Joan Windham’s Six O’Clock Saints series is witty, pithy and droll. In three volumes she lightly recounts the lives of several saints in a style reminiscent of Kipling’s Just So Stories. The tales have a homey, conversational tone, are filled with humorous anachronisms, and abound with common sense. Indeed, one has the impression that while Joan Windham is telling these stories, she is at the same time busy with some other activity. Her hands are covered in flour and dough; she is busy potting plants; she is gathering her hat and is on the way out the door. So in a spit-spot manner, she presents her stories without too many flourishes, with much good cheer, and with important points you really must attend to. If you happen to miss a point, however, don’t fret; it will come out again in another tale. One point she circles around and back to in these stories is the notion of being content not only in this life, but also in how and when we will be called to leave this life for the next. That is high matter couched in a fairy tale format. Clearly, these books are Ageless Children’s Literature speaking to the young and the old.
What is it to be content? Content is a word that comes to us through 14th century Old French and Latin and which means “held or contained within limits.” The modern age seems to have little patience with limits, so some reflection on the good of contentedness is worthwhile. To be content is to hold who, what, and where one is with satisfaction. It is related to the word container. We are a physical, mental and spiritual container of our essence, of all that God has created us to be. We are also a container in the sense that we are the one who actively contains, orders, nurtures, and protects the integrity of that essence. Our content is precious and it is not static. Rather it is a dynamic content that must flourish. To be discontent is to suffer a lack, not of content, but of satisfaction with that content. It is a desire for something other than ourself, our activity, or our place. And perhaps it is an indication of one’s unwillingness to do the work of bringing the contents of their essence to a point of flourishing. Joan Windham gently steers us away from such discontent with a delightful and illustrative look at the lives of some of God’s good saints.
In the story “St. Veronica,” the saint is taught three lessons which will help her order and nurture her essence. Among these lessons, is one on the virtue of contentedness. Our Blessed Lady comes upon Saint Veronica who is sobbing and convinced that she will never be able to read or write and therefore she will never be able to become a nun. Our Lady teaches her that looking to what one cannot do is not of any benefit nor of any significance. She asks St. Veronica to trust in the goodness of where God has placed her:
You must be contented wherever God puts you, and never take Offence if He gives you a Humble job. If He wants you to Weed then you must want to weed and not want to be an Industrial Magnate or something. If God wants you to be a Nun, you’ll be one, never fear.
There are two points to pull from this story. The one is that your particular contents, talents or lack of them, are no obstacle to what God wishes you to be. The second is that where you are is also no obstacle to where God wishes you to be.
The story “St. Owen” nicely reaffirms this lesson. St. Owen wishes to use all that he is in the service of God. This desire entails some humility as he finds he is not able to praise God in the conventual religious manner of singing the Divine Office. When asked by the abbot why he wishes to be a monk, St. Otto responds:
“Because the only thing that I really want is God.”
“Well, that is as good a Beginning as any,” said the Abbot whose name was Chad, “but why the Axe and the Spade, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Not at all,” said Owen. “I brought them because I can’t Sing in Tune, so I thought I could perhaps work with my Hands to the Glory of God instead of with my Voice.”
“Well, that is as good a reason as any,” said the Abbot whose name was Chad. “Would you mind being the Brother Gardener-who-also-looks-after-the Chickens?”
“Thank you, Father Abbot,” said Brother Owen, who wasn’t a Prime Minister any more,“that is exactly what I should like to be!”
Our saint has no desire to continue on a path of great obstacles, such as learning how to sing, but rather he acknowledges all that he is and is not. He has great confidence that though his gifts are not what is commonly required, they are needed by the community, and they are no obstacle to his desire of becoming a monk. The wise abbot accepts St. Owen’s offer and helps him further by providing another, yet similar task which will help St. Otto continue to nurture and grow the person that he is. Not only can St. Owen tend the garden he may also watch the chickens.
The story “St. Humphrey” again stresses the importance of being content with where one is called to serve, but also with being content with when that service will end. St. Humphrey’s calm acceptance of death reminds us that death is certain and we can be satisfied with that:
When the Abbot woke up in the morning he thought that Humphrey looked Very Ill Indeed, and he said so.
“I know,” said Humphrey, “I am going to die to-day, and God sent you here so that you could hear my Confession and then Bury me.”
Saint Humphrey is at peace with his death and the tale tells us that the abbot must similarly be at peace with his life:
“I do wish, “said the Abbot,“ that I could stay here in your place when you have gone.”
“No,” said Humphrey, “you must go and tell the others about praying for me, so that I can pray for them.”
And then he made his Confession, and the Abbot gave him a very short Penance because he was Ill. And when he had said his Penance Humphrey left his old body behind like an old coat and he went to God. And the Abbot buried his body near the Palm Tree with dates on it, and he thought that he would stay and be a Hermit in Spite of what Humphrey had said. But just as he had Decided the Palm Tree with dates on it drooped and died, and fell on the Cell and flattened it out!
Which did show that God wanted the Abbot to go back and tell the others.
“St. Humphrey” reminds us that we all hold different content. St. Humphrey is to put down the contents of his life including his body while his soul takes up the next life. The abbot must know that he is not to hold what St. Humphrey is leaving behind, but he has his own contents and they will unfold and flourish in their own way, place, and time.
St. Humphrey peacefully died a natural and holy death, but Joan Windham shows us that the same contentedness with death is to be employed even when that death is by martyrdom. She uses the story of Pope Stephen to show us how:
“I am sorry Sir,” he said, “that we interrupted your Mass, but we really do have to kill you because Valerian is our Emperor and he says so.”
“Oh, yes,” said Stephen, “I quite see that.”
“But we thought,” said the Minion, “that perhaps we could kill you here and now, with your own people, so that you needn’t go back to Valerian.”
“How kind of you!” said Stephen. “May I just go to Confession first?”
“Anything you like,” said the Minions, and they waited while Stephen went to Confession. When he was ready he went and sat on his Pope’s Throne and the Minions came very Politely and cut off his head, and all the people cried. But Stephen went straight to God and thanked Him very much indeed for letting him die so quickly and easily.
“Well,” said God, “you are a good old man, Stephen, and you were really very Brave what with one thing and another. Do you know that those Minions are going to be Christians because they stayed to Mass?”
“Are they?” said Stephen. “Well now!”
How can we die so cheerfully? This story reminds us that, at times, martyrdom can be a place of contentedness. Tyrants have a way of making life so unendurable and at the same time so laughingly absurd that standing firm for the truth can in the end become easy. To their absurd world we say “No Thanks. I’ll stick with Christ.” That is a perspective from this world. The perspective from the next world is embraced by the certain knowledge that life does not end, but changes. That change, if we are in good stead with our Creator, is a continuation of our flourishing much beyond what we could ever manage here and much beyond whatever the latest earthly tyrant has dreamt up.
The Six O,Clock Saint stories teach us that life and death are to be met with all satisfaction. We can be content. God has given us all that we need. We simply need to cooperate with his good grace to make it flourish and so bring his plans for us to fruition, in this life and in the next. It is a common sense lesson, one among many, tucked neatly into what are really some very light and bright stories.