John Bradburne: the Vagabond of God
by Didier Rance, DLT, £14.99
There’s something a little unsettling about saints. They’re weird. They make us feel uncomfortable. They’re eccentric and on the fringe of things. They put us on edge because they’re edgy.
The same can be said of mystics. Mystics are misfits. They don’t fit in.
There is a reason for all this. Saints are unsettling because they and we are not meant to be settled. We are, as St Augustine says, restless until we can rest in God. They are weird in the original sense of the word – wyrd in Old English, as used by the Beowulf poet and other Christian bards in Anglo-Saxon times – because they interweave themselves with the providential presence of the divine. They make us feel uncomfortable because they make themselves uncomfortable, choosing a life of self-sacrificial mortification, taking the Cross seriously enough to take it up and carry it. For most of us, addicted to our creature comforts, seeing someone choosing discomfort reminds us that we are spiritual couch potatoes who need to be shaken out of our comfort zones. This puts us on edge, even if it only shifts us to the edge of the couch.
And yet it is we who are on the fringe of things, not the saint – it is we who are the real eccentrics. The saint only seems to be eccentric because he centres himself in the real Centre of all things, which is the Creator of all things. The saint is a saint because he is centric, not eccentric. We, on the other hand, wandering far from the mystical Centre, are the real eccentrics.
All of this comes to mind when we think of a saint such as St Francis of Assisi, especially as he is depicted in Chesterton’s picturesque portrayal. He is the jongleur de Dieu. God’s juggler. God’s tumbler. A fool for Christ. A troubadour. A tramp. A vagrant. All of which brings us to John Bradburne: the Vagabond of God by Didier Rance, a new biography of a man whom we should know but probably don’t.
John Bradburne is not a saint. At least he is not in the canon of saints. He is not to be found on the liturgical calendar. And yet, as this fine biography demonstrates, he lived a holy life that bore all the hallmarks of a saint in the making.
Having fought in World War II with distinction, he failed to settle into a post-war world which was chilled to the bone by the Cold War looming over its gloom-laden “peace”, a world that awaited the “terror of atomic doom foreseen”, as Siegfried Sassoon wrote.
Having tried his vocation as a Carthusian monk at Parkminster, Bradburne began a life of wandering. Embarking on a pilgrimage to Rome, Athens and Jerusalem, he endeavoured again, unsuccessfully, to try his vocation to the religious life, this time with an order based in Louvain.
The misfit still didn’t fit and the life of wandering recommenced. “John left Louvain on foot,” his biographer tells us, “aiming to get to Jerusalem via Rome and southern Italy, from where he hoped to catch a boat.” Everything he owned he carried on his back. “Walking and hitch-hiking, he made his way via Brussels and Mons into France, stopping from time to time to earn food or money as a farm labourer in the harvest or as a busker playing his recorder in the towns. Whenever he could he sought overnight hospitality in a monastery or slept in a barn, attending Mass wherever the occasion arose.”
One is reminded perhaps, in this depiction of the homeless drop-out, of the type of hippie who does his own thing because he won’t conform to what others expect of him. Bradburne is, however, not of this sort. He’s the very opposite, the very antithesis of this vision of the hippie drop-out. He doesn’t seek to do his own thing – he seeks to cease doing his own thing so that he can do things for others. This is the mark of the saint, the mark of one who drops out of worldly society so that he can drop into a life of radical self-giving.
This self-sacrificial path led him eventually to a leper colony in Mtemwa, Zimbabwe, where he lived in a prefab tin hut, without water and sanitation. Soon after his arrival, in 1962, he confided to a Franciscan priest that he had three wishes: to serve those suffering from leprosy, to die a martyr, and to be buried in the habit of St Francis. All three wishes were granted, or perhaps we should say that all three prayers were answered.
As a lay member of the Third of Order of St Francis, he obeyed its rule, singing the Daily Office of Our Lady, rising at dawn for Matins and ending the day with Vespers and Compline. In 1979, during Zimbabwe’s civil war, Bradburne was kidnapped and murdered.
John Bradburne was a holy man, a hero of the faith. Whether he will eventually be canonised will be a decision for the Church’s Magisterium, in the fullness of time. He is, however, well served by this admirable biography which is not a hagiography (Deo gratias!) but a work of solid historical scholarship. Whereas hagiographies are often all icing and no cake, John Bradburne: the Vagabond of God is a fully fledged biography that paints a fully fleshed portrait of its subject.
It’s a great pity, therefore, and a grave stain on this otherwise splendid book, that the publisher did not see fit to supply an index. In this significant sin of omission the publisher has failed to serve John Bradburne with the diligence and gravitas which the book’s author has shown in its research and writing.
It would be indecorous to end on such a sour note, however. Leaving such defects and deficiencies aside, The Vagabond of God deserves to be widely read for the sweet savour of sanctity to be found in its pages.
Joseph Pearce is senior editor at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado
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