Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Zealots and Lost Causes (not political!)

Today is the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude. That's "Simon the Zealot," and "Jude, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes." Both of them were among the original 12 apostles chosen by Jesus. I'm going to take a minute for some basic catechism on the communion of saints in general and patron saints in particular, and another minute on these two saints celebrated today. But if you will keep reading, after that I want to say something about our own personal "lost causes," and reflect on "zealotry" as one of the ways we respond to them. I am NOT here to talk about zealotry in public causes, not a week before an election. In any case, I hope everyone reading this has already voted!

So first of all, some basic catechism on patron saints for the non-Catholics out there. What is a patron saint? Why do Catholics pray to saints, and why isn't this idolatry? So ... Catholics pray to saints, but not because they themselves have power, as if they were minor deities under God. We pray to saints for "intercession." It is exactly the same as asking your friends and relatives to say a prayer for you when you're about to go into surgery or take on a major challenge. Since we believe in everlasting life, whatever fuzzy ideas we may have about what happens to us basically good but flawed people (and Purgatory seems to be in a kind of doctrinal limbo these days), when it comes to the obvious saints -- apostles, martyrs, and others whose sanctity is generally recognized -- we believe that they are with God. And they are still with us, as God is with us. We can't see them, but they can see us, and being saints, they care about us. They pray for us, and we trust that such holy people's prayers are heard.

So that is the "communion of saints" in a nutshell. As for patron saints, they are understood as saints who take a special interest in particular human needs. Just like saints on this side of mortality, who have particular vocations. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Benedict, were all holy people with very different ways of living out their holiness. A doctor might pray to St. Luke, because he had the same profession. If you're going on a journey, or out in a boat for pleasure, you might pray to St. Brendan, who made an epic sea voyage from Ireland westwards, maybe even as far as Greenland. You could say a prayer to St. Isidore the Farmer when you plant your vegetable garden in the Spring. I sometimes talk to my great-uncle Henry when I'm down in the marsh, because he had such a great love for the Great Dismal Swamp. And so on. 

What I love is the weirdness of some of the attributions of patronage. For instance, St. Agatha, whose martyrdom in the 3rd century included having her breasts cut off, is the patron saint of bakers and bellmakers. Why is that funny? Just, she's typically portrayed in art carrying her severed breasts on a platter, and people seeing the image without knowing the story thought they were loaves of bread or bells. Because unless you know her story, it would never occur to you that a pious image of a saint would show her holding a tray of breasts. And even knowing what a twist-up that is, she's still invoked as a patron saint of bakers and bellmakers. 

St. Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of aviators and astronauts, because he is supposed to have levitated during periods of intense prayer. St. Ursula is a patron saint of archers, not because she was one, but because she was shot and killed with an arrow. And St. Bibiana, the patron saint of hangovers (I'm not making this up!) -- not because she was a drunk, but just because her name is related to the Latin word for "drink." 


And so, back to St. Jude. Why is he the patron of lost causes? It's another convoluted one: his name is too close to that other apostle, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. In fact, they have the same name, it's just anglicized differently so that pious people can think of Saint Jude without danger of mixing him up with Sinner Judas. That's why he's the patron of lost causes. In the old days, people would shy away from calling on Jude for fear of invoking the bad guy instead. So he would only be called on as a last resort, by someone really desperate. I don't know just when those "old days" were, but nowadays he's a popular guy.

OK, and then Simon the Zealot. We know that Judea in Jesus's time was an occupied territory, annexed by Rome. It was not a gentle occupation, and the Jewish people were not reconciled to it. "Tax collectors" were so reviled because they were collaborators who collected taxes on behalf of Rome, and moreover, stuffed their own pockets by extorting even more than the emperor required. "Zealots," on the other hand, were fanatical resistance fighters. I say "fanatical" because despite the overwhelming military advantage Rome had over little Judea, the Zealots seem to have opposed all accommodation with that power, either by the Jewish leaders or even by ordinary men and women. There's that little episode in Matthew 22:15-22, where the Pharisees try to trap Jesus into saying something that would discredit him with one of these two parties, the Zealots or those who accommodated themselves to the reality of the occupation, by asking him "is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?" His answer is to point to the image of Caesar on the coin, saying "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's." And really, it is one of the marks of Jesus's greatness that he was able to hold within his inner circle, apparently harmoniously, both Simon the Zealot and Matthew, the tax collector. 


So ... that's a whole ton of background! I'm finally ready to get to the idea that occurred to me in the conjunction of these two saints. It has to do with how we experience lost causes in our own lives, and how we respond to them sometimes overzealously, sometimes giving in to accommodating the unacceptable. 

I wrote a month ago about how discouraging it can be to repeatedly fail to live up to one's good intentions. This is how I experience the "lost cause" most sharply, by feeling that I myself am a lost cause. It's also where the abbot has done me the most good in spiritual direction, by encouraging me to ease up on myself. In practice, in my experience over the previous decades of my life, I could never become holy and sustain a holy way of life until I really internalized not just forgiveness but renewal, rebirth. My past is still my past, but I am not defined by it in the present. I still experience that kind of hopelessness on a smaller scale, in more limited ways, with various things I fall down on over and over until I gradually lose faith in my ability ever to succeed. That's probably pretty universal, isn't it? 

There are other kinds of lost causes that can bring us to our knees: terminal illness; broken relationships in which forgiveness and reconciliation are withheld for years; a loved one spiraling out of control with drug or alcohol addiction, or with the kind of severe mental illness that has, as one of its symptoms, the inability to recognize it in oneself. And yeah, OK, I'll say it: the ever-worsening polarization of U.S. politics, that we all suffer from but no one knows how to fix.

We can respond like a Zealot, raging away at a problem without strategy, moderation, or respect for our own or others' weaknesses or uniqueness. We can respond by giving up, which tends to lead to depression when what we are giving up on is something or someone really important to us. Or we can look for a third way. 

We can reclaim a vision, and then take the time to map it out, breaking down the first steps smaller and smaller until even in our dejection we are able to start moving forward. A little bit of forward motion can be a very powerful thing. Sometimes, when we've beaten ourselves up against a brick wall, if we step back and try to look at it with a new perspective we may find a door through it.

As for broken relationships, or loved ones spinning out of control ... I'm afraid this sounds weak, but what comes to mind is to recognize that we are connected in the communion of saints not only with those super-holy people who have died and gone to Heaven, but also with those beloved of God in this life. And being, say, a heroin addict, or a heroin dealer for that matter, does not take a person out of that category of "beloved of God." We are all beloved of God. And being unforgiving and judging does not forfeit God's love, it only awaken's God's compassion for the wound that is not being allowed to heal. It doesn't matter where the blame lies or how it's divvied up between estranged and bitter relatives. In the communion of saints, we are held together in the all-encompassing Love of God. That doesn't mean your lost daughter or brother or friend is going to all of a sudden start texting you hearts and smiley faces and pics of the grandkids. It doesn't, on the surface, change anything -- which is why I'm afraid it sounds weak. But for me, it's not weak, it's deeply meaningful. Just as I sometimes talk to Great-Uncle Henry, or my dad or my grandmother, I can talk to an old friend whom I still love even though the relationship is broken, while they're still alive. I can talk to them, and I can talk to God about them, and send them all my love and care and wishes for their welfare, and it really means something. The connection between us in that way is real, no matter how irrational and impalpable it is.

The crucifixion of Jesus is the perfect example of a lost cause that wasn't. He was expected, by many, to somehow bring about a restoration of Judea's sovereignty from Rome. Calling him "son of David" was code for "the person destined to re-establish, and lead, the kingdom." That's what Pontius Pilate meant by tacking up the sign (John 19:19-20) over the cross on which he was killed, that said in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews." He meant, "THIS is what mighty Rome thinks of your paltry pretensions to sovereignty!" It's what the Roman soldiers meant by the crown of thorns and the purple cloak (Jn 19:2-5); they meant to mock Jesus. These Romans and a whole lot of Jews were so caught up in the conflict between the two nations that it's all they could see when they looked at Jesus. Even Jesus, in his last moments, cried out the anguish of the ultimate lost cause: "my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" 

The crucifixion of Jesus left his disciples and the movement he had led in chaos and despair. On the night of the arrest, Peter tried to blend into the crowd to watch the horror unfold, but being recognized he repudiated Jesus three times before finally running away. The conversation between the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-24) was all about their bewilderment and distress in the aftermath of the crucifixion of their hero. Encounters with the risen Christ in the first few days were scattered, and did not restore hope but only added more confusion. 

But it wasn't over. The true meaning of the Kingdom of God finally came clear at Pentecost, when the disciples received the Holy Spirit. It is in the Spirit that we can see impossible things, that they can be transformed into positive truths, that we ourselves can be transformed into living vessels of the Divine. It is in the Spirit that lost causes are turned around. It's not in zealotry, flailing away regardless at the intractable problem. It's not in giving up and settling for mediocrity. It's in acceptance of the present reality, vision for the future, and openness to divine (and sometimes human) help and guidance. 

*Whew* this got long. I guess I could have summed it up in three lines of someone else's words:

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.


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