The Book of Common Prayer
Today's commemoration is of a book, not a human saint. On May 30, 1549, the first Book of Common Prayer was published. The book was primarily the work of Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who pulled ideas and wrote some of his own. It was deliberately ambiguous about things such as Real Presence in the Eucharist, and therefore disliked by both conservative reformers and more liberal ones.
For several years after that it was revised, based in large part on who was ruling England at the time. [Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth I, James I, the Puritans under Cromwell all had ideas for a better book.] The final version, in 1662, was the one in use until the twentieth century, when some modern touches were added.
Most of the colonies and former colonies developed their own Book of Common Prayer. The United States got its own Book of Common Prayer in 1789, the year after the Constitution was ratified. It did not include a prayer for the king! The most recent revision is the 1979 edition, though there are supplements.
The Venerable Bede
[This portrait in the British Library is from a 12th century copy of Bede working on his biography of St. Cuthbert.]
Bede, a monk in Northumbria, England, was born in 673 and died on May 25 in 735, so today is his commemoration. He was ordained a deacon at 19 and a priest at 30; he was made a Doctor of the Church in 1899. He’s known as Venerable, because he’s worthy of respect.
“I have devoted my energies to a study of the Scriptures, observing monastic discipline, and singing the daily services in church; study, teaching, and writing have always been my delight.”
Here are some of his firsts:
• first person to write scholarly works in English
• wrote the first account of martyrs with historical notes
• first historical writer to use Anno Domini to date materials
• first writer who pointed out that the solar year isn’t 365 days long
Bede also wrote in Latin, the language of the educated, of the Church and government. He translated the Gospel of John into Old English; he finished it the day he died. He wrote commentaries, letters, and hymns. “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing,” written for Ascension, is in The Hymnal 1982. He wrote books on grammar and astronomy. He knew that Earth is a sphere.
Much of what we know about early history in England is because Bede wrote a book, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which provides the history of England from the time of Julius Caesar until 597. It covers the Celts’ conversion during the first three hundred years after Jesus, as well as the 5th and 6th century invasion of Anglo-Saxons, who were converted by both Celtic and Roman missionaries.
Centuries after his death, his bones were moved to Durham Cathedral, where they remain.
The Church has given us a prayer for Bede:
Almighty God, who has enriched your Church with the learning and holiness of your servant Bede: Grant us to find in Scripture and disciplined prayer the image of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and to fashion our lives according to his likeness, to the glory of your great Name and the benefit of your holy church; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
People began writing about Dunstan within a century of his death. This manuscript is from the British Library's collection.
Although he died on May 19 in 988, Dunstan has affected our world, more than a thousand years later. Born in 909 to an aristocratic family, he didn’t fit in at school. Today, however, we would recognize him as a polymath.
Dunstan was an advisor to kings—and in and out of favor with some of the Saxon royals, at times exiled—and a restorer of monastic practices. In addition, he was a metalworker, skilled in creating church bells. He was a painter; the British Museum has a manuscript he illuminated. And a musician.
Dunstan compiled a coronation service which for King Edgar, the earliest English coronation service for which we have the full text. It is still the basis for all coronation services.
As a bishop, he sponsored missionaries to countries in Scandinavia. (Remember, this was the time of Danish raids on England!) Although he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by one king, he fell out of favor with the next one, and went to teach at the cathedral school in Canterbury.
The Church has this prayer for his saint day:
Direct your Church, O Lord, into the beauty of holiness, that, following the good example of your servant Dunstan, we may honor your Son Jesus Christ with our lips and in our lives; to the glory of his Name, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Dame Julian of Norwich
Showings, or Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich saved my wavering faith when I was in seminary. Julian was an anchoress in the fourteenth century, living enclosed within the walls of St. Julian’s in the English seaport of Norwich. (This was not abnormal for the time; men who took the same vows were called anchorites. They followed a rule, a way of life.)
Julian had two windows from the rooms that were added on to the church for her. One window faced into the church, so that she could participate in the Eucharist. The other window faced the road, so that she could offer counsel and encouragement to those who came seeking either. By tradition, she had a cat, which makes sense not only for companionship but also for any rodents—this was the era of the plague. We know from wills of the era that she had women servants; many believe, given her theology and writing style, that she had access to manuscripts from Europe.
Julian—and we don’t even know her name or much about her life outside her anchorage—was in keeping with the sensibilities of her time, though her ideas may seem odd to us. She prayed for three gifts, or graces: a recollection of the Passion of Christ; an illness so severe that she expected to die; and the three wounds--true contrition, loving compassion, and longing with my will for God.
Julian explains that these gifts were granted on May 13, 1373, when she was thirty. She received sixteen “showings” or visions during her illness, which she recorded when she recovered her health. She thought about these visions and their meaning for twenty years, and wrote them again, giving us what is known as the Short Text and the Long Text.
Julian had a penchant for threes. To give one example: she has a vision of something small, the size of a hazelnut. God explains that this small round thing is everything that exists. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it.
Julian believed it all, I told myself, despite living through three waves of Black Plague, despite living just down the road from the place where heretics were burned at the stake. Julian had a vision of God as not only Father but also as Mother. (Nor was she alone in her own time in believing this; modern feminism isn’t new.) She believed love, not anger, was what motivated God. God is that goodness which cannot be angry, for God is nothing but goodness. And that was a God I could believe in.
Athanasius of Alexandria
May 2 is the feast day of Saint Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria. He's not a common name, but we owe his influence to the development of the Nicene Creed as we know it and say it each Sunday.
Although in 313 Constantine made Christianity a favored religion instead of a persecuted one, infighting over doctrine nearly destroyed what we now consider Christianity. The fracas over whether Jesus was truly God was so intense that in 325 Constantine commanded bishops to come to Nicea (near Constantinople) to thrash out their differences. So 317 bishops came to argue their doctrinal points.
As a sidenote: observe who was not invited: desert fathers and mothers, laypeople, women. This is the Imperial Church, so the hierarchy was in evidence.
Enter Athanasius of Alexandria, a deacon under Alexander, the bishop of that city in Egypt, who accompanied him to Nicea. Athanasius was probably Coptic; he spoke that language. This would have made him a member of a lower class of Egyptian. He was called the black dwarf, because he was dark-complected and short.
He was also connected to the desert monks, particularly to Anthony, whom he claimed to visit and to serve. He adapted a monastic lifestyle and was in touch with the common people.
Athanasius began writing against the Arian heresy that Jesus was not fully God. He also used the analogy of Jesus as an emperor visiting a city, thereby giving not only the house where he stayed but also the entire city his protection and special honor.
He became bishop of Alexandria when Alexander died. It was not a cushy job; depending on whether the emperor was pro-Arian or pro-Nicean, Athanasius was in Egypt or in exile or hiding out in the desert. He died in 373, not living to see the final victory of his ideas in 381 at the Council of Constantinople. But his writing affected not only his own time, but later eras. Augustine, after reading Athanasius’s Life of Anthony, was converted to Christianity. And every Sunday around the world we Christians affirm what Athanasius believed.
O Lord, who established your servant Athanasius, through wisdom, in your truth: Grant that we, perceiving the humanity and divinity of your Son Jesus Christ, may follow in his footsteps and ascend the way to eternal life, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Saint Catherine of Siena
This fourteenth-century Italian woman accomplished a great deal in her short lifetime. Learn more about her here in the service of Noonday Prayer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipdV0eTc9xw
This is the final segment of Saints Alive! within the context of Noonday Prayer filmed at Christ Episcopal Church.
Hybrid services will begin there with Rev. Michelle on May 3, in-person at noon and live-streamed.
Watch this site, which will modify in the coming weeks. It's been a pleasure to bring these saints to you in this way. I remain grateful to Kelly Zeller for all her cheerful help.
An image of St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, with people coming to him for advice.
Martyred in the eleventh century when he was held for ransom and refused to allow it to be paid. Learn more in the service of Noonday Prayer.
Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz
Who was the most noted and accomplished writer of the New World during the 1600s?
Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, in what is now Mexico. Learn more here:
This statue is in Mexico, where some of her work was published.
Frederick D. Maurice
Never heard of Christian Socialism?
F. D. Maurice was one of the founders of this mid-nineteenth century movement.
Learn more here:
British writer and priest John Keble was a leader of the Oxford Movement. Learn more about his life and ministry here:
I am privileged to offer Noonday Prayer at my church, usually on Wednesdays, which doesn’t matter because it’s on Youtube forever. [It’s amazing what can be done with a smartphone and a smart, helpful parish administrator!] The service is brief, with a place for a meditation. We usually look at the Episcopal calendar of saints, who are nearly always honored on their death dates, not their birth dates.
Here is a hymn by medieval saint Hildegard of Bingen to set the mood.