Saturday, October 3, 2009

How the Irish Saved Civilization

A natural starting point to begin learning about Celtic Christianity is Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995). Let's begin our discussion of the book, by citing two quotations:

"Without the mission of the Irish monks...the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one-a world without books".

"It is hard to believe" wrote Kenneth Clark, "that for quite a long time-almost a hundred years-western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea".

One of the great ironies of human history, is how a group of "uncivilized" monks, were able to keep the great literature of the world alive, revive Christianity, spread learning, and help awaken Europe from the Dark Ages. Seems to make no sense, so how could this happen? They were difficult times. The Roman Empire was in spiritual and moral decline. There was also the external pressure from thousands of invading Barbarians. These internal and external stressors ushered in a decline in social, moral, and civic responsibilities. A top heavy, and rigid bureaucracy sought survival instead of service. Even the military, once the pride of all Romans, was now despised. Sounds very familiar dosen't it?

As often with spiritual things, glimpses of light and change came where least expected-on the fringes. St. Patrick, the first missionary apostle, demonstrated that spirit, when he courageously went beyond the "safe" civilized Greco-Roman world to Ireland of all places. Talk about downward mobility! Patrick, however, knew what he was doing. As a pastor at heart, he cared for the spiritual and physical welfare of the land. But in addition to that, Patrick went the extra mile and learned the Irish language and culture so to speak in their language, and use their terms. No wonder Ireland loved Patrick so much. No doubt Partick was a courageous person too. He also spoke out against controversial subjects such as war, and may have been the first human being to speak out against slavery.

Patrick’s greatest gift was his personality and ability to assimilate new ideas. "Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming the Irish imagination-making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish". Patrick was a innovative person, not simply assimilating new ideas, but going in new directions with them. He was able to transform the pagan ideas of loyalty, courage, and generosity, into the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Cahill writes, Patrick’s unique gift was his "Christianity-the first de-Romanized Christianity in human history, a Christianity without the sociopolitical baggage of the Greco-Roman world, a Christianity that completely inculturated itself in the Irish scene". This different way of viewing the faith and the world created a more open humanistic atmosphere. This opened the door to a more practical theology, things which actually worked for people. Patrick met people on their own terms, and in their own language and thought forms. The spirituality was simple, sensual, democratic, and one the population could easily relate to. The Irish experience had been filled with suffering and Patrick’s simple brand of spirituality was one they could understand.

Patrick, as many in Celtic lands would do, brought the spirituality of Egypt to Ireland. This created a different form of Christianity than the Roman kind. A monastic based Christianity fostered the development of monasteries, which became population centers, small city states, and hubs of learning. Abbots, and in some cases, abbesses, ruled instead of bishops. Learning and education were stressed and these institutions became the first real Universities, where all the world's books and ideas were discussed. It was something like a great books club where everyone was welcome to attend-even those who lived outside the cloister. It was a unique environment, culture and "experiment". Here, people learned to read the gospels, learn about the live of the saints, the mystics, the fathers of the Church, as well as Greek and Latin literature. Lets call it the original Open University.

This in itself, was a remarkable achievement, a beautiful model of what is possible with the church in the world. Learning and books again regained their rightful place in the life of the mind and culture. And though the life of the monk may have been somewhat "book centered", the scribes enjoyed their work and produced manuscripts of unsurpassed beauty such as The Book of Kells. The world Cahill describes, is one incredibly advanced in its views of religion, learning, education, the sexes, and of sexuality. It is a bold and welcome contrast to a Roman Christianity, which seemed to be headed in a different direction.

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