Community of Saints
Saints are people who have walked the way before us, and as such can be seen as our spiritual ancestors. Their stories are those of ordinary individuals seeking Truth in a world of false or partial ‘truths’, much as it is today. They can be related to as figures of history and legend, or as channels of divine energy, or both and more.
The St Sigfrid’s Way travels through the lives of many saints who live on in the names of churches and places that we visit along the route. St Sigfrid leads the way, but each saint has their unique place in our community of saints. This is the wider, less tangible community, within which is nested the more tangible community of pilgrims such as you and me walking the pilgrims’ way today.
The presentation of each saint is as legend tells it and does not aspire to strict factual accuracy, something which is usually difficult to achieve for these figures. Some of the aspects of our saints’ stories have historical roots, while other aspects dwell in the imaginal, where history and mystery unite.
Once upon a time in the fair city of Oxford, there lived Princess Frideswide who was as good as she was beautiful. The King, her father, ruled the people of his realm with clemency and justice, and she learnt the ways of the Church. The motherless child was tenderly looked after by gentle nuns who taught her to read and write and to play sweet music upon the harp and lyre.
As she grew up, princes from neighbouring kingdoms sought her hand in marriage. The King her father turned them away saying that his daughter was still but a child and too young to wed.
In time however, there came a handsome prince on a fine horse, with his retinue all attired in splendid silks and velvets, and the King listened thoughtfully as he pleaded his suit.
Princess Frideswide herself was alone in her room high in the tower of the castle, but her ladies were listening at the door of the great council chamber, and when they heard the King announce that Frideswide should indeed become the Prince's bride, they hastened to tell her that she was soon to be married. The Princess wept bitter tears, for her one wish was that she might become a nun and devote herself to God, and she vowed that even if she had to disobey her father, no mortal man should ever be her bridegroom. Then she gathered up some food, her missal, and a few belongings, and wrapped in a warm cloak of fur, she slipped out with her ladies in the darkness of night through a small gate in the castle wall, and together they rowed up the river until they came to a tiny hamlet.
Hiding the boat among the reeds of the riverbank, they concealed themselves in a byre among the beasts stabled there, and thus they passed the hours until dawn. They shook with fear as they heard the stamping of many feet and the barking of dogs as the King's soldiers searched for them in the woods by the river, but at last the clamour of pursuit grew fainter and they knew they were safe and could travel onwards. For days and weeks they journeyed, until they happened upon a group of devout women, who asked no questions and gladly gave them shelter, and there it was that Frideswide began to care for the poor and heal the sick.
As time passed, word reached her that her father the King was pining away with sorrow for the loss of her, his only child, and she determined to return to Oxford, come what might. Hardly had she entered the gates of the city than the bells pealed joyously from the spires and steeples, the King rose from his sickbed, and the people sang and danced in the streets.
The news of her return soon came to the ears of the Prince, and he rode swiftly to Oxford to claim the Princess once more for his bride. When she saw him, Frideswide prayed to God for succour. At once there was a terrible clap of thunder, and a bolt of lightning struck the Prince, blinding him. Weeping from his sightless eyes, he pleaded for mercy and forgiveness. Frideswide took pity on him and prayed again, beseeching God to restore his sight but to destroy his desire for her, and at once water gushed forth from a healing spring, and her prayers were answered. The Prince, his sight restored, mounted his charger and wheeling round, galloped away from the city, never to return.
Princess Frideswide's wish to become a nun was fulfilled, and close to the southern wall of Oxford she founded a great priory, where monks and nuns praised God and cared for those stricken by misfortune, and where her name lived on for ever.
Curan, J. 2009. BBC Oxford website [Online] [Accessed 31st March 2021] Available from:http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/oxford/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8403000/8403977.stm
St Bridget of Sweden
Born in about 1303, Bridget was the daughter of a governor in Sweden and married Ulf Gudmarsson in her early teens. Initially living on his estates in Uppland, Bridget then became principal lady-in-waiting to Queen Blanche of Namur. Around this time Bridget began to receive visions and revelations, particularly of Christ on the cross. These visions, and her response to them, led to her being ridiculed by the other members of the royal court.
Together with her husband, Bridget made pilgrimages to holy sites in Norway and Spain, and after the death of Ulf in 1343 she lived the life of a penitent for three years. During this time she received visions and detailed instructions on the formation of a new religious order.
In 1346 Bridget founded a monastery at Vadstena, for 60 nuns and 25 monks. The rule of life that they accepted was harsh in terms of luxuries but generous in terms of education. All excess income was given away but the monks and nuns could have as many books as they needed. Her houses became popular throughout Europe, at one time numbering 70.
In 1349 Bridget sought papal approval for her order, known as the Bridgettine order, and travelled to Rome. She never returned to Sweden, spending the rest of her life either on pilgrimages or ministering to the sick and needy wherever she found them. Bridget also attempted, as did many others, to mediate between the split papal courts of Rome and Avignon, although her recorded comments on the issue often contain the threat of divine punishment if the factions did not make peace. She was a continual challenge to the Church, pointing out and highlighting areas of spiritual decay, and campaigning for reform.
Although her visions continued throughout this time, the language that she used to deliver the messages of the visions was often condemnatory and harsh, and gradually the effect of her pronouncements on the royal and papal courts decreased. In reality she was remembered more for her acts of kindness and healing than for her visions and her writings are excellent examples of medieval spirituality.
"Blessed may you be, my Lord, my God, and my love most beloved of my soul. O you who are one God in three persons. Glory and praise to you, my Lord Jesus Christ. You were sent by the Father into the body of a virgin; and yet you ever remain with the Father in heaven, while the Father, in his divinity, inseparably remained with you in your human nature in this world."
(Second Prayer of Bridget of Sweden)
Extract from Saints on Earth: A biographical companion to Common Worship by John H Darch and Stuart K Burns