03 February 2019

Saints Laurence, Wærburg and Ansgar

The third of February is a good day for English and Western European pre-schismatic saints, it seems – no less than three of them celebrate a feast-day today: Laurence of Canterbury and Wærburh of Ely of the seventh century, and Ansgar of Bremen of the ninth.

Our father among the saints, Holy Hierarch Laurence of Canterbury

One of the clergy who accompanied Saint Augustine from Rome on his mission to Kent, Laurence – also an Italian by birth – was deeply trusted by Saint Augustine and was the one sent back to Pope Saint Gregory in Rome to establish a correspondence between Rome and the new English Church in the wake of Æþelberht cyning’s baptism. Together, Augustine and Laurence worked assiduously to strengthen the new Church and to shore up the Roman rite among the newly-baptised Saxons, as well as to establish a uniformity between the Celtic traditions of the native Britons and their own Roman customs. Shortly upon his return, also, Saint Augustine consecrated Saint Laurence as a coadjutant bishop and successor, worried that the Saxons might revert to heathenry upon his repose.

Saint Augustine’s worries were not groundless. Éadbald of Kent had not been baptised along with his father Æþelberht, and it was he who took the throne when Saint Æþelberht reposed. And the saintly Laurence’s admonitions to him to do so had the opposite effect of the one intended, for he stubbornly persisted in his heathenry. Furthermore, Éadbald had married his own stepmother in contravention of Church law, and refused to put her aside.

The entire mission in England being in danger of failure, in 617 or 618 Saint Laurence’s companions Mellitus of London and Justus of Rochester had already left for Gaul. Saint Laurence, in a state of despair at his predecessor’s work coming to ruin, himself made preparations to join them. On the night before he was to quit England altogether, though, he was visited in a dream by Saint Peter. Saint Peter asked Laurence his reasons for leaving England, chastised him for lightly abandoning his charge and leaving the souls of the entire English flock to the wolves, and then began beating him with a heavy whip.

In the morning after this terrible dream, Laurence arose with the welts and stripes of the whip still upon his body. He showed himself before Éadbald King, who himself was roused to fury and fear that someone would dare to lay hands on a man in his care. Then Saint Laurence related to him the dream that he had seen, and by this token Éadbald finally came to believe. Éadbald thereupon put aside his incestuous liaison and consented to be baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity.

Saints Mellitus and Justus were then called back to England from Gaul, and the mission work among the English nation continued. When Saint Laurence met his repose on the 2nd of February, 619, his relics interred near to his friend and superior Saint Augustine in the abbey church.

Holy Mother Wærburg the Venerable of Trentham

The daughter of Wulfhere King of Mercia and his wife Saint Eormenhild of Ely, born at Stone in 650, Wærburg’s life, like that of a number of other English saints of her time, is something of an enigma. It is known that she was pious from a very early age, and that – though a beauty of some renown, as well as a politically-advantageous match – she rejected the suits of all would-be husbands and resolved instead for the life of contemplation of God. After obtaining her father’s consent, she went to the convent at Ely (which had been founded by and was then under the rule of her great-aunt Saint Æþelþrýð) and there took holy orders as a nun.

The family of Saint Wærburg was to be prominent among the leadership of the convent. After Saint Æþelþrýð’s repose, Saint Wærburg’s grandmother Saint Seaxburg became abbess. After her father Wulfhere’s death, Saint Wærburg’s mother Eormenhild would enter Ely and become abbess in turn. And after her mother’s blessed repose she herself became abbess at Ely. As abbess, and as advisor to her royal uncle Æþelræd, she embarked on an ambitious reform of all the monasteries in Mercia, and indeed founded new monastic houses of prayer at Trentham, Weedon Bec and Hanbury.

Several miracles are attributed to Saint Wærburg. In one farm close to Weedon Bec, a flock of wild geese was harassing a farm and eating the crop. Saint Wærburg went to the farm and ordered the wild geese to be penned up for the night – and they meekly obeyed. In the morning she scolded them for having stolen from the farmer and eaten his wheat. However, the geese continued to eat from the farmer’s wheatfields. In frustration, the farmer’s steward slew one of the birds, cooked it and ate it. Saint Wærburg went to the steward and ordered him to show her the goose’s bones, which he did. Thereupon Saint Wærburg laid a hand on the bones, restored the poor bird’s flesh and feathers and brought it back to life. The whole flock of wild geese then left gratefully, and did not trouble the farmer’s household again.

Saint Wærburg, having lived an active and fruitful life as a nun and as an abbess, reposed in the Lord on the 3rd of February, 700. She had chosen to be buried at Hanbury, but was at Trentham when she met her repose. The nuns at Trentham were loath to part with her relics, and kept them under lock and key. However, when a deputation from Hanbury arrived to take her relics back thither, the guards that kept Saint Wærburg’s relics were overcome with sleep, and the locks over her relics sprang open to the touch of the Hanbury nuns. Thus was Saint Wærburg translated to her wonted final rest. Her relics were found to be incorrupt when they were again translated within Hanbury some nine years later. In order to protect her relics from the heathen Danes, they were translated again in the 870s to the city of Chester, where they remained until the destruction of the monasteries under Henry VIII.

Our father among the saints Ansgar, Apostle of the North and Enlightener of the Danes

Born in 801 in Amiens, Picardy to a noble Frankish family, Saint Ansgar was orphaned at a young age and raised in the Abbey at Corbie which had been founded by the English Saint Bealdhild. He was apparently a fairly rowdy child, not interested at all in spiritual matters, until he beheld an image of his mother in a dream, in the company of the Most Holy Theotokos. He thereupon bent his concentration upon holy matters, and soon became a monk himself there. This happened at a time when France was coming under threat from heathen invaders from the north, yet young Ansgar was bold enough to volunteer to be sent to Christianise the heathen all the same.

Saint Ansgar was among several missionaries who were responsible for founding and strengthening another monastery named Corbie among the newly-baptised Saxons in Westfalen. At one point the king of Denmark, Harald Halfdanarson, who was newly-baptised and allied to King Louis the Pious, requested that the king send monks into his country to found a school and to take up the work of converting his people, the Danes, to Christianity. Ansgar was sent on this mission by the Frankish king with a companion, and the two of them accompanied Harald King back to Denmark. They did as they had been bidden to do, set up a school in Jylland and even made some headway in conversions, but Ansgar’s companion died shortly afterward. Ansgar himself was obliged to leave when another request was made by Björn af Haugi, king of the Swedes, for a missionary.

Ansgar set out for Sweden, but his ship was attacked by heathens in viking, who took all of his churchly goods and left him for dead on a desolate beach. Ansgar was obliged to go on foot across Scania and northward until he reached the town of Birka, in a small island in Uppland. Björn king welcomed Ansgar there, and allowed him to preach the Gospel freely as he would. Apart from the Christians that were there as thralls and gisels to the heathen, many Swedes were intrigued by the new faith, and bent their ears to hear Ansgar’s preaching. He spent half a year there, and founded a small Orthodox church which he left in the care of the king’s steward Hergeir and a rich widow named Frideborg.

Upon his return, Ansgar was consecrated bishop at Hamburg – the first bishop of that title and diocæse – and was entrusted with the care of the abbey at New Corbie. From there, for fourteen years, he conducted more missions into Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and further among the half-converted Saxons. In 845, however, heathen heres and ships from Denmark destroyed Hamburg and overran the Christian church there. Saint Ansgar was given the see of Bremen in its place, but he was forced for the time being to flee the northern reaches of the Frankish march.

The saintly bishop relentlessly resumed his preaching in Denmark, despite the destruction of his school at the hands of the heathen in 854 and despite near-constant setbacks and political intrigues among the Nordic nobility which constantly threatened his life and the success of his preaching. He created a lasting foothold: a small church in Schleswig. And he pursued his preaching even in Sweden. Olof king, who now reigned there, cast lots to determine whether or not he should allow missionaries within his sway – which Ansgar lamented as an arbitrary act unworthy of a king. God saw to it that the lot, however, fell in his favour, and he was able to preach uninhibited for the rest of Olof king’s reign.

Bishop Saint Ansgar was renowned for his great charity to the poor, and for his ascetic disciplines: which included rigorously keeping the fasts (even on bread and water), and wearing a hair shirt. He also added his own short prayers when reciting the Psalms. He reposed in the Lord at the age of sixty-four and was buried in Bremen. Though the work he did in Christianising the northern Germanic peoples did not bear immediate fruit – only with Sigefrið of Växjö would Christianity retain its hold in Sweden – the Germanic peoples of Scandinavia still remembered Bishop Ansgar with deep fondness and considered him for a long time their particular patron.

Holy Hierarch Laurence, Holy Venerable Mother Wærburg and Venerable Bishop Ansgar, pray to God for us sinners!

Ever moved by love for God and man, O Ansgar,
Like the apostles thou didst journey afar to bring salvation to the benighted,
Offering up thine afflictions upon the altar of thy heart,
In thy toils and distress bearing witness unto thy Saviour,
Like a martyr, enduring perils on land and at sea for His sake,
Undaunted by temptations and tribulations.
Wherefore, pray with boldness, that our souls be saved.

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