Category Archives: Saints

If We Had a Hammer …

Today is the Feast Day of S. Hilary of Poitiers, a.k.a. Malleus Araianorum, or ‘the Hammer of Arians.’  Hilary was born in around 300 in Poitiers, Gaul.  He married, and had at least one daughter, Abra, who herself went on to become a Saint.  Legend has it that Hilary and his family were originally pagans, but Hilary was always an avid reader, and he literally read himself into the Faith – first embracing salvation by good works, then monotheism, and eventually Christianity via the New Testament.

In around 353, Hilary was unanimously elected as Bishop by the citizens of Poitiers.  Very quickly, he came into conflict with powerful Arian forces within the Church.  Arianism, to cut a long story short and oversimplify things ridiculously, was the heresy that claimed that Jesus was a nice bloke but not God incarnate.  They were a powerful lobby within the Church at the time, and they managed to get Hilary exiled from his See.

Hilary, unlike some clerics we could name, did not waste his time in exile on silly pursuits like gardening and making cakes.  He wrote a couple of weighty treatises refuting Arianism, and travelled around Italy and Asia Minor asserting the truth of Orthodoxy and trying to bring Arians back to the full faith.  In fact, he caused so much trouble in Constantinople that the Arians there had him sent back to Poitiers – and thus his exile was ended for the same reason that it was begun.

His own people loved him, and so did his best student Martin, who went on to become S. Martin of Tours.  But Hilary was by no means universally popular.  The Golden Legend tells the story of an Arian Pope called Leo who called Hilary “a cock, and not the son of a hen.”  We have no idea what he meant.  Mind you, the Pope soon got his come-uppance, as he died Elvis-style on the toilet, when “by the conduit of his nether part [he] voided out all the entrails of his body.”  Nice.

Moving swiftly onwards …  

All this talk of hammering the Arians reminds us that the Vicar has been displaying some strange (or should we say, stranger) behaviour of late, and has frequently been spotted wandering around the garden with a hammer and a kettle of boiling water.  We were beginning to wonder whether she was a serial killer, but thus far all her aggression seems to have been taken out on the ice in the bird bath.

Thankfully, this violent attitude seems to be melting away with the snow, and today the birds have been happily bathing and drinking without any intervention from the Vicar.  Meanwhile, the Diocese has finally realised that she is completely bonkers, and has published a warning on their website, in the form of a picture of the Holy Wellies.

We, on the other hand, would not stoop so low, and so instead we present a couple of snaps of the Church in the snow.

  

 

 

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Magi Moments

Today is officially the Feast of the Epiphany, but along with most of the Western Church, we celebrated this on Sunday (presumably because nobody comes to Church in the week anymore, or perhaps because someone knew the Magi would be likely to get snowed in on the A32 if we left it any longer).

So, instead we use today to concentrate on the Magi themselves.  They are, in fact, canonised as Saints under the names Ss. Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – though Christians in other places give them different names, and the Gospel never tells us how many Magi there actually were.  In the West, all sorts of other traditions have been attributed to the Magi – such as transforming them into Kings, or speculating that one was from Africa, one from Arabia and one from China – but these are all later developments (or revealed by the Holy Spirit, or completely made up, depending on your point of view).

Saint Balthasar is, apparently, the Patron Saint of epileptics, playing card manufacturers and people who saw things up.  Remember him if you ever find yourself in an American horror movie, playing Poker with an epileptic wielding a chainsaw.  You will need all the help you can get.

Anyway, back to the Magi.  S. Matthew calls them simply Magoi (from which, obviously, we get our English word Magi).  The word does refer to the Priestly caste in the Persian Zoroastrastrian religion, but it’s more probable that the Bible uses it in a more general sense, to refer to people who were learned in some faintly esoteric Eastern philosophy. 

The NRSV offers “astrologers” as an alternative translation, but that puts us in mind of Russell Grant, which rather spoils the beauty of the image.

Whoever they were, we do know from the Bible that they brought Christ gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

  There are several interpretations of this (The Golden Legend, as always, lists a few), but the commonly accepted one in the West is that gold symbolises Christ’s kingship, frankincense recognises his divinity and myrrh prefigures his death and burial after the Crucifixion.

The other thing the Gospel account tells us is that pesontes prosekunesan auto.  Some folks think this is a reference to prostration, others to kneeling or genuflecting.  But the Greek literally means “having fallen down, they worshipped him.” 

Well, if it’s good enough for the Vicar …

Mother Mary and the Mini Mongolians

eva-ave

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it being nine months before her birthday comes round again.  [Note for anyone who is already confused: the Immaculate Conception is about the conception of Mary, not about the virgin birth of Jesus – so you can save all those “Oh Joseph, that was immaculate” jokes…  The Church celebrates the conception of Jesus Christ on the Feast of the Annunciation.]

The doctrine that Our Lady was conceived without stain of sin (macula) is one of those that people get very heated up about.  Christians have believed and celebrated it since at least the Ninth Century, but it wasn’t declared an official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church until 1854.  Until then, you were allowed to argue about it all you wanted, as long as you didn’t call the other side nasty names.  Seems fair enough to us. 

velazquezThe arguments over the doctrine were mostly centred around obscure theological and philosophical problems, which the Vicar couldn’t really be bothered to explain to us (and, to be honest, we weren’t all that fussed about listening to her).  But, like all the great theological debates of the Church, there were some more mundane issues going on too – in this case, a bit of good old-fashioned xenophobia. 

Most of the early champions of the doctrine were English, whereas a lot of the big shots on the Continent, like Aquinas and Bonaventure, remained unconvinced.  Bonaventure even called it “the foreign doctrine,” clearly implying that English people are a bit barmy and believe some quite odd things.  We couldn’t possibly comment. 

english-devotion-taymouth-hoursThe English Church has always had a rather independent take on Catholic doctrine and tradition, so they just went on celebrating the Feast anyway, and waited for Rome to catch up. 

Nowadays, the Church of England has gone back to the earliest roots of the Festival, and calls it simply The Conception of the BVM; so in this instance, it really is true that you can believe what you want in the C of E. 

We’ve been celebrating the Feast by getting to know our new housemates.  The Vicar’s been threatening to start a menagerie for months now, and we knew something was up a few weeks ago when she and the Cellarer arrived back from a drive to Tipton Pobley (or somewhere) with a large glass tank. 

the-tankFirst we thought it might be for fish, but the tank had shelves, which made it a rather unlikely aquarium.  We quickly discounted anything with more than four legs, or anything that eats live insects; invertebrates are definitely not in the Vicar’s contract.

We had abandoned all hope of anything even vaguely rodenty too, because the Cellarer is a well-known suriphobic and we very much doubted that he would have allowed a mouse house in his car.  But, lo and behold (and this doesn’t happen often), we were wrong!

The Vicar had come back from Church looking particularly weary yesterday, muttering darkly about early mornings, radio interviews, TV cameras, girl bishops and whose stupid idea was it in the first place…  But she’d hardly had time to start her customary forty thousand winks when there was a ring on the doorbell.  In walked a lovely young woman, bearing in her arms a veritable miscellany of substrate, food, toys, water bottles and … GERBILS!!!

gerbil-wheel

Unfortunately, this exciting narrative has to stop exactly here, as we (the Popes of the Peninsula, no less!) were rudely evicted from our own front room.  By the time we were allowed back in, the nice lady from Bath Gerbil Rescue had disappeared, the tank was full of wood shavings and bits of cardboard, and the Cellarer had undergone some sort of dramatic conversion, having spent about twenty minutes cuddling a rat.

Luckily, the Vicar had her camera on hand as we finally got to meet our new friends.  So we are glad to present to you, in photo montage style (a la Jackie comic 1982), the day that Forton Vicarage became home to two Mongolian Gerbils:

What's going on in here, then?

What's going on in here, then?

 

Peek-a-boo!

Peek-a-boo!

 

Pleased to meet you.

Pleased to meet you.

 

What's a nice gerbil like you doing in a Vicarage like this?

What's a nice gerbil like you doing in a Vicarage like this?

 

Nice little home they've got, here.

Nice little home they've got here.

 

Mongolian head massage.

Mongolian head massage.

 

Right, here's how you get round the Vicar...

Right, here's how you get round the Vicar...

 

Got any Galaxy Ripple in that bowl?

Got any Galaxy Ripple in that bowl?

 

And tonight on Gerbil TV...

And tonight on Gerbil TV...

To End All Wars

pilckem-1917

A British soldier pays his respects (1917)

Today at 11:00 am, we commemorate 90 years since the end of the First World War, the “war to end all wars.”  When it started in August 1914, most people thought it would be over by Christmass. 

Four years later, 9.4 million lives had been lost on the battlefield, and around 15 million men were left permanently crippled by physical or mental disabilities.  Some 750,000 German civilians died as a result of the Allied trade blockade; 82,000 Serbian civilians lost their lives through disease and starvation; and the attempted genocide of the Armenian people cost around a million lives.  After the war, Europe was left with a legacy of political upheaval, economic hardship and social dislocation.  Truly, Albert Einstein was right in 1914 when he said: “Europe, in her insanity, has started something almost unbelievable.”

German soldiers killed in the Battle of Passchendale.  The offensive lasted for three days, and gained Britain two miles of enemy land.

Six German soldiers killed in the Battle of Passchendaele, 31st July 1917. They died in the fight for Pilckem Ridge, a British offensive which lasted for three days and gained two miles of enemy land.

 

At first, the Church of England (like most people in Europe) generally supported the war, and encouraged young men to sign up and go out to fight (for more information, have a read of the excellent book The Church of England and the First World War by Fr. Alan Wilkinson, a good friend of our Parish).  But as reports came through of the carnage and horror at the front, more and more people came to doubt whether Christians could really be so jingoistic.  Fr. Dick Sheppard, who went out to the front as Chaplain to a military hospital, wrote home less than a week after arriving: “War is awful.  More awful than I supposed possible.”  He became a lifelong pacifist.

The Church has always had a complex relationship with armed conflict, probably causing as many wars as it has opposed over the centuries.  Even now, when most mainstream Christians are convinced of the Gospel imperative for peace and justice, opinions are divided over how best to achieve it.  Some Christians are convinced Pacifists, whilst others believe armed resistance is sometimes necessary to stop great injustice or suffering.  But none of us should ever forget the horrors war brings.

Back in the third century after Christ, the Church Father Tertullian wrote of the soldier’s laurel wreath of triumph:

emperor-claudiusIs the laurel of the triumph made of leaves,
or of corpses?
Is it adorned with ribbons,
or with tombs?
Is it bedewed with ointments,
or with the tears
of wives and mothers?

 

S. Cyprian of Carthage, also writing in the Third Century, spoke in words which resonate in our own times:

The world is going mad in mutual bloodshed.
And murder, which is considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.

 

But perhaps today the last word should go to Saint Martin of Tours, whose Feast Day it is today.  Martin started his adult life as a soldier in the Roman army and ended it as a Christian Bishop who worked tirelessly for peace, justice and reconciliation.

beggar-1The most famous story of Martin recalls how, as a soldier in France, he was confronted by a beggar.  Having nothing to give the poor man, Martin took a sword and cut his heavy Officer’s cloak in two, giving half to the beggar.  Later, the Saint had a vision of Jesus wearing the cloak, and saying to the angels: “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not Baptised; he has clothed me.” 

The vision recalls Christ’s words about the Judgement, in which it is not our creed but our justice and charity which determine our love of Christ:

“I was naked, and you clothed me.” (Matthew 25:36)

After his Baptism at the age of 18, Martin refused to fight for the Roman army, and became a hermit.  15th-c-frescoLater, he was reluctantly made Bishop of Tours by popular demand, though he always felt himself unworthy of the office, and seldom left his monastery.  His few departures from Tours were always in the cause of justice and peace, pleading for the welfare of his people, including condemned prisoners.

s-martins-gooseMartin was known for his lengthy fasts, and in the Middle Ages his Feast Day was the last day before the pre-Christmass fast, which came to be known as the “Martinmass Lent.”  People traditionally feasted on Martinmass, often eating goose (recalling the legend that a goose honked to let the people of Tours know where their reluctant Bishop-to-be was hiding).

Now that Advent starts a bit later, and winter seems to be upon us already, perhaps there’s little reason for us to keep up the Mediaeval tradition of this mini-carnival on S. Martin’s day.  But if we no longer keep carnival (carne vale, saying farewell to meat), perhaps we can pray for a farewell to the carnage and slaughter of war. 

As Christians, we still have many things for which to fight, but we are called to do so not with guns and bombs, but under the banner of the Prince of Peace.  At 18, Martin refused to fight for the Romans with these words: “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier: allow me now to become a soldier to God.  I am the soldier of Christ; it is not lawful for me to fight.”  At the end of his life, this faithful soldier to God prayed thus:

Lord, if your people still have need of my services,
I will not avoid the toil.
Your will be done.
I have fought the good fight long enough.
Yet if you bid me continue
to hold the battle line in defence of your camp,
I will never beg to be excused from failing strength.
I will do the work you entrust to me.
While you command, I will fight beneath your banner.

 

Let us fight for peace beneath the banner of the living God, who makes wars to cease in all the world (Psalm 46:9).

simone_martini_028

Saint Martin refuses to fight for Rome, and becomes a soldier of Christ.

Saint Martin de Purrs

Today is the Feast of S. Martin de Porres, a.k.a. Martin of Charity or the Saint of the Broom.  He was born in 1579 in Lima, Peru, the illegitimate son of a white Spanish knight and a black freedwoman.  Martin inherited his mother’s dark skin, much to the disappointment of his father.  Although his father acknowledged paternity, he refused to provide for Martin or his sister, and the family lived in poverty.

At age 12, Martin was apprenticed to a barber-surgeon, and learnt from him some medicine and care of the sick.  At around 15, Martin joined the Third Order of the Dominicans, and went to live in the Dominican Priory of the Holy Rosary in Lima as a servant.  As time went by, his humility, holiness and devotion to the care of the sick and poor began to convince his superiors that Martin was called to the religious life.  They dropped the rule that “no black person may be received to the holy habit or profession of our order,” and Martin was professed as a lay brother in 1603. 

Martin was placed in charge of the Priory’s infirmary, where he nursed the sickof the city, including victims of the plague.  Martin showed the same care and attention to all his patients, regardless of their ethnicity or social background, and only left the infirmary to pray and to beg alms for the poor.  He set up an orphanage and a foundling hospital, distributed food to the poor throughout the city and ministered especially to the slaves who had been brought to the Americas from Africa.

But it wasn’t only humans who benefitted from Saint Martin’s care.  He set up an animal shelter at his sister’s house in Lima, and cared for the the many stray cats and dogs who arrived there in need of food and medical attention.  Most of his contemporaries simply couldn’t understand why Martin cared about animals, much less how he could be so successful in healing them and have such a close relationship with them.  But Martin realised that even the smallest of creatures are children of God, and worthy of care and attention.

On one occasion, his Priory became overrun with rats scavenging the food supplies, and the Prior ordered Martin to put down poison to eradicate them.  Martin, out of holy obedience, complied; but then he went out into the garden and softly called the rats to a meeting. He reprimanded them for stealing food from the Priory, and warned them about the poison. But he said he realised that they were hungry, and promised that if they stopped annoying the Prior, he would feed them in the garden every day. The rats agreed, and never bothered the Priory again.

We have long been fans of this gentle Saint, whose image has pride of place in our little statue collection in the kitchen.  The Vicar has always liked him too, because of his care for animals, his abstention from meat and his concern for social justice.  But recently we discovered a story about him which makes him a perfect patron for the Vicar.

Once, Martin was out on a picnic with some novices from his Priory.  Suddenly, they realised that they had lost track of time, and would be late for prayers.  Quickly, Martin (who is said to have been graced with the gifts of bilocation and the ability to walk through locked doors) told the novices to hold hands.  In the blink of an eye, they found themselves standing in the Priory grounds. 

Nobody (not even the novices involved) was able to explain how they had travelled a distance of several miles in mere seconds; but if someone could teach the Vicar how to do it, life at the Vicarage would be a lot less stressful.

Most humble S. Martin de Porres,
whose burning charity embraced not only your needy brethren,
but also the very animals in the field:
Splendid example of charity, we hail thee and invoke thee,
from the high throne which you now occupy.
Deign to listen to the supplications of your brethren,
that by imitating your virtues,
we may live contented in that state in which God has placed us,
and carrying with strength and courage our Cross,
we may follow the footsteps of our Blessed Redeemer
and His Most Afflicted Mother,
that, at the last, we may reach the Kingdom of Heaven,
through the merits of the same Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Elf Ire and Brimstone

There is a charming story told about Pope Saint Gregory the Great (whose Feast Day it was this week).  Apparently, he was once strolling through the slave market in Rome, or somewhere similarly Mediterranean, when he spotted some fair-haired boys for sale.  Fair hair not being the norm in Italy, Gregory enquired what manner of people these might be.  The reply came back that they were Angli – English; whereupon the Saint remarked: “Non Angli, sed Angeli” – not English, but Angels.

No doubt Gregory was indeed Great, but clearly he had never met the youth of Forton, who have decided to bring their summer holiday fun to a thrilling climax by trying to clamber up the side of the Church building.  Their activities were discovered by none other than our house-elf, who had himself just finished clambering up the front of the Church building in order to put up the sign for the forthcoming Summer Fayre.

We understand that the Vicar, having made one or two minor improvements to the aforementioned sign, sent our poor house-elf up a ladder in high winds, with utter disregard for his dislike of heights (she shall henceforth be known as Bartimeus Crouch).  Back on terra firma, he had hardly stopped shaking when a large crash from somewhere round the back of the building sent him scootling off into the cold night air.

He arrived at the extreme South-East end (liturgically speaking) just in time to witness a young man dangling off one of the parochial drainpipes.  Sorry, we should say apparently dangling.  Because, as the young man quickly informed the elf, he wasn’t climbing on the roof; it wasn’t him; he never done nuffink, Mush; are you calling the Old Bill?

It’s lucky our elf isn’t the violent type, because he did seem a bit annoyed by the whole escapade (though whether this was because of the crime itself, or being referred to as “Mush,” is a matter of debate).  Fortunately, we were on hand (or indeed paw) to calm him down with a little TLC.

That is, until he went into the loo.

You see, back in Italy, they seem to treat their churches with a little more respect.  Rather than just using them as climbing frames and free scrap metal stores, the Italians fill them with dead folks.  If you’re deemed to be at all holy, the Vatican digs up your body, whisks you off to the lab and varnishes you, then posts you back to your home town, where you get to lie in state forever more.

We thought our downstairs loo could do with a little holiness too, so we’ve started collecting postcards of pickled saints and putting them up for our visitors to enjoy.  Apparently the Vicar has quite a collection of such pictures, but they are (like everything else she owns) still languishing in the unpacked boxes upstairs.

Imagine our joy, therefore, when our dear pal the Red Rector announced that he was off to Umbria on his summer hols, and would make it his mission to bring us back some good pics.  He emailed today to say that he had been to Arezzo, where resides the preserved body of Blessed Pope Gregory X.  Sadly there were no postcards, but the resourceful Rector took a quick snap, which we present here for your edification:

We think you’ll agree, gentle Readers, that the pickled bodies of dead saints are a must-have addition to every home, shrine and worship space.  We have been trying hard to persuade the Vicar that she should get a couple for the Parish Church – we’ve even spotted a nice glass coffin in the Serpone’s catalogue – but she is strangely reluctant. 

She says Saint John’s is full of pickled folks already. 

Mind Your Hind

Today is the Feast of Saint Giles, who started life as a rich young man, became a hermit in the woods of France, was persuaded to become an abbot and ended up as one of the best-loved Saints in Mediaeval Europe.

The legend goes that S. Giles took up residence in a cave in the woods of France, and lived a life of simplicity and poverty as a hermit.  His holiness was recognised by the animals in the forest, who provided for his needs, and especially by a young hind (or deer) who became his special friend. 

One day, the local King and his entourage were out hunting, and began to chase the deer. She fled into the cave, and into the arms of the Saint; but the King (or possibly one of his knights) shot an arrow after her. 

The arrow flew into the cave and hit both the hind and the holy man.

The King, chastened, offered the Saint care and medicine, but Giles refused, and instead prayed for the healing of both himself and his gentle friend.

You can read the whole story in The Golden Legend, or beautifully told by Amy Steedman here.

The King soon began to visit Saint Giles in his little cave for teaching and counsel; and, as his story spread, so did others.  So, little by little, the hermit found himself surrounded by followers and companions until he became the de facto Abbot of a monastic community.

Later, this community became a Benedictine monastery; the Abbey of Saint Gilles du Gard still stands near the spot where the Saint’s cave is said to have been.

Because of the Saint’s wound, his ability to heal, and his gentle care of the defenceless hind, he became the Patron of the sick and the poor, and a number of miraculous cures were recorded at his shrine.  His insistence on living outside of the city walls also led to his patronage of others who were marginalised in Mediaeval society, particularly cripples and lepers.

As his cultus grew, churches and social care centres for cripples and lepers were built in his name.  Many English Mediaeval cities had two churches just outside the city wall: a Saint Giles for lepers and a Saint Mary Magdalen for prostitutes. 

Healing wells were also placed under his patronage; Camberwell, where we grew up, was one such (Camber is an old English word for cripple), and a church dedicated to Saint Giles has stood there since time immemorial – there’s even a record of a church on the site in the Domesday Book. 

Sadly, we never had a band of shepherds bringing their brightly-dyed rams to Mass on S. Giles’ day, as they used to do in Spain and the Basque country.

In Fourteenth Century Germany, the terrible effects of the Black Death caused the people to group together a number of Saints to intercede for them and their domestic animals.  This group became known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and Saint Giles was there among them.

You can see him here in this Sixteenth Century German altarpiece, with his doe just poking her head out between Saint Margaret and Saint Barbara.

Saint Giles is unique amongst the Fourteen, in being the only one not to die a martyr’s death.  But then martyrdom, as the Vicar so often reminds us, is not about death; it’s about witnessing.  We can’t think of a better advert for the love of Christ than someone who protects his animal companions, even at the risk of his own life.

So, all you human readers, if you are lucky enough to live with a cat or a dog or a deer, remember to follow the example of the holy hermit.  Love them, protect them from harm, keep them safe and warm. 

And on this Feast of Saint Giles, why not make a special fuss of them, or give them an extra treat or two?  (Hint, hint!)

Oh, never mind.  We’ll just have to raid the cupboards ourselves.