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The Scriptorium

The Intelligent Ass

We need men like Gildas in our day.

Gildas, The Ruin of Britain (2)

This was how my thoughts, like joint debtors, kept checkmating each other with opposed objections like this or even more stinging. They wrestled, as I said, for no short time when I read, “There is a time for speech and a time for silence”, as though they were in a narrow corridor of fear. Finally the victor went to the creditor. “Perhaps,” he said, “you are not bold enough to be numbered among the truth-telling rational creatures of descent second only to the angels, and fear to be branded with the glorious mark of golden liberty. But at least you should not shun the attitude of the intelligent ass, hitherto tongueless, that was inspired with the Spirit of God. She refused to carry the crowned magician who proposed to curse the people of God, and in a narrow place between vineyard walls she lamed and crushed his foot: though she received unkind blows for it. He was ungrateful and angry, and struck at her innocent sides quite unjustly; yet she pointed out to him, as with a finger, an angel from heaven, drawn sword in hand, on the path, whom he, in his blind stupidity, had failed to see.”

Therefore, in zeal for the sacred law of the house of the Lord, spurred on by my own thoughts and the devout prayers of my brethren, I now pay the debt so long incurred: a poor payment, doubtless, but, as I think, true to the faith and well-intentioned towards every noble soldier of Christ, though burdensome and insupportable for foolish rebels. The former will receive it, if I am not mistaken, with tears that flow from the charity of God, but the others with sadness – the sadness that is wrung from the indignation and faintheartedness attending a pricked conscience.

Translation John Morris, The Ruin of Britain

We are examining Gildas’ The Ruin of Britain, an early 6th-century assessment of the state of the Church in Britain by one who, having observed the sad state of affairs for ten years in silence, came to the conviction that he could be silent no more.

Our quotation comes at the end of a lengthy section in which Gildas relates how, as he was reading the Word of God over that ten-year period, many passages of Scripture spoke directly to him about the situation in Britain and his responsibility with respect to it. He saw throughout the Old Testament how God had often judged those who were faithless or disobedient, and how He raised up prophets like Jeremiah to make His will known to His rebellious people. “I gazed on these things and many others in the Old Testament, as though on a mirror reflecting our own life,” he explained. And when he turned to the New Testament, it was more of the same. There, he reports, “I saw clearly how men of our day have increasingly put care aside, as though there were nothing to fear.”

No fear of God, no care for doing things according to God’s Word, self-interest the driving force in all things. Gildas saw this as “a great black blot on our generation”. He summarized his observations and burden concerning the state of the Church: “It has heinous and appalling sins in common with all the wicked ones of the world; but over and above that, it has as though inborn in it a load of ignorance and folly that cannot be erased or avoided.”

He could no longer turn a blind eye to these conditions. Yet he continued to pit his thoughts against each other, now concerned that he ought to speak out like Jeremiah against the ills of his age, and now telling himself the Church had governors and watchmen whose job this was, and he should mind his own business and merely attend to his own ministry. He felt like his thoughts were jostling together in a narrow corridor, so violently back-and-forth did his mind struggle with whether he should continue his silence or speak out, even if it meant “standing up against the blows of so violent a torrent” as he expected would greet anything he might say or write.

As he waffled, God rebuked him. Maybe he didn’t have the courage any real man might have to speak out against such evils. But did he at least have the attitude of Balaam’s ass, which pointed out the danger ahead and warned of judgment?

Gildas sought the prayers and counsel of trusted brethren, and then resolved on his course. He would pay his “debt” to the Church, “in zeal for the sacred law of the house of the Lord,” and do what any “noble soldier of Christ” would do, though the results of his task be “burdensome and insupportable for foolish rebels.” He hoped that tears of repentance and of longing for revival might issue from those who shared his views and concerns, although he knew that only indignation would come to him from those whose consciences were seared and who wished only to preserve the status quo.

Gildas was a man of God’s Word and a true lover of His Church. As he searched the Scripture he tried every way he could to avoid having to speak up against the evils of his day. But God continued to press on him and indict him, until he could no longer remain silent. He did not regard himself as doing anything heroic. He was just an “intelligent ass” speaking up against what he feared would be the judgment of God against His Church, if her “governors” and “watchmen” did not begin to seek a different course.

Our own age needs men like Gildas to reveal the “load of ignorance” and expose the “folly” of our doings as leaders in the Body of Christ. Our nation is on a path to ruin because of the failure of the Church to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Those who, like Jeremiah and Gildas, stand up and point the finger are not likely to be uniformly welcomed. But if they strike a receptive chord in the hearts of the noble soldiers of Christ, such that repentance leading to revival and renewal ensues, then their labors will have been welcomed in heaven, at least, and by the generations that follow.

T. M. Moore

Want to learn more about the Celtic Revival and its ongoing impact? 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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