small community. It isn’t clear whether the text says anything at all about visitors other than preachers like Paul. What is does say is very cautious, in marked contrast to its call for wide open generosity within the community.
                I have argued that Scripture is full of passionate calls for hospitality for strangers, especially those from another land. If I’m right, I will find it reflected and explained in Patristic literature as well. So is it there? Looking at one significant item, the Church’s oldest catechism, the answer is clear: nope, not here.
                Why not? Three thoughts:
(1)    The Didache may not reflect New Testament thought because it pre-dates Matthew – or, more likely, was contemporary with the Gospels, starting to circulate among first-generation  Christians at about the same time as the Gospels. Look, for example, at its description of the Eucharist. It’s recognizable, unmistakable; and yet it’s also clearly not based on the Gospels: it has the offering of wine preceding the bread. The author of the Didache had heard the Sermon on the Mount, in some version; but did not base his description of the Last Supper on the Gospels. It’s a different strand of thought, a separate development.
(2)    Similarly, the Didache may not reflect the Old Testament because – perhaps – it developed among the Greek Christians. I have no data to support that except that it was written in Greek, and doesn’t have any references to the Hebrew Bible, nor any echoes of it.
(3)    Just as Jesus and his disciples did not think about how a nation should welcome immigrants, because they lived in an occupied land, as strangers in their own land, so too the same may apply in the communities that produced, used, and disseminated the Didache.

There is another significant insight to draw from the way the Didache treats the matter of hospitality. The teaching is encased in suspicion about false prophets and teachers. In the 21st century, we are all familiar with hucksters presenting themselves as evangelists and pleading for money. The Didache reflects a similar suspicion – but for them, it wasn’t just about money. It’s clear that the frauds they saw in their time abused money and hospitality. Ancient stranger danger! For them, the warning signs of fraud included excessive pleas for monetary support – or for hospitality.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Polycarp: the aroma of hospitality

One of the great works of St. Pope John Paul II was re-establishing links between Eastern and Western Christianity, between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches. He was not the first to struggle for unity, nor the last; the task is not completed yet. One detail of his great work for unity was re-establishing a habit of thinking through issues in part by drawing on the wisdom of the Fathers of the Church. Reading the encyclicals of the past century, it struck me that for decades the teaching was often somewhat self-referential: the popes quoted previous popes, making sure that the continuity from one to the next was clear. But then, around the time of the Second Vatican Council, the encyclicals returned to the teaching of the past, drawing extensively on Scripture. And then John Paul II took another step, and began drawing extensively on Patristic literature.
                I’m sure many people know better than I why he made that change. But I thought it was because he was Polish, from a nation that struggled for identity – caught between Catholic (and Protestant) Europe and Orthodox Russia. But whatever the reason, he made a great change, and I have tried to follow in his footsteps, tried to draw on the wisdom of the Church throughout the ages.
                When I embarked on this effort, I drew up a list of Fathers and Doctors, and their major works. Then I hunted out an easy one: a short narrative work. I started with “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” written by St Irenaeus. St. John the Evangelist lived to a ripe old age, and so did Polycarp; so the account of Polycarp’s death may have been written late in the second century, but was nonetheless an account of the life of a man who knew the apostles. (That is, setting aside scholarly disputes, the following may be approximately right: John may have been exiled in 95 AD, and lived for years afterward; Polycarp lived from about 69 to about 155, and he knew John and other apostles; and Irenaeus lived from about 130 to 202, so he spent many formative years with Polycarp.) I have accepted the story as translated into English by J. B. Lightfoot, a 19th century Anglican bishop of Durham and a renowned Patristics scholar.
                Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna, a Greek city on the Aegean coast of what is today Turkey. Smyrna is north of Ephesus, in an area where St. Paul preached. On-again off-again persecution was a part of Christian life at that time, and Polycarp was swept up.
                His pursuers were hunting for “atheists.” From their polytheistic perspective, monotheists and atheists were pretty much the same, and they deserved to die for their lack of piety. When Polycarp first heard that he was being hunted, he left Smyrna, persuaded that he should try to stay alive. The question of how to deal with martyrdom was a pressing issue then: should you turn yourself in and try to get executed, or flee? Not long after Polycarp’s death, large groups of Christians turned themselves in and demanded to be executed; officials cooperated with some requests, but then decided it was a nuisance, and told the would-be martyrs to go hang themselves. But there were others who turned themselves in, then saw death approaching and re-calculated. Polycarp was a moderate on the issue: he fled, but calmly.
                While he was on the run, he stayed with friends. That is, one of the last acts of his ministry was hospitality – visiting friends. While he was with them, he and they prayed for the whole world, and for the whole church.
                When he caught, he asked his hosts to provide food and drink for the arresting officers, as much as they wanted. While they were eating, he stood up to pray and preach, at length; so one could perhaps argue cynically that this hospitality was just a ruse, to buy time. In any case, Irenaeus records that the pursuers were impressed, and began to repent that they had come out to chase a venerable old man.
                When he was hauled into court, the prosecutor – the proconsul – demanded that Polycarp cooperate with Roman authorities and denounce atheism. He groaned a bit, but decided he could do that; he agreed to cry out, “Away with the atheists!” But the proconsul amended and focused his command: “Denounce Christ!” And that point, Polycarp dug in: “I have served him for 86 years and he never did me any injury! How, then, can I blaspheme my king and my savior?” To me, it seems that this decision to embrace martyrdom was not cerebral, not about lofty principles; it was, rather, a simple statement of love and affection, issuing from a loyal heart.
                After a little debate, Polycarp was bound and burned. Irenaeus records that witnesses tell of miracles at his death. They said that the fire swirled around him in the shape of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind. Within this circle of fire, Polycarp didn’t look like burnt flesh; instead, he looked more like baked bread, or gold and silver glowing in a furnace. And the odor of the fire didn’t have the stench of burnt flesh; it was more like frankincense or some other precious spice smoking there.
                The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom, then, has three references to hospitality. (1) Among the final acts of his ministry was visiting friends. (2) When he was taken prisoner, he asked that his hosts provide hospitality to his pursuers. (3) When he was burned at the stake, witnesses did not see a horror; instead, their recollections of the event include images of freedom – sailing with the wind – and purification – like gold in a furnace – and prayer – like incense – and a sacrificial meal – like baked bread. To be sure, these recollections may be pious reconstructions. But even if these accounts are just reconstructions, only loosely based on facts, the reconstructions include the central image of hospitality: to explain Polycarp’s death, like the death of Jesus, we would like to talk about the bread that we share.

The Persistent Other

So Jesus said, welcome immigrants or go to hell. Check it out: Matthew 25:35-46.

I read the Old Testament to figure out who he was talking about when he said we should welcome strangers. And I wrote a really wonderful book about what I found: 21 Stranger Claims in the Old Testament. I guarantee, no matter who you are or what you've read, that I say things you have never heard before. I'm not a brilliant Scripture scholar or anything like that, but I came at the text from an odd angle and saw old (ancient, actually) material in a fresh way. 

That was a few months ago. What I've done now is to move from the Old Testament into the New. Do the 21 claims I made about teaching in the Old Testament show up intact in the New Testament? 18 of the 21 do; three don't. 

The new book, "The Persistent Other," is available on Amazon today ($5.50, shows up in 1-2 days), or Kindle ($3, or free with Prime), in your hand in seconds. 

But more: again, I was coming at the text from an odd angle, so I saw things in a fresh way. No fooling: I think that overlooking hospitality in Scripture is like overlooking salvation. It's like Easter without Christmas. There's a boatload of stuff about hospitality in the New Testament, that most Christians glide past, blind as bats.

May I show you something you may not have noticed about:

the birth narratives
the temptation in the desert
the lamb of God
the transfiguration
John's signs
washing feet
the Eucharist
the mysteries of the Rosary
the Our Father and the Hail Mary and the Salve Regina
the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis

May I show you, please?

The book isn't tied tight to the immigration fight, yet. This is the second part in a seven-part series:
(1) the Old Testament, 
(2) the New Testament, 
(3) the writing the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, 
(4) three American saints who worked with immigrants, 
(5) the formal teaching of the Catholic Church about immigration, 
(6) the letter of the American and Mexican bishops, writing jointly in “Strangers No Longer,” and 
(7) the public position and practice of American Catholics today, especially the Knights of Columbus. 

In the sixth and seventh parts, I'll get to the current debate. The bishops ask us to balance the God-given right to migrate with the right and duty to protect nations. What does a just balance look like? I'll get there, but not in this volume.

Get the book! Read it, gnaw on it, review it, promote it. 

And love your neighbor.