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.

 

 

A Steadily Declining Bird Population

4 October 19 | Posted in Animals, Garden, Spirituality, Stewardship

I have kept a backyard bird log for over a decade.  I note species, habits and any special occurrence—like hawk kills, mating pairs, the first bird of spring, sightings of rare birds like orioles. In the last few years I have seen less birds, different species and changes in feeding habits.

I was surprised to read an article on declining bird populations in the September 19, 2019 edition of the Wall Street Journal.  “Bird Populations Plummet in North America” the headline reads.  The Journal isn’t given to hysterical climate change stories, but the writer reported an alarming story.

Anecdotes from bird watchers and guesses among scientists led researchers to guess bird populations had declined; but the loss was much greater than originally speculated.  Ornithologists from Cornell University reported that North America’s overall bird population had dropped 29% since 1970, with about three billion fewer birds now than nearly 50 years ago. Their study was published in the September edition of Science magazine.

Researchers attribute the decline in grassland birds to the broader impact of climate change, deforestation and shifts in agricultural practices. Habitat loss and the use of pesticides also had an impact on their decline.  Grassland birds, which include species like finches and sparrows, saw its overall population fall 53%.  The decline in this group in particular surprised researchers, since these birds are known for their adaptability to human landscapes.

I keep my lawn chemical-free to protect bees, water, and “helpful” insects like spiders, ladybugs and praying mantis from indiscriminate spraying.  However, birds live in a wider area than my yard and many have not returned.  Personally, I have no doubt that the decline in these birds is due to the impact of all the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides homeowners and farmers pour on their land every year.

Have you noticed any changes in bird population or behavior in your yard, local park or farm?

Check out Chipperbirds guide to the world’s most beautiful birds.

Sabbath for the Environment: Stop, Disconnect, Rest

21 September 19 | Posted in Bible, Spirituality

Exodus, Chapter 20 – “Remember the Sabbath day—keep it holy. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God! You shall not do any work, either you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your work animal, or the resident alien within your gates. For six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.” 

When I was growing up, The Lord’s Day was easier to observe.  We went to church, had Sunday dinner together, and most of the stores were closed. The week’s activities didn’t stop, but they slowed down.  By the time I reached college in 1970, many of the blue laws banning liquor sales had lifted, more stores and restaurants were open, and families had more cars.  Life started to speed up.

Over the next decades, the pace of life quickened. Weekends often became a period of intense activity. I used the time to catch up on email, home projects, volunteer work, socializing and travel, to the point that I was often relieved to get back to work on Monday. Fierce competition in the marketplace taught me to practice a ruthless time management—make every minute count to catch up on work or move a project forward. Letting available time go without doing anything “productive” was inefficient, even lazy.  Immediate access via mobile devices and social media brought its own set of demands and obligations.

With the advent of email, the web, cell phones, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, and online shopping, life has sped up to the point that there isn’t any break from work or social activity. This level of frenetic activity finally becomes soul-numbing.  There is no escaping it except to stop, unplug and disconnect.

After many years of being afraid to take the step, I decided to observe The Lord’s Day. It’s hard to stop even though I want to change. It’s scary for me to let the day unfold without planned activities. How will being in the present moment affect my focus? How will my relationship with myself and with God change?

What would happen, if several million other Christians made the same decision to observe The Lord’s Day?  If we stopped driving, buying, and turned off our computers on Sunday?  What effect would that have on energy consumption?  Would it be a Sabbath for the environment?

Like Lent, the Sabbath offers the opportunity to move towards renewing and deepening our faith rather than just “giving up” some treats or behaviors as a way of observance.  Fr. James Kurzynski, a blogger at Sacred Space Astronomy and a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin offers a valuable suggestion:

“As I have been prayerfully considering how best to keep holy the Sabbath, I’m feeling moved to use my day off as an opportunity to explore my love of music and astronomy. As I shared with you in previous posts, I had a wonderful vacation in Phoenix, Arizona after the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. After hiking up Superstition Mountain and recording music in a beautiful bowl-shaped canyon, I am now inspired to relive this experience as part of my Sabbath rest. To do this, I want to combine my love for the outdoors, music and astronomy into a creative endeavor to help feed me spiritually.”

Before committing to observe the Sabbath, I thought a lot about its meaning and impact. It can change how I live my life and use my time, not only on Sunday but throughout the week. That idea fills me with some anxiety, but I’m willing to make that change.

Here is how I plan to observe The Lord’s Day:

  • Participate at Mass
  • Spend time outdoors
  • Read
  • Write in my journals and blogs
  • Reflect on my use of food, water and natural resources

What I will suspend for the day:

  • -Email & Facebook
  • Shopping
  • Household chores and errands
  • Wearing a watch
  • My daily “To Do” list

Additional Reading:

And God Saw that it was Good – Pope Francis

Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home – Pope Francis. (Chapter Six, Ecological Education and Spirituality, VI. Sacramental Signs and the Celebration of Rest. 237.

Apostolic Letter, Dies Domini, On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy – Pope John Paul II

U.S. Catholic – 7 Ways to Refresh Your Sabbath – Jessie Bazan

The Sabbath as a Basis for an Environmental Theological Ethic  – Michael Wood

The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time – Judith Shulevitz

And On The Seventh Day: Astronomy and Sabbath Rest – Fr. James Kurzynski