Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Simple Miracles Of A Guileless Age

Upon hearing the wonderful news that my friend was soon to be heavy with child, I was moved to take action by selecting a saint known to patronize the enceinte and asking for his special attention. Going through a list in my Catholic Encyclopedia I soon enough found a boon companion for her: Saint Ulrich of Augsburg, a simple and unprepossessing abbot and bishop from the dark, early days of the Western resurgence that began with Saint Carlos Magnus.

Ulrich fit a pattern of the day. An educated man of the gentry, pious from early youth, who wished no more than to withdraw to a monastery and live in contemplation of the divine, instead called to lead and protect his people until finally, overcome by eld, he is allowed to live out his wish and retire from the world. Showing early talent, he became both abbot of the cathedral cannons and Bishop of Augsburg. As bishop, he was conscientious in the carrying out of his duties. Each day he visited the hospital, washed the feet of a dozen paupers, distributed alms. As an important bishop he could not help but be involved in the affairs of the state and here too he was a peace-maker, brokering the reconciliation between the Emperor Otto and his estranged son Duke Ludolf of Swabia. When Augsburg was besieged by the Magyars in AD 955 he rallied the people to hold out against the heathen enemy, which they did, and when, during the siege, his cathedral burnt to the ground, he immediately caused a new structure to be built from scraps of lumber such that not a single day might pass without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass being said. Years later, when he felt death to be near, he had the monks of the Benedictine Abbey where he had retired sprinkle ashes upon the ground in the shape of a cross and sing the Psalms.
Whereupon, he laid down upon this cross and waited for death.

This is a good and pious life, but what really intrigued me was one particular miracle associated with him. One night a weary traveler came to the abbey of Augsburg where he was met by the abbot himself, Ulrich, who promptly gave him a leg of mutton to eat and sent him off to a monk’s cell to rest. Immediately, the exhausted traveler fell asleep. Upon awakening, the traveler cursed his luck, for it was now Friday morning and he was forbidden by Church law to eat the mutton. Miraculously, however, he found that the leg of mutton had turned into a fish during the night which he promptly consumed.

[As a footnote, it is unrecorded that the mint jelly accompanying the mutton turned into tartar sauce, but my faith is sufficient not to doubt that this corollary miracle also occurred!]

W hat a terrific miracle!
Sure, sometimes doctors can cure cancer, and we did put a man on the moon, but no doctor or rocket scientist can turn a leg of mutton into a fish! Ever!

Of course, this is the kind of miracle that moderns scoff at. My son (of little faith!) suggests that someone substituted a perfectly ordinary river trout for the leg of mutton sometime before 11:59 on the night in question and then consumed the leg himself. Others might say that with all the suffering abroad in the difficult tenth century of the Christian Era, the good saint might have put his miracle working to something more beneficial such as curing typhus, mending the lame, or ameliorating the frequent crop failures. Protestants are quick to point out that the prohibition of consuming meat on Fridays is mere “superstition” and that the good abbot could just as easily have given the famished traveler a dispensation to gorge himself on flesh despite it being the weekly remembrance of Our Lord’s crucifixion and death.

But these objections point up why I love this particular miracle. People of that benighted age were reconciled to the travails of the flesh, to the inevitability of disease, eld, death, and routine invasions by barbarians. Women were expected to die in childbirth, children were counted as lucky if the lived to adulthood, men accepted it as their lot to be exhausted and broken by constant toil. They offered these sufferings up to God, confident that he had suffered as much for them. But they expected their saints to show heroic virtue. And it is wonderful that Saint Ulric’s hospitality should not only be heroic, but be miraculous! The good saint not only took in the stranger, fed him, and gave him shelter — he insured that the food would remain good even on a day of abstinence from flesh! Can you imagine the talk in Augsburg that day? How the people must have marveled and rejoiced at the hospitality, how reassuring was their satisfaction of having so saintly a bishop, the wonderful frisson of humor at the marvel of flesh turned into fish. Who but an asshole would have scoffed at such a miraculous jape? (I challenge you: name a brighter spot in the tenth century!)

The miracles of the much maligned “Middle Ages” are almost always practical, fleshy, even carnally satisfying. Our Lady was not content to give the scheme of the Rosary to Saint Dominic in a vision — NO! she came down to present both Dominic and Saint Hyacinth with Rosaries of their own to keep. Saint Catherine of Sienna was not merely given the curse of Stigmata and the insight of cardiognosis (which is denied to the Angels), she was also permitted to nurse at the very breast of Mary Immaculate. Saint Carlos Magnus was not merely given the Charism of Saint Ambrose, he was given such modesty that he though there to be nothing extraordinary about this extra ordinary ability. And when a drunken lout known as “Noddo” publicly doubted the chastity of Saint Arnulf of Metzhis pants caught fire!

The mediæval saints are wildly colorful in a way that our modern saints are not. A sense of humor has always been a mark of sainthood. Think of the last words of Saint Lawrence who, while being roasted on a gridiron, said to the Roman soldiers, “I am done on this side! Turn me over and eat.” Despite hearing from Bishop Kane, who chanced to have lunch with her once, that Mother Theresa of Calcutta was the “funniest woman he’d ever met,” our saints of today are never thought even to smile. Our image (and undoubtedly this is false) of Pius X, Maximillian Kolbe, and yes, Mother Theresa, is one of a dourly heroic virtue. This is not the popular image of saints in the mediæval era with their mystical ecstasies, nonchalant miracles, and perverse eccentricities. Even modern conversion stories are lack-luster when compared to the sinful savoire vivre and subsequent abject piety of Augustine, Hubert, and Arnulf.

I submit for your consideration this wonderful exposition of the life of Saint Charles de Blois (AD 1319 - 1364) by Johan Huizinga in his insightful study, “The Autumn of the Middle Ages” (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996). [Fair disclosure: Charles, Count of Blois, Duke of Brittany, known as “the Happy,” is my seventh cousin twenty times removed.]

The princely circles managed a few times to produce a saint. One of these is Charles de Blois. On his mother’s side he sprung from the house of Valois and, through his marriage with the heir of the Bretagne Jeanne de Penthièvre, became involved in a dispute about succession that took the greater part of his life. Under the terms of his marriage contract, he was obliged to adopt the coat of arms and battle cry of the dukedom. He found himself confronted by another pretender, Jean de Montfort, and the ensuing conflict over the Bretagne coincided with the beginning of the Hundred Years War. The defence of Monfort’s claim was one of the complications that prompted Edward III to come to France. The count of Blois accepted battle like a true knight and fought as well as the best leaders of this time. Taken prisoner in 1347, just prior to the siege of Calais, he was held in England until 1356. He resumed the fight for the dukedom in 1362 and was killed in 1364 near Aurai while fighting bravely at the side of Bertrand du Guesclin and Breaumanoir.

This war hero, whose life differed in none of its external features from those of so many princely pretenders and leaders of his time, had led a life of strict austerity since the days of his youth. When he was a boy, his father had kept him away from edifying books because such books would be inappropriate for someone of his calling. He slept on straw on the ground next to the bed of his wife, and a hair shirt was found under his armor at the time of his death in battle. He took confession each evening before going to bed, because, as he said, no Christian should go to sleep with his sins unforgiven'. During his captivity in London, he was wont to visit cemeteries and, on his knees, recite the De profundis [i.e. Psalm 130]. The Breton page whom he asked to recite the responses refused, arguing that these locations were the burial grounds of the those who had killed his parents and friends and had burned their houses.

After his liberation, he intends to walk barefoot from La Roche-Derrien, where he began his imprisonment, to Tréguier, the site of the shrine of Saint Ives, the patron of Bretagne, whose biography he had written while a captive. The people hear about his plans and strew the path with straw and blankets. The count of Blois, however, takes a different route and ends up with feet so sore that he cannot walk for fifteen weeks. Immediately following his death, his princely relatives, among them his brother-in-law, Louis of Anjou, attempt to have him canonized. The proceedings, which resulted in beatification, took place in Angers in the year 1371.

The strange thing, if we can rely on Froissart, is that this same Charles de Blois had a bastard.
“There was killed in good style the aforesaid Lord Charles of Blois, with his face to the enemy, and a bastard son of his called Jehans de Blois, and several other knights and squires of Brittany.”
Are we to reject this as and an evident falsehood? Or should we assume that the combination of piety and sensuality that was present in figures such as Louis d’Orléans and Philip the Good was even more noticeably present in the count de Blois?

Think of what we moderns would make of such a man? He might easily be institutionalized for his unrelenting mortifications of the flesh. He would certainly be denounced as a "hypocrite" for his carnality (as opposed to being understood as an ordinary sinner). He would never be considered "saint material." Yet there he is, warts and all, a saint in heaven, able to catch God's ear and put in a good word for us.

1 comment:

dadwithnoisykids said...

Saint Ulrich is my 'Patron Saint of the Moment' after suffering from dizziness. I have his picture on my blog.