Historical Fiction, Catholic Saints and Christian Table Fellowship

One of my favorite book series is The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell. It is historical fiction that traces England’s birth, beginning with the reign of Alfred the Great and culminating with the reign of Æthelstan, Alfred’s grandson who finally saw Alfred’s dream of a united England become a reality.

The books are narrated by a fictional character named Uhtred–loosely inspired by an ancestor of the author–a pagan who finds the Christianity of Alfred odd. As such, he’s often commenting on his dislike of priests, various feasts, and other Christian traditions. And there are a lot of these such traditions that Uhtred is bombarded with.

At one point, we read this:

“Ascension Day,” Alfred announced on the day I returned from Hamtum.

That was the day we should be ready in Aethelingaeg, and on the Sunday after, which was the feast of Saint Monica, we would gather the fyrd, if there was a fyrd.

Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 275.

Historically Accurate?

This passage from Cornwell’s book got me thinking. “Just how historical are these books? There seem to be feasts constantly. Are there really that many saints who have feasts named after them? Or does Cornwell simply make these things up to make Christianity look foolish?”

If you Google “Feast of Saint Monica,” you will discover that it takes place on August 27th. However, we know that Ascension Day is 40 days after Easter because Jesus ascended to heaven after 40 days of showing Himself alive to people (Acts 1:1-9, especially verse 3). Pentecost would have been ten days later.

For 2021, these dates look as follows (using a basic Google search):

So did Cornwell get it wrong?

Well, first, we should know that the book takes place between the years 876-878. And this excerpt is from 878. When a feast first started being kept in Saint Monica’s honor, it was held on May 4th.

The year 878

Easter = March 23
Ascension = May 2
Saint Monica = May 4
Pentecost = May 12

According to Wikipedia, During the 13th century, however, the cult of St. Monica began to spread and a feast in her honour was kept on 4 May” (emphasis added). This means that Cornwell might have mentioned this feast anachronistically. Still, given that it wasn’t officially commissioned by a Pope until the 15th century (Pope Martin V in 1430), it is still highly possible that Alfred actually celebrated this feast as early as 878.

For this reason, i am persuaded to believe that most (if not all) of the “Christian” things mentioned in this series are historically accurate. As a lover of fiction and history and (especially) the Middle Ages, this gives me even more reason to love this book series.

This leads to the next question. Who was Saint Monica?

Who was Saint Monica?

Monica was Augustine’s mother. Augustine was the opponent of Pelagius and writer of many works, including The Confessions and The City of God amongst other works. In The Confessions, Augustine is profoundly grateful for his mother’s prayers. John Piper notes, “[I]t is no coincidence that the prayers of Augustine’s mother, Monica, pervade the Confessions. She pled for him when he would not plead for himself.” He quotes Augustine:

She shed more tears [over] my spiritual death than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son.

Augustine, Confessions (III, 11), quoted in John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, in The Collected Works of John Piper [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017], IX:57-58.

It is no surprise that she became (in Catholicism) the patron saint of “married women, difficult marriages, disappointing children, victims of adultery or unfaithfulness, victims of (verbal) abuse, and conversion of relatives.”

So the feast is a real feast, and the saint is a real saint. What is the point of this post?

First, though, i need to make a different point. I don’t think you should pray to Monica for any reason, no matter what experiences you have had in your life. Monica experienced all of the things she is supposedly the patron saint for. She prayed directly to God because of those things. God was faithful to hear her and act. You can pray directly to God as well when you or your family are in need.

For there is one God
and one mediator between God and humanity,
Christ Jesus, Himself human,
who gave Himself—a ransom for all,
a testimony at the proper time.

1 Timothy 2:5-6.

Pray to God! Don’t pray to another sinful human being to whom God showed grace. He can show grace to you as well. Come to Him in faith!

Christian Fellowship & Generosity

When it comes to all of the Catholic Church’s historic feasts, we must ask a few questions. Did these feasts promote gluttony? Or did these feasts encourage love for the poor?

We can’t know for sure one way or another. Nothing i have read has explained whether these various feasts were specifically for the nobility in the church or if they were also for all of the poor commoners. However, historical data suggests that feudal lords were expected to provide for the peasants under their lordship:

The lord was “the man who could always eat as much as he wished,” says George Duby, and also “the man who provided others with food,” and was consequently admired for his openhandedness. The very yardstick of his prestige was the number of people he fed: staff, armed retainers, labor force, guests.

Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Life in a Medieval Village (New York: Harper), 46. Emphasis added.

Granted, their book focuses on England, circa 1300, four hundred years after Bernard Cornwell’s series ends. Additionally, they are not primarily focused on royal and ecclesiastical nobility. Therefore, i can’t prove that the poor were considered during the feast of Saint Monica in 878 in Wessex (or thereabouts).

But we can know one thing: What are your church meals like?

I don’t know the answer to this question. But you do know the answer to it.

There is a long history in the church of gathering for meals (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Galatians 2:11-14; James 2:14-16; 1 John 2:17-18; Jude 12; Revelation 3:20; the bold ones refer to actual, gathered meals). As such, there is nothing inherently wrong with them. However, there is something wrong with eating if we gorge ourselves and fail to take care of the poor among us (cf. Luke 14:12-14).

It is not practiced in the United States, but in other countries–particularly British ones–the day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day. This is likely because the Catholic Church historically celebrated a feast on Christmas Day. For this reason, the day after Christmas was a day to bless the poor. It is not too hard to imagine that this practice was not originally exclusive to the day after the Christmas feast. The poor were probably blessed after (if not during) each of these feasts.

For this reason, as Christians in the west, shouldn’t we be quick to bless the poor? Shouldn’t we be quick to open our homes to our neighbors and bless them? Shouldn’t we be quick to tip generously–whether sitting down at a nice restaurant or having our food delivered to our homes?

Shouldn’t our fellowship meals be for more than merely building up the cliques in our churches? Shouldn’t they also be for the benefit of the poor and needy in the community?

In America–in 2021, because of COVID–there are a lot more poor and needy people locally than there were even a year ago. We must do what we can to bless and help these people. It is accurate to say that it isn’t truly ministry if the Gospel is not presented. But how often is the presented Gospel unnecessarily hindered because our hands cling stingily to our money instead of generously helping others (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:8-9)? Jesus gave His all for us; we must also give our lives for one another:

Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James 1:27, emphasis added

They [the apostles: Peter, James, and John] asked only that we would remember the poor, which I [Paul] made every effort to do.

Galatians 2:10, emphasis added

These are two of the earliest verses of the New Testament. They prove that true religion has a social aspect to it. It isn’t all about correctly crossing theological t‘s and dotting theological i‘s. We have to live as Christians. We have to love (cf. John 13:35).

The ancient church (likely even in medieval times) made it a point to meet the needs of the poor. Who are we to only focus on feeding ourselves and the people in our congregation? What a shame if the medieval Catholic Church loved the poor– thereby fulfilling the Law (cf. James 2:8, 15-17)–better than the modern Protestant Church!

He [Jesus] also said to the one who had invited Him, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, or your rich neighbors, because they might invite you back, and you would be repaid. On the contrary, when you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Luke 14:12-14

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria
Sola Scriptura
Sola Gratia
Pro Ecclesia

Thanks for reading

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