Tag Archive | saints

Ulfila–Heretical Saint


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.      

St. Brigid at Downton Abbey


       Watching Mrs. Patmore cook and then seeing the lavish feasts spread across the candlelit dining table at Downton Abbey is truly a delight.  Lobster Rissoles with Mousseline Sauce.  Strawberry Charlotte Russe.  Six—that’s 6!—spoons needed for the partaking of these rich feasts.  And who knows how many forks—all, of course, gleaming and polished under the careful scrutiny of the august Mr. Carson.

      A world removed from our experience.  An extravagant world, but not an unkind world.  The Earl of Grantham and his family are quite generous and kind to their servants and to the folk who live and work on the larger estate.  But kind as they are, they are nevertheless aloof, separated by a powerful, invisible barrier from those not born to their status and rank.  No maid or valet would ever be invited to dine at their lush table, and woe to the maid or the valet who did not stand to attention if one of their masters or mistresses were to enter their humble “downstairs” dining room.

      I love watching “Downton Abbey,” but I can’t help but think that the lives of Lord Grantham’s family are considerably impoverished in spite of, maybe even because of, all their wealth and aristocratic status.  For it is indeed their wealth and titled status that create such a distance from all of those around them, including even those specially prized servants of whom they are really very fond.

      Recently I’ve learned a bit about St. Brigid of Ireland, a woman of an earlier time who also loved feasts, but feasts of quite a different kind.  As I’ve read about her life, I’ve had some fun trying to imagine this ancient feast-loving saint suddenly appearing in the Downton Abbey dining room in the middle of one of their bountiful spreads.  An Irish abbess in the 5th-6th centuries, Brigid lived and worked alongside the nuns in her Kildare community, spinning, weaving, milking cows, all to provide for the poor and the destitute in her area.  The poor—not a people  she saw as “beneath” her, but rather a people she saw as God’s children who, at her kind of feast, would “sit with Jesus at the highest place.”

      I like to imagine St. Brigid entering the magnificent dining hall at Downton Abbey, a train of indigents in her wake.  I like to imagine her quietly drawing up chairs and seating them beside (heaven help us!) the Dowager Empress and Lord Grantham himself.  In my mind’s eye, she works calmly but determinedly, not to make the Downton people feel horrified or even guilty, but rather to make their feast even richer!  Richer by helping them to see, to really see, their oneness with these poor.  Richer by helping them to sense a shattering of that invisible barrier that keeps them set apart from Daisy and Mrs. Patmore and dear Anna Bates.  Richer by enlarging their souls to know their deep connectedness to all of God’s creatures, not just to those born with 6 silver spoons in their mouths!

      Brigid once wrote this lovely poem about the feast she would like to give, and I can imagine her singing these  words to the gathered Downton family:

          I should like a great lake of finest ale

          For the King of kings.

          I should like a table of the choicest food

          For the family of heaven.

          Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,

          And the food be forgiving love.

          I should welcome the poor to my feast,

          For they are God’s children.

          I should welcome the sick to my feast,

          For they are God’s joy.

          Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,

         And the sick dance with the angels.   

         God bless the poor,

         God bless the sick,

         And bless our human race.

         God bless our food,

         God bless our drink,

         All homes, O God, embrace.

      Such joy—contagious joy!—in her vision.  I can almost see Lord and Lady Grantham, the eyes of their souls suddenly opened, rising to toast St. Brigid, to toast their ragged guests, and then calling down for all the downstairs folk to come up, too, to join in the feast-dance of the angels and of the Christ!

      We don’t live in a Downton Abbey world any longer, but I think there’s often an invisible barrier between those of us who live in relative affluence and those who live in deep poverty.   We sometimes ignore the poor.  We sometimes feel pity for them.  We sometimes generously give of our resources to help them.  We sometimes even work for legislation that will help to improve their lot.  But do we feel connected to them?  Do we think of them as God’s special children who will sit with Jesus at the highest place?  Not really, I think. And we are the more impoverished because of this.

      St. Brigid’s ancient words call to us even as they called in my imagination to the gathered elite of Downton.  Call to us to join in the joy of her feast, a feast where the poor are given the highest seats of honor, where the sick dance to the music of God’s angels.  A feast where all barriers are torn down, and where all who eat know themselves to be deeply connected with every other guest, and deeply connected to the Lord of the Feast who always honors especially those who are in need.