By the skin of its teeth

National | St. Patrick and the unlikely spread of Christendom

Issue: "It's Bush vs. Gore," March 18, 2000

In the year of our Lord 406 the river Rhine froze over. Minor detail of history, on the order of, say, "that night the king could not sleep" (Esther 6:1), which touch of insomnia started the unraveling of a scheme to extinguish the people of God. An unremarkable providence, you might say, that yet proved to be the last straw for the Roman Empire-and almost for Christianity.

Any thinking person would be shaken to know how close we came to the extinction of Christendom and Western civilization. The two were geographically coterminous for centuries, so joined at the hip that it was hard to see where one began and one left off.

There'd been a time when that was not so-when profession of Christ had meant treason against the Empire, and certain death. But through the vicissitudes of history, and in particular through the Edict of Nantes in A.D. 313, Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, ousting forever Jupiter and his pantheon.

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It's hard to know where the devolution began. Pressures without (Vandals, Visigoths, Huns), rot within (the glory that was Rome now reduced to mere ceremony without substance). In the end it came quickly: The barbarian hordes that had been a trickle of migration became a mighty and profane torrent spilling over the river, ravishing culture like a plague of locusts. By the end of the fifth century, all the great continental libraries established from the reigns of Augustus through Constantine had vanished.

Enter a slave shepherd boy in the hills off Antrium on an island considered so unimportant that the Romans had not even bothered to cross the Irish Sea to conquer it-a right scurvy race of Iron Age warriors, coarse, unrefined, superstitious. Patricium makes his escape and boards a ship bound for Briton, but once there cannot shake the memory of the plight of the Irish. Responding to a call not unlike Paul's summons to Macedonia, he does an about-face-with a brief detour in Cannes to pick up a theological education and the title of bishop. Having departed a fugitive, he returns to Ireland an ambassador for Christ, the first missionary bishop in history, first to the barbarians beyond the reach of Roman law.

And the first practitioner of contexturalization, as well. Ministering to a people unencumbered by Roman cultural-political baggage, Patricium finds natural bridges in the psyche of the Irish. Their deep sense of magic he redirects to sacramentalism. Their pagan virtue of courage he transmutes into the "green martyrdom" of forsaking the comforts of this life for prayer and study. The insecurity of their fearsome, fickle gods he exchanges for a God who is not arbitrary and bloodthirsty but appeased. (No need to perform human sacrifice anymore; God has sacrificed one human, Jesus, and so you can have peace with the divinity.) And their passion for words he channels into the role of custodian of the great literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

And so while Rome fell, the Irish monks copied furiously. Copied anything they could put their hands on: Plato, Virgil, Cicero-and the Bible. In a single generation, they learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, producing along the way the beautiful calligraphy now universally recognized as the script of the Middle Ages.

Then the aging Patricium passed the torch to Columcille, who made for Scotland in A.D. 564, dotting its landscape with signature daub-and-wattle monasteries. Aidan took it from there, making for northern England, Iceland, Greenland. Columbanus next took it to Gaul in 590, where the Irish monks, like so many nomadic bees, alighted on the swamps of Europe, draining them and pollinating the continent with the nectar of Scripture and culture. The Germanic lords sent them the runts of their litters (sons not fit for military service) to work the monastic gardens, and received them back Christianized, turning families to the faith en masse.

And thus was Christianity saved, by the skin of its teeth, by illiterate islanders and the runts of Europe-though that's just the view "under the sun," of course. For was it not God's usual way of doing business, after all, snatching victory from defeat, the better to show his all-surpassing power? He lets the promise to Eve dangle on a thread, eight people bobbing in an ark over the mountains of Ararat. He lets the remnant grow so thin in spots that Elijah protests he is the only one left.

"The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born" (Revelation 12:4). And so the drama is reincarnated in every era. But the outcome is never in doubt. And by now we are persuaded, that neither dragon nor barbarian, neither death nor life, neither the present nor the future, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ our Lord, nor to thwart the march of his kingdom. Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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