Today the Church remembers St. Boniface who died at the hands of a violent mob on this day in 754. He is called the “Apostle to the Germans” for his work as a missionary bishop. I want to highlight three things worth learning from his life today.
First, Boniface shows us the counter-intuitive power of medieval monasticism.
Boniface became a monk as a kid. His biographer is emphatic that this was by his choice and that he was an excellent monk. Protestant and secular critics might write him off at this point as someone fleeing from the world, bent on introspection rather than love of neighbor.
That would be a mistake.
Life in a community of praying disciples (aka, a monastery) helped him hear God’s call to serve. He began to want to go to Germany where there were many who had not heard the Gospel. He begged his Abbot to let him go.
The monastery worked like a boot camp preparing him to be a missionary. That was often the case, actually.
They sent him on his way. He failed miserably.
The biography puts it more nicely:
…when the saint had spent the whole of the summer in the country of the Frisians to no purpose and the autumn was nearing its end, he forsook the pastures that lay parched through lack of heavenly and fruitful dew, and, taking several companions with him for the journey, he departed to his native land.
I.e., he packed it in and headed home. He resumed his life as an excellent monk. This leads to another lesson Boniface teaches us.
Second, Boniface shows qualities that make for a successful missionary.
When Boniface returned home, he did not abandon his calling. He sought help.
One form of help was his return to prayerful community. He came back to the community and the rhythm of prayer and work that nurtured spiritual vitality. His passion to bring Christ to the Germans was increased. And it seems that he had time to reflect on the reasons for his failure.
He thought of a new route to success as a missionary in the north. He travelled south — to Rome.
Instead of going solo with the encouragement of one community, Boniface sought the support and guidance of the whole church. He met with the Pope. He got some excellent resources for building a strong and lasting ministry in Germany — authority to ordain leaders, and policy on how to guide the church and build useful institutions like churches and monasteries.
Boniface returned to Germany with the backing and wisdom of the whole church. That’s humility in action.
Third, Boniface improvised his way to a brilliant missional strategy.
Boniface’s evangelism, and leadership building, and church planting were under way, but he was a long way from a Christian Germany. Pre-Christian religious practice (aka “paganism”) was still common, with people worshipping the creation rather than the Creator.
Boniface decided to take action, and took an axe to an ancient oak tree where people worshipped Thor or Jupiter. Actually he just made one tiny cut to start the process when a mighty wind finished the tree off, splitting it, so the story is told, into four even chunks.
Boniface has an idea: Take the wood from the tree and build a Christian church.
Now of course if you are a 21st century kind of person wanting to say that everyone’s idea of religion is just fine, this may seem kind of awful.
However, Boniface thought that Jesus was the only Good News that would bring people into peace with God and eternal life. He wanted to get people’s attention away from paganism and focus it on Jesus.
Whether you like it or not, consider the strategy he developed: People already worship at this tree, in this place. Boniface works it out so that when they come to worship, they experience Christian worship — they hear the Good News and take on the practices that build living faith in Jesus.
(It is not the only instance of Christians co-opting of things pagan to bring people into Christian faith and practice. Look into the choice of December 25 for Christmas sometime.)
Boniface is also the patron saint of brewers, so lift your glasses high: Here’s to St. Boniface, Apostle to the Germans!
I would love to hear from you in the comments: What do you think of Boniface? What do you think we can learn from him in our time?