In October 1873 the town of Ely in Cambridgeshire commemorated twelve-hundred years since St Etheldreda founded her monastery on the spot where Ely Cathedral now stands. A ‘festival of St Etheldreda’, they called it. The five days of festivities were punctuated by many sermons and addresses. The speakers expressed gratitude and appreciation for the good that had come from the cathedral’s influence down the ages. What intrigued me was that the saint herself did not emerge from the festivities with unqualified splendour. One gets the distinct impression that if the dignitaries who gave the addresses could have chosen a different Foundress they would gladly have done so. They were all rather Protestant in their views, and St Etheldreda, as you know, was rather Catholic. The bishop of the diocese proclaimed that ‘I am not here to defend the principles of [monastic] establishments, of the exaggerated respect for celibacy, which prevailed in her days, and which, it is said, she had learnt to entertain.’ The Dean of Ely in his sermon acknowledged that St Etheldreda had founded the monastery, ‘But of aught else that has been written of her’, he sternly proclaimed, ‘I feel a very slender assurance indeed. She has been said indeed to have twice married, and to have refused to consort with either of her husbands, to have quitted house and home and spouse and every wordly duty in order to effect her fantastic purpose of founding a monastery. It may be so. But it is also said that wonders attended her in her life, that wonders followed her and clung to her after her death. I have little faith in either the one set of incidents or the other.’ The general message was that the founding of the monastery, although in itself a well-intentioned experiment with many short-term benefits, gave an unwelcome boost to monasticism and celibacy in England; and by theological inclination, the speakers were not overly enamoured of either celibacy or monasticism; or of saints, for that matter.
It was only two months after the festival at Ely that Father William Lockhart made up his mind that he wanted to purchase St Etheldreda’s Ely Place in order to restore it to the Catholic faith. It is a pity he was too busy church-hunting down here to be up there in Ely putting his side of the story and restoring some lustre to Catholic traditions about St Etheldreda. Even so, one hopes that he would not have gone to the opposite extreme. For a dispassionate observer must acknowledge that the Venerable Bede, and Abbot Aelfric, our chief if not our only sources for the life of St Etheldreda, did tend to identify holiness with celibacy, at the expense of other vocations, and they were rather too ready to give credence to the folklore that inevitably springs up around the lives of the saints.
Be that as it may, a thing I find to be noticeably absent in the published proceedings of the Ely festival is: any sense of personal devotion to the saint – by which I mean a sense of personal warmth, of living presence, of profound communion with someone who is still there, still near us, interested in us, concerned for us, united with us in a sense that goes far, far deeper than what we happen to know about her historically, and far, far deeper than anything that might separate us from her through historical or cultural distance. For, as St Paul says, we are ‘all one body and individually members of it’. ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.’ In other words, what is missing, it seems to me, in the Ely festivities is a sense of the communion of saints such as pervades the writings of Bede and not least his story of Etheldreda.
The ‘communion of saints’ is an article of faith. We profess it whenever we recite the Apostles’ Creed. ‘Saints’ in this sense bears the meaning that it has in the New Testament. It means all those who are consecrated through their union with Christ. Of course it includes your St Francis of Assisi, your St Thomas More and your St Etheldreda. But equally it includes me and you. The doctrine of the ‘communion of saints’ affirms that all those who are in Christ, whether they be on earth or in heaven or (Catholics would want to say) in ‘Purgatory’, are profoundly united with each other, have common concerns, a common goal, mutual love and sympathy, and a profound supernatural affinity with each other, mirroring the love of the divine Persons in God. It is a very comforting doctrine. It means, not least, that our departed loved-ones are not departed at all, but have come closer to us, for nothing now can ever come between us, not any change of mood or circumstance, nor any fear or insecurity, nor any lack of time or opportunity for showing our love for them. We should constantly be aware of their presence and delight in it. We do not have to wait until we die to ‘meet merrily’ with our loved-ones in heaven, as Thomas More put it, for we can meet merrily with them now at every moment of the day.
The same must apply, surely, to our relationship with our sister Etheldreda, and especially so, since we bear her name and claim her patronage. If St Thérèse of Lisieux could promise that she would spend her heaven in doing good upon earth, and St Dominic could assure his brethren that he would be able to help them more effectively after his death than during his lifetime, surely Queen Etheldreda will be concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of all who have worshipped here down the centuries, and for the good of our community, for the flourishing of individuals and even, I am sure, for the physical church and its fabric. The good Dean of Ely would have been less grumpy about her eccentric marriages if he had been more willing to meet merrily with her as a dear friend, and feel her sisterly presence, and share with her the warmth and the blessing of our fellowship in Christ.
And may we too, on this our Patronal Feast Day, meet merrily with our Lord, and with one another; and with Fr Lockhart and all those who have a special reason to rejoice with St Etheldreda in the communion of saints. I am sure that even the former Bishop and Dean of Ely are merrily among us, each bearing a single white lily to present to the virgin. And if they’ve forgotten their lilies, they have only to ask and we will provide them, for the honouring of their Foundress and our patron. May we do her proud in the way we live and the way we treat each other; and may we learn to feel her presence and treasure her friendship.