A Monk, Bloody Vikings, and a God of Mercy
What could a stylus-wielding 10th-century Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk teach third-millennium Blackberry-networking digerati?
In 998, a ruthless Viking army raided the Dorset countryside in southwest England near the rural Cernel (now Cerne Abbas) monastery. Forty-something-year-old Ælfric, a monk at Cernel, responded to this national—and, to him, universal—crisis by creating three homiletic collections (about 120 sermons), the first English translations of passages from several Old Testament books, pastoral letters, and other pedagogical materials: a grammar, a glossary, and a colloquy. He also taught novices and preached the gospel in the local parish church. Ælfric explained his purpose: "People especially need good teaching at this time, which is the ending of this world." In 1005, Ælfric moved 85 miles northeast to Eynsham, where he served as abbot until his death around 1014. When Viking invaders burned neighboring Oxford in 1009, Ælfric may have stood in the monastery yard and witnessed Oxford's smoke.
In a time of terrorism and political unrest, Ælfric's faithful outlook remained positive, and his works focused on God's mercy. His beautifully rhythmical, enduring prose teaches love as a verb, obedience as joy, and humility and kindness as synonyms. Here are some excerpts from his sermons:
Sermon for Pentecost Sunday
The love that loves God is not idle. Instead, it is strong and works great things always. And if love isn't willing to work, then it isn't love. God's love must be seen in the actions of our mouths and minds and bodies. A person must fulfill God's word with goodness.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Christ commanded us to be kind to others always, with all goodness, just as God himself is. The person who causes others stress is not being kind. But the unmerciful don't hesitate for a moment as they pile heavy burdens on the backs of those they know. They're mean. They're unfair. They're cruel. They rob the poor, yet look at how they dare desire a life of luxury for themselves. They're never willing to acknowledge their oppression of the poor. They won't admit it. Bosses who don't permit those working under them to know kindness during this life of labor should never themselves enjoy lives of luxury, because they could easily be kind to their workers every day of every week. Then management would also have some kindness in their souls. God loves it when a leader is gentle towards others in the daily hardships, the many heavy taxes, and the unending laws that all humanity must know and endure, but God detests those who oppress others. God loves kind-hearted people. God loves mercy. So be kind to others.
Sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost and Sermon for the Sixth Day in the Third Week of Lent
Without humility no person can thrive in the Lord … . We don't need to climb up steep mountains the hard way to worship God, as if he is nearer to us on a high mountain rather than down in the deep valley. The soaring mountain represents pride's elevated, arrogant thoughts, and the valley symbolizes humility, which our Lord loves. Wemust worship with true humility if we want our heavenly Father to hear us, because God lives in the highest, most exalted place, yet he has regard for the deep down humble. God is always near people who sincerely call to him in their trouble. We don't ever need to wander far and wide seeking our benevolent God. Keep focusing on the indwelling presence of God's merciful mind. Keep acting toward others with Christ's kindness. Then God is always present in us, no matter where in the world we live.
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Here in the English nation we feebly keep the laws God established to guide and instruct those who love him. Instead, we create for ourselves entirely new laws, totally different from those God himself taught. With our self-will we rebel against all wisdom. By trampling on God's laws with bad behavior and by despising our Lord, as we are doing, we will make the way very difficult for ourselves. Remember Christ's disciples. They rowed their heavy ships to shore, then abandoned everything to follow Christ.
Sermon for Pentecost Sunday
After Christ had left his disciples and gone back to heaven, to the eternal joy he'd always known, he was still able to live with them through his divinity, always instructing them. How? Christ said, "The Holy Spirit of Comfort whom my Father will send to you in my name will be the One teaching you all things and making everything I have said to you clear" (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit is called Paraclete in the Greek language, and in Latin Consolator, which means "Comforter" in English. He is called these things because he reassures the hearts of those who repent of their sins. By means of his great grace, God's Spirit forgives all the sins in all the world and makes anyone who trusts in God happy. So instead of rejecting these divine guests by indulging in bad habits and black sins, entertain the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in love and humility, and you will be happy.
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is associate professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia.
Learn more about this gentle, Christ-like Anglo-Saxon monk and his sermons in God of Mercy: Ælfric's Sermons and Theology (Mercer University Press, 2006) by Carmen Acevedo Butcher. The translations above come from this work. Discover the fiery, less-reassuring work by the other well-known Old English sermonizer, Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York and Bishop of Worcester (d. 1023), in Melissa Bernstein Ser's The Electronic Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. Click "Start," then "Translation" on the left-hand side. Also see The Electronic Ælfric, an e-project currently under construction. Aaron J. Kleist's introduction to it is in The Heroic Age (May 2008).
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