Being a saint isn’t about living on a hilltop, or moving entire worlds thanks to charismatic leadership. Rather, it’s about fully offering skills and work in the form of a prayer that serves God on a minute-by-minute basis – even when it comes to mundane things like digging trenches.
In that respect, Nicholas Owen had it right. Born into a pious Catholic family, with two brothers who were priests – and another who was an underground publisher of Catholic books – Nicholas Owen served the Jesuits for many years before becoming a lay brother sometime around 1580. Being only slightly higher than a dwarf, he was often called “Little John.”
However, Nicholas Owen’s holiness didn’t come from belonging to any religious organization, but rather was the result of old-fashioned, sweat-making work. Nicholas Owen was a construction worker – and he must have been a good one
The Superior of the English Jesuits, Father Henry Garnet, asked Nicholas to build secret rooms in mansions throughout England where priests at that time were hiding from persecution. Nicholas’ presence at the construction sites was justified by his working on projects during the day. At night he would dig tunnels, and an assortment of “priest holes” that included hidden rooms and passages.
With time Nicholas’ curriculum began to closer resemble the Paul Newman character in the classic film “Cool Hand Luke,” than Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Besides using the aliases of Andrews and Draper, impersonating a priest, and being a jailbird, Nicholas was aiding and abetting outlaws from the English government. He was even credited with being the mastermind for a well-known priest’s escape from the Tower of London.
On paper Nicholas was anything but a saint.
The last time that Nicholas was arrested was in 1606 as part of the government’s reaction to the foiled Gunpowder Plot – a conspiracy led by some Catholics who swore an oath on the Holy Sacrament to blow up King James and the Parliament for the exacting of harsh penalties on English Catholics.
With the English government believing that the Jesuits were behind the planning of the Gunpowder Plot, a wide net was cast. At the time of his arrest Nicholas was impersonating Father Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior.
Upon the capture of Nicholas, England’s Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil the First Earl of Salisbury, is said to have written, “how great was the joy caused by his arrest . . . knowing the great skill of Owen in constructing hiding places, and the innumerable quantity of dark holes which he had schemed for hiding priests all through England.”
Nicholas was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He refused to give information and was the subject of violent torture: His body was suspended by the placing of his arms in iron rings, while heavy weights were placed upon his feet.
But Nicholas’ nasty and lengthy death isn’t alone what makes him a saint.
There is no way of knowing how many priests Nicholas’ hidden passages saved, but thanks much to this diminutive construction worker the Catholic faith in England was preserved.
In this respect, Nicholas is a model for all of us: to offer our daily labor – no matter how humble it might be – to God as a prayer. In that way we are all called to be ordinary saints – that’s the rule, not the exception.