Words on the Word

Conversion of St OIav

Jeremiah 20:7-9: Thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed.
Ephesians 6:10-18: Be ready!
Matthew 28:18-20: To observe all that I have commanded.

It was a dear old confrère in the monastery who taught me the significance of the passage we have heard from the letter to the Ephesians. He had been a fighter pilot during the war. Shaken by the destruction he had witnessed, he couldn’t settle, when peace came, into life on anything but radical terms. His vocation was not untypical. Again and again through almost 2000 years we have seen that consecrated life reflourishes in the wake of disasters. We human beings are constructed in such a way that we are happy to doze as long as relative stability allows it. But we are able to make clear choices. At times we know the obligation to make clear choices. A kind of Deuteronomic clarity then illumines existence: we know we must go either in this direction or that. We cannot opt for both.

My brother had lived a faithful, beautiful, fruitful life. He was gifted in many ways, had great self-discipline: the army had laid a foundation reinforced by monastic life. He knew, and accepted, that life often enough is a battle, and that we must be armed for it. That is why he had appropriated St Paul’s words. He did not merely read the passage we have heard; he performed it as a daily ritual. Every morning, even when he was over 90, he would sit on his bed in his cell heeding the apostle’s call, ‘Be ready!’ Then he would deliberately put on his armour: righteousness for a breastplate, the gospel of feet underfoot, the helmet of salvation on his head and, in the hand, the Spirit’s sword. Thus prepared he could enter the day robed in God’s power, without having to fear his own weakness.

The armour St Paul speaks of is worn directly on the body. We must be stripped first, stripped of what is ours. When Paul speaks of ‘putting on the Lord Jesus Christ’, the reference is not to some kind of loose poncho that fits on top of various layers of other, personally chosen garments. To be a Christian is to be transformed. We must shed the old outfit. In ancient times this process was enacted when candidates for baptism descended into the baptistry naked. They were baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in order, then, to rise robed in white, a symbolic reference to the raiment of the redeemed in St John’s Apocalypse.

When the Passio Olavi tells us that St Olav, in Rouen, arose from baptism ‘changed into a new man’, we shouldn’t dismiss this remark as hagiographic idealisation. No, it states a fact. The neophyte is no longer the same. An essential change has occurred. Whether the change will be observable is another matter. Conscious conversion to that which one has become may take time. That is why a ritual like my brother’s can be of real help. It helps to make us conscious of our Christian call and duty. To be baptised, we have heard in the Gospel, is to observe everything the Lord Jesus commanded. It is a great, heroic proposition. We depend on God’s grace and on one another’s friendship and example of faithfulness.

Pius Welonski’s altarpiece here in this church shows the eternal king of Norway swashbucklingly adorned. The iconography doesn’t correspond to our time’s criteria for leadership, whether in lay or ecclesiastical life. There is no trace of vulnerability in this Olav, no carefully consultative style. The king stands sovereign, his head held high, raising the cross-crowned orb. Above all we should not where he stands —  balancing on a dragon who could have crawled straight out of the Magic Flute. What does it represent? The primary association is biblical. It recalls the text in Genesis in which God reproaches the tempter:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your seed and her seed;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.

By Christ’s sacrifice, made present in this Mass, the serpent’s defeat was sealed. Death has lost its sting. Every believer makes this experience his or her own in an intimate way, we in our day just as St Olav did in his.

That said, Christianity remains an historical, embodied religion. The drama of salvation assumes particular colours in concrete circumstances. The altarpiece lets us discern three different perspectives.

The first refers to Olav’s own time. The adversary he fought was idolatry, above all. Olav could place himself within a biblical paradigm, as Elijah on Carmel or as King Josiah with the Law. The conflict was sharply defined.

We can further consider the painting against the backdrop of the period in which it was produced. Bishop Fallize, who commissioned it, was born four years before the Year of Revolutions 1848. He saw the collapse of a whole societal order. The old monarchies were reduced to dust, along with them structures that had formed the Church’s European backbone. This newly secular, self-confident, free-thinking world appeared as such an enemy. The First Vatican Council largely adopted this attitude. We can see a reflection of the Council’s vision, of a Church on the barricades, in Welonski’s St Olav.

And now? What does the dragon represent for us? We shouldn’t demonise our times. Let us recognise all that is good and that tends towards the good. But let us, at the same time, own that we live with the consequences of a massive collapse. What we have lost, is sense. We live in a world that, inwardly and outwardly, appears ever more diffuse. The ‘dictatorship of relativism’ has spread, not through revolutionary battles, but through gradual mental pollution. It deprives experience of contours. It erases contrasts. It gives the impression that existence is like the kind of walking pavement you find in airport. You can’t change the course of such a contraption. The best you can do is to trot along in step with other travellers, while clutching your luggage.

You and I, however, as Christians, can’t carry on like that, in a half-torpor. We have, by the covenant of baptism, contracted a duty to make courageous choices on behalf of ourselves, on behalf of the Church, on behalf of society.

In the medieval office for the feast of St Olav we are told that ‘he, for righteousness’ sake, passed as victor from the battle field to the eternal King’s mansion’. He could do this because he had in advance, daily, ‘performed the office of an evangelist, wearing the breastplate of faith, the helmet of salvation’. The same task is entrusted to us; the same means are given us; the same goal is held before our eyes. We, too, are asked to be ready. Which presupposes that, ahead, we shall have responded to another Pauline imperative, from the letter to the Romans: ‘It is time to wake from sleep!’ May we be faithful, devoted servants in the cause of justice, in Christ’s name. Amen.


Itaque devotissime perficiens officium evangelistae indutus lorica fidei et galea salutis circuibat civitates, vicos et villas salutarem doctrinam ubique disseminans.

This he performed the service of an evangelist wearing the breastplate of faith and the helmet of salvation, walking round the cities, villages, and farms sowing the doctrine of salvation.