What makes a saint a saint? That's a question for another assembly, really. But there are some stories of saints which may help us today, in our understanding of Our World.
Saints of the British Isles, like St Columbanus, who, when he went for walks in solitary places so he could pray, would call the beasts and the birds to him as he walked. They would come straightaway, his biographer tells us, rejoicing and gambolling around him; and in great delight would behave "like little puppies around their master". He would call a squirrel from the tree tops and let it climb all over him, and from time to time its head may be seen peeping through the folds of his robes. He shared food with wolves and bears, and they shared food with him.
There are many other quaint stories of saints and creatures: one of my favourite ones is about the Irish Saint Kevin:
- "One Lent, St Kevin, as was his way, fled from the company of men to a certain solitude, and in a little hut that did but keep out the sun and the rain, gave himself earnestly to reading and to prayer, and his leisure to contemplation alone. And as he knelt in his accustomed fashion, with his hand outstretched through the window and lifted up to heaven, a blackbird settled on it, and busying herself as in her nest, laid in it an egg. And so moved was the saint that in all patience and gentleness he remained, neither closing nor withdrawing his hand: but until the young ones were fully hatched he held it out unwearied, shaping it for the purpose. And for a sign of perpetual remembrance of this thing, all the images of St Kevin throughout Ireland show a blackbird in his outstretched hand."
If you're familiar with mid-Wales, the area around Lake Vyrnwy where some of Liverpool's water supply comes from, you may know a little place called Melangell. Named after another saint, a young woman who is always pictured with a hare, because of the story about a frightened hare being chased by a huntsman and his dogs. Melangell rescued the hare by hiding it in her skirt. The huntsman was the landowner and she so impressed him that he gave her the land to set up a church in that lovely valley, which remains to this day.
Think what you like about these stories - they may not be true in the way we understand truth, that is, they may not have actually happened. But they tell us something about these ancient spiritual people. Something about how close they were to the other creatures of the world. And how close the creatures were to them.
These stories may give ususeful insights about how to live in our world. Which is not just ours but shared with many others. The medieval historian Bede said of St Cuthbert, as he stood there with his friends the otters at his feet, that he was "once more at peace with all creation". That seems a good place to aim at.
Material in this talk gleaned from Esther de Waal: A World Made Whole: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition, pp.81-88