There’s an old saying that you catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than you do with a vat of vinegar. That old saw is well illustrated when considering the life of a Saint whom we remember this weekend, St. Mellitus of Canterbury (died April 24th, A.D. 624). His name, in fact, means “honeyed”. In his mission to convert the Saxon conquerers of Britain in the 7th century (he was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to assist St. Augustine of Canterbury) we find an example of the Church explicitly choosing to put the “Honey Strategy” into practice.
But first, we need a little background on Saint Mellitus. Despite being little-known today, he was in fact a very consequential saint. Mellitus first arrived in Britain in the year A.D. 601, bringing with him books and other things considered necessary for Christian instruction and worship. St. Augustine of Canterbury (the Apostle to the English, not to be confused with Doctor of the Church St. Augustine of Hippo) consecrated him Bishop of London, which at that time was the capital of the East Saxon kingdom. Somewhere around the years 616-618 the Christian East Saxon king died, after which the new king drove Mellitus from his episcopal see in London. Shortly thereafter the Christian king of Kent died as well, and Mellitus was forced to flee from Britain all together. He was able to return a few years later after Laurence, Augustine’s successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, had converted the new Kentish king. Mellitus never returned to London, which would not see a Bishop again until 654, thirty years after the Saint’s death. St. Mellitus himself became Archbishop of Canterbury at the Death of Laurence in 619, and occupied the see until his own passing five years later. He is credited with miraculously saving his church from a fire shortly before his death.
St. Mellitus played an important part in the conversion of the English ; in this capacity he received instructions in the form of a letter from the Pope, called the Epistola ad Mellitum. In this letter St. Gregory urges Mellitus and Augustine to rely on persuasion in converting the pagan English, destroying idols but consecrating the temples that housed the idols for use as churches, and adopting familiar things to Christian uses so that the English nation might “set aside error from her heart, and, acknowledging and adoring the True God, might assemble more familiarly at the places which she was was accustomed (to use).” This letter is a particularly explicit statement of an approach that has been more or less the rule (albeit with some notable exceptions) for most of the history of the Church. And it fits well with the way our Lord works: God breathed life into the mud of the earth to create Adam, and through baptism he makes former non-believers into his adopted sons and daughters; why can’t his Church in the same way “baptize” what is good in pagan societies and consecrate it for use in His service?
St. Mellitus wasn’t successful at first (expelled not just by one but by two kings, from two kingdoms), but in the end love and persistence paid off.
The story of St. Mellitus and his “honeyed” approach has a lesson for us today as we go about our own mission of evangelization. We can become frustrated when it seems that nobody is listening; we may find ourselves brimming over with vinegar, as it were. Perhaps if we stay calm, listen patiently, and try to focus on the love of Jesus (in other words, spread a little honey), we’re more likely to have a fruitful exchange. Notice that St. Mellitus wasn’t successful at first (expelled not just by one but by two kings, from two kingdoms), but in the end love and persistence paid off. St. Mellitus, pray for us, that we might avoid the bitterness of our own pride, and to speak with the sweetness of Divine Love. Amen.