Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Walking with St. Ignatius of Antioch: A Man for Our Times


I sit at my favorite table in McDonalds, the only one with an outlet underneath it, uncomfortably positioned underneath a tv.  The decaf coffee, apple pie, and seven-month-old baby in my tummy make me feel as though my insides are on fire.  And my feet are even hotter, stuffed in sweat socks inside of fur-lined boots.  I might as well be sitting in the fire that I’m sitting beside.  I glance at the neatly bound course notes on my table, an extra copy from a class on the history of the Church that my husband had taught at our local Newman center a few years ago.  It’s open to the section on St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of our favorite saints.  I check to make sure the apple pie box is empty.  It is.  My coffee’s gone, too, and I begin to read about our courageous Early Church Father.

I learn that he’s a direct disciple of St. John the Apostle and the bishop of Antioch after St. Peter, serving as a crucial link between the Apostles and the Early Church.  Not much is known about his life, except that around 107 AD he was arrested in Antioch and taken by foot to the Coliseum in Rome to be fed to the lions.  At least they didn’t make him wear sweat socks and fuzzy boots.  And as he traveled through Asia Minor, he wrote seven letters to some of the Churches in that area (Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and Polycarp).

I am already so impressed that he is writing all these letters on his way to death and destruction.  I would be getting sick in the bushes and would be so cranky from the heat.

Ignatius, though, filled with the Holy Spirit, pours his heart out in these missives, highlighting three main themes: unity among believers, the importance of the bishop, and the reality of the True Presence.  Awesome.  I imagine him with his captors and wonder who was giving him the paper and pens.

To the Ephesians, Ignatius writes, “Therefore make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks [eucharistian] and glory to God.  For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith.” (Eph 13.1)

The election and our nation immediately come to mind, and I for an instant imagine all Catholics united in the practice of the faith, at Mass, praying for peace and for a return to natural law in our country.  Images of the U.S. embassy in Libya in flames flicker on the screen to my right.

On the importance of the bishop Ignatius writes, “For Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the mind of the Father, just as the bishops appointed throughout the world are in the mind of Christ.  Thus, it is proper for you to act together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing.  For your presbytery, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre…Let us, therefore, be careful not to oppose the bishop, in order that we may be obedient to God.” (Eph 4.1, 5.3)

Woowee—Ignatius just said that we ought to be as in communion with our bishop as Jesus is with His Father.  I imagine the reactions that would get in a Sunday homily.  I shift uncomfortably in my chair.

Next, on the Eucharist, written as early as 107 AD, Ignatius states in no uncertain terms the reality of the True Presence.  “I take no pleasure in corruptible food or the pleasures of this life,” Ignatius writes.  “I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ who is of the seed of David; and for drink I want his blood, which is incorruptible love.” (Rom 7.3)  

He wrote this in 107 AD!  He died for this in 107 AD!  I am again blown away by the great witness to faith that martyrdom is and I let my eyes fall on the door to the parking lot.  Could I ever be a martyr?

I am interrupted again by the burning sensation from my feet and a sudden desire for the Twix bar that my husband had purchased for me for my saint’s day (the feast of St. Margaret Mary).  Unlike Margaret Mary and Ignatius, I immediately give in to temptation, running out of McDonald’s to eat the candy bar in the dark, returning quickly to my laptop still open on the table.  I sit and read some more on Ignatius’s desire for martyrdom.

He writes, “May I have the pleasure of the wild beasts that have been prepared for me; and I pray that they prove to be prompt with me.  I will even coax them to devour me promptly…Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ!” (Rom 5)

I first think of my day at home with my three beloved but demanding little people and then decide that I’m being melodramatic.  I try for an instant to imagine what being eaten by a lion would feel like.  I picture huge teeth piercing my flesh and that’s enough.  I am humbled by his example and wonder what it would feel like to be so desperately in love with Jesus to willingly suffer that kind of cruelty.  I am suddenly aware of the table next to me and I look down quickly to hide my changing expressions.  I also want to cut off my feet, they’re so hot.

Giving Polycarp, his friend and fellow bishop, advice on how to persevere amidst the persecution, Ignatius writes, “Devote yourself to unceasing prayers; ask for greater understanding than you have.  Keep on alert with an unresting spirit.” (Polycarp 1)  I gaze into the McDonald’s fireplace and consider this savvy advice for us in our day, as confusion in the public sphere seems to grow daily.

I’m distracted for a moment by an interview on CNN with Mitt Romney’s sons—goodness, they look so much like him.  I want to watch but it’s too awkward to peer up at the screen right above my head.  I turn to the other screen and there’s a man under there, too, with his laptop, and it’s too awkward to watch his screen while he’s watching mine.  I turn again to the course reader.  I want to pull Ignatius off the page and stand him next to me.  I want to see what he’d do.  I hope he’d ask me to come along.  And maybe he’d even share his sandals with me.

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