Saint Boniface and the Missionary Culture of the Faith

Oh you who are anxious to learn what it is to enjoy the Word, prepare not your ear but your soul; for it is grace that teaches it and not language. This secret remains hidden from the wise and the cautious, and is revealed to the little ones. Yes, my brothers, it is great, it is great and sublime, the virtue of humility which obtains the reality of what cannot be expressed, which alone teaches what cannot be taught. It [the virtue of humility] alone is worthy to receive from the Word and to conceive through the Word what it cannot explain in words. (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles , 85:14 — emphasis added[1] .)

St. Thomas Aquinas often used the expression “ordo et mysterium” to imply something important about the Christian view of life. By virtue of the Creation and of our finite status of createdness, there is a purposeful order in life and in the cosmos. The created world is intelligible and knowable (hence accessible), but it is also unfathomable , surrounded and permeated by mystery . There is both order and mystery .

The Creator — a Personal Transcendent God — dwells not in an abyss of darkness, but in an abyss of light. It is an inexhaustible, unquenchable light, but still accessible to our finitude, both in nature and in grace. By virtue of the Creation, we in our status creaturae are gratiae capaxi.e. , disposed for and capable of receiving grace. Time itself is also marked by order and mystery. By virtue of the Creation, time has a finite pasti.e. , a beginning. It also has a directionality and purposiveness, and it will have an end . There will be a cessation of time, but also a completion of time — a fruition, a fulfillment. God’s timing is perfect. It would also seem that time, itself a mode of duration, is not only “a measure of the motion of bodies,” but also “a measure of the motion of the soul.” These are profoundly mysterious matters. So, too, is “memory” as “the presentness of the past”; or “expectation” as “the presentness of the future,” i.e. , by way of eager (or even fearful) anticipation and maybe hope (the genuine infused virtue of hope). Although a principle of order is inherent in time, we are also here touching upon a mystery , which we will better appreciate if we attempt to answer, for example, two simple questions, namely: “What is time?” and “What is time for ?”

From this twofold combination of order and mystery, moreover, comes the vitality of human adventure and our probation and hope, all three of which are rooted in an intimate ontological trust . Being itself is trustworthy, uncreated as well as created (contingent) being. That is to say, the created world au fond is plumb and sound and very good (valde bona ), despite the mysterium iniquitatis . But, the mystery of iniquity — especially the mystery of intimate perfidy — will always constitute an acute test of our ontological trust and of our innermost trust in the Providential Mercy of God. To what extent do we really trust, especially under a desolating trial, that “God writes straight with crooked lines” and intends to bring a greater good out of our own culpable disorders and sins?

More concretely, in this essay I propose to take us back to the challenging disorders of the eighth century A.D. in Northwest and Central Europe, especially in order to consider the profound and resilient apostolic trust of St. Boniface, a missionary Benedictine monk, who also became a kind of Papal Proconsul as well as an Archbishop and Martyr[2] . The versatile fruitfulness of his humble and magnanimous life points to his very deep sources of faith and trust, indeed. Let us, therefore, now consider further the paradox of how our saint’s apostolic Christian faith could foster the deeply rooted, slowly fruitful implantations of Benedictine monastic culture, and yet remain truly evangelical, even unto the point of bearing blood witness for the Faith in times of grave and perfidious disorder.

But what is this thing called “monastic culture,” or the “missionary culture of the Christian monks”? Dom Jean Leclercq, the Benedictine scholar, helps to advance our understanding here, with the following words:

Much has been written on the definition of the words culture and civilization, and it seems clear that, from a very general point of view, culture includes an overall conception of the world and of life and the means for expressing it, that is to say, language and the arts . Precisely, language is the foremost of the arts, the art of speaking well, writing well, and of expressing thought well. Thus, language is always the symbol of culture, and it shows the level of culture. Therefore, to witness the birth of homogenous monastic culture means witnessing the formation of its language as well…. It will be, because of its origins, an essentially religious language, that is to say, a language intended to express a religion, and this in the very highest act of any religion: worship [i.e. , cultus , the root of culture ]. To understand this [i.e. , this act of public worship and the importance of its religious language], one must…emphasize the liturgical character of this [monastic] cultural renaissance….[3]

Indeed, as Jean Leclercq later concludes, “In the liturgy, love of learning and desire for God find perfect reconciliation.”[4] But how do we more adequately account for the monastic missionary culture, as well as for the rootedness, slow fruitfulness, and sustenance of the monastic liturgical culture?

In earlier essays, I had thought it fit to raise certain challenging theological and moral questions, and in this essay I would also like to continue that practice, but, in this case, in a more positive and affirmative way. In earlier disputed questions and contexts, for instance, I had asked: “To what extent is something that is intentionally ambiguous binding on the Catholic conscience?” (I was thinking, especially, of intentionally ambiguous and equivocal “new ecclesiastical doctrine” — whether “Conciliar” or “Episcopal,” or even “Papal.”) And, even more insistently, I had subsequently asked: “How does one resist the corruptions of authority without thereby subverting the principle of authority?” (One could write a whole book in answer to this last question!)

However, in this essay, though at the risk of too many words, I hope to consider a more bolstering, or enlivening, question, namely: “How does the generously selfless and capacious understanding of the Faith which we have vividly witnessed in the winsome lives of the Church’s missionary monks , such as St. Boniface, also produce (and conduce to) a cultivated stability , a highly cultured rootedness , and a deeply serene interior life of contemplation and atmosphere of silence that, at the same time, inspires an active missionary heart and their own ready disposition to self-sacrifice for the love of God and for the salvation of souls, even unto ‘blood martyrdom’? In other words, how do they attain and sustain this regenerative equilibrium of the active and contemplative lives, in combination?”

Of course, none of this fuller understanding of God’s will and particular providence would be possible without a prevenient and profoundly sustaining, existential hope , “the hope of the Christian martyrs.” For, if the hope of the Christian martyrs is an illusion, then hope itself is, finally, a pathetic illusion. Yet, it is noteworthy that, amidst their great suffering and apparent helplessness before the overwhelming forces of cold institutional power and personal injustice and malice (a very intimate experience of the mysterium iniquitatis ), the Christian martyrs never blasphemed against the goodness of God’s own creation, in spite of human or demonic evil, as they persevered in their fortitude and trust in the Divine Mercy and Purpose. The invariant evidence of this extraordinary affirmation and hope is itself a profound mystery . It should also be a source of our truly philosophical wonder.

Moreover, the active apostolic life, properly understood, does not at all imply a facile contempt of temporal life. Nor does it imply a “rootless, roaming unrest of spirit” (in Latin, “evagatio mentis “), which itself constitutes a fundamental part of the innermost disorder and capital sin of acedia , or spiritual sloth . Acedia itself implies one’s incapacity for, or indisposition to have, any “repose of the mind in God” (quies mentis in Deo ), and, thus, it constitutes an intrinsically unfulfillable futility . It is another form of unprayerful restlessness , as well as a form of passivity and lassitude and hebetude — all four of which seem so pervasive today in America, in our own stridently hedonistic culture and narco-democracy. We even seem to have an incapacity for silence, as well as for contemplation, as if we despair of finding anything, or anyone, “out there.” We seem, moreover, benumbed by intrusive circumambient noise, and now embrace the pervading innovation of “electronic beeps” and cell phones ringing! Yes, it is true, that we, too, are mightily afflicted and beset by what Belloc called one “essential of modernity which is deafening metallic noise .”[5]

Consider, in contrast to the monastic culture of silence and Gregorian chant and ordered liturgical prayer, the charmingly ironic words of Hilaire Belloc, which come from his 1925 essay, “Talking of Venice”:

I read it in the papers some months ago that they were talking of replacing the gondolas in Venice by motorboats. I hope they will.

What Venice has lacked hitherto in modernity has been noise. It had crowds of tourists, huge advertisements, bombs dropped on it from the air, newspapers with large pictures of murders, American films and a magnificent publicity: but little noise ….

Venice already had chemical cooking in a respectable number of restaurants and it had a great many places where you could change money at a loss. It had buildings — palaces and prisons — turned from their old uses into shows. It had all these things. But it had not the essential of modernity which is a deafening metallic noise.

Such noise is the glory of Rome and Paris. I am glad to say we are reaching a high standard here in London. But, Venice is abominably backward in this point. Let them see to it.

While the Venetians are about this vigorous cleansing up of their world and ridding it of the old nonsense, it occurs to me that they might do worse than to fill up their canals.[6]

Belloc himself truly cherished such irony and called it “the salt in the feast of the intelligence” and “an antiseptic against the suppurative reactions of the soul.”[7] Adding to these memorable words, the eloquent H.W. Fowler further elucidated the word “irony,” as follows:

Irony …in its more general sense may be defined as the use of words intended to convey one meaning to the uninitiated [or dim-bulbed] part of the audience and another to the initiated, the delight of it in the secret intimacy set up between the latter and the speaker .[8]

In addition to its relation to humor, the concept of “irony” has a yet deeper relationship to human ignorance and human sorrow and, thus, to human tragedy, even to the final tragedy (at least for a Christian) of the freely chosen damnation of a human soul , which is what the generous missionary monks like St. Boniface strove to forestall. Underlying the more specific and nuanced meanings of “Socratic irony,” “dramatic irony,” and “the irony of Fate or Divine Providence” is an even more subtle and momentous notion, which is expressed by Fowler with exquisite insight and eloquence:

Irony is a form of utterance [Logos or discourse] that postulates a double audience , consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand [not even Christ’s parables], and another party [even God!] that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more and of the outsiders’ incomprehension.[9]

Given the wit and irony of his critique of our modern disorder, as well as his faith in the merciful irony of the Divine Providence , let us imagine the great Hilaire Belloc now reverently (but rumbustiously) accompanying St. Boniface himself on his missionary journeys from England to (and throughout) the continent of Europe, in order to bring the Faith to the broken of the world, and to nourish its slowly fruitful implantation amidst the disorders of the first half of the eighth century. As a military historian, sailor, and great hiker himself — and a man of the Faith and a man of prayer who loved to sing and who also wrote and cherished poetry — Hilaire Belloc would have been a good companion for St. Boniface in the hills and on the sea, and over the high Alps to Rome. And Belloc, too, cherished the monastic foundations and monastic culture — and not just their intimate courtesy and charity and hospitality.

Who would not glimpse the warm heart and resonant Catholic soul of Belloc, if he but read Belloc’s verse upon his own unannounced, sudden arrival at the Benedictine monastery in Storrington, England, a verse which he entitled “Courtesy”?

Of Courtesy, it is much less
Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
Yet in my Walks it seems to me
That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.

On Monks I did in Storrington fall,
They took me straight into their Hall;
I saw Three Pictures on a wall,
And Courtesy was in them all.

The first the Annunciation;
The second the Visitation;
The third the Consolation
Of God that was Our Lady’s Son….

The third it was our Little Lord,
Whom all the kings in arms adored;
He was so small you could not see
His large intent of Courtesy….

Those who know Belloc well can also imagine him putting his graceful rhyme to song and singing it on his Path to Rome! On St. Augustine’s premise that “he who sings his prayers prays twice,” imagine Hilaire Belloc on a mission with St. Boniface, coming himself from the Pope in Rome and sent to meet Charles Martel, both before and after he had defeated the dangerous Saracen invasion on the battlefields between Tours and Poitiers in 732 AD — and a week-long battle it was! (And let us remember Belloc’s namesake and hero, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and another earlier soldier of hospitality, St. Martin of Tours, who also helped a frozen beggar on the way, as if that broken man were to have been Christ Himself: “hospes venit, Christus venit !”)

Let us further imagine Hilaire Belloc, like St. Boniface himself a great letter writer, writing back to England for a copy of St. Bede the Venerable’s Ecclesiastic History of the English People (written circa 735 AD) and for a copy of Virgil’s ennobling Aeneid , in order to nourish and refresh his soul with enlargement, and to cheer his solitude, or “heroism of accepted loneliness,” with benediction and repose. (One has only to read Boniface’s own diverse letters, or poems, to see him as Belloc’s soul-companion abroad.)

What Pope Gregory the Great (596-604 AD) set in motion by commissioning, in 597 AD, the initial missionary work of St. Augustine of Canterbury, was later very generously repaid and further returned by St. Boniface himself, who became the Apostle of Germany (der Apostel der Deutschen ) and another Papal Legate, or “Proconsul of the Papacy,” also in Gaul and elsewhere, before being martyred himself, as an old man, up in Frisia at Dokkum, ten miles from the North Sea coast (in northeastern modern Holland) where his first missionary journey had unsuccessfully taken him in the earlier years of the eighth century (716-717 AD). Rather than return to his beloved Fulda where he had established a sanctuary of peace, he opened his heart to his sacrificial apostolic mission and likely death. In a profound way, “in his end was his beginning” — not only his entrance into eternal life (on 5 June 755 AD, near or on the Feast of Pentecost), but his coming back to where he had started from, and recognizing it for the first time — and recognizing the souls who were in need, and in need of the seed and the truth of Christ’s Gospel. He had baptized them and was returning to give them sacramental Confirmation. In Frisia, too, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. St. Boniface’s mortal remains, as he had fervently requested, were finally returned to his beloved Fulda, to the monastery he had founded: the Monte Cassino of Germany.

Seven years before his martyrdom at Dokkum, on the banks of the River Borne ten miles from the sea, St. Boniface had sent his beloved Sturm to study the Benedictine life in Rome and Monte Cassino itself. (Sturm had been entrusted to Boniface’s care in 735 AD when the archbishop had first visited Bavaria and met Sturm’s parents, who were of the nobility.) After two years of monastic apprenticeship in Italy, and in the living tradition of St. Benedict’s monastic culture of Catholic life, Sturm returned to Germany and was appointed by Boniface as the abbot of Fulda in 750 AD, where he remained until his death in 779 AD, twenty-four years after the martyrdom of St. Boniface.

In his letter to Pope Zacharius (Epistle 86), written in 751 AD, St. Boniface wrote of his beloved Fulda:

There is a wooded place situated in a vast wilderness and in the midst of the people. There we have settled a band of monks living under the Rule of St. Benedict who are building a monastery. They abstain altogether from meat and wine and spirits. They have no servants, but are content with the labor of their own hands…. Here I propose, with your gracious permission, to rest my weary, age-worn limbs for a little time, and after my death to be buried here.

In the same year, 751 AD, Pope Zacharius issued a papal charter (see Epistle 89 in Boniface’s collected letters), wherein he granted the Abbey of Fulda a privilege of immunity, exemption from local Episcopal authority. Pope Zacharius then placed Fulda “unreservedly and irrevocably under the direct and plenary jurisdiction of the Holy See,” as also happened some hundred years later with the famous Frankish monastery at Cluny (founded in 910 AD). St. Boniface, desiring to protect his beloved Fulda after his death, requested Pope Zacharius to grant, in perpetuity, this special papal privilege and patronage. The Abbey of Fulda was, therefore, the first Benedictine monastery to be placed under direct obedience to the Roman Papacy. It had always been the strategic policy of St. Boniface to establish and maintain intimate links between the missionary monasteries and the authority of the Pope.

The far-sighted, strategic combination of Papal Authority and the Rule of St. Benedict was very fruitful of good — of natural and supernatural good — and especially so in the case of St. Boniface.

By implicitly and intimately understanding the perennial paradox of “the one and the many,” St. Boniface strove to combine and institutionalize “unity and diversity” — the unity provided by the authority of the Papacy (as a Divine Institution) and the diversity cherished by the various cultural modifications and locally nuanced Consuetudines of the Rule of St. Benedict and its richly unifying liturgical culture. Rooted in the common and humane (and supple) Rule of St. Benedict and the beauty of its unifying liturgical culture, and under the directive and protective authority of the Papacy (established by Christ), the missionary monk could be more rooted and fruitful in his apostolate, even unto martyrdom. One cannot have “the fruits without the roots” — and the roots were very deep, indeed.

The Letters of St. Boniface — over a hundred of which have been preserved — show the heart and growing sanctity of the man. For many years known by his secular or intimate family name, Wynfrith (or Winfrid — or Winfrith — of Crediton, which is near Exeter in Wessex, England), St. Boniface himself refers to his double name as “Boniface, or Wynfrith, an offshoot of the same stock [i.e. , “sprung from the English race”], legate in Germany of the Universal [Catholic] Church and servant [for 36 years] of the Apostolic See, appointed Archbishop without the claim of merit” (Epistle XLV, or sometimes Epistle 46). In 718 AD, after he first left England for Rome and for the mission field in Germany, he never returned to his native land.

St. Boniface exchanged intimate spiritual letters with several gifted women in the religious life (e.g. , Abbess Bugga, Abbess Egburg, Abbess Eadburga of the isle of Thanet, and Abbess Lioba of Tauberbishopheim), and he inspired them to become missionaries in Germany, or at least to train missionaries for the German mission field. He also wrote many letters to bishops and archbishops (e.g. , Nothelm of Canterbury, Egbert of York, and Cuthbert of Canterbury) and to secular kings (e.g., Aethelbald of Mercia), in the latter case even to reprove his scandalous and unspeakable vices, very sternly.

At the beginning of his missionary work on the continent of Europe (716-717 AD), St. Boniface collaborated with Willibrord of Northumbria (d 739), bishop of Utrecht, who was also called Clement (his papally designated name). Convinced of his premature and inadequate missionary activity in Frisia (or Friesland) during the brief period of 716-717 AD, St. Boniface made the first of three journeys to Rome in the late autumn of 718 AD, to see the Pope, Gregory II. (He also visited Pope Gregory III in Rome, in 722 AD, after three years of assisting Bishop Willibrord-Clement in Utrecht, and was consecrated archbishop on 30 November 722 AD, the Feast of St. Andrew; and his third and last visit to Rome, in 738-739 AD, was to visit Pope Zacharius. St. Boniface corresponded with a fourth Pope, Stephen III, but never met him.)

St. Boniface’s work as an ecclesiastical statesman and organizer was also very fruitful of good, both in the territory of the Franks and in Germany. Two years before Charles Martel and Pope Gregory III died (in 741 AD), and twelve years before he crowned Charles Martel’s son, Peppin, king of the Franks, St. Boniface appointed his cousin, Willibald, to be the bishop of Eichstätt in Germany’s beautiful region of Lower Bavaria, after Willibald’s wondrous three-year journey to the Holy Land, followed by his own monastic apprenticeship at Monte Cassino in Italy (as in the case of Abbot Sturm of Fulda).

One appreciative, non-Catholic scholar of the life and times of St. Boniface, George William Greenaway, especially noted the quality of purity and charity in St. Boniface’s letters to certain nuns — Bugga, Egburg, Eadburga, and, most especially, Lioba — which delicately manifested “that mysterious kinship of soul that binds together men and women of highly spiritual insight in a kind of earthly anticipation of the communion of saints.”[10]

This same non-Catholic English scholar later says something of even greater import:

The Letters [of Saint Boniface] are thus the chief source for the more intimate and personal side of Boniface’s character, but they also reveal, between the lines as it were, the secret springs of his spiritual power, the quintessence of Boniface the Saint : his habit of daily [liturgical as well as personal] prayer and meditation on Holy Scripture; his constant and regular practice of the sacramental life; his faith in God, whose will he accepted in unquestioning obedience; his complete confidence [trust] in God’s purpose for him and in the reality of his [missionary and monastic]vocation. These were the foundations on which he built his life, and his prodigious achievements as a Christian evangelist and ecclesiastical organizer and statesman rest ultimately, not on his capacity for leadership nor on the energy tenacity and initiative which he displayed in action, not even on his broad humanity and his genius for love and friendship, but on his sanctity. This is the golden thread which runs through the successive stages of his life and work — youth and missionary apprenticeship, apostolate and martyrdom — and binds them all in one.[11]

After St. Boniface’s death on 5 June 755 AD, Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury wrote to Bishop Lull of Mainz (Boniface’s chosen successor), as follows:

We render thanks to God that the English people, foreigners though they be, were judged worthy to send forth this gifted student of heavenly learning, this noble soldier of Christ, together with so many disciples well taught and trained, to engage in distant warfare for the salvation of many souls and the praise of Almighty God. (Epistle 111 in Michael Tangl’s edition, Berlin 1916).

The testimony of this eight-century Archbishop of Canterbury shows the generosity with which St. Boniface selflessly repaid the papally-initiated evangelizing mission of St Augustine (the first Archbishop of Canterbury) to England, sent by Pope Saint Gregory the Great himself some one hundred and fifty years earlier (597 AD). And, then, some four hundred years later, in 1170 AD, another martyred archbishop, but now the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, St. Thomas á Becket, would also show his fidelity to Christ and the Papacy, and thus defend, even with his own blood, “the Liberty of the Church” (Libertas Ecclesiae ), as distinct from “Religious Liberty” (Libertas Religiosa ). For, the concept of “the Liberty of the Church” unequivocally implies that there is a “true religion” (vera religio ), and that the Incarnate God, in His Humility, founded one true Church to defend and extend that true religion, with the help of his hope-filled and well-rooted missionary monks.

St. Boniface and St. Thomas á Becket, pray for us.

­­­ — FINIS —

©2002 Robert D. Hickson, Jr.

Joint Special Operations University
U.S. Special Operations Command
6 August 2002
The Transfiguration

[1] Hereafter note that emphasis added to the original text is underlined ; emphasis from the original is bold .

[2] His Latin name was Bonifacius (or sometimes spelled Bonifatius ) and his Anglo-Saxon name is Winfrid (or Wynfrith).

[3] Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (New York: New American Library — Mentor-Omega Book, 1962), pp. 44-45 — Chapter III-“Cult and Culture.” (Latin “Cultus et Cultura” ).

[4] Ibid., p. 249

[5] Hilaire Belloc, Short Talks With the Dead and Others (London: Sheed and Ward, 1926 — second edition), p. 16.

[6] Ibid ., pp. 16-17.

[7] Ibid ., p. 295

[8] H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage , Second Edition, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 306.

[9] Ibid ., p. 305

[10] George William Greenaway, Saint Boniface: Three Biographical Studies for the Twelfth Centenary Festival (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1955), p. 62

[11] Ibid ., p. 75