Aelfric: the lives of the Saints


Aelfric of Eynsham

Was a Benedictine Abbot of Eynsham in the tenth century (955 – 1010). He received his education and training in Christianity from St. Aethelwold the Bishop of Winchester. Aelfric is to a significant extent a product of the so-called English Benedictine Reform (a tenth century reform movement) as well as an agent of this reform. Aelfric was sent to the Benedictine monks at Cerne (Cerne Abbas in Dorset) to raise their level of education and their spiritual life. It is here he began composing some of his homilies that are still extant. Around 1005 Aelfric became the first abbot of the (Benedictine) monastery at Eynsham (Oxford area). The scholarly and saintly abbot of Eynsham died around 1010 and is still known for several of his labors, not the least his Homilies, translations of Scripture, works on Grammar, and the Lives of the Saints.

Memory of the Saints

Aelfric’s homily on The memory of the Saints opens with a verse from the Book of Revelation: “I am the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty” and then immediately proceeds into an orthodox and catholic confession of the One God who is Trinity. This God is the Creator of the world and therefore our own beginning is from God. Once created we became lost, separated from our Creator by our sins. The loving Creator has provided a way of salvation and it is up to us to order our lives in such a way that we should also have our ending in Him. Therefore the scriptural confession that the Triune God is beginning and ending is not merely an intellectual truth to be consented to, it also provides a command to order our lives in such a way that we begin, continue, and end in communion with our Creator. Scripture is never simply a platform for speculative theology, it is rather a guide to life. Scripture tells where we came from, where we are, and how get from here to where we need to be. The veneration of the Saints, keeping their memory, is an example of how to live our lives as an orthodox and catholic exegesis of Scripture.

i. The Rule of St. Benedict

It should come as no surprise that to Aelfric this means that exegesis takes place through the lens of the Holy Rule written by St. Benedict of Nursia. This is, I contend, how the Rule of St. Benedict is intended to be used. The Holy Rule famously begins with the word “LISTEN” and continues to admonish the listener to a life of obedience to God:

Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away.

~ The Holy Rule, Prologue.

Here St. Benedict does several interesting things, but we will only touch on them lightly at this time. The Father here indicated is both Jesus Christ and His representative the Abbot. The latter shares a title with Jesus because his ministry as abbot derives from the ministry of Jesus Himself. The listening St. Benedict is looking for is not simply hearing but obedience: a life lived accordingly. The what to listen to is contained in the text that follows until the Rule concludes with the word “perveniens” or arrive. That is the precepts and teaching that follows is a combination of theory and practice such that the one is pointless without the other. Only by living in accordance with the precepts, listening, can the listener arrive at the end-goal of the Rule (knowledge of God via a virtuous life).

The Rule of St. Benedict contains precisely 73 chapters. This may seem insignificant until one realizes that so does the Bible. That is complete Bibles contain 73 books. Only the Protestant Bibles contain less than that because the new doctrine of the Reformation required a new Scripture in accordance with it. St. Benedict knows nothing of a Reformation, however, and his Bible contained all 73 books. His Rule containing 73 chapters creates a link between his Rule and Scripture. The Rule is to be understood as teaching obedience to our Father by paying close attention to His voice coming to us via the Bible. This immediately limits the abbot’s options to only teaching and requiring what Scripture teaches and requires.

It is also no accident that obedience is styled as a return from a (self-willed) departure from God. This is also taken from Scripture:

For as it was your mind to go astray from God: so, being returned, seek him ten times more.

~ Baruch, 4, 28 (KJV)

Of course in the background of the Holy Rule’s Prologue, as cited above, we also find the Sunday (and, in the Benedictine Office, Monday as well) Psalm for the “Little Hours” (Ps. 119). Aelfric’s interpretation of God being beginning and ending is rooted in the Rule of St. Benedict. Just like the Rule begins with listen and ends with arrive, so Aelfric begins with listening to Scripture (Rev. 1, 8) so that we may arrive at our end in God. The Rule of St. Benedict simply seeks to be a specific application of Scripture to our lives as we live them: obedience to our Father (implied is, of course, that God is our Father and the abbot, insofar as he represents Him, is also – in secondary and derivative sense – our father). Exegesis is therefore understanding and practice simultaneously. The lives of the Saints serve to drive home precisely this point. Their lives are exegesis of Scripture.

ii. The memory of the Saints: Patriarchs

“We may take good examples, first, from the holy patriarchs, how they in their lives pleased God …”

~ Aelfric, On the Memory of the Saints

First among the Saints are those of the Old Testament. Two are named using Latin: Abel Justus (the righteous) so named by the Lord Jesus himself (Matt. 23, 35) and Jacob Vir videns deum (the man that sees God). Abel offered a pleasing sacrifice to God as opposed to Cain whose offer was rejected. Abel is named righteous by Jesus, and since all we know of him is that he offered a well-pleasing sacrifice and was murdered by his brother, it seems reasonable that his righteousness consists in making a well-pleasing sacrifice. Jacob, who sees God, struggles to obey God and is rewarded for his efforts. It is Jacob (Israel) who by the meaning of his name prophetically foreshadows Christianity since Christians “see God by faith.”

We also find Job mentioned. Job’s life shows a painful struggle with the devil. His faith in God is tested to the highest degree and remains intact. Job was a virtuous man before the struggle with the devil, and remains a virtuous man throughout and following this hard fought battle. Like Jacob, and presumably Abel, it is Job’s obedience that counts. We also meet the three youths in Aelfric’s list: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In their story we see the harmony of believing and doing. Or in Protestant terms: faith and works. The youths are “saved” from the fire not by one or the other but by both ! Obedience is not the mere following of orders. Obedience is faith-full (believing) the ordering of one’s life in accordance with God’s commandments:

Thou hast charged * that we shall diligently keep thy commandments.

O that my ways were made so direct, * that I might keep thy statutes.

~ Anglican Breviary, Sunday at Prime, Psalm 119, 4-5.

Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? * even by ruling himself after thy word.

~ Anglican Breviary, Psalm 119, 9, Sunday at Prime.

Where it seems clear that God commands us to order (rule) our lives in obedience to His word. Yet it also seems clear that we are ruled (ordered) and do not entirely rule ourselves. There is a certain dynamic between what we do and God’s response to our obedience. Between faith and works (if indeed we may indulge in this false dichotomy). Aelfric concludes his list by pointing out that there are more examples to be drawn from the Old Testament but that this suffices to show that they serve the purpose of anticipating God’s saving actions in Jesus Christ.

iii. The Memory of the Saints: ongoing

“… and also from the Saints who followed the Saviour.”

~ Aelfric, On the Memory of the Saints

Having provided an overview of the Old Testament’s Saints Aelfric now continues with the “Saints who follow the Savior.” This is interesting. Aelfric does not contrast the Old Testament Saints and the New, but he contrasts the Old Testament Saints with those following Jesus Christ. The Old Testament is a closed off period, the period after Jesus Christ is ongoing ! New Testament Saints are still being produced. This is shown, in part, by the sanctoral calendar of the Church. It is on these Saints that Aelfric preached some of his homilies included in his Lives of the Saints. There is no break between Jesus’s time and our own but continuity !

Aelfric again provides a list. This one begins with St. John the Baptist and Forerunner of the Lord. It is as forerunner that Aelfric considers John at this time. John prepares the way of the Lord Jesus and part of this ministry is “establishing the ascetic life, in the New Testament.” Here, I think, we see the Rule of St. Benedict once again guiding Aelfric’s understanding of Scripture. The Rule is, among other things, an ascetic way of life. The Rule allows us to live a scriptural kind of life which – of necessity – includes ascesis.

From the Baptist Aelfric moves on to the Lord Jesus Christ, ” Very God and Very Man” who has redeemed us by his “guiltless death.” In Christ God overcame the devil by means of the “incarnation” and by defeating Satan has “redeemed mankind.” The Godman has also left us a pattern of life to follow:

“He did not bid us learn to make the heavens [do great things], but He bade us be humble, that we might get to heaven, …”

~ Aelfric, On the Memory of the Saints

Aelfric goes into some of the details of Jesus’ ministry and healings concluding that the same powers have been given to His Apostles. Of the twelve Apostles Aelfric singles out St. Peter, without naming him, and contrasts Peter’s obedience to follow Him with the disobedience of others. Next Aelfric mentions the martyrs who would rather lose their lives than to deny Christ. The devil tried his best to snuff out the flame of Faith but failed. The period of martyrs and persecution being ended (though Aelfric would not deny that martyrdom still occurs, he is simplifying matters of Church history here for effect) God gave the Church a time of peace (presumably referring to Constantine’s toleration of Christianity). The one disturbance of this peace was the heresy of Arius which was defeated by the true Faith. Other heretics and their heresies were likewise defeated by the teaching Jesus delivered to His Apostles and they delivered to us. Aelfric further mentions good bishops, monks, Mass-priests, and maidens living an ascetic life in Christ.

Via a few more paragraphs Aelfric brings the homily to “our times.” In these days there is much darkness by the devil’s temptations, attacks, and corruptions. But the same true Faith, the same Lord Jesus Christ, is still with us. Saints can still be made even in these our dark days. How Saints are possible is the subject of the second portion of Aelfric’s homily. Here he teaches us how to use an old diagnostic tool as an aide to shedding vices in order to gain the virtues. It is important to know that the source of all virtue is One: Jesus Christ. The hard work of un-learning sin and learning holiness is spiritual growth. This growth requires great effort on our part, but is no less a gift grace. Aelfric uses the so-called eight logismoi (or tempting thoughts) we are familiar with from St. John Cassian (and behind him the great spiritual Master Evagrius of Pontus). Once again it is the Holy Rule which guides Aelfric, for St. Benedict specifically recommends the frequent reading of the teaching of St. John Cassian. But to enter into this will require a separate post, perhaps even more than one, and so this must suffice for now. Saints provide a pattern to live scripturally and New Testament Saints are still being made. Those living Scripture today are on their way to sainthood.

Fr. Gregory Wassen

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About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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