Tomorrow is St Swithun’s Day, and it can’t come to soon for our parched part of the country.
I used to think St Swithun’s Day was just a made up feast, a kind of shorthand for all those obscure feasts and festivals in our calendar, or the colloquial equivalent of some far-off day that never comes. “What are you waiting for, St Swithun’s Day?” my English father used to say. My former mother-in-law, God rest her, was the greeting card industry’s dream. She sent cards for any and every occasion, to people she had only met once. She bought cards in bulk, in advance, and kept them filed by holiday in a special Hallmark shoebox. My own mother, God rest her, became a frequent, if puzzled, recipient. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “Betty’s got a file folder full of St Swithun’s Day cards!”
When I visited England in 1995, though, I ran right into St Swithun, or at least the legendary cathedral that carries his patronage. At Winchester, the great battleship that rides the sea of the Hampshire downs, Swithun is remembered as a deacon, priest, and bishop of the 9th century. His name means “Pig Man,” so it’s possible he began life as a swineherd. Not much else is known about Swithun until after his death. According to a chronicle, he requested that his body be interred outside the cathedral, in a patch of “obnoxious ground,” where pilgrim feet would tread above him and summer rains would fall.
Bishop Swithun’s will was carried out at first, and you can still see the patch of obnoxious ground that once held his bones. But miracles came to be associated with his gravesite from the very first. These ranged from the practically compassionate—restoring to wholeness some eggs that a gang of workman had purposely broken, so an old woman could sell them—to the magnificently chivalrous. It was to the spirit of St Swithun that Queen Emma, widow of Aethelred the Unready and Canute, and mother of the king who would become Edward the Confessor, turned when she was falsely accused by her son of adultery with a bishop. Emma agreed to undergo a trial by fire—walking barefoot over 9 red-hot iron plowshares—to prove her innocence, after a vision of St Swithun assured her she would feel no pain. In the (totally legendary, it seems, but a terrific story nonetheless) ordeal, Queen Emma did indeed survive unscathed, with her reputation restored.
About a hundred years after his death, St Swithun’s humble grave was broken up. Relics were distributed to various local churches, and a new and ornate shrine containing what was left was erected within the cathedral, which received an additional dedication: The Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, of Sts Peter and Paul, and of St Swithun. According to legend, Swithun was so perturbed to be disturbed that he sent a record-breaking rainfall that flooded the cathedral and its surrounds—thus ensuring that the summer rains would fall on him even indoors.
Some say the association of St Swithun’s Day with weather prediction began then. If it rains on St Swithun’s Day, the legend goes, it will continue raining for 40 days. If the sun is out, there will be no rain for 40 days. It’s likely that this was a bit of pre-Christian Saxon weather lore associated with mid-July, and Swithun’s flood only reinforced it. In any case, Swithun is invoked against droughts.
So here’s my St Swithun’s Day card to you: Please pray for rain for the parts of our country and our world that need it so desperately right now. I know that my crunchy tan lawn—“obnoxious ground,” indeed—and the stunted cornfields just outside of town are only nuisances compared to the decades long deadly desertification of Africa, but this summer’s drought is a reminder of how much we all rely on rains from heaven. It needn’t be 40 days straight—I have four weekends of outdoor performances of The Merchant of Venice kicking off on Thursday—but 40 days’ worth of good, steady, sweet, cooling, reviving summer rain, packaged in convenient sessions, would be one more miracle to the Pig Man’s credit.
St Swithun, we are walking through fire: pray for us!