The period between the fall of Rome and the emergence of mediaeval European culture has come to be called the Dark Ages. For schoolchildren in Ireland it’s really where the national story begins. The gist of the mythic tale is expressed in a book with the unassuming title “How the Irish Saved Civilisation”, and it recounts the exploits of missionary saints like our hero St Columbanus who travelled the European continent establishing monastic communities.
The official versions – whether ecclesiastical or national – are unremittingly heroic. The fireside stories are more nuanced, and much more human, with saintly heroes prone to excess and extremism.
Columbanus was born in Leinster in 543 and died in Lombardy, in a monastery of his own foundation, seventy years later. The surviving details of Columbanus’ early life record one fact which, for Ireland, is remarkable, perhaps unique: his mother did not want him to become a priest. She pleaded with him to stay at home and threw herself across the door to bar his exit. With cool certainty he stepped over her outstretched body, saying, apparently, “what should I care for a mother’s tears…. the true piety here is to be cruel.” Piety and cruelty, a powerful and not uncommon pairing.
At its most positive, severe piety is ascetic. Asceticism is often a feature of Christian, especially monastic, life. In Irish thinking of the time there were three types of martyrdom: white, green, and red. White martyrdom was renunciation of the world with fasting and penance. The green spoke of extreme self-denial to subjugate all fleshly desires. Red martyrdom, of course, indicated persecution unto death. Columbanus commended white and green martyrdom as first stages in the path of perfection.
Naturally the saint had a rule for his monks to help them on their way. Discipline was necessary, and if discipline involved punishment well I am sure it hurt the holy saint more than it hurt the offender. Wandering monks were encouraged to think on their mistake with slaps on the hand delivered with a leather strap. The muddled humanity of monastic life and Irish temperament shines through the casual violence:
for coughing at the beginning of a psalm and spoiling the singing, six slaps for celebrating Mass with untrimmed nails, six slaps for biting the cup of salvation, six slaps for smiling at the office of prayers, six slaps for laughing out loud, a grave penance unless it happens excusably for forgetting to say the prayer before or after work, twelve slaps for receiving the blessed bread with unclean hands, twelve slaps for forgetting the blessed sacrament when hurrying out to work, twenty-five slaps
St Matthew 10:37-40
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
We may smile at the severe silliness of elements of the rule, but have to set its excess in the context of societal collapse and monastic restoration.
Dermot Quinn writes that the monastic rule expresses “the heart of the Columban achievement, and indeed that of Irish monks on continental Europe. They brought from Ireland not only the gospel but a particular form of it which seems to balance finely between paradox and incoherence. It was ascetic and exuberant, personal and collective, restless and forever seeking rest.”
In a different time and with different sensibilities, I wonder can we celebrate such stories for their paradox and human complexity and not simply condemn their heroes for cruelty?
And maybe we might even, by stories of a saint who leaped over his mother’s weeping body… and who slapped those in need of a manicure, be reminded that all holiness has its shadow side, its darkness. Even, yes, even our own!
All sanctity has its overblown pathos, threatening – if rightly seen – to collapse into giggles at its own silliness or outrage at its own excess. And sometimes both are deserved at once. All religion does violence. Some violence arises from base evil and some from blinkered devotion.
At his best, the tradition of Columbanus was said to be “austere in tenderness and tender in austerity”. Austerity may not be our characteristic mode of discipleship. But may we in our ways yet learn to match him and his fellows in tenderness, devotion and determination.
I beseech you, merciful God, to allow me to drink from the stream that flows from your fountain of life. May I taste the sweet beauty of its waters, which spring from the very depths of your truth. O Lord, you are that fountain from which I desire with all my heart to drink. Give me, Lord Jesus, this water that it may quench the burning spiritual thirst within my soul, and purify me from all sin. I know, King of Glory, that I am asking from you a great gift, but you give to your faithful people without counting the cost, and you promise even greater things in the future. Indeed, nothing is greater than yourself, and you have given yourself to us on the cross. Therefore, in praying for the waters of life, I am praying that you, the source of those waters, will give yourself to me. You are my light, my salvation, my food, my drink, my God. Amen
attributed to St Columbanus
The Rev’d Dr John McNeil Scott is Principal of the Scottish College and a member of Shawlands URC in Glasgow.