Remembering the Saints (4)
We will search our books,
inquiring after each:
without omitting any, we will go
straight through the year.
This will be the body of our work,
a structure which will not be feeble:
as many fair verses
as there are days in the year.
That your mind may not
fall into wickedness,
each verse will swiftly name
the feast for each day.
- Oengus the Culdee, Martyrology of Oengus (9th century?)
For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort [encouragement] of the Scriptures might have hope.
- Romans 15.4
We don’t think of reading history as a particularly edifying or comforting labor. Those who have read any history at all are likely to describe it as either interesting, at best, or tedious, at worst.
Perhaps it would help us to benefit more from reading history – and, as is our particular interest, the lives of great saints – if we paid more attention to the effort that goes into writing history; or if we understood what those who wrote saints’ lives were hoping to accomplish, and how they went about their task.
We know that God inspired the history-writing of the Bible, using a variety of authors working in different periods of time with varying foci. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are quite different from the gospels or the book of Acts. But they’re all history, and, as Paul reminds us, they can all be a source of hope.
But it takes patience and close reading to find the encouragement God intends for us, and to gain the hope that is so important to our witness in the world (cf. 1 Pet. 3.15).
Let’s note a few things about Oengus’ approach to recording the lives of great saints. The excerpt above is part of his explanation of what he intended to accomplish in his project. We can note a few matters. First, Oengus wanted to be thorough – “without omitting any”. He wanted each Irish leader who had contributed to those four centuries of revival, renewal, and awakening to have his due. So he determined to celebrate one great saint of Ireland, from Patrick on, for each day of the year.
Second, following venerable Irish tradition, he put his record into verse: “a structure that will not be feeble”. In those days, poems could be recited or sung. Companies of people could join in the recitation. Rhythms and rhymes made for a delightful time of remembering and celebration. Oengus would write “as many verses/as there are days in the year” so that the Irish of his day could remember every day with thanksgiving and song those whose courage and faithfulness had delivered the Gospel down the ages to them.
Finally, we note Oengus’ moral objective: “That your mind may not/fall into wickedness”. He believed that daily recitation of the verses that made up his calendar of the saints would keep those great heroes before the eyes of his contemporaries, moving them to humility, exciting them to courage, and warning them against transgression and, thus, offenses against the great cloud of witnesses of their forebears.
Oengus was creating a legacy for his generation, bringing forward the achievements and legacies of those who had gone before for the benefit of those who lived beyond their day. We should expect that the verses Oengus wrote might be of similar benefit to us as well.
But we’ll have to follow his example, searching out good books to read, asking questions, meditating, and looking to Scripture for light from the Lord concerning how to evaluate what we’re reading. This is where history becomes a discipline, and, as we know, discipline – training our body for new sources of strength – is no one’s favorite pastime.
But the effort is worth it. We have much to gain in the way of hope from reading the lives and works of believers from previous generations. Make up your mind in the year ahead to search out a few good books on Christian history, and discover what previous generations of the faithful have stored up in their legacies to bless and benefit you.
1. Can you think of a few saints from the past you might like to know something about? Why these, in particular?
2. Where can you go to find resources to help you in learning about these saints?
Sing Psalm 105.3-11
(Warrington: Give to Our God Immortal Praise)
Glory in God, rejoice in heart, all you who seek His holy part.
Him and His strength and Presence seek; His works proclaim, His judgments speak.
You holy children of Abraham, You chosen ones of Jacob, stand!
He is our Lord, of wondrous worth; His judgments are in all the earth.
He will His covenant faithfully guard – His oath, the promise of His Word.
That which He to our fathers swore, He will perform forevermore!
Resources about Celtic Christians
To learn more about the Celtic Revival, order a free PDF copy of our book, The Celtic Revival: A Brief Introduction, by clicking here. You might also order a free copy of our book, The Legacy of Patrick, by clicking here. For longer excerpts of writings from the Celtic Revival, visit our Celtic Legacy webpage by clicking here. And, in the historical theology installments of our InVerse Theology Project, we’re exploring saints’ lives in more detail. You can begin listening by clicking here (scroll through to find more).
Please prayerfully consider becoming a supporter of The Fellowship of Ailbe. It’s easy to give to The Fellowship of Ailbe, and all gifts are, of course, tax-deductible. You can click here to donate online through Anedot or PayPal, or send your gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 360 Zephyr Road, Williston, VT 05495.
T. M. Moore, Principal
All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Carey, King of Mysteries, p. 193.