Friday, June 15, 2018

St Aldhelm: The South in Miniature

St Aldhelm of Sherborne (+709), as an English saint of the Orthodox Church, is a blessing for England and the whole world.  However, he should be loved in a special way by Southerners, for in his life, he combines many of the same elements that now make up Southern life:

A native of Wessex, related to the royal gentry, from which region many features of Southern life flow (the self-sufficient plantation, hierarchy, patriarchy, high-church liturgy, our own particular dialect of the English language, a bent toward protecting one’s individuality)?


A spiritual son of an Irish saint, St Maeldub, receiving the spiritual fervency of the Celts that has also characterized Dixie’s religious life (from that kin-group the South also receives her clannishness)?


A reader and writer of ancient Latin and Greek, also found among Dixie’s men and women?


A writer and singer of folk ballads and Christian hymns?


A player of musical instruments?


A man of letters?


A man who loved the creation?


St Aldhelm also had contact with St Hadrian, abbot of Sts Peter and Paul in Canterbury, who was from North Africa, thus including in his life even the African element that the South knows so well.

In these and other ways, St Aldhelm lived in his own day, 1,300 years ago, the life of the South.  So let us honor the memory of this precious saint so much like us and pray that we may obtain what he has that we do not:  his Orthodox holiness.

Below is a recounting of his holy life, in which one may see the above elements of Southern life and others:

St. Aldhelm (also Ealdhelm: meaning “old helmet”) was born in 639 or 640 in the Kingdom of Wessex (which comprised what is now Hampshire, Wiltshire, parts of Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Surrey) and was related to the royal family. St. Bede of Jarrow mentions him in his History of the English Church and People where he praises his holiness and talents. In the ninth century the holy King Alfred the Great admired St. Aldhelm and wrote down his story. In the late eleventh century Faritius (+1117), Abbot of Abingdon, composed his version of the Life of St. Aldhelm, and in about 1125 the prominent historian William of Malmesbury (+1143) devoted one of five volumes of his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Bishops) to this saint. In the nineteenth century the historian John Allen Giles (1808-1884) translated most of Aldhelm’s Latin writings into English, and his work was continued by other scholars up to our times, notably by Michael Lapidge from Cambridge. A number of modern researchers have written about Aldhelm. In addition, we know about Aldhelm from his correspondence with other Church figures both in England and on the continent and from numerous traditions in south-west England.

The Kingdom of the West Saxons had been converted by St. Birinus, Bishop of Dorchester-on-Thames, between 635 and 650. Aldhelm belonged to the second generation of Christians of that large region. At the age of fifteen Aldhelm became a disciple of the Irish ascetic and hermit St. Maeldub (also Maildulf; feast: May 17/30), who during his pilgrimage in the 630s to England had stayed on. Maeldub led a holy life amid the sparsely populated Selwood Forest in Wiltshire and in time founded a school and gathered a group of disciples. St. Aldhelm joined him and received spiritual instruction and education there. The saint, like his mentor, prayed in a tiny cell day and night and worshipped in a chapel nearby. In about 661 Aldhelm was tonsured a monk. The place where St. Maeldub lived was named Mailduberi, and later Maldubesburg after his death, meaning “town of Maeldub”, and now it is called Malmesbury.

In 671 Aldhelm left Malmesbury and went to Canterbury, where its new archbishop, St. Theodore, and his assistant, Abbot Hadrian, had opened a famous seminary. So St. Aldhelm was taught there by these learned men (among the students in Canterbury at that time was St. John, Wonderworker of Beverley). Aldhelm learned the Holy Scriptures, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, the Lives of the Saints, monastic services, grammar, literature, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music, law, rhetoric and other sciences. St. Aldhelm was one of the ablest students in the school, where he devoted all his time and energy to absorbing knowledge and wisdom.

A very talented man by nature, under the influence of other fathers among his contemporaries, Aldhelm became a prominent scholar, writer, poet, musician, singer, pastor, archpastor, teacher and builder of churches. Many historians have regarded Aldhelm as the greatest scholar in medieval Western Europe before Bede. Besides this, the saint always combined education with prayer and a strict ascetic life; that is why the Lord bestowed on him the ability to work miracles. The saint was very tall, cheerful, friendly and good-natured by character; though a learned man, he used to speak simply with illiterate people, which is why all came to love him in the following years.

In 671 St. Aldhelm was ordained hierodeacon and after two years’ study at Canterbury returned to his beloved Malmesbury to assist his spiritual father Maeldub, who was getting weaker in his advanced age. In 673 or 674 Aldhelm was ordained hieromonk and soon after that St. Maeldub reposed in the Lord and was venerated as a saint thereafter. From 675 on St. Aldhelm served as Abbot of Malmesbury, a post that he retained for the rest of his life. He reorganized Malmesbury as a monastery, taught there, became an extremely active and energetic abbot and over the ensuing years built, according to various sources, up to four magnificent churches in Malmesbury, which he adorned. These churches were dedicated to the Savior, the Apostles Peter and Paul, the Mother of God, and Archangel Michael. He became the teacher and pastor of the Malmesbury brethren and students and gradually extended the area of his ministry, so his mission spread to most of Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset.

But despite his busy life, the holy abbot cared for prayer most of all. He prayed unceasingly, lived a modest, austere life, kept all the fasts, and (following the Celtic tradition of the Irishman Maeldub) would stand in the waters of the stream near the abbey up to his neck for the whole night, where he would recite the whole Psalter. He did this even in the autumn and winter, when the water was icy-cold.

The saint took care of the ordinary people of Malmesbury and neighboring settlements, many of whom were uneducated. A very talented man, Aldhelm composed numerous songs, poems and hymns in his native Old English, and he mastered the Anglo-Saxon harp as well as other instruments (some state that he could play all the instruments available for that period). From time to time he would go to public places and sing secular songs in the vernacular. Crowds would gather around him and he would start singing spiritual songs in order to attract as many unchurched people to Christ as possible. Most often on Sundays after the church service he would often walk amid people or stand on the bridge in Malmesbury, playing the harp and performing his own hymns and songs in the manner of minstrels, and people would gather around him and listen, glorifying God.

At some point the saint noticed that some people began to skip church services, were inattentive, gossiped or left before the sermon. Then he began to sing psalms in Old English (that he had translated himself), standing on the bridge over the Avon, thus reproaching his flock, and the people came to their senses and never skipped sermons thenceforth. Later Alfred the Great collected the songs and verses of Aldhelm, and many of these songs were performed by Malmesbury townsfolk until the twelfth century. But, unfortunately, all the Old English works of Aldhelm are lost. The Holy King Alfred, who revered Aldhelm, wrote that if the saint had been strict to those under his spiritual guidance, he would not have been successful; rather, the saint preferred to display love and kindness (sometimes in a “clownish” manner), thus winning many souls for Christ.

Malmesbury prospered greatly under Aldhelm and in the Middle Ages it was considered one of the greatest monasteries in Western Europe, containing the second largest monastic library. Malmesbury also established daughter communities. From the writings and letters of Aldhelm we can see that he especially venerated the Mother of God, the holy apostles, the early martyrs and Church Fathers, attached particular importance to celebrating the Liturgy, prayers for the departed and monastic life in general. He observed nature and felt it very keenly, a fact that is reflected in many of his works.

The royalty and aristocrats of Wessex also loved and venerated St. Aldhelm. The saint gave advice to and influenced several Wessex kings and their relatives, and Malmesbury and other of his monasteries received lands and generous donations from the royal family. No doubt he influenced King Cadwalla (Ceadwalla) of Wessex, who ruled from 685 till 688. Once a ruthless and cunning pagan, he became a sincere Christian at the end of his life. He travelled to Rome to receive baptism in 689, where the sacrament was performed by Pope Sergius. Cadwalla died when in his white baptismal robe and was locally venerated after his death as a saint (feast: April 20/May 3).

St. Aldhelm was the adviser of King Ina (Ine) of Wessex who ruled from 688 till 726. This pious king took part in the restoration of Glastonbury Monastery in Somerset (under the direction of Aldhelm) and the foundation of another celebrated monastery at Abingdon in Oxfordshire. A year before his repose, Ina abdicated and together with his wife Ethelburgh went to Rome as a simple pilgrim, where he became a monk and passed away in 727 (he and his queen are locally venerated as saints on September 8/21).

The pastoral zeal of Aldhelm stretched even to faraway Northumbria in the north. Before becoming King of Northumbria, Aldfrith (ruled 685-704/5) had lived in exile in Malmesbury where he was baptized and Aldhelm became his godfather. Under Aldhelm’s influence the royal court of Northumbria of that time was famous for its high level of Christian culture and arts.

Apart from Malmesbury, St. Aldhelm founded other monasteries, namely in Frome in Somerset and in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, along with numerous churches and chapels—for example, at Bruton and Broadway in Somerset; at Bishopstrow in Wiltshire; Wareham, Corfe (at a royal palace), Sherborne and Langton Matravers in Dorset; and possibly Somerford Keynes in Gloucestershire. Traditions related to the history of the foundations of these churches abound. Once, feeling that a monastery should be founded in the thick of Selwood Forest, St. Aldhelm left Malmesbury, walked a distance and sat down in the forest, playing his lute and meditating on how he could build the new monastery. That area was notorious for the numerous robbers that lived in the forest. The thieves were captivated by the beautiful music and went out to listen and to see who was playing. Aldhelm stopped singing and addressed the men, talking to them so inspiringly and eloquently that he converted them to Christianity.

The band of former robbers then volunteered to help the saint build a church in the forest and the saint had it dedicated to St. John of Baptist. A monastery grew on that site; no doubt, some of the former robbers became Aldhelm’s disciples and ended their days at the monastery. Gradually the whole town of Frome developed around the monastery. Both the town and the former monastery church still survive. There are two folk traditions related to the foundation of the village and church at Bishopstrow—both of them are depicted on stained glass in the current church in this village. The first story says that Aldhelm preached on this site for so long that his ash staff which he had struck on the ground took root and grew into an ash-tree. He left it there and the place became known as “Bishop’s Tree”. The other story says that the King of Wessex offered his own staff to the saint and promised him land for a church as far as he could throw it—Hence “Bishop’s Throw”. The village is first recorded in 1086 as “Biscopestreu”, From 1270 it was known as “Bishopstrowe”—“trow “ meaning either “tree” or “cross”, so, the first story appears to be more likely.

The saint of God cared about the education of the poor and illiterate in many regions of Wessex, so he founded and encouraged others to found new schools there. St. Aldhelm wrote books, letters, treatises, sacred poems, grammatical works, and even riddles in Latin which survive to this day. They were read all over Western Europe, were popular and influenced several noted saints (for example, Boniface of Germany) till the eleventh century. His style of writing was elaborate and involved, for undereducated people even obscure. It was called hermeneutic. Most of his surviving works have been translated into modern English. Perhaps his best known work is the treatise De Laude Virginitatis (In Praise of Virginity), which he composed both in prose and verse for the abbess and nuns of Barking Monastery near London, one of whose nuns, St. Cuthburga, was his relative (she later founded a great double monastery in Wimborne, Dorset). In it he extolls the life of virginity, devout living, citing examples of numerous Biblical and early Christian saints of both sexes and referencing a host of the Holy Fathers of both the East and the West. (A Saxon drawing of him survives, showing him presenting his treatises to St. Hildelith, abbess of Barking).

His Epistola ad Acircium, a letter addressed to King Aldfrith of Northumbria, of whom we spoke above, is worth mentioning too. It comprises three treatises, namely on the number seven, on meters and metric feet. Other examples of his correspondence are those with the learned Abbot Cellanus of the Irish Monastery of Peronne (now in France); with the scholar Eahfrid who visited Ireland; Bishop Leuthere; St. Hadrian, Pope Sergius; the saint’s disciples Wihtfrith and Ethelwald; numerous abbesses and princes. There is also a poem describing his travels across western England and, notably, Carmina ecclesiastica—that is, tituli, poems for the dedication of a church or its altar. Among them are very beautiful poems for the dedication of two churches built by him in Malmesbury and for one built for Abbess Bugga, probably his sister.

Sherborne Abbey's close, St. Aldhelm's statue - Digby Memorial, Dorset (kindly provided by the Sherborne Abbey)
Most interestingly, the saint wrote a collection of 100 Latin riddles (Aenigmata) and handed them over to King Aldfrith. The word “riddle” comes from an old English word meaning “advise” or “explain”. Therefore, a riddle’s role is to teach by representing old things in new ways. The saint’s riddles were extremely popular and didactic through the early middle ages and were copied in many monasteries, thus popularizing this genre. In this collection one sees the wisdom, erudition, power of observation and inquisitive nature of the holy man. It is not for nothing that St. Aldhelm is praised by some as “the first European librarian”.

Below we give three riddles from Aldhelm’s collection (translated from Latin by W. B. Wildman in his book, Life of St Ealdhelm (1905). This selection as well as some other facts used in this article are kindly provided by Sheelagh Wurr from Bishopstrow, the author of a booklet on St. Aldhelm, entitled St. Aldhelm of Wessex, His Life, His Work, and His Miracles):

Forth from the fruitful turf I spring unsown,
My head gleams yellow with its shining flower;
At eve I shut, at sunrise ope again;
Hence the wise Greeks have given my name to me.
(Answer: a sunflower)

Though the war trumpet bray with hollow brass,
The lutes throb sweetly and the bugles call,
My inward parts give forth a hundred notes,
And, when I roar, men hear no other sound.
(Answer: an organ. It was said that St. Aldhelm was the first English saint to make an organ with his own hands!).

Of willow wood and tough bull-hide am I,
And I can stand the shrewdest knocks of war;
With my own frame I guard my warrior’s frame
And shield him from death’s grip. Who like myself
Has felt as oft the deadly blows of war
And known as many wounds, a soldier bold?
(Answer: a shield)

St. Aldhelm’s biographers describe the saint’s pilgrimage to Rome, which was then the spiritual capital of Western Christendom—the holiest place where the apostles preached and countless martyrs laid down their lives for Christ. This pilgrimage took place in 693. Aldhelm was cordially welcomed by Pope Sergius (a Syrian from Antioch), mentioned above, and they served the Liturgy together every day through Aldhelm’s stay. The saint of God returned to England with many gifts, among them were privileges to his monasteries at Malmesbury and Frome (they became independent from their dioceses and subordinate to Rome directly), not to mention relics of saints, holy icons and vestments.

Our saint took part in a number of Church Councils convened by English bishops under St. Theodore and his successor St. Brithwald. Aldhelm’s wisdom and experience were held in such esteem that hierarchs would often ask for his advice in decision-making during Councils. Thus, one such assembly was summoned in about 705 in Wessex. Among the issues considered there were the problems with the Britons living in the Kingdom of Dumnonia (Cornwall and most of Devon) that bordered Aldhelm’s area of mission in Wessex. The local Celtic inhabitants stuck to the old and by that time outdated traditions of calculating Pascha1, though all other Churches of Britain had agreed on following the Roman method. More than that, the Dumnonians regarded Angles and Saxons (their former invaders) as “schismatics”, refusing to pray and even to share meal with them. St. Aldhelm was asked to solve this situation. The saint wrote a letter to King Geraint of Dumnonia in which he explained to him the correct Paschalia, asked them to keep integrity and reproached them for their failure to live in harmony with universal Orthodoxy. Faith without works is dead (Jm. 2:17), the saint concluded. And his efforts brought forth fruit. The Celts little by little abandoned their pride and gave up the wrong Paschalia.

In 705 (or 706 according to another version) the final and most responsible stage in St. Aldhelm’s life commenced. After the death of the holy Bishop Hedda of Wessex his huge diocese was divided into two at a specially-convened Council. The new sees were located in Winchester (the eastern part) and in Sherborne in Dorset (the western part). The learned monk Daniel was elected bishop of Winchester, and St. Aldhelm was unanimously elected bishop of Sherborne. The saint humbly refused but, much against his will, was finally persuaded to assume responsibility for this see, as the Church needed a holy and experienced hierarch like him. This new diocese included Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset and even the Celtic Devon and Cornwall. Despite his old age (he was sixty-six at the time of his consecration) Aldhelm was the most active and zealous archpastor. He built the first cathedral in Sherborne, founded many new churches in the diocese (among them were those at Bath in Somerset, where St. Aldhelm’s reputed cross still exists, and in Doulting). At the same time, the saint remained Abbot of Malmesbury and two other of the monasteries he founded—at Frome and Bradford-on-Avon. In spite of his age, Aldhelm day and night preached the Word of God, made regular journeys across his diocese (the whole of Southwest England!), devoting time to fasting, prayer and performing acts of charity. Many other monasteries asked his advice, help and spiritual guidance. Among them were Glastonbury and Wimborne.

In spring 709 (according to another version, 710), St. Aldhelm became weak. It was clear that his end was near. He said words of farewell to all his monks, priests and spiritual children among the laity, exhorting them to keep peace, love and unity. Despite his illness the holy bishop continued his pastoral journeys, but death came to him while at Doulting in Somerset. In the final minutes of his life the saint asked his assistants to carry him into the little local church, which he loved and where he used to sit from time to time for a quiet prayer. There was a holy well nearby, by which he liked to recite psalms—and miracles still occur at this place. It was there that on May 25 (according to the old calendar) our saint’s holy soul was taken by God and ascended to the heavenly dwellings. St. Aldhelm was seventy: he had served as Abbot of Malmesbury for thirty-five years and as Bishop of Sherborne for four years. His last will was to be buried in his beloved Malmesbury.

Thus ended the earthly life of this holy man, who travelled all over his diocese, instructed monks and priests, built churches, had encyclopedic knowledge, sang both ballads and moving spiritual songs, recited poetry, played the harp, the fiddle and the pipes, was full of warmth and compassion, had a sense of humor, had time for everyone, was a devout Christian, won the trust and friendship of both scholars and peasants, could read the Bible in Hebrew, attracted disciples from as far as Scotland and Gaul, was patient and amicable rather than angry and strict with those erring, seldom slept, ate little, and lived in poverty—a man through whom many residents of Wessex came to Christ.

 . . .

Source of text and images:  Dmitry Lapa,, opened 8 June 2018

Holy Father Aldhelm, pray for us sinners at the South!


Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!

Anathema to the Union!

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