Archive for July, 2009

EanswytheThe baptism of St Æthelberht King of Kent by St Augustine of Canterbury in 601 was in many ways the beginning of the conversion of England. Æthelberht’s son, Eadbald was a pagan, but his sister St Æthelburga was a Christian, as was his wife who ensured that her daughter Eanswythe was baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. After the death of Æthelberht in 616 (or 618) Eadbald openly embraced pagan idolatry, as did the three sons of the recently deceased King Saebert of the East Saxons (a convert to Christianity).

St. Laurence of Canterbury, St. Mellitus of London, and St. Justus of Rochester decided to abandon the Kentish mission, and Mellitus and Justus duly returned to Gaul. However, St Peter appeared in a vision to Laurence and admonished him for considering abandoning his flock, and, with the result that Laurence remained in Kent and succeeded in converting Eadbald.

The young Eanswythe possessed the same spirit as her aunt Æthelburga, and was drawn to a life of virginity and monastic seclusion. Eadbald wanted her to marry for dynastic reasons (just as Æthelburga had married King Edwin of Northumbria), but Eanswythe was adamant, and Eadbald relented and built her a monastery in Folkestone – the first women’s monastery in England.

Eanswythe was just sixteen years of age, so it is possible that experienced nuns were brought in from Europe until such time as Eanswythe was old enough to take on the role of abbess. Eanswythe was known as a miracle-worker, an enthusiastic reader of spiritual books, and a diligent worker in the monastery.

She died at around the age of twenty-five in August of 640 (the year of her father King Eadbald’s death) – not, perhaps, a spectacular saint by the standards of Anglo-Saxon England, but an example of great single-mindedness in her devotion to Christ and in her steadfast (even stubborn) commitment to a totally new kind of vocation (totally new in the context of English society, that is) which represented a radical rejection of contemporary political and social values.


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AlphegeÆlfheah, or Alphege (954 –1012), was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be martyred. He became a monk at Deerhurst at a young age, and then moved to Bath where he embraced the solitary life of an anchorite. His holiness and asceticism resulted in his election as Abbot of Bath Abbey, and he came to the attention of St Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was instrumental in the election of Ælfheah as Bishop of Winchester in 984.

While at Winchester he devoted his energies to the construction of a gigantic organ, which reported requiredly upwards of twenty-four men for its operation, and which could be heard from over a mile away. Ælfheah was a builder and restorer of churches, and was also assiduous in the promotion of the cult of Anglo-Saxon saints, especially those of two bishops of Winchester, St Swithun and St Æthelwold.

He was actively involved in the conversion to Christianity of Olaf Tryggvason, one of the leaders of a series of Viking raids in 994, who agreed to desist from further attacks in return for danegeld. In 1006 he succeeded Ælfric as Archbishop of Canterbury, bringing the head of St Swithun with him in a gesture which reflected his policy of promoting devotion to the saints of Anglo-Saxon England.

Once in office he pursued this policy still further, advancing the cult of St Dunstan – his former mentor and a predecessor at Canterbury – and commissioning Adelard to write Dunstan’s Life. He also helped secure the acknowledgment of the saintly status of St Wulfsige of Sherborne by the Witenagemot.

The year 1011 witnessed further Viking invasions, and in September the Danes laid siege to Canterbury. Together with the Bishop of Rochester (Godwine) and the Abbess of St Mildrith’s (Leofrun), Ælfheah was captured and held in prison for seven months.

Refusing to permit the payment of a ransom in exchange for his liberty, Ælfheah was killed by a mob of drunken Viking soldiers, though whether he was a martyr in the strictest sense of the term is questionable inasmuch as the immediate motive for his murder was his refusal to allow himself to be ransomed rather than his Christian faith per se.

He was initially laid to rest at St Paul’s Cathedral, but in 1023 King Canute (a Dane) arranged for the translation of his body to Canterbury. After the Conquest in 1066, Norman bishops, including Lanfranc (the first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury) were somewhat antipathetic to Anglo-Saxon saints, including those venerated at Canterbury (not least because the cult of pre-Conquest saints could be seen as a political statement).

However, after Pope Gregory VII had canonized Ælfheah in 1078, Lanfranc enthusiastically recognized him as a saint (even going so far as to commission a monk to write a Vita), and Ælfheah (under the Norman rendering of his name, Alphege) became the only pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury (not counting Augustine, who was in any case a Roman) whose name was retained in Canterbury’s calendar of saints.

His remains were placed around the high altar of Canterbury together with those of St Dunstan, and St Thomas Becket is said to have prayed there to St Ælfheah before his own martyrdom.

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St Irenaeus of Lyons

Had the feast of SS Peter and Paul not been transferred from tomorrow, last Sunday would have been the memoria of St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 135-200)

Irenaeus was confronted by the challenge of Gnosticism – a highly sophisticated form of syncretistic esotericism which had latched onto Christianity and in which guru-like teachers initiated their followers into complex and symbolic belief-systems filled with cosmic mediator-figures and organized around the dualistic idea that salvation consisted in the liberation of the soul from the prison of the body.

Irenaeus opposed the Gnostic emphasis on private revelation to inspired teachers who then passed on their esoteric teaching to the enlightened by developing more explicitly than anyone before him the ideas of (i) the unity of the Church, (ii) the unity of the Faith (determined by the “rule of faith”), (iii) the identity of the Church as the locus of faith and grace and true teaching, and (iv) the apostolicity of the Church (for Irenaeus, the only valid teaching was that which could be traced back to one of the apostolic sees and especially the see of Rome).

Against the Gnostic teaching that the Christian life was about the liberation of the soul from the flesh, Irenaeus proclaimed the salvation of the whole human being – the healing, integration, perfection and (to use Patristic terminology) deification of body and soul, flesh and spirit. God created human beings to be in the image of God, to be filled with divine grace, and, ultimately, to behold the vision of God. Humanity is perfected in the person of Christ, who assumes human nature with all its materiality and fleshliness.

Irenaeus emphasizes (like Cyril of Alexandria) the personal unity of Christ, who is the divine person of the Son/Word who becomes fully human (without detriment to his divinity) – a true God-man, and not a human being existing in moral union with God or (at the other extreme) a divine person masquerading as a human being.

As perfect man, the incarnate Son fulfils in himself mankind’s destiny to be in the image of God, to be grace-filled, and to behold the glory of the Father. He “recapitulates” in himself the whole of mankind, passing through the various phases of birth, infancy, childhood, human suffering, etc, living the perfect human life in each of its successive stages.

He gathers up into his own person the story of Adam, the history of mankind, and the entirety of God’s plan for the redemption and perfection of everything, and becomes both the climax of human history up to that point and also the inauguration of the new creation (this is very much a development of the theology of Ephesians 1:3-10 and Colossians 1:10-20).

The God-man’s perfect obedience to the Father reveals the new covenant, makes atonement for the sins of mankind, undoes the damage caused by Adam’s fall, and creates a new kind of human existence which is characterized by a fully redeemed flesh, a healed will, a capacity for that “grace-fulness” which the Church Fathers call “deification”, and an orientation to behold the vision of God.

Christians share in this redemption through the Eucharist and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Irenaeus understands Christ’s presence in the Eucharist very literally and realistically. The bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of the God-man, and through them the God-man incorporates us into himself (recapitulatio also denotes the idea of bringing everyone and everything under the headship of Christ as in Eph. 1:10), communicating to us his new kind of human existence, his redeemed flesh and healed will, his grace-fulness – in short, giving us a share in his deified humanity.

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