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Abbess of Ely, Widow (entered heaven this day in 679)
How they ever derived “Audrey” from “Etheldreda” I’ll never grasp, but derive it they did. When I was younger (and still free), I had the opportunity (which I will savor forever) of visiting the English island of Ely, which this saint received as her wedding gift, and to which she retired when her first husband died after they had been married only three years. She would fain have stayed there in prayer and solitude for the rest of her life, but family troubles obliged her to marry again (for diplomatic reasons), even though she had made a private vow of virginity (she and her first husband had lived together as brother and sister, offering themselves body and soul to God). Her new husband was only a boy-king when they married, but when he had grown up to take full possession of his crown and his manhood, he demanded that she put aside her vow of virginity. They appealed to the local bishop, who upheld her cause and permitted her to separate from her husband and start a double monastery (men on one side of the property and women on the other), over which she ruled for the rest of her life, giving her monks and nuns a lasting example of spiritual rigor and intense love for God.
Such a tale may have an odd ring to it for our ears (understandable, since it took place in a culture 1500 years older than our own), but wouldn’t you say there is a beautiful lesson hidden within it? What strikes me most is the respect with which St Etheldreda – as well as the others – viewed her sexuality. Even before all the modern theological speculation concerning the philosophical and anthropological significance of gender, she understood profoundly that her sexuality was a call to love, a call to total self-giving. She felt that God was asking her to give her whole self to him directly, and so she did not want to give herself to another man. I bet that if she had felt God calling her to give herself to a man in marriage, she would have been the best wife and mother one could imagine… In any case, she treated her own sexuality with reverence and with care. What a contrast to today’s sex-saturated culture, where sex is cheap, a mere pastime, an entertainment! How the devil must relish the carelessness and casualness with which we treat our own and one another’s sexuality! Intimacy is meant to be at the service of true love, not a selfish indulgence.
May God grant you the grace to understood the secrets of love as deeply as Etheldreda did, and may he grant you the gift of purity, so that when the time comes for you to give yourself away (either to him directly, or to a husband whom he gives you) you will still have something to give.
Love, Uncle Eddy