Somewhere is in his spellbinding work of history and synthesis The Might of the West, Lawrence Brown writes of that “great company of Irish saints,” which, by boldness of faith, industry, and patience, were able to begin in the North of Europe what St. Benedict began in the South: the remaking of a workable and fruitful order for human life in the ruins left by the retreat of the Roman Empire from the western provinces. As Whittaker Chambers said of Benedict, we too may say, mutatis mutantis, of the Irish company: “At the touch of [their] mild inspiration, the bones of a new order stirred and clothed themselves with life, drawing to itself much of what was best and most vigorous among the ruins of man and his work in the Dark Ages, and conserving and shaping its energy for that unparalleled outburst of mind and spirit in the Middle Ages.”
The Celtic Church, though it ultimately submitted to the authority of the Papacy, had its own character and integrity. It had never known the secular, and was largely isolated from the ecclesiastical power of Rome — a fact that became quite evident when St. Columbanus came to France and quarreled with the worldly and often decadent Frankish hierarchy. We do not know how these quarrels were settled, but we can reasonably guess that the settlements, which avoided what would have been a disastrous schism, were the fruit of the holiness of Columbanus and Gregory the Great, who then sat on the Chair of St. Peter.
The Irish were susceptible to the error of their kinsman Pelagius against whom St. Augustine of Hippo contended with all his enormous vigor: the denial of the doctrine of Original Sin. Mr. Brown himself follows them in that error, but as he was not really a believing Christian, that is understandable. Only a Christian can really understand the depth of sin, and therefore only a Christian can realize how absolutely vital it is to retain the doctrine of Original Sin. For if there is no Original Sin, then it is possible that men are really good, and only the “system” that has made them bad. We followed the path of that logic in the twentieth century, and it led only to blood and decay.
There is a lot of contempt, in modern thought, and more in modern unthinking prejudice, for the idea of monasticism. But what is often forgotten about monasticism is how powerful an engine of political economy it was in a world were political and economic stability had vanished. Paul Johnson makes this point in his engrossing but peculiar A History of Christianity. In monasticism Western man at last found a way to be productive again; and in monasticism we see the early beginnings of that power over material forces, that stewardship of the riches of creation, that made us — we men of the West — masters of the earth. That this power has perhaps been the single most calamitously abused thing in all of the bloody history of mankind does not diminish the astonishing humility and piety at its roots. And I might be forgiven for the occasional fancy that all our machines and computers and efficiency are but a slow decline from the awesome achievement that the Irish monks and their students all over Europe, along with their Benedictine brothers, made visible in the gardens of the great monasteries.
So on this day when we celebrate the man who drove all the snakes from Ireland, let us also recall his Irish brethren, who so filled the world with their own “mild inspiration,” and made us who we are.