"How the Irish Saved Civilization"

I’ve recently been re-listening to some lectures by my old college professor Dr. Burch and yesterday listened to one where he spent a great deal of time talking about St. Patrick and the Irish and Celtic Christianity. He recommended the book How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill and it reminded me of what a wonderful book it is. It is not really a history book at all even though it talks much of history – he takes a very narrative approach in the retelling and makes everything very understandable and relatable. Some have argued that he doesn’t back up his fact well and that it isn’t really a scholarly work but I don’t think it was meant to be a scholarly work really – and though there may be a few things he doesn’t mention and he may have a very Western Empire centered view (he barely mentions Byzantium or the fact that the Eastern Empire survived the fall of Rome and maintained a very learned and civilized culture throughout the “dark ages”). However I think it is a wonderful book and I think it also has some jewels of application and wisdom for today as well. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, I got thinking about this book again and went back to my quote book and read some of the quotes that I had pulled from the book…two in particular struck me anew and I thought I would share them:

“Irish generosity extended not only to a variety of people but to a variety of ideas. As unconcerned about orthodoxy of thought as they were about uniformity of monastic practice, they brought into their libraries everything they could lay their hands on. They were resolved to shut out nothing. Not for them the scruples of Saint Jerome, who feared he might burn in hell for reading Cicero. Once they had learned to read the Gospels and the other books of the Holy Bible, the lives of the martyrs and ascetics, and the sermons and commentaries of the fathers of the church, they began to devour all of the old Greek and Latin pagan literature that came their way. In their unrestrained catholicity, they shocked conventional churchmen, who had been trained to value Christian literature principally and give a wide berth to the dubious morality of the pagan classics…It was not that the Irish were uncritical, just that they saw no value in self-imposed censorship. They could have said with Terence, ‘Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto’ (‘I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me’).” - How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

“The Irish also developed a form of confession that was exclusively private and that had no equivalent on the continent. In the ancient church, confession of one’s sins – and the subsequent penance (such as appearing for years by the church door in sackcloth and ashes) – had always been public. Sin was thought to be a public matter, a crime against the church, which was the Mystical Body of Christ. Some sins were even considered unforgivable, and the forgivable ones could be forgiven only once. Penance was a once-in-a-lifetime sacrament: a second theft, a second adultery and you were ‘outside the church,’ irreversibly excommunicated, headed for damnation…The Irish innovation was to make all confession a completely private affair between penitent and priest – and to make it as repeatable as necessary. (In fact, repetition was encouraged on the theory that, oh well, everyone pretty much sinned just about all the time.) This adaptation did away with public humiliation out of tenderness for the sinner’s feelings, and softened the unyielding penances of the patristic period so that the sinner would not lose heart. But it also emphasized the Irish sense that personal conscience took precedence over public opinion or church authority. The penitent was not labeled by others; he labeled himself. His sin was no one’s business but God’s. Though one’s confession was made to a human being, he or she was chosen by the penitent for qualities of true priestliness – holiness, wisdom, generosity, loyalty, and courage. No one could ever pry knowledge gained in confession from such a priest, who knew that every confession was sealed forever by God himself. To break that seal was to imperil one’s salvation: it was practically the only sin the Irish considered unforgivable. So one did not necessarily choose one’s ‘priest’ from among ordained professionals: the act of confession was too personal and too important for such a limitation. One looked for an anmchara, a soul-friend, someone to be trusted over a whole lifetime. Thus, the oft-found saying ‘Anyone without a soul-friend is like a body without a head,’ which dates from pagan times. The druids, not the monks, had been the first soul-friends.” - How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

Rejoicing in the journey - Beth Stedman

Book reviewBethany Stedman