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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Cahill’

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“Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700″ by Noël Coypel – http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Noel-Coypel/The-Resurrection-Of-Christ,-1700.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700.jpg#/media/File:Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700.jpg

As Jesus was quickly approaching the “hour” of His trial and crucifixion, he offered these words of consolation to His disciples:

In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world

-John 16:33

Before proceeding, a necessary clarification: When using the term “world “in this context, Jesus is not talking about the material universe.  All things God created, both spiritual and material, are good.  By “the world” is meant those forces which are opposed to God and His plan for humanity.  When we consider that these forces have the devil for their source (or at least instigator), we must conclude that the material universe itself has suffered subjection to “the world.”

But by His death and subsequent resurrection, Jesus Christ has reclaimed creation for Himself.  Now the world — that is, as we understand the term — is not only God’s precious creation, but can even become a sacrament or icon of the Divine.

Ancient Irish0910 Tracht der Kelten in Südpolen im 3. Jh. v. Chr” by Silar – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:0910_Tracht_der_Kelten_in_S%C3%BCdpolen_im_3._Jh._v._Chr.JPG#/media/File:0910_Tracht_der_Kelten_in_S%C3%BCdpolen_im_3._Jh._v._Chr.JPG

I’ll return to this in a moment.  In the meantime, given that we are about to celebrate the feast day of St. Patrick, one of Our Lord’s great saints and the patron saint of Ireland, it behooves us to take a look at how the Irish have viewed the world throughout the ages.

For the pagan Irish of ancient times, the world was charged with otherworldly forces.  Every rock, tree, stream and hill was haunted by the presence of some god or spirit, or else was a gateway into fairy realms.  Their mythology and its underlying worldview were certainly filled with romance and wonder…but also with fear and darkness.

In his book “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” Thomas Cahill interprets the frequent occurrence of shape-shifters in Celtic mythology this way:

[I]t suggested subconsciously that reality had no predictable pattern, but was arbitrary and insubstantial (pg. 129).

And furthermore…

[I]n the Irish stories the traps seem to lie hidden at every crossroads, and trickster-gods lurk behind each tree.  In such a world, (…) no one can hope to avoid disaster for long (pg. 131).

Quite possibly, the characteristic happy-go-lucky attitude and staunch bravery of the Irish came from a sense of “detachment” born of resignation to “how fleeting life is and how pointless to try to hold onto things or people” (Cahill, pg. 96).  Detachment, perhaps…but a detachment that probably masked deep sadness and dread (Cahill, pg. 128).

Before I move on, let me say this: “How the Irish Saved Civilization” is an interesting read, but I can recommend it only with caution.  Some of Cahill’s historical analysis is obviously suspect (his interpretation of Church history is nothing short of abysmal in certain spots).  However, the book does offer some worthwhile insights into what we can intuit of the character of ancient Ireland, as well as the difference the Gospel made.

Saint_Patrick_(window)“Saint Patrick (window)” by Sicarr – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Patrick_(window).jpg#/media/File:Saint_Patrick_(window).jpg

St. Patrick brought to the Irish an entirely new vision, assuring them that every corner of creation spoke of the providential care of an all-loving and good God.  Again, Cahill:

This magical world, though full of adventure and surprise, is no longer full of dread.  Rather, Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out (pg. 133).

This new worldview in no way guarantees the absence of evil or suffering, any more than did Christ’s words to His disciples in John’s Gospel.  But the great Conquest of the King of kings, Who is greater than the world, has made it so that even these can become instruments of Divine benevolence.  Rather than reminders of the futility of existence, they can become like the uncomfortable rigors of final exams before summer recess.

In other words…

In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world

-John 16:33

The humor-filled attitude and generous bravery of the Irish were most certainly taken up into that worldview, and hence given a new character.

Arguably, it was this very faith that made the Irish bearers of light in the darkness that followed the fall of Rome.  The industry and intrepidity of Irish monks who labored in their scriptoria and traveled throughout Europe to convert the barbarians showed forth their zeal in preserving the wisdom of the past, as well as in looking toward Europe’s future.

Let us remember that as we raise our glasses this St. Patty’s Day.

Images from Wikipedia

Reference

Cahill, Thomas.  How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.  New York: Nan A. Talese, 1995.

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