In the calendar of the church we remember today the life and witness of a seventh-century monk from Rome named Paulinus. In year 625, Paulinus was made a bishop. He was among the second generation of missionaries sent by Pope Gregory I to assist Augustine in evangelizing England. The church historian, the Venerable Bede, described Paulinus as “a tall man with a slight stoop. He had black hair, an ascetic face, a thin hooked nose, and a venerable and awe-inspiring presence.”[i] Paulinus began his work in York, where there were already a few Christians. Paulinus engaged in long private conversations about the Christian faith with King Edwin. The king sought advice from his councilors, whether he should become a Christian. One of the councilors responded by telling a parable:
“This, O King, is how the present life of humankind appears to me in comparison with that time which is unknown. You are sitting, feasting with your nobles in winter time; the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging; and a sparrow flies swiftly through the hall. For the few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm, and into it again. So this life of humankind appears but a moment; what follows or indeed what went before, we know not all. If this new doctrine brings us more certain information, it seems right that we should accept it.”[ii]
With this advice from his councilors the king received a further confirmation. The Venerable Bede tells of a dream that Edwin had prior to his being enthroned. In this dream, Edwin was told that power would be his – and power was needed during these days of incessant warfare between neighboring kingdoms – when a stranger laid a hand on his head. It happened. In one of his conversations with the king, Paulinus revealed Edwin’s dream, and Paulinus laid a hand on the king’s head. And, as we say, the rest is history. A wooden chapel was hurriedly built in year 627 as a place to baptize King Edwin and a good many of his councilors and subjects. That chapel would become the foundation of the great York Cathedral. Paulinus died on this day, year 644.
This is not the first time that a ruler converts to Christianity and, with that conversion comes the conversion of a multitude of subjects. Of course, this happened with Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century and then throughout later history. Were those conversions for “mixed motives”? Were some people as much concerned about keeping their job or retaining their property than they were about their eternal destination? Probably. Our motives are often mixed, and God is well apprised of this. God meets us where and how we are, mixed bags that we are. God’s grace is greater, always, and at work in us, always, far more than we can ask or imagine in our own lives.[iii] Charles Péguy, the French poet and spiritual writer, called this the insidiousness of God’s grace. “Grace is insidious. When it doesn’t come straight it comes bent, and when it doesn’t come bent it comes broken. When it doesn’t come from above it comes from below.”[iv] Grace is insidious – for Paulinus and Edwin, for his subjects, for us.
[i] The Venerable Bede (672-735) from his History of the English Church and People.
[ii] The story taken from For All the Saints; Prayers and Readings for Saints’ Days, compiled by Stephen Reynolds (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre), p. 300.
[iii] A riff on Ephesians 3:20-21.
[iv] Charles Péguy (1873-1914).
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