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The Scriptorium

Silent No More

Gildas helps us to understand the Celtic Revival in the 6th century.

Gildas, The Ruin of Britain (1)

In this letter I shall deplore rather than denounce; my style may be worthless, but my intentions are kindly. What I have to deplore with mournful complaint is a general loss of good, a heaping up of bad. But no one should think that anything I say is said out of scorn for humanity or from a conviction that I am superior to all men. No, I sympathise with my country’s difficulties and troubles, and rejoice in remedies to relieve them.

I had decided to speak of the dangers run not by brave soldiers in the stress of war but by the lazy. And it was, I confess, with unmeasured grief at heart that I kept silent (the Lord, scanner of consciences, is my witness) as the space of ten years or more passed by. Then, as now, my inexperience and my worthlessness restrained me from writing any warning, however modest.

Translation John Morris, The Ruin of Britain

The Celtic Revival began in the middle of the 5th century, with the work of Patrick, and continued, during the generation that succeeded him, through the efforts of largely unknown priests, monks, and lay people. At about the turn of the 6th century a movement of revival began in Wales, just across the Irish Sea from Ireland, where men like David and others, inspired by the example of early Christian monastics, formed communities of the pious for seeking the Lord and His Kingdom and working to revive a largely moribund British Church.

Gildas, a British monk, wrote in the middle of the 6th century to deplore the conditions of the Church in Britain – which was undergoing renewal in Wales, but not elsewhere – and to warn civil and religious leaders against continuing in their folly and rebellion. Evidently he had been troubled by conditions in Britain for some ten years – “a general loss of good, a heaping up of bad” – but did not say anything, because of what he regarded as his “inexperience” and “worthlessness.”

Now, however, under (as we shall see) the burden of Scripture, he could no longer keep silent. The Ruin of Britain, which Gildas produced, is as close to a history of early medieval Britain as we know, even though, as scholars point out, it contains certain information that is wrong or, at best, unsupported by other records.

Gildas’ desire is to prescribe “remedies” for the healing of his nation. His intentions are “kindly” and he offers them in deep humility. Nevertheless, as we shall see, he is scathing in his criticisms and unbending in calling his contemporaries to repentance.

The Ruin of Britain is important to the period of the Celtic Revival because it shows us that revival is not something which, once it begins, continues and expands on its own energy. Revival is always a work God does in and through human beings, and human beings are always susceptible to the ways of sin (1 Cor. 10.12, 13). Apparently Gildas’ observations struck a chord with leaders of the Irish Church, who, seeing among their own ranks some of the same symptoms described by Gildas, turned to him for counsel concerning how to maintain a proper spiritual temper and practice among Christian leaders. Finnian of Clonard wrote to Gildas for advice, and fragments of Gildas’ letters in response (which we shall examine) reveal that conditions in Ireland were very like what Gildas observed in Britain. Finnian – teacher of Colum Cille, Sinell, and Comghall (the last two were teachers of Columbanus) – may have visited Britain to consult with Gildas, and possibly with the Welsh leader, David.

Conditions in the monasteries of the early 6th century necessitated the production of “penitentials”, handbooks of discipline designed to recover monks who strayed into sin and to guide others in recognizing and resisting temptation. My sense is that these penitential handbooks, such as we shall see from Gildas and Finnian in due course, indicate awareness on the part of Christian leaders that, for the work of God to continue through them, measures must be enacted to deal with any sin which may arise within the camp.

Gildas thus provides an overview of an aspect of the Celtic Revival which it is important for us to bear in mind, namely, that the work of God must proceed at the hands of men and women devoted to holiness, and that maintaining holiness requires loving discipline within a community of like-minded servants of God. Only “difficulties and troubles” will meet those who serve the Lord in name only, who are “lazy” with respect to the life of faith and obedience, or whose hearts have become hardened and their consciences seared to the convicting and sanctifying work of God’s Spirit. Gildas’ broadside against the state of Christian society in Britain helped to rally leaders of the Church in Ireland to measures designed to encourage continued faithfulness in pursuit of the Kingdom of God and His righteousness within their own communities.

In this series we will examine significant portions of The Ruin of Britain, with a view to bridging from the first generation of the Celtic Revival, embodied in Patrick and Sechnall, to the third generation, that of the saints of the 6th century, especially, Colum Cille. Gildas’ refusal to remain silent in the face of growing complacency toward sin may have helped to preserve the work of Patrick through the 6th century and into the age of Columbanus and the Irish peregrini.

Want to learn more about Patrick and the Celtic Revival and the lessons we can learn from it for today? Order T. M.’s book, The Legacy of Patrick, from our online store.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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