January 15, 2006

How Jack Bauer led me to St. Bridget of Sweden

Tonight begins season 5 of the television show "24", starring Jack Bauer, a show I never much cared for until I got hooked on it. The premiere is more of a mini-series with two hours tonight and two new hours on Monday, which suggested I'd have to do some housekeeping on Tivo in order to make space. And that meant watching & deleting an old History Channel special on the Black Death.

HC's The Plague presented the pope of the time, Pope Clement VI, in as awful light as they could possibly manage. They also errored on the side of doing religion absolutely no favors (though Christianity was not fingered as having actually caused the Plague, fleas & rats doing the dirty business, for which we can be grateful). In Pope Clement's case, his efforts to save Jews from unfairly being targeted was apparently much less interesting than the fact that he'd holed up, uncourageously for sure, in order to avoid the Plague. But we're used to this sort of stuff on the History Channel (see The Crusades, where after watching I learned to stop worrying and love Islam).

But one of the joys of a home library is the ease of available information and the ability to follow your nose wherever it goes. So I read the alternative view of the history of the period via Johan Huizinga's books, Crocker's Triumph, various papal biographies, and Warren Carroll's books on the history of Christendom. And the range of opinion was interesting and provided a far more multi-dimensional view of the Pope and Church during the time of the Plague than I'd encountered in the cartoonish presentation on the History Channel.

I grew curious at what the saints - credible sources since they are closest to the Most Credible Source - who lived during that time had to say. And in one of the books there was a mention of St. Bridget of Sweden, who moved to plague-ridden Rome in 1350. Having the name, I googled for her feast day and read about her at length in the marvelous 4-volume "Lives of Saints" set I'm blessed to have. (I also consulted the "Bad Catholic's Guide to the Good Life" but she didn't make the cut there.)

St. Bridget's story strongly recalled St. Catherine's of Sienna's, who was a fellow mystic and contemporary who also wrote outspoken letters to popes in Avignon urging them to return to Rome. St. Bridget also did her darndest to convert King Magnus II of Sweden, which sparked a curiousity about King Magnus's life that my home library was unable to satisfy. Not a great loss.

According to Butler's "Lives of Saints", the convents St. Bridget started (the Order would later be called the Bridgettines) were austere but had a pleasing loophole:
All surplus income had every year to be given to the poor, and ostentatious buildings were forbidden; but each religious could have as many books for study as he or she pleased.
Nice. My kind of religious order.

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