Tag Archive | All Saints Day

Ulfila–Heretical Saint

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Ulfila  311-383 C.E.

          There’s a new man in my life!  My husband probably doesn’t need to worry too much about him, though, as this “new” man is really a very “old” man.  In fact, he’s been dead for over 1600 years, and I’m not even sure of his correct name.  Ulfila?  Ulfilas?  Ulphilas?  Wulphila? 

          Whatever.  I met Ulfila when I was reading a church history book some time ago.  He was given only one brief paragraph, but his story intrigued me, so I did a little further digging.  Born about 311 in Dacia, a northern province of the Roman Empire that was primarily inhabited by not-so-Christian Goths, Ulfila was, nevertheless, raised as a Christian by some of the few Christians scattered throughout Dacia.  The faith he was taught, however, was a “heretical” faith, for the Christians of the region were followers of Arius, and Arius had taught that Jesus was a lesser god created by God the Father, and that he did not share the same substance as the Father.

          Nevertheless, Ulfila was a devout believer in Jesus, and after traveling south to Constantinople to train under an Arian bishop for a life of ministry in the church, Ulfila was in due course consecrated as Bishop to the Goths.  When he returned to his home in Dacia, Ulfila served his people and taught them in the Arian way.  Jesus was only “like” the Father.  Jesus was “lower” than the Father.  Jesus was not really God. 

          But Arian though he was, this little known heretical saint is well worth knowing about, as there is so much of value and worth in Ulfila’s life.  After spending about 8-10 years as a missionary in Dacia among the Goths, Ulfila was forced to flee south because of Gothic persecution of Christians.  While in virtual exile, he decided to translate the entire Bible into the Gothic language.  One big problem.  There was no Gothic alphabet.  That, however, did not deter Ulfila.  He simply invented an alphabet for the Goths and then proceeded to translate the entire Bible into their language.  Almost.  Ulfila decided not to include the Books of 1 and 2 Kings in his translation of the Bible.  The Goths, he reasoned, didn’t need any encouragement to exercise their often violent tendencies. 

          All this and only one short paragraph in a book of church history?  Probably due to his heretical Arianism.  In another church history book, I could not even find his name listed in the index!  But quite honestly, I rather like having a “heretic” among the great cloud of witnesses watching us as we “feebly struggle” while they “in glory shine.”  It makes me a little more humble about what I know and what I don’t know.   I grew up in a very fundamentalist church, and we were so sure, so very sure that we had all of God’s truth neatly tucked into our little God box.  But the older I get, the more I realize how incomplete, how inadequate my understanding of the faith really is.  And while, to be sure, I’m grateful for the creeds that emerged from all the wrangling in the church’s early years, I’m more and more aware that while these creeds point to the truth, they don’t fully define the truth.  So I’m quite happy to envision Ulfila as a part of that great cloud of witnesses worshiping and praising our Lord and at the same time cheering us on as we wend our way through life.

          A final note about Ulfila’s life and witness.  Sometime around 381, Ulfila was summoned to Constantinople for a discussion among the various factions of the faith regarding the person of Christ.  He did go, demonstrating an openness to talk with those who differed from him.  His participation in this discussion provides, I believe, a good example for our own time, and I suspect that Ulfila, who died at some point during these discussions, smiles down on all the attempts at dialogue within and beyond the church today on so many different issues.  I suspect he also smiles at all the attempts in our personal lives to keep open to new insights and to ever enrich and expand our personal understanding of the faith that shapes and guides our lives. 

          So on All Saints’ Day this year, I will be remembering, not only those near and dear to me who have gone on before.  I will also be remembering Ulfila, even as I recite the Nicene Creed with its clear denunciation of his Arian teaching.  I will remember him.  I will thank God for his life and for his witness.  And I will continue to picture him cheering us on in all our efforts to live out the challenges of our faith.      

The Gospel According to Eadfrith of Lindisfarne

Lindifarne Matthew gospel

Lindisfarne Gospel of Matthew

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          As All Saints’ Day approaches, I want to express a special gratitude this year for Eadfrith, a little known saintly bishop who lived and worked in the 7th and 8th centuries C.E. on Lindisfarne, a small island off the coast of northeast England, where a monastery had been founded in 635 C.E.  

          Eadfrith became Bishop of Lindisfarne not long after the Synod of Whitby (664 C.E.) had resolved (in Rome’s favor) the disputes between the Roman and the Celtic interpretations of the Christian faith.  He served as Bishop from 698 to 721 C.E. And while we don’t know much about his life, it is attested that he was very devout, deeply loved the faith, and was most eager to make holy scripture available to those whom he served. There were, of course, very few copies of scripture at the time, as each copy had to be written out by hand on vellum prepared from the skin of sheep or calves. A number of monks kept busy copying what they could of holy writ (all in Latin at that time) and, at some point, Eadfrith himself decided to make a copy of the four gospels. It took 2-6 years of his life to accomplish this task, but he stayed with it, and happily we still have his work.*

          For Eadfrith was not only a scribe. He was also a brilliant artist, a deeply imaginative artist, an artist informed by Celtic, Germanic, and Irish artistic styles. His illuminations throughout what has come to be known as The Lindisfarne Gospels are a dazzling weave of crosses and angels, of knots and curves, of a variety of creatures from the natural world and from the world of fantasy— winged calves and lions, snakes twisting into birds. In his art, it seems that Eadfrith wanted to affirm the deep, mystical sense the people of his time had of a world filled with mysteries from beyond. Of a world in which the temporal and the eternal were ever so closely knotted and intertwined. Of a world populated with mythical creatures who lived only in the imagination but who were as real to Eadfrith’s people as were the rabbits they hunted for food.

          Below is one of the pages marking the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew.   Note the fantastical Χ Ρ (Greek letters for Christ, though the text itself is Latin).  Eadfrith’s Χ Ρ has taken on the mythic shape of a bird with snake-like beak and wings. Such imagination! Such intricacy in all the other art of this page, as well, as many smaller Celtic symbols, so familiar to the people of his time, have been woven into the letters.

LindisfarneChiRiho

          In addition to his highly decorative letters, Eadrith also painted a number of full-page images. Preceding each of the four Lindisfarne gospels is a representation of the gospel writer, each one vividly bright, with great attention to detail. The picture of Matthew is especially intriguing to me. Matthew is seen busily engaged in his writing, with the common symbol of Matthew as a winged man floating in the air above him. But then, peeking at Matthew from behind the curtain is another man, an inquisitive man who draws the viewer into the picture to see just what Matthew is up to. Such whimsy!

Lindisfarne Matthew

          In addition to the pictures of each of the evangelists, there is also a “carpet” page at the beginning of each gospel. Prayer mats were frequently used in England at the time, and Eadfrith’s carpet pages are depictions of these. Each carpet page features a version(s) of the cross, along with tiny Celtic symbols woven through and around the crosses. The carpet pages invite the reader to take some time apart before beginning her reading, take time to imagine herself rolling out her own prayer carpet, kneeling on it, and there entering humbly into the sacred space the words of the gospel will give to her. At the top of this reflection is the carpet page at the beginning of St. Matthew. Here is the carpet page at the beginning of the Gospel of St. John:

Lindisfarne John carpet

          So much to admire in this magnificent late 7th or early 8th century work. Such astounding artistry. Such meticulous care to detail of both word and image. I so enjoy perusing its pages. But even as I admire the amazing artistry of The Lindisfarne Gospels, I also sense Eadfrith inviting me, a woman living in the 21st century, to re-think my own reading of the gospels. I find Eadfrith inviting me:

  • to approach the gospels with the kind of careful, detailed attentiveness that he demonstrated in his meticulous inscriptions;
  • to use my imagination as I read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and let my mind be colored with playful, creative pictures of what the evangelists are describing;
  • to be ever mindful of the complexity and wonder of the life around me—all of the natural life that I see and all of mystical, supernatural life that I cannot see, woven together as they are in Eadfrith’s knots and gracefully twisting creatures and designs;
  • and finally, to approach my readings with the prayerful humility evoked by Eadfrith’s carpet pages.

          So as we come this year to All Saints’ Day, I want to say thanks be to God for The Lindisfarne Gospels. Thanks be to God for the Christ of these gospels. Thanks be to God for imagination and colors and joy. Thanks be to God for all the saints. And a special thanks to God for Eadfrith and for his gifting us with his luminous faith and work.

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*There is some dispute as to whether Eadfrith worked on The Lindisfarne Gospels before or after his tenure as Bishop. There is also some debate as to whether he commissioned this work or did it himself, although the consensus is that it is the work of his own hand. There is also disagreement as to the length of time if took to complete the gospels.

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You can view The Lindisfarne Gospels at this website:

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/lindisfarne/accessible/introduction.html

Food for Thought from Julian of Norwich

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As we approach All Saints Day, I want to pass along some wisdom from Julian of Norwich, an anchoress* who lived in 14th century England. Julian is most known for these powerful words of assurance that have echoed through the centuries:

 

All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

 

Here are some further thoughts from this saint (not officially canonized, but nonetheless a saint), taken from her only known writing, Showings:

“And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.”

“And this is what [God] means when [God] says: Every kind of thing will be well. For [God] wants us to know that the smallest thing will not be forgotten.”

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*An anchoress was a woman who withdrew herself from the world for a life of prayer and meditation. An anchoress lived in an enclosure that was attached to a church. She received the sacrament through a window to the church, and parishioners could ask for her help and prayers through another window that opened to the world.