Monday, June 22, 2020

Saint Alban, Proto-Martyr of England


Let the heavens rejoice, let the Island of Saints exult, and let all the universe shout with her a song of victory: for now indeed earth has been everywhere empurpled with the blood of testimony. Alban, Proto-Martyr of fruitful Britain, seals today the conquest of the far West. Already, doubtless, even from the earliest days, Albion had yielded abundant flowers beneath the foot steps of the Spouse, whose giant stride had reached even unto her. Later on, Eleutherius and Lucius had added the fresh charm of other plants to this new garden, wherein far away from sterile Juda, the Man-God could forget the haughty disdain of the daughter of Sion. Jesus loves, indeed, flower beds exhaling the fragrance of “confession and of praise;” but still flowers of peace may not alone form the diadem of this powerful Son of the God of armies. The beauty he received from his Mother was enhanced by the blood shed by him in the great battle; and to obtain favor in his eyes, the Bride too is called upon to mingle her own brilliant purple with the glistening whiteness of His lilies.

Glory, then, to our Proto-Martyr! glory to him by whom Albion, fully arrayed for the nuptials of the Lamb, advances side by side with the most illustrious Churches, and takes her seat with them at the banquet of the strong! From the heights of heaven, the glorious choir of apostles and the white-robed army of martyrs are thrilling with joy, as in the brightest days of the three hundred years’ struggle, prolonged perchance, just on purpose to give ancient Britain a chance of sharing in their triumph. Persecution was nearing its close; and even from this very British soil of ours, the last to be touched by the tidal wave of martyrs’ blood would deliverance come. On June 22nd 303, Alban, our new Stephen, died breathing a prayer for his murderers, beside the banks of an affluent of old Thames: on July 25th 306, Constantine, having just escaped the snares of Galerius, was proclaimed at York, and he started thence to unfurl the standard of Salvation to the whole world.

Later on, to the victorious combats of the Cross, succeeded heresy’s contesting struggle to wrest from God nations already won to his Christ in holy baptism. While the East was going astray in misconceptions of the Incarnate Word, the West was carping at doctrines concerning Free-will and Grace, a fatal stumbling-block to be thrown in again at a more distant epoch.

Pelagius, the heretic here in question, was condemned by the Church, and the stone of error hurled against her gave but a passing shock.

The tomb of Alban was the curbing point of hell’s efforts at that time, and here were the final troubles caused by the Pelagian attack ended. Saint Lupus of Troyes and Saint Germanus of Auxerre, sent from the continent to maintain, beyond the Straits, the cause of grace ascribed to our British martyr the whole honour of their victory, whereby peace was given to the Western Church. To show that this second defeat of hell’s power was indeed the completion of that which a century previously had ended the era of blood, these two holy bishops respectfully opened the glorious tomb, and united to the remains of our noble Alban some relics of the apostles and martyrs the fruit of whose triumph had just been definitively sealed.

For a thousand years were the depths of the abyss closed; years of power, years of honor for Alban, venerated alike by each race that succeeded one the other on this, our British shore. The Anglo-Saxons outstripped the Britons in the magnificence of the structure they raised on the site of the church formerly built over the Martyr’s tomb, in the first era of his victory; the Danes even considered his holy body to be their noblest conquest; and under the Normans, the abbey founded by Offa of Mercia, beheld popes and kings concert together, in raising its prerogatives and glory to the highest pitch. No monastic church on this side of the channel could compare with St. Alban’s in its privileges; and just as Alban is counted England’s first martyr, so was the abbot of his monastery held first in dignity among all abbots of this realm.

For a thousand years Alban too reigned with Christ. At last came the epoch when the depths of the abyss were to be let loose for a little time, and Satan, unchained, would once again seduce nations. Vanquished formerly by the Saints, power was now given him to make war with them and to overcome them in his turn. The disciple is not above his Master: like his Lord, Alban too was rejected by his own Hated without cause, he beheld the illustrious Monastery destroyed that had been Albion’s pride, in the palmy days of her history; and scarce was even the venerable church itself saved wherein God’s athlete had so long reposed, shedding benefits around far and near. But after all, what could he do now in a profaned sanctuary, in which strange rites had banished those of our forefathers, and condemned the faith for which martyrs had bled and died? So Alban was ignominiously expelled and his ashes scattered to the winds.

The Eulogy (unfortunately very meager), dedicated by England, still faithful to her Proto-Martyr, sums up in the following lines the combat of this hero of the Lord:

Albanus, cum imperatorum Diocletiani et Maximiani mandata adversus Christianos sævirent, paganus adhuc clericum quemdam persecutores fugientem hospitio recepit. Quem dum orationibus continuis ac vigiliis die noctuque studere conspiceret, subito divina gratia respectus, exemplum fidei ac pietatis ejus cœpit æmulari, ac salutaribus ejusdem exhortationibus paulatim edoctus, relictis idololatriæ tenebris Christianus integro ex corde factus est.

When the mandates of the Emperors, Diocletian and Maximian, were raging against the Christians, Alban, as yet a pagan, received into his house a certain priest fleeing from persecution. Now, when he beheld how this priest persevered day and night in constant watching and prayer, he was suddenly touched by divine grace, so that he was fain to imitate the example of his faith and piety; and being instructed by degrees, through his salutary exhortations, forsaking the darkness of idolatry, he was with his whole heart, made a Christian.

Cum autem hunc clericum persecutores quærerent, et ad tugurium Albani pervenissent, hic se pro hospite et magistro suo ipsius habitu, id est caracalla, indutus militibus exhibuit; a quibus loris revinctus et judicem ductus est. Qui cum illudi se cerneret, cædi sanctum Dei confessorem a tortoribus præcepit, ac demum cum tormentis illum superari, vel a cultu Christianæ religionis revocari non posse perciperet, capite eum plecti jussit.

The persecutors being in search for this cleric, came to Alban’s house; whereupon, disguised in the cleric’s apparel, namely, in the caracalla, he presented himself to the soldiers in place of his master and guest; by them, he was bound with thongs, and led off to the judge. This latter, finding himself thus deceived, ordered that the holy Confesor of God should be beaten by the executioners; and, perceiving at last that he could neither overcome him by torments, nor win him over from the worship of the Christian religion, he commanded his head to be struck off.

Cum igitur ad verticem vicini montis Albanus pervenisset, carnifex, qui illum percussurus erat, divino admonitus instinctu, projecto ense, pedibus sancti advolvitur, desiderans ut cum martyre, vel pro martyre, ipse potius moreretur. Decollatus autem Albanus ibidem, accepit coronam vitæ quam repromisit Deus diligentibus se. Decollatus est et miles ille, qui Dei confessorem ferire recusavit: de quo nimirum constat, quod etsi fonte baptismatis non est ablutus, sui tamen est sanguinis lavacro mundatus, ac regni cœlestis dignus factus ingressu. Passus est autem Albanus juxta Verolamium die decimo Kalendarum Juliarum.

Alban, having reached the brow of the neighboring hill, the executioner, who was to dispatch him, admonished by a divine inspiration, casting away his sword, threw himself at the Saint’s feet, desiring to die, either with the Martyr, or instead of him. Alban being at once beheaded, received the crown of life, which God hath promised to them that love him. The soldier, who had refused to strike him, was likewise beheaded: concerning whom, it it quite certain, that albeit he was not washed in the baptismal font, still was he made clean, in the laver of his own blood, and so made worthy of entering into the kingdom of Heaven. Alban suffered at Verulam, on the tenth of the Kalends of July.

I was a stranger and you took me in, will our Lord say to his elect on the great Judgment Day; and to the inquiries of the elect as to the meaning of this word of his, Our Lord will explain that whatsoever they did to the least of their brethren, they did it unto Him. But thou, O Alban, knowest all this beforehand; that last hour, in which both the good and the wicked will hearken to their eternal doom, will reveal to the world on this point only what thou didst experience in thy very first steps along the path of salvation. By harboring within thy yet pagan house this unknown fugitive, thou deemedst that thou wast but yielding to the instincts of a heart naturally generous and faithful to the laws of hospitality! But far other than thou wistedst was this unknown stranger that came knocking at thy door; for ere he left thee, it was manifest that Christ himself had become thy guest. Full soon did he invite thee, in return to come and dwell in his own home, and the triumphal gate of martyrdom presently opened unto thee his heavenly palace.

The way to God traced in thy blood lies opened wide, in this great island of ours. Long did the foe seem unable to cast his snares here: and thy fellow citizens of earth were to be seen flocking in crowds along this blessed pathway. Yea, nations thou didst never know came in their turn also, esteeming it an honor to forget, as it were, diversity of origin and rights of conquest, when uniting in thy name, O Alban, to do homage to thee, glorious Proto-Martyr of this land. Thus wast thou both the stem of this supernatural efflorescence which made ours to be the “Island of Saints,” and the link of national unity in the diverse phases of our history. Thou didst gather together the sons of Saint Benedict around the couch whereon thou wast reposing whilst awaiting the day of Resurrection; thou didst assemble them in that splendid temple dedicated to thee by a grateful people; thou didst invite them to the ministry of divine praise, whereby celebrating past benefits and daily blessings, they might also merit for thy fatherland a continuation of Heaven’s favors. Grand indeed were those ages, wherein God by his Saints thus ruled the world; and sadly misguided are those that think to serve the cause of the Lord and of nations, by suppressing the homage of foregoing generations to these their illustrious protectors.

Since thou wast treated, O Alban, like to thy divine Master, the King of saints, like him also remember not the injuries we have inflicted on thee. Rather, O thou our Proto-Martyr, exult in the triumph of all the other warriors who swell the ranks of the sacred phalanx placed under thy command in our eternal home. If for a while the era of martyrs seems once again to be closed, consider those of thy children whose constancy has survived so many rough assaults; bless those families in which has ever been kept alive the faith of the olden times; a noble-hearted race are they whose forefathers exposed themselves like thee, even unto death, in the “harboring of Priests.” Uphold the new sons of the cloister in maintaining at a high standard those monastic traditions handed to them even in the very midst of the tempest; multiply, everywhere, laborers called in to repair our ruins.

The voice of the Lord is heard once more in Albion. The holy virtue of hospitality which was, in thy case, the beginning of salvation, has proved to her also in these our own days, an occasion for her return to the ancestral faith, just as though God willed that in this instance likewise, her history should be linked with thine. Like thee, she hath received priests from beyond the seas, driven to her coasts by the storm of persecution; like thee, hath she not even already heard that word of divine approval: I was a stranger, and you took me in? May she then go the whole length in her imitation of thee, her protector and father, by following the heavenly invitation to the last, so as to conclude with the ancient writer [in Acta SS. Albani, Amphibali et Sociorum, anno DXC Anglice scripta, v. 46, Bolland, Junii iv, p. 159] of the acts of thy martyrdom: “The known truth shall be our Island’s joy; great shall be our gladness when the fetters of falsehood are broken. For my part, without further delay, I will go to Rome, I will there cast off mine error, there merit reconciliation and pardon of my faults; yea, this very book I hold in my hands, I will present to the revision of them that dwell in that city, so that should aught unseemly be written therein, the Lord Jesus Christ may vouchsafe to correct it by their means, he who reigneth God for ever and ever. Amen.”


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