24 April 2010

'The Servant of God / Hero Hardy'—St Guthlac of Crowland

Today, 11 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Guthlac (c. 673-714), Hermit of Crowland. I first learned of St Guthlac through Fr Andrew Phillips, who writes of ‘Guthlac, another desert-father in spirit, who lived in the marshes and lonely fenlands of Lincolnshire, and fought a great war against that ancient foe of mankind, that Old Dragon, the Adversary, and who “spoke with the angels of the heavenly mysteries”, from whose mouth there came forth “a fragrance like unto the scent of the sweetest flowers” and whose passing away was marked by the appearance of “a fiery tower, reaching from the earth to the height of heaven, turning the light of the sun itself to paleness”’ (here). Here is the account of St Guthlac’s life in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints:

Guthlac (c. 673-714), hermit of Crowland (Lincs.). Of royal blood from the Mercian tribe of Guthlacingas, he became a soldier (C.S.P. called him robustus depraedator) from the age of fifteen, but after nine successful years gave up warfare to be a monk at Repton, a double monastery where some Mercian kings were buried, rule by Abbess Ælfirth. He was rather unpopular at first because of his total abstinence from intoxicating drink; later he was better appreciated. In about 701 he moved on to the solitary life at Crowland on a site accessible only by boat. Here his life resembled the regime of the Desert Fathers; annoyances included attacks by Britons who had taken refuge in the Fens, and violent temptations by devils; consolations were visions of angels and of his patron Bartholomew the Apostle. After fifteen years as a hermit, he knew that his death was near. Edburga, abbess of Repton, sent him a shroud and a leaden coffin. His sister Pega, an anchoress at Peakirk, came to his burial with his disciples Cissa, Bettelin, Egbert, and Tatwin, who occupied cells near by. A year later the grave was opened and the body found incorrupt. The Guthlac cult began, centred on his shrine at Crowland, to which Pega had given his psalter and scourge. [1] It soon became popular, with Wiglaf, king of Mercia (827-40), and Ceolnoth, archbishop of Canterbury (who was cured of ague by the saint in 851), among its devotees. The feast soon spread through Mercia to Westminster, St Albans, and Durham and eventually became general.

. . . The cult flourished also in the 12th century. His relics were translated in 1136 in the abbey church built on the site of his cell and the shrine was embellished with gold, silver, and jewels. Yet another translation took place in 1196. [2]

St Guthlac’s Life was recorded in Latin prose, as well as in Old English prose and verse. His various hagiographers early noted the the likeness of St Guthlac’s struggles with those of St Anthony the Great, and often recorded them in nearly identical terms. Here is a passage from the Old English poem, Guthlac B:

Oft were the fens by foul fiends haunted;
Hordes of demons, dark and menacing,
Swarmed round the spot where the saint of God,
Dauntless of courage, kept his abode.
Filled was the air with uproar confused;
Riotous battle-din raised in the wilderness
The fiendish rout, bereft of all beauty,
Sundered from joy. But the servant of God,
Hero hardy, the hellish rabble
Boldly defied. They fled for a space,
Not long the delay; the loathly guests,
The trouble-smiths, quickly the turmoil renewed
With yelpings loud and long-drawn yells.
At times they would bellow like beasts of prey,
Or howl in troops; at times they would change
Into human form, the fierce man-haters,
With deafening clamor, or don the shape
Of creeping serpents, those spirits accurst,
Spewing venom, the vile deceivers.
Yet Guthlac ever on guard they found;
Watchful and wary, he waited in patience,
Though the thronging demon-bands threatened to slay him. [3]

The reference to St Guthlac’s ‘watchfulness’ is a reminder of the hesychastic nature of his struggles. Similarly, although considered a characteristic of the ‘folk psychology’ of the Anglo-Saxons and not as a universal part of the Christian ascetic lexicon, [4] it has been noted that the Old English poems on St Guthlac are explicitly concerned with what we as Orthodox can only call the Saint’s noetic activity. Antonina Harbus writes:

The narrative of Guthlac A is predicated on the ideas that the mental life is at the heart of spiritual existence, and is the site of grace and therefore of commerce with the divine. . . . In the model of faith offered in this poetic saint’s life and also in its narrative presentation, conscious mental focus on the divine is the major priority. [5]

But surely 7th- and 8th-c. English monks could have got this from St Cassian, who in Institutes 8.X speaks of how ‘the mind (that is, the nous or reason) . . . surveys all the thoughts and judgments of the heart’. [6] Unfamiliarity with the terms and theory of Christian ascetic theology has apparently even led to some outright confusion on the part of scholars of Old English hagiography whose focus is so exclusively philological. As Thomas Hill notes:

There has been some debate recently about whether the Guthlac A poet believed Guthlac was troubled by ‘real’ demons or whether the demons are in effect emblems of Guthlac’s inner conflicts. This debate seems to me misguided. I know of no early medieval Christian authority who doubted the existence and malign influence of demons, but at the same time patristic and early medieval Christians were profoundly aware that it is precisely our own inner conflicts which render us vulnerable to such forces. [7]

I myself was inspired by the Old English vernacular poems on St Guthlac’s Life, and produced my own—mercifully brief—alliterative poem several years ago. I entitled it ‘Osbeorh’, and the final revision I recorded was done on 3 April 2004 (pardon me that I can’t reproduce the characteristic caesuras):

In wilderness wild, in woods and bogs,
In deserts and fens, undredged their murks,
Those seeking virtue venture unsought,
Daring to fight the dragon in gloom;
Our foe most fearsome, the fens a-haunting,
A host he calls the hero to fell.
The dwimmer of beasts display themselves,
Framing and fashioning fiends accursed.
Battles untold in barrow are fought,
Prepared of old for pagan dead,
Hewn out of hillock, a harrowing den,
Dwelling in darkness, his deeds unknown,
A sea of mists concealing the Holy,
A stout heart might stagger, stooped under hardship.
But habit and cowl, when crossed with the rood,
Will slip from the fingers of fiendish ghosts.
Thus many a year the Mercy he delves
In chapel of green o’ergrown with soft tufts,
Till lit with light, such letters he finds
To spell with glory the God-words he heard,
Outstripping the science of senses and grammar,
Till songs of the Saint were sung by our people—
Chants now forgotten, though godly and pure,
Of sanctity’s sleep in silence now dreamed,
Long promised by prophets who passed on of old.

In conclusion, here is a troparion for St Guthlac from the canon at Matins in the Service to All Saints of Britain in Moss’s Saints of England’s Golden Age:

Thy tears in the wilderness brought forth fruit an hundredfold, O Holy Father Guthlac, and by the weapon of thy prayers thou didst conquer demons and receive from Heaven the Grace to heal the diseases of those who honour thee. [8]

[1] David Farmer notes that the scourge ‘was not for self-flagellation but for use as a defensive and offensive weapon against diabolical attacks’ (The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], pp. 239-40). The incident is depicted in the image at the top taken from the late 12th-c. Harleian Roll Y.6 at the British Museum, usually called the ‘Guthlac Roll’.

[2] Ibid., p. 239.

[3] J. Duncan Spaeth, Old English Poetry: Translations into Alliterative Verse with Introductions & Notes (Princeton: Princeton U, 1922), pp. 107-8 (here).

[4] Antonina Harbus, The Life of the Mind in Old English Poetry (NY: Rodopi, 2002), p. 3 (here).

[5] Ibid., p. 107 (here).

[6] St John Cassian, The Institutes, tr. Boniface Ramsey, OP (NY: Newman, 2000), p. 198.

[7] Thomas D. Hill, ‘The Middle Way: Idel-Wuldor & Egesa in the Old English Guthlac A’, The Review of English Studies XXX.118 (1979), p. 182 (here).

[8] Vladimir Moss, Saints of England’s Golden Age: A Collection of the Lives of Holy Men & Women Who Flourished in Orthodox Christian Britain (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1997), p. 242.


Andreas said...

Christ is risen!

Of late, I've had a growing interest in learning more about the Saints of Western Europe, especially those of the British Isles. Thank you for posting this.

Also, very nice:

In chapel of green o’ergrown with soft tufts,
Till lit with light, such letters he finds
To spell with glory the God-words he heard,
Outstripping the science of senses and grammar,
Till songs of the Saint were sung by our people—
Chants now forgotten, though godly and pure,

aaronandbrighid said...

You're welcome, sir, and I thank you for your kind words.

Fr. Sean Lotz said...

Thank you for this wonderful post about one of my patrons. I wish I had known your blog back in April, so I could have read it on his feast.

In a few days I will be receiving an icon of St. Guthlac I commissioned from a friend. (It will be a doubly happy occasion when it arrives, since I have been urging, praying, and hoping that he would become an iconographer for years. This is the first icon from his hand for another person.)

After it arrives and is blessed, I want to have a sort of impromptu, informal "festival of St. Guthlac" at church. I would like to read/recite your poem. It is beautiful, and is a good example of the fact that such work is not just something "they did long ago," but happens right now.

Athair Ambrois said...

Another Life of Saint Guthlac


Fr. Sean Lotz said...

My goodness, Fr. Ambrose, that was quick! But it looks like the URL you posted got cut off short. Here is the correct one:
And in case that is too long, here is a shorter one:

Anybody reading this who is not familiar with Fr. Ambrose's Celtic saints messages should check out the archive. He does a wonderful job of hunting them all down and bringing them right to your (virtual) doorstep.

aaronandbrighid said...

Fr Lotz> Thank you for your kind words. You are quite welcome to read the poem.

Fr Ambrose> Thank you for the link. I'll be sure to have a look!

Fr. Sean Lotz said...

The icon of St. Guthlac I mentioned earlier is done. Here is a link to see it: http://alturl.com/pxiw
Be sure to click on the image to see a slightly larger version.

aaronandbrighid said...

The icon looks nice, though I do wish St Guthlac's hair and beard were a bit woolier, as in the roundel above.

Fr. Sean Lotz said...

In the process of commissioning the icon, helping the iconographer come up with a face for the saint, I fully realized how tricky it is creating an icon for a saint for whom there is no standardized iconographic appearance (think of St. Nicolas or St. Andrew, e.g.). But allow me to point out that the figure in the roundel with the woolier hair, standing on his own two feet, safe and secure, looking like he knows what he's doing, is St. Bartholomew. The one with almost no hair, because of his monk's tonsure, hanging in the air by his feet, heels over head, in obvious need of help, is St. Guthlac.

aaronandbrighid said...

Right you are! I apologise for my mistake. Though it does look like the St Guthlac in the roundel is, however, still a bit woolier than the one in the icon... :-)}}

Fr. Sean Lotz said...

The Guthlac Roll was created in northern Europe, where it gets cold. The icon is from Southern California, where it's always sunny and warm. Thus, he needs less hair for warmth.

aaronandbrighid said...

Fair enough!

Fr. Sean Lotz said...

You might be interested in this project by a friend of mine: