Occasion: Commemoration of St. Frideswide, Monastic, c735
Some of us will remember our visit to Oxford a few years ago, when we were able to spend some time in the Cathedral after it closed to the public, and while the choir was rehearsing for Evensong. A number of us spent that time sitting in the Latin Chapel, where Morning Prayer is prayed each day, and where the shrine of St. Frideswide has been rebuilt. Frideswide’s relics aren’t actually there, but a few yards away somewhere under the floor, or in the wall, where they were hidden at the time of the Reformation.
She exists too, here at the monastery, along with St. Edward the Confessor, whose feast was last week. They keep watch over our comings and goings, as we move from the chapel to the refectory. Their small windows are in the door leading from the statio to the cloister.
Frideswide, is perhaps an odd saint for us to commemorate, but it is her connection as patron saint of Oxford that places her in our calendar, and in our windows.
Her legend is quite fantastic, at least to modern ears. It involves virgins, royalty, attempted seductions, near escapes, vows, miracles, and holy wells. In other words, the works. But beneath the legend, is a story of dedication, devotion, mercy, and healing.
St Francis of Assisi
You may have noticed upon entering the chapel this morning that the liturgical color is white rather than green, which it would normally be during this season of the Church’s year. It is white because we are observing the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, the little poor man (Il Poverello) who has long been recognized as one of the most beloved saints of all time. His actual feast day is October 4, but we have transferred the feast to today to bring to a close our month-long observance of the Season of Creation, during which we have celebrated and prayed for the earth and its creatures.
I have twice had the good fortune of visiting the town of Assisi, which rests on a hilltop in the breathtakingly-beautiful central region of Italy called Umbria. Assisi is, of course, the birthplace of St Francis, and of the religious order he founded, the Order of Friars Minor (OFM). During my visits to Assisi, my favorite pastime has been to sit in the small chapel in the undercroft of the great Franciscan basilica, where the body of St Francis and four of his early companions are buried, to witness the silent, steady stream of admirers and devotees from all over the world, as they approached his tomb to offer their prayers and to pay their respects. I have literally spent hours there, wondering, as I looked on, how one man, one life, could have had such an enormous impact on the world and could have influenced for good millions upon millions of lives.
St. Peter & St. Paul, Apostles
St. Peter and St. Paul, whom we celebrate today, shared several things.
Both men had utterly life-changing experiences of the crucified-and-risen Jesus. This Jesus spoke to both men individually and personally. Each received a calling that only Peter and only Paul could fulfill.
Both men were tasked with stewarding the ancient traditions of their ancestors and faithfully making meaning of that stream of wisdom while at the same time living from the heart of a new awareness: that their Lord and Messiah had, in their experience, radically changed the course of that history. This new awareness was subject to misunderstanding and rejection; and so were they.
Both men were asked, repeatedly, to adapt to circumstances they could never have imagined; to adopt a new perception of how God communicated with God’s people; and to embody a new paradigm for gathering and nourishing the community of God. The limitless boundaries of this community – nothing less than the Body of Christ — took them on an odyssey far from home, spiritually and geographically.
Feast Day: Bernard Mizeki
We Brothers are familiar with the story of Bernard Mizeki, because in many ways, he’s one of our own. Unfortunately, the all too brief hagiography of him in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, doesn’t do him justice. Nor does it do justice to reason why his shrine in Zimbabwe continues to attract thousands of pilgrims each year on his feast day.
But today, I don’t want to focus on the story of his martyrdom. I want to remember a part of his story, which is less familiar: the story of his baptism.
Writing from Cape Town on 9 March 1886, Father Puller says this:
We had a very happy day on Sunday. As … the Bishop gave us leave to baptize our [African] catechumens before the … chapel was formally opened and licensed.
Accordingly, we got the building ready and held the service on Sunday Evening….
The altar with its dossal and canopy and other sanctuary hangings looked very dignified and beautiful….
Our baptismal tank holds about 400 gallons of water….
Father Shepherd has been training a choir, and we came into the chapel in procession singing “As pants the hart for cooling streams.” … The Chapel was very full of people, although we had not given public notice of the service. The choir took their places on one side of the baptismal tank, and the seven catechumens in dark blue garments reaching to their feet … on the other side. Fraulein von Blomberg, as godmother, had a place beside them. Everyone was, I think, impressed by the great seriousness and earnestness of the catechumens.
Julian of Norwich
Amid the swirling death and anxiety of pandemic, amid the social and political upheaval of today, we remember Julian of Norwich, who as James recently told us Brothers, is a good companion because she lived in a similar time. The late fourteenth century had much anxiety, death, and change. The Great Famine killed many and about twenty years later when Julian was born, the Black Death began killing millions. Then there were social and political revolts and beginnings of church reform.
Amid of all this, Julian received a series of visions and committed herself to a life of prayer, lived in a church, listening to and praying for many who came to her, and wrote a significant book reflecting on her experiences.
Julian’s life and writings embody our text from the Letter to the Hebrews. She encourages us to persevere because of who we know God to be. “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us approach … with faith … let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering … and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … .”
Julian lived that faith and hope confident in God’s abiding love for all of us. Robert Ellsberg wrote: “Her central insight was that the God who created us out of love and who redeemed us by suffering love, also sustains us and wills to be united with us in the end.”[i] May we join our prayers with Julian in response to God’s creative, redeeming, and sustaining love, confident in her words that “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
St. George the Martyr
Preaching on the saints can be, at times, a real challenge. This is especially true with some of the early saints, including some of the apostles, about whom we know very little, and what we do know, is largely legend. Does the preacher simply stick to the texts, or do they focus on the legend? The problem with dismissing the legend out of hand is that many of the legends have within them shards of historical truth, and if they don’t, the legends are so archetypal, they still contain truth, and those archetypal legends have the power to shape and influence lives.
This is especially true of St. George, whom we remember today. What can be said about him, or at least about his feast historically, is that his feast was being kept as early as the mid fifth century. The legend of George and the dragon can’t be traced back earlier than the twelfth century. It is thought he died a martyr in the early years of the fourth century, during the persecution of Diocletian. He may have been a soldier, which gave rise to him being recognized as the patron saint of soldiers in twelfth century. As patron saint of soldiers, the Crusades were fought under his banner, which is how, ultimately, devotion to George was carried back to England, where in 1347 he was declared the patron saint.
Self-denial or dying to self are common themes among martyrs honored by the Church. In fact, our Gospel reading today has been used for The Martyrs of Japan, Blandina and Her Companions, John Coleridge Patteson and his Companions, and, Saint George, dragon slayer. In what way could these examples of suffering and pain, stories of self-denial, cross bearing, and loss of worldly life teach us more about the way of Jesus? Well, I’m inspired, especially, by the stories of Saint George and Blandina, because they show us two helpful ways of understanding Jesus’ words, and two ways of dealing with the fear we might feel in response to Jesus’ call. First, we’ll look at Saint George.
Saint George was a compassionate and loving Christian, known especially for being a warrior of unmatched courage who gave his life for his faith. He’s typically portrayed as the patron saint of soldiers, and although many Christians today might not be soldiers, we still have a spiritual battle to fight. We can remember the words of Saint Paul when he writes that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
From a contemplative point of view these rulers or cosmic powers of darkness are the demons lurking within us, hard at work convincing us that we’re separate from God, from others, and our own True Selves. This spiritual battle is deceptively simple, because although it comes down to making a single choice, making the right choice can seem very difficult.
Luke 12: 4-12
Vincent of Saragossa, Deacon and Martyr, 304
This is an unusual week. Three days in a row, in the calendar, we commemorate some of the earliest martyr saints of the Church: Fabian, Agnes, Cecilia, and now Vincent, all martyred in some of the earliest waves of persecution against the Church.
It’s easy, from a distance of about 1800 years to look back at these figures and dismiss them as irrelevant to faithful Christian living in the early decades of this century. Our challenges living as Christians in an age of pandemic, are very different than theirs. Yet, by their feasts, especially since they happen three days in a row, they invite us to consider, not simply their deaths, but their lives, and the invitation they make to us today.
Vincent was a deacon of Spain, and the assistant of the saintly bishop, Valerius. Both of them were caught up in the persecution of early Christians ordered by the Emperor. Already, Valerius was an old man, but more significantly, tradition tells is that he had a serious speech impediment, and Vincent would often preach for him. The story goes that when they were called before the governor, Vincent said to the bishop, Father, if you order me, I will speak. To which Valerius responded, Son, I committed you to dispense the word of God, so I now charge you to answer in vindication of the faith which we defend. With those words, Vincent holding nothing back, proceeded to offer a defence of the Christian faith boldly and with exuberance.
Judith 9:1-4, 10-14
2 Corinthians 5:14-18
While darkness still covers the world, the woman comes to the garden adjacent to the place of death. Finding the great stone moved away from the tomb of the Man, she runs to search for two of his disciples. ‘They have taken my Lord out of the tomb and I do not know where they have laid him.’ The two run with the woman to the tomb. Though the much-loved younger one arrives first, he does not enter; but from outside he observes the grave wrappings neatly folded and set aside. Upon arriving the older impetuous one goes in immediately; he sees the wrappings but finds no body on the blood-stained slab. It is only then that the first one enters; he ‘sees’ and believes. Both then leave the grieving woman at the tomb.
Though racked by tears, the woman continues her search for the missing Man, the Beloved One. Bending to look into the tomb, the woman sees what the other two did not. Angels in dazzling white frame and shelter the empty burial slab. Though not yet fully aware of it, the woman is granted entrance to the Holy of Holies, the throne room of the God from whom the Man has come and to whom he is returning. The burial stone has become the heavenly mercy-seat; it is now the blood-sprinkled altar of the self-offering and re-creating God who took on human flesh to redeem us all.
It is remarkable how much a saint for our times is the Lady Julian. Living in the latter half of the fourteenth, and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, on first glance one would think there was nothing about her life that would resonate with ours. However, like us, she lived at a time of much worry, anxiety, and turmoil. Twenty years before her birth in 1353, the Great Famine swept Northern Europe leaving up to 25 percent of the population dead. Shortly after her birth, the Black Death struck, leaving up to half the population of the city of Norwich itself dead, and killing an estimated 200 million people in total. It would take centuries for the population of Europe return to previous pre-Black Death numbers. Both these events lead to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, when the city of Norwich was overwhelmed by rebel forces. At this same time early agitation for the reform of the Church, known as Lollardy, initially begun by John Wycliffe, was beginning to take root
It was in that world, not so unlike our own, that the Lady Julian lived and received her showings or revelations during a time when she herself was gravely ill, and expected to die. After receiving the Last Rites on 8 May 1373, she lost her sight, and began to feel physically numb. It was in this state that as she gazed upon a crucifix above her bed, she saw the figure of Jesus beginning to bleed, and received her revelations. Over the next several hours she received sixteen revelations. Following her recovery five days later, she recorded them, first in a short version, now lost, except for a copy, and then many years later in a longer version.