25 May 2019

Venerable Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne

Bishop Saint Aldhelm of Sherborne

Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate the West Saxon monastic and hierarch Aldhelm, who was the abbot at Malmesbury Abbey and the bishop of Sherborne and Sarum [Salisbury] in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Praised by Holy Bede for his scholarly learning and having the devotion of England’s saintly Ælfræd King (who committed his life to writing), Bishop Aldhelm was – no small feat! – no less beloved by the people than by kings and clergy.

Born around 639 in the West Saxon lands, probably to Centwine King of Wessex whose family had been converted by Saint Berin of Dorchester, Aldhelm was placed under the care and tutelage of the Irish monk and hermit Saint Máel Dub for a full fourteen years, from whom he acquired a firm grasp of Latin, astronomy, law, mathematics and a lifelong love of learning. Later in his monastic career, Aldhelm would journey to Canterbury to become (alongside Saint John of Beverley, it seems) a student of the African monastic scholar Saint Hadrian, who tutored him in Greek and Hebrew (and who unfortunately also seems to have imparted to him a certain turgid prolixity of style). Upon his return to Malmesbury – so called afterwards because it was the burial-place of Saint Máel Dub – the monk Aldhelm was elevated to the dignity of Abbot of that community of monks, as well as to that of headmaster of Máel Dub’s monastic school.

Aldhelm soon thereafter won from the nobles of Wessex the right of the monastery to elect its own abbot, and also imposed the regularity of the Rule of Saint Benedict on the way of life at Malmesbury – along with the radical hospitality and care for the poor that that entailed. He established several other churches and monasteries – most in Malmesbury, but some a bit further afield. In Frome, with the help of some former brigands who became his monastic disciples, Saint Aldhelm established a Benedictine monastery (now sadly lost), and in Bradford-on-Avon Aldhelm established the still-standing Church of Saint Laurence and its associated Benedictine House. He kept a very stringent ascetic discipline and fast for himself, but was lenient and understanding of others – particularly lay folk.

Church of Saint Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon

Aldhelm earned for himself the reputation of a formidable scholar, the greatest English scholar prior to Saint Bede, and he was particularly respected among Irish princes and monastics – possibly because of his Irish education under Saint Máel Dub. He was a poet who wrote in Latin verse (very possibly the first lettered Anglo-Saxon so to do). He carried on lengthy correspondences with his tutor Saint Hadrian, with Bishop Hloþhere of Winchester, with the Cornish prince Geraint and several others. Saint Boniface kept several of Saint Aldhelm’s letters. One particularly important letter on numerology and rhythmic metre, Epistola ad Acircium, was one addressed to the half-Irish Ealdferð King of Northumbria – who was also Saint Aldhelm’s godson. Aldhelm wrote the Latin De laude virginitatis in praise of Abbess Hildalíþ of Barking and for the edification of her monastic pupils. His verse works include songs in praise of virginity, a rhythmic song describing a journey through the English West, and a compilation of Latin riddles (the Enigmata) of the sort popular in Anglo-Saxon verse.

Despite all this learning, he did not let it go to his head, nor did he hold himself aloof from the folk. He spoke plain English with the people of his parish, and did not look down on them. In fact, in order to encourage the wayward and lazy among them to go to church – so the tale goes – Aldhelm would stand on one side of the town bridge in Malmesbury and preach in the open in an energetic and diverting way, playing his harp, meshing popular folk songs and hymnody, tales from the Gospel and even tomfoolery and joking, all in the hopes of getting the common people to come to Church. In this way he was able to gather a great throng of hearers around him, and thus to give to them a basic but strong and lasting understanding of the Faith. Saint Aldhelm was a firm believer in using an easy and gentle hand to guide people in the door.

He was also – as might be expected from a churchman of distinguished family background – fairly involved in politics both sæcular and ecclesiastical. He accompanied Cædwalla, the heathen king of Wessex, on a journey to Rome where he was baptised by the Syrian Pope Saint Sergius I. He took an active part in the controversy over the Easter date, possibly being a participant at the Synod of Whitby, and his letter to Geraint shows rather unequivocally his pro-Roman stance on the matter. However hard his words were to Geraint and the other followers of the British-Celtic method of calculating the date of Pascha, he nonetheless was ever willing to extend olive branches and favour conciliation with any who recanted their errors. Eventually, and largely through Saint Aldhelm’s efforts, the Cornish princes and clerics came around to the use of the Roman date for calculating Easter.

Aldhelm was later appointed, against his will, to the newly-created Bishopric of Sherborne. (Upon the repose of Saint Hædde, the bishop of Winchester, his vast diocæse was split in two by mutual conciliar agreement, with seats in Winchester and Sherborne.) Though he was sixty-six years of age at the time of his consecration, he took to his new post with an unmatched zeal and energy. He traversed his new diocæse proclaiming the Gospel; helped the poor, the sick and the oppressed; founded and consecrated the monastic Cathedral at Sherborne; and all the while continued as Abbot to manage the monasteries in Malmesbury, Frome and Bradford-on-Avon, while also providing guidance and advice to other abbots in Glastonbury and Wimborne.

This vigorous activity took its toll on the elderly monk’s health, and Aldhelm’s health began to wane in 709. Knowing his earthly end was near he took leave of his fellow monks and the lay-folk he dearly loved, and asked them to keep themselves in peace and love with one another when he had gone. As he was faring in Doulting, the ailing Saint Aldhelm asked to be taken into a local chapel, where he was wont to pray by himself quietly. He sat beside a well nearby – later known as Saint Aldhelm’s Well – and there drew his last breath at the age of seventy.

Saint Aldhelm’s dear friend Saint Ecgwine, who was then Bishop of Worcester, was given to know of his friend’s death in a dream. Bishop Ecgwine hurried southward to Doulting, and there took his friend’s relics in procession from Doulting to Malmesbury Abbey, stopping along the road to rest every seven miles or so and each time erecting a cross where they stopped: Doulting, Frome, Westbury, Bradford-on-Avon, Bath, Colerne, Littleton Drew and Malmesbury. Along their road, whenever ailing and troubled folk touched the casket carrying Saint Aldhelm’s relics, they were healed and consoled. He was interred at the church of Saint Michael at Malmesbury Abbey, which had been his favoured home for most of his blessed life.

This gentle monastic scholar and folk-poet of the English southwest was glorified locally as a saint almost at once upon his repose, and the holy well at which he gained to the life æternal became a popular pilgrimage site at which many wonders were later wrought. His memory was later exalted by the attentions lavished upon his relics by his Wessex kinsmen, Æþelwulf King of Wessex and his son Saint Ælfræd, and his scholarly works – at least those in Latin – stand in their own right as testament to his scholastic and spiritual achievements. Holy, venerable and God-bearing father Aldhelm, ever-merciful upon those who need mercy, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!
Like Samuel of old thou wast afire from thy youth
With spiritual desire for wisdom divine, O venerable and God-bearing hierarch Aldhelm; For this cause thou didst tread the narrow path of life unto Christ,
Making Malmesbury a worthy monastic abode,
A haven of stillness where thou didst struggle in ascetic labour for many years.
Wherefore,as thou now beholdest the face of Christ in the heavens,
Entreat Him in behalf of us who honour thy holy memory with love.

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