Service of the Scribes

On Saint Patrick's Day, many Americans celebrate by attending parades and drinking green beer. But how many of us understand the day's dramatic Christian origins? Let me give you a little history lesson. In the year A.D. 406, the Dark Ages began with a cold snap when the Rhine River froze over, allowing barbarians to cross a bridge of ice from ancient Germany into Roman territory. When they reached Rome, the barbarians looted and burned the city, wiping out centuries of learning and civilization. And who emerged from the rubble? Who rebuilt Western civilization, brick by brick? The Christian church. The dramatic story is told in a book by James Cahill entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization. As the Roman Empire was crumbling, Cahill writes, its neighbors to the north—the Irish—were hearing the Gospel message from a young missionary named Patricius, whom we know today as Saint Patrick. The Irish of the fifth century were barbarians descended from Celtic tribes—tribes that had invaded Western Europe 900 years earlier. The Irish were still illiterate warriors—pagans who practiced human sacrifice and slavery. But when Saint Patrick brought the Gospel to the Emerald Isle, he did much more than deliver the Irish from pagan superstition: He helped transform their entire culture. Christianity gave the Irish a love of learning. After all, Christianity comes to us foremost in a book—the Bible. As a result, Christianity tends to foster literacy and learning. As Cahill writes, the Irish "enshrined literacy [as their] central religious act." Irish monks considered it part of their Christian duty to copy all books in danger of being lost as the Roman Empire crumbled. Then they staged a second Celtic invasion—one very different from the Celtic invasion 900 years earlier. The first Celts had arrived as naked warriors, armed with swords and with their enemies’ heads dangling from their belts. But their descendants were missionary monks armed only with their faith in God—and with books, not heads, tied to their belts. Everywhere they went, they established monasteries and carried on their tradition of copying and preserving the Bible and every other book they could get their hands on. "These scribes," Cahill says, "served as conduits through which the… Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe." They "re-established literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe. "Without this service of the scribes," Cahill concludes, "our own world would never have come to be…. Twelve centuries of lyric beauty, aching tragedy, intellectual inquiry… and love of Wisdom… would all have gone down the drain of history." Those Irish monks are a potent reminder of how important literacy is to our faith. We worship a God who expressed Himself principally through the written Word. Of all the world’s religions, Christianity alone insists on the primacy of language. Each year as we prepare to celebrate Saint Patrick's Day, we should make sure our children know about the great evangelist who brought the Gospel to Ireland and helped turn Irish barbarians into Christian monks. Monks who copied books throughout the Dark and Middle Ages—and saved Western civilization for all of us.


Chuck Colson



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