Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Feast of Polycarp and the spiritual journey of a cherished friend at St. Paul's

We were treated at Evening Prayer last night to a homily by Leslie Middleton to mark the feast day of Polycarp, an early church martyr. I've reposted her homily below, and I do highly commend this to you as one of the best homilies I have ever heard on the feast day of a saint.

What I most appreciate is how Leslie invited us to walk with her on her spiritual journey with all of its twists, turns and questions. I found her words pastoral and captivating, and her vulnerability courageous. Here is her homily:
The Feast Day of Polycarp (Bishop and Martyr of Smyrna 156AD)
By Leslie Middleton
This morning, in preparation for this homily, I immersed myself in the story of Saint Polycarp.

Polycarp, whose name can be translated “many fruit,” lived from 69 to 155 AD, and is considered one of the chief Apostolic Fathers, even though their writings were not included in the New Testament. Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians --one of the earliest known texts of this kind --has survived the ages, and has poured over by scholars from then until now. This being the Age of the Internet, it is possible for me to retrace these inquiries, delving into translations and interpretations. But like the Old and New Testaments, there are many ways to understand these texts, and the way that feels most compelling to me is to meditate on the stories and images that have also survived.

Polycarp lived during the century after the death of Christ, but while several of the original apostles were still alive. This was a time when Christianity was still much hidden from view, even while evangelists were spreading the news and faith in regions close and far. Some say that Polycarp studied under the Apostle, John the Evangelist; other say he only knew him. It is easy to imagine how either could be true.

Polycarp was anointed as Bishop of Smyrna, a city on the west coast of what is now Turkey. The story of his martyrdom is a refrain of many of the elements of the story of Christ’s death on the cross. After many years of faithful teaching – he was at least 86 at the time – Polycarp had a prophetic dream of lying on a burning pillow, which presaged his impending arrest by the Roman government and death by burning three days later. Though at first he fled capture, when eventually found, he asked that he be given time to pray, and he also served his captors a large table of meat and wine before being led off on a donkey.

He was tried as an atheist, which in those days meant he did not worship the Roman gods. But because he impressed his captors of being a good and kind man, they offered him many opportunities to stave off death, if he would only offer his allegiance to the Roman gods, and not Jesus. But Polycarp could sweetly only say: "Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" The magistrate was reluctant to kill a gentle old man, but it seems that he had no choice.

The crowd – and is there not always a crowd in these stories? – turned against him, urging that he be nailed to the stake and burned. As preparations for his death by fire were being made, and his captors were about also to fix him with nails, he said,
"Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile." So they did not nail him, but simply bound him and lit the fire after his prayers to God were finished.

It is said that, “the fire shaped itself into an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, circling his body not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace.”

A sweet smell emanated from the pile … and when the executioners saw that the fire was not touching Polycarp, they pierced him through with a dagger. And then, a dove came forth, followed by a great quantity of blood, so much that the fire was extinguished, which was said to make the crowd wonder at the difference between unbelievers and those, like Polycarp, who believed in the Lord.

I find this story strangely thrilling – in a number of ways. It is surprisingly easy for me to imagine that time, the emergence of the new Church, the secrecy, the challenges, the nurturing of small communities spreading across the landscape, bound by beliefs and practices that were still blossoming from the common traditions of the Jewish faith, now informed by the Good News.

I have, in my own spiritual seeking, been part of emerging traditions – in my thirties, I found a home in the community of Al-Anon. This is where I first learned about a Higher Power in a way that made sense to me: the giving over and letting go for something bigger than myself, which seemed the only course in the face of the alcoholism in my family and in my relationship at the time. Though not a secret society, both the requirement for confidentiality and the then prevalent lack of understanding of alcoholism as a disease resulted in a necessary privacy.

I owe much to this spiritual path, for in those years, I came to understand myself as a spiritual being and my life as a journey: deepening in understanding and development as a human body in a world that was greater than I could see but was starting to experience. I wonder if this kind of slow awakening was anything like what the early Christians felt?

After lots of experimentation and learning, including all kinds of therapy, LifeSpring, bodywork, dreamwork, and several geographical moves, my next spiritual influence was The Pathwork, an eclectic but profound combination of teachings, body awareness tools, emotional process work, and spiritual practices that was first brought to life by John Pierrakos, a gifted bioenergetic therapist, and his wife, Eva.

By all accounts, Eva was a modern day prophet, and, using our present day terminology, she channeled the words of The Guide, who shared extraordinary information about the human and spiritual realms and about the importance of transforming negative energy into positive. Taught at a number of centers around the world, in the 1970’s and 1980’s and to this day, this path was, as its name implied, a lot of work.

My involvement with this path and the one of the communities it spawned spanned almost ten years and had much to do with my landing in Charlottesville. There was no proselytizing involved in this path – once came if one was called, as I was. From this path, I learned the language of the energetic body and realms and the tools for uncovering the Truth within. I have never doubted that it was during these years that I started to experience with every cell in my body a Holy Spirit. Looking back, I was being prepared along my own journey of faith.

Both of these influences were, in the relative scheme of things, emerging paths, ones where you could meet people who had known or studied with the earliest “teachers.” It is hard to know whether each will endure – the AA programs are no longer so “anonymous,” and remain the cornerstone for many afflicted with the addictive behaviors so common in our culture. And the Pathwork is now undergoing its own transformation, as the early leaders get old and die. The original teachings remain transcribed and available on the Internet, and are also embodied in individuals who remain on this path and continue teach and pass them along.

I do not know whether my most recent turn in my spiritual path – reconnecting with the Episcopal Church of my upbringing – will be my final stop. Here, I have found great comfort in the liturgy where, even though I know it has been transformed many times since the days of Polycarp, I experience a timelessness that seems like the collective spirit of all who have travelled on this path before me.

Here, I have a found a place where my husband, Patrick, and I have a common ground, a community, friends, and a religion that we share, even though our backgrounds and spiritual paths are so very different. Here, I find plenty of challenge to my ego, my imperfections, and my faith – challenges to be welcoming to all, to listen, not to judge, to share more freely of my gifts and talents.

And here, though I cannot touch or listen to those early church fathers or the or those who were with Jesus during his life, I can experience the possibilities of faith, where turning again each time I receive Communion, I taste the promise and trust that my faith is deepening.

Reflecting on the life and death of Polycarp, I wonder what it must it have been like for those who did not know or experience the man Jesus, but knew those who had? What did that feel like? Were these people, like Polycarp, so touched by the Holy Spirit that one could not be in their presence without sensing a peace, a presence, and a faith so profound that no nails were needed to withstand the agony of death by flames?

Finally, as I reach an age where more and more people in my life are passing over, leaving this life, when I have had the experience of being with people who are dying, I really do think a lot about my own death, and not always with sadness or fear. The quickening that takes place at this time of life is very real. At times I am eager for the great transition because I have faith that it will be OK, and I will know God perfectly in my passing.

But I do not get to choose the time or the how or the where ... and perhaps this is one of the greatest tests of faith of all, as Wendell Berry says in his essay entitled, of Poetry and Marriage.

The Zen student, the poet, the husband, the wife—none knows with certainty what he or she is staying for, but all know the likelihood that they will be staying “awhile”: to find out what they are staying for. And it is the faith of all of these disciplines that they will not stay to find that they should not have stayed.
That faith has nothing to do with what is usually called optimism. As the traditional marriage ceremony insists, not everything that we stay to find out will make us happy. The faith, rather, is that by staying, and only by staying, we will learn something of the truth, that the truth is good to know, and that it is always both different and larger than we thought.

For more on St. Polycarp:

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