St. Chad the Pedestrian

So, another week, another feast for an Anglo-Saxon saint: February 2, the Feast of St. Chad. Don’t remember Chad? Oh, surely you recall those obnoxious little flecks of paper in the hotly contested presidential election of 2000, the chads? Dimpled chads, hanging chads, swinging chads, pregnant chads: so much hinged on what amounted, materially speaking, to little more than abortive attempts at confetti. Well, at some point somebody with a humorous sense of history put together chads and Chad, and found the fit rather neat: “Hard to Punch Holes in Story of St. Chad.” A little too neat: some took the news stories’ labeling of St. Chad as “patron saint of disputed elections” literally, to the point where the Snopes folks weighed in on the question. The short version: Chad’s tenure as a bishop of Northumbria was contested, and he stepped aside for the odious St. Wilfrid. (Full disclosure: I’m an anti-Wilfrid partisan, not that anyone cares anymore.) However, interesting correspondences do not a patron saint make, nor do waggish puns, and St. Chad is certainly not the patron saint of disputed elections.

But let us dwell no more on elections past, for I would have St. Chad remembered for another reason: namely, as the bishop who wouldn’t ride a horse. It was not a matter of fear, as would be the case with me. (Horses? Utterly terrifying, all flailing hooves, flaring nostrils, and uncomfortably large teeth.) Instead, Chad followed what he thought was the model of the episcopal office: the lives of the apostles and the life of his teacher, St. Aidan.

Chad, being thus consecrated bishop, began immediately to devote himself to ecclesiastical truth and to chastity; to apply himself to humility, continence, and study; to travel about, not on horseback, but after the manner of the apostles, on foot, to preach the Gospel in towns, the open country, cottages, villages, and castles; for he was one of the disciples of Aidan, and endeavored to instruct his people, by the same actions and behavior, according to his and his brother Cedd’s example. (Bede Historia 3.28)

Bede, whose account of Chad is the primary record of his life, clearly admired this bishop, for he saw in Chad the humility and service absent in monarchical bishops like St. Wilfrid. (See? Look at me hatin’. Well, Bede started it!) To Chad, and to Bede, a good bishop is a shepherd, tending to the nurture and safety of his flock. Practically, for Chad that meant what soldiers today call “boots on the ground”: an active presence, moving among his people, seeing them and touching their lives. It was not an easy practice, and Chad was probably not a young man: he had already served as an abbot prior to his appointment to the see of Northumbria, not an office for the young. But it was what Chad felt the job required, so he did it.

Of course, I’ve only explained how St. Chad didn’t ride a horse, not how he wouldn’t. That came later, after the newly appointed Archbishop Theodore, needing a worthy bishop on short notice, called upon the deposed Chad to be bishop of Mercia. Chad acquiesced, and resumed his old ways, trudging long roads through lands settled and unsettled to minister to his new flock. Archbishop Theodore, “seeing that it was the custom of that most reverend prelate to go about the work of the Gospel to several places rather on foot than on horseback, […] commanded him to ride whenever he had a long journey to undertake” (Bede Historia 4.3). Theodore’s reasons are unknown: perhaps he feared for Chad’s health, or else thought walking beneath the dignity of the office. Whatever the archbishop’s reason, Chad refused and continued in his “custom”: he would not ride a horse.

What follows in Bede’s account is a subtle dance of courtesy and deference, for Theodore would not let things stand as they were: “[F]inding [Chad] very unwilling to omit his former pious labour, he himself, with his hands, lifted him on the horse; for he thought him a holy man, and therefore obliged him to ride wherever he had need to go” (Bede Historia 4.3). Bede sketches his scene with a few words, simple actions without color, but I imagine it whenever I re-read Bede: Archbishop Theodore on horse with his entourage, a muddy road, a stooped figure in weather-stained robes. But then the positions reverse: the lofty descends, and the lowly is lifted up. How could Chad refuse such humility? And so Chad accepted the horse in the end.

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