Archive for May, 2009


St Wulstan

St Wulstan

Born c. 1008 at Long Itchington, Warwickshire, to Aethelstan and Wulfgifu (who later entered monasteries in Worcester, the young Wulstan (or Wulfstan) was sent to study at Evesham and Peterborough. On his return, as his 12th century biographer William of Malmsebury (drawing on an earlier biography by a monk called Coleman who was a contemporary of Wulstan) recounts, he found himself facing powerful temptations against the life of chastity to which he wished to devote himself.

A local woman who had set her cap at him “began to dance before Wulstan with lascivious movements”, and Wulstan, “whom touches and glances had not moved, yielded to her seductive gestures, and panted with desire”.  However, “in a moment he came to a better mind, burst into tears, and took flight into rough thickets and thorny places”, thereby mortifying his flesh and doing battle with his own inherent concupiscence. 

Thus liberated from the power of lust, Wulstan entered the household of Brihtheah, bishop of Worcester, but turned down the offer of preferment in favour of entering the monastery of Worcester. Wulstan’s monastic austerities were legendary (he spent his nights in vigils prostrated before the altar on the bare floor), but, even as Prior of Worcester, he seems to have been irresistible to women, for a well-to-do woman whose husband was traveling in distant places was so insistent in her attempts to seduce him that eventually Wulstan lost his patience and boxed her ears.

Having overcome his weakness for women, Wulstan addressed his fondness for fine food. On one occasion he gave orders for roast goose (his favourite dish) to be prepared for dinner, after which he went about his numerous administrative duties on behalf of the bishop. His duties prevented him from taking breakfast before celebrating Mass (there was no midnight fast in those days), and, while celebrating Mass, he was so distracted by the aroma of roast goose wafting across from the nearby kitchen that he found himself more focused on the forthcoming delights of the table than on his eucharistic devotion. Appalled at his lack of piety, he vowed never again to touch meat, and has become, accordingly, the patron saint of vegetarians.

Wulstan’s success in restoring the fortunes of his monastery and his gifts as a teacher and pastor resulted in his elevation to the see of Worcester in 1062. He was the first English bishop to make visitations of all parts of his diocese, and traveled with two clerks, one of whom bore alms for distribution to the poor, and the other of whom bore confirmation chrism – Wulstan’s packed-out confirmation services were day-long events. His ability to gather groups of people around him in village squares and church-porches earned him the sobriquet “Bishop of the Market-Place”, and his unaffected piety and devotion were an inspiration to all. Wulstan was also famed for his love of the penitent and the poor. He wept when hearing confessions, and on Maundy Thursday would dine with those whom he had shriven. During Lent he used wash, feed and clothe the poor.

In the political sphere, he was not afraid to rebuke King Harold, whom he served both as confessor and emissary, and, having welcomed William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest in 1066, he was equally bold in standing up to Blessed Lanfranc, William’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury who was initially highly dismissive of Wulstan (whom he regarded as an uneducated and uncultivated Saxon).

William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror

Wulstan was critical of the heavy-handed cultural imperialism of the Normans (who sought, among other measures, to “Normanize” the abbeys, the bishoprics, and, indeed every aspect of the English church). He described the Normans as “the scourge of God”, and, actively resisting their policy of downplaying the cults of the Saxon saints, sought to promote the veneration of Bede, Oswald and Dunstan.

Wulstan finally won the acceptance of the Norman bishops and nobles by refusing their command that he should hand over his crozier and plunging it instead into the stone tomb of Edward the Confessor (who had ordered his consecration). No one but Wulstan was able to remove the sword, and this miraculous occurrence persuaded the Normans to permit him to remain in his see.

One of Wulstan’s major achievements was to put an end to the Irish slave trade. Huge numbers of slaves were imported from Ireland and sold throughout England, and Wulstan and Lanfranc worked together to abolish this barbaric practice, with Wulstan preaching a series of impassioned sermons in the Bristol slave-market.

Wulstan died in 1095, aged 87, and died while washing the feet of the poor – in literal obedience to Christ’s injunction, he used to wash the feet of twelve poor men every day. Miracles were soon reported at his tomb, and he was subsequently venerated by a number of English kings (including William Rufus, John and Edward I).


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St Andrew Corsini

AndrewCorsiniWhen Gemma Corsini (some biographers inaccurately call her Pellegrina), who belonged to a devout, prosperous and well-connected Florentine family, was expecting the child who would be baptized Andrew, she consecrated him under the protection of the Virgin Mary to the service of God. However, when she was about to give birth, she had a disturbing dream in which it seemed that she was giving birth to a wolf.

Andrew Corsini was born in 1301, and, as he arrived at adulthood, he appeared to be far closer to fulfilling Gemma’s alarming premonition than to fulfilling the vow that she had undertaken on his behalf, for he was indeed living like a wild animal, devoting himself not to the service of God but to the pursuit of drink, gambling and sex.

Perceiving Andrew intent on self-destruction (in this life and the next), Gemma decided to reveal to him both her original act of consecration and her subsequent nightmare, and Andrew was so impressed by what she told him that he underwent a dramatic conversion, racing off to the nearest church to pray at the altar of Our Lady.

Being a man who never did things by halves (whether in pursuit of the pleasures of vice or the joys of virtue, his commitment to his goal was invariably wholehearted), Andrew resolved never to return home, and, in 1318, chose instead to join the Carmelites of Fiesole near Florence.

He embraced Carmelite life with characteristic zeal, seeking to atone for past sins and to subdue existing passions (which at this early stage were, presumably, as fiery as ever) by throwing himself into prayer, hard work and humiliations at every available opportunity. (The love of humiliation and self-abnegation which is such a part of the Carmelite tradition as exemplified by, for example St Thérèse of Lisieux, was very much part of Andrew’s approach to religious life).

Having been ordained to the priesthood in 1328 he was so concerned to avoid the lavish celebrations (musical and culinary) which his justifiably proud family were planning that, on the day designated for his first celebration of Mass, he contrived to spirit himself away to a small hermitage were he was able to celebrate Mass in quiet and humble solitude.

In 1349 Andrew was elected bishop of Fiesole (near Florence), but, conscious of his own unworthiness (as he saw it), and reluctant to assume a role which would inevitably compromise a personal spirituality which was grounded in radical humility, he initially withdrew to the Carthusian monastery of Enna.

Having been prevailed upon to accept episcopal consecration, Andrew discovered that his aristocratic connections together with his natural empathy for the poor and lowly were the ideal qualifications for a bishop at a time when promoting social cohesion was as much a part of the function of a bishop as was purely spiritual leadership, and no less a figure than Pope Urban V made use of Andrew as a kind of troubleshooter in situations of civic and political conflict.andrewcorsini2

Whereas previous bishops of Fiesole had lived in Florence, Andrew elected to live among his own flock in Fiesole, and was thus able to develop a genuine bond with those whom he served.

He was always assiduous in the service of the poor, meeting their material and spiritual needs, and insisting, not just on Maundy Thursday but every Thursday, on washing the feet of poor in conformity with Our Lord’s injunction (resulting, on one occasion, in the miraculous healing of a man whose feet were severely ulcerous).

Although he was now a bishop, Andrew never forgot that he was also a Carmelite, and, far from relaxing his penances and austerities, actually added to them, supplementing his hair shirt with an iron girdle, and sleeping on the floor on a scattering of vine-branches.

He also dedicated himself to the restoration of church buildings and to the reformation of the clergy, many of whom had grown lax, wearing secular clothes and indulging in those same vices which Andrew had abandoned after his conversion.

He died aged 71 in January 1373, having been struck down with fever while celebrating Mass on Christmas Eve. He was buried (curiously, considering that he was a Carmelite) in the Franciscan church in Florence, which soon became associated with miracles, and his status as a saint was recognized by public acclaim immediately after his death, though he was not formally canonized until 1629.

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St Paschasius Radbertus


The Abbey Church of Corbie

The Abbey Church of Corbie

Born in 785, Radbertus was orphaned and abandoned on the steps of St Mary’s convent in Soissons (France), where he was raised by the nuns, developing a close bond with the Abbess Theodrara (a cousin of Charlemagne).

Radbertus took the Benedictine habit, but subsequently decided that, having spent his entire life inside convents and monasteries, he needed to experience the wider world, so he left his monastery and for a while enjoyed a worldly lifestyle – all of which served to convince him that he really was called to the life of the cloister.

Radbertus elected to enter the Abbey of Corbie where two of Theodrara’s brothers, Adalard and Wala, were monks, (Adalard was the Abbot, and Wala was later to succeed him in that role), and he duly devoted himself to a life of prayer, study and monastic observance.

His knowledge of Greek and Hebrew – together with the family connections of Adalard and Wala with Charlemagne) meant that Radbertus soon became a prominent figure in the Carolingian Renaissance, and to this end he was sent along with Adalard to establish monasteries in Saxony.

Charlemagne’s evangelistic program in Saxony had hitherto involved beheading 4500 hostages in order to persuade the wider population to accept forced baptism, and the efforts of Radbertus and Adalard to evangelize by establishing centers of prayer and study represented a welcome counterbalance to Charlemagne’s heavy-handed (not to mention brutal) approach.

Always a humble man (he described himself as the “dishwater” of monastic life) Radbertus developed a reputation both as a preacher and as a public lecturer. As director of the schools of Corbie (he had helped to found a New Corbie in Westphalia), he was also responsible for a flowering of Carolingian scholarship as represented by (among others) Blessed Adalard the Younger, and Saints Anscharius, Hildemar, and Odo.

He also exercised the function of master of novices, and so became instrumental in shaping the moastic and spiritual development of monks in the Corbie schools, where, in spite of all his academic and administrative responsibilities, he was exemplary in his attendance in choir and in his observance of the rule.

The Abbey Church of St Riquier

The Abbey Church of St Riquier

In 844 he became Abbot, but the additional administrative burdens, together with political tensions within the Corbie monasteries, meant that this was an unhappy time for him, and he resigned in 851, retiring to the abbey of Saint-Riquier in order to follow a life of prayer and study before returning to Corbie in order to die (some time between 860 and 865).

Radbertus was the author of a large corpus of theological writings, the most significant of which was the hugely influential De Corpore et Sanguine Domini – a full-length treatise on the Eucharist (the first in Western theology) which drew sharp criticism from (among others) his own abbot, Ratramnus (who succeeded Wala in that role).

Taking his lead from St Ambrose of Milan, Radbertus insisted that the true, historical body of Jesus Christ is literally present in Eucharist, in such a way that, in receiving Christ’s true body and blood, the communicant is united with Christ physically and directly.

Radbertus affirmed that the image of God is located in the whole human person – body and soul (and not just soul) – with the result that salvation is to be seen in terms of union between the whole human person and the whole person of Christ (body, blood, soul and divinity) who makes himself efficaciously, literally and physically present (and communicable) in the Eucharist.

Critics such as Ratramnus felt that Radbertus went too far in emphasizing the sheer fleshliness of Christ’s eucharistic presence, and preferred to focus on the idea of a metaphorical and spiritual presence, but Radbertus’s rejection of the dualistic separation of body and soul (which some Latin theologians had imported from Greek theology) meant that, for him, the opposition of physical presence and spiritual presence was a false distinction.


Charles the Bald

His sound instincts in this regard served to preserve the best traditions of patristic writing on the subject (St Irenaeus, St Ambrose), and to prepare the way for a more complete articulation of the idea of the Real Presence by St Thomas Aquinas and other mediaeval authors.

The rebuttal penned by Ratramnus was written at the instigation of the King, Charles the Bald, who was initially unhappy with aspects of De Corpore et Sanguine Domini, but Charles eventually came round to a more positive assessment, with the result that Radbertus’s approach to understanding the Real Presence came to exercise a growing influence on the development of Latin eucharistic theology.

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St Sigismund: Fresco by Piero della Francesca

St Sigismund: Fresco by Piero della Francesca

Sigismund succeeded his father Gundobad as king of the Burgundians in 516. At the time, Burgundy was perhaps the most powerful of all the kingdoms of Gaul – not least because of its strong links with the Byzantine court – and both the Franks and the Ostrogoths were keen to limit Burgundian power.

Sigismund soon established his reputation as a statesman and lawmaker by issuing (in 517) a legal compendium, the Lex Gundobada (more properly known as the Liber Constitutionum). He was equally enthusiastic about reforming the Church, and, in the same year, he convened a council of Burgundiam bishops as Epaon with a view to establishing ecclesiastical discipline and dismantling the infrastructure of the Arian Church in Burgundy.

Gundobad had been an Arian, though he seems to have contemplated conversion to Catholicism, and Sigismund converted by 515 – thanks in large part to his association with the Catholic bishop of Vienne, Avitus (a poet and man of letters who remained a beacon of classical civilization in a barbarian world), with whom he maintained a correspondence.

Shortly after his conversion, Sigismund founded the monastery of St Maurice at Agaune, where he instituted the practice of the laus perennis, according to which (as happened in other royal monasteries in the Germanic world) groups of monks would chant the psalms in relays in an unceasing round of praise (the sixth century equivalent of perpetual adoration).

Herma of Saint Sigismund in Płock

Herma of Saint Sigismund in Płock

In spite of such positive beginnings, Sigismund’s relationship with his bishops deteriorated. Much more seriously, in 522 his second wife persuaded him that Sigistrix, his son by a previous marriage, was plotting against him with the intention of killing him and taking control not only of Burgundy but also of Italy.

In a fit of uncontrolled rage, Sigismund had Sigistrix strangled. Once his anger had subsided, he was appalled at the enormity of his crime, and retired to St Maurice to do penance, devoting himself to the poor in whose service he distributed part of his wealth.

Whatever he undertook by way of reparation, however, seemed wholly inadequate in view of the horrific nature of the murder of his own son, and Sigismund came to believe that only by suffering some equivalent calamity could he atone for his sin.

Such a calamity duly occurred when Burgundy was attacked by Chlodomer, the King of Orleans, together with his brothers Childebert and Chlothar (the three brothers were the sons of the Frankish King Clovis whose father had been murdered by Sigismund’s father Gundobad).

Sigismund escaped, disguising himself as a monk and hiding in a cell at Agaune, but was captured and taken to Orleans as a prisoner where he was executed (524), his body being thrown down a well.

St Sigismund. Konstanz, Dreifaltigkeitskirche, fresco on the wall of the nave. Dated between 1417 and 1437.

St Sigismund. Konstanz, Dreifaltigkeitskirche, fresco on the wall of the nave. Dated between 1417 and 1437.

His bones having been recovered, a shrine developed at Agaune, and he was soon recognized as a martyr, though strictly speaking he did not die for his faith, as the motives for his assassination had to do with politics and blood-feuds rather than with Arian persecution of Catholics.

In fact, he is best remembered not primarily as a martyr (for all that he endured death in a spirit of faith and courage) but as one of the great penitents – as a man whose profound repentance, culiminating in a death which at some level he seems to have sought (at least in prayer) by way of atonement for his gravest of crimes, was rightly perceived not only by his contemporaries but also by subsequent generations as a paradigm of a particular kind of Christian sanctity.

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saint-dunstan1Born shortly before 910AD, Dunstan was the son of a Wessex noble, Heorstan, and nephew of the bishops of Winchester and Wells. Taught by Irish monks amidst the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, from an early age he developed a love of learning and of artistic craftsmanship.

Having entered the service of his uncle Athelm (now Archbishop of Canterbury) he was soon appointed to the court of King Athelstan, where he became a favourite of the king. Envious courtiers successfully discredited him by accusing him of witchcraft, and he was banished from the court.

Not content with thus disgracing him, his adversaries assaulted him as he left, and cast him, beaten and bound, into a cesspool. Dunstan recovered from his ordeal sufficiently to travel to Winchester where he entered the service of the bishop, his uncle Ælfheah, who encouraged him to become a monk.

At this point Dunstan developed severe blood-poisoning (wrongly diagnosed as leprosy) as a result of having been plunged, covered in open wounds, into the cesspool, and he interpreted this as a sign from God that he did indeed have a religious vocation.

Having first been ordained, he retired to live the life of a hermit at Glastonbury, constructing a minuscule cell no more than five feet long and two and a half feet deep against the wall of the ancient church of St Mary. Here he practised the harp and developed the skills of a craftsman while fighting off repeated demonic attacks (on one occasion he restrained the devil by holding his face with his craftsman’s tongs).


St Dunstan restraining the devil with a pair of tongs

According to another story, Dunstan (a skilled blacksmith) was asked to shoe a horse whose owner he perceived to be the devil, and he duly nailed the shoe to the hoof not of the horse but of the devil. In return for removing the nails (which were the cause of considerable pain) Dunstan made the devil promise that he would never enter a house where a horseshoe was displayed above the door, and this appears to be the origin of the idea of the “lucky horseshoe”.

While at Glastonbury, Dunstan extended his reputation as a silversmith, musician and illuminator of manuscripts. He also inherited a substantial amount of money from his father and from King Æthelstan’s niece, Lady Æthelflaed (in gratitude for his trusted advice), and resolved to use the money for the good of the Church.

His new-found fortune made him a man of wealth and status, and in 940 he was invited to King Edmund’s court at Cheddar. However, history repeated itself, and jealous courtiers contrived to turn Edmund against Dunstan.

Happily, a miraculous event prompted Edmund to a change of heart. Pursued by Edmund in the Mendip Forest, a stage hurtled over the edge of the Cheddar cliffs, closely followed by the hounds. Unable to stop his horse as it careered towards certain death, Edmund was suddenly inspired to repent of his treatment of Dunstan and to promise to make amends. His horse pulled up right at the edge of the precipice, and Edmund was true to his promise, taking Dunstan to Glastonbury and set him on the abbot’s throne with a remit to restore divine worship and regular monastic observance.

Blessed with copious financial resources and with the support of the king, Dunstan set about rebuilding Glastonbury – both in the sense of physically reconstructing the abbey, and in the sense of establishing authentic Benedictine monasticism there. Dunstan ruled the abbey in strict fidelity to the Rule of St Benedict,

The assassination in 946 of King Edmund and his replacement by King Edred resulted in a new determination to work for reconciliation and unification between the Anglo-Saxon and Danish halves of England. Edred, together with the Kentish and East Anglian nobles, was keen to promote true Catholic observance (including the rebuilding of churches and the reform of monasticism) as a part of this campaign, but was opposed by the nobles of Wessex (many of whom were Dunstan’s relations) who wished to uphold existing customs.

Dunstan was very much on the side of the king in opposition to the Wessex nobles, but Edwy, who succeeded Edred in 955, reversed the policy, and was soon in open conflict with Dunstan, who went too far in his criticism of the youthful king when he upbraided him for cavorting on his coronation day with a noblewoman called Ælfgifu and her mother. Dunstan fled to his cloister, but Edwy pursued him and looted the monastery.

Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey

Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey

Dunstan now went into exile in Flanders (in modern Belgium) where he spent time in the Abbey of Mont Blandin near Ghent – one of the centers of the Clunicac reform which had led to a Benedictine revival in that part of Europe – and here he encountered a model for the reform of monasticism in England which was to be his major undertaking upon his return, underpinning as it did his vision for a renewed church.

Meanwhile, a revolt by Mercian and Northumbrian nobles meant that Edgar became king north of the Thames (Edwy remained in power south of the river), and Dunstan was recalled to England and consecrated Bishop of Worcester in 957, and, Archbishop of Canterbury in 959 (Edwy having died).

Dunstan was now, in effect, both Archbishop of Canterbury and Prime Minister. Having appointed like-minded reformers to key bishoprics, he was soon able to begin his reform of the English church, rooting out abuses, building monasteries, replacing the secular canons in many of the great cathedrals with monks, and raising the standard of the parish clergy (who were now expected to teach their parishioners trades in addition to ministering to them spiritually).

Secular reforms included the creation of a navy to protect England from Viking attacks, and the establishment of some measure of law and order where previously there had been lawlessness. He also devised an imperial-style coronation ceremony for Edgar in 973 (which became the basis for coronation ceremonies up to the present day), and persuaded six other British kings (including the king of Scotland) to pledge allegiance to Edgar.

Edgar died in 975, and was succeeded by Edweard II (his son), but Edweard was opposed by Ælfthryth (Edgar’s second or third wife) who wished to see her own son Ethelred reign as king. Supported by Dunstan, Edweard was crowned at Winchester, but the opponents of Dunstan’s reforms felt empowered, and parts of the country witnessed a sustained attack on the monasteries which were seen as driving the reform-movement in both church and state.dunstan2

The assassination of King Edweard in 978 (he was later venerated as St Edward the Martyr) and the subsequent accession of Ethelred the Unready marked the end of Dunstan’s career in the service of the king (his coronation of Ethelred being his final act of participation in the life of the state), and he went into retirement at Canterbury where he devoted himself to long hours of prayer and to teaching at the cathedral.

While at Canterbury he fostered devotion to the saints of the city, especially St Augustine and St Æthelberht, whose shrines he used to visit by night (sometimes to the accompaniment of angelic song). He continued to establish schools and to build and restore churches, to offer patronage to visiting scholars from Europe, and to promote – and practise – the crafts that he had learned both in his youth and in his later years (including organ-building and bell-making).

Having been forewarned by angels of his impending death, he bade farewell to his flock on the Feast of the Ascension in 988 and retried to his bed to prepare for death, his final words (reportedly) being “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear Him”.

Dunstan soon became one of England’s favourite saints – perhaps the premier saint until he was eclipsed by Thomas Becket. His relics were rescued from the old Canterbury Cathedral (destroyed by fire in 1074) and transferred to the new Cathedral, but his shrine was destroyed at the time of the Reformation.

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