The Literacy of the Irish

There’s no other way to talk about my other favorite part of How The Irish Saved Civilization than just to quote Thomas Cahill extensively. So here are some the best sentences of the whole book:

“Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act. In a land where the old literate civilizations were sinking fast beneath successive waves of barbarism, the white Gospel page, shining in all the little oratories of Ireland, acted as a pledge: the lonely darkness had been turned into light, and the lonely virtue of courage, sustained through all the centuries, had been transformed into hope (p 164-65).”

And more:

“The Irish received literacy in their own way, as something to play with…Within a generation the Irish had mastered Latin and even Greek and, as best they could, were picking up some Hebrew. All this was fairly straightforward, too straightforward once they’d got the hang of it. They began to make up languages. The members of a far-flung secret society, formed as early as the late fifth century (barely a generation after the Irish had become literate), could write to one another in impenetrably erudite, never-before-spoken patterns of Latin…not unlike the languages J.R.R. Tolkein would one day make up for his hobbits and elves… (p 164)”

It just seems that they loved literacy, words, and writing so much that they couldn’t help themselves but to embellish, creating some of the most famous and beautiful written works of literature. And when I say beautiful, I don’t mean well-structured sentences. I mean beautiful — like decorative. Go look up the famous “Chi-Rho” page in the Book of Kells.

I thoroughly enjoy hearing about these funny, country scholar-monks going about their copy work with such gusto. I wish that I was always as enamored with the written word as they were.

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The Faith of the Irish, part 2

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.

Faith of the Irish, part 1

I love it when I forget I have packages coming. This week I was surprised by an Amazon box sitting with our mail. Remembering that I was expecting books in the mail and seeing that they had arrived made my day — like it does every time. After watching more TV than is good for me because I had “run out” of books (Not really, but I sometimes need books that are like finger-food, you know — tasty, easy to chew, and addicting), I decided to finally use a Amazon gift card I was given for Christmas. I ordered: How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, and the entire Narnia series in Spanish. (why in Spanish, you might ask? I know… it’s a little ridiculous since I don’t actually speak the language, but I have a good reason I can explain later)

Right now I’m working on finishing How the Irish Saved Civilization, and I’m loving it. I’ve started it once twice before. It’s an amazingly interesting book, and the only reason my first tries were unsuccessful were because I kept having to return it to the library. I highly recommend it. In fact you should just buy it right away, rather than have to deal with returning it to anyone.

In the book, Cahill spends quite a lot of time talking about Saint Patrick, who, by all accounts, is a fascinating person even though there isn’t a lot known about him. What is known (mostly without question), is that he’s almost solely responsible from the conversion of the pagan Irish tribes to Christianity after being held as a slave for several years. He returned to Ireland to minister to the very people who had enslaved him. Here are some beautiful words that Cahill quotes, from what is known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate*. Realizing the depth of the violent, pagan culture to which Patrick was ministering to, this prayer for protection is significant, as well as beautiful.

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One of the stones found by the well Saint Patrick is thought to have baptized by. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is built on the site of this well.

“I arise today, Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, Through belief in the threeness, Through confession of the oneness, Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism, Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial, Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension, Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.”

And then a few verses later…

“I arise today Through God’s strength to pilot me; God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me, God’s host to save me From snares of devils, From temptations of vices, From everyone who shall wish me ill, Afar and anear, Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils, Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul Against incantations of false prophets, Against black laws of pagandom, Against false laws of heretics, Against craft of idolatry, Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards, Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today Against poison, against burning, Against drowning, against wounding, So that there may come to me abundance of reward. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the hear of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, Through belief in the threeness, Through confession of the oneness, Of the Creator of Creation.”

I just love the thoroughness of these last few verses — his desire for protection from sin and evil, and the desire for nearness of Christ is inspiring and helpful to me.

The prayer has several versions, and its so old it’s hard to tell which is the original. But if you’d like to hear a different version from a true Irishwoman, this is a beautiful song by Keith and Kristyn Getty. Kristyn quotes the end of the prayer in the last bit of the song. (Interesting tidbit — the violinist in this video goes to my church)

I want to show you a little more of Cahill’s work later, so look out for Part 2, coming soon!

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Saint Patrick’s Catherdral, Dublin.
Built in the 1190s. Wow.

I just love the thoroughness of these last few verses — his desire for protection from sin and evil, and the desire for nearness of Christ is inspiring and helpful to me.

The prayer has several versions, and its so old it’s hard to tell which is the original. But if you’d like to hear a different version from a true Irishwoman, this is a beautiful song by Keith and Kristyn Getty. Kristyn quotes the end of the prayer in the last bit of the song. (Interesting tidbit — the violinist in this video goes to my church)

I want to show you a little more of Cahill’s work later. Look out for Part 2 coming soon!

*Saint Patrick’s Breastplate is thought to have been written by Patrick, and it is a widely accepted opinion, although it is not actually provable. At the very least though, Cahill says that it was inspired by him.