Archive for April, 2009

St Stephen Harding

High altar in the Church of St. Stephen Harding in Apátistvánfalva, Hungary.

High altar in the Church of St. Stephen Harding in Apátistvánfalva, Hungary.


In the latter half of the eleventh century, when Stephen was still a child, his parents presented him to Sherborne Abbey in Dorset as an oblate. He received a monastic education, but, frustrated at the restrictions inherent in monastic life, decided to leave the abbey and see the world, traveling first to Scotland and then to Paris as a wandering scholar (this, of course, was an age of wandering scholars).

Stephen’s dissatisfaction with monasticism at Sherborne did nothing to weaken his Christian devotion, and, nourished on the Psalms (which were for him the root and source of all his spiritual life), he began – perhaps unusually for a wandering scholar – to experience a desire not for a less restrictive kind of monasticism, but for a Benedictine monastery where the Rule was observed with full strictness and austerity.


He appeared to have discovered just such a monastery when he happened upon a community living in the forest of Langres in Burgundy under the abbot St Robert of Molesmes, where long hours of prayer and hard manual labour underpinned a rigorous interpretation of St Benedict’s Rule.

The Bishop of Troyes, however, was hostile towards this reformed kind of Benedictinism, and took it upon himself to burden the community with property in the hope that this would have the effect of mitigating the zeal and austerity of the monks.

stephenharding21His plan was so successful that, appalled at the descent into mediocrity and indiscipline, St Robert decided to leave, being followed by St Stephen and St Alberic (both of whom succeeded him briefly as abbot).


The Bishop of Troyes ordered them to return, but, increasingly disillusioned with lax spirit which the bishop had engendered within the monastery, the fled the region and took refuge in Lyons under the Archbishop Hugh, who happened to be the papal legate.

Thanks to Hugh’s support, Robert, Stephen and Alberic were permitted to start a new, stricter religious order modeled on the original spirit of the monastery from which they had come, and the new monastery of Cîteaux opened in 1098 with Robert as abbot, Alberic as prior and Stephen as subprior, though Robert was later ordered by Pope Urban II to return to Molesmes for the purpose of extending the reform movement.

Alberic succeeded Robert as Abbot of Cîteaux, and, after his death in 1109, was in turn succeeded by Stephen. Stephen was determined to move the new Cistercian order in the direction of a commitment to radical poverty, and cut Cîteaux off from the usual sources of feudal income on which monasteries normally depended.

Due to a chronic lack of vocations, the new venture made little headway, and it was only Stephen’s unshakeable trust in divine providence that kept Cîteaux going. However, almost miraculously, in 1112 a group of thirty men, led by the future St Bernard of Clairvaux, appeared out of the forests which surrounded Cîteaux and entered the monastery as novices.

stephenharding11The Cistercian movement now exploded into life, expanding to around ninety monasteries by the time of Stephen’s death in 1134.


In 1119 Stephen framed the new Cistercian constitution, the “Charter of Charity”, which emphasized those principles of the reformed monasticism – radical poverty, solitary silence, hard manual labour, economic self-sufficiency, and a spirit of austere (even severe) liturgical simplicity – which set the Cistercian charism apart from that of less observant Benedictine houses.

Stephen’s dying words were: “I am going to God as I had never done any good. If I have done some good, it was through the help of the grace of God. But perhaps I have received this grace unworthily, without turning it sufficiently to account”.

In fact, he had turned the grace of God to very good account. Having co-founded a reform-movement within Benedictinism, he went on to shape and preside over a monastic renaissance which did much to transform the spiritual, intellectual and economic landscape of mediaeval Europe.

Most images of Stephen including some of those reproduced here, depict him as an abbot presenting his church to the Virgin Mary. In this images he is invariable the figure at the left of the painting or icon.



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St Wilfrid of Hexham


wilfrid6Born in Northumbria from a noble family around 633AD, the young Wilfrid entered the court of King Oswiu, where he found an enthusiastic patroness in the person of Queen Eanflæd. Eanflæd arranged for Wildred to study in the monastery of Lindisfarne, where he is supposed to have learned the entire Psalter by heart.

Armed with a letter of introduction from Eanflæd, he spent some time at the Kentish court in Canterbury, where he encountered the missionary Benedict Biscop (once again through Eanflæd’s good offices) with whom he traveled to Rome (between 653 and 658), becoming an enthusiast for all things Roman, including the practice of collecting relics.

He then spent some time in Gaul where he (probably) became a monk and where he developed a strong admiration for the Frankish church – especially with regards to its monasticism. Many of the monasteries had been founded by St Columbanus and followed a form of the Rule of St Benedict, and this experience of Benedictine monasticism seems to have been the inspiration for much of Wilfrid’s subsequent mission.

Back in Northumbria, he was given the monastery of Ripon by Alhfrith, the son of Oswiu, and, fired with enthusiasm for Roman customs and for a Benedictine style of monasticism, he dismissed those monks (including St Cuthbert) who were unwilling to adapt to Wilfrid’s way of doing things.

The Life of Wilfrid portrays him as the man who introduced Benedictine monasticism into England. It might be more accurate to say that he introduced a more (Frankish) Benedictine style of monasticism into England, but that Benedictine monasticism in the fullest sense was introduced in the 10th Century by St Dunstan.

wilfrid4At the Synod of Whitby in 664 Wilfrid argued passionately and forcefully on behalf of Roman church practices (particularly with regard to the calculation of the date of Easter) over against Celtic (i.e. Irish) practices. Eanflæd and her son Alhfrith both observed the Roman date of Easter, but much of the Northumbrian church was Celtic in observance (with the result that at time parts of the royal court would be fasting for Lent while others would be feasting for Easter). The Synod decided in favour of the Roman observance, though it would be another forty or fifty years before the Celtic churches and monasteries adopted the Roman date of Easter.

Elected to a bishopric in Northumbria (the exact location is unclear), Wilfrid went to Compiègne to be consecrated by Agilbert, bishop of Paris (he took a dim view of his fellow Anglo-Saxon bishops, none of whom he regarded as validly consecrated). On returning to England he found himself the victim of Northumbrian politics and was unable to take up his see. 

From 665 to 668 he contented himself with ruling his monastery at Ripon, performing episcopal functions in Mercia (where he founded a number of monasteries) and Kent but never in Northumbria. Finally installed in York in 669, Wilfrid spent the best part of a decade building churches and running the monasteries at Ripon and Hexham.

In around 677 Wilfrid fell out with King Ecgfrith (he had helped Ecgfrith’s wife Æthelthryth to enter a nunnery, and his new queen sought the return of the lands give by Æthelthryth to Wilfrid) and was expelled from his see, losing control of his two Northumbrian monasteries at the same time.

wilfrid3At this point Theodore of Canterbury pressed forward with his plan for dividing up Wilfrid’s diocese, creating seats at York, Hexham, Lindisfarne and Lindsey. Wilfrid regarded the three new bishops – Celts who rejected the Roman dating of Easter – as not properly Catholic.

Wilfrid, inspired by the Frankish tradition of episcopal grandeur, believed that the division of England into just two metropolitan sees (now opposed by Theodore) served to emphasize the importance of the bishop (his concern with this was a matter of theological conviction rather than personal pride).

Indeed, Wilfrid’s habit of traveling around the country on horseback with a large retinue – much commented upon by critics who compare him unfavourably with the unassuming style of Celtic missionary-bishops – was likewise a question of making a theological and ecclesiological point about the hierarchical and sacramental dignity of the bishop.

Wilfrid went to Rome to appeal (more or less successfully) to the Pope, but on his return to England found himself exiled from Northumbria. He spent five years in Sussex converting the South Saxon pagans (ending a drought and teaching them how to fish proves a highly successful evangelistic tool), during which time he reconciled with Theodore.

In 686 Wilfrid returned to Northumbria (the death of Ecgfrith had changed the political situation), and occupied a reduced diocese of York. Further jurisdictional disputes under the new king Aldfrith resulted in his leaving Northumbria for Mercia, where he acted as bishop of Leicester until around 706.

He continued to appeal to Rome over his expulsion from York, but his political and ecclesiastical enemies conspired to secure his excommunication. Happily, the accession of Osred to the Northumbrian throne changed the political landscape, which saw John of Beverley transferred from Hexham to York and Wilfrid taking over at Hexham.wilfrid2

Wilfrid’s constant appeals to Rome have been criticised by historians as indicative of a litigious spirit and of a distinctly worldy personal ambition, but, if truth be told, what was at stake (at least from Wilfrid’s perspective) was nothing other than the Roman order and character of the Anglo-Saxon Church, together with an orthodox understanding of the rôle of the bishop.

Eventually he retired to his monastery in Ripon, dying at Oundle in Northamptonshire in 709 or 710, leaving behind him an impressive legacy of monastic foundations and church buildings – all built in a continental style designed to emphasize that, culturally and theologically, the Anglo-Saxon Church was truly “Roman”, with all that that implied.

Utilizing stones from Hadrian’s Wall, Wilfrid’s church at Hexham was the largest (outside Italy) in Western Europe – it seems to have been an aisled basilica built in the Roman style and equipped with a crypt modeled on the Roman catacombs – and could accommodate 2000 worshippers.

wilfrid1As with other churches built by Wilfrid in Northumbria, glass-makers and other craftsmen were brought in from the continent, enabling Wilfrid to make a bold ecclesiological statement – namely, that the English Church was no longer isolated, parochial and Celtic-British, but that it was, in every sense, fully Roman, fully part of the Universal Church, and fully integrated into Western Christendom.

Indeed, Wilfrid’s “faults” – his much-criticised love of magnificent consecrations, Italian-style churches, episcopal grandeur, and the exercise of artistic and political patronage – were not so much defects of character as reflections of his commitment to the Romanitas (albeit filtered through a Frankish lens) of the English church, and of his passionately-held belief that liturgy, churches and the very persons of bishops should inspire in the faithful an awed sense of the God who had graciously bestowed such gloriously visible signs of his presence in their midst.

Moreover, at a personal level, Wilfrid was a true ascetic, who, like other ascetics of the age, appears (judging by the account of his biographer Eddius) to have interpreted his vocation in terms of the Old Testament prophets and desert fathers, and to have been a man of such intense prayer that, praying in a darkened dungeon, he literally shone (like Symeon the New Theologian and others of the hesychast tradition) with the divine light.

See also Fr Brown’s post at Forest Murmurs.

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St Magnus of Orkney

Earl Magnus Erlendsson of Orkney ruled between 1108 and c. 1115, his life-story being well-attested (albeit in documents that come under the heading of Norse sagas rather than biographical histories in the modern sense) in the Shorter and Longer Magnus’ Saga and in the Legend of St Magnus.

In order to understand the story of Magnus, we need to know something of his immediate genealogy. Magnus’s grandparents on one side were Earl Thorfinn and Ingiborg Finnsdottir (whose father was related to Kings Olav II and Harald II of Norway) who gave birth to twin sons, Erlend and Paul.

Remains of St Magnus, uncovered in St Magnus Cathedral in 1919

Remains of St Magnus, uncovered in St Magnus Cathedral in 1919

One of these sons, Erlend Thorfinnsson became Earl of Orkney, and in 1075 he gave birth to Magnus. Magnus served King Magnus III of Norway, who in 1098 deposed Erlend (young Magnus’s father) and Paul (his brother) when taking possessing of the Orkney Islands.

However, Paul’s son (and Magnus’s cousin), Haakon Paulsson, was appointed to act as regent on behalf of Sigurd, a Prince of Norway, and Haakon was created an earl in 1105.

Magnus Erlendsson, meanwhile, was struggling to strike the right balance between the political and military expectations which attended on in his circumstances with his burgeoning Christian piety. On one occasion (in 1098) Magnus sailed with Haakon and the wonderfully named King Magnus Barelegs to pillage (with all that that involved) the islands off the west coast of Scotland, including: Lewis, Uist, Skye, Tiree and Mull.

The party then decided to sail down the west coast of Britain and raid Wales, but Magnus Erlendsson, who seems to have had friends in Wales, proclaimed “I have no quarrel with any man here”, and, refusing to participate in the Welsh raid, remained on deck praying the Psalms in a very loud voice.

His fellow Vikings perceived this is both cowardly and treacherous, and, while the ship was at anchor, Magnus prudently made his way to shore and went into hiding, eventually taking refuge in the courts of King Malcolm and Queen Margaret of Scotland, where the Catholic faith was not only tolerated but positively nurtured.

When Haakon Paulsson became Sigurd’s regent in 1005, Magnus Erlendsson, motivated either by duty or by ambition (or, more likely, by a combination of the two), returned to Orkney with a view to disputing the succession. He was assisted in this by King Eystein II of Norway who established him as Earl of Orkney and arranged for him to rule jointly with Haakon.

This arrangement was initially successful, but, inevitably, the rivalry between the two factions grew more and more divisive, and a Thing (assembly) was organized in order to resolve the escalating dispute. It was agreed that the two Earls should bring two ships to the isle of Egilsay and there make peace, but the duplicitous Haakon arrived with eight ships and took Magnus captive.

Magnus volunteered to accept either prison or exile, but the chieftains, probably calculating that, even if one of them were exiled, the existence of two earls was always going to by a catalyst for political machinations and even civil war, decreed that one or other of the earls should die.

Haakon deputed his standard-bearer, Ofeigr, to execute Magnus, but Ofeigr was so appalled at what was happening that he refused, so the task eventually fell to a certain Lifolf, who was, in effect, Haakon’s personal chef. Praying for his executioners, Magnus was killed by a blow to the head with an axe shortly after Easter on April 16th, and was buried at the place of his execution – a rocky landscape which, after his burial, was miraculously transformed into a green pasture.

St Magnus Cathedral today

St Magnus Cathedral today

He was subsequently re-buried in a Church at Birsay (on the north west of the Orkney mainland), and a cultus soon developed, accompanied my numerous manifestations of the miraculous. When the Bishop of Orkney, William the Old, who regarded aspects of thr new cultus as frankly heretical, condemned the stories of miraculous cures which were growing up around the shrine, he was himself struck blind, before receiving a miraculous cure of his own after praying at Magnus’s tomb.

Rognvald Kali Kolsson, who was a nephew of Magnus, determined to honour his uncle by building a stone minster at Kirkwall (now St Magnus Cathedral), and the relics of St Magnus were transferred there in 1137.

Magnus has often been venerated as a martyr, even though he died because of local politics (and family feuding) rather than for his faith. In truth, his sanctity consists in the fact that, in the midst of all the casual cruelty of the Dark Age Viking world, he bore witness in his own life to the higher ideals of Christian piety and nobility – a light in the darkness shining even at this most wild and distant edge of Christendom.

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Bl Clare Gambacorta

Blessed Clare Gambacorta (born Victoria, and also known, confusingly, as Bl Theodora or Thora of Pisa) was born in 1362 – probably in Venice, where her family (the most important in Pisa) were in political exile. When the young Victoria was aged 7, altered circumstances in the politics of Pisa made it possible for the Gambacorta family to return to their native city, where her father, Peter, was duly instituted chief magistrate.

St Catherine of Siena (by Carlo Dolci)

St Catherine of Siena (by Carlo Dolci)

 Victoria was a devout child, but, being attractive and of good family, was inevitably destined for a politically and socially advantageous marriage. Accepting Peter Gambacorta’s will in this regard, she became (aged 13) a loving and attentive wife. Shortly after Victoria’s marriage, St Catherine of Siena visited Peter in order to discuss politics with Peter, and Catherine met Victoria, offering her advice and encouragement in her endeavours to be both a good Christian and a good wife.

 Tragically, Victoria’s husband succumbed to the plague after fewer than three years of life, and, though she had been perfectly happy as a bride, she was reluctant to marry a second time. Catherine wrote to Victoria (now aged 15, exhorting her to “Strip yourself of self. Love God with a free and loyal love”. Aware that Peter was negotiating another marriage contract on her behalf, Victoria fled the family home, finding refuge with the Poor Clares where she took the name Sister Clare.

In a move reminiscent of the kidnapping of St Thomas Aquinas by his family when he ran away to join the Dominicans, Clare’s brother removed from the convent and returned her to her home were she was kept locked in a dark room, isolated from friends and from the sacramental life of the Church, though, in the authentic spirit of St Francis and St Clare, she did succeed in smuggling jewels out to her friends so that they could be sold to raise money for the poor.

She may have been assisted in this by her sympathetic mother, who once smuggled her out to Mass when her father and brothers were away. Her much less sympathetic father invited a visiting Spanish bishop to talk her round to the family’s way of thinking, but the bishop in question had previously been confessor to St Bridget of Sweden, and, far from persuading Clare to abandon her plans for a religious vocation, he laid the ground for a conversion of heart on the part of the entire Gambacorta family.

Clare did not return to the Poor Clares, however, but, inspired by her earlier encounter with Catherine of Siena, entered a Dominican convent. The local Dominican convent was weak in observance, and, like so may others at the time, did not practise the common life in the way intended by it founder, and Clare, who favoured a stricter and more rigorous interpretation of Dominican life, arranged, with the assistance of her stepmother, for a new convent to be built for her.

Dominican coat of arms

Dominican coat of arms

The constitutions of the new convent (whose members also included Bl Mary Mancini), imposed a strict canonical cloister on the nuns, and all men (apart from the bishop and the Dominican Master General) were forbidden to enter its walls. By a bitter irony, Peter Gambacorta was killed by a mob (Pisan politics having once more turned against him) in the street outside the convent, together with one of his sons. Another son was wounded, and pleaded to be given sanctuary in the convent. Clare felt she had no choice but to refuse to open the door, and her brother was slain by the mob.

When Clare appeared to be dying, she asked for some food to be sent to her from the table of her father’s murderer, and the man’s wife duly obliged. Clare was healed of her illness, the murderer was himself killed, and his wife (now his widow) and daughters were afforded sanctuary in the convent (so that the bitter irony of earlier events found resolution in a certain kind of poetic bit entirely charitable justice). When death finally came to Clare in 1419, her burial-place was immediately associated with miracles, and a local cult grew up rapidly, as did the legend that, whenever a sister of the community is on the verge of death, Clare’s bones will rattle in her coffin. .

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St Paulinus of York


St Paulinus of York

St Paulinus of York

In 601, Pope St Gregory the Great sent a group of missionaries to England – a second wave, following on from the initial mission led by St Augustine of Canterbury – with a view to converting the Anglo-Saxons. One member of this second wave of missionaries was Paulinus, and Italian monk. 

Paulinus and the others arrived in Kent (on the south east coast of England) in 604, and stayed there until 625 when, having been consecrated a bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was chosen to accompany Æthelburg, the sister of King Eadbald of Kent, on her journey to Northumbria where she was due to marry King Edwin. (There is a divergence of views as to the precise chronology; it is possible that Æthelburg and Paulinus traveled north in 624, and that Paulinus subsequently returned south for a short time in order to be consecrated.)

It had already been agreed that King Edwin had promised that he would extend full religious freedom to Æthelburg, but Paulinus was intent on secuing not just the limited goal of tolerance for the Christian queen and her retinue  to remain a Christian and worship as she chose, but the far greater prize of the conversion of pagan Northumbria.

As related by Bede, Edwin’s conversion hinged on the fact that the birth of his daughter at Easter 626 (which Paulinus attributed to his own intercession) coincided with failed assassination attempt by an agent of Cwichelm of Wessex. Edwin decided to permit the baptism of his daughter Eanflæd, and promised to convert to Christianity if his forthcoming campaign against Cwichelm were a success.

Even after his victory over the West Saxons, Edwin held back from converting, and Bede recounts that his final decision to embrace Christianity came after Paulinus revealed and interpreted to him (Edwin) a dream that he had had while in exile at the court of King Rædwald of East Anglia.

However, Paulinus was certainly not the only factor in Edwin’s conversion, and probably not even the principal one. Pope Boniface V wrote to Edwin (as he wrote to other rulers), urging him to embrace Christianity. The influence of Æthelburg, Edwin’s queen, was probably even more significant.

Though one of the premier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Kent stood very much within the Frankish milieu, and the Franks were as keen to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity as was Rome. Bede emphasizes the part played by the Roman Paulinus because he wishes to portray the conversion of England as an essentially Roman achievement (which in many ways it was), but the truth is that the half-Merovingian Æthelburg probably had far more influence over Edwin than did Paulinus.

Imaginary depiction of St Edwin of Northumbria from John Speeds’s “Saxon Heptarchy” (1611).

Imaginary depiction of St Edwin of Northumbria from John Speeds’ “Saxon Heptarchy” (1611).

In any case, what finally tipped the balance for Edwin was, in all probability, the evidence that adherence to the Christian God was a good way of securing military victory, and that his own conversion and that of his kingdom would secure his imperium (as Bede calls it). Mutatis mutandis, similar arguments had carried weight with the Emperor Constantine, and would in the future carry weight with Charlemagne. 

Edwin and his chief men were baptized on 12 April 627. Edwin now ruled Northumbria, most of eastern Mercia, Anglesey and the Isle of Man, while his ongoing alliance with Kent meant that Wessex was effectively subjected to him. In the eyes of the men of Northumbrian, the extent of Edwin’s overlordship was, at least in part, directly attributable to his rejection of paganism and his adoption of Christianity.

Around 633/634, Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Wales rose up against Edwin and defeated him at the Battle of Hatfield Chase. With Edwin dead (he was later canonized), Æthelburg and her family fled to Kent together with Paulinus. Just as Edwin’s victory over the pagan Cwichelm had appeared to be a demonstration of the power – and hence the truth – of the Christian God, so also his defeat at the hands of the pagan Penda seemed to prove the opposite. The Northumbrian nobles duly abandoned Christianity, and Northumbria was plunged back into the darkness of paganism. 

The contribution of Paulinus to the fate of Northumbrian Christianity may even have been a negative one, for his expulsion of native British clergy from parts of Northumbria stirred up resentments which were magnified after the fall of Edwin. There were very few Roman clergy in Northumbria under Edwin, and the Northumbrian conversion may have been confined largely to the royal court – testimony, one might argue, to the failure of Paulinus to secure a deeper and broader Christianization of the kingdom.

English kingdoms at the time of Paulinus and Edwin

English kingdoms at the time of Paulinus and Edwin

Paulinus now remained in Kent with Æthelburg and her daughter Eanflæd, and became Bishop of Rochester – a position which he occupied at the time of his death in 644. Shrines sprung up in Rochester and Canterbury, and he was soon regarded as a saint.

At the ecclesio-poilitical level, Paulinus was in many ways a failure. The success of the conversion of Northumbria – such as it was – was more due to Æthelburg than it was to Paulinus, while the superficial and impermanent nature of the evangelization of the north may have been partly attributable to Paulinus’s methods.

Clearly, though, his exercise of his pastoral office in Rochester left an abiding impression not only in Rochester itself but throughout the Kentish kingdom. He may have been a failure as a missionary, but, as bishop, pastor, spiritual adviser to Æthelburg and other Kentish royalty, man of prayer and worker of miracles, he clearly inspired enormous affection among the people of Kent, and, after his earlier disappointments, he discovered (and followed with heroic sanctity) his true vocation as an apostle to the Anglo-Saxons.


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St Godric of Finchale


Tomb of St Godric, Finchale

Tomb of St Godric, Finchale

Godric was born at Walpole in Norfolk (England) around the year 1065. He was a peddler of some sort – a traveling salesman, indeed – whose wanderings led him to sea for a period of around sixteen years, during which time he became a part-owner of a number of vessels, one of which he went on to captain. There is, in fact, some indication that he may have been operating more or less as a pirate, and that his lifestyle was as far removed from the ways of Christian living as that of pirates generally is.

Godric’s maritime exploits brought him to the island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast, and here he became acquainted with tales of St Cuthbert, Lindisfarne’s greatest saint. Godric’s life was transformed by his encounter with Cuthbert (who, even centuries after his death, must have remained an almost tangible presence on Lindisfarne), and he experienced a profound conversion.

Ever the seafarer, his conversion of heart manifested itself in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the early Middles Ages as in Late Antiquity, the idea of pilgrimage exercised a powerful hold over the imaginations of the holy, symbolizing as it did both the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert as they passed from Egypt to the Promised Land, and the wanderings of Christians exiled by sin from Paradise and living in this world as “strangers and pilgrims” en route to the New Jerusalem. Christ himself, who had “nowhere to lay his head”, was essentially a pilgrim, and pilgrimage was understood as a way of conforming oneself with Christ and of following in his footsteps.




This last aspect of following in Christ’s footsteps was one which Godric interpreted with a certain literalness. While in Jerusalem he visited the river Jordan, and, contemplating his own feet, vowed: “Lord, for love of your name, who for men’s salvation walked barefoot through the world, and did not deny to have your naked feet struck through with nails for me; from this day I shall put no shoes upon these feet”. Godric always remained faithful to this vow – even in old age (he lived to be around 100) amid the biting winters of the North East of England.

Further pilgrimages took him to Santiago de Compostella, the shrine of Saint Giles in Provence, to Rome, to Cumberland in North West England (where he obtained a copy of the Psalms which was to provide the material and inspiration for his life of prayer and contemplation), and back to Jerusalem, where he spent time working in a hospital and living with the hermits of Saint John the Baptist and worked in a hospital for several months.

Cuthbert remained his inspiration, however, and it was a vision of Cuthbert in which the saint promised him a hermitage in England that promoted him to return to the land of his birth – this time to Durham, where Cuthbert lay buried – and eventually became a hermit in the forest around Finchale (just outside Durham) in the hunting grounds of the rather disreputable Bishop Ranulf Flambard (the first man to escape from the Tower of London).

Ruins of Priory Church, Finchale

Ruins of Priory Church, Finchale

Godric embarked upon a life of austerity and mortification, wearing a hair shirt under a metal breastplate, under the guidance of the prior of Durham. Many people sought his advice either in person or from a distance (the latter group included both St Thomas à Becket and Pope Alexander III), and Godric developed a reputation for miracles, for prophecy and for an affinity (characteristic of hermits) for the wild animals among which he lived.

His gift of prophecy extended to foretelling not only his own death both also the deaths of others. Though he seafaring days were now behind him, his prophetic charism enabled him to know when a ship somewhere was in danger of being wrecked, and he would cease from whatever he was doing in order to offer up a prayer.

Godric’s prophetic visions were also the occasion for the Blessed Virgin (among others) to teach him songs, and the four which are recorded by his biographer Reginald are the oldest examples of English verse for which we possess the original musical settings survive, and also the first to favour rhyme and metre over traditional Anglo-Saxon techniques of alliteration.

He died in 1170, tended and mourned by the monks of Durham, having given expression during the course of his extended life to the vocations of both the pilgrim and the hermit. 

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St Lidwina of Schiedam


Reading the lives of many woman saints (both mediaeval and modern), one is struck by the way in which suffering is heaped upon suffering – often in the form of distressing physical illness – as the individual becomes progressively conformed with the suffering Christ, giving expression at the root of her being to the vocation (repeatedly referred to in St Paul’s letters) to share in Christ’s passion and death in order that she might be more fully united with him in his resurrection.

Lidwina injured on the ice

“Lidwina's fall on the Ice”; wood drawing from the 1498 edition of John Brugman’s “Vita of Lidwina”.

St Lidwina of Schiedam (in the Netherlands) was born in 1380 and died in 1433. From an early age she developed a profound devotion to the Virgin Mary, and pledged her virginity to Christ while still only 12.

Aged 16, she injured herself while ice-skating and became an invalid. Her injury proved to be the catalyst not just to chronic disability but to a succession of painful and highly unpleasant illnesses, and also to the full range of emotional, psychological and spiritual trials which inevitably accompany a lifetime of pain and sickness.

For thirty years Lidwina endured this unremitting suffering, offering it up in reparation for the sins of others. By day and by night she meditated on Christ’s passion, uniting her meditation with that of the Church in its seven canonical hours of prayer (she divided her meditation into seven “hours”), and uniting her sufferings with Christ’s passion, plunging deeper and deeper with the passage of time into the mystery of the Cross.

This participation in Christ’s passion transformed the bitterness of her condition into sweetness and delight, so, ever faithful to her vocation to suffer in Christ and with Christ, she implored God to increase and intensify her agony. At this point, aged about 27, she was graced with visions in which she experienced participation in Christ’s passion – a translation into the realm of spiritual ecstasy of the participation into which she had already entered through prayer and suffering.

Johannes Brugman's "Life of St Lidwina", printed in Schiedam in 1498.

Johannes Brugman's "Life of St Lidwina", printed in Schiedam in 1498.

The remainder of her life consisted in an ever more intense commitment to self-abandonment and union with Christ. She lived in voluntary poverty, giving away most of the alms on which she lived. She was in almost constant pain, and, bizarrely, shed skin, bones, and parts of her intestines, which her parents kept in a vase and which gave off a sweet scent.

Although suffering horrendously herself (she was in almost constant pain, and it has been suggested that her symptoms were consonant with a severe form of multiple sclerosis), she had the gift of healing others. For the last two decades of her life she ate nothing but the Blessed Sacrament, and, as years passed, was unable to sleep, unable to see, and, for the most part, unable to move.

After her death, Thomas à Kempis, who was impressed by the absoluteness of her consecration to suffering in conformity with Christ’s passion, and who had witnessed some of her miracles, wrote her biography, and further accounts of her life were gathered together by her cousin John Gerlac, by her confessor John Walter, and by the provincial of the Franciscans John Brugman – all of whom had personal knowledge of her extraordinary sufferings and of the way in which she had borne them and offered them up in a grace-filled union with (and imitation of) the redemptive sufferings of Christ.

The lives of the saints frequently illustrate in an extreme and disturbing way some truth about what it means to live the life of grace in union with the crucified and risen Lord, and St Lidwina’s life can be seen as an icon of the dominical injunction to “take up thy cross”.


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