A Patron Saint

Before there was St George, there was St Edmund, King, Virgin and Martyr, whose feast falls today. St George was a soldier saint from the region we now call Syria (what little of it remains intact notwithstanding). He was a decent chap and a worthy saint, but he did not become England’s patron saint until the fourteenth century. He was brought back by crusaders and had been favoured under the Norman occupation because he was neither Anglo-Saxon—and thus a potential emblem for resistance among the subjugated English—nor a Norman—and thus likely to be rejected out of hand buy the English. Before him St Edward the Confessor (on whose feast my birthday happily falls) had been widely considered the national patron of England, though even he was not original. The first saint we call the patron of England was St Edmund, the patron of my monastery, and the raison d’être of the great abbey and town of Bury St Edmunds. Continue reading “A Patron Saint”

Christian Pacifism May Have a Point

This post will upset some people, most of them from a particular socio-cultural-ecclesial context. However, before they give vent to the full fury of their outrage it is asked that they read this post carefully, and then read it again. Disagreement is expected and constructive argument encouraged. Abuse or vitriol will get short shrift. There is an issue to engage with here, and it is not to be camouflage for arguments ad hominem.

You will recall the atrocities committed against the Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday in Egypt. What may not be so clear in our memory is the Copts’ response. Continue reading “Christian Pacifism May Have a Point”

That foreign man, St George

When asked to celebrate the conventual Mass today, St George’s day, I was a little conflicted. For our patron, St Edmund King and Martyr (†869/70), was the original patron of England, St George only being established in that role in 1348. In recent years there have been petitions to the government to restore St Edmund as English patron, to no avail. For not a few among the English, St Edmund is still the rightful patron.

Continue reading “That foreign man, St George”

Where is St Edmund?

Where is St Edmund?

This will be an interesting read. The town would no doubt lay claim to his body, but his shrine was with the monks of Bury St Edmunds, whose successors we are.

If they find his body, St Edmund should come home to the monks of St Edmund’s at Douai Abbey. Naturally.

St Edmund’s Day

The embroidered image of St Edmund on the chasuble the Abbot will wear at Mass today.

Slowly I am emerging from a nasty dose of ‘flu. Appropriately my first full, if woozy, day back on deck will be that of the Solemnity of our patron at Douai Abbey, St Edmund, King and Martyr. Two years back I posted something on the good young king. For this year’s feast, falling as it does in the Year of Faith, one element of the story of St Edmund’s passion is worthy of particular note. It comes from Abbo’s Life of St Edmund:

Eventually it happened that the Danes came with a ship-army, harrying and slaying widely throughout the land, as is their custom… Soon afterwards he [ie Ivar, the Danes’ chieftan] sent to King Edmund a threatening message, that Edmund should submit to his allegiance, if he cared for his life. The messenger came to King Edmund and boldly announced Ivar’s message: “Ivar, our king, bold and victorious on sea and on land, has dominion over many peoples, and has now come to this country with his army to take up winter-quarters with his men. He commands that you share your hidden gold-hordes and your ancestral possessions with him straight away, and that you become his vassal-king, if you want to stay alive, since you now do not have the forces to resist him.”

Then said King Edmund, since he was completely brave: “This I heartily wish and desire, that I not be the only survivor after my beloved thegns are slain in their beds with their children and wives by these pirates. It was never my way to flee. I would rather die for my country if I need to. Almighty God knows that I will never turn from worship of Him, nor from love of His truth. If I die, I live.”

After these words he turned to the messenger who Ivar had sent him, and, undaunted, said to him: “In truth you deserve to be slain now, but I will not defile my clean hands with your vile blood, because I follow Christ who so instructed us by his example; and I happily will be slain by you if God so ordain it. Go now quickly and tell your fierce lord: ‘Never in this life will Edmund submit to Ivar the heathen warlord, unless he submit first to the belief in the Saviour Christ which exists in this country.'”

King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Saviour, threw out his weapons. He wanted to match the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to win the cruel Jews with weapons…

Young St Edmund seemingly had two choices: to submit to bondage to the heathen Danes and so preserve the earthly lives of his Christian people (perhaps! – the Danes were not foremost in keeping their word), or to resist against overwhelming odds in the hope of winning a pyrrhic victory for honour and Christian liberty at the cost of his peoples’ lives.

The king however found a third way.  It was an evangelizing way. He would witness to faith in Christ first by imitating His non-violence, and secondly by offering to submit to Ivar if Ivar would submit in his turn to Christ. A masterstroke: a non-violent way of upholding the primacy of faith in Christ. The fault then became doubly that of Ivar: he not only slaughtered an innocent and unarmed man, but did so explicitly rejecting Christ. In the midst of his cruelties Ivar was offered the chance to repent and believe the Gospel. St Edmund set before him life and death, and Ivar chose death; not merely the physical death of St Edmund, but his own spiritual death.

The boss of St Edmund in the roof vaulting of Douai Abbey church.

In the modern context St Edmund’s example is a reminder that Christ comes first, not least Christ crucified: whoever would follow Christ must, at some stage at least, carry the Cross with Him. No Cross, no glory. St Edmund’s death is a reminder too that non-violence is most truly the Christian response. This is not to reject the morality of self-defence. Yet in a gun-saturated world obsessed with retaliation in the face of wrong, the only certain way of ending the cycle of violence is for one party finally to repent of violence, even to the point of death. How much of Himself would Christ see in the gun-toting, gun-loving minority of Christians in the USA?

Which brings us to the last lesson of St Edmund’s passion and death: that physical life must yield in importance to spiritual life, and that our sufferings now are as nothing compared to the glory that awaits those who stand firm in Christ. St Paul puts it better:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
(Romans 8:16-18 ESV)

Happy feast!

St Edmund, King and Martyr – pray for us.

The Solemnity of St Edmund, King & Martyr, the abbey’s patron.

Today is the Solemnity (at Douai at least) of St Edmund, King and Martyr, who is the patron of our monastery. So today is a good day to mention a little about him. He is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but our main source is Abbo of Fleury‘s Passion of St Edmund.

Edmund was born in about 841, and when he was 14 he succeeded to the throne of the independent kingdom of East Anglia when his father, King Æthelweard, died, and is said to have been crowned on Christmas Day in 855 by St Humbert, Bishop of Elmham (forerunner of the see of Norwich), who was himself later martyred by the Danes. Edmund was considered a model king, even-handed in all his dealings and with little time for the flatterers that are the constant attendants of the great and the powerful. He was obviously devout, and it is recorded of him that he retired for the best part of a year to Hunstanton in order to learn the psalter by heart, a very monastic thing to do!

The centuries surrounding the time of St Edmund were, of course, difficult ones for Britain, as the Vikings ravaged its shores in fits and starts over several hundred years. So it was that in 869 (not 870 as originally thought), when King Edmund was still only 28, the Danes again invaded East Anglia under the Ivar (or Hinguar) the Boneless. King Edmund refused to meet the heathen Danes in battle, looking to our Lord’s command to Peter not to raise his sword against the unbelievers who came to arrest him in Gethsemane. Refusing to flee, Edmund gave himself into the hands of the Danes. Ivar had called upon Edmund to submit to him, but Edmund refused to submit to him unless he became a Christian. So young King Edmund was seized and beaten, then tied to a tree and shot full of arrows such that he looked like a hedgehog, much as the earlier Christian martyr, young St Sebastian, was. Still alive, and still calling on the name of the Lord, the Danes dragged him away and cut off his head, throwing it into brambles before they left.

St Edmund as depicted on the Ward chasuble, worn by the abbot at our Pontifical Mass for St Edmund’s Day

There are two poignant sequels to this, perhaps legendary but still instructive. One is that, after the Danes had left, the Anglians sought King Edmund’s head and found it being guarded by a wolf, which would not let any other animal near it to devour it. As the people took the head back to be buried the wolf followed at a distance and did not leave until the head had been given Christian burial. The place of the martyred king’s tomb soon became Bury St Edmunds, one of the most popular shrines of medieval England, and the site of one of the great Benedictine abbeys of England, the memory of which our abbey perpetuates today.

The second sequel involves the last heathen Danish King, Sweyn Forkbeard, father of the famous King Canute. He had laid siege to Bury St Edmunds in 1014, seeking to seize its treasure, and threatened to destroy the town and abbey and put all the clergy to death unless they handed the treasure over to him. As he made his demands he taunted the memory of St Edmund buried within its walls. But as he waited to attack the town he saw St Edmund, crown on his head and a lance in his hand, coming towards him from the heavens. He cried out for help, “Edmund is coming to kill me”. At that point he fell to the ground in convulsions and died. Sweyn’s son, Canute, became a Christian, perhaps bearing in mind his father’s death… it is nice to think so, at any rate.

Subsequent English kings took St Edmund as their patron to the point where St Edmund became patron saint of England. However, after the Norman conquest, the new regime was not overly pleased with an Anglo-Saxon king as patron saint for the country, fearing he might become a focus of unity for local opposition to their conquest. So by the time of Edward III St Edmund had been displaced by St George, a supposed warrior saint of the middle east whose devotion was taken up by crusaders in the Holy Land. St George, being neither Anglo-Saxon nor Norman, was seized on as a neutral saint that could unite the nation. Sadly the Catholic Church today seems to have acquiesced in this arrangement, no doubt because it feels it has bigger battles to fight.

Nevertheless, St Edmund stands as a fitting patron for England, and indeed a shining example of Christian leadership for the world today. He refused to take up his sword against heathen enemies both because Christ himself refused to use violence against his persecutors, and because it would only bring further hardship on his people. While there may indeed be occasions when resistance to evil in the world is called for, violence can never serve the cause of spreading the Gospel. Compelled faith is no faith at all. It is in this light that we might look on the modern blight of Muslim fundamentalism. All too often conversion to Islam is enforced by violence, and those who convert from Islam are subject to the sentence of death. Even worse are the suicide bombers, who feel that their terrorist acts are a form of martyrdom. St Edmund, who modelled himself on Christ, reminds us that martyrdom can never involve taking the lives of others. Rather martyrdom is to allow one’s own life to be taken in witness to Christ, whose own martyrdom brought not death but life to the world. Martyrdom is the ultimate witness to the value of human life, that it is always better to lose one’s own life for Christ’s sake than to take another’s life in his name, for in so doing we gain the fullness of life for eternity.

We might all make our own the Collect at Mass and Divine Office for the feast of St Edmund:

O God of inexpressible mercy, who gloriously enabled the most blessed king Edmund to overcome the enemy by dying for your name, grant, in your mercy, to us your servants that by his intercession we may overcome and extinguish the temptations of the old enemy, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Happy feast day!

P.S. Interestingly, St Edmund is also the patron saint of Suffolk, against pandemics and plague, of wolves (!), of kings, of torture victims, and curiously, apparently also of Toulouse in France, where his relics, stolen by French knights, were taken in the early 13th century.