Page images
[subsumed][merged small][merged small][graphic][subsumed]


THE life of a great Saint of the earlier ages of the Church, is a subject which we approach with feelings different from those with which we regard the biography of the good and holy men who have shone as lights in the English Church of more recent times. The former in part stands on a vantage ground, as being less involved in controversy. The faith of all Christendom was one, and its unity unbroken; and the adversaries who assailed the truth were altogether aliens to the one true fold, for not then, as now, was the Church of one land at variance with that of another. But partly it is also at a disadvantage, because too many have ceased to feel my sympathy with the Church of past ages, from which nevertheless we derive the deposit of our faith, and all the graces of the Sacraments; and some, in the blindness of self-sufficiency, have ventured even to despise it. To disabuse the mind of so great a misconception, it can only be necessary to peruse in a right spirit the lives and writings of but one or two of the Saints who lived during the ages so maligned. No tone of apology, it

will then be seen, is required for men who in reality do so shame, not the practice only, but very much of the boasted learning of later times. Of the truth of this, the following biography may serve in some degree as evidence.

The accusations of darkness and ignorance applied to these periods are indeed unworthy of a laboured refutation, which would here be entirely out of place. To any one who will confront them with the records which they have left, such charges at once rebut themselves; and a painful feeling of humiliation follows the conviction that we have been accustomed to think and speak lightly of men at whose feet we ought to sit and drink in the words of wisdom.

There are one or two points in which the life and practice of the Saints of the early and middle ages stand out in more prominent contrast with that of our later days. Whatever be the cause, there is much of energy and labour wasted now, or thrown away, owing to the desultory manner in which our religious undertakings are begun and carried on. Partly from decay of discipline, partly from want of unity, in part also from indefiniteness and insufficiency of teaching, there results the random character so generally belonging to our religious efforts. Men embark on courses of action singly and alone: and in isolated instances an amount of strength is frittered away which might, if combined, have furnished a vast force for the accomplishment of really great works. Such is the loss entailed by the breaking of the unity of the Church, and the want of discipline is felt in the uncertain obedience of the greater number. Checks and restraints are not of suf

ficient force and moment to subdue the proneness to insubordination and self-will; but in no less a degree do we suffer from indefiniteness of teaching, resulting from the neglect of all dogmatic theology. When the training is crude and unsystematic, almost the whole work is left in the hands of individuals; and slowly and laboriously they attain singly to an amount of knowledge which would be little more than the foundation on which the superstructure would be reared, if the dogmatic teaching of the Church had been steadily maintained. How strikingly different in these respects was the working of the ancient Church, the life of S. Boniface will exemplify. A great work was to be done, and he felt its greatness, and knew how it should be undertaken. There were no random and desultory efforts. A vast machinery was systematically brought to bear upon the given object; all worked steadily in obedience to a principle established and recognized in the Church from the first, without wasting strength in labours which were not concentrated: and by this very completeness of system all uncertainty of teaching was banished. The Church everywhere exhibited herself fully and uncompromisingly, and all her servants had only to set forth her system without hesitation or qualification. None had occasion to modify their own teaching because they felt that the condition of the Church was a practical contradiction of it. The progress of the Church then was as the smooth and solemn march of a vast army, of which every motion is ordered and regulated by its leader. With this we have also to consider the discipline of a regular life, and the immense advantages flowing from it. Such a life may

not, indeed, be incumbent upon all, but it is manifest how great must be the superiority of men so trained over those who are left in great measure to themselves. There are of course also other differences, it will be expected, observable between the Christianity of the eighth and the nineteenth century: on these it is not the province of a biographer to express an opinion.

A few words will suffice to mention the sources from whence the present Biography has been derived. Of the various lives of S. Boniface, the most full and accurate is by Willibald, who received his information from contemporary authority. This life was subsequently amplified by Othlonus, a Priest and Monk of the Monastery of S. Boniface at Fulda, but without imparting any more facts or other information, except by the insertion of several letters (which have been published in a separate work by Serrarius), written by S. Boniface, or addressed to him. Of the other lives some of the writers are entirely unknown. One is supposed to have been attached to the Church of S. Martin, at Utrecht, not long after the time of Willibald, as he speaks of the Mission of S. Boniface as an event comparatively recent, and of his own country as the chief scene of his labours, stating also that there still survived a woman, now very aged, who gave an account of his martyrdom, as having been herself an eye witness.

These several narratives are not, indeed, as full as many belonging to the same period, and as in the case of so illustrious a martyr we might have expected them to be. But it is hoped that sufficient matter has 1 See Appendix II. 1.

« PreviousContinue »