The Orthodox path for converting others to Christianity is one of example and teaching rather than coercion. During the first centuries, as the power of government was being exercised to coerce people away from the faith, the example of faithful Christians brought about the rapid spread of the church throughout the world.
Even after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, missionaries whose zeal led them to pagan lands were careful to win people to the faith by showing the love of Christ in their lives. This method was followed by numerous saints whom we venerate – from St. Patrick in the 8th century, Ss. Cyril and Methodius in the 9th, to Ss. Herman, Innocent, and others who came to North America in the 19th century, and St. Nicholas (whose mission in the 20th century was to the Japanese). All these laborers in God’s vineyard did so through holy example and persuasive teaching. In the 8th century, a group of English nuns, led by the Abbess Lioba, was called to engage in this kind of mission among the pagan Saxons.
Lioba was born in Wessex around the year 700. She was sent to the convent of Minster-in-Thanet to be educated and later entered Winborne Abbey under Abbess Tetta (the king’s sister). There the bright young girl excelled in classical studies and especially in knowledge of the Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers, and the decrees of the councils. Along with the other nuns, Lioba developed skill in manuscript copying, which the nuns sometimes executed in the style of imperial documents, writing in gold letters on purple velum.
Lioba’s relative (probably a cousin on her mother’s side of the family) was the priest Boniface, who in 722 was consecrated to be a missionary bishop to Saxony, Thuringia and Hesse. Lioba was greatly interested in this effort and she began a correspondence with her cousin, offering her prayers for the success of his mission.
Establishing his “headquarters’ in Mainz, Bishop Boniface began the arduous task of preaching Christianity to the local people. Some years later, recognizing the need for the “anchoring” presence of monastics and remembering Lioba’s interest, he wrote to the Abbey at Winborne requesting the assistance of mission-minded nuns. Thirty nuns, under Lioba’s direction, willingly left home, family, and all that was familiar to share in this missionary endeavor.
A monastery was established for the nuns at Bischofsheim on the River Tauber and there, following the daily pattern of manual work (in the kitchen, bakery, brewery, and garden), study – and above all, prayer – established by St. Benedict, the nuns began to convert others through their example and teaching. Just as the custom had been in England, girls were sent to them to receive a basic education and the nuns looked after families in need. Their example of daily prayer had a positive effect on the local people and many – community leaders and clerics – came to Abbess Lioba for counsel and encouragement. “Daughter” monasteries were founded as the convent filled with local girls taking monastic vows.
Abbess Lioba, as well as the other nuns (such as St. Walburga, who became the Abbess of Heidenheim) maintained a correspondence with their founding bishop. About 150 letters to and from St. Boniface have been preserved and attest to the piety and love of St. Lioba and her companions as they persevered in their mission despite the emotional distress of being so far from their homeland.
In 754, as St. Boniface departed for further missionary work in Friesland, he wrote to Lioba, commending to her the care of his monks at Fulda in the event of his death. He expressed a desire that, at her death, she be buried with him in the tomb at Fulda prepared for him. St. Boniface did indeed receive the crown of martyrdom shortly thereafter and Lioba often visited his shrine in the monastery at Fulda.
After a long and faithful life of 80 years, St. Lioba passed from this life to the next and was buried near the high altar in the monastery at Fulda, honoring her cousin’s request. Within fifty years of her death, she was included in the lists of saints in German liturgical books. When Rudolf of Fulda wrote her “life” in 837, he declared of this saintly woman that “she taught by example in patience and love toward others.” May we, through the intercession of St. Lioba, be Christ’s missionaries in this same way.