The Ministry of a Dying Man

Kentigern IconOne thing that the Bible emphasises is the importance of finishing well.

A good start to your Christian life is one thing, continuing well, right to the end, is another.

It is those who persevere to the end that receive the crown.

In chapter 42 of Joceline’s “Life of Saint Kentigern” we have a description of the aged saint in his declining days. There are many lessons we can draw from his example about how we can finish well with God.

“Blessed Kentigern, overcome by excessive old age, perceived from many cracks in it that the ruin of his earthly house was imminent”

The first lesson we learn is Kentigern’s acknowledgement and acceptance of his coming death. Our physical bodies are not built to last, they are perishable goods, each with its sell-by date. We will not be at peace until we can accept this fact and face it squarely.

“…but the foundation of his faith, which was founded on the Rock, comforted his soul; for he trusted that … he had prepared for him a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”

Here we see what enabled the saint to face death serenely – his faith founded on the Christ-event, which convinced him of the reality of the life to come, an eternal life in an eternal body.

“…by reason of the extremity of old age, and the infirmity consequent thereon, the fastening of his nerves were almost entirely withered throughout his body and loosened, therefore he bound up his cheeks and chin … that by the fall of his chin nothing indecent should appear in the gaping of his mouth … such a support should render him more ready in bringing forth what he could or would”

This is a somewhat stark and moving description of the reality of the physical decrepitude that usually accompanies extreme old age. The saint’s jaw hung open, so he supported it by a bandage. A practical solution designed to do two things. Firstly, to avoid his appearance being offensive to those around him, and secondly, to enable him to continue to minister as he was able. The support helped him to speak clearly, so that he could still speak of God and build up the saints of God.

“…knowing that the hour was drawing near … fortified himself with the sacred unction … and with the life-giving sacraments … in order that the ancient serpent, seeking to bruise his heel, should be unable to fix thereon his poisonous tooth or to inflict on him a deadly wound : yea rather, that with bruised head he should retreat in confusion.”

Aware that his death was imminent the saint makes use of the whole arsenal of the Church, in order to best protect himself and prepare himself. For Kentigern, even his dying is an act of spiritual warfare. He would inflict one final and decisive defeat on Satan, the enemy of the Church and his own soul, through dying well.

“…he patiently … awaited the Lord, who had saved him from the storms of this world”

For this great saint, the timing of his passing from this world was in the hands of God, he submitted himself to God’s timing. He waited patiently for his final release, trusting that the God who had saved him through life would also save him through death.

“…he cast out the anchor of hope, with the ropes of his desire well bound, in the solid and soft ground, reaching of a truth even to the inside of the veil, whither Jesus Christ had gone before him.”

The saint’s anchor point for his soul was not fixed on earth but in heaven, not rooted in time but in eternity. His anchor was Jesus, the one whom he loved and who has already made the journey himself – in both directions. He knows the way, He will lead us surely and safely home.

“…he alone awaited the departure from Kedar and the entrance into the land of the living”

The name “Kedar” is the name of an Ishmaelite tribe. They were not Jews and so were not part of God’s people. In the Bible, the expression “to dwell in the tents of Kedar” means to be cut off from the worship of the true God. The word also has the meaning of “blackness and sorrow”. Describing earthly life thus, Kentigern expresses his belief that it is this life that is as a shadow, it is the life to come that is reality, indeed, it is only by passing through death that we really come alive.

Perhaps there is also a sense here of the reality of awaiting his own death. No earthly life or hope remains to him, only sorrow and blackness, everything that he has to look forward to now awaits him on the other side of the grave.

“…so that … like a successful wrestler he might receive from the hand of the heavenly King the crown of glory and the diadem of the kingdom which shall not be destroyed”

This, specifically, is what the saint is looking forward to – his eternal glory and reward for a life of faithfulness.

“He warned his disciples, gathered around him, so far as his strength would allow him.”

Kentigern’s ministry continues until his final breath. His pastoral concern will not permit him to miss any opportunity to strengthen and instruct those for whom he has responsibility. Even on his death-bed he is not thinking primarily of himself but of others.

He ministers as he is able, to the limit of the capacities remaining to him.

“…warning them to avoid every evil appearance of simoniacal wickedness, and to shun entirely the communion and society of heretics and schismatics, and observe strictly the decrees of the holy fathers, and especially the laws and customs of Holy Church”

Simony is the sin of using ministry as a means of enriching oneself. It is significant that Kentigern warns his disciples of this danger first. For those who are professional ministers, it is perhaps the one of the greatest dangers.

Kentigern also warns them of the danger of heresy and schism. They are to avoid even the society of those who deny the fundamentals of the faith and those who separate themselves from other Christians. Heresy and schism are like a contagion, the only safe option is isolation.

Instead, his disciples are to hold fast to the teaching of the holy fathers, to the historical foundations laid down at the beginning and which are expressed in the “laws and customs” of the Holy Church.

“…after that … he gave to each of them … the kiss of peace; and lifting his hand as best he could, he blessed them, and bidding the his last farewell, he committed them all to the guardianship of the Holy Trinity, and to the protection of the holy Mother of God”

It is wonderful and significant that Kentigern’s final act is one of blessing. He expresses his love for each of his disciples and then, with the last remaining strength, he struggles to raise his hand and to bless the by signing them with the cross.

No longer capable of caring for them himself, he commits them to the keeping of God and to the protection of Mary. Here we see the reality of the Church. God is our source of strength and safety, but we also help each other with our prayers. The prayers of the saints her and those who have gone before us – exemplified by Mary – support and strengthen us on our way.

This Life-Giving, Holy and Terrible Sign

Perhaps the greatest gift that poets and artists give to us is the ability to see familiar things in new ways.

In so doing they give us the gift of newness and freshness, they restore to us the vitality of our familiar possessions.

The description “this life-giving, holy and terrible sign” had such an effect on me.

The writer, Joceline of Furness, a 12th century monk, used this phrase to describe the Crosses erected by Saint Kentigern everywhere he took the gospel to people.

Life-Giving :
There is a paradox in that this Roman instrument of torture and execution has been turned around by God and now becomes a source of life and healing. Doesn’t that just sum up the Christian faith!

Holy :
The cross is the instrument by which God both showed us the awful enormity of our sin and also dealt with it, once and for all. After the cross event there is only one kind of sin in the world – forgiven sin. We just need to receive this forgiveness which is freely offered to all who will take it. We take off our shoes and fall on our faces, this is sacred ground.

Terrible :
This is used in its arcane meaning indicating that which inspires awe, which is of great seriousness or extreme.

As I read on, it was interesting to read why Saint Kentigern erected these crosses.

“…so the enemies of the human race, the powers of darkness of this world, melting away in terror before this sign, might disappear and in terror and confusion might be banished far away.”

The first reason is that of spiritual warfare. Christ’s victory is the only victory the Church has, or needs. It is only in presenting the reality of this victory to the dark powers that we defeat them.

“…that the soldiers of the Eternal King, recognizing by a glance the unconquerable standard of their Chief, should fly to it, as to a tower of strength, from the face of the enemy”

The cross is a rallying point, the reminder of our unshakeable victory, already won by Christ. The battles we find ourselves in might be fierce, but the outcome of the war is never in doubt.

“…that they should have before their eyes that which they adore and in which they glory”

The cross symbolises all that is central in the Christian faith; all that is precious to the faithful.

“…as … the wrestling against spiritual wickedness in high places, and against the fiery darts of the evil one, is continual, it is meet that they should fortify and protect themselves by signing themselves with this sign”

Looking to the cross, signing oneself with it, have been basic elements of Christian spirituality since its first days. They are weapons in our warfare.

“…and by imitating the Passion of Christ … they should, for the love of the Crucified One, crucify the flesh with its vices and lusts, and the world to them, and themselves unto the world.”

The cross also sums up the calling of Christian discipleship. Bonhoeffer famously wrote,

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

The calling and duty of the followers of Christ is to respond to their Lord’s crucifixion with their own. We are called to kill in us all that is unworthy or opposed to the life of God in its radical holiness.

As Constantine was told in a vision, “In hoc signo vinces” – In this sign you will conquer.

The Gore-Tex Benediction

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Reading Joceline’s ‘Life of Saint Kentigern’, I was struck by the description of a rather unusual miracle that was interpreted as a sign of divine favour on the saint.

“For as all bear witness who knew the man, as well as did those that conversed with him, that never in his life were his clothes wetted with drops of rain, or with snow or hail pouring upon him and falling to the ground. For often, standing in the open air, while the inclemency of the weather increased, and the pouring rain flowed in different directions like bilge-water, and the spirit of the storm raged around him, he from time to time stood still, or went whither he would, and yet he always continued uninjured and untouched by a drop of rain from any quarter.”

My instant response was a half-smile of bemused incredulity.

I mean that kind of stuff in the lives of the saints is so obviously just hagiographer’s excess, isn’t it?

But as I read on, Joceline, seemingly expecting his readers to doubt the veracity of his account, challenges his readers about their disbelief.

He reminds his readers of the biblically attested miracles of the Exodus – the people of Israel’s shoes and garments did not wear out in the 40 years of their desert wanderings.

If God can protect a whole nation’s garments from wear, surely He can protect one man’s garments from the weather?

Seemingly reminded of the Exodus story with the pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night which accompanied and guided the Israelites, Joceline recounts that there were times when Saint Kentigern was also accompanied by a divine light.

“…so often, when a cloud covered the whole earth, bringing on a darkness that might be felt, a light shone around himself, the place, and the inhabitants thereof, where the saint was preaching.”

Joceline’s challenge gave me pause for thought. Why was I so unwilling to believe a miracle in the life of a saint, when I wold readily believe those in the Bible?

Has God changed?

Is God less capable of miracles now than before?

As a theologian, I know this cannot be true. Unchangeability being a key attribute of God, inherent in His divine perfection.

So why my seeming predisposition to disbelieve post-biblical miracles?

It seems that I need a better balance between credulity – believing everything – and incredulity – believing nothing.

There are few things more stupid and dangerous than credulity.

I remember a scene from some comedy with Rowan Atkinson, when medieval peasants were descending into frenzy and panic because of people recounting having seen portents and ill omens. One man tries to join in, “And I saw a horse with two heads and eight legs!”
To which someone reposts, “Could it just have been two horses, one standing behind the other?”
Uncomfortably shifting from foot to first the first admits, “Well I suppose it might have been.”

So we are wise to avoid being uncritically credulous, discernment is the key gift in Christian community.

But we are wrong to become incredulous, to disbelieve everything miraculous. The Christian God was and is a God of the miraculous. Most of those miracles are unseen, the miracle of faith burgeoning in the human heart, the miracle of divine forgiveness pouring forth from those who have been sorely wronged etc.

But some miracles are visible, they are signs of God’s favour and they are given to spur on faith and encourage the faithful.

They are to be welcomed as a grace.