We could do with a saint

Not only do the young people in the class not go to church, they know little or nothing about Christianity. If I am hoping for an answer to questions to questions on the Christian faith, I frequently have to turn to the students from Eastern European backgrounds.

Perhaps the problem with the church in England is that there is a lack of local connections, the Church of England withdrew from village life and left behind it few traditions with which to maintain a sense of presence. It differs from the church in Ireland in lacking local expressions of spirituality.  In rural Ireland, there seemed hardly a town or a village that did not have an association with a local saint, many of which had “patterns,” rituals observed by local people on the feast day of the saints.

Irish saints were different from those of Bible times. Christianity arrived in Ireland without bloodshed; there was none of the “red” martyrdom that marked the early Christian centuries.  When the Irish monks sought ways to witness to their faith, there was the “green” martyrdom of those who went to live severely ascetic lives, subjecting themselves to harsh physical conditions and spending their time in prayer and reciting Scripture. For the course of European history, more important than the green martyrdom was the “white” martyrdom, the monks who left behind everything to head towards the white sky of the morning, to head from familiar fields into the unknown dangers of Europe in the Dark Ages. The white martyrdom of those monks perhaps had the most profound and long lasting impact.

Perhaps it is was the rootedness of the monks in the lives of small communities that gave them their enduring appeal, to be able to stand in the same spots as they stood and to hear their tales gives faith a local connection – even if that faith has as much by way of ancient paganism as it has of anything Christian. Read the tales of Brigid of Kildare and they have more in common with the English legends of King Arthur than with the pages of the New Testament.

There would once have been such traditions of saints in England, there would have been green and white martyrs, but Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Protestantism and Eighteenth Century rationalism slowly erased such customs. Now, a church, with a declining national profile and  one which lacks affection in local culture, that is struggling to survive, could do with a few local saints.


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