Saint Hugh and the Swan

22 January 20 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints

The son of a noble, Hugh was a monk at La Grande Chartreuse in France when King Henry II of England asked him to come to Witham, England to head up a new Carthusian house.  The house was founded by Henry II in reparation for his role in the death of Saint Thomas Becket.  Hugh was a good man and a tough one.  He insisted the king pay the residents who had been displaced from their homes on the property intended for the new monastery. He supported people when they suffered from the treatment by the king’s foresters. He stood down an angry mob determined to punish Jews.  He convinced them to release their victims.

Nevertheless, the affable Hugh became a favorite of the king. In 1186 he was appointed bishop of Lincoln, the largest diocese in England.  Shortly after his election, during his first visit to the manor in Stowe, Hugh was presented with a large wild swan that had recently come to the manor lake. Hugh offered the swan scraps of bread, and from that moment, the swan became devoted to him. When Hugh was away from the manor, the swan kept to the middle of the lake.  But when the bishop came for a visit, the swan flew to him, tenderly placing his beak in the sleeve of the Hugh’s garment.  If any of his attending clerics came near, the swan would jealously attack them.  Their friendship lasted for 15 years.  The swan lived a few years after Hugh, but never became close to another person.

Antiquarian books often have the most charming stories and illuminating details. Here is one about St. Hugh from 100 years ago:

St. Hugh as a Monk – Hugh grew up into a splendid young man, and he desired above all things to be a priest; so he was ordained and became a Carthusian monk in a monastery high up in the mountains.  The monks lived a very austere life, fasting much, and never speaking to each other, living alone, each in his own cell. But for Hugh there were friends and companions with whom he might speak and yet keep his rule. He had always loved birds and beasts, and they knew it and loved him in return. When he sat down to supper his friends the birds would come hopping in, ready to share his meal; and the squirrels would scamper down from the trees and make themselves quite at home in his room, even whisking the food from his plate. Wherever he lived the wild creatures became his friends.”

St. Hugh as a Bishop – One day the prior of Hugh’s monastery received a letter from King Henry II of England asking for a good monk to take charge of a monastery…There was a lake in the grounds, and one day a splendid wild swan swooped down on it and killed or drove off all the tame ones, and then sounded a shrill cry of triumph.  The servants knew how the Bishop loved wild creatures, and they managed to get the swan up to the palace; St. Hugh at once made friends with it, and coaxed it to eat bread from his hand, and the creature became devoted to him from that moment.  It followed him everywhere, and even slept in his room.  The servants dare not go near the bed when St. Hugh was asleep, for the great bird would raise its huge wings in defense and hiss fiercely.  It would never let anyone but Hugh touch it, but it would nestle its head up his sleeve, and fondle him with queer loving cries.  When the Bishop was away from Stow the swan never entered the palace, but it seemed to know when he was expected, and as soon as the luggage carts and servants began to arrive  it would leave the lake and go striding up to the house. When it heard its master’s voice it would run to him and follow him about all the time he remained at Stow. But when St. Hugh came to Lincoln for the last time, just before his death, the swan seemed to know what was coming, and would not go near him, but hid in the reeds, drooping and ill, broken-hearted at losing his beloved master.” Faith & Duty by Judith F. Smith, Benzinger Bros., 1920 

St. Melangell, Hares and the Origin of the Easter Bunny

17 December 19 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints, Supernatural

St. Melangell (pronounced “Mel-eng-eth”) is the patron saint of hares and rabbits.  They are sometimes called St. Melangell’s lambs.

According to Welsh legend, Melangell was the daughter of King Cyfwich Addwyn, who is mentioned in the Tales of Culhwch and Olwen as a member of King Arthur’s court.  King Cyfwich Addwyn was said to be related to St. Helen of Caernarvon, the famous Elen Luyddog (Helen of the Hosts) who married the Roman general, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig) the 4th century emperor in Britain, Gaul and Spain. Elen’s story is told in The Dream of Macsen Wledig, one of the tales associated with the Welsh epic, Mabinogion.

In most accounts Melangell is described as the daughter of an Irish king who fled from her father’s court to avoid marriage. Around 590 A.D., she arrived at the valley of the river Tanat, at the foot of the Berwyn mountains in Powys, Wales. 

In 604 A.D. the prince of Powys, Brochwel Ysgithrog, went hunting close to where Melangell lived and prayed. His hounds pursued their prey into a thicket, where he found a young woman with a hare lying under the fold of her garments. She boldly faced the hunting dogs and they retreated. The prince gave up the chase and sat down to listen to Melangell’s story. She told him she was a hermitess who lived nearby and had dedicated herself to God.  The prince and his huntsmen were the first men she had seen in 15 years.

So moved was the prince that he offered her the valley where she lived as a perpetual asylum and refuge for animals, and anyone who was fleeing harm.  Melangell lived there the rest of her life, eventually attracting a small community of women for whom she served as abbess.  A church was eventually built in the spot where she lived and it remained a place of sanctuary throughout the Middle Ages.  The killing of hares and rabbits has long been forbidden in the region, because people believe they are sacred animals under the protection of St. Melangell.  People in the parish still honor this custom. 

The association of religious female figures and hares is legendary and predates Melangell by several centuries. When the Romans invaded the British Isles, Julius Caesar saw that Celtic people did not regard it lawful to kill and eat the hare.  In Ireland the hare was associated with women who could shapeshift into their form, so eating them was taboo.  There is a legend that the God and warrior, Oisin, hunted a hare, wounding it in the leg.  He followed the wounded animal into a thicket, where he found a door leading down into the ground. He went in and came to a large hall where he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a leg wound.

Boudicca, the British warrior queen, was said to have prayed to a hare goddess before going into battle with the Romans and released a hare from beneath her gown to divine the outcome of the battle from the hare’s movements.  She also took a hare with her into battle to ensure victory and it was said to have screamed like a woman from beneath her cloak.

Boudicca probably prayed to Eostre, the Celtic version of the Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ostara.  Ostara gave her name to the celebration of Easter.  She was associated with the seasonal change from winter to spring.  Ostara was a shapeshifter who took the form of a hare at each full moon. All hares were sacred to her and acted as messengers. 

Eostre/Ostara is mentioned by Saint Bede in his treatise, The Reckoning of Time, written around 725 A.D.  Bede states that during the time period equivalent to April, Anglo-Saxons held feasts in Eostre’s honor.  The tradition had died out by his time, replaced by the Christian Paschal month, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

In his 1892 study on the hare in custom and mythology, folklorist Charles J. Billson cited numerous incidents of folk customs in northern Europe involving hares around the Easter season. Billson said, “whether there was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon and British worship, there are good grounds for believing the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island.”

The story of St. Melangell is a blend of local history, custom, folklore and pre-Christian goddesses and practices. Was Melangell created to legitimatize these beliefs, or is she another in a long line of spiritually powerful women with a hare as her symbol and companion?

St. Cuthbert and the Otters

13 October 19 | Posted in Animals, Saints

St. Cuthbert (634-687 A.D.) was a Scottish shepherd boy until he was 15 when he became a monk in Melrose Abbey.  He is also associated with Lindisfarne. He was a monk, bishop and hermit. Cuthbert lived most of his life in Northumbria, a region in northeast England by the Scottish border.  While St. Cuthbert is famous for his protection of the eider ducks of Inner Fame island, he is known as the patron saint of otters. Many of his stories are taken from “The Life of St. Cuthbert” by St. Bede of Jarrow (672?-735 A.D.) 

Cuthbert liked solitary prayer and contemplation with only the seabirds and seals for company. It was his habit to walk alone down to the water after dark.  One of the monks was suspicious or intrigued about his behavior and followed him to see what he was doing in the dead of night. From his hiding place the monk watched Cuthbert wade out into the dark North Sea until the water reached his neck and pray with the rhythm of the waves.  At the first light of dawn he returned to the shore and knelt for more prayer.  Two otters followed him out of the water. They warmed his feet with their breath and snuggled against his body to warm him with their fur. After Cuthbert gave them his affectionate blessing they returned to the water. 

The curious monk confessed his spying and Cuthbert forgave him.  I thought the otter story was a little fanciful until I saw the behavior of this otter in a YouTube video.

 

 

Garden Retreat

8 June 19 | Posted in Garden, Saints, Spirituality

For me, God and Nature are intricately bound. I feel God in a storm. I am in awe of God in a mountain. But I love God in the serenity of a garden. My restless soul is at peace in its borders.

I had originally planned to construct a “Biblical herb garden” or a monastery herb garden, but I dispensed with the raised bed and the limited selection of herbs. I wanted to include tomatoes and peppers, so good to eat in summer. The borders are rocks and old bricks or pieces of brick I picked up during walks along Peconic Bay.  I threw in some oyster shells and interesting pieces of driftwood. 

My garden is a balance of religion and whimsy– full of herbs, gnomes, saints, cement ducks, vegetables and sayings by spiritual people. The quotes serve to remind me of Catholicism’s spiritual connection to Nature, and the presence of God in everything around us. My favorites are:  “We always plant better than we know.” – Sr. Julia McGroaty, a founder of Trinity College, Washington, DC (my alma mater). “God is a God of Surprises.” – Pope Francis.  “Remember who you are and whose you are.” – Sr. Thea Bowman, a religious woman I admire for her courage, patience, and faith.  I hope she is named a saint.

St. Bega and Her Holy Arm Ring

16 April 19 | Posted in Saints, Supernatural

St. Bega is an ancient Irish saint whose life is steeped in legend and mystery.  She lived between 700-900 A.D., probably closer to 850 AD and the time of Viking settlement in Ireland.  Bega was the daughter of an Irish king.  She is described as beautiful, virtuous and learned.  Her father had promised her to the son of the King of Norway, but Bega had no intention of marrying.  She consecrated her virginity to Christ.  According to one story, an angel presented Bega with an arm ring inscribed with the cross as a token of her sacred promise.  Arm rings were usually worn by men, not women.

On the night of her wedding Bega was desperate to escape.  All the doors in the palace were locked, and the strongest men of Ireland standing guard, “each with a dagger over his thigh, a double-edged axe over his shoulder and a spear in his hand.” (Very phallic symbols!) After a lengthy invocation by Bega, a holy voice directs her out of the palace while everyone else is drunk at a feast. All of the locks yield at the touch of the holy arm ring, and a boat is waiting for her at the shore.  In another account, Bega is transported across the Irish Sea by a clod of soil.  She arrives safely on the English coast at Cumbria. Settling there, Bega lived in strict seclusion in a hut she built in a grove of trees near the seashore.  She survived on food brought to her by seagulls and gannets.

After some years passed Viking pirates began to raid the coast.  Fearing rape and the loss of her virginity, Bega left her hermitage and traveled inland.  On the advice of King Oswald (later St. Oswald), she professed her religious vows, and established a monastery at St. Bees in Cumbria. 

What became of her magical arm ring?  In one story she leaves her arm ring behind as a future source of miracles. In another her arm ring was preserved as a holy relic at St. Bees.  St. Bega is credited with restoring the sight of a blind Irish boy; gifting a Galloway horse thief with an ass full of arrows, and killing by a disfiguring disease a detachment of soldiers who raped a nobleman’s virgin daughter.

The Registry of St. Bees’ Priory records the swearing of oaths on the “Bracelet of St. Bega” through 1279, and offerings to the arm ring were made as late as 1516.

The arm ring may have disappeared during King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s; or, it may have been looted by the Scottish knight, Lord James Douglas during a raid in 1315.

Read more about St. Bega on these sites:

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore

St. Bees Village Website

St. Bega – Cumbria and Borders

Baldy Blog – St. Bees Priory