Plinio Corręa de Oliveira
Saint Edward of England, the Pope,
and the Beggar
Saint of the Day, Friday, June 28, 1974
Here is an excerpt from the book The Early Middle Ages by C. Brook, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Liverpool:
“The life of King Edward, the confessor, in the twelfth century, illustrates the medieval image of poverty, royalty and the divine will. This story tells that Gila Mechael, an Irishman, went to Rome in search of a cure. But Saint Peter told him that he would only heal if King Edward of England carried him on his shoulders from the great Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey.”
Here, the author calls the pope, Saint Peter. King Edward of England had a reputation as a saint and is revered by the Church as Saint Edward the Confessor. Something perplexing when you enter Westminster Abbey is to see the throne of St. Edward the Confessor installed in the most honorable place of a Protestant church. You do not feel like taking away the throne but the Protestants. But what can you do? Our Lady allows it to be so. He was a great saint, a miracle worker, a thaumaturge.
“The pious monarch consented. Along the way, the bloated Irishman (he was all sores) felt his nerves loosen and his legs stretch. Blood from his wounds ran down the royal garments but the king took him to the altar of the Abbey, where he was healed. He began to walk and hung his crutches in the Abbey as a sign of the miracle.”
So, the cured man had contracted nerves, probably also difficulty moving, and was full of sores. He got people to taken to the pope and ask him for a cure. The pope’s answer was: you will be cured only if the King of England puts you on his back and takes you from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey, where you will be healed.
The man goes back to England. You understand the long, endless journeys at that time, what the roads were like, the possibility of facing bandits and robbers along the way, being welcomed and well-treated in convents... Traveling from England to Rome was an adventure.
He arrives in Rome, and the pope sends him back. But you see the pope’s beautiful act of confidence in the king’s healing power: “If the king puts you on his shoulders, you will be healed.”
Saint Edward receives the beggar resplendent with majesty, kindness, and affability
Then he returns and arrives at the Royal Palace. We can imagine St. Edward the Confessor on a throne, in royal robes, wearing the royal diadem, resplendent with majesty, kindness, and affability.
“What do you want?”
“Sir, I come here from on the pope’s behalf.”
“Ah, pray tell me, what is happening?”
“The Dominus Apostolicus - as they used to call the pope – asks that you heal me.”
“Oh, fine, but how can I do that?”
“It’s the pope’s order. What do you think? This is his request.”
Look at the contrast: you have a poor beggar full of sores, bleeding, and therefore disgusting, talking to a king, healthy, presumably young, and full of majesty. The pope wants nothing more nor than for the king to carry that beggar on horseback on his shoulders and present himself in that humiliating posture all along the street. He who is the leader of the nation, carrying a wounded and purulent man on his back.
As he goes through the streets-- we can imagine this scene in then-small London: the king leaving the palace, sentries standing at attention, perhaps a herald blowing a horn to warn that the king is about to leave. You can imagine, in the narrow streets of the city of London, people watching the king’s departure in amazement. The king is not in his magnificent steed or in a chariot. The king is on foot, alone, without guards or troops, carrying this individual on his back. What an impact that must have had!
What is happening? Precisely that beggar! Everyone knows each other in small towns. So-and-so, that miserable beggar, is riding our holy king Edward, a symbol of England, symbol of the Catholic Church’s virtue, a king majestic, dignified, and gallant as a lily! How extravagant!
The beggar keeps praying and only thinks of asking Our Lady for a cure. The king is also praying. Amazed people line up behind them to see what will happen in Westminster Abbey.
On the way, the royal robes are soaked with pus and blood as the beggar’s wounds begin to ooze. But he already begins to feel some more unrestrained movements. You can imagine the general expectation as they enter the Abbey. I do not think any scene is as beautiful as this happened again in Westminster Cathedral.
Royal majesty shone in one of the most beautiful episodes in England’s history
The king goes in and arrives at the altar, before which he lays on the ground the precious burden. The man, who rode the king while holding on to his crutches, stands up and walks without them! His sores are dry; he’s healed! For his part, the king is gloriously dressed in blood and pus. A great miracle has taken place! Royal majesty has shone in one of the most beautiful episodes in the entire history of England’s royalty. Our Lady worked a great miracle through a king.
Is this episode historically accurate? It does not matter much. It could be a legend, but what matters is that there were multitudes who wished it had been that way. They gradually invented the legend based on some fact that would be residually true. They became enthused, imagining that things could have been like that. It represents an ideal that has caused people to shudder with enthusiasm for entire generations. That is what matters: for this state of mind to have existed.
Perhaps this miracle did happen. Why could a holy king not work that miracle? However, less important than the fact there was a miracle -- in a way – is the existence of crowds that cheered with excitement at the prospect of such a miracle.
How different is the enthusiasm of today’s poor crowds, massified, animalized, and reduced to nothing.
There is no question that the episode is beautiful. Now, what is so beautiful about it? Let us make a rational analysis so that it is not just a conviction, and then we understand the profound beauty of the Catholic Church. Because if true, the fact happened by the power of the Catholic Church and of that saint’s belonging to the Church.
If the fact was not true, grace led millions of souls to aspire to such an ideal. Either way, it mirrors the beauty of the Church, and so one wonders what the beauty of this thing is.
The episode has two beautiful aspects; one is the beggar’s Faith
The event has two beautiful aspects, one of which is this beggar’s Faith. A poor man, he does not hesitate to ask the pope for a cure candidly. How prestigious the papacy was at that time! How people believed that a pope could cure! How sure he was of that!
Until a few years ago - I don’t know if that happens today - letters addressed to St. Pius X arrived from all corners of the world from people asking to have the letter placed by his grave, asking for graces.
Saint Pius X was a real saint and a great saint. There are accounts that more than once, when celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica with all the Vatican pomp of those times and crowds in attendance, he would rise above the ground and descend again. The angels raised him.
Imagine a pope who raises the chalice at the time of the elevation and rises along with it. There is nothing more to say; not even an acclamation is fitting. All has been said. He continued a longstandign tradition of holy popes!
The beggar goes to Rome and asks the pope for a cure. How does Providence deal with this man’s Faith? The pope could cure him but does not. “Go back to England, and you will be healed there.” It requires an act of confidence which Our Lady asks of strong souls. She often heeds weak souls immediately. To the strong, She says a yes or a no, or something that looks like yes and no: “Go to England, talk to King Edward, he can cure you.”
There goes the poor man dragging himself along again, confident that King Edward will cure him. He could get grumpy: “Why does Our Lady send me to Rome if I had someone so close that could cure me?” But he does not become cranky. Our Lady disposes of him as She wants. He goes back full of Faith: King Edward will cure him. He returns and calmly presents himself to King Edward.
You can see how this man has the Faith that moves mountains. He arrives in England and asks for the cure, but the king has to fulfill the pope’s conditions. And the pope wants the beggar to ride the king.
Could that condition not seem extravagant? Could the king not cure the beggar right there and then? Why allow himself to be ridden by a disgusting beggar? Why carry him to Westminster Abbey? Could the cure not be instantaneous? If the king had to take him there, could the two not ride together sitting in a carriage? No, the beggar had to ride the king. Is this not an inversion of order?
What beauty is there in becoming ecstatic watching a poor human rag riding a royal lily?
However, we who love order so much have the feeling that there is a profound order to it. We marvel at seeing the poor human rag riding the royal lily, riding the perfect, holy, noble, beautiful, aristocratic, superior, wise man, an immortal symbol of his own nation. The human rag rides that man, and we revel in it.
Is this disorderly? How is beauty found in it? It is beautiful for a public authority to dominate. It is a real marvel to render due respect to holders of public authority, and especially when that authority recognizes the divine origin of its power. In this way, people know that paying homage to the public authority, they pay full homage to God because that authority considers itself to be God’s representative. That is how holders of public authority considered themselves in cities, monarchical or aristocratic states, or in the bourgeois states of the Middle Ages.
Therefore, representing public authority is very beautiful and noble, and one should pay full respect to its representative. Naturally, those who are inferior must render greater respect.
But there is beauty in something else as well. On certain occasions, the superior proves even heroically his superior condition by being the father, helper and supporter of the inferior, showing that, in their essence, all men are equal. They are unequal only in their accidents. These are very important but are mere accidents. In essence, both are men.
Because of this, let the greater serve the lesser; let one man respect the quality of the other by doing his best to heal him and, if necessary, to carry him.
So we have two marvelous things: A poor man resigned to being poor but who asks a king with all ease: “May I ride on your back?” Then you have a king who knows how to be king and appreciates all that royalty is worth but also knows how to say: “Of course, my son. Get on my back and let us go together, asking for a miracle.”
One of the profound laws of harmony is for extremes to meet
There is harmony here that in some way corresponds to the profound law that governs all harmonies. One of the profound laws of harmony is for extremes to touch. And it is beautiful to see the extreme of royalty touching the extreme of begging. And to see the two things come together so harmoniously. It is lovely to see royalty carrying begging on its back. They go together to the altar, and God is enchanted by the beauty of this work, of which He is deep down the Author. He is the maker of the beggar; He is the maker of the king, He is the maker of royalty, and He also wanted that there be suffering, poverty, pain, disease, and begging in the world.
He is the Author of all this and makes it a perfect harmony. From the presence of a beggar full of wounds, unable to fight, unable to shine, He draws an episode of perfect beauty for the history of England of mankind in all times. If the episode was authentic.
If the episode was not authentic, as I have said, this legend lives in a Catholic people to praise God because they want to express a principle of order and a principle of beauty that God has placed in all things: the principle that extremes touch each other, that superiors are venerated by inferiors but protect them, and, in their own way, superiors also venerate inferiors. That episode expresses precisely this.
The miracle of God crowns this episode, and our souls contemplate with nostalgia the times when such events were possible and enchanted the crowds.
This episode is unfitting television soap operas or sensational news. We are not led to frenetic intemperance as we read or listen about them. We are calm, satisfied; close the book, and say, “Oh, good King Edward! Oh, good beggar!” And we rest and think a bit, which is properly the effect of a good narration of an edifying event from a time when tranquility and recollection were appreciated.
The Gospel recounts that with the wonders She saw at the birth of the Child Jesus, Our Lady kept all those things in Her heart and thought about them. Faced with this episode, let us do the same. Let us keep this thing in our hearts, in our minds, and let us see the beautiful principle underlying it: the fact that most beautiful episodes in human life correspond to the laws of universal aesthetics.
These laws of aesthetics are symbols of God. Contemplating that episode, we see aesthetics; contemplating aesthetics, we see God. And here you have, centuries later, Brazil, a country not even discovered at that time, a nation not even in existence back then, still praising King Edward, the pope, and the beggar.
Let us forget today’s abominations and think: what a great Pope, what a great King, what a great beggar, how grand and beautiful are the aesthetics of the universe! [Praised be our] Great God and Lord!