The Blessed Failure

(Note: I wrote this in October, 2012. I’m republishing it for St. Ansgar’s feast day tomorrow)


As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” 

Mark 10:17-18

For, according to the statement made by many persons, sick people came eagerly to [St. Ansgar], not only from his own diocese, but from a great distance, demanding from him healing medicine. He, however, preferred that this should be kept quiet rather than that it should be noised abroad. For when these signs of power were spoken of on one occasion in his presence, he said to a friend, ” Were I worthy of such a favour from my God, 1 would ask that he would grant to me this one miracle, that by His grace He would make of me a good man.”

The Life of Ansgar, ch. xxxix

We are preaching this fall on the saints and heroes of Christian history, and I settled on St. Ansgar (+865 A.D.) for this week in ignorance of some pertinent facts of his life. First, he echoed the Sunday lectionary in a way too apt for me to know how to handle, so I will probably overlook it.

Second, and more to the point, he was a pretty thorough failure in his role as “Apostle to the North.” He got his start as a missionary accompanying Harald, the former king of Denmark, on his way from the court of the Emperor to his former realm. Apparently Harald received the Holy Spirit and the sacrament of baptism about the same time he was persuaded that the friendship of a Christian king might be useful to him in his attempt to regain his old throne. In any event, he was “as yet ignorant and untaught in the faith, and was unaware how God’s servants ought to behave” in the marvelously restrained description of Ansgar’s hagiographer. The churches Ansgar planted in Denmark and Sweden were ruined by some combination of popular indifference, lingering love for Odin, and Viking raids. He was the first archbishop of Hamburg, his diocese including basically all of Scandinavia, Greenland, the Faraoe Islands, Iceland, and the Baltic. Then the Vikings burned Hamburg, ruined his church, and forced him to flee without even a cloak. He spent years recovering from this setback, and whatever gains he made in the last twenty years of his life were undone shortly after his death. It took two more centuries for the Danes and Swedes to accept the Gospel. He failed even in his goal of attaining martyrdom, which considering the prevalence of pirates in that region of the world was not quite like winning the Nobel Prize for physics. To this is added the indignity that the sole account of his life was in fact lost for five centuries.

Third, and yet more to the point, I have found in this account a pathos and a consolation that makes it hard for me to put down. There are, of course, the miracle stories–most having to do with contests between Christ and the Norse gods over who is bigger and stronger. And there are the miracles associated with Ansgar himself, which his hagiographer dutifully reports but which Ansgar himself appeared to dismiss with the phrase above. I’m as suspicious as the next reader, but I don’t suspect false humility here. Rimbert, his successor and hagiographer, extolls his devotional and ascetic practices, but it is fully plausible to me that these pursuits would only sharpen his yearning for grace–grace being, after all, the miracle above all miracles.

Lurking just behind that account is the need to amplify a man’s accomplishments beyond what they seem to have been–as if grace and discipleship are not enough. Yet hyperbole cannot do everything. Ansgar’s first school in Denmark attracted “twelve or more” pupils. One church and one priest had to suffice in all of Sweden for some time (until he was driven out and there were no priests). What the Life of Ansgar depicts, perhaps despite itself, is a very thin flame of Christianity that is snuffed out over and over again. A thin flame fed, in the end, by acts like this:

In particular he founded a hospital for the poor at Bremen, to which he assigned the tithes from certain hamlets so that those who were poor and sick might be daily sustained and refreshed. Throughout the whole of his episcopacy he gave away for the support of the poor a tenth of the animals and of all his revenues and a tenth of the tithes which belonged to him, and whatever money or property of any kind came to him he gave a tenth for the benefit of the poor. In addition every fifth year he tithed again all his animals although they had been already tithed in order to give alms. Of the money that came to the churches in the monasteries he gave a fourth part for this purpose. He was ever most careful of scholars and of widows and wherever he knew that there were hermits, whether men or women, he endeavoured to visit them frequently and to strengthen them in God’s service by gifts, and minister to their wants. He always carried in his girdle a little bag containing coins, so that, if anyone who was in need came and the dispenser of charity was not there, he might himself be able to give at once. For in all things he strove to fulfil the saying of the blessed Job, that he would not even cause the eyes of the widow to wait. Thus did he endeavour to be an eye to the blind, and a foot to the lame and the father of the poor.

He righted wrongs and freed captives. I don’t know why this story has touched me so, apart from its length (one develops the Stockholm Syndrome in the process of reading some of these documents). I am, I suppose, a distant and bastard son of the church Ansgar failed to found, and I know enough about my civilized brethren that I can guess at how rocky the field was when our fathers drank mead fit for true men out of the skulls of our vanquished foes. But more than that is my intuition that the service, love and patience count for more than the successful compulsion of masses of souls into the yoke of Christ. “The desire we so often hear expressed today for ‘episcopal figures,’ ‘priestly men,’ authoritative personalities’ springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority,” Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, “because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive.”

When Ansgar is depicted, which is rarely enough, it is with a small model cathedral in his hands. That is fitting. None of us, of course, is bigger than the Church, but some manage to represent more fully what the Church is called to be.

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