July 22

Mary Magdalene

Confusion reigns supreme when it comes to investigating the real story of the saint known as Mary Magdalene. She is mentioned in the Gospels by name more often than almost any other follower of Jesus but she is often confused with an unnamed woman with a jar of ointment. She was present at the empty tomb but is better known for allegedly being the wife of Jesus. There is no reliable connection between her and a repentant prostitute but her name has become a byword for fallen women. Meet Mary Magdalene.

The first mention of this particular Mary — and there are a number of them surrounding Jesus — comes in the eighth chapter of Luke:

After that, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. 

She is then depicted as being at the crucifixion, as carrying spices to the tomb to anoint the body of the Lord and then as encountering the risen Christ. From this point things are far less certain. In the apocryphal Gnostic accounts, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Thomas, she is treated as both important to the mission of Jesus and as his very intimate companion. The latter has this enigmatic passage:

Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Then at the beginning of the seventh century we see the creation of what becomes known as “the composite Magdalene” in which three women — the Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the penitent sinner — are merged. Pope Gregory in a homily conflates her with the repentant prostitute:

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? . . . It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.

Thus in Western medieval art Mary Magdalene is portrayed as an alluring, attractive woman with long red hair, often carrying a container of ointment. According to legend she and other disciples traveled miraculously to Gaul where they evangelized the south of France. Churches in Provence have longed claimed to possess her relics. The Eastern Church regards her as always chaste and living with the Virgin Mary in Ephesus until her death.



July 19


Lady Jane Grey and the Protestant coup

Henry VIII’s desire to have a legitimately-born son to follow him in the Tudor dynasty led to all manner of marital distress, political turmoil, and the withdrawal of the Church of England from its subjection to the papacy. In 1544 Henry passed a scheme of royal succession. The throne, on his death, would pass to his only surviving son Edward (raised as a Protestant); if he died without children, the throne would go to Mary, his eldest daughter (and a Catholic); if Mary were to prove childless, she would be succeeded by Henry’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth (religiously ambiguous). Should all of his children die without issue, the throne would go to the successors of Henry’s younger sister Mary Tudor, the line which included Lady Jane Grey (1536-1554).

When Henry died in 1547, Edward VI instituted a Protestant national church, the beginning of Anglicanism as we now know it. For almost six years he legislated against Catholic practices, instituted a new Prayer Book, allowed clergy to marry, and placed Protestant ministers and professors in positions of power. In this he was supported by some, though by no means all, of the political class. By 1553 it was clear that Edward was not going to live long and steps were taken to disinherit Mary, still obdurately Catholic. Elizabeth was still, by law, considered a bastard and was thought to be religiously unreliable, so plans centred on Lady Jane Grey. Jane had been raised a firm Protestant and had been married off unwillingly to the son of the greatest Protestant noble, the Duke of Northumberland. In his “Devise for the Succession”, Edward sought to preserve Protestantism by placing Jane on the throne.

At Edward’s death in July 1553, the Protestants of the political class, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, had Jane declared Queen and set her securely in the Tower of London to await the result of the rest of the coup. The key was the arrest of Mary and Elizabeth to keep them from raising support for the legitimate line. Mary slipped through Northumberland’s fingers and assembled so many armed partisans and so much public goodwill that after nine days the coup collapsed. Mary promised religious toleration and, on July 19, Jane stepped down. By early 1554 Mary was well on the way toward the active persecution of English Protestantism. Jane, her husband, and father-in-law were considered too dangerous to live. On February 12, Jane went to the block to die, becoming a romantic martyr for the reformed cause.

July 18


The murder of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia

The Holy Martyr Yelizaveta Fyodorovna was born in 1864 as Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and daughter of the Grand Duke of the German state of Hesse. As one of the most beautiful aristocrats of her generation, she attracted the romantic interests of princes and kings including the future Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, but she married into the Russian royal family. In 1884 she married the Grand Duke Sergei, younger brother of the Tsar and uncle of Russia’s last Romanov ruler Nicholas II. She converted to Orthodoxy from Lutheranism and was a well-accepted member of the upper reaches of Russian society when Alexei was made Governor of Moscow.

The Russian Empire in the early 20th century was full of political turmoil and revolutionary fervour, which made Alexei, a royalist hardliner, a favoured target for terrorist assassins. In February, 1905 a hit squad of the Socialist-Revolutionary party blew the Grand Duke to bits as he rode in his carriage through the streets of Moscow. Elizabeth went to the jail to speak with his murderer and begged for him to repent; she pleaded with the authorities to spare his life but the young man, poet Ivan Kalyayev, demanded the death penalty, saying that his death would be more beneficial to the revolutionary cause than that of the Grand Duke.

After this tragedy, Elizabeth forsook her high status, sold off her jewels and possessions, entered a nunnery and devoted her life to prayer and charity. She opened an orphanage and hospital and worked with the poor of Moscow’s slums. This counted for nothing after the Bolshevik Revolution broke out. In 1918 she was arrested by the Cheka, the Communist secret police, and was murdered along with her maid and another nun, and some high-ranking officials. She was thrown down a mine shaft and grenades tossed in to finish the job. Her body was later recovered and smuggled to China and then to Jerusalem where she and her husband had founded a convent. She is buried there. A statue of the Grand Duchess is one of 10 Martyrs of the Twentieth Century that stand above the west door of Westminster Abbey.

July 17


The Carmelite Martyrs

The French Revolution had begun in 1789 as a way to secure human rights for all citizens to enjoy, and its early days saw the triumph of middle-class liberalism: freedom of the press, freedom of religion, an end to feudalism and arbitrary arrest, under a constitutional monarchy. But soon it turned against the Catholic Church, confiscating its land, dissolving the monasteries, severing the ties with the papacy, and mandating that clergy serve a state church. This caused great consternation in the country and alienated King Louis XVI and many others from the Revolution. But radicals were prepared to go much farther and soon the Revolution turned against Christianity itself. Thousands of clergy were arrested, church services were forbidden, and a propaganda campaign of blasphemy and vilification was undertaken. Priests and nuns were forced to marry, the word “saint” was removed from streets and place names, tombs and monuments were desecrated and destroyed. “Religion”, said one radical, “is nothing but a mass of stupidities and and absurdity . . . A true republican cannot be superstitious; he bends the knee before no idols; he worships liberty alone; he knows no other cult than that of loving his country and its laws. The cross has become, in the eyes of the humanist thinker, a counter-revolutionary emblem.” In 1792 massacres of clergy began; these accelerated with the Terror of 1793-94.

In June 1794 a group of nuns living in a community in Compiègne was arrested for refusing to abjure their vows. Sixteen Carmelite nuns and lay sisters were taken to Paris for trial and were condemned to death. Most were middle-aged women, the youngest was 29 and two were 78 years old. On the evening of July 17, in the Place de la Nation, one by one, beginning with the youngest, the nuns mounted the steps of the guillotine to be beheaded. As they awaited their deaths they sang the psalm Laudate Dominum omnes gentes : O praise the Lord all ye nations! Praise him all ye people! For his mercy is confirmed upon us and the truth of the Lord remains forever. Praise the Lord! One by one, as their turn came to die, they kissed a little statuette of the Virgin and Child held out to them by Mother Theresa, their prioress, at the bottom of the stairs. Finally, she too, the last remaining alive, singing still, climbed up to be killed.

The constancy of these women very much impressed the crowd and added to the growing disgust of Parisians for the Terror, which was ended brutally less than two weeks later by the execution of its inventor Maximillien Robespierre and his henchmen. Francis Poulenc’s operatic masterpiece Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957) takes historical liberties with the story but is a powerful tribute to the martyrs.

July 15

St Swithun’s Day

Swithun or Swithin (d. 862) was an obscure bishop of Winchester in the mid-9th century. However, after his death he seems to have been quite active in the miracle department. On his deathbed, Swithun asked to be buried out of doors, where he would be trodden on by local folk and rained on. However, when the monks of Winchester attempted to remove his remains to a splendid shrine inside the cathedral legend says there was a heavy rain storm during the ceremony.

This led to the belief that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day (July 15th), it will rain for the next 40 days in succession, and a fine 15th July will be followed by 40 days of fine weather. The old rhyme says:

St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain 

For forty days it will remain. 

St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair 

For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.

A local variation says: If on St Swithun’s day it really pours/ You’re better off to stay indoors.

Unfortunately for the wisdom of our ancestors, this seems not to be borne out in fact. Since records began, not a single 40-day drought has occurred anywhere in the UK during the summer months, and there has been not one instance at any time of the year of 40 consecutive days of rainfall. According to the British Meteorological Society “the middle of July tends to be around the time that the jet stream settles into a relatively consistent pattern. If the jet stream lies north of the UK throughout the summer, continental high pressure is able to move in, bringing warmth and sunshine. If it sticks further south, Arctic air and Atlantic weather systems are likely to predominate, bringing colder, wetter weather.” The rhyme should read:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain

For forty days, relatively unsettled there’s a fair chance it will remain

St Swithun’s day if thou be fair

For forty days, a northerly jet stream might result in some fairly decent spells

But then again it might not.

July 12


The Glorious Twelfth

With the accession of Catholic James II to the English throne in 1685, political tensions were high. For most Englishmen and Scotsmen (because James also ruled that country) Catholicism was equated with foreign tyranny and invasion. The Spanish in the 16th century and the French in 17th century were seen as the nation’s enemies, egged on by the pope to bring England back to obedience to Rome. Some thought to exclude James from the throne but others were reassured by the fact that his Protestant daughters, Mary and Anne, would eventually succeed him. This changed when James’s second wife bore him a surprise son in 1688 — this would mean a Catholic heir. The king’s quarrels with Parliament over his plans to enforce religious toleration led to the revolt of most of his political class. With the help of a Dutch army led by her husband William of Orange, his daughter Mary returned and ousted her father from power. This so-called Bloodless Revolution may have been without much violence in England but that was not the case in Ireland where James fled to rally support.

The Irish Parliament declared their support for James, passing a bill decreeing religious toleration for both Catholics and Protestants. A French army landed on the island to bolster his claims and found much support among the Catholic population. War raged across Ireland until a decisive battle was fought on the Boyne River by the rival kings: James with an army of 25,000 French and Irish against Mary’s husband, William III, with a larger and more professional army of Dutch, English and assorted European Protestants, armed with more modern weaponry. James was driven from the field and fled to France, leaving his Irish supporters to be mopped up piecemeal over the next few years. The exiled king lived on a French pension for the rest of his life and never made a serious attempt to regain the throne, though his son James (the “old Pretender”) and grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie (the “Young Pretender”) invaded Britain unsuccessfully to press their dynastic claims.

To this day the Battle of the Boyne looms large in the memory of Ulster Protestants for whom July 12 is a grand holiday to be celebrated by marching triumphantly through Catholic areas to intimidate their neighbours.

An interesting historical irony: the papacy did nothing to support Catholic King James in 1689. Pope Innocent XI, involved in a church-state tussle with the French government, felt that James was too much a tool of Louis XIV.

July 10


The martyrdom of St Felicitas

Little is known for certain about St Felicitas (or Felicity) other than the site of her grave in Rome and that her martyrdom was marked by a homily preached by St Gregory the Great in a church erected over her tomb. Legend, however, gives us more data. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

Felicity was a noble Christian woman who, after the death of her husband, served God in a state of widowhood and employed herself in prayer and works of charity. By the example of this lady and her family many idolaters were moved to embrace the faith of Christ. This angered the pagan priests, who complained to the Emperor Antoninus Pius that the boldness with which Felicity practised the Christian religion drew many from the worship of the immortal gods, who on that account would be angry with the city and state. The emperor was prevailed upon to send an order to Publius, the prefect of Rome, and he caused the mother and her sons to be apprehended and brought before him. He took Felicity aside and used the strongest inducements to bring her to sacrifice to the gods, that he might not be obliged to proceed with severity against her and her sons; but she answered, ” Do not think to frighten me by threats, or to win me by fair speeches. The spirit of God within me will not suffer me to be overcome, and will make me victorious over all your assaults.” ” Unhappy woman “, replied Publius, ” if you wish to die, die; but do not destroy your children.” ” My children “, said she, ” will live eternally if they are faithful, but must expect eternal death if they sacrifice to idols.”

The next day the prefect sent for Felicity and her sons again, and said, ” Take pity on your children, Felicity, they are in the bloom of youth.” The mother answered, “Your pity is impiety, and your words cruel.” Then, turning towards her children, she said, ” My sons, look up to Heaven, where Jesus Christ with His saints expects you. Be faithful in His love, and fight courageously for your souls.” Publius commanded her to be beaten, saying, ” You are insolent to give them such advice in my presence, in contempt of the orders of our prince.” He then called the boys to him one after another, and mixed promises with threats to induce them to worship the gods; but they all refused and, after being whipped, were remanded to prison. The prefect laid the whole process before the emperor, who gave an order that they should be sent to different judges and be condemned to different deaths. Felicitas implored God only that she not to be killed before her sons, so that she might be able to encourage them during their torture and death in order that they would not deny Christ.  Januarius was scourged to death, Felix and Philip were beaten with clubs, Silvanus was thrown headlong into the Tiber, and Alexander, Vitalis and Martial were beheaded; the same sentence was executed upon the mother last of all.

July 6

1415 The execution of John Hua

The late medieval church faced a number of serious challenges from reformers and heretics who disputed fundamental Catholic beliefs. John Wyclif, (1320-1384) an English priest, was foremost among those who drew up a list of errors they felt that the Church had fallen into: transubstantiation, the papal monarchy, a separate celibate priestly caste, the denial of Scripture in the vernacular, the abuse of indulgences, and a corrupt, wealthy superstructure. Wyclif was able to evade the usual fate awaiting heretics because he was found to be useful as an anti-ecclesiastical tool by powerful English politicians. Wyclif’s ideas spread in the 1390s to Bohemia where they were taken up by Jan Hus, a prominent preacher in Prague.

The Conciliar movement of the early 1400s attempted to restore the unity of the Church which had been shattered by rival papacies and to attack the heresies that the chaos of the 14th century had allowed to flourish. The 1409 Council of Pisa condemned Wyclif’s writings and pressure mounted against Hus who was identified as a supporter of the banned ideas. In 1414, under an imperial safe-conduct pass, Hus journeyed to the Council of Constance.

Instead of the open discussion he had expected, Hus was almost immediately imprisoned and charges of heresy brought against him. Catholic clerics had convinced the emperor that faith need not be kept with heretics and that his safe-conduct need not be honoured. This act was brought up repeatedly by writers during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and underlay much of the hostility and suspicion manifested in religious debates of the time.

On July 6, 1415 his writings and those of Wyclif were deemed heretical and Hus was burned. News of this prompted the bloody Hussite Rebellion which lasted until the 1430s engulfing much of central Europe. In 1999 Pope John Paul II apologized for Hus’s treatment and praised his bravery.

July 5


FOR a thousand years Athos, the Holy Mountain, the most easterly of the three large headlands which the peninsula of Chalcidice thrusts out into the Aegean Sea, has been the chief centre of Byzantine monasticism; for nearly all that time this “monastic republic” has been out of communion with the Holy See, but at the time of its inception and organization, and during the preceding centuries when it was occupied by little colonies of hermits, Athos was Catholic and a stronghold of orthodoxy in a different sense from that in which it is so today. The father of Mount Athos as a congeries of regular monasteries was one Athanasius, who was born at Trebizond about the year 920, the son of an Antiochene, and baptized Abraham. He studied at Constantinople, where he became a professor; and while he was teaching he met St Michael Maleinos and his nephew, Nicephorus Phocas, who as emperor was to be Abraham’s patron. He received the monastic habit in St Michael’s monastery at Kymina in Bithynia, taking the name of Athanasius, and lived there till about the year 958. Kymina was a laura, the name then reserved for monasteries wherein the monks lived in separate cells grouped more or less closely round their church. When the abbot St Michael Maleinos died Athanasius saw that he would be pretty surely elected in his place; he therefore fled, and eventually found his way to Mount Athos, to avoid this responsibility —only to find that God was reserving for him a greater.

He disguised himself as an ignorant fellow, assuming the name of Dorotheos, and hid in a cell near Karyes, but he was soon traced and found by his friend Nicephorus Phocas. He was about to undertake an expedition against the Saracens, and persuaded Athanasius to come to Crete to help him organize it (it is so often found that the contemplative soul is a capable man of affairs-which, after all, is only to be expected) and to support it with his blessing and prayers. Athanasius was very unwilling to make this sally out into the world and its concerns, but he went; the expedition was victorious, and Athanasius asked permission to return to Athos. But before he was allowed to he was forced to accept a large sum of money, with which he was to build a monastery. This, the first monastery proper on Athos, was begun in the spring of 961 and the church two years later; it was dedicated in honour of the All-holy Mother of God, but is now called “of St Athanasius “, or, more often, simply Laura, ” The Monastery”.

When Nicephorus Phocas became emperor, Athanasius feared that he might be called to court or to other honours and disturbing offices, so he ran away from Athos to Cyprus. Phocas again found him and told him to go back and govern his monastery in peace, giving him more money, with which was built a harbour for Athos. In adopting the laura system for his monks, Athanasius had deliberately reversed the policy of St Basil and St Theodore Studites and returned in a measure to the ancient monastic tradition of Egypt; his monks were to be as ” out of the world” as is possible for human beings (even now the Athonite monks are still extraordinarily” out of touch with things”, as a general rule). But in spite of this he was involved in great difficulties with the solitaries who had been on Athos long before he came and who felt, understandably, that generations of predecessors had given them a prescriptive right to have the place to themselves; they resented his coming there and building monasteries and churches and harbours, imposing rules and keeping order generally. Twice attempts were made to murder St Athanasius. Criminal violence spoils the best of causes, and the Emperor John Tzimisces interfered; he confirmed the donations and rights granted by Nicephorus Phocas, forbade opposition to Athanasius, and recognized his authority over the whole of the mountain and its inhabitants. He thus became superior general over fifty-eight communities of hermits and monks, and the monasteries of Iviron, Vatopedi and Esphigmenou were founded, which still exist as living communities. St Athanasius died about the year 1000, being killed with five of his monks by the falling of a keystone of the vault of the church on which they were working.

July 3

Saint Thomas’s Day

We know more about the relationship between Jesus and Thomas than we do with many of the other Apostles. It was Thomas who boldly declared that he and his companions should follow Jesus into danger in Judaea. Thomas it was at the Last Supper who declared that he did not understand the words of his master that He was going to prepare a place for them and was told that Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Life. His doubt at Christ’s resurrection gave him his nickname and the opportunity to cry out later “My Lord and my God!”

Numerous legends, including an apocryphal gospel, tell stories of Thomas’s travels. He is said to have evangelized in Persia and then reached India in 52. There exists in southern India today a community of Christians who trace their spiritual origin to Thomas. He suffered martyrdom near Chennai (once Madras) in 72, speared to death by order of the local king. The location of his relics is a matter of controversy as a number of places claim them. A basilica in Chennai, with a wonderful neon-lit altar, still exhibits what it claims to be the body of the saint and the spear that killed him.  Some churches observe December 21 as St Thomas Day.