St. Hilda and the Ammonites

3 August 14 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints

St. Hilda of Whitby or Hild of Whitby (c. 614-680 A.D.) was a Saxon abbess and a member of the ancient Northumbrian nobility. She is frequently depicted with a pastoral staff and carrying an abbey church.  There are often ammonites at her feet.  Saint Hilda2

The historian, St. Bede (who was about eight years old when she died), records she hosted the Synod of Whitby, at which Celtic and Roman Catholicism met to decide on liturgical matters in 664 A.D. She is an important person, and personality, in the history of the early development of Christianity in Britain.  St. Hilda, or “Mother” as she was affectionately known, was a source of encouragement and counsel for people from all walks of life.

Hilda was baptized at age 13 by St. Paulinus of York, who converted her great-uncle, St. Edwin, King of Northumbria and all of his court to the Christian faith. She lived the first half of her life as a noblewoman, but at the age of 33 she became a nun. Whitby Abbey was a double monastery housing both monks and nuns, and Hilda presided over both communities. Whitby Abbey became well-known as a place of learning.  For more on her life, especially her importance to women in the Church, read here.

St. Hilda is associated with several legends, especially turning snakes into stone.

Ammonites were frequently interpreted as being coiled snakes that had turned to stone and somehow lost their heads. They were often called snakestones. Most of the legends surrounding snakestones centered around Whitby. Sir Walter Scott recounts in his 1808 poem, Marmion, how snakestones came to be:

They told, how in their convent cell – A Saxon Princess once did dwell, The lovely Edelfled. And how, of thousand snakes, each one – Was changed into a coil of stone. When holy Hilda pray’d: Themselves, within their holy bound, Their stony folds had often found. They told, how sea-fowls’ pinions fail, as over Whitby’s towers they sail. And, sinking down, with flutterings faint, They do their homage to the saint.

The legend goes that she turned all the snakes to stone in Whitby in order to clear the ground for a new convent.  In response to her devout praying, the snakes coiled up, turned to stone, and fell off the edge of the cliffs after she cut off their heads with a whip. The absence of heads is also attributed to a curse by St. Cuthbert.  ammmonite 1

It has become a tradition in Whitby to carve snakeheads onto ammonites.  These snakestones, usually specimens of Hildoceras (named in honor of St. Hilda) and Dactylioceras are used for this purpose.  Some of the carved and polished specimens from Whitby were found in Norway, clearly traded or transported by Norse settlers.  In Elizabethan England snakestone brooches of jet were highly prized.

Hilda was succeeded as abbess by Eanflaed, widow of King Oswiu of Northumbria, and their daughter, Aelfflaed. St. Hilda and Eanflaed were cousins. All three were buried at Whitby Abbey with St. Hilda.

After the rule of Aelfflaed as abbess, nothing more is known of Whitby until it was destroyed by Vikings in 867.  After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 AD, monks from Evesham refounded the abbey as a Benedictine house for men.  It continued until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1539.

According to local folklore, the the wraith of St. Hilda appears in the abbey ruins in a shroud; and the bells of the abbey can be heard ringing under the sea, where they sank with the ship taking them to London after the abbey was dismantled.

The 2013 novel Hild by Nicola Griffith is based on the life of St. Hilda.  She also appears as a main character in Absolution for Murder, the first book in Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma mysteries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Emer and the Dragon

16 January 12 | Posted in Animals, Saints

There are different versions of everything in this story! St. Emer, Saint Emerius, Sant Emerio or Mer, was an 8th century abbott, Benedictine monk, and legendary founder of the monastery of San Esteban de Banyoles, Spain. Tradition places his birth at Narbonne, in southern France.  Although his father was a noble, Emerius renounced the prospect of a military career to live as a hermit, journeying to the Catalonia region of Spain.  Another version explains Emerius was called by Charlemagne to accompany him in his campaign against the Muslims in Girona–also called Gerona. Several wonders and miracles are attributed to Emer.  He wore some cloak, helmet or basket with a fish design, which was removed each day to feed the army of Charlemagne in its siege of Gerona.  There was always enough and never failed. But the fighting around Girona was not only against the Muslims, said chronicler Joan Amades, an eminent Catalan ethnologist and folklorist, “the Christian troops were fighting a fierce dragon and had its huge falls in the lake of Banyoles, this dragon possessed the property of flying, swimming and walking..”…his fetid breath had made life impossible for people and livestock in Selva, “and its strength was so great that the best of the French army” died by its claws or poisoned by its breath. Emerius, arming himself with holy water, led a procession to confront the beast. In one version, he sprinkled the dragon with holy water, easily capturing and destroying it.  In another version, he was sent alone to confront the monster. When Emer drew the sign of the cross on the dragon, it became tame.  Emer wrapped his stole around its neck, and led the dragon “like a gentle dog” to Charlemagne.  Santmer

 

There is another version that links the dragon to dinosaurs. “A story from the 8th century tells of a great beast which lives beside the lake. It is the last descendant of the prehistoric beast that lived in that region.  It lives in a deep cave and it is not good to disturb him. According to what people said, the beast had a voracious appetite and it devoured the peasants’ flocks.  They lived hidden at home protected by walls. In fact, every night one man disappeared from his house. One day, Charlemagne arrived there and, having heard about the beast, he decided to go kill it. When the soldiers arrived there, the dragon came out of its cave giving off its foul breath and they began to cough because of the toxic cloud that formed around them. After that, the peasants asked a monk to help.  He had arrived with Charlemagne’s troops, and was called “Mer” (Sant Emerio). The monk went into the dragon’s cave and began to pray, after that both the dragon and the monk appeared together at the mouth of the cave.  The peasants asked the monk to kill him. The monk stopped them and told them it was harmless and ate only grass and roots. And when they asked him about the disappeared people he told them the truth: the disappeared people were fighting with Charlemagne who stole all the flock. The big monster went back to its cave and even today, if somebody tries to disturb it, it will give off its foul breath against them.”

Saint Rigobert and the Goose

24 March 10 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints

Saint Rigobert was archbishop of Reims, France.  During a conflict between Charles Martel and some of his enemies, Rigobert refused to open the gates of the city to him for refuge. The saint claimed neutrality for the safety of the city. Unsure of which side would prevail in the conflict, Rigobert didn’t want to anger the other side if Martel lost. The gates stayed closed. This explanation did not sit well with Charles the Hammer. After his victory Martel exiled the archbishop from Reims. 

Eventually the archbishop settled in a nearby village. When on one occasion he had been given a live goose to take home for his dinner, Rigobert put the bird in the arms of a servant-boy accompanying him. Along the way, as Rigobert was reciting the divine office, the bird broke free and flew away. The boy deeply grieved this mishap, but Rigobert comforted him, urging him to trust in God. goose[1]

When Rigobert resumed his prayers, the goose flew back to them. Thereafter, the archbishop kept the goose as a pet. The goose would walk with him to a church, where, as the tame bird patiently waited for him, he celebrated Mass at an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Saint Rigobert died in 745 AD.  His feast day is celebrated on January 4th.

Aventine, The Hermit Saint

24 June 09 | Posted in Animals, Saints

Saint Aventine of Troyes, France (c. 538)

Aventine, of Bourges, France, was schooled in the spiritual life by the bishop of Troyes, Saint Loup. Loup’s episcopoal suceessor, Saint Camelianus, selected Aventine to be Troyes’ steward and almoner, in charge of the cathedral’s possessions and the distribution of alms.

Having served the Church thus with humility, purity and charity, Aventine thereafter obtained permission to withdraw into the woods to live as a hermit. He had a particular fondness for animals, never wanting to kill any of the forest creatures except when necessary.

Whenever he found any tiny fish in a pitcher of water drawn from a nearby brook by a monk who assisted him, he made a point of placing the fish unharmed back into the stream.

When on one occasion a deer pursued by hunters rushed into the cave that served as Aventine’s hermitage, Aventine protected the frightened animal by closing the door in order to hide it from the hunters until they had passed.

He habitually feed the small birds of the forest that flocked onto his fingers as he offered them a handful of crumbs. handtamingwildbirds

Water Buffalo Theology

26 April 09 | Posted in Animals, Arts and Letters, Friends, Spirituality

The Rev. Dr. Kosuke Koyama, a Japanese Christian theologian who was a proponent of contextual theologies rooted in the experiences of everyday people, died March 25, 2009 in Springfield, Mass. Koyama, 79, taught at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

His 1974 book, Water Buffalo Theology, was “one of the first books truly to do theology out of the setting of Asian villages,” said Donald Shriver, president emeritus. kosuke-koyama-2

As a missionary in northern Thailand, Koyama said he was inspired to write the book as he listened to the “fugue of the bullfrogs” while watching farmers working with water buffaloes in the rice fields.

“The water buffaloes tell me that I must preach to these farmers in the simplest sentence structure,” he wrote. “They remind me to discard all the abstract ideas and to use exclusively objects that are immediately tangible. ‘Sticky rice,’ ‘banana,’ ‘pepper,’ ‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘bicycle,”rainy season,”leaking house,’ ‘fishing,’ ‘cockfighting,’ ‘lottery,’ ‘stomachache’–these are meaningful words for them.”  water-buff-3

Directed at the concerns of peasants, the book points out that Christianity and Buddhism do not communicate; rather Christians and Buddhists do. Rev. Dr. Koyama advocated seeing God “in the faces of people” to achieve good neighborliness among religions.  He spoke of trying to “season” the Aristotelian roots of Western theology with Buddhist “salt.”

Besides Water Buffalo Theology, Dr. Koyama wrote 12 other books including Three Mile an Hour God (1980) which reflects his thought that God moves at walking speed through the countryside.

Kosuke Koyama was born on December 10, 1929 in Tokyo.  In 1945, as American bombs rained down on Tokyo, he was baptised as a Christian. He was struck by the courageous words of the presiding pastor, who told him that God called on him to love everybody, “even the Americans.”

Once, in discussing death, Rev. Dr. Koyama recalled the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. He said Jesus would be with others the same way: “Looking into our eyes and heart, Jesus would say: ‘You’ve had a difficult journey. You must be tired, and dirty.  Let me wash your feet. The banquet’s ready.'”