Aliena Misericordia

File:Gabriel Cornelius von Max 001.jpg

Gabriel von Max – Der Findelkind (the Foundling Child)

13 And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that broughtthem. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. 15 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. Mark 10:13-15

27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. James 1:27

Reading more on infanticide and foundlings, I came  across this lovely article.  You really should read it all, but here is an extract:

“Even more emotionally explicit is a subset of emblematic items among the objects supplied as tokens. The most expressive include carefully contrived textile images, sometimes hand-sewn, sometimes obtained by customizing the natural imagery commonly employed in commercial designs printed on linens and cottons. An acorn or a bud might suggest germination and new growth, a butterfly the chance to fly free, a flower the capacity to blossom and fruit. The most direct expressions of raw maternal emotion are those that use the heart, an established symbol of love in the eighteenth century. The heart was literally believed to be the seat of the emotions. Foundling mothers left embroidered hearts, hearts cut out in fabric, hearts drawn on paper, metal hearts, and suit of hearts playing cards. One heart-shaped metal pendant left as a token carried the lines ‘you have my Heart, Tho’ we must Part’, but the words seem almost redundant, such was the familiarity of the heart as an emblem of love.”

The passage is from an article about tokens left at Coram’s Hospital, established in 1739 on what was then the outskirts of London for the care of abandoned infants. Thomas Coram’s legacy is a fine and proud one: based on the model used in Europe, a tradition that stemmed from the earliest days of Christianity, the Foundling Hospital required parents to leave with their child a token by which, if later reclaimed, the child could be identified. The tokens can be seen in the Foundling Museum.  Very few children were ever reunited with their parents and, indeed, two-thirds of children admitted to the Hospital died – not such a shocking figure in a time when half the children born in London died in infancy.

The care of foundlings has a long history in ‘Christendom’: the Emperors Valerian and Gratian outlawed infanticide and Justinian placed foundlings, previously enslaved, under the protection of bishops. The writers Lactantius, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Cyprian all condemned infanticide; Saint Augustine of Hippo organised nuns to rescue foundlings. The first recorded foundling home was in Milan in 787, by which time the church-wheel or basin was well-established (source here).  Naturally, in France, the work of Saint Vincent de Paul contributed greatly to the care of the abandoned. In New York, the Sisters of Charity set up a home for the some of the 30,000 abandoned children lost in the city after the Civil War. The foundling wheel has made a reappearance in continental Europe – many disagree with its return, many support it.

What is worth thinking about is that, whatever the disparate behaviours of different cultures and even, for such things are studied, animals and birds, or whatever Plato, Aristotle, Seneca or Tacitus might have said, this is an example of a mighty empire which took a bold step forward in human compassion and of a faith which set up formal arrangements, no matter how puny, to care for the lost and the weak.  Jews and Christians, it seems, prided themselves on this: they did not sacrifice or kill their children. We are fools, it seems, but fools for the Lord.

Why is all this so moving? For one thing, the lost child and the idea of the predator and the saviour are deep in our folk-memory and our fairy-tales – think of all those children lost in the woods. The saviour can be seen as the ‘aliena misericordia‘, the kindness of strangers, deriving from those in ancient Rome who rescued abandoned babies, for while many babies were exposed, some were rescued and adopted. In our childish hearts we knew, however, that the saviour was never accidental – the woodcutter who saves Red Ridinghood, for example is meant: he is a symbol of good winning over evil. The original tales were, I think, much, much darker. (Remember also Blanche Dubois, reduced to a childlike state, declaring: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers“).  And the stories of childhood also included Romulus and Remus, Moses, JM Barrie’s Lost Boys and Oedipus – all abandoned children.  We have deep within us an affinity  and a great tearing pity for the lost child.  We wish, although we might wish that someone else would do it, for rescue for them.

The tokens at Coram’s Hospital, whilst they were attached for reasons of compliance, speak across the years of loss and love, of desperate times and times of fear and a mother’s weary love.

Saint Jerome Emiliani is the patron saint of orphans and abandoned children. St Jerome, pray for them.  Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, pray for them. Saint Vincent de Paul, patron of charities, pray for them. Saint Joseph, the good stepfather, pray for them. Blessed Virgin Mary, pray for them.

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