Sunday, July 12, 2015

St. Benedict & St. Olga: Signs of God's Mercy

     Yesterday was the feast of two very different saints: St. Benedict and St. Olga.  The one lived a life of sanctity from a fairly early age, and spent a lifetime strengthening the foundations of God’s Church (and through that, the foundations of western civilization as a whole); the other was a pagan for most of her life and only found Christian faith and sanctity as an old woman.  Yet both are honored as saints.

St. Benedict delivering his rule
     St. Benedict is by far the better known saint, at least for most of us here in the west.  Benedict was born in Italy toward the end of the 5th century A.D.  As a young man he wanted to withdraw from the disorder of the secular world, and he became a hermit on Mt. Subiaco.  As is often the way, however, other people were attracted by his sanctity, and soon he found himself at the head of a religious community, which eventually became the Benedictine Order.  He is called “the Father of Western Monasticism” because virtually every monastic order in the Western Church since his time has modelled its rule of life on the one he devised for the Benedictines.  He also stands out as one of the key figures in the development of Europe’s Christian civilization, both because the monks of the order he founded preserved in their scriptoria a great deal of the literature of classical Greece and Rome, along with writings of the Church Fathers and other early Christian authors, and also because the monks were the primary providers of what formal education there was in Western Europe in the early middle ages.
     St. Olga couldn’t have been more different.  She was born a pagan, and not in sunny Italy
Saint Olga
but in the snows of Russia about 400 years after St. Benedict.  She married the Duke of Kiev in the year 903, to whom she remained wed until his assassination forty-two years later.  Olga, who ruled her husband’s duchy after his murder, cruelly scalded to death his assassins and put many of their followers to death.  Her life changed dramatically twelve years later, however, when at the age of 78 she converted to Christianity. She spent her remaining twelve years before her death at 90 striving for personal sanctity and actively promoting the faith.
     How strange that two people so unlike each other are honored on the same day under the same title of “Saint”.  Nothing, it seems, is the same, not their origins, position is society, the trajectory of their lives, or the manner in which each came to sanctity.  Well, perhaps almost nothing is the same, because we can see in the story or each of these saints the working out of God’s mercy.
     St. Benedict, for instance, lived in a Europe still reeling from the collapse of the great Greco-Roman civilization of antiquity.  It must have seemed a huge and irremedial loss to many people of that time.  St. Benedict, however, was one of God’s instruments in the building of a new civilization, not so much upon the ruins of the old, but rather upon the foundation of the Church, which baptized and incorporated the best parts of that older civilization into a new edifice that eventually rose higher than anything that had gone before.   When we start to think that our own society is rapidly headed for oblivion (I plead guilty), we would do well to remember St. Benedict, and that any and all human societies in this world are doomed to fail.  God, however, has a home for us (if, like St. Benedict, we persevere in the Faith) in the New Jerusalem, which

has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp  the Lamb.  By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day--and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life. (Revelation 21:23-27)

     St. Olga, who even in her sixty-fifth year looked more like some demonic spirit of vengeance than she did a saint, reminds us that it is never too late to turn back to the Lord and receive his offer of mercy.  Jesus says that “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10); why should they rejoice any less over me, or you, or, say, your cousin who has lived a lifetime of iniquity, than they did over St. Olga?

     That, if fact, is the message of Hope that we can find in the wide diversity throughout the Communion of Saints.  As St. Peter says,  "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). The lives of these two saints remind us that no defeat in this world is final, and that God always has something better in store, if we're willing to accept it.