Thursday, November 12, 2015

Aidan's Fine Horse and the Loss of Memory

Icon by Marchela Dimitrova
I am given to historical enthusiasms. I become fascinated with a particular era and then go deep into the subject, absorbing all that I can along the way.  I am not fickle with my interests, however, for I do not lose curiosity in one area just because my attention moves to a new obsession.  [Of course some historical subjects interest me not at all: French history after the 12th-century, the Enlightenment and its devotees, Japanese history, and to uphold my contrarian reputation in these parts, I would certainly add military history in general and the American Civil War and World War II in particular.]  My current attraction seems to be focused on Saxon England, or more broadly the entire British Isles, pre-1066.

As one would probably guess, the written record is thin; but what there is is absolutely extraordinary.  I am talking about the Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People, written in the 8th-century.  This is no dry and ponderous ecclesiastical chronicle, but a lively history of both the Saxon church and state in its formative years. One of my favorite stories dates to about 650 AD and involves St. Aidan and St. Oswin, then Bishop of Lindesfarne and King of Deira (Northumbria) respectively.  Bede relates the story as follows:

He had given Bishop Aidan a very fine horse, in order that he could ride whenever he had to cross a river or undertake any difficult or urgent journey, although the bishop ordinarily travelled on foot.  Not long afterwards, when a poor man met the bishop and asked for alms, the bishop immediately dismounted and ordered the horse with all its royal trappings to be given to the beggar; for he was most compassionate, a protector of the poor and a father to the wretched.  When this action came to the king’s ears, he asked the bishop as they were going in to dine: ‘My lord bishop, why did you give away the royal horse which was necessary for your own use?  Have we not many less valuable horses or other belongings which would have been good enough for beggars, without giving away a horse that I had specially selected for your personal use?  The bishop at once answered, ‘What are you saying, Your Majesty?  Is this child of a mare more valuable to you this child of God?’  At this they went into dinner and the bishop sat down in his place, but the king, who had come in from hunting stood warming himself by the fire with his attendants.  As he stood by the fire, the king turned over in his mind what the bishop had said, then suddenly unbuckling his sword and handing it to a servant, he impulsively knelt at the bishop’s feet and begged his forgiveness, saying: ‘I will not refer to this matter again, nor will I enquire how much of our bounty you give away to God’s children.’  The bishop was moved and immediately stood up and raised him to his feet, assuring him of his high regard and begging him to sit to his food without regrets.  At the bishop’s urgent request, the king sat down and began to be merry; but Aidan on the contrary grew so sad that he began to shed tears.  His  chaplain asked him in his own language, which the king and his servants did not understand, why he wept.  Aidan replied: ‘I know that the king will not live very long; for I have never before seen a humble king.  I feel that he will soon be taken from us, because this nation is not worthy of such a king.’

The story is an understandable morality tale, simply told:

  1. The king gave the priest a horse.
  2. The priest gave the horse to a beggar.
  3. The king questioned this action.
  4. The priest upbraids the king, reminding him that the beggar was a child of God.
  5. The king earnestly repents.
  6. The priest is moved by the king’s humility.

Such a tale would not be confined to pastoral homilies, but would more naturally be told around the family hearths of the Northumbrians and Mercians and their descendants. Simple stories like this helped mold and bind oncoming generations to the real faith of their elders.  And it is a story I should have heard myself, that is if there is any substance to the remote mists of my own family lore which places my forebears in Lindesfarne itself. But no such tales of faith ever came within many hundreds of years of filtering down to my generation.  This is a shame, I think.

It would be easy to blame our loss of historical and/or religious memory on the English Reformation, for truly so much fault does indeed lie there.  Conventional wisdom has always viewed the English Reformation as an altogether Good Thing, indeed the very headwaters that gave rise to the refreshing torrents of Enlightenment and Progress.  In this telling, the pious and godly Englishman threw off the oppressive yoke of the Pope of Rome, rejected the superstitions and foolery, turned their backs on the intercession of the saints, and for the first time, truly embraced the word of God.  Or not.  A parallel narrative does exist, one less self-serving and triumphalistic, as it is considerably more rooted in fact and less dependent upon propaganda. In this telling, the English were largely satisfied with their Church, that Henry VIII’s mad obsession with obtaining his divorce drove all other considerations, that the Reformation was a decidedly top-down affair that was preoccupied with the dismantling of the monasteries and their considerable influence, the confiscation of church properties and treasures to reward political supporters, and bailing-out an English government bankrupted by Henry's wars. I recommend, of course, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars on this subject.  I also highly recommend by the same author The Voices of Morebath, which examines how the English Reformation ripped through the fabric of life in a small Devon village.  For better or for worse, England was changed forever. Perhaps this set them on the road to empire, but much was discarded and lost in the process. Indeed, the Reformation was "a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past..." The ramifications of this, I think, have been immense.

Rod Dreher's blog, and particularly his Benedict Option project has become a clearing-house for those of a traditionalist bent who concern themselves with the preservation of both faith and civilization (and the two cannot be separated). This loss of collective memory about who we are and what we have held to be true is a recurring topic in his posts, including recent articles here and here.  From these posts, I have assembled a collection of quotes, but I encourage you to read the full articles.

Rod Dreher: 

 those that think that the faith will always be here are extremely naive, because it does not take into account the fragility of historical memory in modernity.

We need to bring the narratives of the lives of theese Christian heroes of ages past into our imaginations today...We need to remember...Christians who do not collectively remember their stories will lose their identity…

Jane Jacobs:

[our time as the beginning of a] Dark Age...characterized by mass forgetting.  We have deliberately cut ourselves off from our own history; the past has no hold on us.  We have maximalized our own freedom by minimalizing any narrative that tells us who we are and what we must do...There is no ‘Great Chain of Being.’

Rod Dreher:

To be an American is to live in the seems to me that we don’t seriously
plan for the future now, as in projecting ourselves imaginatively forward into the next generations and allowing our present choices to be guided by a consideration of the effects they are likely to have on our children, their children, and their children’s children.  To do so would limit the Self, and that is one thing we cannot have.

Octavio Paz:  

The real evil of liberal capitalist societies is the predominate nihilism, not a nihilism which seeks the critical negation of established values, but a passive indifference to values.


The eye of the nihilist is unfaithful to his memories; it allows them to drop, to lose their leaves.

Rod Dreher:  

What kind of condition do we enter when our religion embraces wholeheartedly the modern refusal to remember?  Can a religious sense so construed be an effective bulwark against nihilism?  I do not think it can.  Piety that is based on Moral Therapeutic Deism is worse than no protection at all...they’re giving them armor made out of paper and past, and a sword forged from Play-doh.

Robert Louis Wilken: 

Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message...the community’s life is Christ within society.  The Church is a culture in its own right.  Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture, Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.

Rod Dreher:

Resistance requires remembrance...If we Christians in the West do not lay claim to the past, and make it a living, vital part of our present, we are not going to have a future.

Who knows, one of these days I may be blessed to have grandchildren. If I do, and if I still have my wits about me, I plan to sit them on my knee and tell them (among many other things) the story of Aidan and the beggar and Oswin and the fine horse.