The White Martyrdom

…by century’s end Isidore was building a real library in Seville, which consisted of about fifteen presses (or book cabinets), containing perhaps some four hundred bound codices, an amazing number for the time. The only other continental library known to us in this period was in Calabria [S. Italy] and the fate of this library is lost in the blood and smoke of the sixth century. Gregory of Tours wrote this sad epitaph on sixth-century literacy: “In these times when the practice of letters declines, no, rather perishes in the cities of Gaul, there has been found no scholar trained in ordered composition to present in prose or verse a picture of the things which have befallen.”

Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe’s publisher. But the pagan Saxon settlements of southern England had cut Ireland off from easy commerce with the continent. While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It needed only one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past by way of scribal Ireland.

Columcille provided that step. By stepping into the coracle that bore him beyond the horizon, he entered the Irish pantheon of heroes who had done immortal deeds against impossible odds. As he sailed off that morning, he was doing the hardest thing an Irishman could do, a much harder than than giving up his life: he was leaving Ireland. If the Green Martyrdom had failed, here was a martyrdom that was surely the equal of the Red; and henceforth, all who followed Columcille’s lead were called to the White Martyrdom, they who sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.

In this way, the Irish monastic tradition began to spread beyond Ireland.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 183-184

When the civilizations which Christians have made their homes begin to collapse, look to the fringes. God is often at work there, and just may use the most unexpected peoples and places to restore the light to lands once bright, now overrun by darkness.

Photo by Jay Tran on Unsplash

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