A Great Connection

September 3, 2013

I remember watching a western with my Baptist mother in which a Gabby Hayes-type mountain man walked along holding a shaking forked stick. “What is he doing?” I asked. “Trying to use superstition to find water,” my mother answered. No Baptist could approve of water witchery. When I was about seven years old, I sat on the beach in Maine watching a man hover a modern stick above the sand. Turning to my father I asked, “Daddy, what’s he doing?” “He’s looking for metal, that’s a metal detector. Probably hoping to find coins or jewelry.” my father answered. In that moment at a place where shore and ocean met, the romance of swashbuckling adventure fled. Gone were the imagined treasure maps, eye-patches, wooden legs, and pirate booty trunks. Someone soon told me that what the metal detectors most often discovered were soda can tabs. The thought of digging and finding remain exciting nonetheless. Jesus knew his hearers were excited by the prospect and so he spoke of the Kingdom as a hidden treasure discovered. News of treasure found is still arresting for the imagination. Over the past twenty years, ancient Roman coin hordes and precious items have regularly been discovered in England. Many of these treasure stashes were buried while people were in flight from their enemies. England makes for a great dig. The treasure beneath England is not only coins, but also history and the remains of kings. On September 12th 2012, the bones of Richard III were unearthed beneath a parking lot at the former site of a Franciscan friary in Leicester. Shakespeare put into Richard’s mouth the now famous words: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in a scene taking place just before the king was killed at the 1485 battle of Bosworth. In recent weeks hope has emerged of the possible discovery of the remains of yet another king, Alfred the Great (d.899). In the Anglican community and among some Catholics he is referred to as St. Alfred the Great. Alfred is no longer a common name. There is Alfred the butler from Batman, Alfred E. Smith was New York‘s governor, and in New York there is Alfred University, which claims Alfred the Great as a kind of patron. “Alfred” may no longer be considered a great name to have, but the king’s interests were great. Among the great king’s interests were the preservation of learning and faith. England had suffered before and during his time from attacks of Vikings and Danes. Amidst the chaos monastic libraries had been burned and learning was in decline. Alfred, realizing that the language of formal education, Latin, was not widely known, ordered the translation of works to instruct the youth of the realm. Alfred is said to have only learned Latin in his late thirties. He is credited with translating Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy into Anglo-Saxon. He also turned to the writings of another “great”, Pope St. Gregory the Great. St. Gregory the Great (d.604) is important to the history of the faith in England, as he sent St. Augustine of Canterbury along with monks and missionaries from Rome to spread the Gospel in England. Alfred wrote introductions for his newly ordered translations of Gregory’s Dialogues and Pastoral Rule. Gregory’s Dialogues recount the life and miracles of St. Benedict, the great monastic founder. Alfred was very desirous that Gregory’s work on Pastoral Rule be used by the bishops in England to help them become good shepherds and stewards of the Gospel. Gregory wrote that those charged with the care of souls:

…should be a near neighbor to everyone in sympathy, and exalted above all in contemplation, so that through the depths of loving-kindness he may transfer the infirmities of others to himself, and by loftiness of speculation transcend even himself in his aspiration after the invisible; lest either in seeking high things he despise the weak things of his neighbors, or in suiting himself to the weak things of his neighbors he relinquish his aspiration after high things.

Gregory is a champion of prudence as throughout his work on pastoral care he calls for the shepherd to be attentive to who the shepherd is called to be, to the real needs of his flock, and to respond to each according to that person’s condition and ability to understand. The shepherd thus becomes lowly and truly becomes good shepherd by the habitual transfer to himself in love the burdens of others, as Christ did, while keeping his hope fixed in prayer on the glory to be revealed. Gregory and Alfred responded in charity to the needs of their peoples. Alfred saw the need for ignorance to be met with education. It is said that Gregory was motivated to send a mission to England after having seen English youth being sold in a Roman slave market. The truly hopeful serve the suffering. For the treasure of the Kingdom to be found, we must first bow down. The feast of St. Gregory the Great is September 3rd, the date of his installation as pope. Among the few popes to be called “great”, Gregory shares the distinction of installation-date-as-feast with only one other, the emerging “great,” John Paul II.

Image: St. Alfred the Great, Winchester

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