NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 24.2
To maintain your sense of continuity we repeat the last paragraph of Tom Lee's commentary last week to start today's excerpt. It's an excerpt that ought create much interest as he outlines the origins of Mariology in Eastern Catholicism before switching to the far side of Europe and the mission of Patrick in Ireland.
One Nature or Two — Monks go Beyond the Bounds. Part 24.2
The origins of Marian Devotion...
It was a compromise achieved by ecclesiastical politicians under government pressure. But it was a truce maintained under strain. Both Nestorius and Cyril had believed themselves to be right. Nestorius perished in obscurity and Cyril died amidst the trappings of ecclesiastical splendor at Alexandria. But some theologians and bishops refused to accept the cobbled together creed and were exiled by the imperial authorities as disturbers of the peace. A number of them sought refuge in the Persian Empire, and several found a home at Nisibis the main training school for clergy in the Persian domains. Eventually their students filled many of the leading ecclesiastical posts in that realm and their doctrines became the accepted teachings of the Mesopotamian-Persian Church, known as Nestorian.
Persian monarchs had, till then, viewed Christians as a possible fifth-column in their realm. But once they understood that ties with the Roman Empire had been severed the Sassanian monarchs decreed that Nestorian Christianity would be the only form of the faith officially recognized by them.
Although the scenes featuring Mary in the New Testament could all be printed out on a few pages, the bishops of the council awarded her the appellation "God Bearer". The dramatic title pulled her center stage; at the same time, the new emphasis on Jesus' less knowable side caused his role as ombudsman for humanity to shift somewhat onto his mother's reassuringly human shoulders. Mary as intercessor percolated for several centuries in the Eastern Church before exploding in the medieval West.
Adopting the title Theotokos into official dogma sparked an intense Marian devotion, out of which grew the Transitus Mariae (Passage of Mary) literature, popular novels that reflect pious beliefs including stories of the physical Assumption of Mary into heaven. We have texts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic (Egyptian), and Arabic. While they are neither reliable historically or theologically they teach us much about the simple and gullible faith of the average Christian. To honor the new dogma, Celestine's successor at Rome, Pope Sixtus III, commissioned the construction of the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore on a hill where women still frequented a temple of the mother-goddess Juno Lucina.
It was an extraordinary development as, apart from the nativity stories of the virgin birth, Mary's role is unenthusiastically portrayed in the Gospels, where Jesus is at best grudging and usually rude to her. It has been suggested that she was at first the focus of a sect not really Christian at all, but rather looking back to the tradition of feminine wisdom in the Old Testament. Just as the leaders of Israel, despite their best endeavors, could not suppress the feminine principle, so the Church found itself forced by pressure of popular opinion to incorporate that other religion, centered on Jesus' mother whose virtue canceled Eve's guilt.
The Roman bishops do not appear to have taken much interest in the theological ructions disrupting the church elsewhere. Celestine was more concerned with promoting the faith through missionary effort in the western lands that he considered his ecclesiastical domain. He sent Germanus of Auxere to Britain, Ninian to the Picts in southern Scotland and Palladius to Ireland, between 429 and 431.
The influence of Patrick in Ireland...
A later interloper, Patrick, is better known than any of his predecessors because of the great reverence he still engenders in the land that he converted and also because, like Augustine, he wrote a Confessio and a celebrated letter to Coroticus, that are still extant, and Muichu and Tirechan wrote colorful biographies based on powerful local traditions and word-of-mouth memories passed on for two-hundred years after his death. He is also immortalized in the Book of Armagh by the scribe Ferdomach, writing about 800 in Latin, in a firm handwritten script, as clear and readable as any letter which comes through your mail-box today.
Patrick was born in Roman Britain about 385, probably at Caerwent, near the Severn estuary in Wales, which was raided many times in the fourth century by Irish pirates in search of slaves. Patrick's father was a deacon of the church and a municipal official; his grandfather was a priest. We know from his Confessio that Patrick was snatched away from his family by Irish raiders at the age of sixteen and spent six years as a slave swineherd on the slopes of Slemish, near present day Ballymena in County Antrim.
He lived a lonely and terrifying life, sustained by an intense prayerfulness, until he managed to escape on a boat to Gaul. There he embraced the monastic life. When Palladius' mission faltered the half-educated Patrick, with little theological training and poor Latin, was introduced to Germanus who ordained him deacon, priest and finally bishop.
Patrick firmly believed in the approved doctrine of the Trinity, but as the use of the shamrock to illustrate it does not appear in his own writings or the early biographies it is no doubt a pious myth. At first his mission, like that of Palladius, was hardly a triumph. But with the assistance of several companions, probably monks, he eventually managed to organize a stable community. He traveled north and west, finally founding his episcopal see in Armagh in 444. He died in 461.
Patrick defiantly proclaimed his return to Ireland by lighting the first Paschal Fire on the hill of Slane, thus breaking the total darkness decreed by the pagan High King of Tara. He took on the Druids and destroyed the images of their gods and, following the official Roman example in Gaul, cut down their sacred oak groves, scene of most of their religious rites. It should be remembered that most of Britain and Continental Europe was still covered by primordial forest. Agriculture and settlements existed in comparatively tiny and isolated pockets.
The Druids were bloodthirsty shamans who with carefree abandon burnt huge wicker cages full of living people to provide ashes to guarantee the fertility of the soil. The victims were mostly condemned criminals, but if the celebrants were short of the required number, innocents were added. But there is evidence that these were not always unwilling victims. Self-sacrifice for the clan or community was a big part of the intense Celtic culture, and in becoming the sacrificial victim it was believed that one was united with the god for eternity.
Patrick's response to the Druids...
Patrick adopted a no-nonsense approach to Druid infiltrators who left off their rather loud tell-tale speckled cloaks and feathered head-dresses to pass themselves off as catechumens clothed in white — which was not normal Druid garb no matter what the lads at the Welsh Eistedfford and at the solstice rites at Stonehenge may think.
Ireland and the fastnesses of Wales were the last outposts of the Druids and traditional Celtic religion. From the time of Julius Caesar their religion and culture had been proscribed, suppressed and absorbed into the Roman system of belief, so that throughout Gaul and Britain it only survived in isolated pockets. Their gods, like the sun god Belenos, were assimilated and equated with their counterparts in the Roman system — in his case, Apollo. Their great horned god Cernunnos however became the accepted image of the Devil. He seems to have been a cross between Pluto, god of the underworld, and Pan, the god of nature.
Druidical skills were passed on by word of mouth alone so we have no written record of their beliefs. They were skilled numerologists and astrologers, which required considerable knowledge of mathematics and astronomy bolstered by amazing feats of memory. To a great degree the skills of the Druids worked — were real, so they could not simply be pushed aside. In order to complete their displacement the church had to take over many of their functions — those of teaching, medicine, and astronomical knowledge, for instance. Some Druids undoubtedly switched allegiance and became part of the new system.
We know that water was considered sacred and there were many holy sites, especially springs and wells. These were swiftly absorbed into the new faith, with pagan gods being metamorphosed into Christian saints, and in this guise were worshipped at festivals that had gone on for centuries. Such practices as human sacrifice had been banned by the Christian Romans wherever they had gained control. It had though probably gone on in secret, but was declining anyway. When it came to things that really mattered like curing an outbreak of boils or a lame cow or discovering what the future might hold, the ordinary man and his wife knew exactly where to apply.
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