Unknown Saints: the Example of Cosmas and Damian

The basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian with its wonderful (though much restored) mosaics is one of my favourite Roman churches, not least because whenever I have visited it, I seem to have been the only person there — a rare experience in Rome. We know quite a lot about its history but about the saints to whom it is dedicated nothing at all for certain, only that they existed. Pious tradition maintains that they were Arab physicians, reputedly twin brothers, who were martyred in Syria in the third century after a lifetime spent in the service of the poor. They are said to have treated people without payment and are honoured today as patrons of doctors, surgeons, and dentists and protectors of children. 

Tourists probably barely register any of this in their hurry to look at the mosaics and take one more photograph before moving on to the next site, but for those of us hundreds of miles away, there is time for reflection. The basilica and the saints who give it its name are a reminder of the hollowness of our contemporary celebrity culture. It is not necessary to be a ‘name’ to be great. It is necessary to ‘do’. For me, Cosmas and Damian epitomise ‘anonymous sanctity’. That is to say, they represent the thousands upon thousands of people who, through the ages and in our own day, speak powerfully of God through their holiness of life. Most of them are unknown to us or commemorated by an accident of history, as here, in a building in the Forum of Vespasian. But they are the Church, the Body of Christ, preachers of the gospel, doers of his word, not hearers only. As such, they are an inspiration and perhaps, sometimes, a check on our vanity and complacency. I suspect most of us can think of someone we’ve met who has radiated this quality of holiness, bundled us up in the love of God and tossed us back into the world a humbler and more hopeful person. I am glad to say that I have met many such, both in the monastery and outside.

It would be tempting to leave matters there, content with a beautiful thought about the holiness of others, but it won’t do. We must apply it personally, and that is much harder. To be an unknown saint is not only a huge honour, it is a vocation — yours and mine. How will we try to live it today?

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A Saint in the Family

I once asked a friend who is a direct descendant of a very famous person why she kept quiet about the matter. She gave me a straight look and muttered something about it being ‘rather a lot to live up to’. As we were drinking some very good champagne at the time (even in the Cambridge of the 1970s), and her distinguished forebear was, among other things, a fervent advocate of teetotalism, I saw her point. One wouldn’t want to be compared unfavourably or accused of not living up to his example. It is much the same for those with a saint in the family. It is a great honour, but often a challenging one. I was taught by a descendant of St Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret; joined a community founded, inter alia, by his great-great-grandaughter, Helen, later D. Gertrude More; and for many years lived in a house owned by the Eyston family, who are descended from the saint via Maria Teresa Metcalfe, who married Charles Eyston in 1814 (see here for genealogy). Sadly, I haven’t become holy by association; and when I think of all the Recusant families which found it convenient to conform during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I wonder whether we don’t try to flee the greatness of our ancestors. They were just too good for us.

Fisher and More challenge us today just as they challenged their contemporaries. A couple of years ago I summed it up in this way:

The concept of ‘the right thing to do’ may be beautiful in its simplicity, but it can be devilish hard to work out. I have no doubt that SS John Fisher and Thomas More, whose feast we keep today, were men of great holiness of life but I don’t subscribe to the cult of mindless adulation they are often surrounded by. They are held up as champions of conscience, marriage, papal authority and the like. In an important sense that is true, but historically it is also less than the truth because the questions they considered were complex, susceptible of different answers, and have only gained the precision we give them today because time has allowed us to consider them more fully. If you look at More’s correspondence, you can see him gradually working towards the answer which led him to the scaffold, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion. He ducts and weaves, not in a bad sense, but in the way that a lawyer ducts and weaves through law and precedent, searching for . . . the right thing to do. Fisher, too, though he was of a different temper from More (and slightly nicer to his enemies) came to the conclusion he did after much deliberation.

I honour them both for their courage in accepting the consequences of their deliberations, and hope I might be as brave were I to find myself in a similar situation, . . . but I am left wondering whether we forget too easily the process by which they came to their decision, however: the prayer, the reading, the discussion, the hours of silent pondering. Sometimes people rush in with an answer before a question is fully formulated.

I think today we could ask the prayers of SS John Fisher and Thomas More to help us confront the difficult questions we face and work them out with integrity and courage. As saints, we can claim them as our own; they are indeed part of our spiritual family. But they are not just ‘nice to have around’. We live in a very different world from that of the Tudors, thank goodness, but still a world in which the prevailing ideas of society may conflict with the teaching of the Church. They do so under the appearance of good. Our present equality legislation, for example, has led to some questionable outcomes which many find troubling. Each of us must decide according to conscience — that interior sense of right and wrong — but we must ensure that our conscience is properly informed. That can often mean hard work, and laying aside some good for that which is better. Fisher and More ultimately gave up their own lives for the sake of life eternal. One can’t help being humbled by such courage and faith. May we be blessed with the same in our own day.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Angry Twitter, Angry World

St Jerome

St Jerome, whose feast we celebrate today, has a not entirely unjustified reputation for being a bit of a curmudgeon, though I think myself it has been unfairly exaggerated. I wonder what he would have made of Social Media? There are days when both Twitter and Facebook, for example, are awash with bile and one has to fight down the urge to say, ‘If you really did have the solution to the world’s problems, we’d all be beating a path to your door; the fact that nobody is should tell you something!’ The problem with Social Media, as we all know, is that it is instant. If we had to sit down and ink our words on parchment or chisel them on stone, we might allow ourselves a moment’s reflection. That is why, in my old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy way, I always urge people to pray before they look at their smartphones or log onto the internet. Being conscious of what we are doing is important if we are not to waste our energy and our opportunity.

As you might expect, St Benedict has a lot to say that is pertinent. His chapter on humility, which we are in the process of reading over the next few days, urges restraint in speech and action so that we are fully conscious of what we are about. We don’t drift into holiness, so to say; we have to make an effort. Anger is one of the passions early monastic writers marked out as being a major barrier to holiness of life. It takes over, controls us, places a red mist before the eyes so that we don’t see or hear clearly. St Jerome’s letters to St Augustine often contain passages in which he acknowledges what a struggle he had to contain his anger and check his tendency to sarcasm. He had, of course, the virtue of his fault: he was courageous. The cowardice that masquerades as charity was never for him! The difficulty for us is discerning when our anger is merely anger, and when it is a necessary and righteous means of achieving a good end — and I have to say, if my own experience is anything to go by, anger is usually just anger, with nothing righteous about it at all.

Today, I’d like to suggest two things: that we pray for Gaza, where Jerome lived some of his life; and we pray for all who use Social Media, that we may build up rather than destroy. Angry Twitter, angry world? The connection is not as distant as we might hope. Perhaps we could ask the prayers of St Jerome to help us.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Right Thing to Do

It is almost impossible to talk about ‘the right thing to do’ without sounding like a politician. The phrase has been used and abused so often that it has become virtually meaningless. That is a pity, because there is nothing else that conveys the idea behind it so simply and beautifully.

The concept of ‘the right thing to do’ may be beautiful in its simplicity, but it can be devilish hard to work out. I have no doubt that SS John Fisher and Thomas More, whose feast we keep today, were men of great holiness of life but I don’t subscribe to the cult of mindless adulation they are often surrounded by. They are held up as champions of conscience, marriage, papal authority and the like. In an important sense that is true, but historically it is also less than the truth because the questions they considered were complex, susceptible of different answers, and have only gained the precision we give them today because time has allowed us to consider them more fully. If you look at More’s correspondence, you can see him gradually working towards the answer which led him to the scaffold, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion. He ducts and weaves, not in a bad sense, but in the way that a lawyer ducts and weaves through law and precedent, searching for . . . the right thing to do. Fisher, too, though he was of a different temper from More (and slightly nicer to his enemies) came to the conclusion he did after much deliberation.

I honour them both for their courage in accepting the consequences of their deliberations, and hope I might be as brave were I to find myself in a similar situation. I am still left wondering whether we forget too easily the process by which they came to their decision, however: the prayer, the reading, the discussion, the hours of silent pondering. Sometimes people rush in with an answer before a question is fully formulated. We have seen something of that in recent discussion of marriage in this country. If we peep over the ecumenical fence, we can see our Anglican brethren tearing themselves in different directions over questions some of us find too perplexing for an answer yet.

Today is a good day to pray for all who have difficult decisions to make, who are keen to do the right thing because it is the right thing and nothing less will do. May SS John and Thomas pray for us all.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail