Friday, October 19, 2012

St. Frideswide's Bones

The Shrine of St. Frideswide in Oxford.
My brothers, be proud, but only in the Lord. It is not the man who approves of himself who stands approved, but the man whom the Lord approves.

-Chapter for the Common of Virgins

St. Frideswide, whose feast falls on October 19, tends to get little ink in the U.S. She is yet another of those royal abbess saints that pre-Norman England excelled in producing and is patroness of Oxford, where her shrine may be seen in Christ Church Cathedral.

I spent the summer of 1990 reading contemporary British politics at Oxford, but my heart was more in the Medieval and Anglican past than in studying the late Thatcher government. I generally attended St. Mary the Virgin, where Newman had so often preached, and stopped in frequently at Pusey House, Oxford's great monument to Anglo-Catholicism, but I also made my way to Christ Church on several Sundays where there was still a choral service in the summer.

At that time, I suppose that I would best be described as an Episcopalian with Anglo-Catholic aspirations. Though I read like Miniver Cheevy, my acquaintance with the world further up the candle was far more theory than practice. Oxford and London were brimming with discoveries to be made and minor pilgrimages to the ticked off. Christ Church, which is both the chapel of Christ Church College and the smallest cathedral in the Church of England, was not particularly high church, but it was probably the first place that I ever heard a Latin Mass setting in an Anglican Church.

The broken fragments of St. Frideswide's shrine sat in a transept chapel and made a strong but ambiguous impression on me. This was one of the first saint's shrines that I had ever seen. On the one hand, here was a visible link to that sense of history and continuity that drew me so powerfully. On the other hand, it was now little more than a curiosity, a place to stop and relate a story about the age before we all knew better--something jolly if you told the story of Frideswide's miraculous deliverance from her lecherous pursuer with a wink and a smile.

Pole and cup in hand, punting on the Isis in the Summer of 1990.
At the Reformation, Frideswide's shrine was broken up and her church became the chapel of the new Christ Church College, the apogee of Oxford's college system. To add insult to injury, the Zwinglian canon James Calfhill mixed the bones of St. Frideswide with those of Catherine Cathie, a nun turned Protestant, writing in his account of the event, "Hic jacet religio cum superstitione" ("Here lies religion with superstition").

I have spent another 22 years sorting the bones in my own religious thinking, quixotically discerning monuments from curiosities and deciding which ideas and customs were heirlooms from an inviolate patrimony and which were fads, accretions, and rubbish. When I was younger, it was an exhilarating if precious business, though heaven knows how much I taxed my friends' patience with various enthusiasms for the patristic, for Sarum, for the Oxford Movement, and probably a number of things in between that I've forgotten.

I tried all of the standard arrangements of the high Anglican formularies then, eventually, the schema that seemed to work best looked distressingly Roman and I embraced it haltingly. That proved itself to be a temporary arrangement as well, if a productive one, and the three years I spent as a monk taught me things about myself I would have never learned otherwise.

Today I find myself in the Independent Sacramental Movement. I still haven’t found the perfect theological furniture arrangement.  I suspect that usually only happens in the world to come, but I’m far from giving up trying to make things fit as well as I can or from being satisfied with telling myself that it’s all about the journey.  Journeys lead someplace, though the last leg may only happen as the dross falls away in the clarity of purgation.

Perhaps that visit to the shrine of St. Frideswide, whose feast of translation turns out to be my birthday, set more in motion than I knew. At the very least, I hope that I have begun to see that there is often more benediction to be found in a humble mix of religion and superstition than in the reasoned self-congratulation of the younger me who first visited that shrine.

    Son of a Virgin, Maker of thy Mother,
    Thou, Rod and Blossom from a Stem unstainèd,
    Now while a virgin fair of fame we honor,
    Hear our devotion!

    Fountain of mercy, hear the prayers she offers;
    Purge our offenses, pardon our transgressions,
    So that hereafter we to thee may render
    Praise with thanksgiving.

    Thou, the All-Father, thou the One-Begotten,
    Thou Holy Spirit, Three in One co-equal,
    Glory be henceforth thine through all the ages,
    World without ending. Amen.

    -Hymn of Vigils for a Virgin Not a Martyr

(This post was adapted from a piece written three years ago in the cloister.  I wonder what updates it may require in years to come.)