Tales of the Saints, June 17
On June 17, 1775, American revolutionaries lost the Battle of Bunker Hill, unable to stop the British in Boston from marching out to seize the high ground that commanded the nearby harbor. Still, the British victory over the rebellious colonists was difficult, with 1,054 of their soldiers killed or wounded, compared to 450 casualties for the Americans. And in the battle’s proof that the amateur soldiers of the colonies were able to fight the professional soldiers of their British masters, the loss signaled the possibility of future victory in the Revolutionary War. Even now, June 17 is an official holiday in Boston and the surrounding towns of Suffolk County.
The Boston of the United States was founded in 1630 by Puritan settlers, who named it after the Boston of Lincolnshire, in the England they had left behind. And that English Boston itself was named for a seventh-century saint called Botwulf or (in the Latin form) Botolph: Boston as a linguistic wearing down of Botwulf’s Town or maybe Botwulf’s Stone.
By a curious coincidence, the feast day of St. Botolph is also June 17. We know very little about the man, apart from his having been an abbot and builder of a church on an “ox hill”—Ikanho, probably the current village of Iken in Suffolk. But he was enormously popular in England, with 60 or 70 more churches named for him, including Boston’s own St. Botolph’s, with its famously oversized tower (called “The Stump” by locals) added in the fifteenth century. The building is probably the largest parish church in England.
And maybe the English of the early Middle Ages were right to choose Botolph as the object of such veneration, for he marks something significant. One old source laconically notes, for its entire account of the events of the year 653, “The middle Angles, under Earl Penda, received the true faith. King Anna was killed, and Botwulf began to build the church at Ikanho.” The Christianity that St. Augustine brought to Canterbury in 597 did not always look certain to succeed. But figures like St. Botolph carried the faith out to the rest of England—further and further into the countryside, preaching, building churches, caring for the poor, founding schools, and converting the Germanic Angles and Saxons who had invaded the island. Botolph’s ox-hill church is lost, but it must have seemed a signal fire at the time: a small blaze that promised the eventual victory of the changes that the new faith was bringing.
Twelve hundred years later and a thousand miles east, a young revolutionary named Albert Chmielowski lost his leg in the Uprising of 1863, fighting the Russian forces that ruled his native Poland. He was eighteen at the time, the orphan son of a wealthy, aristocratic family, and he was forced by the defeat of the uprising to flee to Belgium for the next decade—deciding, in exile, that he would develop his painting skills and transfer his revolutionary fervor into art.
Allowed to return to Krakow in 1874, he became a popular artist, painting with a clean sense of line, a political awareness, and a palette of colors surprisingly dark to have found public appeal. He also became conscious of the suffering of the poor of the city, and his political goals began to give way to religious goals—typified by his most famous painting, Ecce Homo, in 1881, and his work in the food banks and homeless shelters of Krakow. In 1887, he joined the Third Order Franciscans, and the next year he decided he could no longer afford the time, energy, and mental discipline that painting took away from his religious vocation. Brother Albert was ordained a priest in 1888, and three years later he founded the Albertine Brothers, a Third Order Franciscan group to help the poor. He died on Christmas 1916, in one of the homeless shelters he had founded.
Pope John Paul II canonized Brother Albert in 1989, giving him, like St. Botolph, the feast day of June 17—today: a day, perhaps, to think about revolutionaries. John Paul himself cited Brother Albert’s influence on his thinking as he, too, came of age in Krakow, and back in 1949, he wrote a play about Albert called Our God’s Brother.
Or a play, anyway, at least partially about Albert Chmielowski—and partially about Vladimir Lenin, the Marxist who would lead the communists to victory in the Russian Revolution. But Our God’s Brotherseems a play that is also about Karol Wojtyła, its author—the future pope as a young Catholic playwright, working his way through his own questions about art, faith, and politics, set in the context of another Russian domination of Poland, as the Soviet Union seized control at the end of the Second World War.
Drawing on the uncertain legend that Brother Albert had once met Lenin in exile, Our God’s Brother imagines a conversation between “Adam,” the Chmielowski character, and “the Stranger,” the Lenin character, about the causes, goals, and strategies of revolution. The communist Stranger is no monster, in Karol Wojtyła’s play. He is presented as genuinely concerned with the poor who so moved Brother Albert, differing only in the strategy of how to help them: Should we use the Marxists’ revolutionary violence to overturn the whole social order, or use the Albertines’ charity and shelter?
As the play develops, however, it becomes clear that the Stranger cannot see the poor as anything other than the poor. All the individuality of people disappears into broad social categories to be manipulated toward revolution. Real human beings barely exist for the Stranger, even while Adam sees them as the center of care. The Stranger’s conversation helps Adam realize that art is not enough—a concern shared by the painter Chmielowski and the playwright Wojtyła—but, even more, the conversation helps Adam understand why Communism cannot substitute for Christianity. True freedom requires the transformation of evil into good in the converted heart. Political liberation will always fail to produce humane culture without Christ’s death and resurrection.
The loss of his leg and his painting signaled the future victory of Brother Albert—and it’s a pattern we’ve seen before, in things great and small. It’s the pattern of defeat and victory, loss and gain, signaled most of all by the Cross.
Joseph Bottum | Jun 17, 2015
Joseph Bottum is a bestselling author who lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. This is the latest installment in his week-long series of reflections on the Saints.