St. Boniface among the Frisians

By March 1, 2019 8 Comments
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Some heartfelt sympathy is in order for St. Boniface. After all, he lost his head to the Frisians when he decided to go back to their neighborhood to de-paganize them after once, years before, throwing in the towel on a similar mission.  Today, St. Boniface is the patron saint of Germany, the one man–an Englishman, no less–greatly credited with bringing Christianity to the entire region.  He worked tirelessly for the gospel.

Some historians denigrate his tactics because those tactics were, by present-day standards, extreme. All to often he showed little patience with the culture of those to whom he brought the gospel.

The most famous tale of his saintly life surrounds his felling of Thor’s Oak, a tree whose massive size made it a shrine among the pagan Germans. Boniface would have nothing of such heresy, so he chopped it down. In some renditions of the story, when he was at it with his axe, a straight-line wind came by and finished the job, breaking Thor’s Oak into four chunks, each of which revealed the plain fact that this shrine’s insides were rotten in every which way. The people were stunned at the fall of a tree they’d worshiped. Whatever happened that day, it was the kind of mighty deed that eventually sped his ascension to sainthood.

But Boniface lost his head in Friesland, among my ancestors nonetheless, when a gang of the world tallest white folks offed him, men who looked more like Sitting Bull than A. Kuyper.  The date was June 5, the day before Pentecost, 754 A.D.

There’s always another side to the story, however, and one of the Catholic versions goes like this:  they attacked him because they believed the boxes he carried with them were filled with gold. They weren’t. They held books.  

I’d be mad too.

Some stories go further.  When surrounded by the fearsome Fries, Boniface advised his couple dozen blessed followers to offer no resistance.  Then he raised his Bible to protect himself from the blade that tore through the Word and then felled him–he is, remember, a saint. Right there in Dokkum, where all of this happened, that’s the pose he’s still taking.

I picked up this beautiful little bottle of holy water eight years ago right there in Dokkum, at the St. Boniface chapel, its water from a glorious little spring that opened up right there when some beast of burden made tracks in the muck a thousand years ago, a spring that translated into miracles.

Elegant, isn’t it?  Cost me two euros, but I liked it the moment I saw it.  I don’t know that I took back any other curio from our entire visit, save a book I long ago sold on ebay and grand gouda gone in a week.

My bottle of St. Boniface’s finest has now stood on a shelf behind me for eight years. Yes, the water recedes. I’m not sure how blessed what’s within is right at this moment any more, but someday my children are going to have to toss this little bottle because I’m not going to. It doesn’t take up much space. Besides, it’s become a delicate little symbol for me too, the icon it’s meant to be to other believers, a thin glass bottle that reminds me of the real human aspiration for faith itself.

We want badly to believe–all of us. Me too. We need stories to keep us alive and healthy and humble. We need crosses and little bottles of holy water, crescent moons and white buffaloes, even staggering oaks that can and do fall with whatever rogue winds blow by.

I’m not saying they’re all alike, only that we humans really do want to believe. I honestly don’t need this elegant bottle setting beside me here, but its un-holy water has holy meanings, or so it seems to my soul.

We need a savior.  

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Love it of course. You know the Bonafatius joke, right? Why did the Frisians kill Bonafatius? Because there was a debate among them, Some said that Frisian was a dialect, and other said that Frisian was a language, and when Bonafatius weighed in, he said it was a “spraakgebrek,” a speech-impediment, so they killed him. After serving as pastor for a while to a hundred-percent Dutch (including Frisian and Gronings and Zeeuws and Drenths and Hollands) congregation, I figured they killed him just because he was their pastor, that was enough.

  • Harris says:

    In New Haven, east of Yale by the rail tracks is the old Saint Boniface Catholic, now home to Trinity Baptist. Interestingly, all the stained glass was kept (even the stations of the cross). It made an interesting counterpoint to the multi-cultural, evangelical congregation that filled the space (Trinity was the home for our daughter and husband in his time at Yale). Around the corner in the apse was Boniface in action chopping down the oak, all dynamism with the saint’s bright red cape sweeping behind him as takes ax to idol.

    In its own odd way, there is something fitting about such an image for a campus-centered church, a commemoration of a holy daring.

    In a quieter way were the windows in the clerestory above, images of the churches in Germany they had left to seek their fortune in America. Sitting there with the praise songs rising in that space, these windows offered not so much a holy daring, as a comfort, even an embrace for the journey we take and the worship we make.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    In St. Boniface parish in downtown Brooklyn, built for German immigrants, there is a stained-glass window to the left of the altar with the Frisians killing Bonafatius. I get such a kick out of it, because the Frisians are depicted as big, muscular barbarians wearing animal skins, the heads still on. I have an idea they were actually on the short and scrawny side with damp clothes.

    • Jack Zhu says:

      The Old Frisian language was very similar to Old English especially the Northumbrian dialect which Boniface would have spoken, so he felt an extra responsibility to convert the Frisians whom he considered as close cousins of the English. In ancient times the original Frisii abandoned the area known as Friesland and so Angles and Jutes primarily settled in that fertile land on their way to Britain. There are many cognates between Frisian and English like ‘Skiep’ for ‘Sheep’, ‘brea’ for ‘bread’, ‘Tsjerke’ for ‘church’, ‘tsiis’ for ‘cheese’, ‘gies’ for ‘geese’, ‘fjild’ for ‘field and many more.

      • Jack Zhu says:

        I should add, when the Frisii abandoned Frisia Magna the Angles and Jutes that settles in the area in latter centuries became the new Frisians so the Frisii and Frisians have no relation apart from the same name.

  • Henry J Baron says:

    Thanks, Jim. I too made that pilgrimage to Dokkum, but I missed that bottle.
    The Frisian poet D.A. Tamminga wrote a long but moving poem in which he has St. Boniface reflect on his life and his mission.
    Here’s my translation of just a small part of that:
    Here I stand now, on the edge of a realm
    Inhabited by this Frisian race,
    A people who believe in thunder and in rain,
    And bow their knees for sun and moon and star,
    Who speak in riddles and read the future
    In runic scripts and bowels of dead beasts,
    Who coveting the favor of what-is-not,
    Offer sacrifices along the roadways of their land.
    Here now I stand, and after a cold night,
    I warm myself in the early morning sun…

    Why, they’ve asked me, should I risk
    A dangerous trip like this in my old age?
    Let younger men, in God’s service trained,
    Bring Christ’s teachings to that stubborn race…
    They did not know, those questioners, how my heart
    For years has turned and burned within me
    To reach the Frisians, after the Franks and Saxons,
    With God’s Good News, to save them from destruction,
    To catch them in the net, as long ago,
    On the shores of Lake Genesareth.

    Yes, those stubborn Frisians needed a savior, as do we, and after the murder of their missionary the Church began to grow and flourish; “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” proved true.

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