Christ stilling the waves June 2013 111



St. Colette of Corbie

An Extraordinary Life











In 2011 an English biography was published about St. Colette. It was St Colette called Learning and Holiness. It is by Elizabeth Lopez, a French scholar, and is a reworking of a doctoral thesis, which can have problems for the ordinary reader, as it reads as one would expect very much like an academic thesis.  Elizabeth Lopez approaches the writings about St. Colette,  especially the two biographies, one by her confessor Pierre de Vaux, and the other by  Sister Perrine, Colette’s devoted friend, and daughter of Henri de Baume,  her first Franciscan the modern analytical fashion, and as always with such study, there is an underlying bias against the miraculous and a  positive bias in favour of modern psychology. However the problem with Elizabeth Lopez is that she wishes to discover who the real St. Colette of Corbie is. Western Man and Woman can never leave to well alone; the truth must at all costs be discovered, but with the passage of time and the destruction of documents and manuscripts especially during the French wars of religion in the 16th century and the French Revolution in the 18th this can pose a problem. Pope Benedict XVI wisely pointed out that all we have with many of the early saints, prior to the sack of Rome in 411 A.D. are the legends, because so many of the documents would have been destroyed by the Barbarian invasions, the wars of Belisarius, and the Moslem invasions in 7th century.




This peculiarly modern problem  has been bedevilling Western European Civilization for nearly the last two hundred years, and has not been helped by Darwinian evolutionary theory and Enlightenment optimism about man getting morally and intellectually better and better.  The German historical critical method of analysing the scriptures is a supposed example of man getting more and more brilliant, and by the early 20th century it was causing the shipwreck to the faith of many a priest, religious and layman; not even contemplatives were immune. It led to the disbelief in the miraculous in the Gospels, and a suspicion that much was mere literary construction to make a point. A good example of this is that the visit by the Magi never occurred and it was a literary device to point to Christ being the Messiah and then Matthew having concocted this story supplied necessary Old Testament prophecies that could be used. Only a fool could use prophecies to prophesy about something not happening. By the 1960’s the  lunacy of this form of speculation caused the dam of common sense to burst and the laity were flooded with all these ideas. I remember once sitting having tea with a very good bishop, who told myself and my fellow hermit that the Canadian Conference of bishops were thinking of removing all the anti Semitic references in St. John’s Gospel. Now this was an extraordinary utterance coming from such a kind and warm hearted pastor who is a successor of the apostles. The apostles would greet such a proposition with guffaws of laughter. Any sane person could see that John was talking about the leaders of the people, and Jews can be interchanged with Judaens. John is talking about the religious and ruling elite. Also what the good bishop had failed to take into account is that anti-Semitism is a hatred of the Jewish race, and that St. John did not hate his own people, he was talking, as I have said, of the Jewish leaders, and I am sure if he had been an Englishman, or a Phillipino, an American or a Nigerian, a Russian or a Frenchmen he would have had much the same to say about his leaders if this was their attitude to their Saviour. Another bishop, and in my opinion, a saint, the late Bishop Langton Fox, former bishop of Menevia, sensibly observed that Scripture scholars change their mind every year. I think that is very near the truth.




The problem in trying to find what a person was really like all those centuries ago, is precisely the problem; they are centuries away from us. Sometimes one finds to one’s horror that a dear friend that we thought we knew so well was in fact a terrible person.  We had been deceived by charm, and possibly by lies. So often a famous celebrity, who we thought was such a wonderful and kind person turns out to be a terrible paedophile. If we look at the performing arts we find that over the last 50 years there has been an intense desire to find out who wrote the Shakespeare plays, for they could not all have been written by Shakespeare. Why could they not have been.  Bach wrote so much music that it would take someone copying them 40 years to do so non-stop, or so I have been led to believe, and people on the whole do not question that Bach wrote all the music ascribed to him, even if it would take someone 40 years to copy it all, but then copying is not writing something spontaneously which can be done at great speed. I think that we are best helped by the wise words of Sir Malcolm Sergeant,  the famous English conductor of the last century.  He noted how difficult it is to know what the original performance of the Messiah was like. In some ways this is very similar to the problem of trying to find out who the real Colette was like. In talking about accurate performances of Handel’s “The Messiah” which he wrote to accompany his 1959 recording of the work he has this to say.




Let us examine the circumstances of the Messiah’s first production.  In 1741 Handel suffered many rebuffs in London, financial and artistic.  He set to work in a blaze of inspiration to compose music to the words from the Bible, depicting mainly through Old Testament prophecy, Our Lord’s nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection and everlasting Glory.  For 22 days he worked, hardly eating or sleeping, and he completed an oratorio of incomparable grandeur and ineffable beauty which today, 200 years afterwards, brings glimpses of Heaven and the Peace of God to thousands.




In 1741Handel was invited by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to give a series of concerts in Dublin, and he set forth with many accepted compositions and the unrevealed Messiah in his knapsack.  It is important to realise the conditions of music-making in the 18th century.  There were no large amateur choirs, as now exist, capable of singing difficult music.  Passing through Chester, Handel tried to get a ‘run-through’ of some of his music, but the best sight-reader there made him furious by failing utterly to sing passages which today would be considered too simple for a sight-reading test for a good choral society.  Arriving at Dublin he set to work to rehearse the largest body of singers available.  The combined choirs of two cathedrals were, by special permission, placed at his disposal.  They totalled six boys and fourteen men in all!




Handel scored the Messiah for strings only, with two trumpets and two kettledrums added for certain numbers.  The organ was used as directed by him – but there is no part written for it.  He himself directed from the harpsichord, at which instrument he kept time by playing, gesticulating and at times shouting.  Four oboes and four bassoons were added to increase the sound; the oboes to double the sopranos or violins, the bassoons to help the basses.  It is interesting that on one occasion Handel asked for 12 more oboes ‘because the chorus is so small’. It is also interesting that, at a ‘purist’ performance, I have seen (not heard – they were inaudible) 12 oboes doubling for a soprano line of 60 sopranos!  In London each year we have several performances ‘with original accompaniments’; they are all different.




There is no musical evidence that Handel intended the Messiah to be considered as ‘chamber music’.  He was renowned for his big effects – he was criticised by his rivals for being a ‘noisy’ composer, for wanting twice as many voices in his chorus, and twice as many instrumentalists as usual.  It is tragic that in his lifetime-in Dublin and in London – Handel never heard his Messiah choruses, except when sung by a few choirboys and male altos, with tenors and basses in the majority.  I am convinced that, had they been available, he would have rejoiced to have had a choir of several hundred for his first performance.




Twenty – five years after Handel’s death – with many living who knew him and heard his performances – special Commemoration Concerts were given at Westminster Abbey, directed by Mr Bates, who had known Handel well and respected his wishes.  The orchestra employed was 250 strong, including twelve horns, twelve trumpets, six trombones and three pairs of 60 sopranos (40 being choirboys), about 50 male altos (singing falsetto, I trust), over 80 tenros and about 90 basses. An odd balance of parts.  There was no conductor, but Mr Bates led from the organ, at a special console 20 feet below it, and 19 feet in front of the pipes. (He must have had fingers of iron.)  There was no mention of a harpsichord.




Now one might think that this is an odd way to talk about lives of saints by contemporaries, but what I am trying to argue is that we can never know exactly and accurately what is being recorded, and there is a danger that in pursuing one line of enquiry one destroys or distorts the evidence.  A perfect example of this is the great German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who in digging for the Troy of Homer’s great epic The Iliad, managed to mistake an earlier city for Homer’s Troy which was much later.




Canonized saints are people that the Church says are in Heaven. This interestingly is an example of the infallibility of  the Pope. So when we talk about the saints we are talking about a person who may as well be in the room with us, like our guardian angel. One would hardly want a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Pol Pot wafting around the room if we had the onerous task of having to write their biographies, and would we have all the facts, very likely not. So much would be destroyed in wars, deception lies, and death.  These people are much nearer our times, and distortions spring up all over the place. If you are a committed Stalinist, your view of the facts will be utterly different to someone who spent years for a soviet activity in Gulag. What we are looking for is the very essence of the person, that the two main biographies by friends who knew Colette well, namely Fr. Pierre de Vaux, who was her spiritual director, and Sister Perrine, Fr, Henri de Baume’s niece, a Colettine and the saint’s secretary may differ, this is only to be expected. Just because St. John does not mention the institution of the Eucharist in the Last Supper does not meant that it did not take place; admittedly the weight of evidence is with the synoptic gospels, which say it did. The very fact that Jesus talks in chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel about the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood makes it utterly plain that John is not denying the institution of the Eucharist. He is simply writing his account of the life of Jesus from a very personal view point. Conversely if we look at the synoptic gospels we find only oblique references to the Trinity. Does that mean that Jesus did not reveal the Trinity, and that John made it all up; of course not. The problem is that scripture scholars are not biographers or historians or archaeologists as such, they may have a knowledge of these other disciplines, history being the most important, but they are in fact ancient linguists. There study is mainly in this area, which is highly specialized, and the problem with teh specialist is that he cannot always see the wood from the trees. It is the task of this very modest and very unoriginal life of St. Colette to see the wood for the trees, and impart her message for us today. It is a living message, because she is more alive and more real than she was when she was on earth, that is the truth of all the saints, and because of this, I pray that she will help me in the writing of this book, and help you to grow in your love for her, and if you have not met her to introduce you to a wonderful saint in Heaven.