St Alban is the earliest British Christian known to us by name and martyred for the faith.
A Christian priest, fleeing for safety, came to the house of a pagan named Alban in Verulamium (present day St Albans). Alban gave him shelter over several weeks, and was so struck by the beauty of the religion the fugitive professed that he himself was converted to the Christian faith.
When the officers of the Roman army came to Alban’s house searching for the priest, Alban exchanged garments with the priest and sent him away to safety, allowing himself to be arrested instead. When the governor of Verulamium heard what had happened and discovered that Alban also had become a Christian and that he refused to renounce his faith, he ordered him to be flogged and tortured. When he realised that Alban had no intention of renouncing his new faith, the governor sentenced him to be executed.
Alban was beheaded on 22 June 304 near where St Alban’s Cathedral now stands.
The story of Henare Wiremu Taratoa is closely bound up with the story of Heni Te Kiri Karamu. It was Henare who both commended and then wrote down the “Orders of the Day” for the Maori forces that were to inspire the compassionate actions of Heni at the defence of Gate Pa. British troops had arrived in the Tauranga district to prevent the transport of supplies to the Waikato tribes through the region. The local tribe gathered at Te Waoku pa near the Waimapu River, and then at Poteriwhi pa a code of conduct was drawn up. The code was conveyed to the British commander by Taratoa at the request of the chief Rawiri Puhirake:
To the Colonel,
Friend, salutations to you. The end of that, friend, do you heed our laws for (regulating) the fight.
Rule 1 If wounded or (captured) whole, and butt of the musket or hilt of the sword be turned to me (he) will be saved.
Rule 2 If any Pakeha being a soldier by name, shall be travelling unarmed and meet me, he will be captured, and handed over to the direction of the law.
Rule 3 The soldier who flees, being carried away by his fears, and goes to the house of the priest with his gun (even though carrying arms) will be saved; I will not go there.
Rule 4 The unarmed Pakehas, women and children will be spared.
The end. These are binding laws for Tauranga.
Taratoa carried on his person a copy of the “Orders of the Day” for the conduct of the fight. It was prefaced by a prayer, and at the bottom was what may have been the Christian inspiration of the code: “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink” (Romans 12:20).
Taratoa was a leader of the Ngai Te Rangi in the Tauranga area. He was born, probably about 1830, and lived at Opounui on Matakana Island. Taratoa came under the influence of Henry Williams in the Bay of Islands, was taught by him, and adopted his names, Henare Wiremu (Henry Williams), at his baptism. From about 1845 he attended St John’s College and was married there on 3 April 1850 by Bishop Selwyn to a Maori woman, whose name is not known.
Taratoa accompanied Bishop Selwyn on several of his journeys, including a voyage to Melanesia. Several of the Maori students at St John’s were eager to travel with Selwyn, and in 1852 Taratoa went with Selwyn and spent some months working with William Nihill at Nen-gone in the Loyalty Islands. Then in 1858 Taratoa became a teacher at the Native School at Otaki and was appointed a Lay Reader. Selwyn was unwilling to offer Taratoa any prospect of ordination, for although he found Taratoa clever and thoughtful he also considered him rather excitable.
Taratoa was among those who expressed dissatisfaction with the governor, Thomas Gore Browne, for the events in Taranaki in 1860. When George Grey returned for his second term as governor, Taratoa was also unhappy at his proposals for the indirect imposition of British law and British officials on Maori districts. Taratoa eventually returned to the Tauranga district in 1861, where he set up a Christian school and organised a local system of Maori councils.
With the outbreak of war in the Waikato, Taratoa and the Ngai Te Rangi people became more and more involved in events. Henare Taratoa may have gone back to Otaki for a short time, but by 1864 he was once again in the Tauranga area. The pa at Pukehinahina was built just outside mission lands, because Henare and others thought it inappropriate to fight on mission property. The gate marked the boundary; hence the name, Gate Pa. Henare was involved in the Maori victory over the British forces at Pukehinahina (Gate Pa), and indeed, in the version of the events apparently known to Bishop Selwyn, it was Taratoa who performed the compassionate act of giving water to the wounded British officer there.
The Maori defendants regrouped at Te Ranga, and the British forces attacked and defeated them there on 21 June 1864. In that battle Henare Wiremu Taratoa lost his life. On his body were found the “Orders of the Day” and pages from his Bible.
Sundar Singh made a considerable impression as a modern saint and mystic, above all by the serenity and radiance of his appearance.
Sundar Singh was born in the Punjab, India, in 1889 to well-to-do Sikh parents. His mother was deeply religious and instilled in him a profound sense of devotion to God, wanting him to become a sadhu or holy man. He was first taught by Hindu teachers, then attended the American Presbyterian mission school at Rampur. At that time he vehemently opposed Christianity as a western intrusion and burned a copy of the Bible. He could find no inner peace, however, until he encountered the living Christ in a vision in December 1904. His family tried to dissuade him from becoming a Christian, but he cut off his hair (one of the five symbols of the Sikh religion) and was baptised on his 16th birthday.
Sundar Singh decided to become a Christian sadhu. A month after his baptism he began to travel around India as an evangelist, endeavouring to present Christianity in a cultural form that would be meaningful to the peoples of India. The burden of his message was that Christ by his death saved us from our sins. Sundar Singh committed himself to eat only if food were offered to him, and to sleep in a house only if invited to do so. Such an undertaking led to enormous hardship.
Sundar was confirmed in 1907, and in 1909 was sent to St John’s Divinity School in Lahore by Bishop Lefroy, with a view to training for the ordained ministry of the Anglican Church. He left after only eight months. The expectation that he would minister only in Anglican churches was unacceptable to him, and he felt the theological study was too much about academic theology and not about the personal knowledge of Christ,the heart of his spirituality and the foundation of theological study.
Despite the fact that preaching Christianity was forbidden in Tibet, Sundar Singh paid annual visits there for several years from 1912. He was thrown into a dry well in Tibet and on another occasion into prison in Nepal. In his desire to emulate Christ, he undertook a major fast in 1913, and in the course of it had another vision of the glorified Lord. He had a number of ecstatic visions after that, from which he drew spiritual strength.
By 1917 Sundar was known outside India. In 1918 he toured South India, Ceylon, Burma, Malaya, Japan and China and visited England, America and Australia in 1920, and Europe in 1922.
After 1922 Sundar's health deteriorated and he remained in India. He had a strong desire to go back to Tibet, but after visits in 1919 and 1921 was unable to get through until his final journey in 1929. Sundar set out for Tibet in April of that year, and was never heard of again; probably dying on the way.
Evelyn Underhill maintained that "mysticism, in its pure form, is the science of ultimates, the science of union with the Absolute, and nothing else, and that the mystic is the person who attains to this union."
Her own life vividly illustrates her own understanding.
Evelyn was born on 6 December 1875 into a well educated but not particularly religious, legal family and educated at King’s College, London. In her childhood and youth she herself was a nominal churchgoer, confirmed at 15. She ceased worshipping and became an agnostic. Then she gradually returned to belief in God and became a deeply committed worshipper.
Following a religious experience in 1907, which she referred to as her “conversion”, Evelyn began to study the writings of the mystics and gathered together material for her classic book, Mysticism (1911). This was the first of twenty books, in which she developed her central theme - the love of God.
In her spiritual pilgrimage, Evelyn was led to meditate deeply on the fact that the way of love is the way of sacrifice.
[Sacrifice] expresses . . . the living heart of religion; the self-giving of the creature to its God. By this self-giving action, man takes his conscious part in the response of the universe to the Source of its being; and unites the small movements of his childish soul to the eternal sacrifice of the Son.
Another theme to which she kept returning was the pursuit of knowledge at the expense of spiritual depth.
The human mind’s thirst for more and more breadth has obscured the human heart’s craving for more and more depth. . . . Our interest rushes out to the furthest limits of the universe, but we seldom take a sounding of the ocean beneath our restless keels.
About the same time as she wrote Mysticism she met F. von Hügel, who became her spiritual director. Evelyn herself became heavily involved with people seeking spiritual direction and help, both in person and through her voluminous correspondence. Her advice was invariably sensible and practicable.
From the mid 1920s she was in much demand as a retreat conductor - in days when women conductors of retreats were very rare. In recognition of her capabilities, King’s College made her a fellow of the college in 1927. She continued to be associated with the House of Retreat at Pleshey almost to the end of her life.
A true mystic herself, Evelyn was at all times practical and to the point. Her conviction that mysticism showed itself in love of others is reflected in her commitment to socialism and the plight of the poor. She not only wrote books on prayer, worship and mysticism, but produced new translations and editions of older works on the subject, thus introducing many to the clasics of western mysticism. Her studies and her response to the First World War led her to become a strong pacifist towards the end of her life.
Evelyn Underhill died in 1941.
St Basil was a significant leader of the church in the later fourth century, not only in his native Cappadocia, but throughout the eastern church. His provisions for the monastic movement gave it a shape that has had permanent effect on the church.
Basil was born about 330 in Caesarea in Cappadocia, Asia Minor (not to be confused with Caesarea in Palestine). He received a thorough education in the best pagan and Christian centres of the day. He contemplated an academic career, but was attracted to the ascetic ideals of the age, in which only a life lived in the power of the Spirit and subject to God was truly worth living. It was a call to a life of intense self-discipline that set one free to be at one with God and God’s world.
For Basil, asceticism was not an end in itself. Rather, for him the key to the monastic life was love, and therefore it was to be lived in community. For a while Basil lived in community on his family estates. His brother Gregory of Nyssa and his sister Macrina were also significant figures in the church in the later Roman Empire. Basil laid the foundation for his two sets of monastic rules, which were very influential for monasticism throughout the church in the east and also in the west, only being superseded in the west by the Rule of St Benedict. Basil provided for spiritual discipline in a round of prayer and worship coupled with manual and charitable work, but he discouraged the austerities practised by some of the hermits.
In 364 Basil was ordained presbyter. In the theological disputes of the day, he strongly supported the emphasis of the Nicene Creed on the full and essential divinity of the Son. Together with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his close friend Gregory of Nazianzus, he did much to persuade those who were hesitant. This Nicene theology was eventually ratified at Constantinople in 381 and is incorporated in the Nicene Creed that is still regularly recited in church.
Basil’s moderating influence was not always appreciated, least of all by the emperor Valens, who sought to undermine Basil’s position by dividing his see of Cappadocia. Basil responded by making his friend Gregory bishop of the new diocese despite Gregory’s very great reluctance. Basil also wrote a treatise, On the Holy Spirit, since the debates on the Son’s relation to the Father in the Trinity had implications for the theology of the Holy Spirit too. Basil was a convinced Trinitarian and a warm supporter of the engagement of theology with the best intellectual tradition of the day.
From 370 onwards Basil was bishop of Caesarea, and in that position had responsibilities for the churches in Pontus. He did much to organise the monastic life of the city into a significant social force as an example of community love in action. On his death in 379, Basil left to the city a complete new town on his own estates, with hospital, hospice and church, as the Church’s outreach to the poor.
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