Schools don’t seem to talk about the saints much anymore, expect perhaps for the odd patron saint. Sometimes I think that might be because we are bit embarrassed by our saints and their hagiographies, especially in a modern scientific world. I think my school is pretty lucky in its choice of saint – Aidan of Lindisfarne – for reasons I will expand on below, but even I am willing to admit that stories of unburned timbers and incorruptible hands meet with a lot of scepticism these days!
But I like our saints, or friends of Jesus as we call them in my school. And I am deliberate about trawling the lectionary for good saints’ days to celebrate with the students. This week, for example, our Year Ones will learn about Columba of Iona (St Aidan gives me entrée into the whole collection of Celtic saints) and they will hear the story of Columba’s encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, not as an historically accurate account of a real meeting but as a story that tells us something about Columba’s compassion and courage (two of the values of our founding Sisters).
Throughout the year we might meet David, Patrick, Mary, Mother Emma, Julian of Norwich and Mary Magdalene, just to name a few. I share the fantastic legends, always asking the students “What do you think this story is supposed to help us remember?” rather than “Do you believe this really happened?” The former is a much more interesting question, to my mind.
The saints remind me, and my students, that the family of God is full of weird and wonderful characters, like any human family. Some of them sound like great fun, some are full of wisdom, some are just difficult to understand, but here we all are, all of us invited to be friends of Jesus.
Aidan, our patron saint, is one of the wise ones. He is remembered for his humility and gentleness, and for the rhythms of his life as he and his fellow monks journeyed into the daily lives of the Northumbrian people then sought refuge once more on Holy Island. I think the example of this rhythm of engagement and solitude is really helpful for our staff and students, so I like that I get to remind them of it at least once a year.
As for miracle stories? Well, the incorruptible hand, for example, is the story of Aidan feasting with King Oswald one Easter. When a servant informed the King there were hungry people at the gates, Oswald sent out not just a platter of fine food, but the silver platters themselves, instructing the poor to keep the platters to sell for their own benefit. Aidan, struck by Oswald’s generosity grabbed his right arm and exclaimed “May this arm never perish!” And legend (and Bede) tells us it didn’t, even after Oswald’s death. This is really a story about generosity, rather than an historically accurate account, but if a zombiesque tale of king’s corpses that don’t rot helps us to remember to be generous with what we have, then so much the better!
Julian really came into her own during the pandemic years when we all had a taste of the life of an anchorite, but her stories and visions remain relevant today as we struggle to balance our own desire for connection with a yearning for simpler lives. We still long to be told that God is love and holds everything in the palm of God’s hand. Images of hazelnuts hopefully help us to remember that truth.
And if I am lucky our valedictory service will fall on the feast day of Margaret of Scotland or Hilda of Whitby, both excellent saints to remember as we celebrate our graduating students. This year it is Margaret, who reminds us of the power of education and the importance of using our privilege to serve others.
I encourage all chaplains to remember the saints in your chapel preparations. There are some great picture books and videos about various saints that really help our students engage with the stories. I have found some great craft ideas on the net and even food traditions, which might be difficult but can really be worth the effort. One of my more memorable chapels was to celebrate Mary and Martha, and the Year 2s planned a great meal for Jesus, cutting out food pictures from catalogues and magazines to make their own placemats.
Saints days are also a good excuse to share lots of art, poetry, music and history with our students, reminding them that faith is not separate from the rest of life. Various saints have been inspiration for some of our greatest artists, so why not share those masterpieces with our students? And those unbelievable stories are a great invitation to talk about science and belief.
I give thanks for our weird and wacky family – it helps me feel much more normal!