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Saturday, July 09, 2005

SAINT ALDHELM OF SHERBORNE

Our holy Father Aldhelm was born in about 639. His father was called Kenter
and was from the royal family of Wessex in Southern England. When he was
still a boy, his father sent him to be trained in Greek and Latin letters at the
monastery of St. Augustine in Canterbury. Some years later Aldhelm returned
to his native Wessex and when he was about twenty-two received the monastic
tonsure in the monastery of Malmesbury, which had been founded by the Irishman
Maeldub in about 635. At one point he was ordained to the priesthood by
Bishop Eleutherius of Wessex.

In 671, Aldhelm returned to Canterbury to study in the famous school of St.
Adrian, who was described by Bede as "very learned in the Scriptures,
experienced in ecclesiastical and monastic administration and a great scholar in
Greek and Latin." Here, in addition to the Holy Scriptures, the ecclesiastical
subjects and Greek, Latin and Hebrew, he studied Roman law, music, arithmetic
and a hundred different kinds of poetic metre. Soon he acquired a high
reputation as a writer of both prose and poetry. Bede praised his works, and two
hundred years later King Alfred considered his poetry, which was still being
sung, as "superior to all other English poetry". There is a story that he used
to attract believers to his church in Frome by singing songs to a harp
accompaniment on the bridge over which they passed. First he would sing popular
ballads, and then, when he had caught the people's attention, he would introduce
words of a more serious nature.

Aldhelm was forced to return home from Canterbury because of illness, and in
675 was elected abbot of Malmesbury on the death of Maeldub. One of his
first achievements was to replace the wooden church built by Maeldub by a
splendid stone one dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul. We still possess the
verses he composed to celebrate the consecration. He also built two more
churches in Malmesbury dedicated to the Mother of God and the Archangel Michael.
The latter was still standing in the twelfth century, and William of Malmesbury
described it as excelling in size and beauty every other ancient church in
England.

The Mercian and West Saxon kings and nobles gave many endowments to Aldhelm.
This enabled him to build daughter monasteries and churches at
Bradford-on-Avon (dedicated to St. Lawrence, which has survived almost intact to this
day), Frome (to St. John the Baptist), Wareham (to St. Martin), Bruton (to St.
Peter), Abingdon, Sherborne, Langton Matravers and Corfe. He also persuaded
King Ina of Wessex to refound the monastery at Glastonbury.

Aldhelm lived a life of great asceticism in his monastery, struggling in
prayer, fasting and reading. Like several of the British saints, he used to read
the whole of the Psalter at night standing in a pool, which afterwards came
to be called by his name. At the same time he continued his educational and
literary activity, and we possess the treatise On Virginity which he presented
to St. Hildelitha, abbess of Barking.

He was also renowned for the grace of wonderworking. Once, during the
building of the church of St. Mary in Malmesbury, the workers noticed that one of
the beams which had been transported a long distance for integration into the
structure was too short. This was a blow, because it would have been a great
labour and expense to bring another beam of the right size to the site.

Aldhelm, however, nothing daunted, succeeded in lengthening the beam to the
required size by his prayers alone. It is said that, during two fires that
destroyed the whole monastery during the reigns of Kings Alfred and Edward, this beam
suffered no damage, and finally perished through age and dry rot.

Aldhelm now decided to go to Rome to obtain privileges for his monasteries
from the Pope. On the way, he stopped at his estate in Dorset and built a
church in Wareham (which still survives). William of Malmesbury relates of this
church that in the twelfth century it was roofless, but that the shepherds of
the district would crowd into it during storms because they believed that it
never let the rain in. The spirit of Aldhelm watched over it, they claimed,
and all attempts to re-roof it by nobles of the province failed. And even more
miracles took place through his intercession at this church in Wareham than
at his monastery in Malmesbury, where his relics lay.

Aldhelm arrived in Rome and was housed in the Lateran palace by Pope Sergius
I. Every day he would celebrate the Divine Liturgy, and one day, having
celebrated the Liturgy and being still with his thoughts caught up to heaven, he
cast his chasuble behind him. The acolyte who was serving him was occupied in
another part of the altar and did not catch it. But the chasuble remained
miraculously suspended in thin air, hanging as it were on a sunbeam that was
passing through the stained window. This chasuble was brought back to England
and in the twelfth century still remained with no trace of corruption in the
monastery of Malmesbury.

While Aldhelm was still in Rome, a boy was born in the house of the Pope's
chamberlain. It was rumoured that the mother was a nun and was concealing the
identity of the father. Soon the Pope was being accused of having fathered
the child, and the scandal reached such proportions that it reached the ears of
Emperor Justinian II in Constantinople and an ecclesiastical trial was
initiated. But at this moment Aldhelm came to the defence of the Pope. "What would
they say in Britain," he said, "or in some other country, if it was known
that the Roman Pontiff was being thus assailed by his own citizens?" Then he
ordered the child to be brought so that he could dispel the slander from his
own mouth. But the people derided him. How could a nine days' old child who had
not yet been baptized tell the truth about his parentage? Nevertheless, by
the power of God the child spoke up in a completely clear voice and declared
that Pope Sergius was a virgin. The Pope was triumphantly vindicated, and
Aldhelm praised. The saint was then asked whether he could reveal the identity of
the true father. But he refused, saying that if he could he would rescue the
innocent, but he would not condemn the guilty to death.

Then, by a bull dated about 701 that is still in existence, Pope Sergius
granted Aldhelm's monasteries at Malmesbury and Frome exemption from episcopal
jurisdiction. No priest, whatever his status, was allowed to celebrate the
Liturgy in the monastic churches without the permission of the abbot, and when
the abbot died the monks were to elect his successor. This charter was later
confirmed by Kings Ina of Wessex and Ethelred of Mercia, both kings agreeing
that in the event of war between their kingdoms the monasteries would be left
in peace.

Aldhelm returned home loaded with holy relics and a wonderful altar made of
finest white marble. It is said that a camel was carrying it as far as the
Alps, but the animal slipped and was crushed by the altar, which itself broke
into two pieces. The saint made the sign of the cross and lo! both the camel
and the altar were immediately restored. On his return Aldhelm gave the altar
to King Ina, who placed it in the church of St. Mary at Bruton. In the
twelfth century the crooked flaw in the marble of the altar was still visible as a
witness to the miracle.

A great crowd greeted the saint as he disembarked in England. There was
general rejoicing that the light of Britain had returned. And on the repose of
St. Hedda, bishop of Winchester, in 705, the diocese was divided into two and
Aldhelm was elected bishop of the western half, with his see at Sherborne. The
saint at first refused, saying that he was too old and wanted to end his
days quietly at Malmesbury. But the council replied that with his age came
greater maturity and freedom from vice.

So the saint finally yielded and went to Canterbury for his consecration at
the hands of Archbishop Bertwald. While in the east of the country he made a
trip to Dover, where ships came in from the continent laden with all kinds of
merchandise. Finding a complete copy of the Old and New Testaments, he
offered a price for it to the sailors. But they rejected his offer, jeered at him
and set out to sea. But a storm immediately arose, they found themselves in
danger, and stretched out their hands to the man of God on the shore. He
prayed, and the storm immediately abated, the wind turned, and the sailors
returned to shore. In gratitude they offered him the manuscripts free, but he
insisted on giving them a fair price. The manuscripts were still to be seen in
Malmesbury in the twelfth century.

At about this time the Celtic Christians of Cornwall became tributaries of
King Ina of Wessex, and a council was convened by the king to determine how
best to unite the Churches of the Saxons and the Britons, which were divided by
a dispute over the true date of Pascha. Aldhelm was appointed to write a
letter to King Geraint of Cornwall on the subject, which is still extant. He was
successful, and the Celts of Cornwall adopted the Roman-Byzantine Paschalion
(those of Wales were converted some years later).

Also at this time Aldhelm wrote a letter to the monks of St. Wilfrid, the
exiled bishop of York and Hexham, exhorting them to remain faithful to their
leader in his struggle for the sacred canons.

Aldhelm ruled his diocese for another four years. He preached day and night,
travelling ceaselessly. At Sherborne he built a fine cathedral, and he
continued to administer his monasteries at Malmesbury, Bradford-on-Avon and Frome.

Once while he was preaching in a village, he fixed his ashen staff into the
ground. It grew miraculously and put forth boughs and leaves. The bishop was
concentrating on his sermon and did not notice the miracle. But when the
people drew his attention to it, he gave glory to God and left an offering there.
Later, many other ash trees sprang from this original, to the extent that
the village was called Bishoptrees (now Stoke Orchard in Gloucestershire).
On May 26, 709, St. Aldhelm reposed in the wooden church of the village of
Doulting, Somerset. Some years later, while a stone church was being
consecrated on the spot, a blind widow pushed her way to the altar and was healed
through the intercession of the saint, who had always been merciful to widows in
his lifetime. Many more healings were done through washing in water that had
touched the stone on which the saint had died.

At the moment that the saint reposed he appeared in a vision to his friend
St. Egwin, bishop of Worcester, and commanded him to go at once to Doulting.
Egwin immediately rode the eighty to a hundred miles to the body of the saint,
and after celebrating a funeral Liturgy, arranged for it to be transported
to Malmesbury. At every seven miles of the fifty-mile journey, the procession
stopped and crosses, later known as "bishopstones", were erected at Egwin's
command. All of these crosses, including one in the monastery of Malmesbury,
were still standing in good condition in the twelfth century, and miracles
continued to be wrought there for centuries. On reaching Malmesbury, St. Egwin
buried the body of his friend in the church of St. Michael.

In 855 King Ethelwulf of Wessex, father of King Alfred the Great, exhumed
the body of St. Aldhelm and transferred it into a magnificent shrine adorned
with silver and showing representations of the saint's miracles. Another great
benefactor of the church was King Athelstan, who had been delivered from
danger at the battle of Brunanburgh through the prayers of St. Aldhelm. On May 5,
986, St. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, transferred the saint's relics
for safety's sake into a stone tomb on the right of the altar. But during the
reign of King Ethelred the pagan Danes broke into the monastery and came up
to the shrine. One of them seized it and was about to cut out the precious
stones on it when he was struck down as if stabbed. The rest fled in terror.
Once a very beautiful woman named Elfildis became the captive of a Norwegian
count, who wanted to divorce his wife and marry her. In the end he raped
her, but died soon after. Then the future Martyr-King Olaf of Norway, hearing of
her beauty, made advances to her. But she rejected them. However, he, too,
raped her, and as a result, in 1024, a son was born to her named Magnus. When
St. Olaf was killed in 1030, Magnus was proclaimed king, but died only
eighteen months later. Then the unfortunate Elfildis returned to England, promising
God that if she returned safely she would never again eat meat. Some years
later, however, she was at a banquet and was persuaded to break her vow. As a
result she was struck with paralysis. For three years she visited the shrines
of the saints seeking healing. At length, coming to St. Aldhelm's shrine on
his feastday, she was restored to full health. She then became a nun and was
buried at Malmesbury.

St. Aldhelm's resting place attracted pious Christians even from the East.
Thus early in the eleventh century a monk named Constantine came to Malmesbury
from Greece - it was not known why he had left his homeland. He planted the
first vineyard in the monastery, which survived for many years. He was of a
very mild disposition and very abstinent habits. When he was on the point of
death, he drew an archbishop's pallium out of the knapsack that he always
carried with him, put it on, and immediately died. He was buried in the church of
St. Andrew. But after some years some building works in the monastery
necessitated the exhumation of his body. The bones were found to be of exceptional
whiteness and exuded a beautiful fragrance.

Once a dangerous demoniac was bound with cords and carried to Malmesbury on
the eve of the feast of the Ascension. The monks advised those who were
carrying him to pray to St. Aldhelm on his behalf. He was laid before the altar,
and after calming down and falling into a light sleep rose completely healed.
Again, a cripple seeking a cure stopped at Malmesbury on his way to
Christchurch in Hampshire. Immediately he entered the church he felt a kind of
current passing through all his members. After falling asleep in front of the
altar, he was woken up by the chanting of the monks coming into the church, and
leapt up cured.

Once, after the Norman-papist conquest of England, a fisherman from the Isle
of Wight was struck blind while fishing at sea. His boat was brought to land
by his companions, who advised him to seek the help of God. They then rowed
him to Christchurch, Hampshire, where he remained for three years. Then he
was told in a dream to go to Malmesbury, where he recovered his sight. This
miracle convinced the Normans, who were in general sceptical about the holiness
of the Saxon saints and whose first archbishop, Lanfranc, had discontinued
the cult of Aldhelm, that Aldhelm was indeed a saint. Osmund, bishop of
Salisbury authorized the resumption of the cult and the translation of his relics.
Then Abbot Warin brought out the relics, which had been hidden for fear of the
Danes, and after a three day fast the bishop translated them into the shrine
on October 3, 1078.

Many more miracles continued to be performed at the shrine of St. Aldhelm,
as were related in detail by William of Malmesbury in 1125.
St. Aldhelm is commemorated on May 25.

Holy Father Aldhelm, pray to God for us!

(Sources: William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, book V; the Venerable Bede, History of the English Church and People; Margaret Gallyon, The Early Church in Wessex and Mercia, Lavenham: Suffolk, 1980; S. Baring-Gould,
The Lives of the Saints, vol. 5, London: John Nimmo, 1987; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978)