November 8

1342

Julian of Norwich, English mystic is born. The author of Revelations of Divine Love, the first published book in English written by a woman, was a religious recluse whose true name is still unknown. In the 1370s she began to experience visions whose meanings she explored in a series of books. Her view of God focused primarily on His loving nature: “God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall.” Recent scholarship (Denys Turner’s Julian of Norwich, Theologian) takes her seriously as a thinker.

1431

The birth of Vlad III, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Drakul, aka Dracula, prince of Wallachia. Though known in folklore for his extreme cruelty and for his inspiration for Bram Stoker’s literary villain, Vlad is renowned in the Balkans for his defence of Christian lands against Turkish Islamic expansion. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman emperor Mehmet the Conqueror attempted to complete the Muslim conquest of southeastern Europe. Vlad refused to acknowledge Turkish overlordship or pay the jizya tax imposed on Christian subjects. His armies inflicted a number of defeats on the Turks before he died in battle in 1476.

1674

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,/With loss of Eden, till one greater Man/Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing Heav’nly Muse . . .

John Milton, English writer, dies. Though his reputation as a poet had been in the making before the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, his work during the Puritan Commonwealth was of a polemical nature. He argued for the legitimacy of Christian divorce, for free speech (Areopagitica) and for the right of a people to overthrow a tyrannical ruler (On the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates). His blindness, which became total in 1654 did not prevent him from continuing his political writings or his poetry (see his sonnet “On My Blindness”). The restoration of the monarchy forced him into hiding for a time but he managed to live peacefully until his death. In 1667 he published Paradise Lost, the epic poem on the Fall of mankind. Milton’s standing as a literary figure has always been controversial. C.S. Lewis was a fan; T.S. Eliot was not. Curious readers unwilling to attempt an ascent on the summit of Paradise Lost might try his Christmas poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: “See how from far upon the Eastern road/ The Star-led Wizards haste with odours sweet”.

October 25

1938 An archbishop denounces “swing music”

Churches have always been ambivalent about dance music, some clergy fearing it is the devil’s tool, an incitement to lascivious behaviour; some have made use of dance music in liturgy and in Christmas carols. The waltz, where a man and a woman hold each other in their arms and sway rhythmically, was denounced in the 19th century. The bishop of Santa Fe condemned dances as “conducive to evil, occasions of sin, [providing] opportunities for illicit affinities and love that was reprehensible and sinful.” In 1938, Francis Beckman, the Catholic Archbishop of Dubuque campaigned against “swing music”.

Beckman (1875-1948) was no stranger to controversy. He was an isolationist in foreign policy and a supporter of the radical priest Father Charles Coughlin whose radio broadcasts beamed antisemitic messages to millions in Depression-era America. He believed that calls for the USA to oppose Hitler were a communist plot. In October 1938,  in a speech to the National Council of Catholic Women, he launched a crusade against contemporary dance music which he termed  “a degenerated musical system… turned loose to gnaw away the moral fiber of young people”. “Jam sessions, jitterbugs and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies occupy a place in our social scheme of things,” said the archbishop, “wooing our youth along the primrose path to Hell!” He went on to say that though the Church was zealously trying to promote and preserve the best of modern art, swing music was among “the evil forces … hard at work to undermine its Christian status, debauch its high purposes and harness it to serve individual diabolical ends.”

Archbishop Beckman’s career was curtailed during the Second World War when it was discovered that he had borrowed money in his diocese’s name to invest in a shady gold mine scheme. He was allowed to retain his post but all decisions were left in the hands of a coadjutor bishop.

Over Niagara Falls

Doing dangerously silly things is usually the province of men, who for hormonal reasons are much more prone to teasing alligators, climbing icy mountains and trying to go fast in a rocket-power shopping cart.

Imagine the surprise of the world, therefore, when on October24, 1901 an elderly woman climbed into a barrel constructed of oak and iron and padded with a mattress and floated down the Niagara River toward the famous falls. Annie Edson Taylor, on her 63rd birthday, clutching her lucky heart-shaped cushion, was the first person to survive a trip over the mighty cataract.

Her motive was financial but she made little money from her perilous drop, especially after her manager ran away with her barrel.

Of her stunt she would say: “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat … I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.”

October 21

1096 The End of the People’s Crusade

In 1095, Pope Urban II summoned the princes of Europe to form an army to journey to the eastern Mediterranean and do battle with Islamic armies threatening the Byzantine Empire and occupying the Holy Land. Thousands of nobles and knights heeded the call and took part in what is known as The First Crusade or the Princes’ Crusade. At the same, millennial crazes were obsessing the common people of western Christendom who felt that they too had a part to play in liberating Jerusalem. Listening to itinerant preachers such as Peter the Hermit, tens of thousands of ordinary folk, peasants, soldiers, minor nobility, men women and children formed into columns and set out for Constantinople.

On the way, the People’s Crusade proved to be an ungodly menace. They perpetrated anti-Semtic massacres in the Rhineland, extorted food and supplies from the towns they passed through and attacked Byzantine garrisons who were astonished at the arrival of these motley forces. In August 1096 perhaps as many as 30,000 of these folk, drawn from Germany, Italy and France, reached Constantinople. Emperor Alexius, who had no wish to see them linger and become a worse nuisance, arranged to have them ferried across to Asia Minor, which was largely in the hands of Turks. He cautioned them not to take on Muslim armies themselves but to await the arrival of the heavily-armed knights of the First Crusade.

Once in enemy territory the People’s Crusade broke up into quarrelling factions, some reluctant to advance further, some anxious to start the battles they had journeyed so long to fight. While Peter the Hermit was returning to Constantinople to arrange for more supplies the poorly-armed crusaders engaged in several battles and were routed by Turkish forces, particularly at the Battle of Civetot which turned into a massacre. Only a few thousand made it back to the safety of the Byzantine lines; fewer still would survive the rigours of the remaning campaigns and see victory at Jerusalem in 1099.

October 20

1939 Pope Pius XII attacks Nazi and Soviet war aims

Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli (1876-1958) was elected pope as Pius XII in 1939, having spent much of his ecclesiastical career as in the Church’s diplomatic service. He was well acquainted with Germany have negotiated with its imperial rulers, its democratic regime and its Nazi officials — Pius XI’s encyclical Mit brennender Sorge which condemned Nazi policy was written by Pacelli. His election took place while peace was collapsing in Europe and Adolf Hitler was plotting a continent-wide war. In September 1939, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR collaborated to invade Poland and divide the conquered nation, an act which triggered World War II.

Summi Pontificatus was Pius XII’s first encyclical, appearing on this date in 1939. In it the pope notes the growing strength of the “host of Christ’s enemies” and the outbreak of war. These calamities he blamed on the denial and rejection of a universal norm of morality as well for individual and social life as for international relations; We mean the disregard, so common nowadays, and the forgetfulness of the natural law itself, which has its foundation in God, Almighty Creator and Father of all, supreme and absolute Lawgiver, all-wise and just Judge of human actions. When God is hated, every basis of morality is undermined; the voice of conscience is stilled or at any rate grows very faint, that voice which teaches even to the illiterate and to uncivilized tribes what is good and what is bad, what lawful, what forbidden, and makes men feel themselves responsible for their actions to a Supreme Judge.

Pius XII went on to condemn racism, totalitarianism and the rape of Poland. The Nazi government in Berlin recognized the encyclical as an attack on their policies; in neutral America, the New York Times praised the pope: A powerful attack on totalitarianism and the evils which he considers it has brought upon the world was made by Pope Pius XII in his first encyclical…It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical-the Germany of Hitler and National Socialism. The French air force scattered copies of the bull over Germany.

October 9

Death of a cephalophoric saint

We expect saints to perform miracles. These days, proof of a miraculous cure or two is one of the ways the Catholic Church decides that an individual has exhibited saintly prowess. We do not routinely expect, however, that saints go about lugging their severed heads, but hagiographies abound in cephalophores (head-carriers) and today we celebrate the first of them: St Denis.

St Denis seems to have been sent from Italy to evangelize Roman-occupied Gaul in the third century. He converted so many in the region of what is now Paris that the authorities were alerted to his presence and he, with two companions, was beheaded on the city’s highest point, Montmartre. This execution does not seem to have deterred Denis from picking up his severed sense organ cluster and walking six miles to his burial site, with the detached head preaching a sermon of repentance all the way.

Other cephalophoric saints include Nicasius of Rheims who was reading a psalm when he was decapitated — his head finished reciting the verse he was on — and St Gemolo who, after his execution, picked up his head mounted a horse and rode off to meet his uncle. St Paul’s head was separated from his body by a sword but, nevertheless, was reputed to have cried out “Jesus Christus” fifty times.

Denis is not to be confused (though he was for centuries) with Dionysius the Areopagite who was converted by Paul in Athens. And of the latter’s imposter, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, we shall remain silent.

October 5

1793 The French Revolution dechristianizes the calendar

Since its beginning in 1789, forces of the French Revolution had been hostile to Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church. The monastic system had been abolished and all church lands seized by the government. The Catholic church was severed from its allegiance to the Pope and its clergy became civil servants, forced to swear loyalty to the state; priests who refused were subject to imprisonment, exile or death. All church bells were seized and melted down to make artillery; church silver and precious objects were stolen; crosses were torn down, tombs were desecrated and buildings turned over to secular uses. In place of Christianity, supporters of the Revolution offered the near-atheist Cult of Reason or the deist Cult of the Supreme Being.

On October 5, 1703 the traditional calendar with its Anno Domini dating from the birth of Christ, its seven-day week and names drawn from mythology was abolished and replaced by a revolutionary calendar. All months now had 30 days, divided into 3 ten-day décades, with a 5-day year-end holiday. Saints’ days were abolished and instead of a day of rest every 7 days, there was now one every 10 days — revolutionaries despised the idleness encouraged by the old church calendar and its many holidays. Dating was to take place from the beginning of the French Republic, months were named after climatic conditions and days were named after tools or common objects. Thus, Christmas Day 1793 was officially V nivôse II, le jour de chien — Year II, the fifth day of the snowy month, the day of the dog. (It could have been worse, December 28 was “the day of manure.”) There was even a short-lived attempt to decimalize the clock: a ten-hour day, each hour with 100 minutes. 

Such efforts were made to remove every-day religion from the minds of the common people but ordinary folk did not fail to notice that they now had to work more days in the year. Though governments tried to enforce the reforms, they never truly caught on and Napoleon ended the experiment on XIII frimaire XIII, January 1, 1806.

October 2

2006 Murder of five Amish children

On October 2, 2006, an employed church-going husband and loving father named Charles Carl Roberts IV entered a one-room schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and took the teacher and students hostage. After allowing some of his prisoners to leave, Roberts then lined up the remaining ten students, all girls, and began to shoot them. He killed five and wounded five others before killing himself as police broke in to the building. His suicide notes gave a variety of reasons for his actions, including a history of sexual molestation and anger at God.

What astonished the world after these deaths was the reaction of the local Amish community which reacted not with anger or frustrated calls for vengeance but with compassion for the killer and pity for his family. A spokesman said, “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.” Amish residents attended Roberts’s’ funeral and embraced his relatives. These extraordinary examples of Christian behaviour helped healing in the lives of all concerned. The killer’s wife, Marie Roberts, said that she and her three young children had been overwhelmed by the community support. “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need,” she wrote. “Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. … Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.” Terri Roberts, the killer’s mother, still volunteers to care for one of the victims, confined to a wheel-chair for life.

October 1

October 1

St Theresa of Lisieux

There is nothing to say that saints have to live long and arduous lives; hagiographies are full of the tales of young people who have been canonized for flashes of sanctitude or a single action. Few saints of tender years can have had so great an influence as this French woman who died at the age of 24 after a long battle with tuberculosis.

Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin (1873-97) was born into a pious middle-class family in northwestern France and decided at an early age she wished to be a nun, a resolve that strengthened when she experienced a vision of the Virgin. At 15 she entered the Discalced (Shoeless or Barefoot) Carmelites, a contemplative order of cloistered women with a house at Lisieux, Normandy which her sisters had already joined. She took the religious name Theresa of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. The rest of her short life she spent inside the walls of her convent, praying, serving and writing.

Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.

It is through her exposition of “the little way” that made Theresa famous, winning her sainthood after her death and the title Doctor of the Church. In her poetry and her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, Theresa advocated a life of child-like trust and small loving actions. She is the patroness of African missions, those suffering from AIDS or tuberculosis, air crews and florists.

September 27

1627 Birth of the “Eagle of Meaux”

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) has been called the greatest pulpit orator ever; his name is a byword for elegance of speech. As a preacher and Catholic bishop he engaged in the great religious controversies of his time, taking on Protestants, Quietists, ultramontanists and secularists; as a tutor to the heir to the throne he failed miserably.

Bossuet was born to a prosperous provincial family of lawyers with powerful connections. He was destined by his family for the Church and in the amiable corruption of the age became tonsured at age 10 and a canon of the cathedral of Metz at 13. Though he continued to take advantage of sins against canon law such as absenteeism, Bossuet took his religious commitment seriously; he studied for the priesthood under St Frances de Sales and received his Doctor of Divinity.

Even in his teens Bossuet had a reputation as a brilliant public speaker and he eventually attracted the attention of the court of Louis XIV. He preached before royalty and was rewarded with a bishopric and the post of tutor to Louis’ oldest son, the Grand Dauphin. His efforts in this regard were misplaced and wasted. To school the lumpish lad he wrote three grand tomes, a treatise on knowing God and oneself, a history of the world, and a creaky master-piece entitled  Politique Tirée des Propres Paroles de L’Ecriture Sainte. [This is the book I translated as Political Theory Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture for part of my Master’s thesis.] The latter was the last bold attempt at defending absolute monarchy, no surprise from a courtier of the Sun King, but it fell on deaf ears — not only those of the Dauphin but the larger world about to experience the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions. It may be said that Bossuet was born a generation too late but that his golden expressions are still valued by lovers of the French language.