Keeping the Feast; On the Zeal of St. Boniface and Ordering Our Affections

A happy Feast of St. Boniface to all, and especially to those of German extraction, who may find in a blessed eternity that they owe much to this good Bishop.

Saint Boniface, Apostle of Germany

The English Benedictine monk, bishop, and martyr St. Boniface (c. 679-755) converted and baptized thousands across a great part of pagan Germany and Holland, and is widely known for his work with an axe, as the Catholic Encyclopedia recounts:

“To show the heathens how utterly powerless were the gods in whom they placed their confidence, Boniface felled the oak sacred to the thunder-god Thor, at Geismar, near Fritzlar. He had a chapel built out of the wood and dedicated it to the prince of the Apostles. The heathens were astonished that no thunderbolt from the hand of Thor destroyed the offender, and many were converted. The fall of this oak marked the fall of heathenism.”

Boniface Fells the Donar Oak. Heinrich Maria von Hess 1834
“Boniface Fells the Donar Oak,” Heinrich Maria von Hess (1834)

The translation of Willibald’s 8th century Life of Saint Boniface offers more:

“…Some were wont secretly, some openly to sacrifice to trees and springs; some in secret, others openly practiced inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites; while others, with sounder minds, abandoned all the profanations of heathenism, and committed none of these things.

“With the advice and counsel of these last, the saint [Boniface] attempted, in the place called Gaesmere, while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter. And when in the strength of his steadfast heart he had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods.

“But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, driven by a blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and, as if by the gracious compensation of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length, were seen, unwrought by the brethren who stood by. At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling. Then moreover the most holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree wooden oratory, and dedicated it in honor of Saint Peter the Apostle.”

Wittmer’s “Saint Boniface Felling Donar’s Oak” (1861)

The Good Zeal of Saint Boniface

COLLECT: O God, Who didst vouchsafe to call a multitude of peoples to the knowledge of Thy Name by means of the zeal of blessed Boniface, Thy martyr and bishop, mercifully grant that, as we venerate his festival, we may experience the benefits of his protection. Through our Lord..

It is compelling that in the traditional Collect for St. Boniface’s feast, the virtue of zeal in the good bishop is proposed as God’s chosen means to bring “a multitude of peoples” to faith. Clearly, the bishop’s endeavors as an arborist cannot be understood apart from this defining virtue, as Butler illustrates so well:

“The servant of God, burning with zeal for the divine honour and the salvation of souls, never ceased to bewail, night and day, the misfortune of those nations which lay benighted in the shades of idolatry. In these holy dispositions, after having long implored the light and blessing of heaven, he, with the leave of his abbot, passed over into Friseland to preach the gospel to the infidels… From Friseland he went into Hesse and part of Saxony; and wherever he came, baptized many thousands of idolaters, destroyed temples, and built churches. …The saint, looking upon himself as devoted to labour in the conversion of infidels, and being at liberty to follow the call of heaven, would not allow himself any repose, so long as he saw souls perishing in the shades of darkness; and his extreme desire of martyrdom seemed to give him a foresight of his approaching death.”

How greatly our bishops – and all Catholics – would benefit from meditation on holy zeal, shown forth today in the great apostle of Germany! Here indeed is a true pastor: a shepherd not content to allow his sheep to stray heedless to their own destruction or accompany them with whispered niceties about dignity and conscience – as though the illness of sin were anything but fatal, as though the willful rejection of Christ and his commands were anything but everlasting spiritual suicide.

Saint Boniface reproduces that same jealous love burning in our Christ, that Lover not content to leave His cherished ones at the mercy of sin and error, prey to the devil and enslaved to their vices. More, here is the searing mark of that same ardent Charity that overturned tables and drove men with a scourge before seeing the House of God intruded upon by the wicked, the obstinate and impenitent. As Aquinas notes:

“Zeal, whatever way we take it, arises from the intensity of love. For it is evident that the more intensely a power tends to anything, the more vigorously it withstands opposition or resistance. Since therefore love is “a movement towards the object loved,” as Augustine says, an intense love seeks to remove everything that opposes it.” (Summa II.I.28.4)

bonifatiusThe holy zeal reflected in St. Boniface – massively offensive to the political correctness of our own time – is in fact a window into rightly ordered affections, regarding both the salvation of sinners (love of neighbor) and the glory of Christ’s Kingdom (love of God). The latter of the two loves is primary, and the fundamental source of that zeal which makes every martyr: the first and greatest Commandment (cf. Mt 22:37-38).

Indeed, the Catholic with rightly ordered affections will be attracted by the honor of God and all that serves it, whereas all that opposes Him and the salvation of our neighbor will be found repulsive. This affectivity will not be found in intellectual exercise alone, but even experienced viscerally, as the passions gradually become more rightly ordered through one’s “putting on the mind of Christ” – growing in that holy submission to God which is not conformity to this world, but a transformation of the inward man through grace (cf. 1 Cor 2:16, Rom 12:2, Eph 4:24, Col 3:10).

It may then be worth asking: Where are our affections?

Ordered to Right Worship – Or Disordered

E56.StPaul'sCHBonifaceSMIt is no accident that the lumber miraculously produced from the fallen oak of Thor was employed to house the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As a Benedictine, St. Boniface’s consuming preoccupation – as it must be for every Catholic – was to prefer nothing to divine worship (cf. Rule of St Benedict 43:3). In this, he anticipated the conviction of a later bishop and Saint, Pope St. Pius X, who wrote in 1903:

“Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.”

Is right worship not only a priority, but the priority of our lives – such that Holy Mass stands not merely as a theoretical “source and summit of Christian life,” but rather as the very center of our affections? Is giving one’s “highest and best” for the dignity of the temple the end most attractive and desirable in life, whereas the deformation of right worship strikes us as most repulsive, most intolerable? Until then, the right things won’t delight us, and the wrong things will make us sad – like the rich young man contrasted with the suffering Apostles (cf. Mk 10:17-31, Acts 5:40-42).

Such ordering will not come about on its own; and if we lack it, rest assured that the ordo of the Church’s public worship will be the best means to attain it – and that the Novus Ordo won’t help.

For as many continue to observe (cf. Kwasniewski here and here), worship according to traditional Catholic rites – grown organically over centuries of devotion in the sacred soil of Tradition – will form one to act, think, and feel the way a Catholic ought to; not simply because of how they unconsciously instruct on every level of human experience, or because they are often found among communities of devout faithful, but also because of their targeted prayers to effect particular graces unto this proper ordering. The Latin Mass makes Catholics, and one dimension of this “making” is the shaping of an ordered affectivity – acquiring the “Christian spirit.”

What, then, of the Novus Ordo?

In the creation of this novel rite of Mass, more than 80% of the traditional proper prayers were excised along rationalist lines, and prayers for the right ordering of one’s affections were vastly lost. Consider the strange alterations made to today’s Collect:

May the Martyr Saint Boniface be our advocate, O Lord, that we may firmly hold the faith he taught with his lips and sealed in his blood and confidently profess it by our deeds. Through our Lord…

Note the loss of the original Collect’s primary focus on exalting God (Mass now being about the faith of the community), the removal of any mention of holy zeal (we wouldn’t want to encourage fanaticism), the deletion of the historic conversion of pagan multitudes (none of those around today, and they wouldn’t need converting anyhow), the absence of veneration (no sense keeping that old pietistic stuff), and the benefits of the Saint’s protection (as if there were any real dangers about – or as if Bonaventure could do anything about them).

As we have pointed out elsewhere, the Novus Ordo cannot make Catholics; at best, Catholics can keep the Faith in spite of it. As a novel rite fabricated by committee along ideological lines (some of which were expressly heretical), no amount of reform can make it an authentic development of objective liturgical tradition, no amount of reorientation could guarantee its mystical signification, and no amount of personal reverence in its use will alter the objective impiety represented by the rite itself. It is not His, and we must render unto God what is God’s.

May the holy zeal of St. Boniface inspire all to seek and offer right worship to God in the midst of His Church. “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with fear and reverence, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:28-29).

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