May 25 – Pope Urban I; Aldhelm

Urban I, Pope of Rome (d. 230), may have been a martyr, or may have died of natural causes. He is thought to be the originator of a decree that donations to the Church could only be spent on ecclesiastical needs, the common good of the Christian community, or the poor. This might lead one to wonder what else they could possibly spend money on, if one didn’t have access to cable news or the Internet. His reign was a time of peace for the church, and it grew rapidly.

Little else is known about his life, although my sources are united in rejecting the story that he had silver furnishings made for the churches of Rome, which you’ll admit is a relief. The sources also agree that there was a great disagreement as to where Urban was buried, with the rival catacombs of Praetextatus and St. Callistus each claiming the honor. “See the Graves of the Great Saints” itineraries from the seventh century (I had no idea there were such things back then!) put him in Praetextatus. A sarcophagus lid and burial directory from St. Callistus mention an Urban, which swayed a lot of scholars until one of them noticed that the name “Urban” was in the section for foreign bishops, not popes. The controversy doubtless still rages. If I knew where, I would strike it off my “places to see” bucket list.

Aldhelm of Sherborne (ca. 640–709), born in Wessex, is called the first English librarian due to his extensive reading. (The claim that he invented the Aldhelmey Decimal System must be discounted, owing to the fact that decimal fractions weren’t introduced into Europe until the sixteenth century.) Studying first at Malmesbury, then under Adrian and Theodore at Canterbury, he learned Hebrew, Greek, Latin, law, astronomy, astrology, reckoning, and “the difficulties of the calendar” (a subject well known to many a twenty-first century Orthodox). In time he returned to Malmesbury as abbot, and it became a center of learning, drawing scholars from England, Ireland, and other lands.

He could play every musical instrument then extant (in England, anyway), and composed many songs and poems in both English and Latin, as well as treatises of various sorts. Sadly none of his English songs or poems survive. He loved wordplay, especially in Latin (it is said that Latin “went to his head” like wine), and used humor and folly in his writings and in his ministry. King Alfred records that when he (Alf) complained that people weren’t coming to weekly Mass, Aldhelm stood on a bridge and sang pop tunes to the passersby, interspersed with his own comic verse, hymns, selections from the gospels, and “bits of clowning.” He always drew a crowd, and thus gently imparted some spiritual teachings to the people. (You will probably not need to be told that this is my kind of saint!) We aren’t told whether Sunday attendance went up as a result. Perhaps the exit poll data were lost.

He went on to become bishop, although sadly my sources don’t say just how serious he was after that. One story tells that during the building of a church in Malmesbury, a beam was cut too short, but when Aldhelm prayed over it, it grew to the right length. He did some political stuff too, and was at the Council of Whitby*, or some other council. He died in Doulting while on a tour of the parishes of his diocese. His body was taken back to Malmesbury (where it remains), and every time the procession stopped for the night, his friend and fellow bishop Egwin put up a roadside cross.

Ridiculously, he is not the patron saint of sawmills or of buskers, but his prayers are invoked to relieve headaches.