Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Son Named Crispin

Limestone sculpture of St. Crispin (1400-1600, France)
We named our second son Crispin. It’s not an uncommon name in the U.K., but it’s pretty darned rare ‘round these parts.

I wish we could say that our choice was inspired by the saint, but it wasn’t. The fact is, we were watching the BBC's "Pride & Prejudice" just weeks prior to Cris’s birth, and there it was in the ending credits: Crispin Bonham-Carter, the actor who played the excellent Mr. Bingley in that sublime production.

“Crispin, Crispin,” I murmured to Nancy. “That’s a strong boy’s name, don’t you think? And I know there’s a St. Crispin.”

Yes, St. Crispin, as in St. Crispin’s day – the one forever enshrined in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

And today is that day. It’s not on the universal calendar as far as the Church is concerned, but it’s definitely on the universal calendar of those with any kind of literary bent. The St. Crispin’s day speech in Shakespeare’s play has got to be one of the most stirring orations of all time – even those of us with little familiarity with Shakespeare get it.
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
It makes you want to get up and do something heroic, something noble and courageo
us, doesn’t it? And it’s exactly the kind of spirit any father would want to instill in his children – something King Henry anticipates a bit earlier in the speech.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd.
Kenneth Branagh as 'Henry V' (1989)
As my own Crispin got older, I did my best to fulfill that prediction, and the speech became a regular fixture in our home each October. For years, on this day, we’d get out the Henry V soundtrack CD (the one from the brilliant film version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh), and then put on the music from the St. Crispin’s Day scene. I’d dust off our big collected works of Shakespeare, and locate Henry V, act IV, scene 3. As best I could, I’d attempt to synch my recitation of the speech with the music, but it never mattered much in the end, because I don’t think I’ve ever gotten through one of Crispin’s feast day recitations without breaking down into a blubbering heap.

Why? What is so moving about this speech, this scene? It’s the sheer audacity of it, I think. No success was guaranteed – in fact, things looked pretty desperate for the English in that fight. They were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, and yet the King (in Shakespeare’s version of events) rallied his troops to fight on despite the odds – for their own glory and the glory of the realm. The battle was the thing; success or failure was not in question. Loyalty and dedication to high ideals – and to the crown, to the king – were the prize, and the outcome of the fight itself was up to God.

Bossche, Crispin and Crispinian (1494)
Still, it’s a fictional speech about a fierce battle – a far cry from the saint himself – the patron of cobblers, both him and his brother, Crispinian. They were third century Romans and Christian converts. Their enthusiasm for the Gospel led them to abandon their Romans roots and travel to the Soissons region of Gaul (modern day France) to preach and evangelize and teach everyone about the Lord.

The brothers witnessed by word in the daytime, and by night through their deeds, especially by supporting themselves (and others) through their shoemaking trade. This all took place prior to the legalization of Christianity, and the brothers’ bold testimony ensured that the authorities would catch up to them at some point. Eventually the Emperor’s men did track them down, and the missionary brothers suffered humiliation, torture, and death by the sword.

They died, yes, but their lives had been remarkably fruitful. Here's how my old Butler’s Lives of the Saints summarizes the ministry of those cobbler saints:
The infidels listened to their instructions, and were astonished at the example of their lives, especially of their charity, disinterestedness, heavenly piety, and contempt of glory and all earthly things; and the effect was the conversion of many to the Christian faith.
Irrespective of Shakespeare and the soliloquy, we knew we'd found a worthy namesake for our son, and an inspiring role model for any boy. Happy feast day, Crispin. May your patron and his literary legacy ever inspire you to persevere in the contests you undertake, particularly when the odds are stacked against you.

This story was adapted from an essay that originally appeared on Catholic Exchange.