I’m slowly making progress in How the Irish Saved Civilization. Every time I pick it up I’m amazed and am more and more encouraged by what I read. I’ve written a summary below of some of the latest things I’ve learned.
Saint Patrick’s influence through the ages, and the way that God used his spiritual descendants baffles and amazes me. The movement he started had impact that I doubt he ever imagined it would.
A few generations after Patrick, a man named Columcille set off to start a monastery in Scotland. Pagan tribes had displaced Patrick’s Celtic relatives into Wales and Scotland, and, with the fall of Rome, illiterate paganism of the Germanic tribes was a threat to the intellectual foundations that had been built during the Roman rule.
Columcille became a “white martyr” (red martyrs died, green martyrs studied in solitude in nature, and white martyrs “sailed into the white sky” as missionaries), and set up shop, with no intent to return to Ireland. He met with great success, and soon had to put a cap on the membership of his monastery. When they reached 150 monks, he would send off 13 men to start a new monastery — and so the Irish church plants began.
The Irish monks began to minister to all of what is now England. And who better to minister to illiterate barbarian tribes than a group of monks whose faith and literacy was just generations old.
Another Irish missionary was Columbanus, who was 20 years or so younger than Columcille. He took a group of monks to Gaul. He was a feisty man, from the sounds of it, challenging the stale leaders of the Catholic Church — reproving them for their reluctance to serve those outside of their comfortable cities and palaces. He was even deported, but when the boat on which he was deported sank, he and his men began to form monasteries in Italy. His passion was for the unreached barbarians, and he continued to start monasteries well into his seventies. It is largely because of his work that the European tribes heard the gospel.
So think of this amazing circle of grace: The Greeks and Romans “civilize” and educate Europe. Through the ministry to the Celts in what is now Britain, Patrick is saved. Through slavery he is exposed to the tribes in Ireland, and eventually becomes a missionary, almost entirely responsible for their conversion.
Rome falls and Europe returns to illiteracy and barbarism, with some exceptions. And God uses these believing Irish monks to convert the powerful Germanic tribes in the same areas that sent the men that would impact Saint Patrick’s people. Reaching from the boot of Italy, up into France and Norway, the Irish influence in the spread of Christianity and learning is almost incalculable.
All I have to say is: “Wow.”
Now obviously, there’s more to this story, and the Irish don’t deserve all of the credit for the evangelizing of Europe. But it’s still impressive, when you think of the size of Ireland, and the few years between Saint Patrick and the sending of their missionaries, it’s amazing.
Another amazing thing to think about is the effect of literacy on this culture. But I’ll have to tell you about that another time.