The Pioneer of Scholasticism
From 1195 - 1201, he was a member of the arts faculty at Oxford, at a period when there was an exciting rediscovery of Aristotle both in the Muslim and Christian worlds. Edmund may well have been the first to teach the logic of Aristotle in Oxford and he soon realized that this might be a valuable tool for the understanding and learning of theology. In this sense, he was a pioneer of Scholasticism. In 1201, he returned to Paris to study theology and it was there that he was ordained to the priesthood.
Around 1214, he returned to Oxford to lecture in theology and in his teaching, St Edmund emphasized the literal and spiritual senses of the Bible, as well as its historical context, and used this as a springboard for his theological teaching. It is said that he always took a personal interest in his students, especially those who were either poor or sick.
In 1222 he became canon and treasurer of Salisbury cathedral, taking him away from Oxford. As the cathedral was being built at the time, Edmund's duties were demanding but this did not prevent him from giving alms generously and donating up to a quarter of his income to the cathedral building fund. Such generosity often left him personally short of funds for part of the year. It is known that to help him cope physically and spiritually, he would stay with the Cistercians at Stanley Abbey, where the abbot, Stephen of Lexington, had been one his students at Oxford.
In 1227 Pope Gregory IX sent him an order to preach the Sixth Crusade, which he did, foregoing the stipend which was his right in return for his preaching. He seems in general to have been a powerful and effective preacher and once said: "I would rather say five words devoutly with my heart than five thousand which my soul does not relish with affection and intelligence. Sing to the Lord with understanding: what a man repeats with his mouth, that let him feel in his soul." In this way, he warned against multiplying the externals of prayer at the cost of true and authentic interior prayer.
In 1233, out of obedience to the Pope and the bishop of Salisbury, he submitted to his election as Archbishop of Canterbury and he was consecrated on 2 April 1234. Despite his initial reluctance, he turned out to be an outstanding reforming bishop, thanks not least to his considerable personal qualities, which included a warm and affectionate disposition and a gift for mediation combined with meticulous concern for justice, great personal integrity and moral courage.
Such high office brought an inevitable involvement with politics which he disliked but did not shirk. He mediated between king Henry III and his earl marshal, Richard, thus averting a civil war and St Edmund was courageously outspoken in his relations with the monarch. However, Henry interfered often to restrict the jurisdiction of the Archbishop and even played the papal legate, Cardinal Otto, against Edmund, the bishops and the barons. Meanwhile, Edmund's authority as Archbishop was challenged by the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, who served the cathedral and thus claimed certain rights and privileges and they obstructed Edmund's reforms. In 1237, Edmund went to Rome to discuss the matter with the Pope. Upon his return to England, he excommunicated seventeen of the Benedictine monks which caused a stir among some of the bishops and attracted the king's opposition. Further troubles between the king and Archbishop with regard to the benefices of church offices drove St Edmund to return to the Continent in 1240.
Some people have seen this as a self-imposed exile but in fact, it may be that he was on his way to Rome for a General Council called for 1241 and he may have set out early in order to discuss his problems with the Pope, as he did in 1237. However, he was taken ill in France and he went to the Cistercian abbey at Pontigny. When it became obvious that it was unwise for him to travel on to Rome, he made for England but was taken ill again on the way back and stopped at an Augustinian priory near Soisy. He died there on 16 November 1240 and he was buried in the abbey church in Pontigny.
In 1246, he was canonized, the first Oxford Master to be raised to the altars and St Edmund Hall, the one surviving medieval Hall of Oxford is named after him. When his feast was celebrated for the first time, Henry III presented a vestment of white samite, a chalice and candles to his shrine at Pontigny (right).
The saint's writings consist mainly of Bible commentaries and devotional works, the most famous of which is the 'Speculum Ecclesiae', a treatise on the way of perfection for monks and nuns and a programme of contemplation and meditation. It is known to have been widely read and St Edmund's concern was for his readers to appreciate the connection between prayer and daily life. As an example of his spiritual wisdom, and one I can certainly identify with, I leave you his own words:
"If you are well, rise from your bed in the morning and linger not on account of cold or sleep or comfort, for the harder it is for a man to do, the greater shall be his reward if he does it freely. Then should you go to church and devoutly say Matins or quietly hear Mass and all the Hours of the day without chattering."
May St Edmund of Abingdon pray for us, especially on those cold mornings, when it is especially difficult to rise from our warm beds!
Much of the above comes from Butlers's 'Lives of the Saints' and the stained glass window of the saint is from Our Lady and the English Martyrs' Church, Cambridge.