The Swan’s Bishop: A Look at the Life of St. Hugh of Lincoln

St. Hugh of Lincoln’s Feast Day is held on Nov. 17th in the Anglican liturgical calendar. Depictions of St. Hugh often include a picture of a beautiful white swan at his side. This comes from a story in his life, written by Adam of Eynsham, Hugh’s chaplain and friend, who reports that Hugh was a lover of animals. Often he was found in the gardens of his monastery in Lincoln with the wildlife that visited him. One of these, a wild swan with stark white feathers and a long neck, would eat from his hand and follow him wherever he went. The swan seemed to regard itself as Hugh’s guardian, because it would attack any who came near to him, and watched over him while he slept.

Hugh lived in medieval England eight hundred years ago, when kings saw bishops as serious political peers. Born in France, Hugh entered the Carthusian monkhood around the year 1160 when he was about 20 years old. Nearly twenty years later, he was sent by the Carthusians to be prior of the monastery in Lincoln, England. This monastery was built by King Henry II, as penance for murdering St. Thomas Beckett, and is where Hugh would become the swan’s bishop. But it was also where Hugh would become known as a bishop feared by kings and loved by the people of Lincoln and beyond.

Finding the living quarters of the monastery unacceptable for the monks, Hugh convinced Henry II to fund renovations that made Charterhouse more livable. His leadership and piety led the numbers of the humble establishment to grow. Next, Hugh set his sights on King Henry’s unjust hunting laws, which were a hardship for Hugh’s parishioners. So persuasive and diplomatic was Hugh, that King Henry changed his laws and even permitted Hugh to excommunicate one of the King’s foresters. Hugh advocated for the poor and resisted government oppression of its citizens through taxation, and served as a counselor and diplomat for King Henry II, King Richard I, and King John. He was an effective ambassador to France and improved relationships between the French and the English, though sadly on a return trip home from France as spiritual and political advisor, he caught sickness and died shortly after.

The most admirable component of Hugh’s time as bishop occurred in the reign of Richard I. In misguided response to to the Crusades happening abroad, religious persecution of Jews broke out in England. Hugh provided sanctuary for the persecuted Jews, standing against  angry mobs in the streets of Lincoln, and at the risk of his own life quelling these violent attacks.

Like the swan who watched over him, Hugh watched over his Christian flock and his Jewish countrymen with diligent devotion, fiercely protecting the poor, caring for the sick, and raising standards of education for children. King Richard I said of him, “Truly, if all the prelates of the Church were like him, there is not a king in Christendom who would dare to raise his head in the presence of a bishop.” St. Hugh of Lincoln stands as an example for the public service that Christians ought to provide, and in his dealings with kings, priests, monks, and the members of his diocese, steadfastly represented the power of the Gospel. The swan’s bishop lived with genuine faith in, and gave testimony to, the motto of his monastic order: “The Cross is steady while the world is turning.”

By Anthony G. Cirilla

Not by Shield or Helmet: Spiritual Warfare and the Pursuit of Peace in the life of St. Martin of Tours

The feast day of St. Martins is held on Wednesday the 11th of November, and this presentation on him was delivered the following Sunday.

In light of the tragic loss of life in the wake of brutal terrorism in Paris that transpired recently, it is fitting to consider the testimony left to us of St. Martin of Tours, who is held as a patron saint of France. He was bishop in Tours for some thirty years, and his brave military service and commitment to compassion and peace inspires us to place our final hope in the irresistible grace of Jesus Christ, not in the promises of politicians or weapons of war.

The Life of St. Martin was composed by Sulpicius Severus, who not only lived in St. Martin’s time, but also spoke with those who witnessed his Christ-centered life and even interviewed him personally in the process of writing Martin’s hagiography. This brief summary is therefore based primarily in Severus’s depiction of the saint. It is a remarkable life – by the grace of God, St. Martin served in the Roman army, then entered clerical orders, debated with the Devil and spoke with angels, performed numerous miracles, showed compassion to those in poverty, and even converted a robber to Christianity after that robber had kidnapped him and held him hostage.

St. Martin’s close relationship with the Lord began at the age of 10, but at 18 he was required by law to enter military service. While on duty in the dead of winter, he saw a poor man on the side of the road dying from the extreme cold. Despite the fact that his service would keep him in the cold as well, Martin took pity on the man, and used his sword to cut his own coat in two. He gave half of the coat to the man, saving his life, and then endured the mockery of his fellow men at arms for how foolish his half-coat looked.

That night, Christ appeared to St. Martin in a dream wearing the half of a cloak Martin had given to the poor man. Christ, commander of the heavenly host, announces to the multitude of angels: “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.” This vision prompted Martin to leave military service so that he could pursue a new vocation, as a priest and leader of spiritual warfare. Caesar Julian wished to block Martin’s exit from the military force, but Martin told him: “I have served you as a solider; allow me now to become a soldier to God.” Furious, the emperor accused him of cowardice, to which St. Martin replied: “If this conduct of mine is ascribe to cowardice, and not to faith, I will take my stand unarmed before the line of battle tomorrow, and in the name of the Lord Jesus, protected by the sign of the cross, and not by shield or helmet, I will safely penetrate the ranks of the enemy.”

This fearless commitment to God’s calling marked St. Martin’s incredible ministry. By Severus’s account, the Holy Spirit granted Martin the ability to see the Devil in whatever form he was present. When the Devil threatened him that he would resist Martin at every turn, he replied, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear what any can do unto me.” And the Devil fled from him.

During his ministry as Bishop of Tours, St. Martin confronted pagans who were worshiping an ancient pine tree, exhorting them to cut their idol down. They agreed on one condition: that Martin would show faith in his God by standing in the path of the falling tree. With his terrified followers watching, St. Martin stood as the pagans felled the ancient pine. As it rushed towards him with deadly speed, St. Martin made the sign of the cross, and suddenly the tree spun and fell harmlessly to the side. Many of the unbelievers there, amazed, committed themselves to Christ that very day.

Like St. Martin wearing his half-cloak, we may be mocked by wearing the outward sign of our Christianity. We should not shy from the conflicts of spiritual warfare, but we should, like St. Martin, starkly separate the practical necessity of military service from the peaceful sharing of Christ’s Gospel. When we put our steadfast faith first in the help of the Lord, not in mortal shields and helmets, then we can share in the compassion and confidence with which St. Martin, by the grace of God, encountered the perils of the world. As we pray for Paris and Beirut and any others who endure the dangers of terrorism, we must remember with gratitude the sacrifice of those in the military who strive to keep their fellow citizens, whether Christians or non-Christians, safe. In both times of peace and of war, Christians must always share the Gospel peacefully and with confidence, remembering that true peace comes not from government, but from God.

By Anthony G. Cirilla

Overcoming the Earth: The Life and Works of Our Blessed Martyr, Severinus Boethius

Boethius’s feast day is October 23rd, and these remarks were shared on the following Sunday to commemorate a figure who, once so well known to people of faith, has become obscure to the modern Church. With Hallowtide just past, it is fitting to reflect on exemplary lives of faith such as that lived by Boethius.

Unlike many medieval saints, Boethius was never ordained, never entered the ministry, and never entered monastic orders. He was a scholar and a politician in early sixth century Rome working under the rule of the Germanic barbarian, King Theodoric. Theodoric recognized the talents of Boethius, and both admired and feared him. He admired Boethius for his learning in the seven liberal arts, the academic curriculum of the time, and for his skill at reconciling differences between politicians of both church and state. Theodoric’s admiration led him to install Boethius as consul of Rome in 510, and he gave the same honor to Boethius’s sons in 522. That same year, Theodoric made Boethius Master of Offices, which gave him executive power over affairs both foreign and domestic.

But Theodoric feared Boethius’s close ties to the Emperor Justinian and the Eastern Church. As an Arian who denied the doctrine of the Trinity, Theodoric feared that Boethius’s attempts to reconcile eastern and western Trinitarian disputes might lead to a Roman rebellion that might seek help from Byzantium to regain independence from Ostrogothic rule. So when the Senate falsely accused Boethius of treason, an accusation that stuck only as a result of political enemies Boethius had made defending the public welfare, Theodoric had Boethius imprisoned on false charges and brutally executed with no trial.

Among other works, Boethius had written five theological tracts for his friend, Pope John I, referred to collectively as the Opuscula Sacra, where Boethius used his training in logic and philosophy to defend the Christian faith. Two of these argued for the rationality of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and one of these includes his formulation of personhood as “an individual substance of a rational nature,” a definition still in use by modern theologians. A third treatise defended the orthodox view of Christ’s nature as God and man, and a fourth explained how the goodness of creation, including human goodness, logically depends upon the goodness of God. The final treatise, On the Catholic Faith, explicates general foundational doctrines for all Christian believers.

However, Boethius wrote his most important work, The Consolation of Philosophy, while imprisoned and on death row. Admitting his despair at the loss of his former life and freedoms, Boethius portrays himself in dialogue with Lady Philosophy, his lifelong object of study. Philosophy reminds him that earthly goods come and go, but the only value of earthly goods is in their power to turn our sights to the Father of Heavenly Lights, from whom comes every good and perfect gift and does not alter like the shifting shadows. He reminds himself and us that nothing in this world can yield satisfaction to our longing for happiness, and seeking after such frail goods will only lead to despair. Philosophy means the Love of Wisdom, and true wisdom resides in conforming our broken desires to the only essential source of happiness: the light of Divine Love which orders all things and grants all earthly gifts their true meaning.

Boethius reminds us that the mind of God is not limited to human perceptions of time and space, that all existence depends on his loving sustenance, for it is in God in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Boethius reminds us that our vision can be transformed to understand the world from this God-centered perspective. “Superata tellus sidera donat” – “Overcome the earth, and you will be given the stars,” Lady Philosophy tells the imprisoned Boethius. Despite his prison walls, Boethius remembered that true freedom comes from God, and regardless of station or situation in life, that freedom is available to all who turn from the misery of self-rule, and instead obediently remember that we live in the sight of a just and moral judge who sees all things.

By Anthony G. Cirilla, Nov. 5th