This homily was given by Imogen Black, a final year ordinand, at Evening Prayer on Monday 11th October 2010;
Today is the feast of Ethelburga, a 7th century saint who was abbess of Barking; not to be confused with Ethelburga, a 7th century saint who was abbess of Faremoutier-en-Brie; or indeed with Ethelburga, a 7th century saint who was abbess of Lyming.
Very little is known about her, making it an interesting question as to quite why she (unlike her two namesakes) has been singled out for the contemporary Anglican calendar. Perhaps it’s not unrelated to the fact that a church under her patronage in Bishopsgate made the news a few decades ago; almost destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1983, it was rebuilt as the St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, something that may have brought the saint a little more into the public eye.
What we do know about her comes mostly from Bede, writing some 50 years after her death. Her brother Eorcenwald founded the monastery at Barking and set her over it as its first abbess. In this task, we’re told, she proved worthy of her brother in all respects, “both by her holy life and by her sound and devoted care for those under her rule”, to whom she was both “mother” and “nurse”.
That is really all Bede has to say about her character. But he is convinced as to her holiness, to which visions and miracles bore witness. Most notably, an elderly nun had a vision in which a body brighter than the sun was drawn up from the monastery into heaven; a few days later, Ethelburga died, and such was her record, Bede says, that none who knew her could doubt that the gates of heaven were opened for her. Then another nun, badly crippled, asked to be carried into church to pray at Ethelburga’s body. There she asked her to intercede on her behalf in heaven, that she might be released from her suffering; twelve days later she was indeed released, in death.
So what, then, can we learn from such a figure, given how little we know of her? Perhaps that holiness does not necessarily involve doing things that are, in the end, particularly exciting or memorable, but can be a matter of simply faithfully seeking God’s will in the place where we are set, getting on with the job that we’ve been given to do. And that how we treat those around us, those people with whom we live and work, is a significant testimony to our holiness or lack of it. Those who believed Ethelburga to be truly holy, who sought and received her intercession, were from her own monastery, the people who saw her in day-to-day life, who had to live with her, under her authority. She can hardly have been faultless, but whatever her faults, her genuine care for her community was seen as rather more significant.
Let us pray.
To those who love you, Lord,
you promise to come with your Son
and make your home within them.
Come then with your purifying grace
and, at the intercession of St Ethelburga your virgin
make our hearts a place where you can dwell.
We make our prayer through Christ our Lord.