Archive for June, 2009

Cyril_AlexandriaWhen Cyril (c. 376-80 – 444) died, one of his theological opponents, Theodoret of Cyrus, remarked that he pitied the demons in hell as they would henceforth have to live with Cyril of Alexandria, and suggested that an enormous stone should be placed over his tomb in case (having made hell too hot to hold him) he returned from the dead.

Looking at Cyril’s career as Bishop of Alexandria, one can see where Theodoret was coming from. Whether he was ruling the see of Alexandria or directing operation at the Council of Ephesus in 431 (the third ecumenical council), Cyril was a man who believed that lavish bribery and hired goons with the fifth century equivalent of baseball bats were legitimate episcopal tactics.

The biggest controversy surrounding Cyril involved the murder of the pagan philosopher Hypatia by a mob of Cyril-supporters. Novelists and movie-makers with a secularist axe to grind have presented this as a case of irrational bigoted Christianity (represented by Cyril) resorting to murder in order to eliminate decent rational secularism (represented by Hypatia). Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that, and most serious historians exonerate Cyril from direct responsibility; even so, while he may not have been a villain in this particular regard, his conduct of Alexandrian politics certainly doesn’t mark him out him as a hero.

So why is a bribing, bullying bishop venerated today (June 27th) as a saint? The issue at stake at the Council of Ephesus was the teaching of Nestorius, who contended that (in effect) Christ was a human person who enjoyed a unique and intimate moral union with the person of the Word (i.e. the Son). Nestorius also insisted that Mary was christotokos (Christ-bearer; mother of Christ), rather than theotokos (God-bearer; Mother of God), thus further emphasizing that Christ was Son of God by adoption rather than by person and nature.

Cyril was adamant that the divine and human in Christ couldn’t be divided or compartmentalized, and that Christ was none other than the Word of God enfleshed; that he was not a divine person united with a human person, but a divine person (the Word, the Son) who had fully assumed the totality of human fleshliness so as to be able to communicate divine life and grace to human beings – most especially in the Eucharist, where the divine power of the enfleshed Word flows into us in an electric outpouring of awesome grace and energy.

To this end, Cyril fought successfully for the victory of the Marian title theotokos over the Nestorian christotokos – the point being that referring to Mary as theotokos automatically guarantees an orthodox understanding of the fundamental truth that Christ is the enfleshed Son/Word of God, and not just the foremost of the adopted sons of God.

Cyril’s teaching on christology (i.e. on the relation of the divine and human in Christ) is so fundamental to orthodox Catholic theology that the Church has always been prepared to overlook the bribery and the baseball bats (so to speak), so great is our debt of gratitude to one of the pre-eminent architects of the Catholic faith, whose profound reflection on Scripture (about which he wrote voluminously) led him to penetrate the depths of the mystery of the incarnation in a way which has shaped all subsequent orthodox Catholic theology.

He is also an important reminder that God chooses for his servants and instruments some remarkably flawed human beings.


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June 23rd is the feast of St Æthelthryth (Ethelburga). The Orthodox, who often seem to have a greater appreciation of England’s earliest saints than we Catholics do, have composed some texts specially suited to the occasion, which are available here and here.

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June 23rd is the feast of St Æthelthryth (Ethelburga; Audrey) who lived from around 636-679. The normally restrained historian Bede was so impressed by her that he was moved to verse (Ecclesiastical History, III,20):

Trinity,Gracious, Divine, Who rulest all the ages; favour my task, Trinity, Gracious, Divine.

Let Maro sound the trumpet of war, let us sing the gifts of peace; the gifts of Christ we sing, let Maro sound the trumpet of war.

Chaste is my song, no rape of guilty Helen; light tales shall be told by the wanton, chaste is my song.

I will tell of gifts from Heaven, not wars of hapless Troy; I will tell of gifts from Heaven, wherein the earth is glad.

Lo! the high God comes to the womb of a holy virgin, to be the Saviour of men, lo! the high God comes.

A hallowed maid gives birth to Him Who gave the world its being; Mary, the gate of God, a maiden gives Him, birth.

The company of her fellows rejoices over the Virgin Mother of Him Who wields the thunder; a shining virgin band, the company of her fellows rejoices.

Her honour has made many a blossom to spring from that pure shoot, virgin blossoms her honour has made to spring.

Scorched by the fierce flames, the maiden Agatha yielded not; in like manner Eulalia endures, scorched by the fierce flames.

“The lofty soul of chaste Tecla overcomes the wild beasts; chaste Euphemia overcomes the accursed wild beasts.

Agnes joyously laughs at the sword, herself stronger than steel, Cecilia joyously laughs at the foemen’s sword.

Many a triumph is mighty throughout the world in temperate hearts; throughout the world love of the temperate life is mighty.

Yea, and our day likewise a peerless maiden has blessed; peerless our Ethelthryth shines.

Child of a noble sire, and glorious by royal birth, more noble in her Lord’s sight, the child of a noble sire.

Thence she receives queenly honour and a sceptre in this world; thence she receives honour, awaiting higher honour above.

What need, gracious lady, to seek an earthly lord, even now given to the Heavenly Bridegroom?

Christ is at hand, the Bridegroom (why seek an earthly lord?) that thou mayst follow even now, methinks, in the steps of the Mother of Heaven’s King, that thou too mayst be a mother in God.

Twelve years she had reigned, a bride dedicated to God, then in the cloister dwelt, a bride dedicated to God.

To Heaven all consecrated she lived, abounding in lofty deeds, then to Heaven all consecrated she gave up her soul.

Twice eight Novembers the maid’s fair flesh lay in the tomb, nor did the maid’s fair flesh see corruption in the tomb.

This was Thy work, O Christ, that her very garments were bright and undefiled even in the grave; O Christ, this was Thy work.

The dark serpentflies before the honour due to the holy raiment; disease is driven away, and the dark serpent flies.

Rage fills the foe who of old conquered Eve; exultant the maiden triumphs and rage fills the foe.

Behold, O bride of God, thy glory upon earth; the glory that awaits thee in the Heavens behold, O bride of God.

In gladness thou receivest gifts, bright amidst the festal torches; behold! the Bridegroom comes, in gladness thou receivest gifts.

And a new song thou singest to the tuneful harp; a new-made bride, thou exultest in the tuneful hymn.

None can part her from them which follow the Lamb enthroned on high, whom none had severed from the Love enthroned on high.

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June 23rd is the feast of St Æthelthryth (Ethelreda; Audrey) who lived from around 636-679. St Bede writes about her as follows (Ecclesiastical History, III,19):

King Ecgfrith took to wife Æthelthryth, the daughter of Anna, king of the East Angles, of whom mention has been often made; a man of true religion, and altogether noble in mind and deed. She had before been given in marriage to another, to wit, Tondbert, ealdorman of the Southern Gyrwas; but he died soon after he had married her, and she was given to the aforesaid king.

Though she lived with him twelve years, yet she preserved the glory of perfect virginity, as I was informed by Bishop Wilfrid, of blessed memory, of whom I inquired, because some questioned the truth thereof; and he told me that he was an undoubted witness to her virginity, forasmuch as Ecgfrith promised to give him many lands and much money if he could persuade the queen to consent to fulfil her marriage duty, for he knew the queen loved no man more than himself.

And it is not to be doubted that this might take place in our age, which true histories tell us happened sometimes in former ages, by the help of the same Lord who promises to abide with us always, even unto the end of the world. For the divine miracle whereby her flesh, being buried, could not suffer corruption, is a token that she had not been defiled by man.

She had long asked of the king that he would permit her to lay aside worldly cares, and to serve only Christ, the true King, in a monastery; and having at length with difficulty prevailed, she entered the monastery of the Abbess Aebba, who was aunt to King Ecgfrith, at the place called the city of Coludi, having received the veil of the religious habit from the hands of the aforesaid Bishop Wilfrid; but a year after she was herself made abbess in the district called Elge, (Ely) where, having built a monastery, she began, by the example of a heavenly life and by her teaching, to be the virgin mother of many virgins dedicated to God.

It is told of her that from the time of her entering the monastery, she would never wear any linen but only woollen garments, and would seldom wash in a hot bath, unless just before the greater festivals, as Easter, Whitsuntide, and the Epiphany, and then she did it last of all, when the other handmaids of Christ who were there had been washed, served by her and her attendants. She seldom ate more than once a day, excepting on the greater festivals, or some urgent occasion.

Always, except when grievous sickness prevented her, from the time of matins till day-break, she continued in the church at prayer. Some also say, that by the spirit of prophecy she not only foretold the pestilence of which she was to die, but also, in the presence of all, revealed the number of those that should be then snatched away from this world out of her monastery.

She was taken to the Lord, in the midst of her flock, seven years after she had been made abbess; and, as she had ordered, was buried among them in a wooden coffin in her turn, according to the order in which she had passed away.

She was succeeded in the office of abbess by her sister Sexburg, who had been wife to Earconbert, king of Kent. This abbess, when her sister had been buried sixteen years, thought fit to take up her bones, and, putting them into a new coffin, to translate them into the church.…

When the grave was opened and the body of the holy virgin and bride of Christ was brought into the light of day, it was found as free from corruption as if she had died and been buried on that very day; as the aforesaid Bishop Wilfrid, and many others that know it, testify.

But the physician, Cynifrid, who was present at her death, and when she was taken up out of the grave, had more certain knowledge. He was wont to relate that in her sickness she had a very great tumour under her jaw. “And I was ordered,” said he, “to lay open that tumour to let out the noxious matter in it, which I did, and she seemed to be somewhat more easy for two days, so that many thought she might recover from her infirmity; but on the third day she was attacked by the former pains, and being soon snatched out of the world, she exchanged all pain and death for everlasting life and health.

And when, so many years after, her bones were to be taken out of the grave,…I found the body of the holy virgin taken out of the grave and laid on a bed, like one asleep; then taking off the veil from the face, they also showed me that the incision which I had made was healed up; so that, in marvellous wise, instead of the open gaping wound with which she had been buried, there then appeared only the slightest trace of a scar. Besides, all the linen clothes in which the body had been wrapped, appeared entire and as fresh as if they had been that very day put about her chaste limbs.”

It is said that when she was sore troubled with the aforesaid tumour and pain in her jaw and neck, she took great pleasure in that sort of sickness, and was wont to say, “I know of a surety that I deservedly bear the weight of my trouble on my neck, for I remember that, when I was a young maiden, I bore on it the needless weight of necklaces; and therefore I believe the Divine goodness would have me endure the pain in my neck, that so I may be absolved from the guilt of my needless levity, having now, instead of gold and pearls, the fiery heat of a tumour rising on my neck.”

It happened also that by the touch of those same linen clothes devils were expelled from bodies possessed, and other diseases were at divers times healed; and the coffin wherein she was first buried is said to have cured some of infirmities of the eyes, who, praying with their heads resting upon that coffin, were presently relieved of the pain or dimness in their eyes.

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EdwinBorn in around 585, Edwin was the son of King Ælle of Deira (southern Northumbria), whom he succeeded at an early age, but in around 604 was deprived of his throne by King Æthelfrith of Bernicia (northern Northumbria) who thereby became King of all Northumbria, and went into exile – first in Gwynned, then in Mercia (where he married Cwenburg, the daughter of King Cearl), and finally in East Anglia where King Raedwald was fast becoming the most powerful king in England (in later Anglo-Saxon terminology, he was “Bretwalda”). Raedwald defeated Æthelfrith by the river Idle in 616, and installed Edwin as King of Northumbria.

Æthelburga (born in the late sixth century) was the daughter of St Æthelberht King of Kent and his wife St Bertha – a Christian Frankish princess through whose good offices (assisted by the missionary efforts of St Augustine of Canterbury) Æthelberht had embraced Christianity (his conversion being the crucial first “brick” in the building of a Christian England).

Æthelburga’s brother Eadbald succeeded Æthelberht as King of Kent, and Eadbald agreed to marry Æthelburga to the pagan Edwin on the understanding that she and her Christian entourage (led by St Paulinus of York, Augustine’s successor in the see of Canterbury) would be accorded complete religious freedom.

Like his father-in-law St Æthelberht, Edwin was initially tentative about embracing Christianity himself, but eventually converted in 627 – partly because of a vision involving himself and Paulinus, partly because of his promise to adopt Christianity if he military campaign against Cwichelm of Wessex proved successful, and partly because of the efforts of Æthelburga, who had before her the model of her own mother’s conversion of her father.

From about 627 Edwin was effectively “Bretwalda”, but in 632-2 King Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd rose up against him and killed him at the Battle of Hatfield Chase. His death was subsequently interpreted as a martyrdom, but the immediate effect was the collapse of his Kingdom and the collapse of Christianity in Northumbria – which, in spite of the conversion of Edwin and his senior nobles, had never taken root.

Æthelburga and Paulinus returned to Kent, and Æthelburga retired to a ruined Roman villa (donated by Eadbald) in which she founded a monastery for both men and women. Here she died in around 647, and her relics were kept at the Collegiate Church at Canterbury until they were lost at the dissolution of the monasteries.

The reasons for Æthelburga’s status as a saint are clear – she was the foundress of a monastery, and it might be said that in her own person (with some help from St Paulinus) she bore the Christian gospel which had been preached and accepted in Kent into distant Northumbria and, indeed, into all those parts of England where Edwin held sway.

The reasons for Edwin’s status are less clear – an initially reluctant convert, he died in battle at the hands of the pagan King Penda not because of his faith but because he Penda were both competing for the same imperium. Bede portrays St Oswald, King of Northumbria, as a saint in every sense of the word, but depicts Edwin in much less exalted terms. (Moreover, unlike Oswald, Edwin had no lasting impact on the Christianization of Northumbria.) Even so, together with Æthelburga he became a Christian pioneer beyond a hitherto unevangelized frontier, and it is perhaps for this rather than for anything else that he deserves the title of saint.

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StanisławStanisław was born at Szczepanów in 1030 in southern Poland, and studied at a cathedral school in Gniezno (which at the time was the capital of Poland), before traveling abroad to further his education. Having returned to Poland, Stanisław was ordained to the priesthood, and in 1072, at the behest of Pope Alexander II he somewhat reluctantly succeeded Lambert Suła as Bishop of Kraków.

Episcopal status (Stanisław was one of the first native Poles to become a bishop in Poland) thrust him into Polish political life, and, ultimately, into conflict with King Bolesław II who was crowned in 1076.

Stanisław worked out to bring about the full Christianization of Poland, introducing papal legates, restoring the see of Gniezno to metropolitan status (acceptance of which was a condition for the then Duke Bolesław’s coronation), and persuading King Bolesław to build a network of Benedictine monasteries.

The initial falling-out between Stanisław and Bolesław seems to have related to some land that a man called Piotr had sold to Stanisław for the use of the diocese, and which Piotr’s family had refused to hand over after his untimely death.

Sitting in judgment on the case, Bolesław decided in favour of the family of Piotr, but, according to pious legend, Stanisław arranged for the publice exhumation of Piotr (no fewer than three years after his death), after which he dramatically raised him from the dead so that he could testify on his behalf.

Bolesław had no choice but to decide in favour of Stanisław against the family of Piotr, who rebuked his astonished sons in open court, and, presented by Stanisław with a choice of remaining alive or returning to the peace of his grave, opted for the latter.

Stanisław also came into conflict with Bolesław over the King’s sexual immorality. Some historians believe that Stanisław was involved in a plot orchestrated by the nobles to dethrone Bolesław, or at least to distribute some of his powers the nobility and to the Church.

Bolesław was unwilling to reform his ways (either sexually or politically), with the result that Stanisław felt compelled to excommunicate him. Bolesław interpreted this as a politically motivated action designed to undermine the King and foment treason, and dispatched a band of soldiers to execute Stanisław on the spot.

The soldiers were reluctant to harm so holy a Bishop, so, being a man of action, Bolesław took matters into his own hands, and murdered Stanisław during a celebration of Mass. His emboldened henchmen then helped him hack the corpse of Stanisław to pieces before hurling the severed parts into a pool outside the church.

The martyrdom of Stanisław took place in 1079, and provoked such outrage that Bolesław was forced to flee to Hungary. A cultus soon developed, and the year 1245 saw the translation of his relics to Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, and in 1253 he was formally canonized by Pope Innocent IV. From the time of Władysław I the Elbow-High, most of the Kings of Poland were crowned kneeling in front of the sarcophagus containing the relics.

It was also said that, guarded by four eagles, his dismembered corpse had been miraculously reassembled in the pool where the parts had been thrown, and in feudal times, when Poland itself was broken up into smaller points, this pious story became a powerful metaphor for hopes of future national recovery and unification.

A more recent Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła (the future Pope John Paul II, described Saint Stanisław the patron saint of moral order, which seems appropriate inasmuch as Stanisław’s ecclesiastical career was devoted to the establishment of moral order and discipline within Church and society, while the catalyst for his martyrdom was his conflict with Bolesław concerning the disordered morality of the King.

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Illumination from a mediaeval manuscript depicting Edmund being martyred "all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine's bristles".

Illumination from a mediaeval manuscript depicting Edmund being martyred "all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine's bristles".

Aged just 14, Edmund was crowned King of East Anglia on 25 December 855 by St Humbert at Burna (modern Bures St Mary in Suffolk). For the next fourteen years he reigned quietly but justly, modeling himself on King David – so much so, in fact, that he withdrew for a while to his royal tower at Hunstanton in order to learn the entire Psalter in such a way that he would be able to recite it from memory in public worship.

In 869 the Danish army under Ubbe Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless marched into East Anglia and set up camp at Thetford. Edmund challenged the invaders in battle (probably at Hoxne near Eye in Suffolk) but was defeated, and the Danes proceeded to lay waste the Kingdom, destroying churches and monasteries throughout East Anglia. The most precise account of Edmund’s martyrdom comes from Abbo of Fleury, who heard the story from St Dunstan who in turn heard it from Edmund’s own sword-bearer.

According to Abbo, Edmund was mindful of the story in the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ rebukes Peter for wanting to fight against those who were seeking arrest him. Thus it was that, when confronted before the battle (in which he never actually fought) by Ivar the Boneless, he threw down his weapons – for which he was mocked, beaten, tied to a tree and scourged (with obvious echoes of Christ’s scourging at the pillar) while continuing to proclaim his faith in Christ.

The more that Edmund refused to renounce Christ, and the more that he refused to hand over his Christian kingdom to the heathen Vikings, the more the Vikings intensified the torture, firing innumerable arrows into him until he was “all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles” (here the echo is of the martyrdom of St Sebastian).

Finally, realizing that no amount of torture was going to weaken Edmund’s resolve, Ivar had him decapitated, and ordered that his severed head should be thrown into the surrounding wood. Edmund’s followers eventually found the head being guarded by a wolf (which, though starving, chose to protect the sacred relic rather than consume it).

Edmund’s head and body were buried together, and, when they were exhumed a few years later for the purposes of being properly buried in the new church which was being constructed in Edmund’s honour, it was discovered that they had become miraculously reattached to each other, the only indication of the manner of his death being a red line around his neck (British Museum scientists have suggested that the body which was dug up was actually that of a ritually strangled prehistoric bog body).

Edmund’s remains were finally laid to rest at Beadoriceworth (modern Bury St Edmunds), which by the 12th century developed into a major shrine and place of pilgrimage. Though Edmund was an Anglo-Saxon martyr, the Normans were always keen to stress the continuity between pre-conquest and post-conquest England (in order to emphasize their own political and cultural legitimacy), and were active in promoting Edmund’s cultus. (They also fostered the custom of carrying a banner his arms into battle, most notably at Agincourt.)

According to one legend, in 1014 Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark and England, was threatening to destroy the church where Edmund was buried when he was struck dead by the saint who descended from heaven with a lance. While there is evidence that Sweyn may have died suddently of apoplexy while attacking Bury St Edmunds, acceptance of this legend would presuppose that Edmund had drastically changed his views on the use of violence during the years since his martyrdom.

On converting to Christianity (which, perhaps for political reasons, his father had always tolerated), Sweyn’s son King Canute, rebuilt the destroyed abbey at Bury St Edmunds, making a pilgrimage there in 1020 and presenting his crown at the shrine to make atonement for Danish crimes against Edmund.

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