Notes on Lives of the (Celtic) Saints

Another $1 find at the used bookstore, I picked up a small paperback “Lives of the Saints”. It included The Voyage of Saint Brendan and Bede’s Life of Cuthbert. As I find early Britain pretty interesting (these are both set in the sixth and seventh centuries), I decided I should check them out. I had also never read an old-school hagiography before. These are my misc notes.

Some background history

What do we see in the history of the Roman Church? It’s so dang big that the geographic fringes of it are often completely out of control and develop quite a bit different.

What is “Celtic Christianity”? Christians from Syria and North Africa, some of them disciples of the mystical “desert fathers” sailed across the Mediterranean, around Spain and established churches in what is now Britain and Ireland. They were small and not a dominant force. The old pagan religion (think druids) was still around. As in all contexts, some of the folk religion was absorbed into Christianity there. This was really early on and the Celtic church developed independently from the authority back in Rome. They chose their own leaders and had a lot of monastic communities.

The Roman ecclesiastical structure was in many ways a copy of the Roman empire’s governance structure. It seemed to work pretty darn well, until there was no longer an empire. The Celtic church didn’t know about this and for a long time was much more pluralistic and democratic, for better or worse. Later, Rome sent some folks to clean house, throw out some of the odd practices and establish proper Latin-school bishops. According to the translator’s introduction, the Celts were never considered to be theological heretics. Rome’s main quibble was with how the authority structure was set up and also what day Easter was celebrated on.

From this flavor of Christianity we get the word “Anmchara”, or “Anam Chara” as it is usually seen today. It means, literally, “soul friend”. This person served as a spiritual director of sorts in helping other Christians grow in their spiritual disciplines of meditation, fasting, service, etc.

In describing the writing tradition of the time:

“Wholesale borrowing was not plagiarism, but the mark of wide reading…” (p.17)

Just like musicians will pay homage to other composers by “quoting” a musical phrase in their own work, these early writers would “steal” whole passages from other books to give their original authors a nod. Remember, this is in the 600s. Books are very rare. Quoting or even stealing from other authors was a way to show how much of the body of literature you were familiar with. It wasn’t plagiarism, but openly acknowledged homage.

I think it’s funny that today people copy other people’s work because they are NOT widely read!

(See my notes on the demonic possession of Christians from yesterday. It deserved it’s own post.)

In the Voyage of Saint Brendan, he and about 15 monks build a boat and sail around to a variety of fantastic islands for 7 years. It reads a lot like The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.

Anyway, what struck me as odd about the voyage is it doesn’t feel like they ever leave the monastery. They keep all the hours of the daily office. The book often describes how they eat and sing psalms at the same time each day and all the dates and times given are in reference to the church calendar. (We will stay on this island until the end of Holy Week, etc.) It almost didn’t feel like they were travelling.


Whit Sunday – “White Sunday”, the old British/Celtic way to designate the day of Pentecost.

Soporific: Sleep inducing.

Cincture: A belt

Picts: Early Celts that lived in what is now Scotland. Remained Pagan a while longer than the rest of Briton.

Thaumaturgy: Wonder working, the practice of working miracles.

Seen in this book: “unthaumaturgic”, that would be a biography that doesn’t include lots of miracles. (This one in fact, did.)

I noticed several features of St. Brendan’s islands that seem to make it straight into Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There is an island with a stream that is forbidden to drink (it will make you go to sleep for days, as some of the monks do.) There is an island with a huge flock of magic birds who are really angels. There is an island with a hall and a large table where a feast magically appears each day for the guests. There is also a sea serpent, but he gets warded off by another sea monster seconds before attacking the boat. There is also a dark island full of smoke and evil men that is the gates of hell. Another island is fairly well inhabited and they have a host who treats them well as guests. Finally, there is an undying island of paradise.

In fact, now that I write them down in a list, it seems obvious to me that Dawn Treader must be loosely based on St. Brendan’s voyage. Lewis would certainly have been familiar with the tale. I personally haven’t ever heard anyone mention the connection before. (As if Lewis just pulled all this stuff out of thin air? He never does that.)


Wikipedia says that Dawn Treader draws on a long tradition of Irish fantastical sea voyage tales called “Immram”. The Voyage of St. Brendan is actually one of the (chronologically) later ones, written in Latin. Interesting.

Out in the middle of the ocean, who do we find? Judas Iscarriot! His punishment is to be tortured in hell, but because Jesus had mercy on even him, he is allowed, one day a week, to spend tied to a rock out at sea with the waves splashing on him. Apparently this is a lot better than his usual days. In Dante we find Judas at the very bottom of hell, getting the worst of things forever. Here, he gets a bit of a break.

I often wonder if God’s large scale plan for all of creation involves some sort of redemption for Judas, outside the scope of what is revealed to us in scripture.

It seems as if each religious sect beats their pet doctrine into the ground, to the necessary exclusion or at least glossing over of many other things.

I saw this first hand when taking a history class at the charismatic church I was part of in college. The timeline went:

Jesus (33 AD) -> Apostles (90 AD) -> Montanists (~150 AD) -> Azuza Street Revival (1906).
Wow, that’s cool but what happened to everything else?

With these early Celtic saints, ecclesiastical children of the desert fathers, their absolute favorite topic was fasting and asceticism. Being a non-eating monk is about the most freaking awesome thing a man can aspire to! Along these lines, God does miracles all the time, chiefly providing them magic food, like Elven Lembas, that sustains them for weeks with just a few bites. Their favorite Bible passage? Elijah being fed by ravens. Sorry folks. I don’t see any gospel in much of this at all.

When Cuthbert’s hospitality, service, and preaching are described, he sounds like a pretty neat guy. When he says stuff like this though, I just get annoyed:

“If,” he would lament, “I could live in a tiny dwelling on a rock in the ocean, surrounded by the welling waves, cut off from the knowledge and the sight of all, I would still not be free from the cares of this fleeting world nor from the fear that somehow the love of money might snatch me away.” (p.83)

For several reasons, I really liked this passage.

Many who had the faith had profaned it by their works. Even while the plague was raging some had forgotten the mystery conferred on them in baptism and had fled to idols, as though incantations or amulets or any other diabolical rubbish could possibly avail against a punishment sent by God the Creator. To bring back both kinds of sinners he often did the rounds of the villages, sometimes on horseback, more often on foot, preaching the way of truth to those who had gone astray. It was the custom at that time among the English people that if a priest or cleric came to a village everyone would obey his call and gather round to hear him preach. They would willingly listen and even more gladly put his words into practice as far as they had understood them. Such was hi skill in teaching, such hi power of driving his lessons home, and so gloriously did his angelic countenance shine forth, that none dared keep back from him even the closest secrets of their heart. They confessed every sin openly – indeed they thought he would know if they held anything back – and made amends by ‘fruits worth of repentance’, as he commanded. (p.84)

I love how the people, in reverting to pagan practices, had “forgotten the mystery conferred on them in baptism”. This angle approaches the sinner from a place of hopeful humility, not a position of power in which to dump more law on them. The gospel then is one of, “Hey, look what Jesus already did for you, look what you were baptized into already!” instead of, “Hey losers, you had better get off your butts and shape up or this plague is going to get even worse.”

The ability or perceived ability (I think it can be completely real) of prophet/preacher types to be able to discern hidden sin is a common one. Here, people are not afraid of this power, but it rather leads them to repent anyway because they will be greeted with forgiveness and kindness. William Branham comes to mind especially. The saint is channeling the love of Jesus here. The kindness of the Lord leads us to repentance. (Romans 2:4)


“So full was he of sorrow for sin, so much aflame with heavenly yearnings, that he could never finish mass without shedding tears.” (p.93)

Oh, give me a break.

It’s interesting how a number of the miracles that Cuthbert experiences involve building materials. They need wood to build a hut and some perfect two-by-fours wash up on the beach after they pray. (p.99)

They are always starving out in the winderness, so they are always praying for food and shelter. We are praying for… parking spots?

After Cuthbert died, his belt was passed around as it had magic healing properties. After several people wear it and are healed of their disease though, God makes it disappear.

“This was God’s doing: by those two miracles of healing he manifested Cuthbert’s holiness to the faithful, and then removed the cincture lest it should lead the faithless to doubt such sanctity. Had it been allowed to remain, the sick would have flocked to it and if anyone through lack of merit were left uncured, the fact would be taken not as a proof of that person’s unworthiness but as a reason for disparaging the relic. So, as said, by a merciful dispensation of Divine Providence, first the belief of the faithful was strengthened, and then all danger of disparagement by the envious or unbelieving was removed.” (p.101)

In giving the benefit of the doubt, I do not question the legitimacy of divine healings per se. However, when they are institutionalized as some sort of crowd-drawing event, things virtually always go south really fast. Some of the people organizing these “revivals”, thinking they are doing everyone a favor, should perhaps take Bede’s advice and take it easy.

Just like Augustine, Cuthbert had to be physically drug out of his house to be made bishop. He really didn’t want the high ecclesiastical office. It is likely that these folks probably make the best leaders. It’s like the complete opposite of running a U.S. Presidential campaign.

“He protected the flock committed to him by constant prayer on their behalf, by wholesome admonition and – which is the real way to teach – by example first and precept later.” (p.105)

Yes, yes, yes!

The monks in these accounts are often found eating geese. This seems unusual to me since goose is not something you can get at the grocery store over here. I quick search discovered that, just like certain cows are sacred to Hindu, geese were considered a sacred animal by Celtic paganism. So eating a goose was an especially Christian thing to do in early Briton!

Finally, Protestants are often annoyed by some of the antics surrounding the cults of the various Christian saints. It seems that Cuthbert himself was also troubled by this and, while on his death-bed, urged his followers to bury him somewhere discrete so lots of pilgrims wouldn’t flock to his body and make trouble.

“But it is my desire to rest here [out on this island]. What is more, it would be less trouble for you if I did stay here, because of the influx of fugitives and every other kind of malefactor which will otherwise result. They will flee for refuge to my body, for, whatever I might be, my fame as a servant of God has been noised abroad. You will be constrained to intercede very often with the powers of this world on behalf of such men. The presence of my remains will prove extremely irksome. If you feel you must go against my plans and take me back there, I think it would be best to make a tomb in the interior of the basilica – then you will be able to visit it yourselves whenever you wish and also to decide who else from outside may do so.” (p.119)