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John Thwing's miracle

Whatever we face, it probably will not be as difficult as John Thwing facing the Black Death when it stalked England. According to Churchill, houses all over England and Scotland became uninhabited and fell into ruin; clergy, nursing the ill, perished in such numbers the dead could not be buried; and lawsuits never came to trial because all the parties had died before their cases could be heard. Thousands of sheep were lost for lack of shepherds, and those who survived the Plague fell prey to famine. The Black Death made more than one visitation in the 14th century, and children, who had no immunity, were often stricken.

Around 1340, John Thwing left his family and Oxford, where he was studying, and entered the Augustinian monastery at Bridlington, Yorkshire, a place that had been in turmoil some years before when monks kept hawks and hounds for hunting, invited strangers to lavish dinners, and had large debts and unaudited expense accounts. Archbishop Melton made a visit, demanded the prior resign, had his seal destroyed in the presence of the monks, and insisted on simplicity of life and the keeping of weekly expense reports. Leftover food was to be shared with the poor.

The monastery settled back down, and John practiced contemplative prayer, which he loved, and worked. When he was twenty-eight he faced the Black Death. The monks tried to nurse those ill with the plague and dug graves for those they could not save.

In 1362, when he was 42, John was elected prior of the monastery, a role that united spiritual leadership with some of the responsibilities of a modern CEO. In addition he had to have agricultural competence, and know how to handle famine and plague. As if that were not enough, the authoritative role of prior often generated resentment and jealousy from the other monks.

This, however, was not the case; quite the reverse. John became associated with miracles – the multiplication of corn in the priory barn, walking on the sea to rescue men in a rowing-boat caught in a storm, and healing a woman ill with the plague. These and other inexplicable events would win him sainthood, yet at the bottom of these miracles was a fact – people said they loved him for his generosity, humility, and compassion.

The people who wrote ballads about John Thwing after he died remembered that he had supported poor students from the monastery's resources, had slept in the dormitory along with the other members of the community rather than in the prior's more comfortable quarters and had been hospitable to minstrels who came to the monastery for a meal and a night’s shelter.

Perhaps it was some of these wandering minstrels who wrote songs about him after he died in 1379. “According to Walsingham, reports of miracles at his tomb had spread all over England by 1389.” It was a different life than the life we know today, yet those qualities of humility, generosity, and compassion have survived.

This material is based on one of the biographies in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography . (Spelling being rather loose at that time, Thwing's name is sometimes spelled Thweng.)


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