"Is Bach really a saint?" We've been asked this a lot in the run-up to Lent Madness XIV. He is indeed commemorated on several sanctoral calendars, as is every saint in Lent Madness. But anyway, today we get composer Johann Sebastian Bach facing off against Harriet Monsell, an English philanthropist and nun (two words you don't always see in the same sentence).
In yesterday's saintly action, Edmund remartyred Stanislaus the Martyr 60% to 40% to punch his ticket to the Saintly Sixteen.
Today marks the final battle of a full week. I know you'll miss us over the weekend (stay strong!) and we'll see you first thing on Monday morning as Simeon Bachos takes on Blandina.
Time to vote!
Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t have much of a way with words. When invited to write an autobiography, Bach demurred; he kept few personal written records, and his intimate family correspondence is largely lost to history. Bach’s reticence means we know less about his inner life than any other major composer of the last 400 years. Yet aside from his staggering musical output of more than 1,000 known compositions, we have one artifact that opens the heart of Bach the man, and perhaps even Bach the saint: his Bible.
Discovered in the 1930s, Bach’s Bible is a three-volume study Bible from Martin Luther’s translation, dog-eared and heavily annotated. Bach filled its margins with comments, thoughts, and corrections to printing errors that even the most biblically literate reader might miss. Scholars often assumed that Bach’s religious subject matter was a function of the church’s role in employing professional musicians and commissioning new works. Yet he was a devout Lutheran, a theologian who made his witness with rhythm, pitch, and tonal color rather than words. In 2 Chronicles 5, King Solomon brings the Ark to the temple, accompanied by singers, drums, harps, and 120 trumpeters. Bach underlined verse 13 and scribbled this note: “at a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”
After a few early years spent as a church organist, Bach was appointed organist to the ducal court at Weimar (1708-16), then kapellmeister at the princely court of Köthen (1717-23). In 1723, he was appointed cantor of the St. Thomas School at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, from which he provided music for four churches in the city and instructed the boys of the choir school. He held this position for 27 years, until his death at age 65. His prodigious musical output includes cantatas for every Sunday of the church year, masses, kyries, glorias, several settings of the Magnificat in both Latin and German, and musical settings of the Passion narrative from all four gospels.
Bach’s life was also marked by personal tragedy. His parents died within eight months of each other; he was an orphan by his tenth birthday. His first wife died suddenly, and several of his children did not live to see adulthood. We hear the depths of grief and the heights of joy and delight in Bach’s music.
And at the end of every score, the man of few words wrote just three letters: S. D. G. Soli Deo gloria. Glory to God alone.
Collect for Bach
Sound out your majesty, O God, and call us to your work; that, like thy servant Johann Sebastian Bach, we might present our lives and our works to your glory alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
While Harriet Monsell had a privileged upbringing, she dedicated her later years to helping others.
Nurturing and caring for the downtrodden was in her DNA. Born Harriet O’Brien in 1811 in Dromoland, County Clare, Ireland, her father was the fourth Baronet of Dromoland, and, as such, a member of Parliament. Harriet was the next to youngest of nine children. She was a cousin through marriage to Archbishop of Canterbury A.C. Tait and a friend of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.
After her father’s death in 1837, the family moved around, eventually settling in Dublin. In 1839, Harriet married Charles Monsell, a medical student at the University of Dublin. They moved to Oxford for his priestly education. While serving as a canon at Limerick Cathedral, Charles faced myriad health issues, prompting the couple to move to mainland Europe.
Charles died in 1850. By that time, Harriet had become associated with the rapidly growing Oxford Movement. Popular in the 1830s and 1840s, the Oxford Movement laid the foundation for what is known today as the Anglo-Catholic tradition. One of the Movement’s enduring legacies is the re-establishment of Anglican religious orders.
This focus brought Harriet to Clewer in England, where she worked with prostitutes and unwed mothers at the House of Mercy. Harriet professed religious vows and established the Community of St. John Baptist, one of the first Anglican religious orders since the Reformation. The community followed the rule of Saint Augustine of Hippo and named Harriet as mother superior on November 30, 1852. The community grew rapidly. Within five years, they operated about 40 mission houses, orphanages, schools, and hospitals. Communities were formed in England, India, and the United States. Noting her commitment to social justice work, Queen Victoria called Harriet “an excellent person.”
Harriet died on Easter Sunday, March 25, 1883. “Easter is such a lovely time to go home,” she said shortly before her death.
In the United States, the Community of St. John Baptist is in Mendham, New Jersey. Harriet’s feast day is March 26.
Collect for Harriet Monsell
Gracious God, who led your servant Harriet Monsell through grief to a new vocation; grant that we, inspired by her example, may grow in the life of prayer and the work of service so that in sorrow or joy, your presence may increase among us and our lives reveal the mind of Jesus Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Bach: Elias Gottlob Haussmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Harriet Monsell: Thomas Thellusson Carter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons