Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate a martyred young prince, slain treacherously by the will of a wicked elder sibling in pursuit of political power and office, who offered himself up willingly and without resistance to his killer. No, this prince is not Boris and not Gleb, but in the legends surrounding him he does bear a certain spiritual resemblance to these two great quintessentially-Russian Orthodox passion-bearers, as well as to the later martyred Éadweard King. The saint we venerate today is indeed Cynehelm of Mercia, who was slain violently in the year 811.
Cynehelm was one of two children of Cœnwulf King of Mercia, the other being his elder sister Cwénþrýð. The earlier and more reliable records we have indicate that Cynehelm was born in 786, which would have made him twenty-four years of age at the time of his death. Given that his name appears on several official charters, deeds and proclamations of the time both as beneficiary and as witness, it can be safely assumed that he had reached his majority well before 811. However, he is portrayed both in his hagiographical legend and in Orthodox iconography as a young child of seven years. One historical record relates that he fell in battle against the Welsh, possibly the result of a deliberate betrayal on his own side similar to the fate of Uriah the Hittite in Scripture. Another record makes him the direct victim of a Mercian court intrigue involving Cwénþrýð and several accomplices who desired to take power in the kingdom. Later hagiographical versions of Cynehelm’s death, such as that written by William of Malmesbury, embellish the latter history. This version of Cynehelm’s tale, however, is the most popular – and it even appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where it is placed in the mouth of Chauntecleer in the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’.
In the hagiographical legend, the young boy Cynehelm was given the kingdom of Mercia as an inheritance at the behest of his father Cœnwulf. The legend also makes Cynehelm’s aunt Burghild (historically the sister of Cœnwulf King) into a kind and loving elder sister as a foil to the jealous Cwénþrýð. Cwénþrýð, hating her brother in her heart, conspired with her lover Æscberht, who was also the tutor of Cynehelm. Giving him money, she told Æscberht to find some opportunity to slay Cynehelm that she might rule.
Cynehelm was not witless to what was about to happen to him. He knew his sister’s temperament and intentions. He was given to see in a dream a premonition of his own death. In this dream, Cynehelm climbed a tall tree from which he could see the four corners of Mercia. Three of the corners bowed to him and paid him homage as king. The fourth rushed toward the tree and began to hack it down with axes. As the tree fell, Cynehelm changed into a dove and flew heavenward in bliss. He told this dream to his nurse, Wulfwynn, who both wept that Cynehelm was to die at the hands of the wicked, and rejoiced that he was to join the throng of the blessed in martyrdom.
Æscberht led the young Cynehelm on a hunt into the woods near Worcester. Cynehelm wearied in his ride, and lay down beneath a tree to sleep. While he slept, Æscberht busied himself digging a grave for the boy. However, Cynehelm awoke and chided Æscberht: ‘You think to kill me here in vain. I shall be slain somewhere else.’ Then he took a dead ashen branch and stuck one end of it into the open grave. Wondrously, the upright end of the branch began to blossom into living leaves and flowers, and the downward end took root in the grave. This branch grew into a great tree that was called Saint Cynehelm’s Ash.
Instead of being shamed and chastised by this saintly wonder from the young boy he was to kill, Æscberht took the boy upwards into the Clent Hills and murdered Cynehelm by beheading him with a sword, as the boy knelt singing the Hymn of Ambrose, and buried him in another hasty grave on that spot. He returned to Cwénþrýð and told her that the deed had been done, and that she was now queen. Cwénþrýð ruled with equal jealousy as she had pursued rule: she forbade any mention of her brother’s name in Mercia.
In the meanwhile, in the Church of Saint Peter in Rome, a white dove descended from heaven with a scroll, which landed in the palm of the Pope of Rome (who, in 811, would have been Leo III). He unfurled it, and it bespoke a murder of one of God’s saints that had happened in the Mercian kingdom in England. The Pope dispatched the contents of this message with great urgency to Wulfred, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Wulfred despatched a party from Winchcombe to seek the body of the unjustly slain. They were guided as they went by an unearthly pillar of light coming from the Clent Hills, which arose from the spot where the murdered boy had been hastily buried. At the graveside they found a white cow, which stood there as though at vigil. As the relics were borne up out of the ground, wondrously a spring of clean, fresh water bubbled up from the grave.
Wulfred’s party bore the bones back from the Clent Hills to Winchcombe, but they were pursued along the way by an armed party sent from Worcester to take the relics of the saint for themselves. They rode at a fast pace to baffle pursuit, but soon wearied. As they rested nearby Winchcombe in Gloucester, another well sprang up where they lay their staffs. They drank of this water and were refreshed enough to bear the bones of the saint the rest of the way home.
What happened after Cynehelm’s murder was brought to light is a matter of disagreement among the stewards of the Cynehelm legend. Some hagiographers hold that the wicked queen Cwénþrýð’s eyes were put out as she was reading the Psalter, and that she was later done to death ignominiously along with her paramour Æscberht. Others hold that she was stricken with remorse at seeing her brother’s body, renounced her queenship and Æscberht, and retired to a nunnery. The latter seems more historically likely, given that a Mercian Cwénþrýð is listed among the abbesses of Minster.
Although there are multiple historical problems with this legend in its popular form, not least of which is the matter of dates, Cynehelm: a.) was a real historical personage; b.) was killed at a young age in an unjust manner; and c.) was already venerated locally as a saint by the Mercians during the ninth century. However, the historicity of the Cynehelm legend is, in the broad scheme, not so important. It must be stressed that the tale of Cynehelm puts the lie to culturally-essentialist arguments that Eastern, or specifically Russian, Orthodoxy is somehow uniquely (or, as some are again charging, genetically) predisposed to what Americanists are now calling ‘submission to tyranny’. When England too was united to the undivided Church, her saints – including Cynehelm and Éadweard (who is still particularly venerated by the Russian Orthodox!!) – embodied the exact same kind of kenotic nonresistance that Saints Boris and Gleb did. Their hagiographers (in Cynehelm’s case, even after the Great Schism!) clearly even celebrated this nonresistance. The Russian spiritual ‘type’, though it remains strongly unique in its kenotic and God-bearing simplicity, nonetheless bears common features with all the Orthodox peoples, including the pre-Schismatic English. Dearest Cynehelm, believing prince and passion-bearer, pray to Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
O passion-bearer and follower of Christ, Young and guileless Cynehelm – When thou wast murdered by thine own kin, The secret iniquity could not be hidden. A miracle revealed the truth to all the world, And justice was restored. Pray to Christ our God to save our souls!
I should preface this blog post by saying that I still deeply admire the French conservative idealists and intellectuals – Maritain, Mounier, Dru, Borne, Weil, Berdyaev – whose thought underpinned the earliest formations of the ideology that would become ‘Christian democracy’. However, that ideology is fatally flawed in that it was subordinate from the beginning to a Kantian-Hegelian rationalism which continues to guide it into ideological cul-de-sacs. I have indeed written a blog post like this before, but I feel that it requires some expansion. I said before that ‘Christian democracy can’t save America’; that premiss was far too modest. It is, after all, all too apparent to the more stringent Christian democrats that American culture is constituted in such a way that such Christian idealism as its founders had will always be an alien element within it. I mean something much more deep-reaching. It should more rightly be said, that it is doubtful Christian democracy can be saved from itself.
I have already established and developed the thesis advanced by Allan Carlson in his excellent book Third Ways, that the Christian democracy movement had a ‘fall’ in something like the Biblical sense, when its French and German forms consented, in the early 1950s, to water down its primary message in order to make itself a mass-political movement of the bourgeois centre-right. The bourgeois element was inimical to the Christian idealism of Berdyaev at the very least – inspired as he was by Léon Bloy. The bourgeoisie were, after all, the ones who crucified Christ – and who continue to crucify Christ in their hearts. And in trying to turn from the path of Christ onto the path of mass-political appeals, bourgeois parliamentary power and capitulation to big-business interests fundamentally aligned to American capital, they contravened the word of God that ‘No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.’
The fundamental movement in this turn in Christian democracy, was to turn Christianity from a heart-directed conviction (so valuable to the thought of Berdyaev and Weil and Maritain!), into a civilisational signifier. They bourgeois-ified Christianity, in essence, by removing from its centre the risen Lord who trampled down death by His death, and settling instead upon the intellectual-philosophical and moral legacies of Western Europe which were the products of long centuries of concentrated Christian devotion – or, more crudely, upon the architectural and monumental historical legacies of Christian kings, emperors and armies. The creative, kenotic impulse which underlay an idealistic moment in European politics was quietly, but firmly, snuffed out.
Christian democracy, during this time, was able to retain its sanity and respectability, in large part, due to a rapprochement with the reigning spirit of the liberal political age. It espoused, fairly easily and conveniently, œconomic and scientific rationality and acknowledged the primacy of parliamentary structures and democratic rule. Centre-right, socially-conservative Christian politics in America existed comfortably alongside the classical-liberal tradition of American constitutionalism in large part due to the overarching threat of Cold War anti-communism, despite the antinomies between conservative and classical-liberal cultural priorities which were so obvious to, say, Canadian philosopher George Grant. The same phenomenon – albeit in an attenuated form, given the residual political independence of Europe and given the longer intellectual legacy of communitarian-conservative thought there – held true on the European continent. European conservatism of the Christian democratic variety did exist comfortably alongside German ordoliberalism, also developed during the 1950s, which furnished forth the model for a ‘social market œconomy’ in the capitalist European West.
In short, the threat of a monstrously and openly godless East – in the form of the Soviets – kept the outwardly (but not inwardly) godly West sane in its appearances. With the disappearance of that threat, however, and the disappearance of the outward pressures which had kept the inner contradictions of the bourgeois centre-right consensus under wraps, the cracks began to appear with much greater prominence. The Western European bourgeois centre-right, intellectually and politically headquartered in West Germany, largely acquiesced in the betrayal, subversion, bombing, dismemberment and sale of the Yugoslav experiment in worker ownership and œconomic democracy: an experiment which kept much more of its inward meaning, its ‘Byzantine’ radicalism, despite being under a godless communist government. If the accommodation of and identification with American capital was the ‘original sin’ of Christian democracy, then the destruction of Yugoslavia was Christian democracy’s ‘sin of Cain’.
With God, with Christ, absent from its centre, the antinomies of Christian democracy have become ever more pronounced in the meanwhile. Some Christian democratic parties, like the Christlich Demokratische Union in Germany, have wedded themselves more and more firmly to the neoliberal consensus in œconomics and the neoconservative option in foreign policy. Others, more recently – like Poland’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość party, have embraced the backlash politics of our nationalist moment. One end of the spiritual trajectory of Christian democracy in Europe is the athymic, reptilian, austerity-embracing miserdom of Angela Merkel; the other end is the simian, jowl-shaking, mouth-breathing, gut-bucket bigotry of Mateusz Morawiecki. The devolution of Christian democracy into both the bourgeois politics Berdyaev despised, and the fascism that Weil did so much to resist, by way of the very same political rationalism which was meant to provide a bulwark against the latter in particular, is indeed the final ironic twist.
As a partial corrective to the above narrative – I am not insensible of the historical sins of social democracy, either, which are of much earlier provenance than those of Christian democracy. But the one advantage the centre-left politics of the elder European establishment enjoys over the centre-right is that it isn’t weighted down with the old Cold War suspicions that any and every material effort to ameliorate the privation and debt of the toiling masses is, at bottom, a creeping communist conspiracy. (Hint: historically, it’s been quite the opposite.) Still, a ‘harder’ left approach (like that of Samir Amin, for example) is more amenable to considering the thick communal attachments that the modern rationalised œconomy does so much to uproot, as well as the specific, systemic deprivations faced worldwide by rural people – what used to be a strength of the Catholic distributists.
But amid this Luciferian absconsion of Christian democratic politics, there is still to be seen a deep, spiritual yearning for a common life which approximates justice and equity. Moreover, the centrifugal pulls of the body politic away from the centre in the directions of nationalism and communism are, in fact, warped expressions of this yearning. But the direction for this politics is not to be found in the old political rationalism – the world of wonkery and interest-group balancing and focus-group sloganeering. The impetus for this kind of public life rests instead in those post-colonial areas of the world where Christianity is not merely a civilisational husk, regarded as dry grass to be threshed for its rationalised kernels: to Africa, to Asia broadly considered, to the Balkans and Eastern Europe and Russia. We can and should still look to the leading lights of the Christian democratic moment in Western Europe as one of the great intellectual wellsprings of this kind of politics; however, we should recognise that the politics that has coöpted their names is en fuite and very far indeed from home.
Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate Swíþhún [Swithun, or Swithin], the renowned ninth-century Bishop of Winchester who is connected with Æþelwulf King and also with his distant successor, Saint Æþelwold of Winchester.
Saint Swíþhún was born around the year 800, during either the reign of Beorhtríc of Wessex or his successor Ecgberht, who returned from exile to Wessex in 802 upon his foe Beorhtríc’s death. How Swíþhún spent the first thirty-eight years of his life remain, sadly, a blank and a loss to history; however, one hagiographer states that he was ordained a parish priest by the Bishop of Winchester at the time, Helmstán, in 838. He distinguished himself primarily by his humility and his love for the poor; however, he somehow managed to come to the attention of Ecgberht’s son Æþelwulf King of Wessex, who patronised this priest from his own wealth. Although the tales that Swíþhún served as an advisor to Æþelwulf and as a tutor to Æþelwulf’s famous son Ælfrǽd may or may not be pious fiction, some connexion between Æþelwulf and the humble priest is more than likely: in 852, after Bishop Helmstán’s death, the king had him appointed as Bishop of Winchester in his place. Saint Swíþhún is also directly attested in the primary sources as a witness to some twenty West Saxon charters in Æþelwulf’s name. We can see from this, also, that Saint Swíþhún was literate and formidably intelligent – yet all this worldly knowledge did not ‘go to his head’.
There are tales about how Swíþhún chose to use Æþelwulf’s trust which illustrate the saint’s modest and self-effacing character even as bishop, and also to his great love for the poor. He used the money he was donated largely to repair old churches or build new ones – or else gave it away to the poor. Whenever he would by virtue of his office hold a feast, he would only ever invite the poor and hungry, and never the rich. And when he had commissioned a repair project or a church-building project – or, indeed, the stone bridge at Winchester – instead of leaving the site or watching from afar, he would come by and sit and converse with the workmen as an equal as they worked. At one time, a poor old woman came across the bridge as the workmen were working on it, carrying a basket of eggs. The workmen maliciously took her basket and smashed the eggs. Swíþhún saw this and took pity on the woman. He chastised the workmen, mended the broken eggs and restored them to her basket. She thanked the bishop with tears in her eyes as she went on her way.
Swíþhún’s laudable and praiseworthy self-effacement extended even to his death, which occurred on the fifteenth of July, 863. His wish was not to be buried inside the church at Winchester; instead he asked that he be buried outside beneath the threshold of the church door, so that the folk going to church and passers-by might tread over him, and so that the rain from the eaves might fall upon him. This wish was only to be honoured for a short time; for God had other uses for His saint. During the Benedictine reform movement of the late 900s, one of the principals, Saint Æþelwold of Winchester acting on behalf of Saint Éadgár of England, had Saint Swíþhún’s relics dug up from underneath the threshold and translated into the church. This translation was undertaken for the purpose of bolstering local observance of a saintly cultus in Winchester and building support for the monastic reforms of Saint Æþelwold, Saint Dúnstán and Saint Ósweald. Nevertheless, the church tradition holds that the humble Saint Swíþhún was displeased with the move, despite the good intentions of his translators. The translation into the church was delayed on account of excessively heavy rains – from which arose the legend of Saint Swíþhún’s feast day being a predictor of the weather during the English summer:
Saint Swithun’s Day, if thou dost rain, For forty days it will remain; Saint Swithun’s Day, if thou be fair, For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.
Saint Swíþhún thereafter became a favourite intercessor among farmers, to whom they would pray for rain in the event of a drought. The cultus of Saint Swíþhún spread even as far afield as Norway: he is the patron of Stavanger Cathedral there, which is now held by the state Lutheran Church. Holy Father Swíþhún, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
The grace of God manifestly revealed thee To thy flock as a teacher of compunction, A model of meekness and a champion of piety; For by thy surpassing humility thou didst attain the summit of holiness, And for thy manifold virtues thou hast received a crown on high. O holy bishop Swíþhún our father, entreat Christ God, That He save those who honour thy memory with love.
Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the sixth Archbishop of Canterbury, the first native-born Englishman to hold that see. First, a note on naming. In the world Friþwine, this Archbishop of Canterbury was given a Greek name that is transcribed into Latin in various ways. In the local English sources, it is always, including by Saint Bede (who should have known better), written Deusdedit. But the name Deusdedit (‘God has given’) is an inaccurate Latinisation of the Greek name Theódotos [Θεόδοτος] (‘given by God’), which is more appositely rendered in Latin as Deodatus or Adeodatus, the ‘simple, devout, wise and shrewd’ pre-Schismatic saintly Pope of Rome for whom the English Deusdedit was likely named! In fact, the English Deusdedit is known precisely by this latter name shared with his patronal Pope (Adeodato, Adeodat) in Southern European Romance countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy and Romania. I use the name Deusdedit in this blog post both to avoid confusion for my primarily English-language audience as well as out of respect for the primary sources, but I do want to take the opportunity to register with firm resolution that I find this Latinisation inept and improper. Saint Iþamar, I wag my scholarly finger at you – naughty, naughty!
This is something of an opposite case from that of his predecessor Saint Mellitus, where a certain degree of etymological overcorrection led his name to be sometimes incorrectly transcribed in our iconography as Meletios [Μελέτιος] despite the two names having completely different origins. See, Greeks can get it wrong, too.
Ahem. As I was saying…
Friþwine was a South Saxon monk, probably of the first generation of insular Saxons raised by Christian eldern since the conversion of the saintly Æþelberht King by Saint Augustine of Canterbury. He was consecrated as bishop by the aforementioned Saint Iþamar of Rochester, and subsequently elevated to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the first native-born Englishman to occupy that office: his saintly predecessors –Augustine, Laurence, Mellitus, Justus and Honorius – had all been Romans of Italy, OG members of the Gregorian mission to the English.
Friþwine, who was given the name of Deusdedit at his consecration, had the misfortune – or perhaps good fortune, depending on whom you ask – of becoming Archbishop of Canterbury at a time when the power and prestige of the office was at a low ebb. There were few new consecrations of bishops under his rule – the one notable exception being the West Saxon Damian, Iþamar’s successor as Bishop of Rochester. However, Deusdedit did consecrate several new churches and monasteries during his tenure, such as Medehamstede Abbey – which is now the notable Peterborough Cathedral.
Deusdedit was Archbishop of Canterbury for, again according to Bede, nine years, four months and two days. Little else is known of him for certain, except that he seems to have lived the meek, humble and blameless life expected of a monastic, and one fit for sainthood. After an ominous solar eclipse appeared in May of 664, southern England was wracked by an episode of bubonic plague, which afflicted Saint Deusdedit. The Synod of Whitby took place during this year, though the Archbishop was too ill to attend in person.
Deusdedit reposed in the Lord on the fourteenth of July, 664, and one of his priests – a ‘good man well-fitted to be a bishop’ named Wigheard – was sent to Rome to attain the Pope’s blessing to succeed him. Sadly, Wigheard too succumbed to the plague during an outbreak in Rome; and a Greek of Asia Minor, Saint Theodore of Tarsus, was chosen instead on the recommendation of the African monk Saint Hadrian by Pope Saint Vitalian of Rome to succeed Saint Deusdedit in Canterbury. Holy Father Deusdedit, meek and loving archpastor of the Kentish folk, we ask you entreat Christ God to save our souls!
The thirteenth of July is the Orthodox feast day of Saint Mildþrýð [or Mildred] of Minster-in-Thanet, the descendant of Saints Æþelberht and Berhte of Kent, called ‘fairest lily of the English’ by her Benedictine hagiographer Goscelin de Saint-Bertin: ‘a protector of widows and orphans, and comforter of all the poor and afflicted, and in all things she was humble and gentle.’
Her Kentish royal heritage is a main feature of each of Saint Mildþrýð’s hagiographies. She was the daughter of Saint Æbbe (also yclept Domne Eafe or Eormenburg, feast date: 19 November) by her marriage to Merewalh of the Magonsætan; Æbbe being the daughter of Eormenræd King son of Éadbald King (and his wife Emma of Austrasia), son of Æþelberht and Berhte. Mildþrýð was the second of four children, all of whom are considered saints; the others being her sisters – later nuns – Mildburg of Much Wenlock (23 February) and Mildgýð of Northumbria (17 January), and her youngest brother Merefinn who died in his early youth. When their child-getting days were past, Saint Æbbe and Merewalh separated by mutual consent and left their children, their property and themselves to the care of God in the Benedictine Order.
Mildþrýð was sent for her education to the Benedictine Abbaye Notre-Dame-des-Chelles in Neustria – situated on a site now a short ways southeast of Paris. While she was a pupil at this cloister, she apparently caught the eye of a Frankish nobleman who was related to the abbess, Wilcoma. This nobleman importuned the Abbess of Chelles to push Mildþrýð to accept his hand. The abbess thus entreated her, but the young woman replied to her superior that she had been sent to Chelles to be taught, not to be married. The frustrated abbess began to scold her, threaten her and beat her, but Mildþrýð was steadfast in her refusal. At last Abbess Wilcoma, like the wicked king Nebuchadnezzar, dragged her by the hand into a heated oven, and threw her inside. The abbess kept her inside for three hours, expecting not only her flesh but her very bones to have been burnt to cinders. However, even after three hours, there could be heard swan-like strains of fair and pure music within. Just as God had preserved His witnesses Hananiah, Misha’el and ‘Azariah from the wrath of the evil king and the flames of the furnace, so too did He preserve His beloved daughter from the flames and deliver her forth not only unharmed, but shining with joy, fairer than ever. Those nuns who saw this were greatly afraid, and fell on their faces before her as a living saint. But the evil and shameless Abbess of Chelles flew into one of those infamous Frankish-noble rages upon beholding this wonder, throwing her to the ground, beating her, kicking her, scratching her and tearing out her hair.
Somehow, poor Mildþrýð managed to collect some of her torn-out hair and enclosed it into a letter, which, by the grace of God, she managed to have smuggled out of the abbey back to her mother Æbbe in England, who sent for her at once. Ships were sent from the Magonsætan to Paris to fetch her, but Abbess Wilcoma would on no account permit her to leave, fearing that her corruption and cruel deeds would be exposed. Mildþrýð fled to the ships by night, but in her haste she forgot a relic – a nail of the True Cross – and some of her religious garments which she valued deeply. Before coming to the ships, she stole back to Chelles and brought them out safely.
The ships arrived at Ebbsfleet (so yclept because it was where Æbbe’s fleet made land with her daughter), and as Mildþrýð stepped off the ship onto a great square stone that lay off the wharf, the impress of her foot was shown wondrously carved into the stone’s face. This stone was later removed to Minster in memory of Mildþrýð’s return to England; it became known as a wonder-working relic of the virgin saint. It was often removed from its place of honour, however, until a fitting oratory was righted for it to be placed upon.
Mildþrýð was present when her mother Æbbe had consecrated the abbey at Minster. Æbbe had won the land, it seems, when her tame pet doe had been set loose across the isle of Thanet, and she received all the land that lay north of where her doe ran. (This explains why in Orthodox icons like the one shown above, Mildþrýð is seen to be holding a doe.) Finally, with her mother’s blessing, she got her wish when Saint Theodore of Tarsus himself bestowed the nun’s veil upon her along with seventy other women who desired the Benedictine life. As a nun, she was a particularly diligent pupil of Saint Aldhelm of Sherborne, not only in letters and music (for she sang the Psalms beautifully, according to Goscelin) but also in the disciplines of fasting and almsgiving, so essential to the life she had embraced. Her earthly and abbatial mother entrusted her early on with weighty tasks: in 694 she was sent in Lady Æbbe’s place, with the full dignity of an abbess, to represent Minster at a Kentish moot at Beccancelde.
The venerable Mildþrýð succeeded her saintly mother upon her death as abbess of Minster; and the holy foundress and abbess Æbbe was very quickly recognised as a saint thereafter. As for the new Abbess Mildþrýð – as alluded above, she took very seriously the fullness of the Benedictine commitment to the poor, the sick and the needy. She is described as unwearyingly mild, befitting to the full her birth-name, as well as loving and kind in her personal demeanour. Mildþrýð’s noteworthy material aid and service to the poor, the sick, the widows and the orphans was a sublime example for her daughter-nuns to follow, and her hagiographers note that the esprit de corps of Minster under Saint Mildþrýð’s gentle rule was one of self-emptying charity.
There is a legend in her hagiography that one night as Mildþrýð was praying Matins, the Evil One – who was jealous of her spiritual gifts and ascetic accomplishments – snuffed out the candle by whose light she was reading. In the dark she was unable to see to relight it. However, her angel guardian appeared and drove Satan back into the gloom, and by that angel’s radiant light Mildþrýð was able to continue her prayer and finish Matins – and she did so with heartfelt awe and gratitude.
Late in her life, Holy Mother Mildþrýð suffered from much bodily pain. The hurts of old age, however, she bore without complaint, though those who knew her well understood what she suffered without her having to speak or make any outward show of her ailment, and so they doubled their prayers for her. It so happened that one day she beheld a vision of the Holy Spirit descending upon her like a dove – first upon her forehead, and then upon her heart – and she knew that the end of her life was drawing near. She gathered her daughter-nuns about her and begged them to preserve the house of Minster in the same spirit of charity for each other and for the needy outside –
Maintain, my dearest ones, peace and holiness among yourselves, continue to love God diligently, and to do good to your neighbour. In the common needs of the monastery take counsel together, with all your hopes centred upon God, as beseemeth those dwelling in His courts. Lend a willing ear to the aged among you, and decide in all things with prudence. Bear ye one anothers burthens, obey mutually, be of one body and of one spirit, united in the observance of the Rule, true daughters of the house of God; and may the God of peace and of consolation abide for ever with you all!
With these parting words Mildþrýð received the Gifts one final time, and reposed in the Lord on the thirteenth of July, in either the year 725 or 732. Venerable Éadburg took her place as abbess. It was during Éadburg’s time that a certain young nun whose job it was to ring the bell fell asleep at the altar; and in a vision Saint Mildþrýð struck her awake, scolding her: ‘This is the oratory, not the dormitory!’
The pre-Schismatic English folk, prior to the Norman invasion, dearly loved their Holy Mothers – to an even greater degree, as we saw with Saint Æþelþrýð, than even their Holy Fathers. Saint Mildþrýð was no exception. Her popularity among the English, without doubt on account of her material charity and corporal works of mercy in life, outshone even that of Saint Augustine of Canterbury – as shown in the fact that the spot at which the Italian monk had met her great-great-grandfather became known instead as Saint Mildþrýð’s Rock!
In the centuries to come, English coasts would often be plagued by Danish raiders, and under the rule of the Danish Cnut, Mildþrýð’s relics would be translated (amid some rather heartfelt objections from the holy women of Thanet) to Canterbury in 1035. During the iconoclastic reign of Henry VIII, the monastery at Minster was dissolved, though it would be reëstablished prior to the Second World War, in 1937, by some German Benedictine nuns from the Abbey of Saint Wealdburg in Eichstätt, who bore with them one of Saint Mildþrýð’s holy relics!
One final note: a decided note of personal fondness I have for Saint Mildþrýð, is that she shares a name with my late grandmother – my father’s stepmother, Dr Mildred Cooper. A dynamic woman, strong-willed and fearless, she was a native (and fierce local patriot) of Buffalo, New York. In addition, she was a basketball player and a lifelong sports fan, and also a heartfelt champion of racial equality in the form of integrated public education in the DC school system. As a very young man and into my adulthood, I loved her and also somewhat awed and feared her. I was deeply grateful that she made it to Jessie’s and my wedding, and also that she liked Jessie almost at once upon meeting her. I don’t believe she was ever particularly religious – she was brought up Roman Catholic but was decidedly lapsed – but in some ways I can’t help but see a little bit of my grandmother in the hagiography of her namesake. I don’t think she would have put up with abuse in her schooling either – either of herself or of anyone else under her care! At any rate, for God’s handmaid Mildred, I beseech the intercessory prayers of her patron saint – and also for all of us sinners here. Holy Mother Mildþrýð, protectress of widows and orphans, pray to Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Through constant prayer and frequent fasting, By ceaseless hymnody and great humility, The glorious Mildþrýð forsook the allurements of her royal rank, Trampling underfoot all worldly pride and presumption. Wherefore, let us imitate her virtues, That free from all earthly attachments We may join her at the wedding feast of Christ our Saviour!
When the terms ‘climate’ and ‘China’ are mentioned in the same breath in English, the connotations are almost never positive. On the American right, which these days appears far afield in Bircher territory, the language on climate change and China is conspiratorial (as in, one is ‘a hoax’ perpetuated by the other). This presents something of an embarrassment to the American liberal centre-right and centre (i.e., the hashtag-Resistance), who do not like their own conspiratorial thinking to be thus crassly exposed by the chuds, and prefer it trimmed with a certain veneer of polite respectability. It’s more common for American and European liberals and baizuos to hand-wring, therefore, about China’s population, continued reliance on coal and timber, refusal to be the West’s rubbish bin and so on. (All this, of course, without any real awareness of the implicit anti-human Malthusianism and entitlement mentality all of these stances entail.) But the greatest potential for slowing or even partially reversing our current œcological crisis also happens to be in China, and they also happen to be a global leader in one of the key policies needed in this effort, namely: reforestation.
China’s reforestation drive, which has even included the military, is a deliberate act of political planning meant to counteract soil degradation and air pollution as well as climate change. And – get this – it’s actually working, in spectacular ways. The satellite imagery gained from NASA doesn’t lie. With the glaring exceptions of Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta, the Chinese East has seen immense annual growth in leaf coverage per square kilometer over the last two decades. Despite accounting for only five percent of the potential green landmass on Earth, China has contributed a full twenty-five percent of the plant-kingdom re-growth by foliage area.
On the other hand, the single worst actor globally with regard to old-growth forest conservation is, far and away and hands down, Brazil – and they’re only getting worse, again as a result of deliberate political choices. Note the high-modernist and anti-œcological architectural approach which the old pre-Junta Brazilian liberals under Kubitschek took to designing Brasília, and the Junta took to actually building it. Again, one has to note the double standards at play. The Western liberal media are a good deal quieter and more docile when the true œcological menace comes from neoliberal governments prima facie friendlier to Western business interests. Clearly, not all authoritarianisms are created equal.
That having been said: China is rapidly becoming part of the solution, rather than the problem. It’s quite true that China still has a long way to go, and a great deal more effort to make, in kicking the coal habit and kicking the cement habit. But: as shown above, the Chinese government is leading forest preservation and replanting efforts. The government is attempting (with not much success, sadly) to get its people to eat less meat. They are investing in more efficient infrastructure and more compact neighbourhoods. Although I can’t entirely approve of the Faustian approach of some of these policy initiatives, they do trend in a direction which is positive and which should be emulated in the preservationist and reformist ways analogous to those being undertaken in Southeastern Europe. Here I will gladly own my South Slavic roots, my retro æsthetic and my Tory socialist political preferences.
We therefore need to return, to some extent, to industrial policy and deliberate planning for human-scaled outcomes. (There is very little incentive, after all, for any major industry other than agriculture to contribute to the actual growing of greater green spaces, or to encourage citizens to eat healthier diets or pursue healthier lifestyles.) Perhaps surprisingly to some, China can still be a model for this – as we can see not only in the reforestation drive but also in slow food initiatives and the continued vitality of local and street food markets. These outcomes are not at all at war with public policy on the macro level: indeed, a healthy postal savings bank system is one factor which enables this kind of environment for small business.
It is not at all an exaggeration to say that China already is and must be our most important partner to engage with on the topics of conservation and œcological protection, followed by India, Southeastern Europe and Russia – in that order. For both of these reasons, a Sanderista foreign policy that prioritises international coöperation on climate change even with gæopolitical rivals, is to be qualitatively preferred above Warren’s more business-centric, competition-oriented œconomic plan bolstered with national-greatness rhetoric. (This is, of course, to say nothing of the incumbent’s blundering trade policies.) The Chinese government has already furnished us with the means and the benchmarks by which we ought to hold it accountable; therefore we have to start thinking of China as part, an indispensable part, of the solution, and not merely an obstacle to œcological survival. As for China herself, let us hope that the great nation is open (as she indeed appears to be) not only to traditionalism in rhetoric but also to her own venerable voices of œcological wisdom.
The Xia sovereign planted the pine tree about them; the men of the Yin planted the cypress; and the men of the Zhou planted the chestnut tree, meaning thereby to cause the people to be in awe.
- Zai Wo, Analects 3.21
If the axes and bills enter the hills and forests only at the proper time, the wood will be more than can be used. Let mulberry trees be planted about the homesteads with their five mu, and persons of fifty years may be clothed with silk.
The trees of the Niu mountain were once beautiful. Being situated, however, in the borders of a large State, they were hewn down with axes and bills - and could they retain their beauty? Still through the activity of the vegetative life day and night, and the nourishing influence of the rain and dew, they were not without buds and sprouts springing forth, but then came the cattle and goats and browsed upon them. To these things is owing the bare and stripped appearance of the mountain, and when people now see it, they think it was never finely wooded. But is this the nature of the mountain?
Looking at the Orthodox lists of Western pre-Schismatic saints, I confess I was somewhat surprised to see the name of Éadgár the Frithsome, king of England, mentioned on our calendar. That said, it does somewhat make sense. Among the recalcitrant and greedy noble families of southern England at the time, Éadgár was particularly notable for his patronage of both the reform of the Benedictine monasteries and the actual monasteries themselves. He also brought a much-needed peace in England by pursuing what may be termed a policy of armed neutrality: he politically united England, built up a navy of thirty-six hundred ships, and refused either to pay the Danegeld or to engage in punitive raids against the Danes. And, much to the Church’s delight, he recalled Saint Dúnstán from his exile; thereafter the saint resumed his political prominence.
Éadgár was the younger son of Éadmund Æðeling, by Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury. His elder brother was the same Éadwig whose turbulent coronation and subsequent exile of Saint Dúnstán have both been commented upon before. Éadwig’s short reign was punctuated by political turmoil. Éadgár set himself up as a rival king in Mercia and Northumbria during this time, and his enthronement in Wessex at the age of fifteen upon Éadwig’s untimely death was broadly welcomed. As said before, one of Éadgár’s first acts as king was to recall Saint Dúnstán, who later performed the coronation Liturgy for both Éadgár and his then-consort Ælfþrýð.
Éadgár’s love life was not particularly saintly. His first wife was Æþelflæd, who bore him Éadweard, who succeeded his father as king but was martyred young. Éadgár took Saint Wulfþrýð, a nun or novice at Wilton Abbey, as his mistress; she bore to him a daughter, Éadgýð, who also became a nun – the two of them both later became saints. (Éadgár himself had to do seven years’ fasting penance at the Church’s insistence for seducing and fathering a child with a nun.) Éadgár later heard of Ælfþrýð, whose beauty was renowned. As a popular but probably ahistorical story goes, he sent an ealdorman named Æþelwold to evaluate Ælfþrýð’s beauty, but the ealdorman, smitten with the woman, took her for his own wife – telling Éadgár that she was not as beautiful as reported. When Éadgár visited Æþelwold later, Ælfþrýð showed her beauty to him, and a wroth and lovesick Éadgár shot Æþelwold dead during a hunt to take Ælfþrýð for himself, just as David killed Uriah over Bathsheba. What is historically known is that the beautiful Ælfþrýð bore Éadgár two sons: Éadmund, who died as an infant; and Æþelræd II unrǽd, King of England. Ælfþrýð’s character did not match up to her looks, though: it was she who ordered Éadweard to be killed and his body hidden.
As with King David, Éadgár’s political accomplishments were much more noteworthy. Éadgár possessed a strong mix of personal charisma and political and administrative savvy. He had already built up a strong base of support in Mercia and Northumbria prior to his enthronement in Wessex. In 973, Éadgár had Saint Dúnstán hold a state coronation at Bath for himself and Ælfþrýð, which had distinct ‘propaganda’ value for the state in terms of solidifying noble and churchly support for his rule, and also earned him a certain degree of political goodwill. Éadgár used this goodwill to implement a significant political reform which has lasted in England and the United Kingdom all the way down to this day: the formal reorganisation of England from kingdoms into shires and hundreds. This move centralised power in the office of the king and diminished the power of noblemen to raise armies in rebellion or private wars. As a result, there was a period of unprecedented internal peace in England, as well as the external peace wrought by Éadgár’s defensive use of his navies against Danish and Norwegian raiders.
Éadgár’s support for Benedictine monasteries and the late Old English ‘reformers’ – in particular, his advancements of not only Saint Dúnstán but also Saint Ósweald of Worcester and Saint Æþelwold of Winchester – also deeply strengthened the Faith in England. Indeed, it could fairly be said that the Faith was restored in England under Éadgár, as many of the monasteries – the great schools of the Christian faith in that island – had been utterly demolished and spoilt by a mixture of laxity, neglect and heathen Danish rapine. Thus, despite Éadgár’s proclivities to lust, through repentance and goodwill and an active love for his people that brought them a period of peace, he managed to earn a place among the saints. Holy and right-believing Éadgár, prodigal son of the West Saxon house who was given an æternal crown, pray unto Christ our God to save us sinners!
Look down from heaven upon us, thy children, O right-believing Éadgár, thou king who reignest no longer over England, But dwellest in the mansions of heaven; And accepting our prayerful entreaties, Establish the Holy Orthodox Faith throughout thy land, And protect it by thine intercession on high, That it may triumph at last over the manifold errors of this age!
Saint Sunngifu of Selja
The eighth of July also happens to be the feast of Sunngifu, an Anglo-Hibernian princess who is an almost exact contemporary of Éadgár King, whose memory is cherished in particular among the people of Norway – for it was the Norwegian isle of Selja which she made for herself and her family a holy eremitical refuge.
According to the legend, Sunngifu was the English daughter of a king in the west of Ireland, who took possession of his kingdom after his death. During the few years of her reign, she ruled wisely and brought wealth to the kingdom. Because she ruled a wealthy kingdom and because of her personal beauty, a heathen Danish raider invaded her land: to take her as wife and her possessions for himself. Understanding that she had put her kingdom in danger, she took to a ship and set sail – many of the folk of her kingdom desired to come with her, and she took with her as many as she was able: but they had with them little equipment, no clothing, no weapons and no armour. Praying to God, Sunniva asked that their ship be led to safety by the winds and tides. They washed ashore at Selja.
Sunniva and the survivors from her kingdom – which included a brother and two sisters – built houses on Selja and lived there a quiet life well-pleasing to God. However, Norwegians from the mainland soon discovered their enclave. Because they were outsiders, any thefts or losses of cattle and sheep among the local farmers came to be blamed on them. The farmers complained to Hákon Sigurðarson, jarl of Hlaðir, who raised a great host with weapons and byrnies to drive out the bandits. Sunniva and those with her saw this here coming from a distance, and fled into the caves. Fearing ravishment, Sunniva prayed to God to preserve them from such a fate. Rocks fell across the entrance, trapping the Christians inside and thwarting the heathens without.
Two decades later, after the death of Hákon, Óláfr Tryggvason came to Selja after hearing reports of a wondrous light rising from the isle. He found and uncovered the caves, where the Christians had been sealed. To his astonishment, he found buried there the incorrupt body of Saint Sunngifu, her flesh untouched by age or decay, her every hair intact and her every joint limp – as if she had not died but merely fallen asleep. A Benedictine cloister, Selje Abbey, was built on the wreckage of the caves, and Saint Sunngifu’s body was placed in a state of honour there. (An Orthodox monastery today exists near the same site.) Around 1170, Saint Sunngifu was translated to Bergen, where her relics wondrously stopped a fire from destroying the entire city. Saint Sunngifu, pray to Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Most blessed were the chaste royal virgin Sunngifu And those who died with her, For the King of kings, showing them His grace and favour, In His compassion and loving-kindness Delivered them from the hand of the infidel, And made them to dwell with the saints and angels in paradise. Glory to Him Who hath saved them! Glory to Him Who hath crowned them! Glory to Him Who worketh all-glorious wonders Through His faithful martyrs!
This Sunday in the Orthodox Church we commemorate Hædde [or Hedda or Heddi], venerable monk and holy bishop of Wessex and Winchester – most noteworthy in his office for his ordination of our God-bearing Holy Father Gúðlác of Crowland.
Hædde was, according to Church tradition, born somewhere in the land of the East Saxons – though again, as with many early English saints, the details of his early life are unclear. However, he did join the monastery of Saint Hilda at Whitby in the chilly English north, and there distinguished himself for some time, to such a degree that in the year 676 he was appointed Bishop of Wessex by Saint Theodore of Tarsus himself.
The newly-minted Bishop Hædde took up his residence first at Dorchester-on-Thames, near Oxford, where the bones of Saint Berin were ensconced. However, he did not long remain there: he moved his office (and translated the relics of Saint Berin) some forty-five miles south, to Winchester. It was Bishop Hædda who convinced the heathen king of the West Saxons, Cædwalla, to accept baptism and undertake a pilgrimage to Rome. Cædwalla was indeed baptised, but he died in Rome in the year 689, was honoured with a burial in the Church of the Holy Apostles, and was succeeded in Wessex by his younger kinsman Ine.
Ine King of the West Saxons struggled to keep his grasp over Cædwalla’s wide holdings: he faced incursions by the Welsh, which he repelled; he also faced several insurrections within his kingdom. However, he did ultimately manage to consolidate his rule by committing to writ a code of laws – the first of its kind for an Anglo-Saxon ruler outside of Kent (Saint Æþelberht having written the first law-book for the Kentish kingdom) – at a great moot of bishops and ealdormenn held in the year 693. Saint Hædde is one of two bishops – the other being Earconwald of London – whose help in draughting this law code is acknowledged in the text of the book itself. The laws of Ine may be thought of as rough justice, and they certainly bear the impress of Old Testament legality – the strict penalties for theft and robbery bear witness to the lawlessness of the times in which they were written. At the same time, the laws of Ine are notable for their mercy and leniency to debtors and servants: a foretaste of the general Christian trend away from servility during late Antiquity and into the Middle Ages. Saint Hædde also doubtless encouraged Ine first to establish the custom of ‘Peter’s pence’, a tax of one penny upon landholders payable directly to the Bishop of Rome for use in philanthropic works.
As mentioned above, Saint Hædde also consecrated the servant of God Gúðlác. For thirty years, he ruled the Bishopric of Winchester, and departed this life in the year 705. Saint Bede, in his History of the English Church and People, describes Saint Hædde as ‘a good, just man, who carried out his duties as bishop guided by an inborn love of goodness rather than by anything learned from books.’ Hædde was succeeded in his office by Daniel of Winchester; however, his diocæse was by mutual consent divided in half, and the scholarly Saint Aldhelm presided over the remainder of Saint Hædde’s sway in the newly-created diocæse of Sherborne. Holy Hierarch Hædde, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
You were made bishop of the West Saxons, and established your episcopal see in the city of Winchester whither you caused the body of Saint Berin to be translated. You organised the Church of your region into a haven of peace for Christ’s faithful. Holy Hædde, entreat the Lord to save us!
Two weeks ago, we venerated the strict-but-sweet Saint Æþelþrýð, the princess and Northumbrian queen turned monastic who founded the Benedictine cloister at Ely. This week, we commemorate her saintly sister and successor as abbess in that house, Saint Seaxburg. Like her elder sister, Seaxburg grew up with a reputation for grace, modesty and humility. Also like her elder sister, Seaxburg was married before her entry into the cloister. Unlike her elder sister, she married only once, to Eorcenberht King of Kent the descendant of Saints Æþelberht and Berhte, and that marriage was decidedly not a celibate one the way both of Æþelþrýð’s were. Her hagiographers stress that she entered this marriage, not unwillingly as her sister had, but ‘as a latter-day Sarah’, a mother (or rather, genetrix) of a new and blessed tribe of holy men and women. To Eorcenberht, to whom she served as an equal help-meet, Seaxburg bore four children: the future kings of Kent Ecgberht and Hloþhere; and two saintly daughters who in the end became nuns, Saint Eormenhild of Ely and Saint Eorcengota of Faremoutiers.
Her husband died of plague in 664, and was succeeded as king of Kent by his son Ecgberht. The widowed Seaxburg did not return to her own land at once, but instead stayed in Kent to look after her children – particularly Ecgberht, who was still a child when he was chosen to succeed his father, and for whom his mother acted as regent. The queen mother’s pious influence on the young king may be easily seen in his choice of company. Many holy men came to visit Kent during Ecgberht’s reign, and with hospitality he hosted and feasted Saint Wilfrið, Saint Biscop and Saint Hadrian at his court. In addition, Ecgberht arranged for provisions to be made for the Byzantine Saint Theodore of Tarsus to come to England.
Once Ecgberht reached his majority in 670, however, his mother withdrew from her earthly life, and took the nun’s veil from the hands of Saint Theodore of Tarsus himself. She undertook a rather more rigorous ascetic discipline and a larger share of physical toil than the other nuns, on account of the easier living she had enjoyed as queen and queen-mother; but she did not let this become a cause for vainglory or delusion. She retired first to a Benedictine house at Milton Regis in Kent which she helped to found, now the Holy Trinity Church in that village. She also founded another Benedictine monastic house for women at Minster-in-Sheppey (where her daughter Eormenhild was also a nun), and was abbess there for a time. She later joined her holy sister Æþelþrýð at Ely, and upon her blessed repose in 679 took up her office as abbess there. She was chosen as abbess not because of her bloodline or her high birth, but because she had been a steward and a mother in her earthly life and had brought that same motherly love to her vocation in the cloister. During her abbacy, she translated her beloved elder sister’s body and was the one to discover that it was incorrupt. She served as abbess at Ely for twenty years, going to meet the Lord on the sixth of July, 699.
Seaxburg of Ely is known to the English hagiographers both as an exemplary mother to her natural children, and also as an exemplary monastic mother to her children after the spirit: a true genetrix in both rôles. Holy Mother Seaxburg, righteous queen, meek nun and loving mother of nations, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
This is a question that I have been struggling with throughout the life of this blog, it seems like – but the question became most acute to me during my time in Beijing, when I first dimly became aware of the Christianity of the Chinese social reformers whose perspective roots the work of Wang Hui and lends it a certain Grantian colour. I have since taken the opportunity to marvel that the Chinese who (quietly, often abashedly or seeming half-heartedly) embraced Christ – Jimmy Yen, Tao Xingzhi, even the half-agnostic Fei Xiaotong – were often far, far better at imitating Christ’s life in service to the poor, the downtrodden, the ‘least of these’ of St Matthew 25 than their American and British evangelical mentors were.
George Parkin Grant – along with his pupils John Milbank and Ron Dart – first confronted me with the problem that America, however loudly certain parts of it proclaim it to be a ‘Christian nation’, can be nothing of the kind. Our Christianity is too much Pilate and not enough Christ; and this is a problem rooted in our founding mythos. We are always jockeying like Cæsar and the princes of the world for global leadership and hankering after action when we need to be seeking the low places in humility and pursuing a less active policy. We are always extolling and applauding the great, rich and powerful – our Bill Gateses and Warren Buffets and Elon Musks – while we shame and exploit the widow with her mite.
This is not a problem of ‘right’ versus ‘left’. I have never been particularly convinced by the American right wing’s worship of markets and invisible hands – particularly when the hand becomes not-so-invisible. Even if it might occasionally be nice for folks to be able to trade in something other than kind, the golden calf idolatry of modern mainstream œconomics and its vulgar manifestations have never sat particularly well with me. (Don’t get me started on the American right wing’s disordered post-Charlottesville love of blood and soil.) Likewise, the increasing and accelerating Pelagian and Gnostic loopiness of the ‘woke’ American ‘progressives’ – with its utter contempt for the merely-human limitations imposed on us feeble mortals by basic biology, physics and common sense – is not endearing in the slightest to this leftist.
Moreover, this is not a problem of ‘modern’ interpretation of American institutions versus ‘original intent’. America’s very founding was deeply conceived in two interrelated heresies. Most of the élite Founding Fathers themselves – Jefferson, Franklin and Paine most openly; but probably also Madison and Washington as well – were Deists who disavowed the divinity of Christ. Most of the foot-soldiers on the ‘Patriot’ side of the War of Independence were, on the other hand, utopian Calvinists who believed themselves to be building the City of God. Neither of these factions had much use for the Prince of Peace, for the lowly Palestinian Jew and Incarnate God who came into the world not to conquer but to save. Even today there is not much use for Him, even among those who most loudly proclaim ‘Lord, Lord’.
As one who attempts to follow Christ, I find I am the child of a patria which is very difficult to love healthily or well from a 1 Corinthians 13 perspective. I don’t believe that the enabling stance that assures fellow Americans that we are the ‘greatest’ or the ‘indispensable’ nation is, in fact, love. I don’t think ‘support our troops’ while keeping them fighting abroad is love. I don’t think caging Central American migrants or shooting and gaoling black folks or drone-bombing Arabs or hating Iranians or Chinese or Russians is love. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the stance that conditions affection upon constant progress toward a disembodied Gnostic ideal is, in fact, love either. (Thank you, Berdyaev!) And unfortunately, on the fourth of July I see both kinds of disordered love displayed with a dismaying prominence in every public space and on every social media platform. On the fourth of July I all too often see ‘love’ which is not long-suffering or kind, and much less so all-bearing, all-believing, all-hoping or all-enduring. I all too often see ‘love’ which vaunts itself, which is puffed-up, which is unseemly, self-seeking, easily-provoked and which rejoices in iniquities. Many takes on what it means to be a ‘good American’ seem incompatible with a Christian understanding of love.
But does this mean America is unloveable? That’s a very different question, and I find myself incredibly loath to say ‘yes’: partly because that cedes way too much conceptual ground to the people who want us to kiss the Constitution, salute the flag and praise the greatness of the American Way. I believe Grant and Milbank are right, and I take it as a given, that you cannot love a piece of paper or an abstract idea as if it were family. But you can love your family (preferably with kisses more than with salutes). You can love your neighbours, too. You can love your backyard. In fact, go out on a limb and love your front yard, too – even and especially if you rent. Stretch out your toes in the grass and wave at the folks on the pavement. I love my parents and sister; I love my children; I love my parishes and their people; I love the tomatoes, peppers, basil, onions, fennel, dill, parsley, rhubarb and marigolds growing in my garden. I love the lakes and parks and rivers of my community, and want to keep them clean. I even love the creeping charlie and violets growing in the yard and the wild coney living under the shed. And if those are America, then yes – America can be loved, in the right way.