Apart from the always delightful A.N. Wilson, the greatest modern booster of poor Sir Walter Scott was Pope John Paul I. This pontiff, who preferred literature to theology, had the habit of writing letters to dead or fictitious persons, epistles which have been gathered into a moving book called Illustrissimi. It is easy to see why Scott was among those he addressed. In Quentin Durward, we get a very sympathetic portrayal of Joan, the daughter of King Louis XI of France famed for her ugliness. Joan’s father did not respect her wishes to enter religious life and she was forced to marry the man who would become Louis XII. Thankfully a declaration of nullity was later obtained from Pope Alexander VI. In gratitude, her sovereign, who was now free to marry a rich and beautiful woman, gave Joan the duchy of Berry and numerous other holdings, the revenue of which she gave over entirely to the poor and religious causes. She founded the Order of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and has been venerated for her piety and generosity from her death until the present.
It is impossible to disagree with the assessment of those ecclesiastical historians who have declared that the Christians of Japan bequeathed to us an example of zeal in the face of persecution that had not been seen since before Constantine. One might add that it has had few sequels. The acts of the Japanese martyrs make frequently harrowing reading. Among the most moving stories collected by the Jesuits is that of a layman named Paul. Asked by a torturer which of his son’s fingers he ought to chop off first, the man is said to have replied, “That is your affair, not mine.” Later his son Ignatius, a boy of five, looked up at his brother’s bloody and mutilated hands and sighed with awe and delight. The sight reminded him of Our Lord on the Cross.
Ina, King of Wessex at the turn of the eighth century, was a great lawgiver and administrator and a skilled warrior. Ethelburga, his queen, was a pious woman who feared that her husband set too much stock in earthly affairs. One day after a feast the king and queen were set to ride out; the latter instructed her husband’s steward in their absence to fill the castle with rubbish and cattle dung and to put a sow and a full litter of piglets in Ina’s bed. After riding for a mile, Ethelburga suggested that they turn around. Upon returning home, Ina was furious. “Seest thou, O King, how the pomp of this world passeth away?” his wife, who seems to have been given to fits of spontaneous eloquence, asked. “Where are all thy goodly things? How foul is now the house which but yesterday was thy royal abode? Are not all the things of this life as a breath; yea as smoke, and as a wind that passeth away?” This was enough for Ina, who relinquished his throne immediately and set sail with his beloved spouse to pray at the tombs of the martyrs in Rome, where he later died.
Some of us are great readers of biographies and the raw material—letters, diaries, and so on—that supplies them. But it is possible for there to be too much of a good thing. With email, text messages, social media posts, electronic banking statements and the like we will know absolutely everything there is to know about the lives of eminent persons now living. What an extraordinary contrast it is to turn to the life of a saint such as Meldan about whom nothing whatever is known except that he is now in heaven. Many churches are named for him, which suggests that he must at one time have been held in great esteem, but otherwise the normally garrulous Irish hagiographers are silent. So far from being sad it seems to me very beautiful that what must ultimately be the only salient fact of any human life is the single one that Meldan’s contemporaries bothered to record of him.
Pope Benedict XVI produced one of the most extraordinary papal documents of modern times in Spe salvi, a piece of writing that I would like to be bold and call “a deep cut”. Between précis of the Frankfurt School Marxists and historical reflections on the career of Spartacus he finds time to pay tribute to the life of Josephine Bakhita. The niece of a tribal chieftain in Darfur, she was kidnapped by slavers and forced to make the 600-mile journey to El-Obeid on foot; along the way, she was traded among any number of “masters” and viciously flogged so many times that for the rest of her life she bore more than 140 scars. She forgot her age and even her own name. By an extraordinary turn of events, she eventually found herself a refugee in a Venetian convent. Here one can do no better than to quote Papa:
Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a ‘paron’ above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme ‘Paron’, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her ‘at the Father’s right hand’.
Josephine, as she decided to call herself, was later baptized and confirmed by St Pius X.
Apollonia was an old Christian gentlewoman of Alexandria in the third century seized by a heathen mob, who smashed out all of her teeth. Given a choice between uttering a blasphemous phrase and being thrown into a fire, she elected to jump in herself. Apollonia’s death, like that of Perpetua and other early martyrs, presents an apparent difficulty for theologians. It would seem to be the case that she took her own life, something we cannot but regard as a grave sin. Many of the fathers have suggested that she was directly prompted to do so by the Holy Ghost. Can God ever command us to do something that is at odds with the natural law? Or is simply the case that the records we have present an inaccurate picture of the circumstances under which Apollonia and other martyrs entered into the beatific vision?
From such lofty speculations, it is perhaps appropriate to turn to observing that Apollonia is the patron of those suffering from tooth-aches. Those who take an interest in such things (I am not one) may also note that an image of this saint forms the side support of the arms of the British Dental Association.
Clara is not someone with whom one would like to have argued. Upon learning that some nuns of her city were freezing without fuel, she marched into the forest and began carrying a vast log back to the convent. When one of her kinsmen stopped her and said that it was beneath her dignity, she responded that if Christ was not ashamed of carrying great pieces of wood for miserable sinners like himself she could hardly see why lugging a tree on behalf of His devoted servants should be a cause for embarrassment. Clara’s charity knew no limit. On one occasion she sold herself into slavery, hoping to use the proceeds to pay a fine for a certain criminal; the magistrate, upon learning of her sacrifice, commuted the poor man’s sentence and restored her to freedom, a happy example of what American conservatives sometimes call “judicial overreach”.
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