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St. Etheldreda, Abbess

Saint Ethelreda's Statue, Ely Cathedral

BORN in Britain and brought up in the fear of God — her mother and three sisters are numbered among the Saints — Etheldreda had but one aim in life, to devote herself to our Lord’s service in the religious state. Her parents, however, had other views for her, and, in spite of her tears and prayers, she was compelled to become the wife of Tonbercht, a tributary of the Mercian king. She lived with him as a virgin for three years, and at his death retired to the isle of Ely, that she might apply herself wholly to heavenly things.

This happiness was but short-lived; for Egfrid, the powerful King of Northumbria, pressed his suit upon her with such eagerness that she was forced into a second marriage. Her life at his court was that of an ascetic rather than a queen: she lived with him not as a wife but as a sister, and, observing a scrupulous regularity of discipline, devoted her time to works of mercy and love. After twelve years, she retired with her husband’s consent to Coldingham Abbey, which was then under the rule of St. Ebba, and received the veil from the hands of St. Wilfrid. As soon as Etheldreda had left the court of her husband, he repented of having consented to her departure, and followed her, meaning to bring her back by force. She took refuge on a headland on the coast near Coldingham; and here a miracle took place, for the waters forced themselves a passage round the hill, barring the further advance of Egfrid. The Saint remained on this island refuge for seven days, till the king, recognizing the divine will, agreed to leave her in peace.

God, Who by a miracle confirmed the Saint’s vocation, will not fail us if, with a single heart, we elect for Him. In 672 she returned to Ely, and founded there a double monastery. The nunnery she governed herself, and was by her example a living rule of perfection to her sisters. Some time after her death, in 679, her body was found incorrupt, and St. Bede records many miracles worked via her relics.

Reflection.—The soul cannot truly serve God while it is involved in the distractions and pleasures of the world. Etheldreda knew this, and chose rather to be a servant of Christ her Lord than the mistress of an earthly court. Resolve, in whatever states you are, to live absolutely detached from the world, and to separate yourself as much as possible from it.