As Lent starts there is a statue in central London that it would be good to contemplate
It is not a religious statue, nor is it well known. Standing in the heart of London, outside the National Gallery, the statue is passed daily by the multitudes, and forgotten just as quickly as it is noticed — if indeed it is registered at all.
The statue looks like that of a Roman Emperor and so seems oddly out of place in its London setting. It is, in fact, the figure of a British king. The statue is stranger still. In a city replete with monuments, it speaks of earthly glory. And yet its ignominious tour around different sites in London — from the Houses of Parliament to storage in a London Underground station before its eventual siting in today’s location — tells a pointed tale of this world’s passing glories.
As Lent approaches, and we are marked with ashes, we renounce the threefold powers of a counterfeit kingdom: the world, the flesh and the devil. As we do so, we would do well to remember this statue of a monarch who, by the end of his life, had rejected all three of these false allures but only after he had lost three earthly kingdoms.
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On the March 12, 1689, accompanied by an army, the Catholic King James II arrived from Brest at the Irish port of Kinsale. The Glorious Revolution of the previous year had forced him from the British throne in favor of his daughter, the Protestant Mary, and her husband William. This landing now and all that was planned to follow it was a last throw of the dice for the Stuart king.
Unfortunately, the military campaign that followed faltered from the start. Over a year after James’ arrival in Ireland, with setbacks and defeats, too numerous to recount, the result of the battle fought at the Boyne was an all but foregone conclusion. Thereafter, the Catholic King retreated to Ireland’s south coast and to a waiting vessel bound for France. As his ship sailed from Kinsale, James, now 57 years old, was never again to see his ancestral lands. For the next 11 years, he would live in exile with his court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris, and with the knowledge that the threefold Crowns of England, Ireland and Scotland had been lost forever.
What was to follow next was to prove unexpected, however. His libertine youth long passed, James turned inward. In November 1690, he was to be seen making a pilgrimage to the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe, one of the most austere of all religious houses. There he sought out a hermit — a former soldier and man of the world who had shunned all for a life of solitude and silence in a forest near the monastery. The conversation that passed between the two left an indelible mark upon the king. When asked if there was anything the man missed of this world, the reply from the hermit to the king was as blunt as it proved thought provoking.
Later, this encounter was to be compounded further by the king’s stay at the monastery. It was there James heard intoned Psalm 118. Its words of lamentation for this changing world and all its woes struck a chord with the Royal who sat listening to them. When, some days later, he left the monastery it appeared to those around him that the king was a changed man, one determined to live his Catholic faith in as heroic a fashion as he had observed in the cloisters of La Trappe.
Thereafter, however, this king’s battle for sanctity was to be fought in the world. It became noticeable to all at court that King James began to receive the sacraments with a new intensity. He spent long periods in prayer. In addition, with an ardent zeal he took to the mortification of the flesh. In doing so, he raised ironic smiles among the more worldly courtiers of Versailles. It was obvious to all, however, that this man had become a penitent.
For the deposed king, his life appeared now at last to make sense. Whether it was the intensely personal vices he had struggled with from his youth or whether that very public calamity sealed at the Battle of the Boyne, James understood it all — especially the loss of his realm — as the mysterious will of God. From then on, he determined that he would spend what time was left to him in prayer and penance in expiation for the sins of his past life.
Finally, in Sept. 1701, his life’s end drew near. After a general confession, James, his son and heir, was brought to him. King James blessed his son, and gave these parting words: “Keep the Faith against all things and all men.”
Then, as the king began to slip from this mortal realm, a priest came to him and, standing before him, held the Blessed Sacrament. The priest asked the dying man: “Do you believe Jesus Christ to be really and substantially present in this Host?”
As the King’s eyes closed upon that for which he had forsaken three Crowns, with as much strength as he could muster, he was heard to gasp: “I do believe it… I believe it with all my heart.”
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Many centuries later, amid the crowds and the roar of 21st-century traffic, it would be good to stand for a moment this Lent before the statue of this long-since-forgotten king: there one might reflect upon what gain it is to lose the passing kingdoms of this world and, in so doing, win forever a place in the heavenly one.