I feel a bit like The Old Sailor in that remarkable poem by A. A. Milne:
There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew
Who had so many things which he wanted to do
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
He couldn’t because of the state he was in.
The poem goes on to describe the things the Old Sailor started but couldn’t finish and ends with verse:
And so in the end he did nothing at all,
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.
And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved —
He did nothing but basking until he was saved!
There are so many things that should be written for this month’s magazine but for various reasons, I can’t finish or even properly start them, so I am going to resort to “basking on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl” and put something in about two Saints whose feasts fall in July.
SWITHUN (Swithin) (d. 862), bishop of Winchester. His cult was popular, but little is known of his life. Born in Wessex and educated at the Old Minster, Winchester, he was chosen by Egbert, king of Wessex 802-39, as his chaplain. He was also entrusted with the education of Ethelwulf, who succeeded to the throne in 839. Ethelwulf chose him as bishop of Winchester in 852, the Wessex capital; during his ten years episcopate Wessex consolidated its position as the most important kingdom of England and faced the first sporadic, but ominous, attacks by Vikings in the south of England. Swithun was famous for his charitable gifts and for his activity in building churches. He died on 2 July and asked to be buried in the cemetery; his grave, covered with a tomb-structure, was just outside the west door of the Old Minster. After Ethelwold became bishop of Winchester (964) and introduced monks to form the first monastic cathedral chapter in England, plans were made to translate Swithun’s relics into the cathedral. This was accomplished on 15 July 971. The occasion was marked by many cures claimed as miraculous, which accounted for Swithun’s high reputation as a healer, and also by very heavy rainfall, believed to be another manifestation of his power. Even today it is often said that if it rains on St. Swithun’s Day, it will rain also for the following forty days. The translation was carried out as part of extensive building operations which included enlarging the Old Minster westwards, making Swithun’s original tomb the centre of a ‘shrine church’ with transepts on either side. Another translation in 974 involved some dismemberment, as there were now two shrines, one by the high altar and the other in the sacristy. Possibly the latter was the head-shrine taken by Alphege, archbishop of Canterbury, when he was promoted from Winchester in 1005. After the Normans built a new cathedral at Winchester, Swithun’s body was translated into it in 1093; this shrine remained a popular goal of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages.
At the Reformation the shrine was demolished and Swithun probably buried under it, but the shrine was restored by the cathedral authorities in 1962. There are 58 ancient dedications to Swithun in England and a few in Scandinavia. Feast: 2 July; translation, 15 July.
BENEDICT (c.480 – c.550), abbot and founder of Subiaco and Monte Cassino, author of the Rule which bears his name, Patriarch of Western Monasticism; Patron of Europe. Little is known about his life, Book II of Gregory’s Dialogues being the only source. He was born at Nursia, and studied at Rome, which he left before completing his studies to become a hermit at Subiaco. After a time disciples joined him, whom he organized into twelve deaneries of ten and whose life was probably semi-eremitical in character. He encountered acute local jealousy c. 525, which was said to have caused an attempt on his life. Whatever the reason, he left for Monte Cassino, near Naples, and there wrote the final version of his Rule. This incorporated much traditional monastic teaching from Cassian, Basil, and (very probably) the Rule of the Master, whose enactments, however, were often much modified by Benedict. His outlook was characterized by prudence and moderation realized within a framework of authority, obedience, stability and community life.
His achievement was to produce a monastic way of life which was complete, orderly, and workable. The monks’ primary occupation was liturgical prayer, complemented by sacred reading and manual work of various kinds. Benedict’s own personality is mirrored in his description of what kind of man the abbot should be: wise, discreet, flexible, learned in the law of God, but also a spiritual father to his community. Gregory’s Dialogues also attributed to him on occasion second sight and the gift of miracles. Benedict was not a priest, nor did he intend to ‘found a religious Order’. His principal achievement was to write a Rule. This, both by its intrinsic qualities and by the external favour granted it by emperors and other rulers and founders, came to be recognized as the fundamental, almost the only, monastic code of western Europe in the early Middle Ages. Its flexibility enabled it to be adapted to the needs of society, so that monasteries became centres of learning, agriculture, hospitality, and medicine in a way presumably unforeseen by Benedict himself. The definitive history of the diffusion of the Rule has yet to be written: although it is very uncertain whether Augustine of Canterbury knew or followed it, it can safely be asserted that Englishmen such as Wilfrid, Willi-brord, and especially Boniface were prominent in the process. Although it was known and diffused in Gaul in the 6th-7th centuries, it obtained its predominant place in the Empire when imperial decrees (inspired by Boniface) made it obligatory in 743, 754, and 757. In Italy it seems to have been little known outside Monte Cassino until the 10th century, when Cluny reformed monasteries at Rome and elsewhere.
At first the cult of Benedict seems to have been limited in extent, but it became much more widespread under Cluniac influence. From the 7th century Fleury claimed to possess Benedict’s relics, a claim which was, and is, indignantly resisted by Monte Cassino. In England the earliest clear calendar evidence for his feast comes from the 10th century.
The most notable representations of Benedict include a fresco in the crypt of St. Chrysogonus, Rome (10th century); an illustrated manuscript of his Life from Monte Cassino (11th century); a series of historiated stone capitals in the narthex of the basilica at Fleury (11th-12th century); some fine frescoes at Subiaco (13th century), and in the sacristy of San Miniato, Florence, by Spinello Aretino (1387). All these illustrate episodes from the second book of Gregory’s Dialogues, which was very widely diffused; it was translated into Old English by Bishop Werferth. Benedict’s best known iconographical attributes are a broken cup (which contained poison) and a raven which removed it at his bidding; he is also depicted wearing a monastic cowl and holding either the Rule or (less appealingly) a rod for corporal punishment.
Feast: formerly 21 March (the day of his death); translation, 11 July (and in France, 4 December). Since 1969 the Roman calendar has moved his feast permanently to be outside Lent on 11 July.
I am grateful to the Oxford University Press for permission to use these articles.
Fr. Ray Whelan