What’s Wrong with the World

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Best of W4: Ireland and Her Saints


I'm reprising a St. Patrick's Day post from some years back:


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.

Comments (4)

If we are on the brink of another Dark Age, this time it will be bereft of the educated communities of monks upon which the transmission of Christian values largely depended. St Patrick died before the 'golden age' of monasticism when, as Paul Johnson observes, Christianity was not just a carrier of culture, but through the agency of monks it in effect became the culture.

Johnson's History of Christianity is eccentric and I don't think his theological speculations would receive a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur. But his ability to evaluate Christian achievements with a sharply critical eye while remaining a solid Roman Catholic scholar is admirable. He also has a very readable style.

Johnson in that book calls St. Augustine "the dark genius of imperial Christianity," which is a splendid phrase but wholly wrongheaded. My impression is that Johnson still considered himself a socialist at the time. It was before his "mugged by reality" moment. But as Alex says, it's highly readable and illuminating. I like Johnson's style of history, despite my frequent disagreements with him -- in part because it makes no impossible efforts at serene objectivity. Better to have a historian's biases and opinions out in front than the common modern pretense of scientific detachment.

It was great to hear St. Patrick invoked last evening at my Orthodox parish's Friday Lenten service. No icon, unfortunately, but I will be remedying that.

"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."

See Brad Gregory's new book The Unintended Reformation for a parallel, but somewhat different take on this decline.

I don't really know much about Saint Patrick,
but this article has given me a chance to see who he really is.
Thank you so much.

Arianne from guitare classique 

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