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St Frideswide: a message for us all

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Monday, September 23, 2019

The season of Frideswidetide is one we celebrate every October. Our patron saint Frideswide founded the convent on which site the Cathedral was built and her remains lie somewhere in the Cathedral grounds.

According to legend, St Frideswide’s life was remarkable. She was a young woman with a bold heart who did the things that everything around her said she couldn’t do.

Frideswide was a woman of great faith, devoted to her God and committed to offering her entire life to God’s service. Still in her youth, she attracted the attention of a powerful king, one who cared for nothing but the fulfilment of his desires.

She had no power, no recourse either legally or culturally. No one could have expected anything other than her meek acceptance of his will. And instead she ran away.

Tradition has it that Frideswide hid herself cleverly, staying one step ahead of an entire army. She prayed for deliverance and God listened. She had the man who had pursued her at her mercy, and she forgave him. She became a leader, a respected abbess, a healer and protector of the city in which she served.

She did more than anyone around her could have imagined.

There are some people who face up to challenges in the world with simple determination. People whose passion and belief in what they are doing vastly outstrips the criticism they face. Frideswide was one such person.

It doesn’t matter if the risks are high or that the odds are stacked against them, when they are doing something that they believe in then they will see it through to the very end. It is these leaders who can capture the imagination of a whole society, who can transform the lives of the people they touch.

That spark of perseverance made Rosa Parks a figurehead for the civil rights movement, Mother Teresa a name synonymous with charity, and Sir Thomas Allen the ‘real Billy Elliot’. That spark drives us to great things, to do good things, because when you believe in something enough it doesn’t really matter if you’re the only one who does.

And this doesn’t have to be about great feats that bring you fame, or selfless sacrifices that define the rest of your life. Sometimes it is about knowing what makes you happy, what you want to spend your life doing. Or committing to a cause and sticking to it: reversing climate change, achieving equal pay; it doesn’t matter if you’re not the spokesperson everybody knows about, it matters if you persevere.

Frideswide dared to defy the will of a king because she believed – passionately – that she was called to something else: to serve God as a nun, later as an abbess. She ran away, not because she intended to become the patron saint of virgins, but because she saw the course of her life clearly enough to know that marriage to Algar was not what she wanted.

She became an abbess, not in order to defy the patriarchy, but because she wanted to serve God and her fellow religious. She didn’t found her convent with a vision of Christ Church some 1.5k years later. Her vision was a place of prayer and seeking in her present day.

Frideswide’s goal was not to become the figure that we remember, but she faced challenges we recognise: being a woman in a world where men are regarded as the natural leaders; being unmarried and choosing to stay that way despite propositions; founding a convent with all its practical and spiritual hardships.

It is as true for us as it was for her that in order to achieve the goal you believe in, you may have to overcome the scepticism – sometimes even the downright opposition – of the world. It seems that it is never easy.

The will to persevere comes from your passion and your bravery: believing passionately in what you want to achieve and being brave enough to see it through.

The season of Frideswidetide fills me with joy because it reminds me of the remarkable woman at the centre of this place, with all her passion and bravery, her perseverance. This October I hope her legacy will inspire us afresh, that we would hear loud and clear her message:

When everything around you is telling you that you can’t possibly succeed, carry on.