For All the Saints: The Martyrs of Samosata

Posted by Webster
I used to think that before my lifetime people lived in B/W, not color. That’s because in my childhood, all TV was in B/W. When a gangland boss was gunned down in the rerun of an RKO picture from the 1930s, the blood he bled was black. I would have thought the same for the Martyrs of Samosata, whom we remember today.

Abibus, Hipparchus, James, Lollian, Paragrus, Philotheus, Romanus: odd names living in a long-lost time in a city I never heard of. It’s good to remember that when they looked down at their scourgings from the crosses they were hanging on, they were bleeding in living color. Those were their names, Samosata was their city, and 297 was their time to die for Christ.

That’s what happened: seven crucifixions. About 260 years after the death of Our Saviour, the Roman Empire was still very much in business, and the emperor—in this case, Maximian—was still enforcing worship of the old idols. Of course, the corollary is that the Christian faith was still remarkably vibrant.

When, following his army’s defeat of the Persians, Maximian swept through this fortified city guarding a major crossing of the Euphrates River (now Samsat, Turkey), he ordered the temple rebuilt so that the citizens could sacrifice and give thanks to the Roman gods. I think it’s important to know your sources. In this case, the source is Father Alban Butler, 18th-century author of The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints; Butler’s source, in turn, was a priest who was an eyewitness of the sufferings of the Samosata martyrs and whose account was originally written down in Chaldaic. It’s not quite Joan of Arc, whose martyrdom is attested to by hundreds of pages of sworn testimony, but it’s not exactly Jack and the Beanstalk stuff either. This happened:

[As the sacrifices began] the whole town echoed with the sound of trumpets, and was infected with the smell of victims and incense. Hipparchus and Philotheus, persons for birth and fortune of the first rank in the city, had some time before embraced the Christian faith. In a secret closet in the house of Hipparchus, upon the eastern wall, they had made an image of the cross, before which, with their faces turned to the east, they adored the Lord Jesus Christ seven times a day. 

Imagine their faith that all they had for a chapel was an image of the cross drawn inside a secret closet! (From here on I’ll excerpt Butler.)

Five [younger] friends, named James, Paragrus, Habibus, Romanus, and Lollianus, found them in this private chamber praying before the cross, and asked them why they were in mourning, and prayed at home, at a time when, by the emperor’s orders, all the gods of the whole city had been transported into the temple of fortune, and all persons were commanded to assemble there to pray. They answered, that they adored the Maker of the world. James said: “Do you take that cross for the maker of the world? For I see it is adored by you.” Hipparchus answered: “Him we adore who hung upon the cross. Him we confess to be God, and the Son of God begotten, not made, co-essential with the Father, by whose deity we believe this whole world is created, preserved, and governed. It is now the third year since we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by James, a priest of the true faith, who since has never intermitted from time to time to give us the Body and Blood of Christ. We therefore think it unlawful for us during these three days to stir out of doors: for we abhor the smell of victims with which the whole city is infected.” 

The five young men were converted and baptized, and the seven were all eventually captured, whipped, imprisoned, scourged, tortured, then finally, when they refused to submit to Roman law, crucified:

They all prayed that he would not seek to draw them from the way which Jesus Christ had opened to them. The emperor, whose eyes sparkled with fury, upon hearing this answer, said: “Wretches, you seek death. Your desire is granted, that you may at length cease to insult the gods.” He then commanded that cords should be put across their mouths, and bound round them, and that they should be crucified. The cords were immediately put in their mouths, and fastened tight about their bodies, so that they could only mutter broken words, and not speak distinctly. The emperor ordered seven crosses to be erected over-against the gate of the city. The martyrs were hoisted on their crosses; and at noon several ladies came out of the city, and having bribed the guards with money, obtained leave to wipe the faces of the martyrs, and to receive their blood with sponges and linen cloths. 

Hipparchus died on the cross in a short time. James, Romanus, and Lollianus expired the next day, being stabbed by the soldiers while they hung on their crosses. Philotheus, Habibus, and Paragrus were taken down from their crosses while they were living. The emperor being informed that they were yet alive, commanded huge nails to be driven into their heads. This was executed with such cruelty that their brains were thrust out through their noses and mouths. Maximian ordered that their bodies should be dragged by the feet, and thrown into the Euphrates. But Bassus, a rich Christian, redeemed them privately of the guards for seven hundred denarii, and buried them in the night at his farm in the country. The Acts of their martyrdom were compiled by a priest, who says he was present in a mean garb when the holy martyrs gave their blessing to the citizens.

The ruins of the ancient city of Samosata were visible until the area was flooded by the Atatürk Dam in 1989. Then even the relatively modern city of Samsat was flooded, forcing its residents to relocate. Today, the newest town of Samsat (pictured above) has a population of 2,000. It’s still obscure. Martyrs welcome!

For My Buddies at Adoration

Posted by Webster 
I have a confession to make: I attend Eucharistic Adoration one hour per day, on average. But that’s not my confession. Here it is: I am not always silent at Adoration. I don’t tumble for Our Lady like Barnaby in Auden’s “Ballad.” But I do talk with several of my “Adoration buddies,” some of them every week.

In July 2008 Father Barnes established Adoration in the lower church, basement level. In the days when four or five priests lived in the rectory, Masses would be said simultaneously upstairs and down, the crowds were so large. Now, the lower church is used for the odd function like coffee and donuts after 10:30 Mass on Sunday and, one of high points of my week, Saturday morning men’s group

Adoration was new to the parish, and some of us, like this convert, didn’t totally know what to do with the hour we took on as our assignment. (I originally signed up for one hour a week; then I saw that Ferde had signed up for one hour a day and realized I could do no less.) Once I had gotten past the faint expectation of some sort of daily mystical experience, I settled into a routine of kneeling silently before the Blessed Sacrament for five or ten minutes, then often saying a rosary, then usually reading something spiritual—although sometimes I now use part of several hours to prepare for my CCD class. We are also asked by Father Barnes to say a prayer for priests and another for priestly vocations.

Something non-mystical but nonetheless wonderful happens if you go to Adoration regularly. Because Father Barnes asked that there be two people per hour, so that one could spell the other for vacations and the like, you get to know your Adoration buddies. “When two or three are gathered together . . . ” In the past seven days, I have had singular encounters with two of them.

“Bill” is a guy who has fallen on hard times—losing his job and, I fear, losing his faith, as well. I enlisted him for Adoration when a slot fell open and he came regularly once a week, spelling me at 3:30 one afternoon. Bill and I would talk, and it was all he could do sometimes to force a small smile on his face. He seemed terribly depressed about his career prospects, while expressing deep doubts about being a Catholic at all. Still, he came to Adoration.

“Bonnie” is my favorite Adoration buddy, and I now see her two days a week during shift changes—although I sometimes stay past my appointed hour just to be there with her a few extra minutes. Bonnie’s life has been no easier than Bill’s; in fact, I’m going to bet that until Bill lost his job, his life had gone far smoother than Bonnie’s. I don’t want to go into too much detail (Bill and Bonnie are very real, although their names are not), but I can say that Bonnie has struggled with personal illness and family divisions, among other things. Right now, she is suffering mightily because a dear friend is dying (may be gone by Christmas) and she is estranged from one of her children.

Whereas Bill doesn’t talk much without my prompting (I prompt him because he looks so unhappy), Bonnie needs no prompting, let me assure you. It’s all I can do some days to shut Bonnie up. But here’s the funny thing: I love Bonnie. I truly love her as a friend.

Two days ago, I got an e-mail from Bill. He informed me, and by copy the parish secretary, that he would no longer be coming to Adoration. He didn’t offer any reason; I’m sure that if he had a new job that prevented his attendance from 3:30 to 4:30, he would have said so. I’m afraid Bill has given up, at least for now.

Bonnie arrived at Adoration yesterday afternoon in a tizzy. Her hair was still wet (“just jumped out of the shower”) and she had spoken earlier with her friend who is dying. As she talked about their phone call, tears pooled under her eyes. She told me about a crucifix on her dining-room table. She talked about a mutual friend who is recovering nicely from cancer. Bonnie talked—and I listened—until I finally told a white lie that I was late for an appointment in a nearby town. (I did have the appointment; I was not yet late.)

I will see Bonnie at Adoration again today, and I look forward to it with a smile. I will not see Bill on Thursday, but now that I’ve written this, I may call or e-mail him. I know there’s little I can do. The only thing anyone can do is be present and listen, whether to the Blessed Sacrament or to a friend. Bonnie continues to haul herself out of the shower, wipe away her tears, and drop on her knees at Adoration two or three days a week. Right now, Bill seems to have given up. That’s the only difference between them, or between them and me.

If you run into Bonnie, please don’t tell her I wrote this post. Fact is, I love listening to her talk, even if I’m supposed to be silent.

Because “The Test of All Happiness is Gratitude”

Posted by Webster 
G. K. Chesterton can be a chore, the way he piles one analogy, one alliterative turn of phrase on another. But there are golden needles in his haystack. Today, I was plowing through Orthodoxy, chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland,” when I came upon a statement that stopped me cold: “The test of all happiness is gratitude.” It felt as though I was being handed a golden key, one that can help me make sense of my experience.

Think of the many forms of “happiness” you experience that don’t involve gratitude: the quick satisfaction of appetite; the thrill or enchantment of virtually every kind of electronic visual entertainment; a flattering word from someone you don’t care about.

Now think of other moments that do contain gratitude at their core: realizing how much you have been loved and supported by a parent or spouse; watching a sunset or listening to a concerto and realizing that life is a gift and that Whoever created it is worthy of all praise; or feeling the burden lifted from your shoulders following a good confession and thanking God for the sacrament.

The criterion of happiness Chesterton offers is so simple: Do you feel gratitude? 

Later this evening, I thought that maybe this seven-word thought might also hold the key to the most difficult door of all: forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer makes us a hard offer: We will be forgiven to the extent that we forgive others. Right now, in my life, although on balance I probably have far more to be forgiven myself, I am struggling with the difficulty of forgiving someone else. The offense against me, which was very real, occurred a long time ago, but I have become aware of just how hard it is to let go of.

If I can see reasons for gratitude even in this terrible offense, however; if I can thank God for what this offense taught me and is teaching me and even now is leading me toward—it seems that I might even be able to come to a new attitude toward the offender. I might be able to thank that person for helping bring me to a new place, a new understanding in my life.

One sentence from Chesterton alone, double-underlined and circled as it is in my book, is not going to work this magic by itself. The work is still mine to do. But at least I see a new avenue worth trying, a new path that might just lead to real forgiveness.

To Be Frank, Part 3, “What the Blazes, Blaise?!”

I’m a baseball fan. I love the game! I never really played it that well as a kid, but my oldest son is pretty good. He didn’t play ball on an official team until he was seven years old, but I started pitching Wiffle Balls to him when he was three or four. [Read more…]

Because the Real Santa Story is Amazing Enough

I’ve told my children that there is no Santa Claus. I make no apologies about that either. My reason? It takes away from the story of the actual miracle man who is Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker.

As I’ve stated before, I’m a newcomer to Catholicism. However, I was baptized when I was ten years old and have been a Christian for (do the math) thirty-six years. So I’m not exactly a newcomer to Christianity.

And I truly believe in the Spirit of Christmas. But I never really knew the true story of Saint Nicholas until I went looking for it. I had no idea that he is commemorated on December 6, the day of his death in 347 A.D.

This guy is amazing! And yet there isn’t much really known about him. We do know that he was the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. Myra is no longer around, having been superseded by a new city called Demre in the Anatalya Province in Turkey. Here he is in a painting entitled St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents From Death. The painting is hanging in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. (Note, it is St. Petersburg again, and no longer Leningrad.)

So I have sat all three of my children down (ages 13, 10, and 8) and spilled the beans on Madison Avenue’s version of Santa Claus and the unlimited wish-fulfillment powers of same. (Hey, personally, I love that guy too.) Now, my 13-year-old has known the truth since he was 8. My daughter started getting concerned when she was about 8 and couldn’t see ash footprints or any other convincing evidence of his visit, and my youngest is 8 now so . . . I did what had to be done. I told them the truth.

This has caused a bit of a dust-up within our extended family, and I understand why. You can’t convince kids aged 13, 10, and 8 to continue telling a fiction about Santa Claus to their friends. Well, maybe the 13-year-old, but the 8-year-old will sink the party pronto. This is like a state secret that “need to know” will not keep safe. And that is the concern of certain relatives, which my wife and I fully understand.

But that doesn’t do St. Nicholas justice, nor Our Lord and Savior whom he serves. So if your child comes home from school one day with the idea that Santa isn’t real? Blame my kids. Or tell yours the truth and donate an unwrapped new toy to Toys for Tots.

Semper Fidelis

Thoughts on the LOTH for Today

Posted by Webster
There’s joyful anticipation in Advent, but there’s also a powerful sense of urgency. Forget the stress of shopping or completing your Christmas card list, the pressure of putting up more lights this year than last or more lights than your neighbor.

This is what I call urgency: The Lord is coming, and soon. And we are called, urged, commanded to prepare. The short reading for Morning Prayer today (Romans 13:11-12) reminds us:

It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.

You’re already two years a Catholic (“closer than when I first accepted the faith”). Have you fallen asleep, brother? You live in darkness, the light is coming. Are you ready for it? What do you have to do to get ready? The demand is unequivocal: Throw your dark deeds away and strap it on—the “armor of light.” That doesn’t sound like a call to pacifism or quietism, does it?

We need to get ready. The Lord is coming, and soon.

Because of “Godspell”

Posted by Webster
Throwing down the gauntlet to my Catholic brother and fellow YIMC blogger, Frank Weathers— The year was 1970, when you were—what—six years old?! That’s when “Godspell” opened off Broadway, five years after Vatican II, one year after Woodstock. It totally rocked my world. And you were in what, kindergarten? How could you understand, Frank?

I was one year into an alternative spiritual trip that left the Episcopal Church in the rear-view mirror. Just then, this hippie-dippie musical inspired by “Hair” and based on the Gospel of Matthew arrived on the scene. And, despite all my alternative yearnings, something inside me said, You will never stop being a Christian!

Have you even heard (of) the songs “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” or “Day by Day”? No, I didn’t think so. So how can you understand what that time was like?

We were all looking for God, Krishna, Allah, Yahweh, Whatever His Name (we didn’t really care, it was all good). But even when I might have seemed farthest from my Christian roots, I couldn’t help loving “Godspell.”

I saw the touring production that left New York for Boston in, what, 1971? I saw the movie in 1973. Although I would take another 35 years to find the Catholic Church, there was something about this musical that sank its teeth into me and never let go.

Strangely, I thought of “Godspell” this Saturday afternoon at confession. In giving me my penance, Father Barnes referred to the opening prayer in the liturgy for the Second Sunday in Advent:

God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share his wisdom and become one with him when he comes in glory—

As I went for a walk after confession and pondered my penance, I thought of the lyrics to “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Which, by the way, are hippie-dippie simplicity at their best (worst?): Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord . . . (and so on). How do we prepare the way of the Lord? How do we remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy?

That’s question enough for this Advent season. Over and out!

For Larry, Who Served at Funerals All These Years

Posted by Webster
I had a singular honor Friday morning. I served at the altar for a funeral for the first time. And not just any funeral. Larry, the deceased, had served at funerals for years. I am now “in the rotation,” effectively taking Larry’s place. Someday, another man will serve at my funeral. As long as Father Barnes is celebrating, no problem.

Ferde, a regular altar server for funerals, has the same requirement, by the way—that Father Barnes celebrate his funeral mass. In fact, Ferde has pretty much ordered the padre not to take another post until Ferde dies. No plum parish. No bishopric. No call to Rome. Father’s staying put until Ferde’s ready for his reward. At least, that’s how Ferde sees it.

I get Ferde’s viewpoint better after Friday’s funeral. Father Barnes gave a beautiful homily. Noting scaffolding that was set up to the side of the nave, Father said he had wanted to remove the scaffolding for the funeral. But Nina, the parish secretary, had pointed out that Larry would have loved the scaffolding. Because Larry was always working, offering his services, helping out. His daughter later called him the “mayor of the neighborhood.” If anyone had anything that needed doing, Larry was there to help out.

The Gospel was Matthew 25: 31–46:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goat. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me. Then the righteous will answer him and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and we give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you? And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.” Then they will answer and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?” He will answer them, “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Speaking softly, Father B said that he was pretty sure Larry, when he got to heaven, would be surprised to find himself in the line of sheep on the right hand of the Lord. I naturally thought about what our pastor would say if I up and died, and my funeral were held on Monday. I have a feeling that, even if I did finally deserve to be included among those on the right, I would find myself behind Larry in line.

A funeral has a way of making a man take stock. Samuel Johnson (quoted by Chesterton in Orthodoxy) wrote, “Nothing so focuses a man’s mind as the knowledge he is to hang at dawn.” When Thomas More was in jail awaiting execution at the hands of Henry VIII, he and his daughter wrote meditations on The Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

I have a feeling that serving at more funerals will do as much as anything to earn me a place closer to the head of Larry’s line. Serving is the key to many things. Thanks, Larry, for letting me take your place, at least for one day.

Because the Holy Spirit is On the Line

Posted by Webster
I have a theory that can be stated simply: The Holy Spirit is on FaceBook. I don’t mean to promote a single form of the new electronic media by proposing this. I could as easily prove that the Holy Spirit uses Twitter. I mean, think about it. What sound does a dove make? Tweet, tweet.

I offer this for weekend discussion and propose one test case for consideration. Exhibit A: Frank Weathers.

Several weeks ago, as dedicated readers of this space know, I was struggling with the direction of YIMCatholic. Started as a sort of love letter to Katie and the girls—you are the most important people in the world to me, these are the most important ideas, let me share—YIMCatholic took on a life of its own, mysteriously attracting the attention of such as Fr. Jim Martin at America magazine and Elizabeth Scalia over at The Anchoress. Them and others, all in a few weeks.

It was at that point that the ego went rampant and your humble servant began blogging his fanny off, like Cedric the Entertainer working out to a Richard Simmons video. It didn’t do much for my fanny, but it sure as heck annoyed my bride.

I began to despair, and with a twist thrown in from a personal matter that has since clarified itself, I thought, Junk it. You’ve lost the original purity of mission. You’re making a fool of yourself. Switch off that darn video and have a pizza. Pepperoni, extra cheese.

It was about this time that Frank Weathers (remember Exhibit A?) started barraging me with e-mails. Something about a retired Marine from, where was it, Kentucky? Tennessee? Probably the hills, where he brewed moonshine, I thought. Since I don’t give anyone the right to retire until they’re older than me, I had “Frank W” pegged as a geezer with a few teeth left in his head after a life of bar fights, staggering around with a jug in his hand and Semper Fi on his chapped and dirty lips.

But his e-mails were too smart for that. He began providing me on-line resources for subjects on which I was writing or might write, stuff I never would have found myself, about Merton, Erasmus, Dickens’s Life of Our Lord. He almost seemed to anticipate my thoughts, moving stealthily like a Navy Seal in the darkness just ahead of YIMCatholic. It came to a place where I could not ignore the old geezer a minute longer. Then I found out he was no geezer: Twelve years younger than me, happily married, father of three handsome kids, active in a second career that allows him to research questions posed in this space, a persuasive and thoughtful writer, and—most important to the mission here—vitally, passionately, happily Catholic.

I made Frank a proposal. How about writing up your own conversion experiences in a short (500-to-750-word) essay? If it’s any good, I’ll put it up and let the dogs howl. An hour later, Frank’s 900-word draft was in my in-box, and by the following morning, before I had a chance to react to this barrage, he had sent me “chapter 2.” Whaaaat? I screamed to myself. Then I read what Frank had written and thought I heard a bird chirping. Could Frank be the answer to a prayer I hadn’t even verbalized? An answer to the woes faced by every blogger, I’ll bet: loneliness and fatigue. Loneliness, because every day you have to strap it on and write 1,000 words that no one might even read. Fatigue, because, do the math, that’s 365,000 words a year.

Oh, yeah, and this: There’s no money in it. (See annoyed bride)

I have an impulsive child in me, who makes snap decisions and then sometimes regrets them. But so far I have had no reason to doubt the decision that came next: By the time Frank had written and submitted chapter 3 (before chapter 1 was even on line), I realized that this stuff, good stuff too, was pouring out of him. I realized that, as a Catholic convert from the same RCIA graduation class of 2008, Frank seemed to have a lot in common with me. On the flip side, as a man raised in the South and a man with a distinguished military career under his belt (I have none), he might have significantly different points of view on non-essential points. (The maxim “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity” may not come from St. Augustine, as some say, but it works for me.)

So I said, “Permission to come aboard!” And here we are. Frank has made it clear that I am the front-seater, that he’s content to sit behind as RIO, covering my six. (I’m starting to get some of this military terminology.) I’ve made it clear that if I go down in the line of duty, or while working out to Richard Simmons, he has the conn. Last night, Frank talked me on-line through the set-up of a FaceBook fan page. He’s twelve years younger, remember, and he gets this stuff better; I’m convinced it’s generational, that he was born into a world of color television and never saw “Leave it to Beaver” in black-and-white.

The Holy Spirit on FaceBook? Yes, I’m sure of it. And everywhere else on line. Messages coming all day long, many of them not from the HS. Which is the problem, of course. But it’s all about keeping our own channels open, isn’t it? Like recognizing the sound of a bird chirping when you hear it, and opening the window so you can hear it sing.

Thoughts on the LOTH for Today

Replace the phrase descendants of Israel in Isaiah 45 with the sheep of my flock from Psalm 99 in today’s morning prayer and ponder these words anew.

Isaiah 45:
Turn to me and you will be saved, all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, there is no other.

I have sworn by my own being,
I have decreed a judgment that will not be revoked;
for every knee will bend to me,
every tongue swear by my name.

“Only in the Lord,” they will say,
“are there justice and strength!”
All who resisted him will come to him, and be dismayed;
but in the Lord all
descendants of Israel
will receive justice and glory.”

From Psalm 99:

Know that the Lord is God
He made us and we are his
—his people, the sheep of his flock