For the past six months or so I’ve immersed myself in church history, and it has been glorious.
It’s also been a humbling, frustrating, and empowering experience. For one thing, I’ve seen that there really isn’t anything new under the sun: most (if not all) of the struggles the Church faces today have plagued her at some point or another in the past 2,000 years. I’ve learned about villains and heroes on both sides of the Atlantic…both sides of the Great Schism…and both sides (time-wise and theological) of the Protestant Reformation. I’ve also come to love the old liturgies and rhythms of the Church: the prayers and the festivals, the celebrations of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and the constant reminders that “from dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
But I’ve also realized that, in modern times, we’ve completely shoved many of the great ancient/medieval Christians under the rug…and this grieves me. The Church Fathers and the Christians of the Middle Ages were often blessed with such wisdom, courage, and humility. We’ve neglected their admonitions and encouragements for far too long. Some of their leaders were corrupt and hypocritical, yes…but many of our “church leaders” are just as corrupt and hypocritical NOW. It’s always been the people who live quiet, faithful, courageous lives who make the eternal difference–whether they live in 2019, 1219, or 219.
So today I’d like to introduce you to a few of these new heroes and heroines of mine. If anyone is interested in delving into Church history but doesn’t know where to start, let me highly recommend The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History*! While it hasn’t been my only source, its concise, gracious, and balanced summary of Church history makes it a particularly excellent one.
Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna
Polycarp was 1) a disciple of the Apostle John, 2) the Bishop of Smyrna, and 3) an absolute snark-master. He once passed a well-known heretic, Marcion, on the street without acknowledging him; angrily, Marcion demanded, “Do you know me?”–to which Polycarp coolly replied, “Yes, I know you, Firstborn of Satan.” Apply cold water to area of burn, Marcion. But Polycarp was also an incredibly brave martyr of the ancient Church. When Roman officials order him to renounce his faith, Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years I have served Christ, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine is probably Protestantism’s favorite Church Father, but I love him for his brutal honesty as well as for his emphasis on salvation by grace and faith alone. His half-hearted prayer as a young man of “Oh Lord, make me chaste–but not yet!” always makes me chuckle…but only because I, too, know how it feels to cling to pet sins until the Lord finally makes me let them go. Augustine’s opening prayer in Confessions is just as relatable, and hauntingly beautiful: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” [emphasis mine]
Benedict of Nursia
Benedict is considered the founder of Christian monasticism, thanks to his famous “Rule of Saint Benedict” and his founding of twelve influential monasteries in Italy. The Rule’s “unique spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness” makes it one of the most inspiring codes in Western history. Far from being legalistic, it offers an appealing model for the cultivating one’s inner life, serving one’s community, and finding great joy and fulfillment in one’s work. Benedict was known for his kindness and self-discipline, and his influence is felt in Western Civilization to this day.
(By the way, please don’t diss the monasteries of the so-called “Dark Ages,” guys. Western Civ as we know it wouldn’t exist without the monks who preserved our history and copies of the Scriptures from marauding Goths and Vikings.)
Columba was an Irish missionary to Scotland, a prolific copier of the Scriptures (apparently he produced about 300 copies–by hand, of course), and the founder of an instrumental monastery on the island of Iona. It’s often said that Iona is “a thin place”–the distinction between Heaven and Earth is barely distinguishable in this quiet and holy spot. Columba fearlessly brought the Gospel to the Picts of Scotland–and according to one of my favorite traditions of all time, even rebuked a ferocious, man-eating monster in the name of Christ. The monster apparently lived in a lake near the River Ness…and yes, my friends, this is our earliest recorded story of the Loch Ness Monster.
Margaret of Scotland
Margaret was an English princess whose marriage to Malcolm III, King of Scotland, allowed her to be a force for change in her new (and mostly-uncivilized) homeland. Known as a strong but gentle woman, she was deeply passionate about her Christian faith, steadfast in her ministry to the poor, and determined to reform and organize the church in Scotland. While not particularly religious himself, King Malcolm so respected his wife that he pretty much gave her free reign to achieve her goals. Margaret also authorized the restoration of Columba’s abbey on Iona.
Francis of Assisi
Francis, son of a noble Italian family, was supposed to be a gallant knight…until the Lord grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and convicted him of his licentious lifestyle. His life completely turned around: in spite of his father’s opposition, he became a monk, rebuilt an abandoned abbey, and eventually founded the Franciscan Order. Francis took great delight in nature and animals: every time you sing “All Creatures of Our God and King,” you’re singing an adaptation of his joyous “Canticle of the Sun.” While reading some of his writings during my morning devotions, I was so struck by his firm reliance on God’s grace and Christ’s redemption.
Catherine of Siena
Many of the heroines of the ancient and medieval church were nuns–and this may sound strange, but as a single woman living a quiet, simple life, I often find their stories particularly encouraging. These women were so devoted to Christ: many of them defied their dowry-obsessed families, faced societal backlash, and faced all kinds of physical dangers in the pursuit of their calling. Catherine of Siena was one such woman. Even as a little girl she loved her Savior with a startling passion. As a Dominican nun she nursed the sick no one else dared to tend, enthusiastically promoted reform within the Church, called out popes and kings, and wrote theological books at a time when women authors were few and far between. “Preach the truth as if you had a million voices,” she wrote. “It is silence that kills the world.”
Hildegard of Bingen
As a Benedictine abbess, Hildegard wrote music, a morality play, and reams about theology, medicine, and botany–and if that wasn’t enough, she even invented her own language simply for her own amusement and convenience! Talk about a polymath. She was also a bit of a “hot ticket,” as my mom would say: she may or may not have faked an illness in order to guilt-trip an abbot into granting her the use of an abandoned monastery, and in the last year of her life she defied her superiors over the burial of an excommunicate who’d repented on his deathbed. Like Catherine of Siena, Hildegard’s love for Christ and her fellow man overflow in her writings.
We sang this wonderful hymn, “For All the Saints,” a couple of Sundays ago, and it’s a great way to conclude this post. Who are your favorite heroes and heroines of the faith? Let me know in the comments! I’m always excited to learn new things about my Christian heritage!
O may Thy soldiers,
faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints
who nobly fought of old,
And win with them
the victor’s crown of gold.