November 1: a celebration of the golden goal of us all, the Feast of All Saints, of all having fulfilled our destiny willed by Almighty God. Most saints are unknown other than to God, friends, family, the angelic host, and other saints (“not a bad public” as Thomas More remarked in A Man for All Seasons) even when friends and family on this side of the grave have to hope prayerfully that the goal is reached.
Four little-sung saints spring to mind: Hierytha, Illog, Melangell, Mildred.
Hierytha, a Christian, reputedly scythed to death by Anglo-Saxon pagans in the Devon hamlet of Stowford, is celebrated in the splendid neighbouring church of Chittlehampton – worth seeing, and worth going to see. St Hierytha’s Well was a place of pilgrimage whose site is still blessed on her feast day. Visitors are also rewarded by a fine village pub opposite the church.
A remote Powys hamlet, Hirnant, commemorates the sixth century Illog. His well still supplies water to a house by the wall-bounded llan, enclosing yews, graveyard and Saint Illog’s church. There is no village pub. But a cottage bordering the llan, Hen Dafarn – the old tavern – suggests that for a time Saint Illog presided over something stronger than well-water.
Slightly better known is Melangell. Her exquisite shrine, in the sensitively restored church at Pennant Melangell, is in the next valley to Illog’s. An Irish princess, fleeing to avoid an unwelcome marriage, she devoted herself to solitary prayer. Saving a hare from the hunt of Prince Brychwel Ysgithrog, she gained his anger, then his respect and protection. Her legacy is partly that hares there are still called Melangell’s lambs, and not hunted.
Another “dark age” saint is Saint Mildred “Googling” whom reveals intersecting sets of material.
Mildred, too, was of high birth, the daughter of a minor Mercian king and maternally descended from King Aethelbehrt of Kent, Saint Augustine’s host. During her education at the Frankish abbey of Chelles, she resisted marriage, to a kinsman of her abbess whose improbably draconian punishments Mildred implausibly survived: accounts of her emerging unscathed after hours in a hot oven are surely hagiographical invocations of the divine protection afforded the steadfast young men in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace who also resisted power which oppressively exceeded its brief.
We shall probably never know what exactly she endured, but celebrate a courageous, determined young woman’s single-minded devotion to virtue and learning.
Biographers record her return, not to Mercia but to Kent, where her mother had founded a monastery. Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, received her into the community. Theodore had been conducted from Rome to Canterbury by Benedict Biscop, himself to found twin monasteries, St Peter’s and St Paul’s, where St Bede spent his monastic life.
“Mildred”, means “gentle strength”. She showed such when resisting her abbess’s oppression, and by opting for religious life rather than an Anglo-Saxon noble woman’s relative ease.
Becoming abbess of her monastery, Thanet Minster, she was revered locally, before and after her death, for holiness and care for the poor. Engaging testimonies to her aura of sanctity include a devil’s extinguishing her candle when she was praying, and its being relit, by an unfallen angel!
Thanet suffered Norse depredations shortly after Saint Mildred’s death. Monastic life there ceased, until
eleven hundred years later when, in 1937, a community of Bavarian Benedictine nuns rekindled monastic life where she had worked and prayed. Fittingly, this monastery’s patron is Saint Mildred whose gentle strength still inspires holiness in Thanet. An apt symmetry: Bavaria’s first evangelist was another Devonian, St Wynfrith.
What, if any, is these four saints’ Benedictine lesson?
Well, let us listen, and reflect.
The three women preferred nothing to the love of Christ.
Hierytha, who, it might be presumed, was a simple rural soul, but whom local tradition, perhaps surprisingly, records as literate, chose death rather than abjuring Christ.
Melangell opted for solitary, prayerful contemplation, showing care for God’s creatures, and stood firm against secular authority when judging it awry. In protecting the hare she may be seen as a type of Saint Francis.
To her contemporaries’ edification, Mildred’s life of monastic learning, service, prayer was in contrast to the ease they would have allowed she merited. We hear of “soft power”, enacted skilfully and persuasively rather than coercively. There is nothing feeble about the softness, like Mildred’s gentle strength.
Of Illog we know practically nothing! But given water’s meaning for life, baptism, blessing, the abiding recognition of St Illog’s well testifies to more than material awareness of its life-giving significance, even when response is largely implicit. (Were the well to fail, the response would, no doubt, be explicit and vocal!) Saint Illog’s church has become a community centre – a subliminal celebration of koinonia, perhaps, inspired still by the elusive Illog whose well and water remain anything but shadowy.
Hierytha is celebrated in Chittlehampton, on July 8. Illog’s feast in the Welsh calendar was on August 8. May 27 sees Melangell’s feast, July 13 Mildred’s.
The influence, past and present, of two remarkable servant-princesses, of a literate rural girl, and of Illog Sant, we recall with humility, gratitude and wonder, they who preferred nothing to the love of Christ and who, accordingly, provide solace, example, encouragement to all seeking to listen to the voice of the Master.
Oblate of Ampleforth