The Scholar and the Saint: two valiant old men

I am thinking today of two valiant old men, one a scholar, the other a saint, and what they teach us about how to live and die. They lived far apart in place and time but they were united in their courage and in their sense of something greater than themselves for which they gave their lives.

Today is the feastday of St John Kemble, a Hereford man who became a priest and worked quietly among English and Welsh Catholics for fifty-four years until, in 1678, he was accused of being party to Titus Oates’  so-called Popish Plot. He was tried and acquitted of involvement but subsequently condemned as a ‘seminary priest’. He was hanged, drawn and quartered on Widemarsh Common on 22 August 1679. Before he was executed he said, ‘I die only for professing the old Catholic religion, which was the religion that first made this kingdom Christian.’ He was eighty years old.

Every time I walk down Widemarsh Street or drive across the common, I remember St John. I think of the barbarity of being hanged, drawn and quartered and of those being subjected to similar treatment by IS today. He and Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist murdered two days ago for refusing to reveal where some of Palmyra’s treasures were hidden, were just a few months apart in age. Both were men of integrity and valour. Both were men with a clear sense of purpose: St John saw his duty in upholding the faith of his fathers, Dr al-Asaad in preserving the treasures of antiquity — and both paid the price of their convictions.

We tend to consider old age a kind of weakness. As our bodies begin to crumble and sometimes our minds too, we think uneasily of Shakespeare’s sixth and seventh ages. Our life’s work is done, it is time to accept the inevitable. Death is, of course, inevitable for all of us, but how we meet it, what we make of it, and what others draw from it, is not quite so predictable. St John Kemble and Dr Khaled al-Asaad could both look back on a lifetime of achievement. Many of the missions St John established lasted until the nineteenth century. Dr al-Asaad was ‘Mr Palmyra’, the man who knew more about that important ancient city than any other. Yet it is arguable that their death, and the way in which they met it, was their finest hour, the crowning acheivement of their lives.  St John refused to give up his religious faith and conform to the Church of England; Dr al-Asaad refused to break faith with his stewardship of historical artefacts and the duty of scholarship. They did not plead old age as an excuse but met death clear-eyed and bravely. We may lack the courage of either, but we can surely be grateful for the example they give us.

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The Right and Wrong Kinds of Piety

A ‘Kemble cup’ is a Herefordshire expression for a parting drink. Its origin lies in the last hours of St John Kemble, whose feast we keep today. Falsely accused of complicity in the Titus Oates plot, he was apprehended and sentenced to death (at the age of 80). Before his execution he insisted on saying his prayers and finishing a cup of sack, inviting his jailers to join him. Fr Kemble is exactly my kind of saint: not pious as many understand piety, but truly devout because truly human.

In my (limited) experience, Catholics and Evangelicals both have a difficulty with piety. Put simply, we have a tendency to overdo it. Whether it be multiplying statues and devotions, or scripture quotations and Hallelujahs, we surround ourselves with an aura of godliness that doesn’t always bear inspection. We say the words and we do the deeds, but are we being completely honest with God or ourselves? Is the piety true or false? I have always believed in being as honest as one can with God, admitting one’s doubts, fears, anger, whatever is the struggle of the moment. Yes, one would like to live with a serene and untroubled faith — but that wouldn’t be real; and a real faith is what one needs.

So, this morning, a word of encouragement for all those who feel they are somehow substandard Christians because they aren’t quite ‘good enough’; because they go to church reluctantly sometimes, or eat or drink too much, or have messy personal relationships or just don’t quite ‘get it’. Faith is a funny thing. It tends to come and go. Moments of great enthusiasm are often followed by long periods of lassitude and weariness. What matters is perseverance, not piety as that is commonly understood. One of the Desert Fathers was asked the secret of his spiritual life. He replied, ‘I fall down, and I get up. I fall down, and I get up.’ That is the right kind of piety, and one we can all practise.

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