This is a reproduction of a lecture I gave at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore, on 19th February 2016, as part of the parish’s Lenten series on the Anglican patrimony.
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First, let’s look briefly at England before the Norman Conquest. We can start with one Etheldreda, also known as Æthelthrythe, Edeltrude, Edilthride, or most simply St Audrey. A seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princess, St Audrey successfully persuaded her first husband (one Tondberct of something unpronounceable in the southeast of England) to respect a vow of virginity that she had made before their marriage, and after his death, she retreated to live on the Isle of Ely. Five years later, in 660, she was married to King Ecgfrith of Northumbria for political reasons.
Unfortunately, you couldn’t do that to Audrey. Ten years after her second marriage had begun, having once again maintained her virginity, she formally became a nun. Her husband chose this moment to try to persuade her to be a more conventional wife; he even tried to persuade the Archbishop of York (‘persuade’ here means ‘bribe’) to convince his Queen to leave the cloister for normal married life. The good bishop would have none of this sass, and King Ecgfrith decided that, not being in enough trouble with God, he would try to pull Audrey out of the cloister by force.
This went quite smoothly, for the Queen. St Audrey and two of her fellow nuns, helped by the Archbishop of York, escaped the advances of the King and reached refuge at a promontory. Ecgfrith would have followed her, but when high tide came and made access to the promontory impassible, it then remained high for seven days straight. King Ecgfrith, recognizing a miracle when it happened right in front of him, and reflecting that there were other fish in the sea which had not taken vows of perpetual virginity, assented to an annulment of the marriage.
St Audrey remained a nun to the end of her days, founding a monastery at Ely. She was one of the earliest examples of the English tradition of founding shrines that get ransacked by the Vikings. Moreover, when she was exhumed in 1106 over four hundred years after her death to be re-buried in Ely Cathedral, her body was found to be incorrupt, so perhaps there is something to be said for stubbornness.
Skipping forward about three hundred years, we find a figure one of whose relics we at Mount Calvary are privileged to house: St Edward the Confessor. (He is called Confessor as a traditional title for saints who are not martyred.) Many of the details of his life are sadly unclear. One of the ticklish problems is that, on the one hand, there was a tradition of English kings being revered as saints, and the Life of King Edward which his widow had commissioned was converted into an ordinary saint’s life by an abbot of Westminster in the early twelfth century; on the other hand, the fact that a person is regarded as saintly does not necessarily mean that they weren’t, something modern historians are apt to forget, and Edward was in fact canonized by the reformist Pope Alexander III.
St Edward’s early life was unhappy. When the magnificently named Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England in 1013, Edward’s family fled to Normandy, and he lived in exile for more than twenty years. He finally became King of England in 1042. Much of his reign was spent in tension with the powerful Earl Godwin, who had family ties to the Danish kings, and had also handed Edward’s brother over to be blinded with a red-hot poker, which seems to have inspired Edward’s dislike in some way. The king was well-loved by the people, not least for reducing a number of taxes. He is also conspicuous for having refrained almost entirely from war during his long reign, except his support of the deposition of Macbeth.
The revised Life of King Edward asserted that the saint devoted himself to celibacy even before his marriage, and it is a fact that he and his wife had no children. Whether his piety took that specific form or not, he was the patron of Westminster Abbey: its renovation was one of the major projects of his reign, and an influential instance of Romanesque. The Abbey professed to have the crown of St Edward, treated as a relic and used in the coronation of all English monarchs until 1649, when Oliver Cromwell had the regalia destroyed—though St Edward’s Sapphire, the gem from his ring, was preserved and ultimately incorporated into a later crown by Queen Victoria.
St Edward too was found to be incorrupt. Many miracles of healing had been reported at the king’s shrine in Westminster, and in 1102, after the Archbishop of Canterbury formally forbade cults of the dead without diocesan approval, the Abbot of Westminster had the king’s body exhumed for examination. The Confessor’s body was found to be entirely incorrupt and free of rigor mortis, and the Bishop of Winchester tugged on the saint’s beard—whether to secure a hair as a relic, or just to see if it would stay on—and was rebuked sharply by the Abbot. St Edward was again found incorrupt, more than a century after his death, when he was translated from his first tomb to his present-day resting place, under the ægis of St Thomas à Becket. There is no report of beard-related jiggery-pokery on this occasion.
Finally, we may consider the apparition of Our Lady of Walsingham, which took place in 1061 to a certain Lady Richeldis de Faverches. This woman had a vision of the house of the Holy Family in Nazareth, and was asked by the Mother of God to build a replica in Walsingham, a city in Norfolk in the east of England; Richeldis was told that Whoever seeks my help there will not go away empty-handed. The shrine at Walsingham—though it was a very simple, small place, originally made only of wood and measuring about 300 square feet—became one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in Europe, ranking not only with Canterbury, but even with sites like the grave of St James at Santiago.
The devotion of the English during the Mediæval period was such that the country was called the Dowry of Our Lady. The feasts of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Virgin were celebrated earlier in England than in the rest of western Europe, perhaps thanks to the eastern influence of the Greek St Theodore of Tarsus, who served as the second Archbishop of Canterbury. Walsingham was no small part of the country’s special love for the Mother of God.
After the Norman Conquest, Catholicism in England continued to flourish. Contemplative life was particularly rich there, and a variety of orders, including the Augustinians, Benedictines, Carmelites, Franciscans, and Dominicans all prospered on English soil; the Brown Scapular is said to have first been promoted by an English Carmelite, and Blackfriars Hall at Oxford University was founded by the Dominicans. The selection of mystics in Mediæval England is so large that it’s difficult to choose among them, so I will confine myself to two: the author of the Cloude of Unknowyng, and Lady Julian of Norwich.
The Cloude’s anonymous author wrote it as a special guide for solitary contemplatives and concentrates on what is called the Via Negativa or Way of Renunciation, where the proficient tries to draw close to God by forsaking the images of created things. The author is one of the purest exponents of this Way, advising those called to it to abandon every image of God, every definition, every analogy, and strive simply to rest the mind in Himself. As I doubt I’m equipped to commentate on the Cloude of Unknowyng, I’ll quote a small part of a modernized version:
If we intentively pray for getting of good, let us cry, either with word or with thought or with desire, nothing else nor no more words, but this word ‘God.’ For why, in God be all good … Fill thy spirit with the spiritual meaning of it without any special beholding to any of His works—whether they be good, better, or best of all—bodily or spiritual, or to any virtue that may be wrought in man’s soul by any grace; not looking after whether it be meekness or charity, patience or abstinence, hope, faith, or soberness, chastity or willful poverty. What account is this in contemplatives? … They covet nothing with special beholding, but only good God. Do thou mean God all, and all God, so that nothing work in thy wit and in thy will, but only God.
This beautiful but severe form of the Way is, obviously, not for everyone, although we can all learn from its single-minded focus upon God. Similarly, Lady Julian’s outlook is not for everyone; but she has, justly, been one of the most important figures in English religious history.
The details of her life, up to and including her name, are mostly unknown; she is called Julian because she resided as a recluse at a church dedicated to Saint Julian. In 1373, at the age of 30, while lying sick with an illness that was expected to take her life, Lady Julian experienced sixteen visions of Christ and the Virgin, and was told much of the fathomless love of God for creation and for sinners. Of special note is her discourse on hell; it is fundamentally the same as the famous felix peccatum of the Exsultet, the ‘happy fault that gained us so great a Redeemer.’ Lady Julian related that she saw no wrath in God, and saw no hell but sin—finding all the antagonism between God and man on our part. Perhaps her most famous passage, again in a modernized form, runs as follows:
Our Lord brought to my mind the longing that I had to Him before; and I saw nothing prevented me but sin. And so I beheld generally in us all; and methought, if sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like to our Lord as He made us. And thus in my folly, before this time, I often wondered why, by the great foresaid wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented … Mourning and sorrow I made therefore, without reason and discretion; but Jesus, that in this vision informed me of all that me needed, answered by this word, and said, Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. In this naked word sin, our Lord brought to my mind generally all that is not good; and the shameful despite, and the uttermost tribulation that He bare for us in this life … And all this was showed in a touch and readily passed over into comfort; for our good Lord would not that the soul were afraid of this ugly sight. But I saw not sin; for I believe it had no manner of substance, nor no part of being … These words were showed full tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me, nor to none that shall be saved. Then were it great unkindness of me to blame or wonder on God of my sin, since that He blameth not me for sin. And in these same words I saw an high marvellous secret hid in God: which secret, He shall openly make, and shall be known to us in heaven. In which knowing we shall verily see the cause why He suffered sin to come. In which sight, we shall endlessly have joy.
Lady Julian lived into the beginning of the fifteenth century. About a hundred years after her death, the Reformations—both Catholic and Protestant—began. Last week we heard a good deal about the English Reformation, or the lack of it; both sadly and gloriously, a great host of saints was reaped in England by the headsman. As with English contemplatives, the list is long and difficult to choose from: time would fail to tell of saints like John Houghton, John Fisher, Robert Southwell, Philip Howard, Swithun Wells, and Richard Gwyn. I will content myself to touch briefly upon six.
The first, the most famous, and perhaps the greatest, is St Thomas More. More’s brilliant intellect, charm, wit, and devotion to his king had already made him a great favorite at the court, as well as one of the most prominent intellectuals of the Renaissance; and, especially since he had been involved as a lawyer in Wolsey’s attempt to get the king’s marriage to Queen Katharine annulled, there was no reason to foresee any trouble over him. But of course, not foreseeing things is the best way of causing them to happen, as we have all learnt from Moses, Oedipus, Balder, and leaving home early to avoid rush hour.
More’s tenacity in clinging to the Church is specially noteworthy because of all the plausible reasons he had not to do so. The Church of England had not renounced any doctrine except the Primacy: the Mass, the seven sacraments, apostolic succession, the veneration of the saints, the canon of Scripture, all were where they had been two years before when the Oath of Supremacy was first administered. Moreover, although the Pope was certainly acknowledged by Catholics as head of the Church, the dogmatic definition of his headship was still centuries in the future; and—perhaps because of the seamless transition between Catholicism and Anglicanism at the time—there had not yet been much popular resistance to the change: it would hardly have been recognizable except to a theologian or a canonist. St Thomas More was not fooled. He serves as an arresting example of clarity of mind and fidelity to conviction, each one supporting and magnifying the other.
As an example of this holy sharpness of intellect, I quote from the speech given to him near the close of the film version of A Man for All Seasons (much of which is lifted directly from his son-in-law’s biography of him):
Since the court has determined to condemn me—God knoweth how—I will now discharge my mind concerning the indictment and the king’s title. The indictment is grounded in an act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to the law of God and of His holy Church, the supreme government of which no temporal person may by any law presume to take upon him. This was granted by the mouth of our Savior, Christ Himself, to Saint Peter and the Bishops of Rome, whilst He lived and was personally present here on earth. It is therefore insufficient in law to charge any Christian to obey it. … I am the king’s true subject. I pray for him, and for all the realm. I do none harm; I say none harm; I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith, I long not to live.
This fervent combination of loyalty to the pontiff and loyalty to the crown, which the monarchs refused to believe in and the Popes did less than nothing to encourage, was a persistent trend among English Catholics. St Edmund Campion, one among many Jesuits who were martyred, was of the same cast: barely ten years after St Pius V had issued a bull absolving the English of loyalty to Elizabeth Tudor, and at a time when the crown was actively persecuting Catholics as rebellious conspirators, we find Campion referring to Elizabeth as the Queen my Sovereign Lady and requesting an opportunity to argue for Catholicism before her, in his Bragge. Campion also struck a note of gentle mockery combined with such bold love as to take the breath away in the same document, telling the Privy Council to whom it was sent:
Touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or be wracked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: so it must be restored.
Despite withstanding four months imprisonment in the Tower of London, confessing his loyalty to Queen Elizabeth under cross-examination, being racked at least twice, and, worst of all, being made four times to argue theology with Anglicans, St Edmund was found guilty of sedition and executed. His reply to the verdict is tragic in its simple truth: In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England—the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.
The martyrdoms went on, as executing heretics was quite chic in the sixteenth century. Three martyrs whom we celebrate together, St Margaret Clitherow (the ‘Pearl of York’), St Margaret Ward, and St Anne Line (the ‘Pearl of Tyburn’), may be noted in particular. Though they were executed at different times, they were all tried for their role in protecting priests. Ward helped one escape from prison, while Clitherow and Line were both convicted of harboring priests; St Anne Line was caught because the number of people she allowed to come to a Mass for Candlemas drew notice from the authorities. Her last words at the scaffold, repeating her non-defense at the trial, were: I am sentenced to die for harboring a Catholic priest, and so far I am from repenting for having done so, that I wish, with all my soul, that where I have entertained one, I could have entertained a thousand. Margaret Clitherow, in an equally holy yet opposite decision, refused to plead at all, for fear of a trial at which her children could have been forced to testify; she was pressed to death—pressing was a then a common procedure to compel the accused to plead, though this is now done only by the media.
During the Enlightenment, despite the official Christianity of nearly every state in Europe, a horror of religious bloodshed had crept over the continent, and the natural privacy of the recusant community in England did not produce conspicuously holy people, though we may be sure that saints—who are rare in every age—lived there even in the eighteenth century. But the nineteenth, after Catholics were emancipated in 1829, produced the great Anglo-Catholic movement. I will concentrate only on the prototypical example of Bl John Henry Newman.
Newman was guided by his studies in theology and church history to convert from High Church Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1845. His Essay on the Development of Doctrine and Apologia Pro Vita Sua are his most famous works, along with such poems as Lead, Kindly Light. One of his most characteristic books, however, was his Grammar of Assent. Written against the background of Empiricism that had dominated Britain for centuries, Newman did not try—as some other Catholic philosophers had tried—to reject Empiricism in favor of some Idealist theory of knowing; instead, he sought a kind of practical harmony between Empiricism and faith. Here, I believe, we see the via media that the Anglican Communion attempted receiving a real expression. Mere vague compromise was a parody of the English spirit, but in Bl John, the clarity and courtesy of the English Catholic intellect was renewed.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Newman was also a reviver of the contemplative tradition in Britain, even within the Anglican community. Monasticism had been such a natural expression of devotion there that only the active suppression and persecution of the houses had been able to reduce its power, and even then, some had persisted, especially the Jesuits. Newman’s retreat house at Littlemore is the earliest example of this revival: several orders of sisters were founded among Anglo-Catholics before and after his conversion, and some orders of brothers as well, taking on the medical, academic, and prayerful life that had characterized friaries in England for centuries before the Reformation. Some of these have had an impact on our own history; the Graymoor Franciscans of New York were the first Anglican body to be accepted into the Catholic Church corporately, setting a precedent for the Ordinariates a full century before they were created.
Obviously I have left out a great many saints and blesseds who were both famous and important: Augustine of Canterbury, Aidan of Lindisfarne, Thomas à Becket, Richard of Chichester, Margaret Pole. But I think those I’ve discussed give an impression of the peculiarly English flavor of sanctity, which could perhaps be summed up in the word courtesy. This isn’t simply politeness—anybody who’s seen coverage of Parliament knows better than to fall for that stereotype. It’s something more like courtesy in the sense of how one behaves at court, a good noble among other good nobles: stateliness without pride, love of splendor without greed, humor without flippancy, reverence without smugness, and charity without condescension.