Clare Martin reads up on what happened at Ethelburga’s Barking Abbey during the plague years, and asks what this could teach us about living in our own post-pandemic era?
Recently I dipped into the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people (one of the earliest sources for Anglo-Saxon history and a surprisingly ripping read!) to find out more about Ethelburga of Barking. The stories I found were strange and haunting.
Ethelburga was abbess at a monastery that included both women and men. Each group lived, prayed and worshipped in their own part of the abbey. When the plague arrived, it took hold in the men’s precinct first. Many monks had already died, many others were desperately ill, when Ethelburga asked her nuns a simple question: ‘Where would you like to be buried?’
Bede writes that her question ‘received no certain answer from the sisters,’ though she asked them many times. Then late one night,
‘These handmaids of Christ had gone out of their chapel to the tombs of the brothers who had departed this life before them, and were singing the customary songs of praise to the Lord, on a sudden a light from heaven, like a great sheet, came down upon them all, and struck them with such amazement, that in consternation, they even left off singing their hymn…’
They watched as this light ‘brighter than the sun at noon day’ came to rest in a place to the south side of the monastery. It touched the ground. They all understood the meaning of it. This was the answer to Ethelburga’s question. This was to be the site of their mass grave.
This blinding light appears in each subsequent story about Ethelburga. In one, a nun has a vision of Ethelburga at the moment of her death, rising up into the sky, carried up by golden ropes. Later, Ethelburga appears in spirit to some of the sisters who had known her in life. She walks towards them radiating a heavenly light.
There’s something so stark in these stories. They’re drawn in the blood red and gold of a mediaeval illuminated manuscript. They come from a time before a united England existed, when Christianity was only one amongst many religions observed on these islands. A time when Europe saw up to half its population wiped out by plague. It was a time of saints and visions, martyrs and warrior kings, death and frequent miracles.
I know these stories will live with me as long as I work at St Ethelburga’s, that I’ll return to them and find new insights every time. What strikes me most now, is how ‘the light brighter than the sun at noonday’ comes right down to touch the Earth. It reminds me of the Buddhist story about the goddess Drittar.
Following the Buddha’s enlightenment, he leaned down and touched the Earth, using the Earth touching mudra. Instantly the Earth Goddess Drittar appeared. She affirmed his realised state, saying ‘yes, I’ve seen it.’ It’s a moment of intimacy where the Buddha tenderly touches the Earth and acknowledges his interdependence with her.
Thomas Berry has argued that the West’s disenchantment with the natural world had its roots in the plague years of the middle ages. ‘The people had no explanation for what was happening,’ writes Berry. ‘They knew nothing of germs. They could only figure that the world had grown wicked. God was punishing the world. Confidence in the natural world as the basic mode of divine presence was shaken. A new emphasis was placed on redemption out of this world.’
You can sense this existential dread throughout the Ecclesiastical history. You can feel it in the nuns’ reluctance to answer Ethelburga’s question, ‘Where do you want to be buried?’ And you can feel it in how they clung to the miracle of light from heaven. Christianity held out this promise of salvation beyond a vale of tears.
If Berry was right, and the plague years really were a time when the schism between spirit and matter took root in European Christianity, I think there’s an opportunity for us to use these post COVID years to do the reverse. To the people of Ethelburga’s time, the plague was a tide of hostility rising up out of the natural world, ravaging everything they loved. For us, the lesson of our plague years is that everything is interconnected. It showed us how porous we are to one another and to the world that is our common home. Can we use this knowledge to collectively restore a sense of reverence for all of creation? Can we reach back to that moment when the light of God touched the Earth, and hold those two things together, rather than letting them break apart?
How to bring a sense of reverence into our relationship to land is a question that’s at the heart of our Lifelines project. Over the next six months we’ll be supporting 200 people from 20 different faith communities to plant hedgerows on farmland across the UK. Do get in touch if you’d like to get involved.
You’re warmly invited to join us on St Ethelburga’s open day! We’ll be throwing our doors open on December 7th to share mulled apple juice and holiday cheer. Do come along to find out more about the stories behind our very special space, chat about our work, or enjoy some silent reflection in our Bedouin tent. You can also listen to our new audio tour, which takes you on a 1,300 year journey through our history, and introduces you to all sorts of wild and wonderful details scattered throughout our unique building. All of us on the staff team will be there and we look forward to raising a glass with you!
Our next contemplative practice gathering is on Tuesday December 13, 2022 at 6.30pm in our Bedouin tent. Do join us! I look forward to seeing you in person or online sometime soon.