Posting about the Martyr's Walk in London this weekend reminded me that I had written a short article about Margaret Clitheroe years ago and that it would be most appropos to post it here.
St. Margaret Clitherow
The urban center of northern England is the ancient and fascinating city of York. Still surrounded by 500-year-old walls and gates (called bars), filled with tiny stone streets and crooked medieval houses, and dominated by the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, York is one of my very favorite places in England.
When I visited York four years ago, I was going as a pilgrim, following in the footsteps of two other Weddell women, who had lived there four centuries earlier. I had discovered them entirely by accident while reading about the life of St. Margaret Clitherow, York's most famous female citizen.
Those distant Weddells made it into a little-read history book in the University of Washington library because they had been imprisoned with Margaret Clitherow for the same crime: practicing the Catholic faith at a time when the penalties in England for such daring included imprisonment and death. It may strike us as almost unbelievable, but Margaret Clitherow was in fact martyred by the English government of her day for the exercise of a charism that we tend to think of as a thoroughly innocuous: the charism of hospitality.
The charism of hospitality empowers a Christian to be a generous channel of God's love by warmly welcoming and caring for those in need of food, shelter, and friendship. Why would any government possibly object to such a simple and inoffensive activity? Because among the guests that Margaret Clitherow warmly welcomed were Catholic priests who were risking their own lives so that lay Catholics might have access to the grace and consolation of the sacraments in the midst of persecution.
Thirty years before Margaret Clitherow was born, King Henry VIII had broken with the Papacy and had declared himself the "Head of the Church in England" because the Pope would not grant him a divorce from his first wife. All the monasteries and religious houses in England had been suppressed and their inhabitants forced to leave and take up secular dress and life, and some priests and religious died as martyrs. By the time that
Margaret Clitherow married at 15 (a common age for marriage at the time), it was illegal for an English man or woman to attend a Catholic Mass, to be reconciled with the Catholic Church, to go to confession, to be a priest or religious, or knowingly to offer hospitality to a priest or religious.
Since all English people were required by law to attend Anglican services at their local parish church on every Sunday and feast day, those who didn't attend as a matter of conscience were easily recognized and reported to the authorities. Margaret, who had been raised as a Protestant, had to go to elaborate lengths just in order to receive instruction in the Catholic faith.
A local doctor's wife who was a committed Catholic ran a sort of birthing center for Catholic women where they could be safely delivered of their babies, regain their health, and have the babies secretly baptized. When one of the hunted priests was in town, the doctor's wife would send Margaret a message that she "needed help with a birth" and Margaret would have the "cover story" which enabled her to leave home without arousing suspicion. Margaret was only 18 when she entered the Catholic Church.
While working with participants in the Called & Gifted process, I have noticed that hospitality is one of those gifts that tends to be under-appreciated. Like the charisms of helps and service, it is sometimes thought of as "nice" but not powerful, as comforting but not transforming, and certainly not as evangelistic or prophetic.
But like any other charism, hospitality is an exercise of genuine spiritual power and authority. Hospitality is, I believe, along with the gift of pastoring, one of the primary means by which God heals and strengthens individuals through the creation of Christian community. To create a safe, warm, loving environment in which many of the individual's needs for physical nurture, relationship, and spiritual companionship are met is a most powerful ministry of healing.
Indeed, the English Catholics of the sixteenth century were able to create such communities even in the prison where fifty or sixty serious York Catholics might find themselves at any given time. Wounded and bruised by rejection and persecution, uncertain of their future, the imprisoned Catholics would find themselves spiritually and emotionally healed and nurtured through the Catholic community life made possible by the very structures of oppression.
The doctor's wife who ran the Catholic birthing center in her home was reported to have temporarily lost her mind because of the many terrible blows dealt to her and her family. But in prison, amid the warmth of the Catholic community there, she was healed. In the hands of a pastoral evangelizer like Margaret Clitherow, who was always seeking out opportunities, despite the danger, to share her faith with her family and friends and to encourage the faith of her fellow Catholics, hospitality was far more than an exercise in bland politeness.
When the doctor's wife was arrested in 1581, Margaret offered her home to be the primary "Mass center" in York, a place where Catholics could secretly gather to attend Mass, where priests could be hidden as they passed through, and where liturgical furnishings could be stored. Margaret had a secret room constructed upstairs in a house that adjoined her own with a concealed passage running between the two homes.
Visiting priests slept in the room and all Mass gear was stored there. When safety permitted, Margaret delighted in feeding breakfast to all who had attended Mass in her home. She also offered space in her home to a Catholic schoolteacher to teach both her own children and a few of her neighbor's children. And all this she did, knowing that should evidence of her priestly guests ever be discovered, that she could receive the death penalty.
Finally in 1586, Margaret's house was forcibly searched by a band of local sheriffs. They found the schoolmaster at work with his pupils in an upstairs room. The schoolmaster managed to escape through the secret passage, but the searchers thought that he must have been a priest and arrested everyone in the house.
They took one of the children, a twelve-year-old boy, stripped him, and "with rods threatened him, standing naked among them, unless he would tell them all they asked." In his terror, the child led them to the secret chamber where they found the Mass gear and signs of recent occupation. That was all the evidence that was ever gathered against Margaret Clitherow. Margaret refused to enter a plea in order to prevent her children from being forced to testify against her.
The penalty for refusing to plead in English law was terrible. Margaret Clitherow was pressed to death by being covered with a heavy board while lying on the ground and then having 800 pounds of weights piled upon the board until she died. When she was declared a saint in 1970, a joint Catholic-Anglican service of repentance and reconciliation was held in York Minister in her honor. But the name and example of this hospitable woman has long survived those who put her to death. Today, she is known as St. Margaret of York, and the very house where she practiced her courageous ministry of hospitality is now a shrine dedicated to her memory.