24 January 2020

Righteous Cadog Ddoeth of Llancarfan, King and Abbot


Saint Cadog of Llancarfan

Today is the feast-day of the sixth-century Saint Cadog, one of the most-celebrated of the Welsh hermits in the Age of Saints. Saint Cadog is not only the founder of Llancarfan Monastery, but also the progenitor of an entire tradition of Welsh holy fathers and mothers. He is also the namesake of Edith Pargeter’s fictional mediæval West Country Benedictine sleuth, Brother Cadfael (of whom I’m a rather devoted fan).

Saint Cadog [also Cattwg, Cado, Cattock and Catocus] was born to the king of Gwynllŵg, Saint Gwynllyw, and his wife, Saint Gwladys, who was in turn one of the many holy daughters of Saint Brychan of Brecknock. Even before his birth he seemed to be marked out for holiness: the four posts of whichever house where his mother rested while pregnant with him glowed with a heavenly fire, and the tables where she sat were filled always with milk and honey even when the larders were emptied.

He was born at his father’s court in Fochriw in 497, after his father had wooed Gwladys by an act of bridenapping. Gwynllyw, who was a rather ferocious British warlord, celebrated his son’s birth by taking his war band and going on a raid. During this raid, he stole the milk-cow and calf of a certain nearby hermit, Saint Tathyw, who followed the king all the way back to his court demanding recompense. Gwynllyw was prevailed upon by his wife to return Saint Tathyw’s cow to him. Tathyw then baptised their son in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, christening him Cadfael.

The king and queen asked of Saint Tathyw one thing more, and that was to educate their son in the way of the Lord. This he did at his hermitage in Caerwent. While he was a student of Saint Tathyw, Cadog was sent at one time to fetch a brand of fire for his master’s hearth, which had gone out. He asked of a nearby field worker named Tidus to give him a brand, but Tidus scolded the boy, and pointed to a hearth where live coals lay glowing. He said that if his master needed fire so badly, he could carry the coals in his cotte to him. This Cadog did at no hurt to himself – a wonder which would find echoes in the lives of Saint Asaph and Saint Malo. Saint Tathyw, seeing this wonder, understood that he was teaching a holy prodigy, and instructed him to seek out a place to build his own monastery.

Cadog left into the kingdom of Penychen to found a hermitage of his own. While looking for a suitable place to build, he apparently trespassed onto the lands of a wealthy landowner who kept swine, where he became weary and rested underneath an apple tree. The swine were frightened by Cadog’s presence, and they fled back to their master, who went and sought out Cadog. The wealthy landowner presumed this vagrant clad in rags who had wandered onto his lands was a thief, and he took up a spear and attempted to kill Cadog. But no sooner had he levelled the weapon at the youth but God struck him blind in both his eyes, and struck lame the arm that held the spear. The landlord, who sank to the ground, called out piteously upon God and upon His servant to have mercy on him and restore his sight, but Cadog said that he would do no such thing until he went and told what had happened to him to his master, Pawl King of Penychen – who also happened to be Cadog’s uncle.

The landlord went on the road, stumbling blindly as he went, until he came to Nant Pawl and asked admission to the court. He spoke to no one until he stood before the king, and then he told of how he had tried to strike down Cadog, but suddenly himself was smitten with divine retribution. After he spoke, his sight was restored as scales fell from his eyes, and the flesh of his withered right arm became whole, healthy and useful again. Pawl King wondered at this, went with his twelve retainers to the landlord’s land, and saw Cadog sitting there under the apple tree, still at rest.

Pawl King and his retainers prostrated themselves before his holy nephew, and offered him the rule of the kingdom. However, Cadog had no interest in ruling a kingdom. Instead he sought only a habitation, remote from human activity, which he and some of his monastic companions could live in. This Pawl willingly granted to him. The land Pawl gave to Cadog would eventually become Llancarfan. Tradition has it that Cadog followed the path of a wild boar who came out of the brambles on that land, and wherever it stopped is where he would clear, drain and build. At each place where the boar stopped in its path, Llancarfan’s monastery, refectory and dormitory were built. In the first year, Saint Cadog was able to reap grain only from one acre of cleared field – named Erw Wyn (‘The White [or Wheat] Acre’), but this blessed crop was enough to sustain him and all of his followers and visitors that whole year.

Llancarfan flourished under Abbot Cadog’s rule. Despite draining and clearing the marshy land around Llancarfan being slow and painstaking work, Cadog and his pupils succeeded with the help of God and the wild creatures with whom Cadog had a good rapport. At its height, Llancarfan would house up to a thousand monks and pupils, and it would support a goodly number of smaller cells and outlying daughter monasteries. All the same, soon enough Saint Cadog was taken with a desire to visit Ireland. This may have been out of love for his first master, the Irishman Saint Tathyw, or it may have been out of a holy desire to learn more of the knowledge of God that was to be had in the western isle. His monks were sad to see him depart, but he left a trustworthy prior in charge at Llancarfan and sailed westward for Ireland without incident.

He studied at the abbey of Saint Mo Chutu in Lismore, where he made a deep and thorough study of all the seven liberal arts. In these he gained so much knowledge that he was given his cognomen of Ddoeth, or ‘the Wise’. While in Ireland he made the acquaintance of Saint Fionnán of Clonard, who became one of Abbot Cadog’s very close friends.

When Saint Cadog returned from Ireland, he went firstly back to his parents and later to the residence of his grandfather, Saint Brychan. As his father’s hagiography makes clear, he took no pleasure in the life of the court at Fochriw. He was incensed by the lavish feasts that his parents partook of while poor men went hungry at the doorstep. And he had no patience for the hunts or the fine clothes that the other young men of the court delighted in. He admonished his parents, Saints Gwynllyw and Gwladys, and exhorted them to change their way of life – and this eventually had a profound effect on them, as seen in their hagiography.

When he returned to Brycheiniog, Saint Cadog and his companions set up a home in Llanspyddid, where Cadog was tutored in Latin by an Italian fellow named Bachan. At that time there was a famine in Brycheiniog, and Cadog and his companions found themselves without means to feed themselves. After praying to God one day, Cadog found a little mouse playing about on his desk with a grain of wheat in its mouth. It placed the grain on his tablet, and ran off again. Seven times it came back, each time bearing a grain of wheat. Marvelling at this wonder, Cadog found a long, fine thread and wound it around the paw of the willing mouse, holding the other end to see where it would lead him. The mouse led him to an old granary which had been partially submerged in the marshy ground, but all the grain within had been preserved from corruption. There was more than enough for Cadog and his companions to use, and giving thanks to God, taking what he needed and no more, he gave away the whole of the granary to the people of Brycheiniog, with the poorest receiving the best amount, who were thus delivered from the famine.

At length Saint Cadog left his oratory at Llanspyddid to his teacher Bachan, and returned to Llancarfan. He found that the monastery had suffered violence, its monks had been scattered and its walls had been deserted and overgrown. Mourning, he and his followers set back to work on restoring it. Now, the reason that it acquired this name of ‘Llancarfan’ (‘Churchyard of the Deer’) is that when the time came to begin this work, it proved too much for Cadog and his few followers. Two wild harts appeared to Cadog’s followers, who in their presence became tame and allowed themselves to be yoked and bridled. They helped him clear the land and haul the lumber that would be used to rebuild Llancarfan. The hagiography tells of how Saint Cadog gave Saint Fionnán leave to do reading while the workmen worked, but after being scolded by the prior, the cellarer and the sexton, he was sent to bid the stags draw timber. Saint Cadog was not well pleased with this, and berated the three monks who had sent his pupil to do their work. Meanwhile, a heavy rain began to fall. Saint Fionnán, remembering that he had left the book he’d been studying from out in the open under the sky, began to weep for fear his book would be spoilt beyond repair. But going back out after the rain, Fionnán found and marvelled that it had not been touched by the water and was whole and sound as he’d left it.

Cadog’s holiness became renowned far and wide. Dewi Sant even said, to an angel of God before the convocation of the Synod of Brefi, that he was not worthy of being compared to Saint Cadog. Cadog himself again undertook a journey – this time a pilgrimage to the islands of Greece, to the Holy Land and to Rome. During his journey he had no trouble conversing, for the Lord gave him a knowledge of all the languages he would need – not only Latin but also Greek and Syriac. While in Grimbul, the wife of a certain king came to him and asked him to pray for her, for she had trouble conceiving a child. Saint Cadog did so, and the queen went back to her husband that night and conceived by him a boy. On his return from the Holy Land after a sojourn of three years, the queen presented to him the lad she had borne, whose name she called Elli. Saint Cadog tutored young Elli in the ways of God before he was compelled to return home. Elli would later become the second abbot of Llancarfan. Saint Cadog also claimed three stones from holy places in Jerusalem, which went back with him to Llancarfan and served as altarpieces. The Synod of Brefi was called in Saint Cadog’s absence on this pilgrimage. To put it lightly, he was not amused. He nevertheless forgave Saint Dewi and mended his relationship with him afterwards.

Llancarfan was made quite wealthy both by gifts from wealthy donors and by the resourcefulness and work of its own monks. Saint Cadog was lavishly generous with the wealth of Llancarfan, particularly to the poor and needy. And yet Llancarfan suffered its share of robbers. One band of robbers, claiming loyalty to Sawel Ben Uchel – the father of the aforementioned Saint Asaph – raided Llancarfan and stole all the food while Cadog was out serving the poor. Saint Cadog discovered them, cut their hair as they slept, and when they woke gave chase to them. They all wound up being swallowed in a bog. In another instance, Llancarfan was visited by a certain Illtud Farchog and a band of his men from Penychen, who came demanding food. Cadog gave chase to these men, too, and they were swallowed in a bog – all but Illtud himself, whom Cadog castigated in God’s name and encouraged to mend his ways. Saint Cadog butted heads in this way with several worldly princes, including Maelgwn Gwynedd, Rhun Hir ap Maelgwn (both distant forebears of yours truly), and Rhain Dremrudd ap Brychan. Saint Cadog always came out the better in these contests, usually impressing the prince in question with his holy way of life or with his worldly erudition, or else intervening on the prince’s behalf in the wake of a battle or a reversal.

During Lent, Saint Cadog was accustomed to withdrawing from the company of men and living in silent solitude on the isle of Flatholm in the Bristol Channel. His learned friend Saint Gildas the Historian also spent Lent on an isle nearby, that of Steepholm. The two would sometimes meet on one or other of their islands to pray together. Saint Gildas owned a bell, which Saint Cadog admired deeply and wished to buy from him, but Gildas would not sell the bell for any price. Instead he dedicated it on the altar at Rome, where the Pope instructed Gildas to give the bell as a gift to his friend who desired it and would do good with it. This bell which Gildas wrought was a holy relic at Llancarfan, of which it was said it pealed twice in human speech and would do so again a third time. Gildas also wrote and illuminated for his friend a beautiful liturgical text, called the Gospel of Gildas, which he presented to Saint Cadog, and was a much-beloved relic at Llancarfan, on which the locals would swear solemn oaths.

Saint Cadog spent time preaching in Scotland and also made a return journey to Ireland in 564. He entrusted his abbey to Saint Elli, and then took himself to a certain abbey named Beneventum in his hagiography – probably Bannaventa in Calchfynedd, now Weedon Bec in Northampton. He lived there as a beloved abbot and ruled with a gentle hand over many monks. Cadog lived to the age of eighty-two years, but he was martyred in Beneventum on the twenty-fourth of January, 580, by heathen Saxon invaders who ran him through with spears. For many years afterward the Saxons would not let the Welsh claim their beloved saint’s relics, but they were eventually transferred back to Llancarfan.

Saint Cadog is remembered with fondness by all the Welsh, but particularly in Llancarfan which is the centre of his cultus. At least fifteen churches in Wales are dedicated to Saint Cadog – mostly in Dyfed. He is attested in Scotland in the toponym of Kilmadock in Perth, the site of a monastery which he was supposed to have ruled for seven years. He has a holy well in Padstow, Cornwall – where he poured out water he had brought back from the Jordan during his time in the Holy Land. He is also remembered at Llanspyddid in Brecon where he had built his oratory. He is also honoured in Brittany: Île de Saint-Cado is named in his memory, and he has several church dedications around that island, in Belz, Morbihan and other places in Finistère. He is remembered there particularly as a patron of the deaf, and of children afflicted with scrofula. Holy father Cadog, learnèd abbot, pilgrim and friend of the poor, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
Having been raised to piety, O Hierarch Cadoc,
Thou didst dedicate thy life to God,
Serving Him in the monastic state.
As with joyful heart thou didst fulfill thy daily obedience,
Caring for the earthly needs of countless paupers,
Look now upon our spiritual poverty
And beseech Christ our God
That He will grant us great mercy!

St Cadoc’s Church, Llancarfan, Wales

In addition to being the feast-day of Saint Cadog of Wales, it is also the Lunar New Year – the first day of the Year of the White Metal Rat. Seems fitting that we should celebrate the incoming Year of the Rat with a saint, one of whose symbols in Western devotional art is the helpful little mouse whose discovery of the granary helped him survive the famine at Llanspyddid. I wish all of my gentle readers a hearty ‘財源广進,鼠运亨通!’

21 January 2020

Arianism as class politics


Joseph Priestley

I’m posting this in part to clarify that very dense little turn of phrase in my hagiography of Emperor Saint Theodosius about Arianism being the religion of the wealthy middle class. This passage from Robert Pattison’s The Great Dissent has stuck with me for some time, and has shaped a lot of my understanding of that period of Church history.
By contrast, Arianism appealed to all those antagonistic to the new economic order and its ruling classes. It was the natural theology of second-level bureaucrats, intellectuals, professionals, shopkeepers, slaves, artisans and men of ambition. Arius maintained a supremely wilful and unapproachable divinity who could be treated as a bureaucrat or businessman would have liked to treat his nominal superior—as a necessary irrelevance. For Arius the intelligible business of creation was conducted by a rational and creative Son, whose role was that of a cosmic master craftsman…

The Arian Christ had an obvious appeal to men who despised the new economic order of fixed obligations and wistfully recalled the freedoms of the Hellenistic world—the freedom to seek advancement on the job market, the freedom to argue free of dogmatic trammels, the freedom to advance from class to class. If the Marxist view is correct, then Arianism was a theological expression of nostalgia for the economic
laissez-faire of classical civilisation. Though they appear to us as the radical element of fourth-century Christendom, by the Marxist analysis the Arians were the apologists for a fading libertarianism which reached its high water mark two hundred years earlier in the age of ambitious Trimalchios and virtuous Epictetuses. What little is known about the Arian leaders and their followers confirms the Marxist view of Arianism as a coalition of intellectuals, bureaucrats, professionals, artisans, merchants and freedmen who opposed the orthodox forces of elitism, hierarchy and feudalism…

Ætius, the most logical exponent of Arian theology in the mid fourth century, is also the most representative example of its class characteristics. He was an ambitious artisan who reveled in social mobility. Newman called him a “despicable adventurer”. Before he found his calling as a theologian, he had been a goldsmith, a doctor and a teacher. His career demonstrates the classes to which Arianism appealed. Not surprisingly, he was the most rigorous and forceful exponent of the strict Arian theology that held the Father to be utterly unlike the Son in nature. By background and training men like Ætius had everything to lose in an ideological system that fixed religious and economic obligations for all time and subordinated every creature, politically and metaphysically, to the will of a despot.

The hypothesis that Arianism reflects a social controversy goes a long way toward explaining the weird coalition that supported the heretics. Here was a doctrine that united interests of Gothic barbarians and Alexandrian virgins with those of learned prelates and ambitious craftsmen. These diverse constituencies had one thing only in common—a desire to open the power and wealth of the empire to enterprise and ambition.
Now, despite my disagreements with Chase Padusniak at Jappers and Janglers, I do happen to agree with him in a profound way about the necessity of serious Christian thought maintaining at least a little bit of the materialist inner sceptic when it comes to the history of ideas. Ideas are not necessarily the progenitors of material conditions; indeed, in many cases, the material conditions are themselves the matrix out of which the ideas arise.

This sort of critical eye is all the more necessary a consideration when one begins to examine how Arianism began to recur precisely among the professional and mercantile class of Western Europe and especially the New World – as ‘Socinianism’ or Unitarianism. Very intriguingly, the modern version of Unitarianism arose out of the same haute bourgeois milieus and highly-educated towns in sixteenth-century Poland (Lublin and Kraków) whose seminaries and universities were busily producing the Uniate strategy for suborning and exploiting Orthodox parishes in the poorer Carpathian hinterlands. The resurgence of Arianism, though, appealed primarily to these better-to-do Polish townsmen, who indeed had means enough to influence the likes of the Polish king Zygmund II August.

They continued in Poland until the mid-1600s, when war with Sweden prompted the Polish Catholic authorities to kick them out – where they resettled in such places as Amsterdam, Leiden and London. The primary audience for the Socinian preachers and theologians were indeed the haute bourgeoisie: people like, for instance, Joseph Priestley, the famed chemist who discovered oxygen. Now, some words on Priestly may be spoken here as illustrative. He came from a family of wealthy Calvinist fullers and dyers – owners of some of the first textile mills in the rapidly-industrialising English north. Priestley was very much of the Whiggish political persuasion: an advocate of free trade, capitalism and œconomic laissez-faire; an individualist in legal philosphy; a friend of Benjamin Franklin; a staunch supporter of both the American and French Revolutions; and an intellectual forerunner of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian theory of ethics. What is notable here is that – just as for Ætius of Antioch – Priestley’s desire to reform and rationalise Christianity, and his subsequent embrace of the Polish Reformed ‘style’ of Socinianism in 1782, postdated his œconomic and political commitments, which were built over a period spanning from the 1750s to the 1770s and were a direct result of his class background. Unitarianism in England was indelibly linked with Manchester through the early nineteenth century: a fact which should also rouse some interest in the linkages between the new faith and the concomitant – or possibly predating – rise of a new class and a new œconomic philosophy.

At any rate, Priestley’s writings on religion were the most influential texts in the development of English and American Unitarianism. On these shores the Socinian tendency has been quite early associated with the New England shipping barons and industrialists. And even here the material conditions seem to have provided the context for a religious shift. As this article by the Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society puts it: ‘The growing mercantile economy of New England also exerted a moderating influence on New England religious life… They felt that in markets abroad they labored at a disadvantage, in that a certain stigma of intolerance attached to anyone from New England. The interest of the merchants in promoting free movement of people and goods conflicted with the desire of the Puritan leaders to keep New England isolated and free from foreign influence.’ Not to belabour the point, but to this day, the Association tends to be disproportionately white, disproportionately wealthy, disproportionately professional-class and disproportionately post-collegiate, as attested by their own data.

Consider this also. The year 2018 may be our current high-tide mark of vulgar consumerism and crass cutthroat capitalism and a Norman Vincent Peale-quoting reality-TV real-estate huckster as our president , and poor, slipshod ad hoc theological justifications for the same from the likes of the Acton Institute. That year, a Ligonier survey found that the most common theological bias among American evangelicals who consider themselves to be theologically conservative was actually Arianism. Is this actually too much zeal and too little knowledge among the laity, as some of the evangelical academics responding to the survey seem to have deduced? Or are the laity merely responding, as the Arian laity of the fourth century did and as Joseph Priestley did, to a demystified vision of Jesus that reflects and confirms their own œconomic conditions and preferences? To be quite fair, I’m not sure that such a question can be very neatly untangled, but it is still a question that deserves to be asked and considered seriously – particularly when the embrace of a hæretical doctrine among the evangelical laity clearly postdates the uncritical adoption of capitalism as the divinely-ordained œconomic system.

As Americans, the Ligonier poll ought to give us pause. Our œconomic activity shapes the way in which we interact with each other, both online and face-to-face. It seems to me a far too naïve position to take, that it would not also shape the way in which we go to meet Christ. Now more than ever, as a society, we tend to treat ourselves and others as ‘rational’, self-contained, self-sustaining and self-reliant individuals, unanchored from any ‘fixed obligations’ particularly to those who have less than we do. How then are we to make sense of a God – a supreme cosmic reality, the single principle which undergirds the entirety of the universe and all its laws – who has become for our sakes an infant born in a cave in a backwater imperial province to an Aramaic-speaking teenager from an impoverished and near-forgotten branch of the stem of Jesse? Like Ætius and Joseph Priestley, would we not baulk at such a proposition, merely on account of the fact that we are so materially sheltered from any pressing need to engage it? Do we not do so even without thinking?

19 January 2020

What comes afterward? redux: post-liberalisms rising

Given the somewhat worried tone of my non-hagiographical blog posts of late (like Hindsight and foresight, Ideological history, Solovyov and the problem of the post-sæcular), I felt it might be wise to spend some time speaking a bit more dispassionately and analytically about what I’m observing at this point in world news.

I don’t think that the news on that end is all bad; not a bit of it. I am merely asserting that those of us in the West who are sceptical of the legacy of liberalism need to tread carefully because we are setting out onto uncharted territory. It is very difficult for any of us to reference or chart a future without the complex of liberalism-slash-nominalism-slash-capitalism-slash-technocracy hanging over us. We have – and I very much include myself here – a tendency to look to winged visions of prisca theologica and other past manifestations of præ-liberal order in our attempts to envision what a post-liberal order will look like. But what is happening on the global scale, as history keeps proving itself to be very far from a Fukuyama-style end, is both terrifying and exhilarating. Instead of one post- or alter-liberalism popping up to assert itself, we have a whole plethora of them, and some of them are very clearly preferable to the others.

What I’m going to try to do here is to organise them in a systemic way, such that they can be placed in perspective with each other. The ‘liberal international order’ centred in Washington and New York which finds itself still in power but with ever-dwindling reserves of moral or theoretical legitimacy, is also playing favourites. That needs to be very carefully borne in mind. That said, the global backlash against liberalism, the Washington Consensus, neoliberal technocracy and austerity politics has afforded us a moment of fertile experimentation in terms of political organisation. It’s worth taking account of where all these options are coming from, what is prompting their rise, and where they are likely to go.

  1. Illiberal democratic socialism. This ‘option’ is the one I’ve been talking up for a long while now. It combines the œconomic priorities of democratic socialism (including public ownership, public infrastructure, state-mediated wage bargaining, strong welfare-state initiatives) with a strong Tory paternalist streak in social policy. Illiberal democratic socialists tend to be pro-natalist, pro-family, civic-communitarian, immigration-sceptical (but not racialist), classical in their architectural tastes. They also have a penchant for the preservation of wilderness and wildlife. Their star is currently ascendant in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Moldova and Slovakia), and has echoes in the Russkiy Mir’ politics of the Baltic states.

    One of the reasons I’m so bullish on the illiberal democratic socialism of Eastern Europe is because it so easily bears the peculiar Byzantine marks of Yugoslav and Czechoslovak politics that I’ve come to value so deeply. As such, they bear a kin resemblance – not at all accidental, in my own humble opinion – to the Tory socialisms of John Ruskin and William Morris which were so influential on me. At the very least, this illiberal democratic socialism may be a means for Yugoslavs and Eastern Europeans to assert a strong regional identity.


  2. Civilisational realism. This is the option that is being put forward primarily by the state and the leading theorists of Russia. As articulated by Dr Boris Mezhuev, civilisational realism is not so much an ideology as it is a strategy of engagement and an attempt to mitigate the effects of the modern de facto multipolar world order. The civilisational realists are noticeably informed by the conservatism of Karamzin, Il’in and Berdyaev, and very much opposed to manifestations of liberal ideology. But they are nonetheless quite mild and quiet on the topic of ideological issues of any sort, whether œconomic or social. The civilisational realists are not crusaders; they bear neither the Western nor the Islâmic world any animus unless either attacks them. Likewise, they aren’t particularly voluble on domestic issues, apart from critiquing the culture of corruption that has accompanied Russian society since the years of Gorbachev and Eltsin. As I have mentioned before, the intimation of loss is a strong constant undercurrent in the creative thinking of the Rodina. Civilisational realism is an expression of the Russian nation’s desire to be given an autonomy and dignity she (rightly) feels she’s been denied for decades.

    At the same time, though, the civilisational realists are keenly attuned to the questions of particularity and historical contingency that were originally raised by Herder. This is, without a doubt, a legacy of the Slavophil impress on Russian conservatism. Likewise, the willingness to engage the West on positive terms is a deliberate echo of the Slavophil engagements of the early-to-mid nineteenth century. But civilisational realism tends in a very different direction than Slavophilia. It doesn’t bear the messianic marks of the original Slavophils. Its historical awareness has given its proponents a degree of humility that is lacking in the likes of Kireevsky, Khomyakov or Aksakov. They do not pretend to be giving to the world the unique ‘new word’ that Russia was supposed to speak; instead, they are trying to allow Russia time to catch its breath again.


  3. Marxism. Far from being the dead or moribund ideology that our élites have been telling us it’s been for the past three decades, the Marxist parties of southern India, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Venezuela, (until recently) Bolivia and (yes) China have shown themselves to be resilient, flexible, tough and pragmatic. Whether or not you agree with their outcomes or the means by which they keep power, they have shown themselves to be politically stable in the face of active attempts to bludgeon them into submission or oblivion with sanctions, interventions and colour revolutions.

    More than that: Marxism has proven to be surprisingly dynamic. I can attest from experience that actually-existing Marxist parties operate in an intellectual space heavily-dosed with inaccessible, inane, soporific jargon. At the same time, there is valuable intellectual work being done at the fringes of the ‘big red circle’. Marxism is creatively making contact with environmentalism; with religion; even with culturally-conservative traditionalism – and the results are, to say the least, interesting to watch. Marxism is likely to remain a significant alternative to liberalism for the foreseeable future throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia.


  4. Red Shî‘ism; Black Shî‘ism. The title of Dr Ali Shariati’s article is an apt description of the politics – on both sides of the coin – of the Mihwar al-Muqâwamah. It represents, like the civilisational realism described above, a strategy rather than an ideology per se, and it is a strategy that is shared by both sæcular Arab nationalists and theocratic Persians. But it is an offensive rather than a defensive strategy; a strategy for pursuing asymmetric warfare rather than a strategy for détente.

    ‘Red’ Shî‘ism, informed as it is by the martyrdoms of ‘Alî and Husayn on behalf of the helpless and by the eschatological ideal of righteous kingship inherited from Zoroastrianism, takes a natural and instinctive solidarity with the oppressed and uses it as a revolutionary rallying-cry. The ‘red’ Shî‘ism of Hizbullâh which actively takes up the cause of the Christians in Lebanon, just as readily in the case of Ansârullâh takes up the cause of the starving and deprived Yemeni people. The idea of martyrdom on behalf of the defenceless in Shî‘a Islâm is strong enough that its passion extends to the welfare of non-Muslims.

    But as Dr Shariati notes, ‘red’ Shî‘ism – the religion of the martyrs – turns rapidly into the ‘black’ Shî‘ism of the Safavids – the religion of mourning. There is a certain note of cynicism that creeps in around the edges when Shî‘ism is exposed to the realities of power. Though Shariati is more emphatic on the nature of ‘red’ Shî‘ism and more apophatic on ‘the religion of mourning’, what he doesn’t say about the latter is eloquent. The ‘religion of mourning’ is one in which the fervour for the dignity of the oppressed cools and congeals into a set of theocratic dictums. The cleric takes himself into a masjid beside ‘Âlî Qâpû, his face long with resignation, and expounds with grim necessity the realities of power politics. This is not, I hasten to add, merely an Islâmic problem: we Orthodox Christians, too, have our problems with ‘mourning’ cynicism. But the words of the clerics in Tehran, however just their outward cause, are to be watched with care.


  5. Nationalisme intégral. I have written before, at length, about how Christian democratic politics betrayed their radical roots in the 1950s and 1960s for a rapprochement with the bourgeois politics of ordoliberalism and austerity œconomics. It seems to be something of an irony that when you strip away this discredited layer of œconomic whiggery, what remains is not the humane radicalism of Mounier and Maritain, which has long since absconded, but instead something a good deal bleaker: a positivist, corporatist nationalism recalling that of Maurras.

    The crisis of social solidarity that the European Union suffered with the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008 spurred a massive backlash, particularly in Eastern and Southern Europe. The result in places like Poland (with the election of Duda) and Hungary (with the election of Orbán) was a certain coarsening of the national fibre. Both the PiS and the Fidesz parties lay claim to the Christian democratic mantle, but both of them avidly play to a certain narrative which links the salvation of Christendom to the fate of the nation-state, and furthermore posits the integral party apparatus as the sole means of saving both. This too-close and instrumentalist conceptual linkage between a higher and more primal form of solidarity, and a lower and more contingent one, is actually quite dangerous, and there are good reasons to be wary of it.

    Christians first and foremost should be wary of this kind of integral nationalism. It is not taking root only in Western nations culturally rooted in Christendom. It is also growing roots in India with the BJP under Modi, which self-describes as ‘integral humanist’. And it is also growing roots in Turkey with the AKP under Erdoğan, whose integralist ideology is drawn straight from Qutb’s articulation of political Sunnî Islâm – a connexion which the ‘Little Sultan’ still values in his current policy. The more integralist Hungaries and Polands are cultivated in the West, the more open and vulnerable we leave our brothers in the East to their enemies in places like Turkey and India.


  6. Fascism. Speaking of far-right nationalisms, here’s another one that’s come slithering up from the gutter of the twentieth century’s mechanised total wars of ideology. Never mind, of course, that fascism is rooted in transhuman futurism and avant-garde æsthetics. Never mind that the resurgent alt-right shares similarly haute-moderne and post-moderne roots. It is still going to pretend to be the alternative to liberal decadence that Europe (and Latin America) has been missing. And, unfortunately, it looks likely to gain more than a mere handful of followers.

    I want to be very clear that I am using the term ‘fascism’ in a very narrow and technical sense. Fascism is not merely a byword for just any far-right nationalism with corporatist characteristics. It is not the same thing as the nationalisme intégral that I mention above, though it is a kissing-cousin. Intégrisme has problems, but it stops well short of claiming to regiment and militarise all aspects of social and individual life. Even in this strongly-restrictive definition, though, fascism is present enough in places like the Ukraine, Brazil and now Bolivia to be dangerous and worthy of mention as one of the illiberal ideological forces rising in liberalism’s shadow.


  7. Salafi jihâdism. This fundamentalist ideology has been a distinctive danger around the globe since well before the World Trade Centre attacks on the eleventh of September, 2001 – arguably it’s been so since the late 1980s in Afghanistan. Now the fanatical toxin is spreading from Nigeria to Bosnia to Xinjiang and the Philippines. In Nigeria, Christians are being persecuted as never before. The headloppers of Dâ‘iš and al-Qâ‘idah are unfortunately a ubiquitous presence from Libya to Iraq, with Syria having borne a great brunt of the terrorist damage in recent years.

    The Salafis may receive aid from the United States intelligence services. However, they think of themselves as the ‘purifiers’ of Islâm from all the modern dross that has accumulated around centuries of Islâmic cultural practice throughout the world. That includes anything in the visual arts or in literature that does not conform to a rigid standard of Muslim piety. They adhere in lockstep to the most stringent and literal of textual interpretations of the Qur’ân and hadith, and increasingly they believe that the only right way to rectify Islâm is by the creation of a state purely founded on Islâmic law, which is to be rigidly and ruthlessly enforced uniformly across the entire body of believers and subject peoples. They are the Islâmic equivalent of the equally-literalist fundamentalist evangelicals in the United States.
Now, it should be crystal clear to the gentle readers of this blog that I harbour some robust partizan preferences among these options. I am avowedly a very strong supporter of the syncretic paternalistic leftism that has arisen in Eastern Europe: the closest thing on offer we have to the High Toryism of Britain’s better days. I also have strong sympathies toward the ‘civilisational realism’ of Russia’s conservatives. I have long felt such realism to be a healthy counterweight to the foreign policy we conduct here, based as it is on outdated ideologies on autopilot and a morass of private interests anchored in the military-industrial complex.

I have also been known, on occasion, to comment positively on political Shî‘ism and on Chinese Marxism. However, my true loyalties lie with Mosaddegh and the National Front in Iran’s case; and with the Democratic League in China’s case – both socialist-leaning organisations with healthy respect for tradition.

So it should come as no surprise as I finish this analysis, that I am deeply invested in what form the post-liberal order in the world will take. I do not want to live in a world dominated by the picayune hatreds and petty spats of a gross-odd bickering nation-states, each headed by the most clownish of bourgeois buffoons their pandering mass-medias can conjure to the baying rabble. It is an insult to lions to have to be governed by such rats. Neither do I want to be governed by a dour, joyless puritanical religious élite who would snatch the Christmas eggnog out of my hands and expect to be thanked for the favour. At the same time, it’s clear to me that actually-existing liberalism, exhausted as it is in a moral and intellectual sense, can no longer pretend to offer to the world a set of coherent rules for the pursuit of the good. That task now falls to others. But which others: that is a question that matters deeply.

It strikes me that all of these options have a certain investment in questions of theopolitics. That is not a surprise. The Enlightenment project was by and large a separation of the political sphere from the questions of ultimate meaning, and the relegation of those questions of meaning to the purely private sphere and the realm of the conscience. It is therefore no surprise that the ideologies now jockeying to take the place of liberalism are attempting to reconnect questions of governance to questions of meaning in various ways. Once again I have to reiterate: I agree with the religious intégristes on the stakes involved here. I also agree with them on two of their three sentences. But there are clearly a number of different ways in which the temporal and the æternal ends of man can be configured, and we would do well not to choose one which seems too easy or too glib.

18 January 2020

Venerable Ninnidh ‘Laobh Dearc’, Abbot of Inishmacsaint


Inishmacsaint Monastery, County Fermanagh

Today on the new calendar in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of Saint Ninnidh of Inishmacsaint, sometimes called Ninnidh ‘the One-Eyed’ to distinguish him from the Ninnidh who attended Saint Brigid on her deathbed. Saint Ninnidh is another of the great missionary saints of Ireland, and like Saint Breandán he often voyaged by coracle to be of service to armly folk and to preach the good news of Christ.

Saint Ninnidh was high-born, possibly the grandson of the Irish High King Lóegaire, but born among the Cenál Conaill in Tír Conaill around the turn of the sixth century. He had an interest in religious matters from a young age, and was thus duly given to be educated by Saint Fionnán of Clonard. There he became friends with Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise, Saint Laisrén of Devenish and Saint Máedóc of Ferns. He subsisted on the milk from Saint Ciarán’s dun cow, and upon the words of the Lord as they were spoken by Saint Fionnán.

Ninnidh took to the nautical life early. He preached the Gospel, as mentioned above, by coracle all around the southern end of Lough Erne, settling himself and a few monastic disciples on the isle of Inishmacsaint in 532. Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise would visit him at his new monastery two years later and give it his blessing. (The monastery at Inishmacsaint is now a craft brewery which claims to be following in the tradition of monastic brewers going back 900 years.) He went ashore frequently to visit the sick and give alms to the poor, and he established a church at Glenwinny. A number of toponyms nearby indicate the importance of Saint Ninnidh to this corner of Fermanagh: Knockninny, for example; and Ninnidh’s Well at Knockninny Quay, whose water is said to be able to cure blindness and diseases of the eyes. The well was apparently at one point also a scenic spot where local boatmen and their families would go for recreation. As one hagiographical account has it:
A route led from Inishmacsaint Island to Maherahar and Inishway; thence to Glenwinny where there was a small church; through Urros and Beagh along what was later to become the old coach road from Dublin to Ballyshannon through Magho. The route then turned to Ninnidh’s Hill above Roscor where a small church was established and then through Killybig to another little church at Kilcoo. This route was probably used by St. Ninnidh and the early Christians of the area during rough weather when it was dangerous to go by Lough Erne.
Saint Ninnidh was accustomed to going into Knockninny by coracle, and fasting in solitude on the hilltop there during the forty days of Great Lent. The first time he did this seems to have been the year 530. He was also given a precious bronze bell, cast by Senach the smith of Derrybrusk, which was in existence and written memory at least until 1877, when it vanished from an auctioned museum collection. This bell was a relic on which local people would swear solemn oaths as needed. The missionary saint reposed in the Lord on the eighteenth of January in an unknown year, probably sometime in the middle of the sixth century. Venerable Ninnidh, lake-faring witness to the love of Christ, pray for us sinners unto Him who loves mankind!

17 January 2020

Holy and Right-Believing Emperor Theodosius of Rome


Emperor Saint Theodosius

The seventeenth of January is the feast-day of Emperor Theodosius, the last man to rule a united Roman Empire in the last quarter of the fourth century. Theodosius was also the man – not, contrary to certain received wisdom, Constantine – who made Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Theodosius is of interest particularly to British Christian history on account of his foundation of Cor Tewdws, the institution of higher learning led by Saint Illtud Farchog which produced the most celebrated of Welsh, Cornish and Breton hermits and monastic founders.

Personally, I’m of two minds or more about Theodosius, as I tend to believe any honest Orthodox Christian should be. Theodosius significantly advanced the cause of Nicene Christianity by using the power of the state to promote Orthodox bishops and to suppress paganism and hæresy. It is Theodosius rather than Constantine who deserves the credit for making Nicene Orthodoxy into an Imperial Church, with everything that double-headed eagle and double-edged sword implies. The admirable aspects of the complex of Orthodox political theology – including the separation of state and ethnos; the expectation of public philanthrōpía; even the model of church-state symphonía – owe their development and flourishing, if not its very existence, to the Theodosian settlement. On the other hand, this legacy has left us with some lasting and intractable problems of political theology, which are now playing out in some fairly ugly ways.

Many of his actions as emperor were not particularly saintly. His political murders of the family of his kinsman Magnus Maximus come to mind – although his sparing of Maximus’s wife, Saint Elen Luyddog, and their two daughters is commendable. There also stands as a black mark on his record, the civilian massacre he ordered at Thessaloniki. For this last outrage, he had to be excommunicated from the Church for several months, while he literally repented in sackcloth and ashes.

Flavius Theodosius was born in 347 in Roman Hispania, the son of Comes Flavius Theodosius, and his wife Thermantia. Because his father was made a magister equitum præsentalis to Emperor Valentinian in 368, Theodosius the Younger was obligated by law to enter military service as a young man. His father brought him, under his command, to Britannia, where he – alongside his cousin, the aforementioned Magnus Maximus – was assigned to quell a rebelling garrison posted at Hadrian’s Wall, as well as the various barbarian groups (Picts, Scots, Saxons and Franks) that attacked in the middle of that power vacuum.

Theodosius seems to have had a promising military career, having cut his teeth in Britain quelling this revolt and barbarian invasion. He was made a dux in the province of Mœsia Superior (modern-day Macedonia and parts of Serbia and Albania), and was placed in command of the troops there. However, while leading a campaign against the Sarmatian people to the east in 374, the Mœsians under his command had a falling-out with another Roman unit, from Pannonia. The Sarmatians took advantage of the division in the Roman ranks and scored an easy victory. An enraged Emperor Valentinian demanded the resignation and retirement of Theodosius the Younger on account of his ‘cowardice’ – for so it was treated legally when he failed to keep his troops in line and the Empire lost battles as a result. Valentinian’s rage was not sated with this, however, and he had Theodosius’s father Theodosius the Elder executed in Carthage in 375 when he urged Valentinian to reconsider his verdict. After Valentinian died and Gratian ascended the throne, Theodosius was reinstated, placed in charge of the Illyrian province and sent back to the frontier against the Sarmatians. This time he seems to have acquitted himself, as Gratian would appoint him co-emperor in charge of the Eastern Roman Empire in 379.

As Emperor in the East, Theodosius found himself facing an immediate crisis in the form of the Goths, who had spilled over the Danube and were settling in the Balkans. Gratian left this problem explicitly for Theodosius to deal with after his taking the laurels at Sirmium, but the Gothic presence in Macedonia and Dacia remained intractable, with them fighting Theodosius largely to a draw, despite the surrender of Aþanareiks at Constantinople in 381. The compromise that Theodosius affected to end the Gothic Wars, was the creation of the fœderati: in essence, the Goths were allowed to settle on land on the near side of the Danube that belonged to the Empire, in exchange for a levy of troops to be called up under Roman command. The Goths would continue, however, to give the Romans a headache for as long as they maintained their autonomy within the Empire’s marches.


Goths Crossing a River
by Évariste Vital Luminais, c. 1880

Theodosius also undertook minor skirmishes against the at that time still-pagan Hijâzi Arabs, who were conducting raids in Syria and Petræa. Theodosius had more amicable relations, perhaps a bit surprisingly, with the Persians to the East, who were ruled by Ardašir II from 379, Šâpur III from 384, and Bahrâm IV from 388. A settlement engineered by Theodosius in 387 over Armenia managed to defuse a potential flash-point that might easily have provoked another border war between the two powers.

More troublous was Theodosius’s rule at home. He had to deal with two attempts at usurpation of the Empire – one from his own kinsman Magnus Maximus, mentioned above. The proud and ambitious Maximus had served together with Theodosius under his father in Britain, and while there married a British woman and cultivated close ties with the Romano-British elites. He also served in Africa, and in Illyria against the Goths. Maximus seemed to have an innate understanding of imperial management, and conflict between him and Gratian seemed to become inevitable when he landed British colonists – the first Bretons, by all accounts – in the province of Gallia. He took his British fœderati and marched on Paris, but Gratian fled him. One of Maximus’s lieutenants, a man named Andragathius, caught up with and slew Gratian en route to Lyons.

Maximus was able to hold onto power in the West after Gratian’s fall for about four years, but in 387 he made the decision to invade Italy and depose the other pretender to the Imperium in the West: Valentinian II in Old Rome. It was then left to Theodosius in Constantinople, to whom Valentinian II fled seeking help, to attack Maximus before he reached Italy, and he did so. The reason he claimed was to avenge the murder of Gratian – but it seems equally likely that he was consolidating power for his own immediate kin. Theodosius sealed his agreement with Valentinian by marrying his sister Galla, and then sent an army across northern Italy to do battle with Maximus. Eventually Maximus was caught after action in the Alps and executed; his son Victor was also put to death on Theodosius’s orders.

Theodosius also faced trouble from Valentinian II’s lieutenant Arbogast, who betrayed and assassinated his emperor after Theodosius returned to Constantinople in 391. As Theodosius was likely to avenge this political murder due to his wife’s influence, Arbogast struck first by declaring Eugenius emperor in defiance of Theodosius. Theodosius marched on Italy once more in 394 and routed Arbogast’s troops at the Frigidus. He then captured Eugenius and had him killed; Arbogast committed suicide. Theodosius’s victory over Arbogast signalled the reunification of the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire – and the last time any such political reunification would be achieved until the reign of Justinian 150 years later. Theodosius would not live much longer to enjoy his victory: he would die of an illness six months after the battle of Frigidus, in early 395.


Battle of the Frigidus
by Janez Vajkard Valvasor, 1689

In terms of œconomic policy, Theodosius raised taxes harshly on propertied citizens in the Empire, and enforced these taxes rigorously. Like Saint Constantine before him, Theodosius was a believer in progressive taxation: the more a Roman citizen had, the more a Roman citizen should be obliged to pay for the common weal. Ironically – and counterintuitively to the libertarian mode of thinking – this tax hike had the effect of encouraging population growth and investment in the cities of the Eastern Empire; this trend would continue from Theodosius’s reign all the way up through that of Marcian in 450. In terms of reforms of coinage, weights and measures, Theodosius also introduced to the Roman Empire the tremissis, a gold coin worth ⅓ of a solidus, which continued to be used in the Christian East centuries after the fall of the West.

As a military and political leader, Theodosius was competent if somewhat lacklustre. He stands out in the annals of late Rome on account of his religious policies. He was a zealous Nicene Christian, and this zeal showed itself forth in his laws and policy choices once he became emperor. He converted to Christianity after his accession to the Eastern Empire in 380, when a life-threatening illness prompted him to reflect and choose a direction. He expelled the Arian bishop of Constantinople, Demophilos, and handed the see to Saint Gregory the Theologian, an action which earned him a number of enemies in the City and at least one attempt on his life. Throughout his reign Theodosius oversaw the transfer of thousands of churches and properties in the Eastern Empire from the wealthy, middle-class Arian community to the poorer Nicene one. He also had a tendency to look the other way when Nicene Christian officials and parties attacked and destroyed pagan temples and centres of worship, even though he had a policy of official toleration for certain pagan rites and observances. However, he did directly order the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria – an action which gave licence to private individuals and groups to carry out similar acts of destruction elsewhere.

Emperor Theodosius seems to have changed for the better after having made the acquaintance of Saint Ambrose of Milan. Holy Father Ambrose held the emperor to high standards of personal and political comportment.

To give one example of this: in 390, Theodosius had ordered his Gothic fœderati to punish the people of Thessaloniki, after they had rioted and killed one of his generals – a Goth named Bauþareiks – who had had a charioteer arrested and thrown in gaol on charges of sodomy. He sent the troops to the Greek city with orders for a severe collective punishment, before immediately thinking better of it and sending a messenger after them with revised orders telling them to identify and punish only the instigators of the riot. But the messenger arrived too late. Acting on their initial orders, the Goths put out false advertisements for a chariot race, and when all the spectators had gathered in the hippodrome the fœderati locked all the gates and began slaughtering the racing fans – about 7,000 of them.

When Saint Ambrose heard of this, he was volubly outraged, and compared Theodosius unfavourably to King David – likening his action to the betrayal of Uriah the Hittite. Saint Ambrose had Theodosius literally locked out of every Nicene church until the emperor not only spent eight months publicly mourning and repenting of his sins in sackcloth and ashes, but also by promulgating a law supported by Ambrose, by which condemned criminals were to be given a thirty-day stay of execution after the sentence was handed down. As an aside – this, gentle readers, is what the repentance of political leaders and public persons is supposed to look like in the apostolic Christian view. None of this maudlin, sentimental ‘only God knows the heart’ nonsense which American evangelicals like to indulge. Next time one of them has the chutzpah to compare the incumbent to King David, give them the answer of Saint Ambrose to Theodosius.


Theodosius Repulsed from the Church by Saint Ambrose
by Alessandro Magnasco, ca. 1700

At any rate, Emperor Theodosius seemingly did repent of his action with a sincerity that puts to shame all of our modern politicians. He made good his word to pass and enforce the law giving condemned criminals a solid thirty days’ chance at reprieve. More importantly: his public penance gave an indication to future emperors and churchmen of what symphonía can and should look like at its best, with the church behaving as a voice of conscience to the state.

Theodosius married twice. His first marriage was to a senatorial-class woman of Hispania, Saint Ælia Flavia Placilla, who bore him three children: two sons, the future emperors Arcadius and Honorius; and a daughter, Pulcheria. (The later Saint Ælia Pulcheria was actually Theodosius’s granddaughter by Arcadius.) This marriage was almost certainly a marriage of affection, as Theodosius was at that time out of favour with the emperor and living in forced retirement. Also, even when he was Emperor he cherished Placilla, gave her the coveted title of Augusta and favoured her with monuments – including one at Antioch which was very nearly the victim of vandalism by tax protesters. His second marriage, after Placilla’s death in 386, was much more a political match, to the aforementioned Galla, sister of Valentinian II. She bore him two children: a son, Gratian; and a daughter, Ælia Galla Placidia.

Theodosius’s reign is important for still another reason. He not only made his first military mark by fighting under his father’s command in Britain, but he actually left an academic mark in Britain by sponsoring and lending his name to the oldest institution of higher learning there: the College of TheodosiusCor Tewdws in Welsh – at Llantwit Major. It’s uncertain if Theodosius went in person to open the College, which admitted its first class the year of his death, in 395. The College unfortunately fell into disuse after the barbarian invasions of Britannia. However, the site was given by Saint Dyfrig into the hands of Saint Illtud Farchog, who resurrected the College of Theodosius as a monastic school. There, he trained such intellectual luminaries of the Western world as Saint David of Mynyw, Saint Peulin of Léon, Saint Samson of Dol and Saint Gildas the Historian. At its peak under Saint Illtud, the monastic school boasted six lecture halls and housed over two thousand students, making it comparable in size to Oxford or Cambridge.

Theodosius’s reign is, as one can see here, quite chequered, but one can easily see in him certain admirable strains of nobility, compassion and self-reflection – as well as a violent temper that desperately needed curbing by Saint Ambrose. By blood, I am a descendant and kinsman, not of Romans or Greeks, but of the barbarian tribes Saint Theodosius did his level best either to kill off, drive off or buy off: Goths and Gæls, Saxons and Britons. Yet I cannot help but sympathise with Theodosius from a political view, forced as he was to deal with successive internal political crises. And his ability for repentance is something we badly need to emulate today. Righteous emperor Theodosius, patron of learning and unifier of east and west, pray unto Christ our God for our salvation!


The monastic grange dovecote at Llantwit Major, Wales

15 January 2020

Righteous Ceolwulf of Lindisfarne, King of Northumbria


Ceolwulf’s forcible tonsure: lithograph by Ernest Prater, 1920

Today in the Orthodox Church we also venerate Saint Ceolwulf, the holy king of Northumbria to whom Saint Bede dedicated his History of the English Church and People. With the exception of a brief interregnum in 731, Ceolwulf reigned in Northumbria from 729 to 737, when he abdicated his throne to his cousin Éadberht. He then spent the rest of his life as a monk on the holy isle of Lindisfarne.

Ceolwulf was born around the year 695 into the illustrious House of the Idingas, the sons of the elder royal line of Bernicia. He rose to power in the wake of ‘a number of unsatisfactory and short-lived kings’ mostly derived from among his kin, and he himself seemed to be made from the same mettle for a brief time. He was known to have consulted Saint Bede on matters relating to the state; and for his part the holy monk made answer the best he could. Although Bede liked and esteemed Ceolwulf as a good man and a pious Christian, he expressed some doubts about the young man’s ability to rule his kingdom. Indeed, it seemed to him that Ceolwulf’s interests and temperament lay in a more monastic and scholarly direction.

Not two years after he rose to power, he was captured and dragged from his court by his foes there, and forcibly tonsured as a monk. It may have been the case that Saint Acca of Hexham had colluded in this coup, as one of Ceolwulf King’s first acts after being restored to power in Northumbria was to strip Acca of his bishop’s honours and send him packing for Galloway.

Ceolwulf reigned for six more years after this. He was a particularly generous patron of the monastery on the holy isle. He donated large sums of money and precious books to Lindisfarne, and even granted them a special dispensation such that on feast-days they were allowed to drink beer and wine, as opposed to the more customary milk and water. This was somewhat contrary to the established Celtic ascetic practices on the Holy Isle, but it seems the monks greeted the change with gladness and gratitude all the same. When Ceolwulf abdicated his throne at the age of forty-two to his younger cousin, he chose to make his retirement as a simple monk at Lindisfarne. Éadberht himself would choose to retire to a monastery in York some twenty years later. This was apparently no uncommon practice by this time among the nobility and royalty of Northern England – a practice they had indeed learned from their Celtic neighbours to the north.

Ceolwulf gained a reputation for piety and humility at Lindisfarne, and reposed in the Lord on the fifteenth of January, 765. He was soon thereafter venerated as a local saint, and his tomb became known as the site of wondrous healings. As his hagiography on Lindisfarne’s website notes: ‘His life is another example of the importance in that period of the personal connections between kings and Christian leaders, which enabled monasteries like Lindisfarne and Jarrow to flourish and the Christian faith to take root among the people.’ As a king, Ceolwulf may have lacked a certain regal je ne sais quoi in the eyes of Saint Bede, but as a monk his reputation has been æternally memorable. Holy Ceolwulf king, generous ruler and humble monk, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Holy Mother Íte, Anchoress of Killeedy


Saint Íte of Killeedy

Today in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of a beloved Irishwoman, Saint Íte of Killeedy, whose importance in præ-Schismatic Celtic Christianity is second only to that of Saint Brigid, to whom she is often compared. Indeed, she has been called by her hagiographer ‘the white sun of Munster’ and is known as the ‘foster mother of the Irish saints’, because she was an inspiration and a direct teacher of an entire generation of Irish saints including Saint Breandán the Navigator.

Saint Íte [also Deirdre or Míde] was born around the year 480 near what is now Waterford, near Munster, in southeastern Ireland. Her high-born parents were both Christian, and she was given the baptismal name of Deirdre. From a very early age she exhibited a passion for the Church and a particular love for Christ; as a child she had a particular meekness and kindness that distinguished her from her fellows in age. Her parents were amazed to see that she kept the fasts even as a toddler, and for some time her room was filled with a holy fire which did not burn hot, and by which her parents knew it for the grace of God.

Therefore, it surprised no one when, on reaching the age of maturity, Deirdre decided to move out of her home and pursue the life of an anchoress. Her father – who had sought to match her with another nobleman for political reasons – was displeased at first, but he soon came to accept and bless her decision, and he offered her to Bishop Declán of Ardmore so that she might take the veil. It was Declán who gave her the monastic name of Íte (meaning ‘thirst’ in Gælic), by which he signified her thirst for the love of God.

Saint Íte went out with her sister Fiona, who too became a nun. Together they followed the sign that took the form of pillars of light – a sign which echoed the pillar which guided the Hebrews in the desert – into Limerick, where at last they stopped at a place suitable for a small hermitage. They asked of the ruler there, and the ruler granted them a large tract of land. Saint Íte refused, however, all but four acres of his offering: the four acres which had been shown to them by the three pillars of light.

This four acres of wilderness in Limerick would become the convent of Killeedy, where Íte became the first abbess. The stead sat at the foot of the mountains, and was the first religious community of its kind in that part of Ireland. Íte’s little cloister had a vegetable garden to attend to the simple needs of the body for the women in her convent. She also encouraged music and singing among her nuns, and even herself composed melodies which still exist in the Western tradition of church music. But the chief accomplishment of her monastery was not in composing airs or in tending vegetables, but in growing another and much more precious sort of crop.

Íte’s passion was for education. She established a school for children, which welcomed both girls and boys. Many parents who desired for their children the best of learning both sæcular and religious sent them to Saint Íte, who in her time taught not only Saint Breandán at her school for boys but also the holy men Mochoemoc, Cumian, Fachanan and Columbán. In this way she earned the epithet ‘foster-mother of the Irish saints’. What is truly amazing is that this mere girl of sixteen, the daughter of a local chieftain who did not possess so much as the rudiments of an education by books let alone great erudition in the matters of sæcular life, was given the wisdom to teach children who would themselves become known among the wisest of men in the Christian West. Saint Íte was elevated among the wise not through books or through travels or through first-hand observation, but precisely through the spirit of humility and devotion to Christ that she cultivated in her small anchorage.

So great indeed was Saint Breandán’s love and awe for his tutor that he often came to visit Saint Íte between his farings by sea, when he found himself in need of spiritual advice or direction. One time her pupil asked her what things Christ loves best, and Saint Íte answered him: ‘faith in God with a pure heart; a simple life with a religious spirit; and love and generosity to the least of His brothers and sisters’. When Breandán asked her what things He most detested, she told him: ‘a hateful heart; an obstinate life persisting in sin; and reliance on money’.

Saint Íte herself did her best to exhibit in her own life all three of these qualities Christ loves best. She taught not only by words but by example. She drew many women of all ages from every corner of Ireland to her little corner of Limerick, and when these women understood the faith of her heart they followed her in imitation of her life. She lived a very simple life indeed – she was quite stable, and never left her convent. Instead she spent all of her waking hours singing the glory of God, nursing her vegetables and her pupils. And she gave of whatever substance she had in assisting the needy, the elderly, the sick and infirm, and infants.

Saint Íte was unfortunately given to some of the extremes of austerity exhibited among the Celts in their occasional giddy self-assurance, and had to be warned by the angels of God on more than one occasion not to tax her body too heavily with strict fasting and strenuous toil. On other occasions, also just as with the Hebrews in the desert as they were led by Moses, food would appear to her from the heavens and the ministers of the Most High would bid her to eat. However, her holiness of life was never in doubt, and her Christ-given meekness and humility guided her in these visions. She gained a reputation as a wonderworker in life, and performed miraculous healings including one man from among her kin, whom she raised from the dead after he was slain in battle.

Saint Íte was gifted with a long span of years, and lived to the age of ninety. She was given to know when her end was approaching before it happened, and prepared herself accordingly. She gathered her sisters around her and gave them her blessing, and exhorted them to the way of life she had done her best to exemplify. She reposed in the Lord on the fifteenth of January, 570. The site of her monastery (which was raided and destroyed by Danish pirates in the ninth century) and her gravesite are still destinations of pilgrimage, and it’s customary for pilgrims to honour her grave with posies. She is still a particular patron of schoolchildren and pregnant women. Holy mother Íte, gentle tutor of the Irish saints, we beseech your intercessions with Christ our God!
Casting aside thy royal rank, and embracing the godly monastic life,
Thou didst found a renowned school of piety,
Wherein thou didst nurture the souls of saints
In reverence and the knowledge of God;
And having thus labored to please thy Bridegroom and Master,
Thou hast moved all the land of Erin to cry unto Him:
Have pity on us, O Lord of all,
And grant that we may ever stand with Íte at Thy right hand!

St Íte’s Cemetery, Killeedy