Marie Monsen (1878-1962) is a name held in high honour among Christians in China, yet she is barely known in the West, even in her native Denmark.
In 1900, a nationalist uprising in China, the ‘Boxer Rebellion‘, had seen many foreign missionaries slaughtered. Suspicion and fear were everywhere. Even so, Monsen travelled alone to Henan province in September 1901, to work for the Lutheran China Mission Association. Soon after her arrival, a bad fall left her unconscious and concussed for a number of days. Then came bouts of malaria and doctors thought she would die, but God spared her for 31 years of fruitful service.
Two things marked out her ministry as different from most other missionaries. First, her devotional life. She had an uncanny sense that the Lord was directing her, speaking clearly in words that seemed almost audible. She sensed that God intended to move powerfully in China, and she prayed fervently for 20 years until it began – a revival that is still continuing and is being called ‘the biggest revival in history‘. In order to serve her Lord better, she remained a lifelong celibate. She also endured severe trials with fortitude and trust.
Then, courage. She was fearless, traveling hundreds of miles through bandit-infested territory to share the gospel. Once, the ship she was on was captured by pirates. She was no respecter of persons: she would tell church leaders to their face that they were hypocrites! A present-day house church leader writes: ‘She didn’t speak smooth words to impress the people. Instead, she brought fire from the altar of God.’ She took the emphasis off the human wisdom so prized by Chinese, and showed each person they were individually responsible before God for their own inner spiritual life. For this she was greatly loved, and church leaders saw her as ‘mother in Christ’.
Monsen was bold enough to say no to prospective baptism candidates on occasions. She discouraged ‘cultural’ emotion (Chinese weep easily). She cared nothing for numbers, but wanted to be sure each soul had left the way of destruction and truly encountered God. Don’t gather unripe fruit was a maxim of hers.
In his best-selling book The Heavenly Man, Brother Yun tells of how Chinese believers were incredulous to find that Marie Monsen’s grave in Denmark was unmarked. Here you can read what they did about it!
I have been considering gratitude. Living as I do in the UK, where it is almost expected to moan about almost everything, it can seem that gratitude has all but died – a quaint hangover from former, more stilted days.
It has been said that thanksgiving is a lens through which to view our entire lives. In a perceptive article, Michael Zigarelli calls gratitude “a parent virtue” from which others spring. He sees gratitude as a pathway to permanent change in the human heart.
King David in the book of Psalms often makes mention of ‘the sacrifice of praise’. This is usually interpreted as a public act of thanksgiving in the context of worship. To David, it is clearly a delight to offer such gratitude. By contrast, there is a sober reminder in the New Testament: Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. (Romans 1:18–21)
An old post on Christianblog.com, since taken down, made this useful point:
“The attitude of gratitude takes a conscious effort to master. Bombarded by negatives every day and surrounded by selfish people who are only looking out for themselves makes it extremely difficult to stay thankful. But, if the effort is made to always remain thankful no matter what the circumstances; the reward will be one of peace in the midst of the storm, joy in the midst of despair and a willingness to share of all one has.”
Here, David Burchett considers the correct response when our act of generosity towards someone is not received as rapturously as we would secretly like and expect.
Going back in time (hey, this is a history blog!), I am also reminded of this section from the “Long Rule (alternatively “Detailed Rule”) for Monks, by Basil of Caesarea († 379).
“What words can adequately describe God’s gifts? They are so numerous that they defy enumeration. They are so great that any one of them demands our total gratitude in response.
[Basil lists the beauty of creation, God’s constant provision, His merciful care, redemption through the cross, release from the slavery of sin, and adoption into God’s family for eternity.]
“How, then, shall we repay the Lord for all his goodness to us? He is so good that He asks no recompense except our love: that is the only payment he desires. To confess my personal feelings, when I reflect on all these blessings I am overcome by a kind of dread and numbness at the very possibility of ceasing to love God and of bringing shame upon Christ because of my lack of recollection and my preoccupation with trivialities.”
Basil of Caesarea (330-379) was a highly influential leader in the Early Church, who laboured and wrote extensively for the rights of the poor. His stance on wealth and poverty is blunt and uncompromising. It is also very relevant to today, where consumerism has achieved almost god-like status.
This piece shows that Basil was also a keen and unflinching observer of human nature – and human excuses. The writer identifies ‘the human tendency to adjust the definition of “need” to fit one’s current level of income.’
Basil was on to this 1600 years ago. His homily (practical sermon) on the man in Jesus’ parable, I Will Tear Down My Barns [and Build Bigger Ones], treats the barns not so much as symbols of wealth but rather as representing our definition of needs based on our circumstances.
‘In effect’, continues the article, ‘Basil says that if we never have any extra to share, this is due to the fact that whenever we find ourselves in possession of a surplus, we immediately adjust our definition of need to fit the new situation.’
(You say) “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again?
In his sermon “To the Rich”, Basil sees this as a form of madness. “Those who have acquired wealth and have great possessions, desire more of the same, nursing the sickness by perpetual accumulation. Having so much here and now fails to bring them happiness, since they grieve over what they don’t have, and convince themselves they’re lacking. ‘We’re poor!’, they say. And it’s true, because a poor person lacks much, and much are you lacking because of your insatiable desires! What was it that killed Naboth? [1 Kings 21] Was it not King Ahab’s greed for his vineyard?”
And so, Basil concludes, you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them – which applies to any level on the scale of wealth.
The issue of varying levels of need came particularly to a head in the monasteries. After all, if you live together, perceived inequality can be a death-knell. So Benedict of Nursia (480-c.545) had to address the matter in his Rule (which still governs Benedictine houses today, 1500 years later). He does so with great wisdom, rooted in scriptural principles, in Chapter 34:
“Whether All Should Receive in Equal Measure What Is Necessary: It is written, “Distribution was made to everyone according as he had need” (Acts 4:35). We do not say by this that respect should be had for persons (God forbid), but regard for infirmities. Let him who hath need of less thank God and not give way to sadness, but let him who hath need of more, humble himself for his infirmity, and not be elated for the indulgence shown him; and thus all the members will be at peace.
Above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear in the least word or sign for any reason whatever. If anyone be found guilty herein, let him be placed under severe discipline.”
I get the feeling that if this sentiment was more universally accepted and applied, a good measure of stress could be removed from our lives today.
Count Gerald of Aurillac [pronounced ‘Oriac’] (855–909) was a remarkable man: an aristocratic warrior, a celibate and a devoted, self-denying disciple of Jesus. He inherited large estates in the Auvergne region of central France. He was trained as a soldier and given the best education. Expectations were high. Yet Gerald wanted to give it all up and be a monk! His friend, bishop Geusbert of Rodez, advised him not to: he could better use his status and gifts by doing good in secular life.
So Gerald lived as much like a monk as he could without actually becoming one. He chose not to marry but to stay celibate; in fact, his family line died out with him. Under his hat, the crown of his head was shaved like a monk’s. His biographer records that he surrounded himself with people of good character and morals, refusing all who simply wanted to curry the favour of a powerful man.
As a secular overlord, Gerald had military responsibilities. He was determined in his conscience never to shed blood himself, however, so he and his bodyguards fought with the flats of their swords and the butts of their spears – to show that it was God alone who gave them victory. In private, Gerald made no show of his great physical strength, choosing rather to enjoy conversation and the improvement of his mind through study.
He fasted often to concentrate his mind while performing his duties as landlord and judge. Even when hosting the feasts required by his status, he ate and drank sparingly. He shared food with the poor, dressed soberly, and used his family’s wealth to found new monasteries. He commissioned a church to be built on his estate, which in time became a Benedictine abbey. Gerald placed himself in submission to the abbot.
He embraced this rigorous self-control because he wanted above all to serve God more effectively. Without the inbuilt restraint of monastery walls and routines, Gerald knew he had the harder task of being disciplined himself.
Gerald suffered from a skin complaint and in later years went blind. He was cared for by the monks whose life he had so diligently ‘shadowed’. When he died, he was buried in the church he had founded. A lifelong celibate, he is celebrated in the Roman Catholic church today as the patron saint of bachelors!