Here Be Monsters

To Roman citizens, the place to be was a Roman city or villa. The pagus, the uncultivated countryside, inevitably suggested discomfort and hardship. The inhabitants of the pagus – pagani, or pagans – were country bumpkins, rustic, unreliable, threatening. Roman Christians assumed this prejudice without examining it. Augustine, in his profundity, realized that the ahistorical Platonic ascent to Wisdom through knowledge and leisured contemplation was unaccomplishable and that it must be replaced by the biblical journey through time – through the life of each man and through the life of the race. Still, the words iter (journey) and peregrinatio (pilgrimage) made him shudder. As bishop of Hippo, he almost never visited the country districts over which he held nominal sway, and once when he did he was nearly ambushed by Circumcellions, radical Donatists who were a sort of Chrsitian combination of Act Up and the Party of God. His travels to Rome and Milan as a young man were never repeated, nor would he in a million years have thought of venturing beyond the Ecumene, outside the Imperium, lay chaos unimaginable: “Here do be monsters,” the medieval maps would say of unmapped territory.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 107-108

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Patrick’s Escape From Slavery

Patricius endured six years of this woeful isolation, and by the end of it he had grown from a careless boy to something he would surely never otherwise have become – a holy man, indeed a visionary for whom there was no longer any rigid separation between this world and the next. On his last night as Miliucc’s slave, he received in sleep his first otherworldly experience. A mysterious voice said to him: “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home.”

Patricius sat up, startled. The voice continued: “Look, your ship is ready.”

Miliucc’s farm was inland, nowhere near the sea, but Patricius set out, whither he knew not. He walked some two hundred miles, through territory he had never covered before, without being stopped or followed, and reached a southeastern inlet, probably near Wexford, where he saw his ship. As he tramped toward his destiny, his faith that he was under God’s protection must have grown and grown, for it was virtually impossible that a fugitive slave could go so far without being intercepted. “I came in God’s strength… and had nothing to fear” is Patricius’s simple summation.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 102-103

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Thrilling Stories, But No True Peace

The face of the Dying Gaul speaks for them all: each one of us will die, naked and alone, on some battlefield not of our own choosing. My promise of undying faithfulness to you and yours to me, though made with all solemnity, is unlikely to survive the tricks that fate has in store – all the hidden land mines that beset human life. What we can rely on are the comeliness and iron virtue of the short-lived hero: his loyalty to cause and comrades, his bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, the gargantuan generosity with which he scatters his possessions and his person and with which he spills his blood. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was heard to say that to be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart… Such an outlook and such a temperament make for wonderful songs and thrilling stories, but not for personal peace or social harmony.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 97

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How Grammar Became Glamour

Whether insoluble political realities or inner spiritual sickness is more to blame for the fall of classical civilization is, finally, beside the point. The life behind the works we have now been studying – the passionate nobility of Virgil, the cool rationality of Cicero, the celestial meditativeness of Plato – this flame of civilization is about to become extinguished. The works themselves will miraculously escape destruction. But they will enter the new world of the Middle Ages as things so strange they might as well have been left behind by interstellar aliens. One example will suffice to illustrate the strangeness of books to medieval men. The word grammar – the first step in the course of classical study that molded all educated men from Plato to Augustine – will be mispronounced by one barbarian tribe as “glamour.” In other words, whoever has grammar – whoever can read – possesses magic inexplicable.

Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 59-60

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The Out-Of-Jointness of the Universe

Augustine’s spirit resonates with the plangent chords of Plato: the restless, exiled soul, looking everywhere for its true home, feasting on sewage while dimly remembering the nectar and ambrosia of high heaven. Plato is right, and his are the most profound descriptions in all the ancient world of the miraculous golden flashes of yearning embedded in the dross of reality – the out-of-jointness of the universe. Who else, Augustine asks himself, even talks of these things? And then the answer comes to him: Saul of Tarsus, the wiry, bald-headed Jew whose awkward, importunate letters, signed “Paul,” the Christians have been using as scripture: “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” Surely this is meaningless coincidence: what could a sweaty little nobody, dashing about the Mediterranean basin, have in common with the loftiest philosopher of all? And yet…

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 55-56

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We Have Sinned and Grown Old, and Our Father is Younger Than We

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

As the father of three small children, I say yes and amen.

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Logicians Go Mad Before Poets Do

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess players do… Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine… He was damned by John Calvin… Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion… The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits… The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason… Materialists and madmen never have doubts… Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have the mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.

G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy

This is a fascinating quote on so many levels. Eat around the bones when it comes to the anti-Calvin bit. The overall point holds true. And agreeing with that point, I wouldn’t say it was Calvin that damned Cowper, but that there is danger in approaching a revealed mystery such as predestination too much like a logician and not enough like a poet. Perhaps this is why so much of scripture is poetry. We are given truths about God that are too great to be fully understood by the human mind. But they can be truly understood in part, as through a mirror dimly. And metaphor, simile, analogy, poetry – these are wonderful tools we have been given by which to better understand God and his creation… without going insane in the process.

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