Including a great English martyr and a monk famed for his icon painting

Sunday, 18 February

St Flavian

To offer a detailed account of the remarkable career of Flavian, whose life is in any case familiar from the acts of various councils and ecclesiastical historians, would be beyond the scope of a short column. One anecdote should suffice to give us something of the character of this saint whose “glory” was, as Butler puts it, to “die a martyr of the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God”. After being made Archbishop of Constantinople, this humble cleric was approached by a eunuch, one Chrysaphius, chamberlain and special favourite to the Emperor Theodosius the Younger. The eunuch insisted that Flavian present their sovereign with a gift to express his gratitude for having been thus elevated to the episcopal state. The saint seems to have considered that a loaf of bread would do. Chrysaphius soon returned and, saying that this was not at all what he had in mind, intimated that he might put the resources of the archdiocese at His Majesty’s disposal. This enticement to simony filled Flavian with disgust, and he informed this loathsome creature that the funds of which he was overseer existed solely for the maintenance of the Church and the relief of God’s poor.

From this moment the eunuch was intent upon the saint’s destruction. An exaggerated rebuke of Nestorius led Flavian within an inch of heresy, wherein Chrysaphius and his master saw their chance. Years later, after many persecutions at the hands of the temporal power for his defence of orthodox Christology, he was killed, having been previously deposed as the servant of St Leo, a pope cravenly “excommunicated” by two Egyptian toadies of the Emperor. It is worth observing, however, that in the end Chrysaphius was put to death by Pulcheria, the sister of Theodorus, who had Flavian’s remain brought to Constantinople in a magnificent procession.

Monday, 19 February

St Barbatus

The first converts to Christianity at Benevento were made by St Pothin, the first bishop of Lyons, who was very likely consecrated by Peter the Apostle. Nevertheless, as late as the seventh century among the most eminent citizens of that place were adherents of a blasphemous superstition. They are said to have worshipped a viper made of gold and a certain tree which they decorated with a beast’s hide. Archery and other games seem also to have been involved. Barbatus was a priest new to the diocese who, having failed to inspire zeal among the indifferent laity during his curacy in nearby Morcona, applied himself manfully to the task of their conversion; but it was not until the city faced destruction at the hands of the Emperor Constans that the Beneventans renounced idolatry. After the siege had concluded Barbatus felled the mystic tree with his own axe and had the serpent melted down and made into a chalice. Later he was made a bishop and took part in councils.

Tuesday, 20 February

St Mildred

Most readers of this paper will disagree with Hume’s complaint that pre-Norman English history amounts to little more than a “long bead-roll of barbarous names … who successively murdered, expelled, or inherited from each other, and obscurely filled the throne”. But the habit among East Anglian monarchs of having the same number of children, all of whom would become either kings or saints – or, in some cases, both – and all of whose names begin with same letter can lead to a great deal of confusion. Consider: King Eadbald and Queen Emma had three children, Eorcombert, who became king, Eanswithe, and Eormenred. The last of these married a woman called Oslave, and their four children, three of whom have been canonized, were called Ermenburga, Ermengitha, Ethelred, and Ethelbright. His brother Eorcombert and his queen Sexburga, also had four children, Egbert and Lothaire, both in turn kings, and Eormenilda and Ercongota, each a saint. Ermenburga married a nobleman named Merwald and they too had four children: Milburg, Mildred, Mildgithe, and Mervin. When this gentle lady’s two nephews were murdered by another king called Egbert, he was kind enough to offer her a considerable amount of land in recompense, which Ermenburga turned into a religious house ruled by Mildred and her sister Ermengitha. Both women were renowned for their piety and their relics worked numerous miracles even after their convent was destroyed by the Danes.

These and doubtless many more details concerning the lives of Mildred, her aunt, her uncle Penda, and Thunor, the man who buried her cousins’ corpses on behalf of King Egbert, can be found in Lewis’s History of the Isle of Thanet.

Wednesday, 21 February

St Robert Southwell

Fr Herbert Thurston – a close friend, let us never forget, of the arch-Modernist George Tyrrell and a man who himself took the Anti-Modernist Oath only with great reluctance – and his lay successor Donald Attwater largely made a mess of Butler’s Lives of the Saints with their endless unfounded deletions and revisions. Nevertheless there are some fine things in the edition of 1956. One of them is in their notice of Robert Southwell, the Jesuit martyr. There is, Attwater says, a definite family connection between Robert Southwell and the poet Shelley, something I have never seen pointed out anywhere else. One suddenly finds in those golden stanzas of Adonais a further unguessed light:

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!—Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.…

Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

Unlike his fellow poet and distant relation, Southwell was a good student, and at the age of 17 he begged to be received as a novice in the Society of Jesus. From his earliest age it is evident that he expected and desired martyrdom. He was not to be disappointed in this ambition.

His career as a missionary under the reign of the last Tudor lasted a mere six years. Oblivious to the atmosphere of political intrigue that hung around his fellow Catholics, he devoted himself to the familiar tasks of priestly life – hearing confessions, saying Mass, minding his breviary – with a rare singlemindedness. In 1592 Topcliffe, Elizabeth’s chief priest-hunter, raped a woman named Anne Bellamy, who betrayed Southwell’s whereabouts. For three years he was imprisoned and subjected to torture of every imaginable variety in a fruitless attempt to elicit information concerning the movements of his fellow priests. Their efforts exhausted, his captors agreed to give him a trial in 1595. Hitherto he had been accused of no crime. A guilty verdict was, however, issued for treason and at Tyburn the author of “The Burning Babe” was hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Thursday, 22 February

St Margaret of Cortona

Margaret was born in Laviano in the middle of the thirteenth century to a pious mother and a father who was by turns indulgent and vicious. When her mother died, she left to work in the house of a nobleman. It is recorded that she thought very little of men and spurned the advances of every gallant with a supposed haughtiness that was said to be out of keeping with her station. In truth, it would seem to be the case that she had in fact been engaged in what we now rather nastily refer to as “sex work” for many years. She became her lord’s mistress, but she also believed him when he said that he intended one day to marry her. Even after the birth of their children the promised nuptials did not occur. When rebuked for her sinful manner of life by visitors she solemnly insisted that it was her sole aim in life to be a saint.

One day at the gate of the castle she saw her lover’s favourite hound, who led her to his corpse. The gruesome change stirred something in her and, taking their child, she returned to her father’s house. At first she was received with joy, but the old man seems to have taken offense at Margaret’s numerous displays of public penance. At the insistence of her stepmother, she was dismissed from the house and fled to Cortona, where she and her infant lived with the Franciscans and she begged alms while nursing the children of the poor among many other acts of charity. Like Mother Angelica and Marie Gabriel Lefebvre, in later years this saint had no time for worldly churchmen who misused their authority and brought disgrace upon their office. She publicly rebuked her bishop on at least one occasion for living a debauched life.

Friday, 23 February

St Lazarus Zographos

Lazarus was yet another victim of persecution by the temporal power in the East. A monk famed for his icon painting, he had the misfortune of living during the reign of Theophilos, the last Iconoclast. Taken into custody by the Emperor’s men, he was ordered to repent of his reputed crimes and offered money on the condition that he destroy certain examples of his work. This he refused. Put in prison, subjected to torture with hot irons on his palms, he was expected to die of his wounds. But he survived and began to paint again in his cell. At last the Empress Theodora persuaded her husband to release Lazarus. In addition to his numerous achievements in iconography, far too many examples of which have, alas, been lost, he is remembered for serving as an ambassador to Rome, to which he was devoted in the spirit of the best Eastern Catholics before the ridiculous schism.

Saturday, 24 February

St Sergius

Very little is known of this Sergius, who should not be confused with his contemporary the companion of St Bacchus, commemorated in East and West alike on 7 October. Unlike these men, who were prominent soldiers murdered after attempting to keep their faith incognito, this saint seems to have been a pious and obscure hermit in Cappadocia killed because he went out of his way to insult paganism. Hearing that vicious persecutions were being carried out by the governor of Caesarea under the authority of Maximian and Diocletian, Sergius marched to the city and, in the presence of the governor himself, one Sapcricius, said what must have been very rude things about the heathen deities. He was almost immediately executed.