In the last few days our liturgical calendar has commemorated a little group of pre-Conquest saints known mainly to historians and hagiographers: Ethelburga of Barking, Paulinus of York, Laurence, Mellitus, Wilfrid and today Edward the Confessor, the only English king to be formally recognized as a saint, and one whose claim to sanctity is probably open to question. I was brought up on Frank Barlow’s Edward the Confessor, which makes a case for Edward as an effective king, but must admit I was never wholly convinced. Still less am I convinced by the portrayal of Edward in his Vita, which is conventional and idealised:
[Edward] was a very proper figure of a man – of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands, and long translucent fingers; in all the rest of his body he was an unblemished royal person. Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all. If some cause aroused his temper, he seemed as terrible as a lion, but he never revealed his anger by railing.
We can find similar hagiographical tropes in the portrayal of the others I’ve mentioned, so, why bother with any of them today, especially someone like Edward? I think there are three reasons. The Communion of Saints is a reality transcending our limited notions of time and place. I ask the prayers of the saints in heaven as I ask the prayers of my fellow Christians on earth. I do not need to rank them according to some scale of holiness of my own: an alpha saint, a beta saint, and so on. The fact that someone lived long ago or far away is irrelevant. To the Lord the prayers of the saints, living and dead, are pleasing; and that is good enough for me. I don’t believe in DIY salvation and am happy to ask the help of others in approaching the throne of grace.
I’d also argue that there is something to be gained from studying the lives of those who, at first sight, inhabited a very different world from our own but who, on closer inspection, can be seen to have had to deal with many of the problems confronting us today. The growing hostility towards Christianity shown in the desecration of churches and statues, the increasing gulf between the haves and have-nots, and the obvious the vulnerability of us all in the face of disease mirror many of the experiences of pre-Conquest England. We may not have quite reached the point of plague-stricken Jarrow, with only a Ceolfrith and a Bede to sing the Divine Office, but many religious communities have lost members to COVID-19 while more secular organizations have felt the impact of lockdown restraints and loss of income, leading to closure and social disruption.
But just as we can register points of similarity, I think it is good for us to be challenged by the differences. Too many of us have a somewhat narrow conception of what constitutes orthodox belief and practice and tend to judge others according to our own lights. For instance, I forget how many times I have been told that I must pray the Rosary or I am not a good Catholic. Our pre-Conquest saints did not know the Rosary, but they were good Catholics. Not only the saints but even ordinary layfolk, if they observed even half the regulations that applied to them, put us to shame with the way they kept Lent or the vigils of feasts. They were zealous where we are apt to be lukewarm. Above all, I think they had a simpler and more direct awareness of the transcendence of God. That does not mean that they were unsophisticated or stupid — far from it — but I would argue that it does mean they saw significance and purpose where we tend to see only randomness or chance. They possessed, in a way we sometimes do not, the gifts of wonder and awe in the presence of God.
Wonder and awe are not gifts many of us actively seek, I suspect. They make us acknowledge that we are not the measure of all things; that there exists someone greater than we are before whom, like Job, we can only keep silence. And we do not like keeping silence! We much prefer to express ourselves via social media or blog posts, giving others the benefit of our opinions, but maybe if we were to cultivate greater restraint in speech, there would be more room for wonder and awe in our lives; and wouldn’t that be a good thing? We treasure our awareness of the immanence of God, and rightly so, but perhaps that has led us to downplay or fail to recognize as we should the transcendence of God.
Today I shall ask the prayers of St Edward for the people of England as we face more restrictions in the attempt to ward off COVID-19. I shall also ask his prayers for the Church throughout the world and for all who are in need. As a royal saint, he was expected to be a patron of the Church, the major philanthropic institution of his day, to be generous to the poor and kindly to the sick. Perhaps that is not a bad indicator of sanctity, and one we can emulate in our different ways. But among all my other requests, I shall include one for the gifts of wonder and awe, for becoming more alert to the transcendence of God. Will you join me?