Apologies for being remiss with my monthly popes! I’m still in recovery from learning, as posted here, that St Hippolytus was probably not anti-pope to Callistus I, Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. My first step of recovery was to go earlier than Hippolytus to St Victor I; today, I give you one of Hippolytus’ contemporaries, Pope Pontian, whom tradition says was martyred alongside Hippolytus.
Not a lot is actually known about Pope Pontian. During his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Origen was condemned in Egypt by Demetrius of Alexandria, but whether Pontian corroborated the Egyptian synods’ rulings or not is mere conjecture. Indeed, so little is known about him that I feel no guilt in simply giving you our earliest source for him, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. First, Book 6.23.3:
3. While these things were in progress, Urbanus,who had been for eight years bishop of the Roman church, was succeeded by Pontianus, and Zebinus succeeded Philetus in Antioch.
Chapter XXVIII.—The Persecution under Maximinus.
The Roman emperor, Alexander, having finished his reign in thirteen years, was succeeded by Maximinus Cæsar. On account of his hatred toward the household of Alexander, which contained many believers, he began a persecution, commanding that only the rulers of the churches should be put to death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching. Thereupon Origen composed his work On Martyrdom, and dedicated it to Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the parish of Cæsarea, because in the persecution there had come upon them both unusual hardships, in which it is reported that they were eminent in confession during the reign of Maximinus, which lasted but three years. Origen has noted this as the time of the persecution in the twenty-second book of his Commentaries on John, and in several epistles.
Chapter XXIX.—Fabianus, who was wonderfully designated Bishop of Rome by God.
1. Gordianus succeeded Maximinus as Roman emperor; and Pontianus, who had been bishop of the church at Rome for six years, was succeeded by Anteros. After he had held the office for a month, Fabianus succeeded him.
During Maximinus’ persecution, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia where both of them died. Before dying, Pontian abdicated from the episcopate; the first Roman bishop to do so. This, according to J. N. D. Kelly, is our earliest secure date in papal history: 28 September 235, as recorded in the fourth-century Liberian Catalogue.
They were later interred at Rome — an excavation discovered Pontian’s grave in the catacomb of San Callisto in 1909.
Because of the dispelling of the old Anti-pope Hippolytus fable (still believed in Kelly’s A Dictionary of Popes), there is not much more to say about Pontian. He was Bishop of Rome for five years, and then died in exile during a persecution.
The few notes worth highlighting are that persecutions were rarely targeted at the entire Christian population — Maximinus Thrax’s persecution was directed at leaders, especially bishops. Note also to take Eusebius’ account of there being many Christians in Alexander Severus’ household and this being the reason for Maximinus’ persecution with caution. Finally, while not everyone buried in the catacombs was a martyr, some were.
This is largely based on J. N. D. Kelly and Michael J. Walsh, A Dictionary of Popes, 2nd ed. Oxford: 2010.
The translation of Eusebius is that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 1; trans. Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert and Dr. Ernest C. Richardson.
Happy Feast of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)! I find myself surprised that I did not write about him when the Weekly Saints category was active, although he does come up a few times elsewhere, most especially ‘Pange, Lingua‘ and ‘Aquinas vs modern historical-critical Bible study‘. St Thomas is worth getting to know, especially these days with a Thomist resurgence in Roman Catholic theology and philosophy, epitomised by a Catholic friend whose response to my eagerness over a Victorian exposition of the 39 Articles said, ‘We have St Thomas for that’.
St Thomas Aquinas was born into a wealthy family of lesser nobility in the Lazio region of Italy. As the younger son in the family, he was destined for life the cloisters, like his uncle, abbot of Montecassino (St Benedict’s [saint of the week here and here] monastery in Campania). He was sent to Montecassino at age 5, where he was instructed in theology and philosophy. His family’s dream was that he would ascend to the abbacy in his uncle’s footsteps.
At age 19, however, he rebelled against his family’s wishes and chose instead to join the fairly new Order of Preachers — the Dominicans. Benedictine monasticism was a prestigious affair — long-established and wealthy, the Order had many monasteries that were major landowners throughout Europe. Indeed, so wealthy were Benedictines that they never stopped getting in trouble for it! See, e.g., this excerpt from St Bernard’s (saint of the week here) excoriation of Cluniac Benedictines a century earlier.
Dominicans, on the other hand, were only a few decades old. Honorius III’s approval of St Dominic’s (saint of the week here) order was only fully approved in 1216. Dominicans are a mendicant order of friars like Franciscans. This means that they beg for food to survive. They live in priories, not cloistered monasteries, and consort with rabble and mobs. They do sordid, public pious acts like public preaching or debating heretics. They were also in on the ground floor at the start of the Inquisition, and this didn’t make them especially popular — as St Peter Martyr of Verona (d. 1252) found out the hard way.
Dominicans are not prestigious in the 13th century, anyway.
Thomas, with his background in philosophy and love of God, joined anyway.
Dominicans are, as it turns out, unafraid of philosophy.
In 1245, Thomas went to Paris to study — at the time, Dominican philosopher Albertus Magnus was active there. Three years later, Thomas followed Albertus to Cologne where, an apprentice professor, he taught Old Testament. 1252 saw him back in Paris studying to become a Master in theology. At this time, he continued lecturing on the Bible and also wrote his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, one of the standard theological texts and tasks of the age. Besides this and his biblical commentaries, Thomas wrote his work De ente et essentiafor his fellow Parisian Dominicans.
1256 saw Thomas’ appointment as regent master in theology at Paris and promptly launched a defence of the mendicant orders. He held this post until 1259, writing several of his philosophical and theological works, as well as beginning the Summa Contra Gentiles.
In 1260 at Naples he was made general preacher in that province, and 1261 had him teaching poor Dominican friars in Orvieto who could not afford an education such as he had acquired. I like this about him and the Dominicans, in fact. Anyway, at Orvieto is when he put together the Catena Aurea, a patristic catena commentary on the Gospels (listed under ‘Biblical Commentaries’ here). He also produced the liturgy for the new feast of Corpus Christi at this time.
1265 he was called to Rome by Clement IV to serve as papal theologian. He also served as a teacher at the newly-founded studium provinciale at Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, which was a training institute for Dominicans of the Roman province in higher levels of philosophy and theology. Amongst the various theological works he wrote during his time at Santa Sabina, St Thomas began the Summa Theologiaewhile he was there.
This, of course, is his most well-known writing and his greatest achievement.
The Summa Theologiae is a meticulously constructed text of theology and philosophy that systematically treats almost every subject of Chrisitan theology. Because God made all things, the theology of the Summa ends up producing a philosophy for understanding almost the entire world. Like all of St Thomas’ works, it is deeply steeped in Aristotelian ideas and methods, but also richly informed by Scripture and the Fathers. Not necessarily an easy read, it can be richly rewarding. Sadly, St Thomas was unable to complete his task despite working on it for so many years.
From 1268-1272 he was in Paris again, teaching. This time, in his sights were Averroist philosophers who had taken up an extreme version of Aristotelianism that he felt was incompatible with the Christian faith. His quarrels at this time also brought him into conflict with the Franciscan theologians St Bonaventure (saint of the week here), John Peckham, and William of Baglione — this last one slandering him as, in fact, an Averroist. Many disputations were thus created during this second regency in Paris.
His final phase of activity was from 1272 until his death, when he moved to Naples and established a studium generale — a general training institute for the whole Dominican order.
On one occasion, at Naples in 1273, after he had completed his treatise on the Eucharist, three of the brethren saw him lifted in ecstasy, and they heard a voice proceeding from the crucifix on the altar, saying “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” Thomas replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord” (Prümmer, op. cit., p. 38). Similar declarations are said to have been made at Orvieto and at Paris.
On 6 December, 1273, he laid aside his pen and would write no more. That day he experienced an unusually long ecstasy during Mass; what was revealed to him we can only surmise from his reply to Father Reginald, who urged him to continue his writings: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value” (modica, Prümmer, op. cit., p. 43). The “Summa theologica” had been completed only as far as the ninetieth question of the third part (De partibus poenitentiae).
He went to sleep in the Lord on 7 March, 1274.
He is one of the greatest theologians of all time, certainly of the mediaeval world. My first-year undergraduate philosopher teacher was surprised and delighted when he encountered such quality philosophy in the Middle Ages (chronological snob that he was). His influence extends everywhere, and whatever he says is worth being very careful over before you reject it. He was also a tireless Christian, seeking to educate his fellow friars in the ways of God’s truth and help others out of the paths of error.
Would we were all so committed to the paths of Christ’s truth.
This past Tuesday, December 2, was the second time Elder Porphyrios’ (1906-1991) feast was celebrated. It’s rare to have someone so recently canonised appear here, but I felt he was worth commemoration partly because of that fact — and because of his wisdom and holiness of life.
Elder Porphyrios was born Evangelos Bairaktaris in the village of Aghios Ioannis in the province of Karystia on the Greek island of Euboea (mod. Evia). The youngest of four, he left school after the first grade and worked in the town of Chalkida at a shop to make money for the family. He was a hard and obedient worker, and stayed there for a few years before moving to Piraeus on the mainland (it is Athens’ port) and working in a general store run by a relative.
Although he hardly knew how to read at the time, Elder Porphyrios had a copy of the Life of St John the Hut-Dweller which he read as a boy. St John inspired him. St John the Hut-Dweller was late fifth-century Constantinopolitan saint who secretly took up the monastic life at the famed monastery of the Acoimetae (Unsleeping Ones). After living for some years according to a very strict rule, St John was granted permission by his abbot to go life near his parents so as to cleanse his heart of earthly love for them. He then dwelled in a hut beside his family, identity unknown, for three years. He revealed himself to his mother on his deathbed.
Young Evangelos was inspired by St John the Hut-Dweller’s story and wanted nothing more than to become a monk. He tried to run away to Mt Athos, the Holy Mountain, to become a monk on a few occasions. When he was 12, he succeeded at his goal and entered the life of obedience to two very strict and severe elders. At the age of 14, he became a monk under the name Niketas, and at 16 he took his full vows.
During these early years of the monastic life, Elder Porphyrios was given no praise but many tasks. He spent much time alone on the mountain with no one but the birds. He learned the Psalms and the prayers by heart. And at age 19, he received a gift from the Holy Spirit of clear sight. When this gift came, he saw his elders approaching his position even though they were far away and around a corner. He knew what they were doing. Later in his life, Elder Porphyrios was able to use this gift of sight to counsel and care for the souls of the many people who came to him seeking God’s grace.
The simplicity of Elder Porphyrios’ heart is visible in his recognition of the songs of praise sung by the birds to Almighty God, a realisation he had while living on the Holy Mountain:
One morning I was walking alone in the virgin forest. Everything, freshened by the morning dew, was shining in the sunlight. I found myself in a gorge. I walked through it and sat on a rock. Cold water was running peacefully beside me and I was saying the [Jesus] prayer. Complete peace. Nothing could be heard. After a while the silence was broken by a sweet, intoxicating voice singing and praising the Creator. I looked. I couldn’t discern anything. Eventually, on a branch opposite me I saw a tiny bird. It was a nightingale. I listened as the nightingale trilled unstintingly, its throat puffed out to bursting in sustained song. The microscopic little bird was stretching back its wings in order to find power to emit those sweetest of tones, and puffing out its throat to produce that exquisite voice. If only I had a cup of water to give it to drink and quench its thirst!
Tears came to my eyes … (Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 31)
Elder Porphyrios’ love of the animal world, and of birds in particular, is illustrated by his taming of two wild parrots later in life. He wished also to tame an eagle, but I don’t know if that happened. One of his parrots would say the Jesus Prayer with him.
Ill health forced Elder Porphyrios to leave Mount Athos, and he returned to Evia where we lived at the Monastery of St Charalambos, Levka. In 1926 he was ordained priest and was given the name Porphyrios. He lived at the Monastery of St Charalambos for twelve years as a spiritual guide and confessor, and then three years at the deserted Monastery of St Nicholas in Ano Vatheia.
1940 saw the Second World War and Elder Porphyrios’ move to Athens. He became the chaplain and confessor at the Polyclinic Hospital where he served for many years, leading the liturgy and hearing confessions and ministering to the staff and patients of the hospital, many of whose previous contact with Christianity had been minimal or merely formal.
From 1955 to 1979, he lived at the Monastery of St Nicholas in Kallisia. He was still chaplain at the Polyclinic, but he was now able to also live out his lifelong dream of being a monastic at the same time. In 1979, he moved to Milesi, a village that overlooks Evia, where he lived at first in a caravan and later in a single-cell built of cinder blocks. However, the goal of founding a monastery was realised, and in 1984 he was able to move into one of the rooms of the complex under construction, and in 1990 the foundation stone of the monastic church was laid.
He returned to the Holy Mountain and died at his hermitage in Kavsokalyvia, where he had become a monk so long ago, December 2 1991.
Stories about Elder St Porphyrios abound. One time, a young man on the verge of suicide received a phone call out of the blue, and it was the saint (neither knew each other) who counselled him not to kill himself. This young man was converted, and later met Elder Porphyrios before becoming a priest himself. One young woman had a vision of Elder Porphyrios while she, too, was contemplating suicide. At both these times, Elder Porphyrios had been at prayer when the Lord made the miracle happen.
Elder Porphyrios was a man who could be deeply moved by the words of Scripture:
One Good Friday we were doing the service. The church was packed with people. I was reading the Gospel, and when I came to the phrase, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, that is, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? I was unable to finish it. I didn’t read the words ‘why have you forsaken me?‘ I was overcome with emotion. My voice broke. In front of me I saw the whole tragic scene. I saw that face. I heard that voice. I saw Christ so vividly. The people in the church waited. I said nothing. I was unable to continue. I left the Gospel on the reading stand and turned back into the sanctuary. I made the sign of the cross and kissed the Holy Table. I brought to my mind another image, a better one. No, not a better one. There was no more beautiful image than that one, but the image of the Resurrection came to my mind. At once I calmed down. Then I returned to the Holy Doors and said:
‘Excuse me, my children, I got carried away.’ –Wounded by Love
Imagine if more ministers were so drawn into Scripture that their hearts were pierced in the formality of Sunday services!
This month, we go back to the days before St Hippolytus to St Victor (Bp of Rome c. 189-198) — a contender for being the first ‘Bishop’ of Rome. One of the most important developments in church organization was that of the monarchical episcopacy, which emerged in the years following the deaths of the Apostles or leaders of the apostolic age in different places at different rates. The letters of St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) reveal that Antioch at the time had an episcopacy that seems to have presided over a board of presbyters. Ignatius as bishop had a liturgical function, a role in protecting orthodoxy, and a prophetic role in leading the church. His letters also show us that many churches in Asia Minor had men called bishops at their heads as well.
The story of the church at Rome is not uncomplicated in this regard. Was Clement the bishop the way we think of them, or one bishop among several? The Roman church was a large body of believers from early days and also relatively wealthy — wealth that was used by the church functionaries to feed the poor and support the ministers. They seem by the time of Clement to see themselves as a united church, not a varied selection of different communities.
1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas reveal a church structure that had a group of officials at its head whose titles were, in the last first and early second centuries, still fluid; is there much difference between a presbyter who presides and the episkopoi? By the middle of the second century, the various churches of the cities of the Mediterranean world were in increasing contact, and this necessitated mutual recognition of leadership. This was the time of proto-orthodoxy seeing various risks to its integrity and the doctrinal soundness of the church in the various groups labelled ‘Gnostic’ as well as the divergent Roman teacher Marcion.
Shortly before Victor’s episcopate in Rome, St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, gives his famous Apostolic Succession (about which I’ve blogged here) of the city of Rome in Against the Heresies 3.3. Irenaeus finishes with Eleutherius, Victor’s predecessor. This strongly suggests that some form of episcopal monarchy was already established in Rome by the time of Eleutherus’ episcopate. The shape of the episcopacy was yet to be fully determined, however — was he a president over his fellow presbyters or what?
Victor comes onto the scene around 189 upon Eleutherus’ death. Victor exercised episcopal authority in a variety of ways. According to the Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter VII, Victor used influence at the court of the Emperor Commodus to secure the release of Christian prisoners who were working in the mines of Sardinia. We learn from Eusebius (5.28.6) that he also excommunicated one Theodotus the Tanner for denying Christ’s divinity. Victor is using the office of bishop, that much is clear.
He is most famous, however, for his involvement in the Quartodeciman Controversy — a debate on the date of Easter. In this controversy, we see the international role that bishops play in each other’s churches, as well as the fact that the ancient, ‘primitive’ church was an international community that sought unity in all things.
Quartodecimans were Christians who celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan, at the same time as Jewish Passover. The primarily lived in Asia Minor. It seems to me that their tradition is probably as old as the accepted celebration of Easter on a Sunday. They included in their ranks the celebrated Bishop of Smyrna, St Polycarp. In the days of Anicetus, one of Victor’s predecessors, Polycarp visited Rome, and Anicetus received him warmly, despite their difference over the date of Easter.
In the mid- to late 100s, however, the debate heated up. The date of Easter is a big deal throughout Church history, cropping up here, then again around the time of the Council of Nicaea, then again in the 400s, and then famously at the Synod of Whitby in the 600s (my thoughts on that here). Many of today’s Christians probably wonder what the big deal is — who cares which day people celebrate Easter?
Well, two immediate thoughts. One is an official reason: Traditionally, people fast before Easter. To have some feasting while others are still fasting is just in appropriate. Second, Easter is the chief feast of the Christian year. It is the reason we are Christians. Jesus rose from the dead. To fail to celebrate Easter at the same time is to compromise Christian unity that is visible in the feasts.
When the issue of the divergent Asian celebration of Easter heated up, Eusebius says:
synods and conferences of bishops were convened, and without a dissentient voice, drew up a decree of the Church, in the form of letters addressed to Christians everywhere, that never on any day other than the Lord’s Day should the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead be celebrated, and that on that day alone we should observe the end of the Paschal fast. (Ecclesiastical History, 5.23, trans. Williamson)
The Asian bishops protested, and wrote in their defence that long custom and luminaries such as the Apostles Philip and John and the martyr Polycarp were on their side. Victor responded harshly and, to quote Eusebius, ‘pilloried them in letters in which he announced the total excommunication of all his fellow-Christians there.’ (5.24; this is no doubt why some consider him Rome’s first true bishop)
Other bishops felt that Victor had gone too far by breaking communion with every single Asian Christian, especially since they seemed to be pretty much orthodox. Amongst the more easygoing bishops were Irenaeus who pointed out that cutting churches off because they follow tradition is a bad idea. As Eusebius says, Irenaeus lived up to his name, peacemaker, and corresponded with Victor and other bishops to find a peaceful resolution to the issue.
I guess it seemed to work, since Eusebius does not return to the issue — however, pockets of Quartodecimans continued to exist in Asia Minor for centuries, tradition being on their side.
There is not much more to say about Victor. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes by J. N. D. Kelly simply closes:
According to St Jerome, he was the author of Latin works of moderate quality. Reports that he was a martyr and was buried near St Peter are routine and should be rejected. Feast 28 July.
I have chosen St Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263) for this week because I was looking for an Eastern saint this time around, I’ve visited the exterior of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris (pictured left) that’s name after him, and his feast is tomorrow (23 November).
Moving from a queen last week (St Margaret of Scotland) to a king is an interesting transition, because saintly queens tend to be remembered for their piety and acts of mercy. While saintly kings may be remembered for this also, they also have a tendency to be remembered either for Christianising their kingdom or for keeping its borders safe from either heathens or the wrong kind of Christian. Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, protected the borders of the Rus from both the wrong kind of Christian and heathens.
Alexander succeeded his father in 1236 at the age of 16. The Tatars had been engaged in some quite successful invasions of Rus territory, and — fortunately for Prince Alexander — they decided to turn southwards. His next engagement would be with Catholic Europe in 1240, when he did battle with the Swedes. The Swedish were, at this period of the Middle Ages, at the forefront of power in north-central and northeastern Europe. Their star was in the ascendancy.
And at the River Neva — hence Nevsky — Alexander defeated the Swedish army, protecting Rus for its Orthodox, Slavic rulers. Interestingly enough, of course, the people to whom the term rus originally applied were, in fact, Swedish Vikings resident in Eastern Europe at such places as Novgorod and Kiev. The Slavic ruling lines of the Central Middle Ages traced the lineage back to the Swedish Vikings who were ultimately assimilated into the local Slavic culture.*
Anyway, in 1242 Alexander Nevsky went head to head against the Tuetonic Knights, the other western force impinging on the Slavic Rus’ control of ‘Russia’** The Tuetonic Knights had been a major contributor to the successful spread of western, Catholic Christianity in parts of northeastern Europe — hence why Russia’s Baltic neighbours are not Eastern Orthodox. Some of their work had been the conversion on non-Christian populations to the Catholic faith. But now they were taking on the Rus, an ostensibly Christian people — just the wrong kind (from their point of view).
Not to worry — Russian Orthodoxy and Slavic ascendancy were saved when Alexander defeated the Teutonic Knights at Lake Peipous.
Interestingly enough, although Catholic Christians are definitely the enemy, after these famous battles (or during them? my source is The Oxford Dictionary of Saints), Nevsky was involved in working with the Tatars. Either they had converted without me knowing it, or its better to ally yourself with non-Christian nomads than to be conquered by Latin Catholics. At least from the Rus point of view.
Alexander is said to have taken monastic vows shortly before he died. He died on 14 November 1263 at Gorodec, and proceeded to wait 119 years to be canonised when it was politically convenient following Dmitri Donskoy’s defeat of the Tatars.
I, personally, am a bit skeptical about the sanctity of saints who read more like nationalistic warriors than anything else, but I’m some sort of dirty, western Protestant, so I could be biased. I’ll redress my somewhat cynical reading of Nevsky in future with a Russian saint I can get behind — I promise.
*An early example of their assimilation to local cultures is the adaptation by the Volga Vikings of certain Turkic practices in the 10th-century travelogue of Ibn Fadlan (inspiration for Eaters of the Dead and its film adaptation The 13th Warrior).
**Sincerely unsure of how these terms should be applied at this time.
Tomorrow, 16 November, is the feast of Queen St Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093). St Margaret is kind of a big deal around here. Edinburgh’s oldest building is a wee, 12th-century chapel dedicated to her up at Edinburgh Castle (when Thomas Randolph demolished the Castle in 1314, he left the chapel intact out of respect). Just to the West of the city is South Queensferry (named after Queen Margaret) — this takes you to North Queensferry in Fife. Edinburgh also has a Queen Margaret University. The Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopalians, and the Roman Catholics all have churches named for her. Dunfermline has the foundations of her old mediaeval shrine.
My first contact with Queen Margaret was her chapel up at the Castle — a lovely bit of Romanesque. I then encountered her at the Christian Heritage centre at the church I attend — she is remembered there for her piety and acts of charity towards the poor of Edinburgh. Indeed, her biographer, Bishop Turgot of St Andrew’s, was a big fan Queen Margaret’s acts of mercy.
Queen St Margaret is also one of the last Aethelings! This alone makes her pretty cool. She is a direct descendant of King Alfred the Great and granddaughter to Edmund Ironside. When the Danes made good their bid for the English throne, the Aethelings took refuge on the Continent. Margaret was born in Hungary. In 1057, however, Margaret was back on English soil. And when the Normans made good their bid for the English throne in 1066 (recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the French being God’s punishment on the English for their sins), Margaret’s young brother Edgar was, in fact, a source of resistance against the William the Bastard (to no avail, obviously).
Margaret wisely fled the Normans who weren’t overfond of English nobility, and the Aetheling ship landed in Fife on the Firth of Forth at St Margaret’s Hope (not its name at the time!), where they were met by King Malcolm III ‘Canmore’ (yes, from Shakespeare’s Scottish play). In 1070, Margaret and Malcolm were wed.
According to Turgot, Margaret wasn’t all that fussed about getting hitched and procreating and all that sort of thing. Nonetheless, she did her duty as a wife, but tried her best to spend more of her time praying and reading the Bible than being tied down by the worldly cares of her man. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t Turgot feeling awkward at the obvious sanctity of a non-virgin mother of several children who seemed to have a happy marriage — few mediaeval saints are married, after all, and virginity/celibacy was regarded as a higher way of life by many Christians since Late Antiquity. On the other hand, maybe these thoughts had infiltrated Margaret as well as Turgot, so she felt compelled to express her feminine piety in non-marriage-related ways, extolling the virtues of virginity? Who knows.
Anyway, Malcolm and Margaret seem to have ruled well together. Margaret did not convert the court into a semi-monastic world as some pious mediaeval monarchs seem to have attempted. Neither did she indulge in the sort of lavish lifestyle many a mediaeval aristocrat would have enjoyed. Since she believed in duty and decorum, for example, she made sure that the people at court were well decked out.
As mentioned above, Queen St Margaret is famous for her acts of mercy. She would wash the feet and feed the poor herself. She gave alms regularly and encourage Malcolm Canmore to do likewise. She established the ferry at Queensferry for the many pilgrims headed for St Andrews.
Her piety is also known from her love of books and of the Scriptures. She spent many hours reading, and we still have her own Gospel Book, now in the possession of the Bodleian Library. It is a fine specimen of eleventh-century English/Insular manuscript production.
When St Margaret was not engaged in acts of mercy or reading the Scriptures, she could often be found at prayer. In Lent she had a particularly rigorous personal round of prayers every morning. According to Turgot, she recited the entirety of the Psalter. Twice.
Really, this love of Scripture and Psalm-singing makes her sound quite Presbyterian. 😉
St Margaret’s personal piety also involved the visiting of hermits and other holy men throughout Scotland, whose wisdom and way of life she greatly admired. She sought the counsel of Turgot, both when he was in Dunfermline, and later as Bishop of St Andrew’s. She fasted and ate and drank with moderation, although this seems to have adversely affected her health.
As a monarch, Queen Margaret’s pious activity had much influence on the church of her day. She and Malcolm founded the Church of the Holy Trinity in Dunfermline where they had been married, now Dunfermline Abbey, with a palace nearby. She requested that Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury and her spiritual father, to send up Benedictines. Dunfermline Abbey thus became Scotland’s first Benedictine Abbey. The present building dates to David I (of course) and is a fine Romanesque structure:
Margaret also requested that Lanfranc send up some clerics from England who were well versed in the canons and ways of the Roman faith. Thus was hosted a synod where the Scottish church was regularised to be in greater conformity to existent Roman practice, such as starting Lent on Ash Wednesday instead of Clean Monday (because Sundays do not count to the forty days in western canonical practice, so four extra days are to be hunted down), receiving Holy Communion on Easter, and not working on Sundays.
There was also at this synod a move to regularise the celebration of the Eucharist in some parts of Scotland that was at the time being performed ‘according to some sort of strange rite, contrary to the usage of the whole Church.’ (Turgot, Life of St Margaret II.20) What this entails, we do not know. My little booklet from St Margaret’s chapel claims the use of Gaelic, but Turgot does not say that. It is some sort of rite, not the language thereof. In the notes to his translation, William Forbes-Leith says that this was probably the rite of the Cele De (those who have devoted themselves to the service of God), who seem to be a particular variety of secular canon that was established in the Scottish church in the ninth century, and the name sometimes refers to unmarried laymen who lived together in community. Their rite both before and after St Margaret differed from the general practice of the rest of the Scotland. Presumably it is something was developed for themselves by themselves much like the offices of the different religious orders in later centuries.
What I’m digging at, then, is not that there was some widespread, homegrown, anti-Rome ‘Celtic’ liturgy being practised everywhere before St Margaret and that it was in Gaelic. What I think is going is rather that certain groups in certain parts of Scotland had developed their own, homegrown, personal liturgies that had nothing to do with our romanticised conceptualisations of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Roman’ Christianity.
In all, St Margaret led a holy lifestyle in the midst of her worldly care. I have no doubt that it was probably easier for the nobility to spend so many hours in prayer than for the labouring class. Nonetheless, the evidence for what goes on throughout the mediaeval world is that few nobility seem to have used their freedom to be religiously disciplined. They used it instead for licence. Indeed, so do most of us when given our own time, forgetting the words of St Paul that we were bought at a price and our life is not our own. How many of us, given an extra half hour, pray or read the Scriptures instead of catching a show on Netflix?
This alone makes Queen Margaret, the pearl of Scotland, a cut above the rest.
And her acts of mercy are the evidence that such prayer and Scripture reading actually had an effect.
Queen Margaret died in 1093 and was buried with her husband in Dunfermline Abbey. You can still see the foundations of her shrine there today. Her head, which was placed in its own reliquary in the Middle Ages, was squirrelled away to France during the Reformation by pious Catholics. Her body and that of Malcolm reside in the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, Spain — where I spent a week, unknowing of their royal presences! An opportunity lost.
St Willibrord (658-739; Feast: 7 November) is one of the various missionary saints from the Anglo-Saxon world to the European continent such as his younger contemporary St Boniface (saint of the week here); his mission field was Frisia and parts of the modern Netherlands and Luxembourg, reaching into (pre-Viking) Denmark.
Willibrord was born in Yorkshire, the son of a certain Wilgils who at some point after Willibrord’s birth became a hermit. Willibrord was educated by St Wilfrid at Ripon and, in 678, went into exile in Ireland when Wilfrid lost his episcopacy in York and took his appeal to Rome (the first English bishop to use Rome as a court of appeal). Of note concerning Wilfrid is that he spent some time preaching in Frisia, also an Anglo-Saxon first, and no doubt later to inspire his disciple Willibrord.
Willibrord spent twelve years in self-imposed exile in Ireland where he spent time in study and was ordained priest. According to the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here), Egbert had long wanted to engage in continental mission, and the earlier mission of a certain Wictbert had availed nothing. After Willibrord’s return to England in 690, he and twelve companions went as missionaries to Frisia to fulfil Egbert’s vision. The choice of Frisia/Friesland makes sense, given the linguistic similarities between Old English and Frisian. I also believe that it is one of the parts of the Continent whence came Britain’s post-Roman Germanic invaders (ultimately ‘Anglo-Saxons’ to us).
Willibrord had the support of the Carolingian dux Pippin II, and his continental mission, like that of Boniface shortly thereafter, was both episcopal and apostolic. As Archbishop of Utrecht, he organised and reformed the existing Christian communities as well as engaging in evangelism of the non-Christian inhabitants of his Metropolitan area.*
Anglo-Saxon bishops (and Carolingians) tended to hold the Bishop of Rome in very high regard, not simply as the Patriarch of Western Christendom, but also as the person (in particular, Gregory the Great, saint of the week here) who first organised the Anglo-Saxon mission of Augustine of Canterbury (saint of the week here). As a result of this esteem in which the papacy was held, Willibrord visited Pope Sergius in Rome early in his mission. In 695 he again visited Rome, this time for his consecration as Bishop of Utrecht.
In 698, he founded his first monastery at Echternach. Monasticism and mission go hand in hand for insular evangelism.
Christianity, of course, can be a politically and socially de-stabilising creed. While Pippin II may have supported Willibrord, Radbod, a Frisian king who practised traditional religion, did not. In 714, Radbod drove Willibrord out of Utrecht, destroyed churches, and killed some priests. In 719, Radbod died, and Willibrord returned to Achiepiscopal see. It was after this that St Boniface joined Willibrord for a time before going East for his own missionary activity.
Like most missionaries of his day, Willibrord literally killed some sacred cows and destroyed some idols. Unlike the less fortunate ones, he and his companions survived. He died at the monastery in Echternach in 739.
He is an example of how early mediaeval prelates combined asceticism with evangelistic zeal. We would do well to imitate, I think.
Read more about Willibrod!
I got most of this information from:
David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed., Revised (2011)
*Quick note on church organisation: Local bishops have the pastoral and administrative care of cities and their surrounding area, today called a Diocese. These are further organised into Provinces, each of which has a Metropolitan. In the early mediaeval church, above the Metropolitans was the Pope.
Today on All Saints Day, I bring back the saint of the week. And this week, you get five-for-one! These five saints are martyrs commemorated on 2 November in the Orthodox Church. I am uncertain whether they are remembered by the Miaphysite communions and the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East, but I expect they are, given the year and location of their martyrdom.
The typical version of church history we all know and love paints a fairly grim picture of life before Constantine (which wasn’t as bad as you’d think) and then transpires the Peace of the Church. Persecution is over! Churches can be built publicly — even at public expense! Bishops can live in the open — with tax exemptions! And so on and so forth.
There is a debate as to whether the Peace of the Church was a good thing or not.
But you know whom it did not necessarily profit?
Christians outside the Roman Empire.
Christians within the Empire became a protected species. And the Roman Emperor came to see himself as the great patron of all Christians, whether they were his subjects or not. At times, this meant telling the Persian Emperor what to do, which was not the sort of thing that went down well with Persian Emperors — particularly Shapur II ‘the Great’, the longest-reigning Sassanian monarch (r. 309-379).
It also meant that when hostilities between the two Empires ramped up (a frequent occurance), Christians in Persian lands could become targets of the Sassanian monarchy — seen as foreign sympathisers. Christians often felt safer within Roman territory; thus, when the city of Nisibis fell to the Persian army in 363, St Ephraim the Syrian and a group of Syriac-speaking ecclesiastics moved the School of Nisibis to the city of Edessa in Roman territory.
During Shapur’s golden era, the Christians of Persia encountered persecution just as their siblings of Roman lands had in years past. For the most part, it seems that Shapur’s targets were high-level ecclesiastics such as Shemon Bar Shabbae or Bishop Acepsimas of Hnaita.
Unfortunately, I do not know enough about Persian Christianity in Late Antiquity or the sources for Byzantine hagiography to corroborate the story of the five martyrs for this week, so what I’m telling you about the events of 376 should be taken with caution — I take it from abbamoses.com. In fact, I’ll just reproduce it here for you:
Acindynus, Pegasius and Anempodistus were courtiers to King Shapur II of Persia. When the king began a fierce persecution of Christians, the three withdrew from court to a private house and, fearless of their own safety, openly exhorted their fellow-Christians to stand firm in their faith. For this they were arrested and brought before their former lord, who subjected them to many cruel tortures, from which they emerged miraculously unscathed. Seeing this, one of the king’s soldiers, named Aphthonius, embraced the Faith and was immediately beheaded. The former courtiers were then put to further tortures, but their only effect was to convince Elpidophorus, a distinguished nobleman, and seven thousand other Persians to faith in Christ. All were beheaded, but not before receiving holy Baptism. The trials of the three continued, but once again they were preserved, and even the king’s mother was led to the true faith. Finally they were killed (the account does not say how), receiving the crown of martyrdom along with the king’s mother and twenty-eight others.
This could likely be true. It’s at least the same sort of story as we find about martyrs under the Romans. Again, I have no knowledge of the sources for this quintet of martyrs so cannot say one way or the other. The Persian persecutions serve to remind us of the wider world of Christianity, not just today, but throughout all generations. It is common to remind people that Christianity was not born in Europe — it is also worth keeping in mind that the missions and growth of the Church in the Patristic period did not restrict themselves to the Roman Empire.
They also remind us that Christians in the lands of the former Persian Empire face persecution to this day, whether from the likes of ISIS or the legitimised government of Iran.
This is partly an attempt to get the Saint of the Week off the ground, partly a commemoration of St Patrick’s Day.
Today I (sort of) read the fifth-century Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine. In the year 431, he tells us:
Palladius, having been ordained by Pope Celestine, was the first bishop sent to the Scots believing in Christ. (trans. A. C. Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul, p. 68)
Now, if you’re not really paying attention (especially to dates), you are likely to take that as a reference to missionaries to Scotland. But it’s not. It’s a reference to a missionary to the Scots, who, at this stage, would have been a people group living in Ireland.
The Chronicle of Ireland gives us much the same thing for 431 (as do most [all?] other chronicles that touch on Palladius):
The kalends of January. In the 431st year from the Incarnation of the Lord, Palladius was ordained bishop by Celestine, bishop of the city of Rome, when Aetius and Valerius were consuls, and was the first to be sent to Ireland so that they might believe in Christ, in the eighth year of Theodosius [II]. (trans. T. M. Charles-Edwards, p. 63)
One would hope that the next year would be more informative about this not-so-famous bishop for the Irish. We get:
The kalends of January, AD 432. Patrick, i.e. the archbishop, came to Ireland and began to baptize the Irish in the ninth year of Theodosius II, in the first year of the episcopacy of Xistus, 42nd bishop of the Roman Church, in the fourth year of the reign of Lóegaire son of Niall . (This is the reckoning of Bede, Marcellinus and Isidore in their chronicles.) (trans. T. M. Charles-Edwards, pp. 63-4)
In its ensuing chapters, The Chronicle of Ireland gives us information about St Patrick’s mission. But the first we hear of Palladius is also the last.
My well of primary sources for early Irish history having now run dry, I turn to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer, a trusty book if ever there was one; it comes complete with a bibliography for each entry, after all. According to this source:
Palladius seems to have landed and worked mainly in Wicklow, where three places, Tigroney, Donard, and Cilleen Cormac (near Dunlavin), claim to be churches founded by him. His apostolate was not of long duration and was soon forgotten; it was in the interest of those emphasizing the role of Patrick that it should be. It seems likely that Palladius went from Ireland to Scotland, whether from distaste for his task or from the hostility which he encountered, or both, is not clear. He died there and the place of his death is claimed to be Forddun and there is still a cult of him in Aberdeen. It seems certain that Palladius and not Patrick was the first bishop to work in Ireland, that he is not to be identified with Patrick, that the evidence for a papal mission of Palladius is stronger than that for Patrick, and that a Scottish tradition that he preached in Scotland for twenty-three years is unreliable.
So there are the rest of the details we know about Palladius. What I think is most important, regardless of the task of sorting out the Palladius-Patrick chronology (which would require getting a hold of some other chronicles), is that Patrick is not the first missionary in Ireland. Not only that, neither Patrick nor Palladius is the first Christian in Ireland. Our earliest reference to Palladius is contemporary, and according to it, there were already Irish believing in Christ.
Palladius’ job was to go and be their pastor, their shepherd, to oversee the work and life of the Christians there, and to help link them with the wider Christian world. He seems to have given up on the Irish and gone to Scotland, but his little entry in Prosper is still of great significance for students of Christianity in Ireland.
His feast is July 7, so maybe you should drink a green beer in Palladius’ honour this July.
So says, “Third Knight,” Baron William de Traci, in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935/38, Faber & Faber), following the murder of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Becket, who died on this day in 1170. In the first part of the play, St. Thomas returns to Canterbury after a seven-year exile in France. Shortly after his arrival, four Tempters come to Becket, the fourth tempting him to becoming a martyr for the advancement of his own political and ecclesiastical causes. In the midst of the temptation, this Tempter, the most alluring, looks ahead into the future, into the Reformation and the Modern Period. The Tempter says, after mentioning the glory and power of a martyr:
You have also thought . . . of further scorning.
That nothing lasts, but the wheel turns,
The nest is rifled, and the bird mourns;
That the shrine shall be pillaged, and the gold spent,
The jewels gone for light ladies’ ornament,
The sanctuary broken, and its stores
Swept into the laps of parasites and whores.
When miracles cease, and the faithful desert you.
And men shall only do their best to forget you.
And later is worse, when men will not hate you
Enough to defame or to execrate you,
But pondering the qualities that you lacked
Will only try to find the historical fact.
When men shall declare that there was no mystery
About this man who played a certain part in history. (pp. 40-41)
And the Fourth Tempter is broadly right about how we treat the saints of the past. We reduce them to bare history. We reduce them to “facts” — cold, hard, lifeless. We reduce them to selfish causes. We seek out their flaws. We make them into mere products of their times, men who are merely the result of their social, economic, political, educational environment.
Today, let’s take a step to reverse the trend of Modernity to make men into things of study rather than mysteries to be delighted in. And let’s take a step to undo Thomas Cromwell’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and relearn how to venerate the saints without worshipping them. But first:
The Bare History
An exciting truth about Christianity is that it is real. It is about real people who have done real things in actual history. The Bible, the cornerstone of our faith, is the record of God’s action in history with humanity, a fact that is quite exciting and exhilarating. This means that, for the Christian, historical questions are not irreverent — neither are they the sum total of our enquiry into any event of spiritual significance. So, first, the bare history surrounding St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop, Martyr, Saint of the Church:
Henry II (r. 1154-1189), King of England, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, Maine, Brittany, was a powerful man who had the princes of Wales swear fealty to him, subjugated large portions of Ireland, and had the King of Scotland as his vassal. He is famous also for having a famous wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and famous sons, King Richard I, Lionheart, and King John. If you have a taste for theatre besides Murder in the Cathedral, there is another play about his rule called The Lion in Winter, which I have seen and quite liked.
He became king after that civil war that more literary, monkish, mysterious readers who are fans of Derek Jacobi may know from Brother Cadfael. The major thing this king did was unify, standardise, and strengthen his own control over English Common Law. This was, by and large, a Good Thing, since after civil war and whatnot English law was what is commonly called a Mess.
King Henry, though, tried reaching further than he really could. He tried to impose his own Royal Courts over the clergy. If you know a thing or two about mediaeval society, one of them is this: Leave the Church alone. The Church had always and ever enjoyed its own courts. Clergy were subject to ecclesiastical courts, not the courts of the kingdom. And crimes committed on church property, such as assassinations of archbishops, were also within the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts.
In order to try and get the Church on his side, King Henry appointed his Chancellor and chum, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately for Henry, Thomas took his role as priest of the church more seriously than his role as “buddy of the King.” Thus, they settled into vicious conflict, each seeking to impose his will over the other, and each ultimately appealing to the Pope in Rome.
Things got so bad, what with the good Archbishop excommunicating a few bishops and other suchlike people, that Becket was forced to flee to France and live in exile. He was in exile for seven years. In December of 1170, Becket returned to England, things having been patched up a little bit by the Pope.
Also in December of 1170, King Henry got himself drunk (unwise) and declared, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four barons took it upon themselves to see to it that they would be the ones to do the ridding.
On December 29, they went to Canterbury and had audience with Becket, trying to sway him to the King’s position. Finding him unmoved, they left — only to return later, break into the cathedral, and kill poor Thomas Becket who was found praying. They cut open his head, and got blood and brains everywhere. Highly unpleasant.
Henry thus underwent penance for his role, although he never condoned the action of the four barons.
St. Thomas Becket had a shrine established at Canterbury Cathedral that was to become one of the chief pilgrim places in England. It is, indeed, on the road to Canterbury (a road I have stood upon myself, but not walked the length), that Chaucer’s pilgrims tell their tales. This shrine stood until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when in the overzealous, iconoclastic frenzy of the Reformation, it was destroyed.
Is There a Lesson?
Undoubtedly, many have said that Becket was simply serving his own ends and those of the power of the Church. They will have declared that, although assassinated, Becket’s story is still the story of the “winners.” Essentially, this story will be wiped clear of meaning by the modernists and of existence by the postmodernists.
But the Church and orthodoxy are older than modern and older than postmodern, and they shall stand unto ages of ages. And there is a lesson here. There is a lesson in the life of every saint. They are more than mere history, more than mere events, more than dates and figures, more than relics, more than dead flesh rotting in the grave — for they live and shall shine with glory on Resurrection Day!
Saint Thomas Becket was acting in the interests of the Church. Indeed, he lived at a time when the Church had political interests, and he was operating in favour of the enshrinement of certain rights that the Church enjoyed within the mediaeval judiciary organism. Nevertheless, he was doing his job as a Bishop of the Church. As well, he was working for the curtailment of the overreaching power of the king, power that was seeking to shift the balance of the established order — an order that operated in like fashion throughout Western Europe.
The mediaeval world thrived on order. The universe has order, and this means that certain people have certain roles to play. There is room for individual flourishing and movement and expression within those roles, within the order, but the established order helped keep things from falling apart. Life was hard: winters could be cold, crops could fail, children could be stillborn, mothers could die in childbirth, enemies could attack, raiders could lay waste your home, thieves could steal your wealth. By operating within the order of things, one helps maintain balance and helps to perform a necessary function in the movement of society, civilisation, and culture, helping the task of survival. Everyone is dependent upon everyone else — the villeins upon the knights for protection, the knights upon the villeins for food and help in maintaining the land, the king upon the barons for counsel and battle, the barons upon the knights for the same, all upon the clergy for prayers, instruction, and the preservation of knowledge and the arts, the clergy upon everyone else for food and protection.
If one upsets this order, this balance, this delicate preservation of society, life, beauty, and culture, then one endangers everything. So, in opposing a king who would put the Church under his law in judiciary matters, Becket was protecting the Church from an overproud and overpowerful monarch, and thereby protecting everyone who would seek the protection of the Church. In the Middle Ages, there is no dichotomy between Church and State, yet they co-existed and worked with and through each other, each balancing the power and privileges of the other. Becket preserved this balance.
But Becket died.
He is, therefore, a reminder that when secular authorities seek to curtail the power of the Church, when they seek to interfere in the Church’s business, to stand up and fight does not mean one will make it through unscathed. However, he reminds us that we are to stand nevertheless, even if it means the crown that comes through martyrdom.
In this way, he is a little bit a type of Christ. To quote Philip Yancey:
the only time Jesus met with powerful political leaders, his hands were tied and his back was clotted with blood. Church and state have had an uneasy relationship ever since. (The Jesus I Never Knew)
How to Honour a Saint
If you have the time and money, make a pilgrimage to Canterbury! His shrine is gone, but the cathedral is there.
Or do as I did today. Read Murder in the Cathedral. Plays are short. If you have no stamina for reading, watch the movie. I also received Eucharist today. If there’s a saint you particularly like, go to church on his or her feast day! Honour these people with the worship of Christ. Honour them with the receiving of the gift that God has to offer us in the sacraments. Honour them as they would prefer it, therefore.
Read up on him. The information I gave you in “The Bare History” came from my brain (if I could cite the places I learned it all, I would); what I heard from a reading at church this morning out of For All the Saints, a book of readings and whatnot for saints in the Anglican calendar; and A Short History of the Middle Ages by Barbara H. Rosenwein. You could undoubtedly find St. Thomas Becket at The Catholic Encyclopedia, in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, or Butler’s Lives of the Saints.
And then try and emulate the saint! Speak out against the injustices wrought by institutions and authorities. Give the church a voice in a secularist society that seeks to stifle us and muffle us and keep us passively quiet. Faith is always personal but never private (Jim Wallis, I think). Seek to see an order in our society that affirms the truths of Christ and seeks the embracing of all and the exclusion of none. Seek truth, justice, and piety in the order of this nation of Canada. We have a rich Christian heritage. Christians built this country. Let us become visible once more.