signs of the presence of divine powers similar to those which had been given of old

It is the Feast of Stephen (in the West today and will be tomorrow in the East). This day commemorates the miraculous recovery of Stephen’s relics. Augustine of Hippo was particularly devoted to these relics. They were recovered in Augustine’s own lifetime and distributed to churches throughout the known world. Augustine writes in The City of God (Book XXII, Chapter 8), after recording a long list of miracles that he knew about first-hand in response to prayers before these relics of Saint Stephen (including healings, a conversion, and six resurrections from the dead):

What am I to do? I am so pressed by the promise of finishing this work, that I cannot record all the miracles I know; and doubtless several of our adherents, when they read what I have narrated, will regret that I have omitted so many which they, as well as I, certainly know. Even now I beg these persons to excuse me, and to consider how long it would take me to relate all those miracles, which the necessity of finishing the work I have undertaken forces me to omit. For were I to be silent of all others, and to record exclusively the miracles of healing which were wrought in the district of Calama and of Hippo by means of this martyr— I mean the most glorious Stephen — they would fill many volumes; and yet all even of these could not be collected, but only those of which narratives have been written for public recital. For when I saw, in our own times, frequent signs of the presence of divine powers similar to those which had been given of old, I desired that narratives might be written, judging that the multitude should not remain ignorant of these things. It is not yet two years since these relics were first brought to Hippo-regius, and though many of the miracles which have been wrought by it have not, as I have the most certain means of knowing, been recorded, those which have been published amount to almost seventy at the hour at which I write. But at Calama, where these relics have been for a longer time, and where more of the miracles were narrated for public information, there are incomparably more.

to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved

Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Mr. Fezziwig from the 1951 movie A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim:

It’s not just for money alone that one spends a lifetime building up a business, Mr. Jorkin…. It’s to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved. No, I can’t see my way to selling out to the new vested interests, Mr. Jorkin. I’ll have to be loyal to the old ways and die out with them if needs must.

He remains in the very thick of it

From Scott Cairns’ book The End of Suffering:

Well, the story goes that He has descended into the very thick of it.

The story goes that He remains in the very thick of it.

In mystical synergia, He collaborates with His Body, now and ever. In appalling condescension, He remains Emmanuel, God with us. Whereas we had brought only death and brokenness to that mix, He has brought life and wholeness.

…He did not save Himself, but gather gave Himself.

He did not come simply to rid the Jews of the oppressive Romans any more than He came to trump the other oppressive circumstances that His oddly beloved creatures have continued to construct for themselves and others. On the contrary, He came to suffer the results of those cosmic bad choices with us, and by so doing to both show us how we might survive them and to enable our survival—in Himself.

That is to say, He did not come here to undo our choices, but to move through them victoriously, and to show us how we might likewise move. He did not come to eclipse us, or to overrule our persons. On the contrary, He came to endow our persons with the self-same unending life.

“I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).

…A more likely translation seems to me to be what is yet to be done.

In any case, this does not exactly solve our puzzle. One is very likely still to ask, what is yet to be done?

What is it that Saint Paul and the rest of us are expected to supply?

Could it be ourselves?

The very heart of an efficacious faith, it seems to me now, is bound up precisely in our—watchfully—living into this mystery of what appears to be God’s continuing desire for collaboration between Himself and His creation.

From Adam’s naming of the animals through each successive patriarch, prophet, and holy man or woman, God has shown a predilection for working with His people, as opposed to simply working on them. God is intent, generation after generation on finding one or more of us to suffer the chore with Him. They may or may not always be the best specimens—Moses, Abraham, Lot, David, etc.—but their success is inevitably bound up with their complying with His will, and colluding with it. We find instances of this dynamic collaboration throughout our biblical texts and throughout their surrounding traditions.

One chief instance that comes to mind is illustrated in the Gospel dialogue that accompanies the event we call the Annunciation—that most curious exchange between the Archangel Gabriel and the Theotokos—and I glimpse in that fascinating give-and-take the Holy Mother’s necessary concurrence with the angelic messenger’s announcement. The angel reveals to her the message from on high, and she replies, “Behold the majdservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).

The point is, she said yes to God’s messenger. One despairs to think what would have become of us if she had said no.

…What, then, has yet to be done? What—so far as you are concerned—is the nature of this odd-seeming isterimata that gives Saint Paul cause to rejoice even in the midst of suffering?

You’ll probably have to tell me.

I suspect that, just as each of us is unique in the eyes of our God Who loves us, each of us also will find a unique remedy for our separation from Him. Each of us will discover-—and either will bear or will shirk—a unique cross.

What the fathers and mothers of the church have taught me is that inevitably each of us will, in one or in a number of ways, partake of Christ’s suffering, and that these experiences will help us to apprehend all the more how we are both joined to Him and how we are joined to each other.

We may well have occasion to ask—as Christ Himself asked—that the cup be taken away, but we will fare far better if that request is followed by “yet not my will, but Your will be done.” We will fare far better if, like the Theotokos, we answer the call of the messenger, saying, “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

no need for any of it

Why did they waste candles on daylight? Him standing there, talking about people dead who knows how long, if the stories about them were even true, and most of the people listening, or trying to listen. There was no need for any of it. The days came and went on their own, without any praying about it. And still, everywhere, meetings and revivals, people seeing the light. Finding comfort where there was no comfort, just an old man saying something he’d said so many times he probably didn’t hear it himself. It was about the meaning of existence, he said. All right. She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America—they had to call it something. The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and loneliness and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother? He couldn’t tell her that, either. But he knows, she could see it in him. Why does he want more of it, with his house so empty, his wife and child so long in the ground? The evening and the morning, the singing and the praying. The strangeness of it. You couldn’t stop looking. He would walk up the hill to that sad place and find them all covered in roses. If he knew, and if he didn’t know, who had made them bloom that way, he would think it was strange and right. There was no need for roses.

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

I could make anything a body wanted

Yesterday, we finished listening as a whole family to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. It was a car trip listen, and we drove by the Mark Twain House near Hartford while hearing the last chapter. It was my second reading, and it seemed a rather bleak double satire (on both the “old” and the “new” England) by this Mississippi River boy. The critique of old England is bitter and relentless. However, I’m not sure that Yankee New England fairs any better in the end. For example, it’s hard not to read this passage without a hint of satirical critique against the spirit of “Yankee ingenuity.”

I am a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry, in other words. My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade; learned all there was to it; learned to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery. Why, I could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world, it didn’t make any difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, I could invent one—and do it as easy as rolling off a log.

In the moments after the end of the book, Nessa (14 years old) said wanted to name her first baby girl “Hello Central” in honor of Sandy and her child. Nessa was really sad to think of this mother and child abandoned in the sixth century as a victim of the dueling powers of Merlin’s magic verses the Yankee’s modern science. Both kids had some very thoughtful questions about the story. Merlin’s old sorcery powers were mocked throughout, but they seemed to come out decisively ahead in the end (banishing the Yankee through time and getting a grizzly “last laugh”). Twain was a wild and tragic fellow.

more tracks than necessary

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1973.

fight magic with magic

Fairy-tale Logic
by A.E. Stallings

Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross a sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks,
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible what someone asks—

You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve,
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.