Near the end of June we celebrated the birth of St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Christ. It may seem odd at that particular time, but if we investigate closely, we would see that our liturgical calendar has this feast in its place to align with the celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25. The solemnity reminded us of the story of John that we know so well, especially that he prepared people for the coming of the Messiah and that he put himself aside to do it. The action of pointing others away from self and to Jesus is the very definition of humility. Yet, I suspect when most people imagine John they do not think of humility right away. In fact, with his yelling at the Pharisees and King Herod and with his insistence that everyone repent, we might picture him as wild-eyed and even a bit 'rabid.' That depiction could not be further from the truth since he was actually quite prayerful and was obedient to God in all he did. Once John baptized Jesus, he directed his closest followers to leave him and follow Jesus instead, and in that process he publicly stated, “He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30) John always knew that his life was not about himself, and so he freely gave everything to the service of Jesus. In love and with joy he embraced that call and therefore he revealed the path to holiness, a path which is true for each man or woman: if we want to be a follower of Jesus, we must lead by the way of humility.
If we want to imitate the saints, then, the one thing we absolutely must do is live a humble life. As we see in the life of John the Baptizer, being humble does not necessarily mean being quiet. In fact, sometimes it might require making a little noise. The ‘noise’ must never be about one’s own self, however: it must always point others to Jesus and to the way of the Gospel, particularly to mercy and justice offered through the lens of love. Recently, a saint who lived this way came to my attention. Most likely unknown by many, (except perhaps our friends from Scotland), I am referring to St. Kentigern, sometimes referred to as St. Mungo. In brief, Kentigern was born in Culross, Scotland in the 6th century, eventually leaving home to study with a holy hermit who became fond of him, nicknaming him Mungo, or “dear one,” (“Mwyn-gu” in the native tongue.) After his studies, Kentigern began his ministry, and after a number of years was made bishop, ministering to the community until his death in 603. *
Stories of St. Kentigern depict him as leading an austere life of humility, yet he seems to have been larger-than-life when it came to standing up for justice. One story tells of his defense of a local queen suspected of adultery by her husband, the king, who imprisoned her mercilessly and then tricked the suspected paramour into relinquishing a ring the king had given his wife, but which the suspect now wore. Upon obtaining the ring, the king threw it in the river. Apparently, the queen sent for Kentigern, who subsequently dispatched someone to the river to fish. The fisherman caught the fish that had swallowed the ring and Kentigern was then able to return it to the queen, thus forcing the king to release her from prison. The story seems a bit far-fetched, but the point of it is evident: it highlights Kentigern’s mercy and his desire for justice which freed the woman from the violent wrath of her husband. The king had been cruel because he never even bothered to find out why the man had her ring, (perhaps he had stolen it), but instead used his power to entrap the suspected paramour and to punish his wife. For standing up to those who perpetuate cruelty, Kentigern, or Mungo, earned a reputation as the patron of those who are bullied. He also founded a large church community, calling it “Clasgu,” (which translates to “dear family”), and it eventually grew into the city of Glasgow.
While many stories of the early saints contain hyperbole, (exaggeration) there is always a kernel of truth which is being highlighted. The use of hyperbole should not cause us to dismiss to the realm of falsehood all anecdotes that seem ‘over the top’. And we should not let these fantastic stories turn us off on the saints, either. Hyperbole does not render a story false; rather, we need to look into the heart of it, realizing that hyperbole was common to the people who received these narratives. We, on the other hand, are so wary of being lied to (and justifiably so) that if we sniff out anything which seems 'a bit too much to take,’ we dismiss it altogether. Indeed, we need to use the gift of discernment and a whole lot of common sense to know what is true and what is not, but we also must be sure to look for the truth which is within any exaggerated story, whether it is told in a gospel – Jesus employed hyperbole in some of his parables – or in reference to the life of a saint. For the faith community to have accepted a particular story tells us that they understood the truth within, and so we should trust that which has come down through the ages, too, distinguishing the message from the elements in which it is set.
All that being said, what we learn from St. Mungo is that he was deserving of the nickname given him. He was not only a ‘dear one’ to his teacher, but he saw everyone with whom he came into contact as a dear one, too. What he received, he gave. He received mercy and wisdom from God, and so he shared that mercy and wisdom with everyone from serfs to royalty. His ‘dear’ community thrived because his imitation of the gospel was obvious. His life was centered upon Jesus and not on himself. Kentigern lived the humility which was evident in John the Baptist because he was willing to make some noise in championing the cause of those who were mistreated and he stood up to those who bullied them so that justice would be done and mercy would be taught. He teaches us that the humble one is the holy one, and that humility and meekness are not about becoming a ‘shrinking violet’ that hides away, but rather that these virtues require courage and the ability to act.
St. John the Baptist and St. Mungo both teach that everyone is called to the level of spiritual heroism called holiness. If we attempt to live the gospels, we are to be seen and heard at appropriate times, but not so that the message or the focus is on ourselves. Rather, we are to do as Jesus did in standing up to those who bully while also reaching out a hand to the one who is victimized. Sometimes this means direct action, although for others it means to be of support through prayer and ‘behind the scenes’ work. Always it means living our lives with love, mercy, and in the truth of the gospel, even if we are not called (or are not able) to be an activist about anything. In living humbly we are activists because we call attention to the way of Christ which is about mercy and justice. If we can remember that Jesus must increase and we must decrease, and then act accordingly, we will be living humbly. Pointing others to Jesus is the greatest act of humility because it helps us to realize that we need to turn to Jesus at all times in this challenging world.
The lives of the saints teach us that no matter what we do, it must be done with love as our intention, and that even if our efforts seem fruitless or have come to ruin, we will have been true to our call. From St. Mungo we learn that all our brothers and sisters should be considered as dear ones, since this is how we are valued by God. Our community, the Body of Christ, would be deficient if we were to exclude any of those He considers dear simply because we are not up to the task of welcoming them. St. Mungo lived the humility of reaching out to holy ones and sinners alike, just as Jesus taught. Thus he challenges us to see each one as dear and to act accordingly, whether it is to challenge or to console, whether it is to work for justice with mercy, or whether it is to simply be as a friend. In all we do, we should strive to decrease so Jesus can increase so that His gospel message and His love might be evident to those who seek. This is our call to holiness, and it is what our world so desperately needs.
May we learn from the saints how to live the virtue of humility, decreasing so that Jesus may increase! May we call upon holy ones like St. Mungo to intercede for those who are weak and to help us stand against those who misuse power! May we call upon the Holy Spirit to empower us with the graces necessary that we might use our voices and direct our actions for justice with mercy! And may we be true to our call to treat others as dear ones, bringing them to the Lord who loves all His children with tenderness and care! Let us continue to meet in the merciful and just heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* For more details on the life of St. Mungo here are three sites you can check out:
Note: Next entry will be July 16.
1. This is a photo I took of the Jordan River as it looks today. This is said to be the spot where John baptized Jesus. It does not look as it did then, of course, mostly because the water has become murky due to farming run-off and that sort of thing.
2. This is a mosaic of St. Kentigern, known as St. Mungo, which comes from Glasgow, Scotland. I liked it because it has the symbols of the little verse which goes with the story told about the queen and her ring and a few of Mungo's other reported miracles.
3. This is a stained glass window from the Cathedral in Glasgow where the tomb of St. Mungo is located. (I did not take this photo; I have not yet been to Scotland.) I liked it because it shows the fisherman with the fish which had ingested the ring, mentioned in the text of this entry. Here is the link to the site where I found the image. https://www.window-clings.uk/LNCECShowProduct.cfm?Id=59
4. This is a painting called La route de Cailhau by Achille Laugé (1893). I chose it because the soft hues spoke to me of humility. However, there is a strength to the painting which comes from the image itself: the path is strong and defined, a reminder of how the way of humility gives strength, yet always points away from self. The image is painted from the viewer's vantage point, looking into the distance and hence, away from self.
5. This is John the Forerunner Also the Baptist, an icon written by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I want to point out that while he looks a bit rough, John is in prayer, and is filled with the Holy Spirit. He stands out, and will begin to shout out God's powerful message of repentance and salvation, which has become one with him. He directs us to Jesus always. You can find this icon at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/st-john-the-forerunner-also-the-baptist-082-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
6. This is one of my photos. If you are a movie lover, you will recognize it as the town square featured in the classic film Cinema Paradiso. The town is actually called Palazzo Adriano and it is in central Sicily. I chose to use it here because both in real life, as well as in the film, it is a humble town. I loved the imagery of the church bell tower and the church worship space located right behind the fountain. I did not realize the sacramental imagery of that till I posted the photo here. The waters remind me of Baptism and the church speaks of the community who are joined through that sacrament... a connection to John the Baptist, of course.
7. This is a painting called Uisken, Mull (1997) by a wonderful British artist, Nicholas Hely Hutchinson. It is a painting of a small town, Uisken, which is located on the Isle of Mull which is a large island to the west of the mainland of Scotland. I had to include some scene of Scotland, of course, but I chose this because I loved the humility of the place. The goats are roaming the street on the softly rolling hills, with the water and sky a peaceful vista below. This painting simply made me smile; it made me wonder who the dear ones are that reside in this place who are neighbors to one another and are beloved of God. You can find it at http://www.nicholashelyhutchinson.com/gallery/uisken-mull-1997/
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Heart Speaks to Heart