Early medieval civilization

More than fifteen hundred years ago, pirates captured a British boy named Patrick from the largest of the British Isles. They sold him as a slave on the second-largest island, the island known as Ireland. Patrick was British, but not in the sense of Anglo-Saxon. The Angles and Saxons were only beginning to invade Britain at that time. Patrick was a Celtic Briton, trained in some Roman ways (including Christianity). He would become the patron saint of the Irish; he is the Saint Patrick who is dimly remembered every 17th of March with leprechauns, shamrocks, parades, and green beer.

After a few years, Patrick escaped from slavery. He ended up in France, where he joined a monastery and became active in the Christian monastic life. That life included the preservation of holy and historic texts, including the Bible and the Church fathers, but also various classic Greek and Roman writings. Patrick remembered the pagan Irish who had been his masters, and he felt a yearning to bring them the Christian Gospel. Sent as a missionary, Patrick preached the Gospel in Ireland. He also established monasteries like the one where he had lived in France. While the various Germanic tribes stirred around the mainland and the largest of the British Isles, Christianity and its literate tradition remained strong in Ireland. When Europe became more settled, Irish missionaries carried their Christian teachings and traditions back to Britain and the mainland. Like other Germanic tribes, the Franks embraced this form of Christianity, and in so doing they become the heirs of Greco-Roman civilization.

The same civilization was continuing unbroken in the Byzantine Empire. The western version of those traditions differed in small ways from the eastern version; over time, those differences would increase. Charlemagne was especially interested in preserving and spreading the literate civilization of the monasteries. His royal court included literate monks from the regions he ruled and also from beyond those regions. Even later raids from the Vikings could not extinguish the light of European civilization that had been inherited from Greece and Rome and had been perpetuated in the monastic movement, especially in Ireland.

Meanwhile, culture in western Europe had not come to a standstill. The Church was not merely preserving treasured documents from the past; it was also producing new literature, beginning with the Roman bishops Pope Leo the Great and Pope Gregory the Great. Other great writers of the early medieval time included Boethius (who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy), the writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and the Venerable Bede. All these writers contributed to the progress of civilization that was happening in Europe during the early Middle Ages.

Many Christians joined the monasteries. Others supported the monasteries with gifts, including bequests of land. By the time Carolingian rulers were being replaced by Capetians and Ottonians (Saxon kings named Otto who were crowned as emperors), some congregations and monasteries possessed great wealth in land, serfs, and treasures. This led to divergence from the original intention of monasteries, even abuse of the Christian religion. Rather than keeping their pledges of chastity, poverty, and obedience, monks had live-in girlfriends. They ate better than the peasants and even than some of the nobility. They used their influence to control the politics of the regions where they lived. Through these abuses, they were giving Christ and his Church a bad name in Europe.

A reform movement began in the 800s and gathered steam in the 900s, reversing this trend of worldliness and deceit in the Church. Associated with the Cluny Abbey in Aquitaine—then in the country of Burgundy, but now part of France—the Cluny Reform (or Cluniac Reform) spread throughout France, Spain, Italy, and England. Monasteries following the new set of rules (which reaffirmed the goals of earlier monasticism) networked with one another and were, for a time, the largest religious influence in Europe. Several leaders of this reform movement were later elected popes. Although Protestant Christians often think of reformation as a series of events during the sixteenth century, the Cluny Reform and later reformations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries also helped sustain the life of genuine Christianity in a world that frequently tempts Christian leaders to depart from Christ’s paths and to travel their own direction. J.

Popes and monks and other stuff

Constantine’s confession and avowal of Christianity was a mixed blessing for the Church. On the one hand, they were free from persecution—free to build churches and invite people to join them for worship, free to share their faith with neighbors and family and friends, free from fear that they might be arrested, tortured, and killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, this freedom opened the doors for nominal Christians, for those who claimed a place in the Church without true faith in the Savior, for those who sought to use the Church for their own purposes rather than joining the Church from a commitment to Jesus Christ.

Moreover, Constantine’s embrace of Christianity brought worldliness into the Church. Now the Church could receive gifts of money and property and could maintain that property—for the service of the Lord, but also for worldly profit and gain. Now the Church could become involved in worldly politics—in the name of Jesus, but sometimes contradicting his will and his purposes for the Church. Becoming respectable in the world encouraged some Christian leaders to imitate the world and to judge their service to God by the world’s standards of success. These challenges remain for Christians to face in the twenty-first century Church.

Constantine and the eastern (Byzantine) emperors after him believed that they answered only to God. Church leaders answered to God and to the emperors. A structure of authority had developed within the Church, acknowledging various ministries in each congregation with a head pastor or bishop, along with regional leaders who could be considered archbishops. Five of those archbishops had pre-eminence in the Church because of the size and antiquity of their congregations—those in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. The most important decisions about faith and practice were made in councils—the few great councils, and many smaller regional councils that handled lesser matters and affirmed the conclusions of the great councils. Much later, three of the pre-eminent congregations would be overwhelmed by the growth of Islam, leaving Rome and Constantinople to quarrel over leadership of Christianity on earth. By this time, the head pastor in Rome had already assumed political power, filling the vacuum left as Roman power retreated to the east. Power battles between Rome and Constantinople, and between the pope and secular leaders in western Europe, would fill the pages of history in later centuries.

Even before Constantine, the practice of monasticism had already begun in the Church. Some Christians sought closeness with God, closeness that could not reach its fullness in congregational life. They went into the wilderness to pray, to meditate, to escape worldly temptations, and to test themselves with ascetic practices. They survived with minimal food, minimal clothing, minimal shelter, and no social commitments. In some ways, these monastic practices were informed by the same Greek distrust of the physical world that had energized Gnostic beliefs. Yet these monks and hermits also offered a way for Christianity to survive and flourish in spite of the challenges of worldliness that the Church faced in those centuries.

One of the most famous Christians to practice monasticism was Anthony, who lived in Egypt. He had a reputation of holiness, of total commitment to Jesus Christ, and even of being capable of working miracles. To escape the world, he made his home in the desert. Because of his reputation, other Christians sought him in the desert and asked to join him. Anthony might have asked them, “What part of ‘alone’ do you not understand?” Instead, accepting the inevitable, Anthony made a set of rules about asceticism and self-denial. He did not require those rules of all Christians, but only of those who insisted on living near him.

Many other early Christians followed Anthony’s rules, or sets of rules that were similar. What worked in the Egyptian desert—especially regarding clothing and food—was not suited for life in Europe; Benedict of Nursia (480-550) developed the Benedictine Rule that some Christians still follow today. Common patterns in monastic life included poverty, chastity, and obedience. Bread, water, and some green vegetables were frequently the diet of monastic Christians—lettuce, but no dressing; bread, but no butter; no meat or dairy; no wine or other alcoholic beverages; no luxuries, and only the bare necessities. Jerome—a monk living in Bethlehem, famous for his Bible translation—disparaged Christians who paid too much attention to hygiene. Jerome claimed that you could distinguish the real monks from the imitators, because you could smell the real monks even before they entered the room.

Monastic communities developed forms of Christian worship that many congregations still use today. They preserved and copied Christian literature—not only the Bible, but also the writings of many Church Fathers. As non-Christian groups invaded Europe and devastated many centers of civilization, monastic Christianity preserved what was best from Roman times. Patrick, a Christian from Britain, was kidnapped as a boy, taken by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. After a few years, he escaped, and ended up living for a time in a monetary in France. Patrick remembered the pagans of Ireland and felt burdened to bring them the Gospel. When he became the great Saint Patrick, missionary to Ireland, he also imported monasticism from France. In later generations, when France had been overrun by Germanic groups, missionaries came from Ireland, bringing back the Gospel and the monastic life that Patrick had transplanted to their island. In this way, Christian faith and Roman traditions remained alive in western Europe during the region’s most troubled times.

For a time, then, early Christianity was the prevailing culture of the Mediterranean world. J.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick was not Irish. He did not single-handedly convert all the Irish people to Christianity, nor did he drive snakes out of Ireland. He was not a bishop and probably was not a monk, although he supported the establishment of monasteries in Ireland. His day was not a major celebration in Ireland until recently, when the customs of Irish communities in other parts of the world were carried back to Ireland.

Patrick was British, born and raised in Britain in the years after the Roman Empire had withdrawn its forces from the island to deal with matters closer to home. When he was a boy, Patrick was captured by pirates and sold as a slave to an Irish master, who kept Patrick for six years. After that time Patrick escaped, returned home, and apparently also spent some time living in a monastery in Gaul (now France). He felt a strong call to return to Ireland and serve there as a missionary. Patrick did not set out on his own; he was sent as a missionary of the church and received support for his work. While he was not even the first Christian missionary sent to Ireland, he has become the most famous. The strength of Christianity in Ireland during the following centuries led to the re-evangelism of Britain and Gaul after those lands had been overrun by pagan Germanic tribes.

During the 1800s, many Irish people fled their homeland for political and economic reasons. Coming to North America, they faced the same problems most immigrants face. They were viewed suspiciously as “un-American” by their neighbors, in large part because of their Roman Catholic beliefs. As a result, they banded together, helped one another find jobs and dwellings, built churches, and tried to teach their children Irish language and customs. They chose March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day (the anniversary of the missionary’s death in 461), as an opportunity to maintain their cultural identity. Over time, as they became increasingly part of the American fabric, their celebrations drew in community leaders, especially politicians. Saint Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations in Chicago, Boston, New York, and even cities like Little Rock and Hot Springs, are a highlight of this time of year.

What are we celebrating? Some people view the day only as an opportunity to drink beer or whiskey. Others use it to participate in cultural events. Christians can also use this day to think of missionaries and of the mission opportunities we have in the world today. As Patrick willingly returned to the place where he had once been a slave to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so today also Christians share the freedom and forgiveness that belongs to us through Christ. J.