The Oxford Dictionary of Saints

When I was a kid, my dad brought home a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Farmer from a clergy conference. It was probably the 3rd edition (1992), but maybe the 2nd (1987). I thought it was the most excellent thing ever, so I was quite pleased to buy my own copy of the 5th revised edition (2011) for half price from Blackwells last week. Since it’s the Octave of All Saints, here’s my review.

As the front cover states, the book covers ‘the lives, cults, and associated art of more than 1,700 saints’. The immediate question, especially in our ecumenical age with western Christians becoming ever more aware of the eastern churches, is: Which 1,700? Since my dad’s edition (and probably since the first), the main focus of this book has been English saints — unsurprising, given it’s point of origin. However, it has now been expanded to include saints from North and South America.

Farmer’s Introduction (p. vii) gives us these 5 criteria:

  1. All English saints including those of English origin who died abroad … and those of foreign origin who died in England.
  2. All saints whose feasts are in the important calendars such as the Roman Calendar of 1969, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Sarum rite as well as those who are patrons of churches or places.
  3. The most important and representative saints of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.
  4. Other saints have been included because of their importance of the history of the Christian Church.
  5. Candidates for canonization called Venerable … or Blessed are not included in this volume

This gives us a range covering the English Venerable Bede, Augustine of Canterbury, and Willibrord, as well as Fathers such as Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and John Chrysostom, and modern saints such as Mary Mackillop,  Gemma Galgani, and Thérèse of Lisieux, and pre-schism eastern saints such as John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor, and Theodore the Studite. The inclusion of Prayer Book saints means that Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria, despite suppression by the papacy in 1969, are here.

Unfortunately, Canada seems barely to exist in this book. Kateri Tekakwitha is not here, and of the eight Canadian Martyrs only Jean de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues are present. Canada is also not included in the list of countries and places with their patron saints. Given that the book has tried to become global by including African, South American, and Asian saints, it is a bit disappointing to see it lacking Canadians.

The next question, after considering the range of saints included, is whether the entries are any good. I believe the answer is yes. Each entry begins with the saint’s dates and a brief mention such as ‘monk and bishop of Lindisfarne.’ Then follows a brief, critical biography that mentions the activities and reputed character of the saint as well as miracles performed within his or her lifetime with neither accepting all miracle tales outright nor rejecting them out of hand.

In the case of a saint such as Cuthbert, there follows a long discussion of what happened to the body/relics and the establishment of the saint’s cultus, possibly also where mediaeval artwork concerning the saint is to be found. The entry proper closes with the saint’s feast day. Then Farmer gives a brief bibliography of both primary and secondary sources for the saint’s life, and where the works of saints who were writers may be found. Sometimes I think mentions of English translations would be useful, but the critical engagement of each entry is to be lauded.

The Introduction to the volume discusses the origins of the cult of the saints, then its progress in the British Isles in the Early Middle Ages, and then the development of the system in the Roman Church from the High Middle Ages to today including the fate of the cults during the Reformation. There is a brief bibliography as well as footnotes throughout the Introduction.

A series of appendices close the book. Appendix 1 covers ‘Principal Patronages of Saints’  — Matthew, my namesake, is the patron of accountants, while Bede and Jerome are the patrons of scholars. Appendix 2 is very helpful, ‘Principal iconographical emblems of saints.’ With this knowledge in hand, one can more easily identify saints in art. Interesting entries: ‘Breasts (on dish) Agatha’, ‘Eyes  (on dish) Lucy’, ‘Eyes (on book) Odile’, and ‘Intestines Erasmus’. Appendix 3 is a useful discussion of ‘Pilgrimages’, accompanied by maps of pilgrim sites in Britain and Ireland, Europe, the Holy Land, and North and South America. Then follows an Index of Places, a Calendar, and Patron Saints of Countries and Towns.

Finally, this book is ‘Web Linked.’ This means that OUP has a web page of useful links about saints to accompany this book, undoubtedly chosen and recommended by Farmer. The page includes links to resources on Benedictines, Cardinal Newman, some general saints websites, Celtic saints, Greek Orthodox saints, the Marist Brothers, the Crusades, the Bollandists, Mary Mackillop, and a link to the Vatican’s website.

Overall, this book is a very handy resource and I highly recommend it. Its gaps are disappointing but few. Maybe the 6th Edition will have more Canadians. 😉 Otherwise, it covers in a brief yet critical way that opens the reader up to further reading most of the saints that interest me from the Patristic and Insular world.

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The saints make God local

I was going to make the adjective closing this post’s title ‘universal’, but that’s not the point I want to make. The point currently invading my brain (at the expense of my original plans for tonight, Christianity After Constantine) is that God is not simply ‘The God of Everything’ but the God of Where You Are. He is intimately connected with you and where you live.

And how can we perceive the localness of God?

The stories of His saints.

God is not a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean God, although the stories of the Bible all take place in those two locales. No, God is also a British God. A Canadian God. An Ecuadorian God. A South African God.

Of course, immediately I must say that the scandalising particularity of the Incarnation means that the heart of Christianity is based around a first-century Jewish carpenter who was executed by the local authorities. But when God was killed by us, and then rose again, and subsequently ascended, He made Himself available to all people. That particular moment, that event, makes God able to be universally local.

The faith community that surrounds the Jesus event(s) is called by St Paul ‘the Body of Christ’. The Holy Spirit indwells each and every believer.

God is not just the God of the Bible. He is the God of wherever His people are. Our story is His story, for He has lived through it all by the mindblowingly awesome power of the mystical union He shares with us, a spiritual bond that is well-nigh unbreakable.

God, as I said, is also a British God.

I bring in Britain because I live in Scotland. The stories of God are not just shaped by the warmth and aridity of the Judaean countryside, but the chill and dampness of Britain. God has been here, and not just as Creator, a way in which He is present everywhere in an equally intimate way.

God was here in Scotland with Columba, an Irishman (saint of the week here). God was here in Ninian, a Briton. God was here in Adamnan, an Irishman. God was here in Margaret, an Anglo-Saxon. God was here in Cuthbert, an Anglo-Saxon (saint of the week here). God was here in Blane, a Scot from Bute. God was here in Curetan, a Scot (Pict?). God was here in Sts Fillan, who were Irish.

God was down in England in Cuthbert, an Englishman. God was there in Bede, an Englishman (saint of the week here). God was there in Augustine, a Roman (saint of the week here). God was there in Aidan, an Irishman (saint of the week here). God was there in Caedmon, an Englishman (saint of the week here; also, read my translation of Bede’s telling of his life). God was there in Hilda, an Englishwoman (saint of the week here). God was there in Alban (I dunno where he’s from; saint of the week here). God was there in Aelfheah, an Englishman (saint of the week here).

If I knew any Welsh saints, I’d list them, too.

God was in Britain with these saints as well as throughout the Middle Ages, Reformation, and up to this very day. They were characters who lives and personalities were shaped by the weather and history and culture of this island.  Christianity is, perhaps, a universal religion. Yet everywhere we go, we are shaped by our stories here, by the experience that the Body of Christ has in these locations, at these times, with these people.

And so, if we are seeking for local spirituality, for British, or Scottish spirituality, it is here. Hilda was born here, and she found Christ already waiting. He is here, and He has shaped this island’s history. We need not look farther than the green hills or craggy cliffs to find him. We need look no further, indeed, than our very hearts.