St. Alban and the Cost of Discipleship
by Archimandrite Lev Gillet
If anyone come to me and hate not his own life, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first and counteth the cost? (St. Luke, 14, 26-28.)
These words of the Savior might well be entitled: the cost of discipleship. They are so clear and at the same time so loaded with sacred and tremendous meaning that I dare not comment on them. Only a disciple bearing his Master's Cross and accepting to die upon it could be their commentator. St. Alban was such a disciple. His life shows us the significance of the Gospel expressions: to hate one's own life, to bear the Cross, to count the cost.
We know very little about St. Alban. We can say with a large degree of probability that a martyr Albanus suffered for Christ in the city of Verulamium [now the city of St. Albans] about the year 304. His popularity grew rapidly and his veneration spread outside Britain. Alban is mentioned in 480 in the life of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre in Gaul. In 580, he is the subject of a poem by Venantius Fortunatus. Within a hundred years he was venerated in England, in France and in Germany.
The broad outline of his legend is laid down in the 8th century by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History. One must indeed say "legend" for popular piety had accumulated around Alban's name stories which cannot be historically verified. But this picture of Alban, which touched the heart of many, is precious to us.
An icon is not a likeness: rather it expresses, by means of lines and colors which are more or less symbolical, certain motions of grace and of the soul. The traditional image of St. Alban expresses in a striking way the ideal disciple of Christ as seen by the conscience of Christians in Britain in the time of the persecutions and at the dawn of the Middle Ages. This is the image before which we now wish to stand. What has it to tell us?
The life and death of St. Alban are an example of what Reinhold Niebuhr has called "the finest logic of Christian martyrdom." They constitute a succession of calls and graces, in which each call and each grace, once accepted, brings forth another call and another grace.
The starting point was an act of charity. A hunted Christian, a cleric, took refuge with Alban, who was a soldier and a pagan. Alban gave him hospitality. A little later, Alban himself asked for baptism. So the charitable act may lead to the act of faith. But now the act of faith involves new responsibilities and new calls. Emissaries of the Roman Governor come to search Alban's house; he puts on the hunted cleric's clothes and is arrested in his place. What was simply an act of charity has become an act of heroic charity; what was simply an act of faith has become a profession of heroic faith, involving the danger of death. Alban is led before the judge. He refuses to deny Christ and is flogged.
The call and the grace together have become even greater; Alban is not content to profess the faith, he is now a confessor of the faith and suffers for it. Because he accepts the immolation of his body, he receives extraordinary power over physical nature. He arrests the waters of a river, so that it may be crossed, and further, causes a fountain of water to flow. Here there is striking symbolism; the saint can stop the flood of the waters of evil as well as cause the waters of purification and refreshment to spring forth. The first marvel happens on the way to the hill where Alban is to be executed, the second on the summit of the hill. The saint's power is associated with his sacrifice, for Alban hears the supreme call and receives the supreme grace: he has been condemned to death, he is beheaded and thus reaches the ultimate limit of the life of a true disciple. In the words of Bonhoeffer, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." There is no greater challenge, no greater reward.
Alban counted the cost. Not that at the beginning of his career as a disciple he foresaw exactly and explicitly accepted all the stages of this way. But in the totality of his surrender, he entirely and implicitly accepted from the very beginning all that was implied in the first call and the first decision. Then he responded to the costly graces, one by one.
He exemplifies for us the very opposite of the perversion of so many nominal Christians, looking for cheap grace, i.e., a cheap approach to the forgiveness of sins, to divine consolation, to prayer and sacraments a cheap covering and a cheap security at cut prices, a denial of the costly call of Christ. A true disciple, he hated his own life.
Alban in his journey went from charity to faith, from costly charity to costly faith. In this he has something to say to any of us who participate in the ecumenical movement, in so far as the very inaccurate term "ecumenism" denotes a striving towards the fullness of the faith in Christ.
There are many varieties of ecumenism. We are well acquainted with the ecumenism of Stockholm, Lausanne, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Lund, Evanston, the ecumenism of theological exchange associated with the World Council of Churches. This variety is certainly useful and perhaps necessary.
Among other forms of ecumenism, I would single out this above all the ecumenism of the concentration camps.
During the Second World War, this ecumenism existed for example at Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. Christians belonging to different churches discovered through their common sufferings and their burning charity a deep unity at the foot of the cross. This ecumenism had its witnesses, its martyrs. Three names are enough to quote here: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young protestant theologian; Josef Metzger, a Roman priest; and Mother Maria Skobtsova, an Orthodox nun (with whose labors in Paris I once had the privilege of being associated).
All three were killed for Christ, all three were witnesses for the ecumenical fellowship of blood which is expressed in this sentence from the testament of Metzger: "I feel myself as closely united to my believing and conscientious protestant brothers in Christ Jesus through baptism and our common experience in the same Lord, as to the brethren with whom I share the fellowship of the Holy Sacrament."
The ecumenism of the concentration camps did not end with the war. It is still going on. This is the ecumenism which is costly. It is the way of the mar- tyrs, the way followed by St. Alban, which leads through heroic charity and through suffering unto death, to perfect faith.
By which way does Our Lord call us to himself? This is his secret, the secret of every soul. But let us pray that among the members of the Fellowship who are gathered here this morning, there may be found some who hear the stern word of the Gospel: "If a man hate not his own life. . . Whosoever doth not bear his cross . . ."
Let us pray that there may be those who, with the modifications proper to their own estate, count and accept the cost, and set their feet on the way of St. Alban: the way along which one experiences call upon call, sacrifice upon sacrifice, grace upon grace. Amen.
This is a slightly revised text of an address given by Father Lev in 1955 to members of the Fellowship of At. Alban and St. Sergius at St. Alban's Abbey in England. Farther Lev's books include The Year of Grace of the Lord, In Thy Presence, and Orthodox Spirituality.
reprinted from Orthodox Peace Fellowship Occasional Paper nr 16