“The End is Near!” proclaims the ubiquitous sign of the doomsday prophet. In the case of Lent Madness 2013, our sign-wielding friend would be correct. Welcome to the Faithful Four. After weeks of learning and voting and debating, the saintly field has been whittled down from 32 to four spiritual heavyweights: Frances Perkins, Hilda of Whitby, Luke the Evangelist, and Oscar Romero.
As we like to tell our five-year-olds when they join their first soccer team (that’s football for our friends across the pond), “there are no losers, everybody’s a winner.” Of course we’re lying. Thus, while we can sing the praises of these saints, only one Golden Halo will be awarded.
Today Frances Perkins takes on Hilda of Whitby; tomorrow Luke the Evangelist battles Oscar Romero; and on Spy Wednesday the championship round will take place. For the Faithful Four, we let our remaining Celebrity Bloggers loose as they answer the question “Why should Saint XX win the Golden Halo?” In other words, they’ve been charged with letting us know why their particular saint is so awesome. In this match-up, Heidi Shott is advocating for Frances Perkins and Laurie Brock for Hilda of Whitby. Tomorrow Laura Toepfer is writing for Luke the Evangelist and Megan Castellan for Oscar Romero.
To make it to the Faithful Four, bracket Cinderella Frances Perkins made it past Damien of Molokai, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Jonathan Daniels. Hilda of Whitby bested Samuel Seabury, Ignatius of Antioch, and Harriet Tubman. Here’s your chance to send one of these inspiring women off to vie for the Golden Halo.
Don’t forget to watch Maple Anglican’s video previewing today’s match-up.
In his 2010 essay in The Anglican Examiner, “Frances Perkins: Architect of the Gracious Society,” Donn Mitchell begins by recounting how Perkins once answered a provocative question.
‘Don’t you think it’s wrong for people to get things they don’t pay for?’
‘Why no,’ Frances Perkins responded. ‘I find I get so much more than I pay for. Don’t you?’
The woman who had conceived, birthed, nursed, and nurtured the New Deal’s crowning achievement — the Social Security Act — the Social Security Act — was revealing the theological perspective that informed her long career advocating, shaping, and ultimately implementing social policy. She knew she had not paid for the earth she walked on or the parents who had raised her. She had not ‘earned’ the breath in her lungs. All life was an unearned gift from God, as she saw it.
What we ‘got,’ in her view, was a function of grace, not merit or its inverse correlate, sin. A godly society, therefore, would be a gracious society. Just as God had endowed humankind with the basics and then allowed them freedom to develop their capacities to create and contribute, so the community should graciously guarantee basic provision for its individual members while allowing maximum freedom to make their way in the world.
We talk a great deal about the theology of abundance and the theology of scarcity in the Episcopal Church. Often it’s used to transform our old notions of stewardship or to get members thinking about capital campaign gifts. The transformation is local — our own hearts or perhaps, on a truly miraculous scale, the collective heart of a congregation.
But Frances Perkins took her belief in the theology of abundance to an astonishing level. Through incredible hard work and determination and in the midst of a political and social climate that is unimaginable for a late-boomer woman like me, Perkins extended her theology to the whole nation for the benefit of all its citizens.
The prologue of Kirstin Downey’s biography, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, begins with the ultimatum that Perkins gave to Roosevelt before she would accept the appointment to become his Secretary of Labor.
“On a chilly February night in 1933, a middle-aged woman waited expectantly to meet with her employer at his residence on East 65th Street in New York City. She clutched a scrap of paper with hastily written notes. Finally ushered into his study the woman brushed aside her nervousness and spoke confidently….
He wanted her to take an assignment but she had decided she wouldn’t accept it unless he allowed her to do it her own way. She held up the piece of paper in her hand, and he motioned for her to continue. She ticked off the items: a forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance.”
Sloane, the girlfriend in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, might have been just as astutely describing Perkins as Ferris when she said, “You knew what you were doing when you woke up this morning.”
Frances Perkins knew what she was doing.
I wasn’t thinking about Perkins, years ago, when I wrote an essay called “Cleaning the Fridge,” but now it seems obvious. “The people we revere most are simply human beings choosing from among the options laid out before them and then doing the work they’ve been given to do. Most of them would avoid the hard and unpleasant stuff given the chance. Most, like Melville’s Bartleby, ‘would prefer not to.’ But the difference between our saints and the rest of us is they do the hard things anyway.”
Frances Perkins — lay woman, public servant, doer of hard things because they needed to be done. She knew God imbued her with the strength, talent, and experience to do them, and, like another saint in the bracket, she knew she could do no other.
Hilda (or, more correctly Hild of Streaneschalch) is not known for one spectacular moment. Some saints are. That one moment where they make such a devoted decision out of love we are left in awe. She is not known for a profound body of literature, as are other saints. In fact, nothing of her own writing exists. Most of what we know about her was written by Bede. She is not known for anything other than perhaps hosting a synod.
Or at least that’s what I thought when I began my Lenten relationship with Hilda. Almost forty days and several rounds later, I am in awe of this woman who is not known for anything spectacular other than her profound ability to encourage others.
She might not have left her own writings, but when a young monk named Caedmon who
cared for animals at Whitby had a dream about composing song, Hilda encouraged him to write. In doing so, she helped birth what would become English poetry. She might not have been a great queen or powerful politician, but her compassionate wisdom grounded in the Gospel encouraged kings and rulers who sought her advice. She might not have been a pope or priest or bishop, but she created a community where equality of property, study, and communal prayer encouraged education and parity in a double monastery. Five of her monks became bishops; two are revered as saints.
She might not have even carried the day at Whiby, that synod she hosted. Yes, the Roman date of Easter and monastic hairstyle won, but Hilda continued to encourage. She encouraged Christianity to remain unified, despite differences. She encouraged obedience to the vote that carried the day, even though she personally disagreed with the outcome. She stood with unified dignity in a way our modern church leaders could emulate as we struggle with decisions that can be divisive.
However we view saints, they are (hopefully) very human people who lived their lives in very remarkable ways. And while I will always be impressed with Hilda’s turning snakes to stone, I am in awe of her extraordinary ability to encourage others and to create a community where that encouragement could thrive. I am humbled by her example of desiring a unified, faithful community over her own position.
Hilda’s life is a holy example that speaks to us today as we wrestle with a changing church, with new understandings of theology that can be challenging and divisive, and with the temptation to nurture our own egos rather than encouraging lives lived in the radical love of Christ. She reminds us that this place is nothing new for the church. Her life speaks with calm love to us all. And her ministry of encouragement — all of those spectacular moments she wove together in her days — is still urging us on to live our lives in love, service, and community.
Thanks be to God.
Frances Perkins vs. Hilda of Whitby
- Frances Perkins (61%, 3,434 Votes)
- Hilda of Whitby (39%, 2,154 Votes)
Total Voters: 5,584