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.

The Importance of Silly Prayers

In Joceline’s account of the Life of Saint Kentigern (a.k.a. Mungo) there is a story of the visit paid to the court of Kentigern’s king, Rederech, by a Jester from the court of an Irish king.

This jester appears to have been sent, ostensibly as a favour, but in reality to gather information surreptitiously about Rederech and his kingdom.

The visit goes well. The jester is highly skilled in song and music and his tales and jokes greatly amuse the court during the Christmas holidays.

As the jester prepares his departure after a few weeks, Rederech wishes to express his thanks and appreciation and offers to give him a parting gift.

The jester takes advantage of the situation to play a subtle political game.

When Rederech offers him gold, he replies, “But we already have that in Ireland”.

Silver gets the same response.

As does the offer of fine jewels.

Finally Rederech falls into the trap and asks the jester to suggest his own gift.

To which the jester replies that if Rederech really wants to honour him and to express his appreciation, then he would like a bowl of fresh mulberries.

To which the assembled courtiers burst out laughing, this being a fine joke, as mulberries are a summer fruit and it was the middle of winter.

But the jester insists, no he is serious, he would like to be given a bowl of fresh mulberries.

As the court is dumbfounded and the king at a loss, the jester then walks out.

The king is in a delicate situation, if he is unable to grant the gift then he will lose of face. You can imagine the jokes the jester will tell, “I only asked him for a bowl of mulberries and yet this powerful king was unable to grant my request!”

The king’s honour is at stake and politically this is serious situation.

The king goes to visit Saint Kentigern and explains to him the problem.

Kentigern is uncomfortable about praying for such a trivial thing, yet he senses that somehow it is important to do so.

“The man of God, although he thought that his prayer would not be fitly offered for such trifles as these, knew that the king had a great devotion to God and Holy Church, yet though his eyes beheld his substance which was imperfect, in this case the holy bishop made up his mind to condescend to his petition, hoping that thereby in the future he might advance in virtue.”

Kentigern therefore prays for mulberries and God gives him directions to a place where the king can find a bush that still has fruit on it that is fresh enough to eat.

The outcome of this miracle is, however, very significant.

The king proffers the bowl of mulberries to the jester, giving glory to God who has enabled him to meet the jester’s request.

The jester is shocked, stunned and in awe of this ‘impossible’ fruit and commits himself to Rederech as long as the king wants him to stay.

However, this is not the end of the story. For after serving as court jester for ‘many days’ the jester,

“…renounced the trade of actor, and entering the ways of a better life, gave himself up to the service of God”.

Which all goes to shows us that sometimes it is important to pray ‘silly’ prayers.

In scripture we see prayers prayed for such silly things as that a metal axe head to float on water, that jars of oil and flour would not run out, that sticks might turn into snakes, that handkerchiefs might be able to heal.

All rather bizarre and silly stuff, and yet somehow God uses these requests to bring about some seriously important results.

Rederech’s ‘silly’ prayer led to his own faith and commitment to God being strengthened, to his honour being defended, to the salvation of a court jester and finally to his taking holy orders.

Don’t be afraid, therefore, of praying ‘silly’ prayers.

How to Bless a Boar

There is an interesting incident in the life of Saint Kentigern (A.K.A. Mungo) when he is looking for a place to build a monastery.

Having been granted permission by the king to build a centre for his mission, he then travels throughout the kingdom looking for an appropriate spot.
As he had his disciples are exploring something bizarre happens;

“…when lo and behold a single wild boar from the wood, entirely white, met them, and approaching the feet of the saint, moving his head, sometimes advancing a little, and then returning and looking backwards, motioned to the saint and to his companions, with such gestures as he could, to follow him…
When they came to the place that the Lord had predestinated for them, the boar halted, and frequently striking the ground with his foot, and making the gesture of tearing up the soil of the little hill that was there with his long tusk, shaking his head repeatedly and grunting, he clearly showed to all that that was the place designed and prepared by God.”

What is most interesting to me is what happens next.

“The boar, however, seeing what was done, came near, and by his frequent grunts seemed to ask somewhat of the bishop: then the saint, scratching the head of the brute, and stroking his mouth and teeth, said, ‘God Almighty, in Whose power are all the beasts of the forest, the oxen, the birds of the air, and the fishes of the sea, grant thee for thy conduct such reward a He knoweth is best for thee’. Then the boar, as if well remunerated, bowing his head to the priest of the Lord, departed, and betook himself to his well-known groves.”

There are several points of interest in this story.

Firstly, it highlights something that contemporary Christians often forget; that the Bible tells us that the whole of creation is one, that mankind and animalkind are intrinsically linked.
You only have to look at the covenants God made with Adam and Noah to see that animals are included. Also, as we read the Law that God gave to Moses in order to establish the Jewish nation, we again see that animals are significantly involved.

Mankind was charged by God to take care of the creation, any authentic response to God will be expressed in a desire to take seriously this responsibility to care for the earth and its animals.

We see therefore throughout scripture that those who are closest to God seem also to have a deep relationship with animals. Think of Elijah who was fed by ravens, Elisha whose honour was defended by bears, Jonah who was transported by a fish, Daniel and the lions, Jesus and the fish that brought him a coin, to say nothing of Noah and the Ark!

Church history shows that same trend, with perhaps Saint Francis of Assisi being the best-known example of someone who saw the animals as his brethren.

So how should we live with the animals? Well Saint Kentigern gives us some clear guidance.

“scratching the head of the brute”

The first thing we see is the expression of gentleness and an attitude of love and appreciation expressed towards animals. Animals, like humans, seem to enjoy physical contact. The first thing Kentigern does is to express his love for the boar by giving him a good scratch.

“and stroking his mouth and teeth”

The second thing we note is a reference to the dangerous aspects of the animal. Wild animals are, by their very nature, dangerous. Living in rural France I have seen several hunting dogs with 30cm scars, caused by a wild boar striking out at them with its tusks. A Christian attitude towards animals will maintain a healthy respect for their wildness and their inherent danger, but will not allow this healthy fear to be a barrier to our appreciation for them and our willingness to live with them.

“God Almighty, in Whose power are all the beasts of the forest, the oxen, the birds of the air, and the fishes of the sea, grant thee for thy conduct such reward a He knoweth is best for thee.”

The blessing that Kentigern prays over the boar expresses the reality of the difference between man and beast. Such is this difference that we often don’t know what is best for wild animals. Our existence is on a different level to theirs and has a very different context.

We need to acknowledge this humbly before God. We need to maintain the motivation of doing what is best for them, to bless them, and seek God for His guidance about how we can best achieve this.

Soul Friendship or Advancing Together in God

St-KentigernIn Joceline’s Life of Saint Kentigern (also known as Saint Mungo) who lived in the latter half of the 6th century and is the Patron Saint of Glasgow, there is a fascinating account of Kentigern’s meeting up with Saint Dewi (also known as Saint David).

It is a moving and insightful account of the way in which two Christian brothers (or sisters) can be soul-friends, can help each other in their Christian pilgrimage.

I would like to go through the brief account of their time together and pull out some principles of soul-friendship from this.

“…Bishop Dewi rejoiced with great joy at the arrival of such and so great a stranger. With eyes overflowing with tears, and mutually embracing, he received Kentigern as an angel of the Lord, dear to God, and, retaining him for a certain time in his immediate vicinity, always honoured him to a wonderful extent.”

The first principle of soul-friendship is the mutual acknowledgement of the inherent value of the other and the desire to honour each other in the Lord.

Each Christian is a much-beloved son or daughter of God and, as such, we must seek to appreciate each other and to value each other in the same way that God Himself values us. This is practically expressed in acts that honour the person.

“Therefore these two sons of light dwelt together, attending upon the Lord of the whole earth, like two lamps burning before the Lord, whose tongues became the keys of heaven, that by them a multitude of men might be deemed meet to enter therein…”

The second principle of soul-friendship is the mutual standing in worship before God. It is always God who is central in a soul-friendship. Out of this mutual standing in worship before God we find that there naturally emerges a holy conversation, a sharing of what we have received from God and this conversation is missional, it reaches out beyond the two friends and touches others with divine revelation that sparks faith and brings salvation. In one way, you might say that if God is the central concern of a soul-friendship, others are the secondary concern. It is almost as if the two friends are somewhat peripheral in their own relationship!

“…like the two cherubim in the holy of holies in the temple seat of the Lord, having their faces bent down towards the mercy-seat. They lifted their wings on high in the frequent mediation upon heavenly things; they folded them down in the ordination and arrangement of earthly things.”

The third principle of soul-friendship is that it is not merely mystical; it is also earthed and rooted in the realities of daily life. The two saints not only shared in worship and divine contemplation, they also helped each other in the complex organisation and practical arrangement of their ministries.

“They touched each other mutually with their wings, as by the instruction of each other in the Doctrine of Salvation; and in the alternate energizing of virtues they excited in each other to a more earnest advance in sanctity.”

The fourth principle of soul-friendship is mutual instruction in the faith and mutual exhortation in sanctity. Each of us has our own grasp of elements of the faith, grown out of the particular crucible of our experiences; therefore we always have things to share with each other, things to teach each other.

We are all also “works in progress” when it comes to sanctity. We have our particular strengths and weaknesses. We can inspire and challenge each other to do better, to advance. Any genuine friendship desires the very best for the friend. In Christian terms this is expressed in loving encouragement and also exhortation. A man sharpens a man, as iron sharpens iron, says the Bible.

“…and bidding farewell to Saint Dewi, after mutual benediction, he betook himself to the place aforesaid.”

The fifth principle of soul-friendship that we can draw from this meeting of Kentigern and Dewi is expressed in their parting, the principle of mutual benediction. This is the primary goal, our desire is that our friend might be blessed. Blessed in their walk with God, blessed in a deeper understanding of God’s will, blessed with a life that expresses closer harmony with holiness, blessed with a ministry that more clearly presents the love and call of God to men.

“Thus the most holy Kentigern, separated from Saint Dewi as to bodily presence, but by no means withdrawn from his love and from the vision and observation of the inner man…”

The final principle of soul friendship is that it is a committed, continuing relationship. Although the two men parted, they did not cease to remember the other, to pray for the other and to be present to each other in their thoughts. Their relationship expresses the reality of the Universal Church, that it t say, all those who are in relation with God are by that same relationship also in relation with each other. If we have God as our Father, we have each other as our brother. This relationship, as t depends upon God is not limited by time or space. Soul friendship seeks to hold on to the reality of this mystical bond between believers. It will not allow a little thing like geography to interrupt their communion.

It is appropriate that we learn these principles from the saint also known as “Mungo”, for this name signifies “beloved”. Who better to instruct us in how better to love one another in God?