Last September, Bishop Gregory charged me with the task of compiling a list of saints of the British Isles for inclusion in the liturgical calendar of our jurisdiction. After ten months of dedicated and successful procrastination, I began work on this towards the end of July this year.
As the bishop needed this list by early September in order to prepare the calendar for the coming liturgical year, I found myself working to a deadline. Now there was a sense of urgency.
Most of the work had already been done by others, and I was able to draw from various sources. Still, I was certain it was going to be a chore, having to sift through the numerous saints, examining each one, deciding which ones to include, searching for the missing information about their lives, locations, and when they fell asleep in the Lord.
Does the life of the saint survive? Does it read like genuine piety or fanciful embellishment? Is there any lasting devotion to the saint? If not, ought there to be? Is there any indication that this person actually existed? These and others are all questions I found myself asking.
Far from the tedious exercise I thought it would be, I have found the daily exploration of the saints over this past month to be something of a spiritual pilgrimage through the year. Here are a few observations:
- Our modern Western European storytelling is often very literal. While allowing some room for imagination, we largely use words to reflect the reality that we perceive. Even for those of us who have faith in the Imperceptible One and are accustomed to articulating our faith in speech, it can be difficult to see language used in more flexible ways. So, when we see the lives of the saints filled with such hyperbole as a shipwrecked woman giving birth and surviving on a floating barrel for months with her newborn, or a baby preaching a sermon on rising from the font, we may consider this an unfortunate clouding of the reality with doubt and nonsense. Yet, to the faithful people who shared these stories and who wrote them down for posterity, these often fanciful embellishments were clearly understood to be ways of giving honour to the holy one whom they held in love and devotion.
- A ubiquitous trait of calendars of saints is that the male names far outnumber the female ones. There are a number of sociological and historical reasons for this, and it came as no surprise to find the same in the calendar of saints of these islands. However, the imbalance was not as great as I thought it would be. The spiritual history and landscape of the British Isles is replete with holy women – not just anonymous saints whose names we shall never know, but women whose struggles, triumphs, and other experiences have come down to us, and whose sanctity was revealed so that they may be examples for us to follow today.
- Many saints came from the same family as each other. Often, the only description of a saint is “Nephew of St N.” or “Mother of St N.” or some such. At first, we might wonder why just being a blood relation of a famous saint makes a person holy. Of course it doesn’t – not per se – but this speaks instead of the important place of our family and intimates in our lives in Christ, and the need not to underestimate the sanctifying influence that we can have on each other when we strive together towards salvation.
- Many of the saints’ names (or variations thereof) live on in some of the popular names we still use today, (some of which new Orthodox Christians are often told they cannot keep because they are “not Orthodox”). Some of them are obviously saints’ names, while others might be something of a revelation. Among them: Hilda, Edmund, Daniel, Cianan, Elwyn, Fergus, Justin, Agatha, Cormac, Fintan, Kiera, Peter, Derek, Albert, Adrian, Dermot, Brandan, Ethna, Benedict, Elian, Bridget, Ronan, Laurence, Richard, Edward, Mildred, Oswald, David, Chad, Owen, Ciaran, Karen, Ryan, Felix, Constantine, Gregory, Paul, Gerald, Patrick, Joseph, Cuthbert, Herbert, Gladys, Rupert, Theodore, Derek, Llewellwyn, Elias, Gerard, Wilfrid, Kelly, Germaine, Phillip, John, Ian, Euan, Brendan, Helen, Augustine, Austin, Gwen, Kevin, Alban, Audrey, Aaron, Jerome, Solomon, Judith, Julius, Finbar, Barry, Grace, Cillian, Edgar, Edith, Declan, Samson, Aled, Claudia, Bertram, Blane, James, Evan, Andrew, Eugene, Eugenia, Gregory, Stephen, Geoffrey, Morgan, Edward, and Winefride, among others.
- The Church in the British Isles in the first millennium was seamlessly united to the wider Orthodox Church. Many of the saints beloved in their hermitages, dioceses, monasteries, and mission fields in Germany, Italy, Brittany, and other places were born and often spiritually formed in these islands. The channel and the Irish Sea formed no barrier to this spiritual and societal unity.
The immense Orthodox spiritual heritage of these islands must never be undervalued. Once we begin to explore the lives of the saints who walked these western lands in ancient times, who entered into communion with God here, who worked out their salvation, and prayed, and taught, and drew others to life in the Saviour here, we cannot help but realise that the riches of Western Orthodoxy are too valuable to be cast aside now.
The prayers that they prayed, the hymns that they composed and sang, the liturgical rites by which they worshipped God and received the holy Mysteries – these things formed the bedrock of their spiritual lives and led them to holiness. We too should be inspired to shine as lights in these lands as did the saints before us, praying as they prayed, worshipping as they worshipped, and deepening our love for, and our life in the holy and undivided Trinity.