Irrelevant to Today?

Last year, I penned a kind of shortened Cambridge Shorter History account of St Wulstan, whose feast we keep today, (see here). An earlier account of his role in ending the slave trade between Bristol and Ireland drew derision from some whose focus is Black Slavery, while more serious attempts to assess his character and activity appear to have bored my readers more than somewhat. So, is St Wulstan, who died in 1095, irrelevant to today — one of those musty old medieval male saints who belong in stained glass windows and are not part of the living faith of anyone nowadays? That depends.

We can make a case for considering Wulstan to be very modern indeed, principally by ignoring his historical context and seizing on aspects of his life that appeal to us. Take that interest in the slave trade, for example. It resonates with all who are concerned about the evils of human trafficking and exploitation. Or take his extraordinary ability to maintain his position under William the Conqueror. That surely provides food for thought among those who do not see their national identity being crushed out of existence by association with others. It even has something to say about our current preoccupations with Christian unity and liturgical observance, for Wulstan found a way of adopting and advancing Lanfranc’s reforms while making Worcester a centre of Old English culture and piety.

The difficulty only really comes when we have to take seriously the intellectual and spiritual world Wulstan inhabited and the way in which that affected his thoughts and actions. Even if we would describe ourselves as religious, those long unseen hours of prayer, those daily distributions of alms to the poor, those foot-washings, they are a world away from our usual experience. I don’t mean that we do not pray, or that we do not give alms; but the way in which we do those things has changed. The way in which we live has changed. More and more things clamour for our attention. Even in a monastery, we have to spend time on matters that would never have troubled Wulstan or his contemporaries. The world we inhabit is larger, noisier and apparently much more complex. So, where does that leave us?

I think it leaves us confronting something we may find uncongenial: the reality of a sanctity that, at one level, baffles and bewilders yet, at another, rings true. Wulstan was a saint and it is as such that he has a claim on us today. It is in his holiness, in his closeness to God, and in his activity as intercessor on our behalf that we find his relevance. It doesn’t matter that he comes from a different age or context from the one with which we are familiar. He is part of that great Communion of Saints that embraces the whole of creation. As such, he is very close to us even now. We can rejoice in his closeness and learn from him. St Wulstan, pray for us!

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3 thoughts on “Irrelevant to Today?”

  1. I do agree. His life was by definition more primitive than ours but offered more tangible results than ours. He dealt with religious issues which had an obvious and immediate – almost a short-cut effect upon those affected. Our world is metaphorically much bigger, my intervention may theoretically affect a child in China. Yet for me often that child is a virtual reality rather than tangible. But our objectives are unchanged to improve the quality of life. Surely the point of commemorating someone like Wulfstan is to remind ourselves how long this struggle has gone on, how little progress has been made and how important it is to keep trying?

  2. It’s funny when modern people judge historical figures by modern standards, as if we were involved in some kind of “who is holier?” or “whose struggle is more authentic?” contest. We are all sisters and brothers, a huge family stretched out over centuries of changing times. There are so many more things that bind us together than separate us. Comparing ourselves is a futile practice. We all are sinners, saved by a common Love, with a lot to learn from one another. Can’t we focus on that instead?

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