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The “almost saints”

My apologies dear readers for the long delay in updating ye olde blog, but I have a good excuse…actually the best of all excuses for a writer – I was writing!  I’ve added a few more saints to holy cards, volume 2, and in so doing, my research uncovered a curious thing.  There are ensconced in the canon of the saints, several women for whom there is little or no historical evidence.  Case in point, St. Agnes of Rome.  Catholics may recognize her name from the First Eucharistic Prayer, a great honour indeed.  Furthermore they may be well acquainted with her story – a young girl, maybe twelve, who refused to give up her virginity having consecrated herself to Christ, is miraculously preserved from all kinds of tortures, and finally put to death by the sword.  A compelling story, but modern hagiographers (people who study the lives of the saints) are pretty sure most of it is legend.  There is a tomb with her name on it in Rome, containing the body of a young girl, likely a martyr, but as for the rest of the story, it appears someone made it up.  And it’s a common motif in the legends of the early martyrs – a beautiful young woman consecrates her virginity, faces various tortures undaunted or, as with Agnes, completely unscathed, until the frustrated Roman official finally lops off her head.  In fact, the story is so common, I’m left to wonder why these Romans didn’t just go straight for the sword in the first place  instead of dallying with firewood that wouldn’t light, animals that refused to attack, or brothels that failed to corrupt.

Be that as it may, there are several, I daresay many other saints, canonized, deeply revered today with countless churches to their names who we’re not altogether certain ever existed at all.  On the other hand, there are two “saints” for whom we have substantial historical evidence as well as their prolific writings, and yet they were never officially canonized, leading a curious sort such as myself to ask “how come?”

Hildegard of Bingen was by all accounts a remarkable woman.  Abbess, visionary, musician, composer, artist, playwright, herbalist, naturopath, preacher, theologian, counselor and correspondent, Sister Feisty (as I like to call her) was a faithful daughter of the Church until she ran afoul of Church authority when she allowed the burial of a young nobleman on the monestery property.  The man had been earlier excommunicated, and as such could not be buried in holy ground.  Hildegard though, either through direct contact with the man before he died, or, what is more likely, through the revelation of one of her visions which she held infallible, believed the man had been reconciled with the Church before his death and therefore entitled to sacred burial.  The prelates of Mainz, acting in the name of the archbishop, ordered her to dig him up and cast him out.  Sister Feisty said “You know what?  I don’t think so.”  They then sent civil authorities to exhume the body, but before they arrived Hildegard had removed all the markings from his grave and the surrounding graves so they couldn’t tell which was his.  Not willing to risk digging up some rich nobleperson’s favourite aunt, they withdrew, but the archbishop placed the abbey under interdict, which must have been like death to the nuns.  They could not sing the Liturgy of the Hours nor partake of the sacraments until Hildegard repented her obstinacy.  When her pleas to her archbishop went unheeded, the neighbouring archbishop of Cologne stepped in and lifted the interdict.  How Hildegard manged to secure his intervention when he had no jurisdiction in her case remains a mystery, but the archbishop of Mainz grudgingly confirmed the reversal on his return from Rome.  The cause for Hildegard’s canonization has been opened four seperate times, but never completed and there is speculation this incident may be responsible.

Then there’s Julian of Norwich, my latest holy card from volume 2.  She was an anchorite, who had herself walled up in a church so she could dedicate her life to prayer and contemplation.  She became seriously ill and nearly died, but upon her recovery wrote “Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love,” the first book written in English by a woman.  Her theology manifests an invincible optimism as well demonstrated in her famous affirmation, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  There are in her work some radical depictions of Christ as Mother, as well as hints of universal salvation, i.e. that all are saved, and I sense this may be why she was never canonized.  Although, as one commentator remarked, Julian did believe in hell, but she remained convinced that nothing was beyond the reach of God’s power and desire to save.  No doubt this is a theological sticky wicket, one that much brighter minds than mine must wrestle with, but I do find it passing strange how easily the legend of a virgin martyr is given such easy credance in the face of  little factual corroboration, while troublesome, controversial and downright uppity women who stand foursquare in Church history are left in the margins.

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