Sunday, 29 June 2008

Excellent Women: St Etheldreda of Ely

Now, our hymn to God upraising,
Sing we of a queen's amazing
Lowliness of mind, today;
Who her royal state rejected
And, impelled by love, elected
In Christ's holy rule to stay.

Or you can also call her Æthelthryth, Ediltrudis, Audrey or Awdrey. But, however many names I include will not hide the fact that this post is nearly a week late as her feast is on 23 June. Real life has got in the way of hunting for saintly ladies recently.

Etheldreda was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and so was married off for political reasons at an early age. However, she managed to persuade her first husband, the fenland prince Tondberht, to respect her vow of perpetual virginity. Unfortunately he died after only a couple of years and her new husband, Egfrith, King of Northumbria, wasn't prepared to be accomodating. After twelve years, he had had enough and attempted to bribe Bishop Wilfrid of Northumbria to persuade her to break her vow. When Wilfrid refused to do this, Egfrith had her snatched from her convent but Etheldreda escaped and took refuge on the Isle of Ely, a gift from her first husband.

She founded a double monastery on the site of Ely Cathedral which, despite being sacked by the Danes, eventually became the richest abbey in England after Glastonbury, although she was something of a social reformer, freeing bondsmen on her land and living a life of austerity. Etheldreda died from a tumour on her neck which was rumoured to be a divine punishment for wearing too many necklaces in her youth. Fortunately for those of us who own rather too much jewellery, this was probably actually a symptom of the plague. Excellent women certainly ran in her family as her sister, niece and great-niece also became abbesses of Ely. Seventeen years after her death, her body was discovered to be incorrupt and so, her shrine at Ely became an important place of pilgrimage until its destruction in 1541. Some of her relics are supposed to have ended up at St Etheldreda's, Ely Place which is, incidentally, the oldest Roman Catholic church in England.

St Audrey's Fair, which is still periodically held at Ely in her honour, was originally the place to buy cheap necklaces and lace and the origin of the word 'tawdry' as a comment on the poor quality of the goods on sale. Her Wikipedia entry calls the wares "modestly concealing lace goods", hence the black and lacy illustration to this post.

Etheldreda's holy living
Urgeth us to heartfelt giving
Of ourselves to God today.
May her prayers, for us ascending,
Gain us joys that know no ending
With the saints on high for aye.
Amen. Alleluya.

(The Ely Sequence, as sung in Ely Cathedral on her feast days)

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

A dedicated follower of fashion?

I should have known better than to go to France by train in May. But Paris is not the worst place in the world to be stranded by a general strike and at least I could pretend to be a real Frenchwoman who reads French women’s magazines (which are actually much more interesting and intelligently written than English ones). And in Elle, I found, to my surprise, that according to one article (of which I have transcribed chunks for your benefit as it seems unavailable online), I am among the fashionable:

"Ils sont enfants de soixante-huitards et retrouvent le chemain de l’Eglise. Que recherchent ses adultes qui se font baptiser, tout en gardant leur sens critique?”
(These are the children of the 1968 protesters and they’ve rediscovered the path of the Church. What are these adults, who get baptized while keeping a sense of critical analysis, searching for?)

Admittedly, my parents were a year too young to be actual soixante-huitards and as an Anglo-Catholic, I haven’t returned to exactly the same path as that of my mostly Roman Catholic extended family. But, as a newly baptised adult I did read with attention, if only to find out what I am supposed to be searching for! The article includes many contributions from sociologists about the young feeling a desire for community, order and serenity, or wanting to challenge parental authority, or wanting to display their religion publicly to those of other faiths. Though I can’t speak for all British or French youth or any sociologists, rather than any of these theories, I identified more with the personal testimonies, especially a woman who said:

“For a long time, I forbade myself to be a Catholic but then I suddenly understood....because I realised that I’d believed in God forever”.

Because, I did believe in God for a long time before I sought to be baptised but I lacked the courage to do anything about it until relatively recently. But eventually, what made me take that step isn't anything I can link to those sociological theories but an overwhelming sense that I had to be, and wanted to be, a Christian.

However, a few parts of this article do make me slightly cross (and, if you want, please feel free to mock me for expecting too much from glossy magazines). The quote about keeping “un sens critique” above seems to imply that everyone else has entirely given up their capacity for independent thought at the moment of baptism. Also, possibly unsurprisingly given the publication I was reading, the tone of the article seems to suggest at times that this is more of a fashion statement with lists of Christian celebrities, baptismal crosses custom made to match engagement rings and the phrase Ça fait presque fun de se faire baptiser”! What I found more worrying though, is that the article calls this resurgence of faith “la religion self-service” and that the women mentioned seem to have in some cases entirely disconnected catholic teaching from their personal lives, picking and choosing which aspects of the church’s teaching they want to live by. There can't be anyone who hasn't, at some point, done something that they shouldn't, but not even intending to try seems to me the wrong approach.

Despite all my quibbles, it was cheering to see something positive about Christianity in the press, especially as every British newspaper seems to have been predicting its imminent demise recently. And this especially, that young French people "ont l'envie d'assumer leur foi sans inhibition ni honte" (want to display their faith without shame or inhibition) makes me hope that young British people feel the same. And I hope that I'll always be able to show my faith without shame or inhibition but sometimes I fear that I'm too much of a coward. So, go and find me some examples of young catholics proudly displaying their faith and put them in the comments to encourage this neophyte.