Today is the feast of St Columba, or Colm Cille, about whom I’ve blogged in the past. St Columba is rightly remembered for being a missionary who brought Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. He is also remembered as the founder of the abbey at Iona, which would be an active missionary centre for Scotland, northern England, and the Western Isles. He is less well-remembered as a poet, although I’ve made sure to blog some of his verse here.
If you read Adomnan’s Life of St Columba, you see that the saint — or at least the idealised version of him seen by Adomnan — was truly a monk, truly single-minded in devotion to God. Not long ago, Carey Nieuwhof wrote a post (that I failed to bookmark) talking about the things the churches that makes it through the agonising death of Christendom will have.
I am pretty sure that the top priority will be: Monomaniacs for God in the pulpit, in the boardroom/vestry/kirk session/elders, in the pews.
The one thing every variety of monk is meant to be, whether alone in caves, living in little huts near each other, living in abbeys, living on pillars, living alone on islands in the North Sea, is a monomaniac for God. Like Columba.
St Columba was not a hermit. He lived an ascetic lifestyle and finished up his earthly life as abbot of a monastery. But he preached the Good News that God came down from heaven on a rescue mission to save us. He was ready to preach and sought out opportunities.
Studies have shown that churches that are growing these days have at least one trait in common: Congregants tell their friends about Jesus and invite them to church.
Poetry is the reenchantment of the disenchanted universe through the medium of words. As we face head-on the post-Enlightenment universe we live in, almost everyone we meet will be a materialist, whether the kind who believes that matter is all that exists or the kind who believes that matter is all that matters.
As Christianity goes forward, poetry will be the vehicle for expressing the inexpressible, the joyous meaning of the Gospel, of worshipping the incomprehensible God. The Church that goes beyond proposition and treads the ground of mystery — this is the church that will survive.
It’s also the church of our ancient and medieval ancestors in the faith…
Besides Caedmon, we also commemorate the great English language poet George Herbert in February — apologies that this commemoration is one day late. I present you his poem “Prayer (I)”, which I used as my definition of prayer in my sermon of February 16:
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age, God’s breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r, Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear, The six-days world transposing in an hour, A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, Exalted manna, gladness of the best, Heaven in ordinary, man well drest, The milky way, the bird of Paradise, Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, The land of spices; something understood.
Today we commemorate Caedmon, our first recorded English poet. You can read my translation of Bede’s account of Caedmon here. Since I’ve blogged about Caedmon before (here and here), my mind is moving in other directions upon this commemoration of the poet, namely “religious” poetry more widely.
Poetry is the imaginative aspect of human language, the grasping after symbol and metaphor and those moments that dance around the periphery of our vision, seeking to translate the sublime into ink and paper (or pixels on a screen — or carvings on a stone). The poetic mode is not simply verse, not simply the arrangement of human language into line and meter making use of literary devices.
It is that, of course. It is also more like … the grasping of language at the numinous? Even (especially) when it is ordinary.
When we reach for that, when we attempt to rearrange language into line and verse with metaphor and simile, symbol and personification — then even the gore of the dead, the crushing of corpses, in the plains of Ilium rises to the sublime. The horror of the Iliad, that is, is transposed to a higher mode of language through Homer’s poetry than a simple synopsis would make it out to be.
What is interesting is that poetry is not simply there at the fundaments of religion.
It is there at the fundaments of language and literature.
From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things are everywhere.
–One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Dr. Suess
Poetry, like the “funny things” of Dr. Suess, is everywhere. Greek literature does not begin with a prose treatise on government. It begins with Iliad and Odyssey, followed quickly by Theogony, and then, soon thereafter, the Homeric Hymns. Deep in The foundational works of Greek literature are not only poems but also the foundational works of the Greek religious thought-world.
Christianity was born from Judaism, and thus born already with the Psalms, those hymns to YHWH composed and sung by the Jewish people over generations. But it was also born with the canticles in the Gospel of Luke (Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis), with the poetic (if not formal verse) prologue to John, with the prose hymn of Philippians 2.
Every culture that has Christians in it ends up writing poetry. In the ancient world, this means we get to enjoy, besides the Latins I tend to mention, the Greeks such as Romanus the Melodist and Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Syriac authors like St Ephraim (how many times have I mentioned Ephraim the Syrian on this blog, I wonder?), Jacob of Serugh, and beyond. Medieval Armenia produces Gregory of Narek.
And so the Gospel washes ashore in England, headed for Canterbury from Rome and for Lindisfarne from Ireland. Both continental ‘Roman’ Christianity and insular Irish Christianity are versed in poetry — and the Irish in both Latin and Irish verse (I am fond of St Brigid’s and St Columba’s poetry). With such tutors as these, it comes as no surprise that the English start singing praises of their new God and King.
And our own English tongue has produced a wealth of poetry, of expressing with words something of the inexpressible, of coming close to the Uncreated Light, finding your mind so small, yet wishing, nevertheless, to praise the Holy Trinity, or to attempt to trace the outlines of your own beating heart as you catch a glimpse of Him, whether in the Holy Communion or maybe simply some daffodils.
In today’s utilitarian world, where the Prosperity Gospel wants to use Jesus to get rich quick, where we try to parse the mystery of the Eucharist to its last moment, where people walk out of sessions on biblical theology saying that they didn’t ‘get anything out of it’, where we want our sermons served up with a good side of ‘what should I do’, where we forget transcendence in favour of social action —–
God breaks through.
And He has some poets to help us see Him — Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, as well as singer-songwriters Steve Bell and John Michael Talbot all spring to mind.
Since I’ve quoted Hooker on the Eucharist at length, here’s a poem I often read in preparation for receiving the Blessed Sacrament. George Herbert’s 1633 poem ‘The Holy Communion’. Classic Anglicanism is rich and beautiful, as you can tell. He also expresses something of eucharistic soteriology, as you can see. For Herbert’s indentations done properly, go to the online edition at the CCEL.
The H. Communion.
NOt in rich furniture, or fine aray,
Nor in a wedge of gold,
Thou, who for me wast sold,
To me dost now thy self convey;
For so thou should’st without me still have been,
Leaving within me sinne:
But by the way of nourishment and strength
Thou creep’st into my breast;
Making thy way my rest,
And thy small quantities my length;
Which spread their forces into every part,
Meeting sinnes force and art.
Yet can these not get over to my soul,
Leaping the wall that parts
Our souls and fleshy hearts;
But as th’ outworks, they may controll
My rebel-flesh, and carrying thy name,
Affright both sinne and shame.
Onley thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privie key,
Op’ning the souls most subtile rooms;
While those to spirits refin’d, at doore attend
Dispatches from their friend.
Give me my captive soul, or take
My bodie also thither.
Another lift like this will make
Them both to be together.
Before that sinne turn’d flesh to stone,
And all our lump to leaven;
A fervent sigh might well have blown
Our innocent earth to heaven.
For sure when Adam did not know
To sinne, or sinne to smother;
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
As from one room t’another.
Thou hast restor’d us to this ease
By this thy heav’nly bloud;
Which I can go to, when I please,
And leave th’earth to their food.
Unexpectedly, in a sermon that quoted John Piper (of all people) and Martyn Lloyd Jones, my minister closed the preaching with a brief discussion of the Psychomachia of Prudentius from around 405. Now, Geoff isn’t afraid of the Fathers — he’s prayed prayers from St Irenaeus before, and cited Cassian and Evagrius at length. He doesn’t even shy away from the Middle Ages, being an evident fan of St Anselm and unafraid of that great ox, St Thomas Aquinas.
Nevertheless, rarely in a sermon of any sort does later Latin poetry emerge!
This is a short epic poem (approximately 916 lines; I guess it’s an epyllion?) written in dactylic hexameters, the meter of classical Latin and Greek epic. Beyond the technicalities of Latin verse, this poem is written in the poetic style of Virgil but is one of the first personification allegories. The theme is the battle for the human soul (indeed, the old Loeb translates the title as ‘The Battle for Mansoul’, although ‘Soulbattle’ would be closer). The characters are the virtues and the vices doing battle against each other; although each set of characters numbers seven, they are not the two lists you know:
Fides – Faith, vs ‘Worship-of-the-Old-Gods’
Pudicitia – Chastity, vs Lust
Patientia – Patience, vs Wrath
Mens Humilis – Humility, vs Pride
Sobrietas – Sobriety, vs Indulgence
Operatio – Thrift, vs Greed
Concordia – Concord, vs Discord/Heresy
Each of the virtues comes out victorious, of course. My favourite moment, and one that my former office mate also enjoys, is Patience (Long-Suffering in the Loeb) standing still, doing nothing, and defeating Wrath, who ends up killing herself. I quote the Loeb Classical Library translation:
Standing unmoved by the javelin while the monster that shot it rages in ungoverned frenzy, she waits for Wrath to perish by reason of her own violence. And when the barbarous warrior had spent with fuming the strength of her unconquerable arms and by showering javelins tired out her right hand with no success till it was useless, since her missiles, having no force in their flight, fell ineffectual, and the shafts, all idly cast, lay broken on the ground, her ruthless hand turned to her sword-hilt. Putting all its strength into a blow with the flashing blade, it rises high above her right ear and then, launching its stroke, smites her foe’s head in the very middle. But the helmet of forged bronze only resounds under the blow; the blade rebounds with blunted edge, so hard it is; the unyielding metal breaks the steel that smites it, unflinchingly receives the vain attack, and stands up to the striker without hurt. Seeing her blade shivered in pieces and how the sword has scattered away in rattling fragments while her hand still grasps the hilt after it has lost its weight of steel, Wrath is beside herself and casts away the luckless ivory that has been false to her, the token of honour turned to shame. Afar she flings that unwelcome reminder, and wild passion fires her to slay herself. One of the many missiles that she had scattered without effect she picks up from the dust of the field, for an unnatural use. The smooth shaft she fixes in the ground and with the upturned point stabs herself, piercing her breast with a burning wound. Standing over her, Long-Suffering cries: “We have overcome a proud Vice with our wonted virtue, with no danger to blood or life. This is the kind of warfare that is our rule, to wipe out the fiends of passion and all their army of evils and their savage strength by bearing their attack. Fury is its own enemy; fiery Wrath in her frenzy slays herself and dies by her own weapons.”
My minister noted that the poem can be bloodthirsty, yet is well worth the read. We do not spend enough time thinking about the battle raging in our own souls. This lack of watchfulness (a virtue not in Prudentius but recommended by Christ: ‘Watch and pray’ [Mt 26:41]) is dangerous for our spiritual health. Thus, Prudentius can be good devotional reading. (I admit to not having read the Psychomachia devotionally before.)
The important thing, though, is that we are not merely victors because we are virtuous. Rather, we are virtuous because we are victors. Or, rather, we are more than conquerors (Ro 8:37). Prudentius knows this, as the close of the poem makes clear:
The opposing winds of light and dark are at war and we, body and spirit, have desires that are at odds with one another until Christ, our Lord, comes to help. He places the jewels of the virtues in their proper places and in the place of sin builds the courts of his temple; he makes for the soul ornaments from its dark past to delight Wisdom as she reigns forever on her glorious throne.
The Prologue (a very important piece of programmatic poetry in Late Antiquity) also points us to Christ:
Christ himself, who is the only true Priest, the Son of one whose name cannot be said, will feed the victor and enter his heart to let it entertain the Trinity. The Spirit will embrace the childless soul and make it fertile with eternal seed; late in her life, this richly endowed soul will be a mother and produce an heir.
Christ, you have always been revered because you have always had compassion on the misery of man; you are always revered for the powers you share with the Father – it is one power for it is only one God yet it is not merely one God that we worship since you too are also God born of the Father. Tell us, great King, how the soul is endowed with strength to fight and expel our sins from our hearts; when our thoughts are scattered and when strife rises within us, when evil desires rebel, tell us how to guard the liberty of the soul; tell us about our defenses against the fiend.
For you, good leader, have not left us here helpless before the onslaught of vice without the virtues to help us in battle and renew our courage; you yourself are in command of legions that fight this battle where the attack is worst. You yourself can arm the spirit with precious skills which permit it to resist and fight for you, conquer for you. The path to victory is there before your eyes. We must study the features of the virtues and the dark monsters waiting there to challenge their strength.
Here we have a magnificent piece of literature from the flowering of Latin literature in Late Antiquity, bound together with the realities of Christ empowering us to fight the vices. Well worth a read.
Western Christianity (Protestantism in particular, evangelical and otherwise) is in crisis in a few ways, all probably related. The bottoming out of church attendance and post-Christendom, for example, are undoubtedly related. And the bottoming out of church attendance is itself related to the fact that we have forgotten God, as Mark Galli has so succinctly diagnosed the problem in American evangelicalism.
As we have been slowly failing to get accustomed to this situation, many wonder who (or where) our guides in the Wasteland are. In the Introduction to A New Kind of Christian, McLaren writes, ‘Is there no Saint Francis or Søren Kierkegaard or C. S. Lewis in the house with some fresh ideas and energy?’ (p. xiv) Probably until 2010, many believed McLaren was that Kierkegaard or Lewis.
I’d like to imagine that the thinkers of my own direction, the ancient-future, are the guides in the Wasteland — D. H. Williams and the evangelical ressourcement, or Robert E. Webber with ancient-future faith, or Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall with palaeo-orthodoxy — but I fear these writers are largely un- or under-read (except Ancient-Future Worship by Webber, which seemed to do well amongst Michael Spencer’s iMonk set a decade ago).
Or maybe the theologians can lead the way? Sarah Coakley, perhaps? Hans Boersma (he’s almost the ancient-future set, though)? Miroslav Volf? Is Oliver O’Donovan too old to count? T F Torrance is dead, alas. What about non-Protestant guides? Frs John Behr, Andrew Louth, Kallistos Ware in the East?
But if we stick to our own set of Protestants with a bent towards historic orthodoxy and a desire to drive faith forward into the future, a desire to grab the living God and pull ourselves up into Him, a desire to set fire to the Enlightenment and show the world a real Persons at last, a desire to grab other people and show them the glory of God in its fulness —
The ancient-future set and the theologians will certainly help those who read them. (All, what, five of us?)
But I think Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite and (to toss in a Roman Catholic) John Michael Talbot are proving more helpful in this wasteland. Poets and musicians all, committed to the ancient paths but also to the shifting sand under their feet and bringing the power of the transcendent God of grace into our lives in a time when many within western Christianity feel uncertain or are walking away.
I say this as someone more likely to be like Christopher A. Hall (a patristics scholar who writes books about the Fathers for evangelicals) than Bell, Guite, or Talbot.
Their poetry and music — as well as Bell’s stories and his new Pilgrim Year resources, as well as Guite’s theological lit crit, as well as Talbot’s writings on the mystical and ascetic tradition — make truths immediate that are not always apprehensible in other forms. A Guite sonnet can carry freight that no theological article I have ever read can. Poetry and music grasp our souls in a different way from discursive analysis, much as I think the latter important.
I think on the rapture I have experienced at choral eucharists and evensongs. Or the hold that John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’ has on me. We need what the Romantics called the sublime. The sublime helps us rise up from the prosaic, mundane materialist world foisted falsely upon us by the Enlightenment. And as we rise, the transcendent God makes Himself immanent and enters our hearts and we can meet Him.
I may be amiss, but I think this is the case, and I think it make sense.
Regardless of the accuracy of the term ‘postmodern’, and regardless of how many of McLaren’s 2001 imaginings have come true, it is the case that the ‘postmodern’ is thought to be more interested in story than proposition, in the evocative than the precise, in connection than precise rationalisation.
Poets and singers, painters and architects, playwrights and novelists, can help bring us to God in such a culture.
May God raise up more to be the prophets to our generation.
(I’d list my musician friends, but I’m not sure they’d welcome the publicity…? And one has gone off to be a ‘normal’ person.)
A few weeks ago I posted to commemorate the poet-theologian St Ephraim the Syrian; St Ephraim shares his feast, 9 June (as celebrated in the West), with St Columba, as it turns out. St Columba was my first Saint of the Week when I was still on top of that — I even revisited him. In that first post, I discussed St Columba the missionary; in the second, St Columba the wonderworker (Columba Thaumaturgus?).
We must not forget St Columba the poet, a mode I highlighted in the first of those posts when I quoted from his hymn, ‘Adiutor Laborantium’. That poem is a plea from ‘a little man / trembling and most wretched, / rowing through the infinite storm / of this age’, that Christ might save him and bring to paradise, to the unending hymn (trans. Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Markus, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery).
Another poem attributed to St Columba (‘persuasively if not certainly ascribed’ p. xiii) is included in P. G. Walsh and Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18), ‘Altus Prosator’. ‘Altus Prosator’ is a hymn in honour of the Most Holy Trinity:
It is not three gods we proclaim,
but one God only we affirm,
by faith’s integrity, in three
person’s exceeding glorious. (1.9-12)
Columba goes on to extol the glorious works of God in creation, starting with ‘the good angels … / and archangels, and further ranks / of principalities and thrones / and powers and virtues’ (2.1-4), then telling of Lucifer and his rebellion before singing of God’s creation of the world. Here is a sample stanza:
Formed he the stars, put in their place
as lamps to light the firmament;
the angels joined in eulogy,
for his wondrous creation of
that boundless mass, praising the Lord,
the craftsman of the heavens above,
in proclamation that wins praise,
with utterance meet that knows no change,
and sang in noble harmony,
discharging thanks unto the Lord,
doing this out of love and will,
not from the gift that nature prompts. (Stanza 6)
Here we see angels doing as they are meant — praising God. Satan, on the other hand, seduces ‘our firstborn parents, both of them’ (7.2), and suffers a second fall. Up to Stanza 8, this is like a small, early mediaeval Paradise Lost.
Now, Columba moves on to the fierce power and potential violence of God’s created world, exemplified by the Deluge. But, although the world could be deluged at any time, God keeps creation regulated. I imagine that a life lived in the Western Isles of Scotland makes one think of the power and ferocity of rain and wind.
This is a hymnic poem, of course:
Mighty powers of our great God
make the earth’s globe suspended stand,
its circle poised in the abyss
by God’s support beneath, and by
the almighty one’s strong right hand (12.1-5)
If this is ‘Celtic’ ‘panentheism’, it is much more like the ‘panentheism’ of Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way, where the acknowledgement of God being everywhere in creation is not a limitation of God but simply the recognition of His transcendent yet immanent Self; that is, God is not in creation in a nature-god sort of way. He is everywhere, Almighty, sustaining all things by His power. We can find Him anywhere, with or without ‘Thin Places’.
Take heed Stanza 14 — St Columba believed in a round earth!!
Columba’s praise of God speaks of the salvation history in the Old Testament next, reminding us of the coming Day of Judgement, ‘a day of sadness and of grief’:
So trembling shall we take our stand
before the dais of the Lord,
and we shall render and account
of all desires that we held dear (18.1-3)
Christ descends with the Cross as his standard, and human and angelic voices will join with the four beasts of Revelation in hymns, ‘the Trinity is praised by all / in threefold chorus without end.’ (22.11-12)
There is no mention, however, of the saving grace wrought on the Cross. I am too Protestant for some of this, I fear:
we shall be his comrades there,
drawn up in all our diverse ranks
of dignities, according to
enduring merits of rewards,
and shall abide in glory there
eternally, for ever and ever. (23.7-12)
Christ is King. There is Tree of Life imagery earlier. He judges the world. But where is the Crucifixion? The fear of Hell and hope of Heaven, yes. But we move straight from Moses to the Day of Judgement.
Nonetheless, there is so much of value in this Irish, this ‘Celtic’, poem of the Early Middle Ages, written in Latin by a missionary abbot on an isle in the Hebrides. I wonder if life in the Hebrides makes one more acutely aware of the Day of Judgement? There is sound theology, beautiful imagery, and a good amount of secular learning — knowledge (scientia) of the natural — created — world is a fitting place to extol the Creator.
‘Altus Prosator’ is an abecedarius; each stanza begins with a different letter of the Latin alphabet, from A-Z in 23 stanzas (lacking from our viewpoint: J, U, W). It is rhythmic, written in heavy trochees: ‘Altus Prosator, vetustus’. Out on the edge of the world, we can see the united world of Latin culture, visible here in this sixth-century Irish poet and the beauty and theology of his verse.
This week of mediaeval (plus Ambrose) poetry began with Theodulf of Orleans’ triumphal eighth-century hymn in J M Neale’s wonderful Victorian rendering, ‘All Glory, Laud and Honour.’
But the earthly triumph of Palm Sunday so quickly turns to Good Friday, to ignominy and death.
In Holy Saturday, Christ’s body rests in the tomb, cold and dead.
The scattered disciples are probably in hiding.
We, however, have a different perspective because of tomorrow, when all the promises of God are fulfilled in Our Lord’s Resurrection. Western Christian hymnody and devotional poetry demonstrate this perspective, that the cross — a historical action filled with shame and defeat — is, in fact, the true triumph of God in his upside-down kingdom.
This is the hour that brought an end
to that long-standing grievous sin,
demolished then the realm of death,
and rid the world of ancient guilt.
Christ trampled down death by death on the Cross. He destroyed the power of sin and the devil. God entered into the fullness of human experience in Christ. It is victorious, as Fortunatus demonstrated to us on Tuesday, where the juxtaposition of the ‘standards of the King’ and the ‘mystery of the cross’ remind us of this victory over the forces of evil wrought for us on the tree.
And then on Thursday, I diverged from the passion hymns. I gave us a Eucharistic hymn by St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and liturgist of the feast of Corpus Christi. Whether we believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation enshrined by Innocent III in 1226 or not, I believe that faithful Christians can stand behind Aquinas in ‘Pange, Lingua’ — Christ is present to us in the Eucharist; ‘This is my body’. And so, we turn from his body broken, bleeding, sorrowing, sighing, dying, on the Cross to his body present to us in the bread and the wine:
Fac me cruce inebriari. Et cruore Filii. -Innocent III
Make me drunk with the cross and the blood of the Son.
And then, Good Friday, when at the Third Hour the King of Glory ascended his throne, his sole earthly crown an instrument of torture, came the poem that inspired me to put together this assembly, the Middle English devotional poem, ‘Man and woman, look on me.’ This poem is a graphic reminder that Christ’s blood washes away our sins.
And as we meditated on Christ in our hearts, I provided art to look upon literally. All save the Giotto on Palm Sunday were photos I took in the churches and museums of continental Europe. The devotional life of mediaeval Europe was powerfully, mightily crucicentric. Maybe, sometimes, too much.
Yet on that Cross, the saviour died. God bled out.
One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.
And so we have the ivory carvings, Gothic retables, stone crosses, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations of European devotion. So our physical eyes can behold what our spirits feast upon — the efficacious sacrifice of the Saviour.
If we enter into the blood and the gore and the sorrow and the pain of Good Friday, into the crown of thorns, the nail-pierced limbs, the spear in the side, how much more may we enter into the joy of glorious Easter and the empty tomb, the resurrected Saviour and the conquest of death.
Yesterday, on a madcap journey about the Scottish side of the Solway Firth, some friends, my wife, and I visited Sweetheart Abbey, Caerlaverock Castle, the Ruthwell Cross, and (accidentally) a section of Hadrian’s Wall. The most interesting of these items was, in fact, Caerlaverock Castle, being the only castle I’ve visited with a moat full of water.
But since this is my blog about Christian stuff, I’m here to talk about the Ruthwell Cross.
According to Historic Scotland, the Ruthwell Cross is a late-seventh-century (others say eighth-century) Anglo-Saxon stone cross erected in Ruthwell back in the days when this part of Scotland was part of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. A few decades, then, after the Sutton Hoo ship burial with its very fine artefacts; probably within the lifetime of the historian/Biblical scholar/Latinist/antiquarian/monk Bede (saint of the week here).
St Wilfrid was alive and active at this time — the North of England and South of Scotland had been largely Christianised in this century through the efforts of people like Wilfrid and Sts Aidan (saint of the week here), Cuthbert (saint of the week here), and Kentigern/Mungo (saint of the week here). King Offa of Mercia (in the Midlands) has yet to be born, but his pagan predecessor Penda — last pagan king in England — is dead. We are still a century from the Vikings’ arrival as raiders in Northumbria, and less than a century from the (possibly) Ruthwell-inspired Dream of the Rood. Beowulf may have been written by the time the Ruthwell Cross was erected; then again, maybe not. The Ruthwell Cross is contemporary to the Lindisfarne Gospels.
All of this is the context of the Ruthwell Cross. The peoples of Britain are fighting one another, largely Christianised, producing world-class literature in both Latin and Old English, producing beautiful works of sculpture and manuscript illumination. The material culture of the Anglo-Saxon world of Northumbria bears the marks of its Celtic neighbours/enemies/subjects, the far-off Mediterranean world of Rome and Constantinople, and homegrown ‘Germanic’ images.
In what many of this isle would consider a far-off hinterland, someone erected this cross to the honour and glory of Christ, the true King and Champion:
I first heard of this cross in the Everyman Book of Anglo-Saxon Poetry that includes a translation of the poem inscribed on it in Anglo-Saxon runes. I had no idea it would be so . . . big (5.2 m tall). And full of pictures. And also have Latin on it. But it is and does and does. The faces are carved with images from the Gospels as well as a couple of saints, although I’m not sold that the image with ‘ST PAVLVS’ inscribed over it is actually Sts Antony and Paul because the rest are biblical. Maybe there’s more inscriptional evidence I could not figure out. The sides are carved with vine designs of high quality.
Anyway, here are some images from our trip to see the cross:
It is housed inside the local parish church at Ruthwell. This, as I understand, is about where it stood for 1600 years, until in the 1630s it was broken into bits and stored beneath the floorboards of the church because it is, apparently, idolatrous. In the 1800s it was removed and taken outside to the manse garden. Later that same century, it was returned to the interior of the church. The cross arms are missing, and what you see on it is a nineteenth-century carving that is not based on anything other than fantastic Victorian whimsy.
God almighty stripped himself,
when he wished to climb the Cross
bold before all men.
to bow (I dare not,
but had to stand firm.)
I held high the great King,
heaven’s Lord. I dare not bend.
Men mocked us both together. I was slick with blood
sprung from the Man’s side…)
Christ was on the Cross.
But then quick ones came from afar,
nobles, all together. I beheld it all.
I bowed (to warrior hands.)
Wounded with spears,
they laid him, limb weary. At his body’s head they stood.
They that looked to (heaven’s Lord…)
Like the Dream of the Rood, the Ruthwell Cross inscription combines the suffering of Christ on the cross with the marital values of Anglo-Saxon society. Such a blending of imageries is also visible in the poem Andreas as well as in Beowulf — the difference being that in Andreas a Mediterranean Christian tale is given Germanic warrior virtues, and in Beowulf a Germanic warrior tale is given a few Christian morals and references. In the Lindisfarne Gospels, the blend of Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean is visual, not ideological.
Anyway, this blending shows the might of Christ, mocked on the Cross but still the great King. He is at once in control, choosing to mount the Cross, and at the mercy of others, wounded with spears. It is the great mystery of the Cross, put into a form that Anglo-Saxon culture could comprehend.
All in all, it was a delight to see this large, magnificently-carved monument from ages past. May we today find ways of communicating the timeless power of the Cross to our own culture.
Tomorrow, Saturday 11 February, is the commemoration of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon monk by the name of Caedmon. He made his claim to fame by being a poet in the monastery of St. Hilda (a post about whom will soon be reblogged here). As we learn from the Venerable Bede (Saint of the Week here), Caedmon had no natural poetic ability but, rather, a supernatural ability:
He himself learned the art of singing, instructed ‘not by men nor through man’ (Gal 1:1), but he freely received the gift of singing from divine aid. The he could never put anything frivolous or needless in his poems, but only those things which pertained to religion were fitting for his religious tongue.
Since, indeed, he remained in the secular way of life up to the time of a more advanced age, at which time he had learned no songs. And so, sometimes at banquets because it was decreed for the sake of delight that everyone ought to sing in turm, when he saw the cithara draw near, he rose up from the middle of the dinner, left, and went home.
At a certain time when he had done this, leaving the house of the banquet, he went out to the stable of the livestock since their guardianship had been delegated to him that night. There he gave his limbs to sleep at a suitable hour. Someone came to him through a dream, greeting him and calling him by name, ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’
But he responded, ‘I don’t know how to sing; for I withdrew hither, leaving the banquet for that reason, since I could not sing.’
The one with him answered and said, ‘But, come, you can sing for me.’
‘What,’ he said, ‘ought I to sing?’
And the person said, ‘Sing of the beginning of the creatures.’
When this answer was accepted, immediately he began to sing verses in praise of the creator God which he had never heard, whose sense was:
Now we ought to praise the maker of the heavenly kingdom,
the power of the Creator and his intent, the deeds of the Father of glory:
how he, since he is the eternal God,
has been the author of all miracles
who in the first for the sons of men
created the sky like the top of a roof, and then the almighty preserver of human race
created the earth.
This is the sense, but not the precise order of the words, which he sang whilst asleep; for songs, although composed extremely well, cannot be translated from one language to another word-for-word without damage to their beauty and worthiness. And then, rising from sleep, he remembered all the things which he had sung whilst asleep and soon he joined many words of a song worthy of God into the same measure. (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum 4.22.1-2 [SC 490, pub. 2005] or 4.24 [all previous edd], my trans.)
Caedmon is promptly sent to St. Hilda where, in front of ‘many learned men’, he sings the song. They test him by preaching a lengthy sermon which he is committed to put to verse. He succeeds, and Hilda convinces him to leave the secular life and join the monastery at Whitby. So he does.
Caedmon spent the rest of his life composing verse based upon the Scriptures and the salvation story as well as songs written to stir people up to shun vice and love virtue. He submitted himself to the discipline of the monastery’s rule and was harsh towards those who tried to live by their own rule.
Aware of his own impending death of a prolonged weakness, he moved into the house of the sick at the monastery and shared a few laughs with the men there. Then he received the Eucharist for the last time, made sure he and his monastic brothers were at peace, laid his head on his pillow, and died.
You can read my translation of the whole of Bede’s account of Caedmon’s life here. One of the things that is notable about Caedmon is the fact that he seems to have had an entirely oral/aural skill. Bede, throughout the account, refers to the things that Caedmon has heard being turned into songs. Caedmon was a Christian scop, an Anglo-Saxon poet who used the techniques of traditional oral poetry to compose songs about Christian themes.
We see here the fostering of the arts by St. Hilda; this is a recurring theme throughout the Middle Ages. The monasteries were in favour of the arts and of putting them to use of God’s glory. A reminder for us all.
And, since Bede laments the futility of translating verse, here is Caedmon’s hymn in Anglo-Saxon (found here):
Nu scilun herga hefenricæs uard
metudæs mehti and his modgithanc uerc
uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuæs eci
dryctin or astelidæ he ærist scop aeldu
barnum hefen to hrofæ halig sceppend tha
middingard moncynnæs uard eci dryctin
æfter tiadæ firum foldu frea allmehtig.
Further Explorations (in anti-alphabetical order)
Cavill, Paul. Anglo-Saxon Christianity. A readable introduction to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon lands in the Early Middle Ages.
Bradley, S.A.J. trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman’s Library. A selection of a very broad swath of Anglo-Saxon verse translated into modern English.