Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Princess and the Pigpen

[Originally Posted October 19, 2009]

Sermon for the Solemnity of St Frideswide, All Saints Convent, October 19, 2009 [Ephesians 3:14-19]

Frideswide belongs to that group of women saints who seem to inspire veneration from men by defying them. I use gendered language advisedly, for much of her life and her legacy are fraught with such issues. A multi-paneled window in the Latin chapel at Christ Church depicts the life of this 7th century Ango-Saxon woman, who preferred to contemplate God in her priory rather than live as consort in the court of Algar, the Mercian king.

Even so, his relentless importunings forced her to flee the monastery for a time to take refuge in the muck and mud of a pigsty. But she was without rancour, for when Algar was struck blind, she caused him to be healed by water from the well at Binsey that miraculously appeared in response to her prayerful compassion.

These days we have an uneasy relationship with hagiography in general, and it has to be said that the church, and Christ Church in particular, which is built on the site of Frideswide's foundation, appear to have had a vexed relationship with her from the beginning. This history makes her patronage of Oxford all the more remarkable in a post-Christian era.

In the Middle Ages, Frideswide's nuns were kicked out of their priory to make room for some Austin canons, who in turn were evicted so Cardinal Wolsey—and subsequently his overlord—could establish a college in a university whose foundation, in spite of its motto—Dominus illuminatio mea—was not prayer but dialectic.

It is unsurprising, then, that during the Reformation, the medieval shrine was smashed, and her bones, so legend has it, thrown on the midden. Sometime later, a bag made of cloth of silver containing some bones was found in the cathedral. For years, wishful thinking suggested these bones were hers, a speculation that now has been disproved. However, Jim Godfrey, the verger at the cathedral, says it is thought that the bones are somewhere in the building, but no one is quite sure where.

When I first came to Oxford twenty-five years ago, a dignified, polished black stone with Frideswide's name beautifully carved was set apart by a low railing on the floor of the Lady chapel. The fragments of the old shrine and the watching loft rested in the background. At the time, I was living in college and had a set a keys to the cathedral. On her feast I used to go in very early to put a lily on her stone—anonymously I hoped—a gesture that I realize in retrospect very likely irritated the somewhat erastian dean and all-male canons of the day.

It wasn't the bones I sought to honour—I never assumed they were there. It was rather to keep alive the memory of an intransigently holy woman in an excessively male world—both her world of the 7th century and mine of the cathedral in the late 1980s. Since then, the parameters of the shrine and the legend have continued to shift: recently the entire Lady chapel area was altered yet again. The medieval shrine has been relocated to the Latin chapel, and the stone with Frideswide's name on it is covered with chairs and appears to be more or less ignored.

My attention to Frideswide while I lived at Christ Church was something of a departure as I have never been much of one for shrines or relics except to appreciate the great art that was often lavished upon them. [2] But Christ Church is an ancient place, and the communion of the particular saints who are buried or remembered there is vibrantly living and active, as anyone who prays in that building morning after early morning comes to realize.

Whether or not the person or persons who decided to make Frideswide patron saint of the county, city, and university—of government, commerce, and argument—were aware of her vital presence is not relevant here. It was a good idea for the simple reason that is proclaimed in today's epistle, that following her we might "will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the eight and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.."

But there is a problem in the translation of this passage, for the word "grasp" seems to contradict its meaning that the love of Christ is limitless. "Grasp" implies that the saints have subjected this love to the constraints of dialectic, when in fact they have refused to make any claim, intellectual or otherwise, that might put limits on it. They revel in un-grasping so that they might instead be claimed by that which surpasses knowledge; as one lexicon puts it, "Christ by his holy power and influence laying hold of the human mind and will, in order to prompt and govern it." The saints are set on fire by this limitless vision of outpouring love, which they mirror, as opposed to domesticating it into a manageable commodity.

I would like to suggest that the particular grace Frideswide has to give us is that of an overarching vision, a glimpse of our share in the divine nature to which the rest of life may become subject, even if we are reduced to seeking refuge in a pigpen. We might say that Frideswide came into the fullness of her princely status in that porcine context, the self-emptying that is royal priesthood made manifest through putting on the mind of Christ.

Unfortunately, this way of knowing and the exalted view of the human person that is its consequence, is almost entirely absent from our relativistic and fragmented consumer culture. How many people today have a sense of vocation at all, much less one that is willing to put up with muck and mud and persecution?

Yet an overarching vision is not an exotic notion. Blackberry picking provides a homely analogy. It's simple cause and effect: if you want berries in any useful quantity, you're going to get scratched, no matter how carefully you prune the canes or protect your arms. You either can just get on with it and plunge in, testing each berry for ripeness, pulling it off or leaving it, so focused that you don't notice the thorns, and pick a gallon in an hour. Or you can cringe and whinge and shrink from the task, in which case it will take an hour to fill a small pummet, while every encounter with the slightest thorn will feel like an injection and an affront.

These days it seems as though people spend an awful lot of time kicking against the pricks, no matter how tasty or life-enhancing the feast set before them for the taking. We seem to rank what is important to us by how easy it is to obtain; we persuade ourselves that we have a right to immediate gratification without effort or discomfort, without having serious demands made on us.

We are thus conditioned to compete for status, to defend our imagined territories, to look out for Number One, no matter how destructive to the common good, to charity or hospitality, to the making of peace, much less our souls. Worst of all, these attitudes destroy any notion of what used to be called integrity, a word we hardly hear any longer, which is the opposite of narcissism. We are left floundering in a quicksand of shifting loyalties and appetites that bubble in and out of fashion.

Frideswide's gift is celebrated every year in a grand Evensong held on the Tuesday closest to her feast. [1] This service reminds the officials who attend that while governments may come and go, commerce may fail, and dialectic cease, our life together in all its diversity is sustained by an overarching vision. We may not need to endure tempest and pigsty as Frideswide did, but to survive as a human community in this complex and dangerous world requires a motivation that drives us beyond our selfish short-term interests and discomfort.

For those of us gathered here in this chapel where the communion of All Saints is lively and active, Frideswide's grace questions each of us daily and directly: What is my overarching vision? What do I really want? What price am I willing to pay? What goal would strengthen me to suffer anything in pursuit of it so that I may contribute to the common good?

What will enable me, along with Frideswide and all the saints, to catch fire, to become part of the conflagration that extends throughout the breadth and length and height and depth; to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that fills us with the utter fullness of God?


[1] The Lord Lieutenant, the Lord or Lady Mayor along with all the other invited guests, dressed in full regalia, are seated in the choir; many religions are represented among them. At the climax of the service, the choir leads these officials in a procession to her symbolic resting place where a motet is sung, after which all return to place. It is English civil religion at its best; it is at once deeply moving, yet laced with barely-suppressed merriment, the eutrapelia of divine-human play.

[2] When a few weeks ago I heard that the bones of St Thérèse were coming to town, all I could think of was the story of St. Hugh of Lincoln, who took a bite out of a relic of the supposed arm of Mary Magdalene when he was visiting her shrine at Fécamp. Simon Jenkins' article in the September 17 Guardian, recounts this story among others, and is well worth reading for an account of the some of the more outrageous practices religions get up to.


Anonymous Henry Burke said...

Thank you for this.

7:01 pm, October 20, 2011  
Blogger Bo said...

Ditto. And bless you for 'eutrapelia'!!!!

2:05 am, October 21, 2011  

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