As the world becomes more and more centered on the self, but continues to ask questions of faith and understanding of our purpose in this world, I have felt that there is a real need for a resurgence of the veneration of the Saints. Take the story of Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Before he began his journey to Christ in earnest, he lay bedridden and dying from a leg infection after a battle. All he had around him to keep his mind occupied were books on the early Saints of the Church. He found that the more he read about their heroic lives, the more he wanted to reform his own and serve Christ with all his heart, mind, and strength.
Unfortunately, we sometimes think that all the Saints were as heroic and valiant as Saint Ignatius, or the Apostles and Martyrs. Their stories and lives can seem so out-of-touch with our own that we often loose the vital connection needed to make their lives true examples for us. Thus, I want to bring to your attention the life of a Saint that has such a great deal to teach us, one that gained her saintly crown not from actions on a battlefield or in great oratory, but from the simple actions of her heart.
I had an interesting discovery of sanctity on vacation one day in the north of England. This happened years ago while I helped out in a parish in London as a priest, with some friends of mine who did the same in nearby parishes. One day, when we all had the day off, we drove up to York (Old York as opposed to New York!). While we were wandering through the ancient part of the city called the Shambles, I spied on my left a non-descript store on this street full of shops. What was odd about it was that I saw through the window a Sanctuary Lamp!
I couldn’t believe it! Glancing at my friends I emphatically said “I got to see this.” So, I entered the store where I was surprised to see pews and an altar as well. There were some books for sale on the counter. One was called “The Pearl of York”. Another had the words boldly printed: “St. Margaret Clitherow”. By that point we were intrigued, so we asked the attendant in the gift shop about who this saint was. Turns out we were standing in the Butcher Shop where she and her husband sold meat during Elizabeth times (16th century). Above the store is where they lived and where they hid priests who said Mass in secret due to the persecution and illegality of Catholicism in England at that time. They risked their lives and the lives of their family to protect and maintain the true Faith.
I was so intrigued that I bought every book about her and read deep into the night in my hotel room.
She was a convert to Catholicism, and had such a fervor for the Faith. She protected outlawed Priests, and did all she could to foster the Faith in those that saw no hope for Catholicism in England. Eventually she was found out, but she refused go to trial because she would have to put her children on the stand and they would either have to perjure themselves or condemn her. This was true also for her husband who was not Catholic but kept quiet about her ‘Masses’. For not going to trial, the penalty under English Law was to be pressed to death (i.e., a huge door was placed on top of her and boulders placed on the door until she was crushed to death). She was pregnant with her third child at that time.
When I got home, I read everything I could about her and was determined to make her better known. The transcripts of the trial were stupendously interesting. What a wonderful character! A woman for all seasons.
I was so inspired by her Faith and story that I wrote a screenplay about her. I tried for a couple of years to try to find someone who was interested in making a film about her life but to no avail. I then rewrote it as a novel. Still no takers. Undeterred, I kept it for many years until I started writing these columns. Last year, during the beginnings of the Pandemic, I started re-reading what I wrote thinking I would find it as just bad prose. Instead, I fell in love with this saint again!
Thus, I decided to re-read and re-write this book chapter by chapter. I am almost finished. You can check out what I finished on our website. It’s called “The Recusant”.
What is interesting about it is that I did not make up much to make the story more accessible. It was so vivid and powerful that, as I kept working on it, I wondered why no one has ever discovered her. What a great person, a powerful witness to Faith, and a courageous woman who took on both the Church of her time and the government. Someone who stuck to her guns and would not abandon Christ or His Church.
Even the real-life names of the characters have a Dickens like ring to them. The Judge at her trial was called Judge Clench. The Puritan dissenter was Hurlstone. The meek and ineffectual Anglican Divine was called Wigginton. These were real life persons. They were not made up.
As to the dialogue of the trial, I had the good fortune of having a transcript of it that was taken at the time. It positively bristles with meaning and action! I just stayed close to her exact words.
Sometimes what God leads us to is a pleasant surprise. I am so glad that I have had this opportunity to share this great story in the hopes that you will venerate St. Margaret Clitherow, the Pearl of York. And if times turn foul again, to follow her example of courage.