St. Margaret of Scotland (sermon for the Feast of St. Margaret 2019)

Toward the end of November every year, we celebrate the feast day of the saint our church is named for, St. Margaret of Scotland. Margaret died on November 16th 1093, nine hundred and twenty-six years ago this year. She’s not one of the well-known saints. Most people who join this church don’t have any idea who she was or what she did, but as we learn about her and get to know her story better, most of us come to love her and admire her, and maybe even see her as a role model for our community and our life as followers of Jesus.

Every year on this day I tell her story, and some of you have heard it many times; you could maybe even tell it for me, if you wanted to! But other people have joined our church since the last time we did this, and many of you will have been away on this Sunday in previous years, for one reason or another. So I’m going to tell the story again today, and then focus on one particular lesson I want us to think about as we put Margaret’s example into practice.

Who was St. Margaret? She was the granddaughter of the English king Edmund Ironside, but because of dynastic disputes she was born in Hungary, in the year 1047. She had one brother, Edgar, and a sister, Christian, and many people in England saw her father Edward Ætheling as the rightful heir to the throne of England. Edward the Confessor became King of England in 1042, but he never had children, and in 1054 the parliament of Anglo-Saxon England decided to bring Margaret’s family back from Hungary so that her father could inherit the throne when King Edward died. So the three siblings were brought up at the Anglo-Saxon court under the supervision of Benedictine monks and nuns, who trained the young people according to the Benedictine ideal of a life of work and prayer.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of those Benedictines in Margaret’s life. From them she learned the importance of balancing times of prayer and times of working for the good of others; this would be a good description of her later life as Queen of Scotland. We know she learned to read the scriptures in Latin, and she also knew the teachings of the church fathers from the early Christian centuries. Her sister Christian went on to become a Benedictine nun herself.

Margaret’s father died in 1057, and her brother Edgar became heir to the throne. But it was not to be. King Edward the Confessor died in 1066, and soon afterwards William the Conqueror invaded England and claimed the throne for himself. Edgar and his sisters were advised to go back to Hungary for their own safety, but on the way their ship was blown far off course by a fierce gale. They spent some time in northern England and then sailed up the coast to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, where King Malcolm gave them a warm welcome to his kingdom.

Margaret was now about twenty years old; Malcolm was forty, and unmarried, and he soon became attracted to her. But she took a lot of persuading; she wanted to become a Benedictine nun, and Malcolm had a very stormy temperament, despite his other virtues. It was only after long consideration that she finally agreed to marry him, and their wedding took place in the year 1070, when she was twenty-three. In the end, although she was much younger than him, she was the one who changed him; under her influence, he became a much wiser and godlier king.

Margaret was now in a high position in society, and very wealthy according to the standard of the day. But she continued to live in the spirit of inward poverty. She saw nothing she possessed as belonging to her; everything was to be used for the purposes of God. As Queen, she continued to live the ordered life of prayer and work that she had learned from the Benedictines. In a very male-dominated society she was only the wife of the king, but nevertheless she came to have the leading voice in making changes that affected the social and spiritual life of Scotland. She had this influence because of the depth of her husband’s love for her. Malcolm didn’t share his wife’s contemplative temperament, but he was strongly influenced by her godly character, so he tended to follow her advice a lot—not only for his own life, but also for the life of the church and people in Scotland.

It’s actually quite remarkable that the Scots accepted the church reforms that this foreign queen proposed, but she herself lived such a simple and Christ-like life that they seemed to feel instinctively that her way must be a good way. Let’s think about the sort of life she lived as Queen of Scotland.

Margaret would begin each day with a prolonged time of prayer, especially singing the psalms. In this she was following the example of the Benedictine nuns; the Rule of St. Benedict prescribes seven prayer services a day, and in this way the whole book of one hundred and fifty psalms would be prayed through once a week!

After her prayer time, we’re told that orphan children would be brought to her, and she would prepare their food herself and serve it to them. It also became the custom that any destitute poor people would come every morning to the royal hall; when they were seated around it, the King and Queen would enter and ‘serve Christ in the person of his poor’. Before they did this, it was their custom to send out of the room all other spectators except for the chaplains and a few attendants; it was important to Margaret that what they did was done for the love of God and the poor, not to win spiritual brownie points from admiring onlookers.

In those days there were basically two traditions of Christianity in the British Isles. The older way was preserved in Ireland, Scotland and northern England, and today we would probably refer to it as ‘Celtic’. The newer way had been brought from Rome when St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived in England in 597, and it had quickly spread around southern England. The two ways were agreed on the teachings of Christianity but they had different emphases, different calendars and different customs. You might think, “Well if they agreed on the teachings, what’s the problem?” but you and I know that’s not how things work! People get used to their customs and traditions and feel very strongly about resisting change!

In those days the church in Scotland had been formed in the Celtic way of Christianity. But Margaret had been raised in the way of Rome, and she was keen to bring Scotland into unity with the rest of the world. However, she didn’t do it in a domineering or authoritarian way. She often visited the Celtic hermits in their lonely cells, offering them gifts and caring for their churches. But she also held many conferences with the leaders of the Church, putting forward the Roman point of view about things like the date of Lent and the proper customs for celebrating the liturgy and so on. In the end she convinced them—not so much because of the strength of her arguments, but by the power of her holy life.

In those days many people in Scotland used to go on pilgrimages to see the relics of St. Andrew at the place now called ‘St. Andrew’s’. Margaret wanted to help the pilgrims, so she had little houses built on either shore of the sea that divided Lothian from Scotland, so that poor people and pilgrims could shelter there and rest after their journeys. She also provided ships to transport them across the water. Interestingly enough, that place in eastern Scotland is still called ‘Queensferry’!

I think it’s fair to say that most people recognized as saints today by the Catholic Church were monks and nuns who lived lives of celibacy, far removed from the demands of the world and the pressures of family life. But Margaret is remembered as having a happy family life. She had eight children—six sons and two daughters. Her oldest son Edward was killed in battle, Ethelred died young, and we’re told that Edmund didn’t turn out too well. But the three youngest, Edgar, Alexander, and David, are remembered as among the best kings Scotland ever had. David I, the youngest son, had a peaceful reign of twenty-nine years in which he developed and extended the work his mother had begun. The two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were both brought up under the guidance of Margaret’s sister Christian in the Abbey of Romsey, and both went on to marry into the English royal family.

Margaret was not yet fifty when she died. As she lay dying, her son Edgar brought her the sad news that her husband and her oldest son had been killed in battle. Despite this grief, we’re told that her last words were of praise and thanksgiving to God, and her death was calm and tranquil.

Now—what lesson do we want to draw from the story of Margaret this year?

Last week when Sylvia was preaching, she mentioned the importance of ‘taking a stand for Christ’. As I listened, I found myself wondering “What would that look like in daily life?’ And I came to the conclusion that the most important part of taking a stand for Christ is simply to obey the teachings Jesus gave us.

In John 14 Jesus says very clearly, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14.15) And what’s the best way of summing up Jesus’ commandments? I’m sure I don’t have to remind anyone here of the answer to that question. Jesus himself was asked which commandments were the most important of all, and he replied,

“The first is, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12.28-31)

I’ve quoted these commandments in the form Mark gives them to us. But in Luke’s Gospel it’s actually a scribe who quotes them to Jesus; Jesus commends him for his answer, and then he says, “Do this, and you will live.” I don’t think he means, “Do this, and God will let you go to heaven as a reward.” I think he means, “If you learn to live a life of love for God and your neighbour, you will discover the sort of joyful and fulfilling life you were designed for in the first place. This is really the best and most wonderful way to live. This is life as God intended it.”

The Benedictine nuns who taught Margaret to live as a Christian had a long tradition of balancing work and prayer—loving your neighbour and loving God. I first came across this myself in the early 1990s when I encountered the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. These Sisters are Anglican nuns who follow the way of St. Benedict, and they used to have a priory in Edmonton, up near Alberta Avenue. I stayed there a few times, and I was always impressed with the way their day was punctuated by prayer. They were always busy; individual sisters travelled and gave retreats and conferences, and there were often events happening at the Priory itself, or individuals coming for spiritual help and guidance. But the sisters were also strict about observing their Rule, and that included praying Morning Prayer, the Eucharist, Mid-Day Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline every day. They did it together in their chapel, with any friends who were there and wanted to join them, including their two full-sized poodles, Phoebe and Caspian!

So they gathered for four prayer services and a Eucharist every day. As I mentioned earlier on, St. Benedict’s Rule for his monks prescribes sevendaily services, with names like Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce and Compline. Modern Benedictines have softened this expectation a bit, and in the 16thCentury Archbishop Thomas Cranmer combined bits of all the daily services into two: Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, sometimes called ‘Matins’ and ‘Evensong’, which he included in the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Many of us older Anglicans grew up with Morning Prayer as a Sunday service, but it wasn’t originally designed for that; it was a daily service, to be said with others if possible, but if not, then alone.

We Anglican clergy still follow this discipline, and many lay people find it valuable as well. This past week it was reading week at the University of Alberta. I follow our Anglican chaplain, Heather Liddell, on Instagram, and on Tuesday morning I saw she posted a picture of her Bible and Book of Alternative Services. The caption was, ‘Morning Prayer continues all reading week at 9am in HUB 176 – why not join us in prayer?’ So you see, over fourteen hundred years after St. Benedict died, and over four hundred and fifty years after Thomas Cranmer died, their vision of daily prayer based on the psalms and scriptures is still being practiced in Edmonton—not just at the U of A, but in many other places too.

This is probably the discipline Margaret followed. I doubt if she prayed all seven Benedictine daily offices, but she certainly joined in some of them, and we know she also spent time in silent prayer, fasting and contemplation. Strengthened by this life of prayer, she was then able to get up and go about her daily work—the work of following Christ and trying to make Scotland a better place for the people who lived there.

What about us? We’re all busy people. Many of us work long hours at demanding jobs. Some of us are students with worries about student debt, working various jobs to try to make ends meet, wondering what sort of world we’re going to be working in. Some of us are retired and spend a lot of time looking after our grandchildren and doing what we can to support our kids in the busy world they live in.

How can we avoid burnout? Where can we find strength from God to deal with the things life sends our way?

Surely the Christian answer is that we need to stay in touch with God so we can know his presence in our daily lives. God loves us and wants each of us to experience his love. And prayer is one of the best ways of doing that. In prayer, we can lay down our burdens in God’s presence. We can bring our requests—for others and ourselves—to the one person who’s best able to deal with them. We can thank God for the blessings we receive and ask God’s forgiveness for our sins and shortcomings. We can listen to the voice of God in Scripture and in silence, and seek a word from God to guide us through our day.

Seven times a day is a bit much for us! But maybe, like Thomas Cranmer, we can manage once or twice? At the beginning and end of the day, we can turn to God for strength and peace.

Last Lent we did a five-session course called ‘Prayer Smorgasbord’, exploring five different styles of prayer. One of them was ‘the daily office’, the sort of prayer I’ve described, based on the way of St. Benedict and Archbishop Cranmer. As part of that course I made available a condensed version of Morning and Evening Prayer for people to try out, just using one folded page. I’ve put some copies of it on the table in the foyer; I encourage you to take them, and if you need help with it, feel free to contact me. I’d be delighted to help you.

‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’. Jesus’ vision is a life of loving relationship with God and our neighbour. Many of us in this church are doing a lot to help our neighbour, but let’s not forget about our relationship with God. Margaret of Scotland was a very busy person, but she never forgot her daily time with God in prayer. Let’s follow her example, and be people of prayer as well as people of good deeds. The two belong together, and when we combine them, we’ll find the life we were made for.

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