Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Blessed Niels Stensen - A Tireless Pilgrim

God is wise in heart and mighty in strength…
He alone stretches out the heavens
And treads upon the crests of the sea.
He made the Bear and Orion,
The Pleiades and the constellations of the south;
He does great things past finding out,
Marvelous things beyond reckoning.
—Job 9:4a, 8-10

Although “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go,” we are still only in the first week of Advent and the Christmas season is weeks away.

As the Church reminds us in the readings and prayers of this season, these dark, winter days of Advent are a time of hope and expectation: “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming… may he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:35a, 36-37). 

Our Advent waiting isn’t only focused on passively remembering the birth of Jesus that took place centuries ago. While Christmas is a beautiful and beloved time to remember and celebrate Jesus’ birth, it is also a celebration of the mysterious ways that Christ comes in and for each of us right now! The mystery of the Incarnation—the Word becoming flesh—isn’t something that only happened once two thousand years ago. The Incarnation is the name we give to the mysterious way in which the Word of God entered into and transformed humanity, and God isn’t finished yet: “We come to Christmas looking for the signs of Jesus’ presence manifested in our own life and age, in us and in the world around us… Christmas is a very adult feast. It stretches us far beyond a manger in Bethlehem. It brings us to recognize who it is that we, like the people of Jesus’ own time, will, in everything we do in life this year, either accept or reject” (Joan Chittister, O.S.B., in The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life). This is the meaning of Christmas and because of the indwelling of Emmanuel—God with Us—all creation has been renewed and redeemed.

The Creation of the Animals
by Raphael in the Palazzi Pontifici, 1518-1519

This belief in the holiness of the created world which bears the fingerprints of God, has inspired reflection and study by countless people of faith through the centuries. This is what Saint John Paul II was thinking of when he wrote, “Although God ‘dwells in unapproachable light, (1 Timothy 6:16) He speaks to man by means of the whole of the universe: ‘ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1:20)” (Dives in Misericordia, 2). And so, we might think of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian friar who is the founder of the science of genetics, or of Bl. Francis Faá di Bruno, a priest and mathematician, who is credited with the chain rule of higher derivatives used in calculus. A more recent example is Monsignor Georges Lemaître, the priest, astronomer, and physicist, who first proposed what we now call the “Big Bang Theory.” (We could, of course, name many, many others, representing all expressions of Christianity.) These scientists didn’t make the distinction between religion and science that so many people make today. They celebrated God in their theories and in the workings of the Universe. In 1988, Saint John Paul II beatified another of these important scientists: Niels Stensen.

Niels Stensen (who is sometimes known as Nicolas Steno) was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1638. Raised as a devout Lutheran, he became a doctor of medicine and was a pioneer in the fields of anatomy, physiology, and even paleontology. To him are also attributed scientific theories that are now fundamental precepts in the study of geology. His contributions in the field of medicine include discoveries about the operation of the heart and the glandular system; even today, the parotid duct is commonly known as the “Stensen duct.”
In 1667, while working in a hospital in Florence, Niels’ studies led him to the Catholic Church. Upon his return to Denmark, he lost his teaching position at the exclusively Lutheran University of Copenhagen, although he retained his appointment as “Royal Anatomist.” Stensen was ordained a priest in 1675. In 1677, the pope named him Vicar Apostolic for the Nordic Missions, serving as a sort of missionary bishop for the remnant Catholic community in predominantly Protestant lands; he was later named auxiliary bishop of Münster. As bishop, he was especially remembered for his charity, including selling his episcopal cross and ring for the sake of the poor. After years of ministry and continuing research, Niels Stensen died in 1686 and was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence. The Church celebrates his memory on December 5, the anniversary of his death.

Although Blessed Niels Stensen might not be an obvious Advent “saint,” his whole life was “a tireless pilgrimage in search of the truth, both scientific and religious, in the conviction that every discovery—even the modest—is a step towards the absolute truth, to the God upon whom the entire universe depends” (John Paul II, Homily at the Beatification of Niels Stensen). Saints and scientists - like Blessed Niels - remind us that our spiritual lives are a gradually unfolding process of discovery and exploration. The beauty in this is that, as we move through the process, we are always being enriched by our ever-deepening knowledge of the God who loves us so much. And this journey of discovery—which is like our Advent watching and attentiveness—is also how we are able to recognize the coming of Emmanuel—God Always With Us.

Thought for the week: “As Christians, baptized perhaps when very young, are you ready to strive for an ever deeper and more mature faith, which might even lead to a radical change of life, as Blessed Niels Stensen experienced in his conversion, in his ordination as priest and bishop, in abandoning his scientific activities for the sake of the kingdom of God?”—Saint John Paul II


A Prayer in Honor of Blessed Niels Stensen +
God of grace and glory,
you create and sustain the universe in majesty and beauty:
We thank you for Blessed Niels Stensen
in whom you planted the desire to know your creation
and to explore your work and wisdom.
Lead us, like him,
to understand better the wonder and mystery of creation;
Through Christ your eternal Word,
through whom all things were made. Amen.
(from Holy Women, Holy Men)
This reflection was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and will be published on their site later this week.

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