Gildas, The Ruin of Britain (3)
Ever since it was first inhabited, Britain has been ungratefully rebelling, stiff-necked and haughty, now against God, now against its own countrymen, sometimes even against kings from abroad and their subjects. What daring of man can, now or in the future, be more foul and wicked than to deny fear to God, charity to good fellow-countrymen, honour to those placed in higher authority (for that is their due, granted, of course, that there is no harm to the faith): to break faith with man and God: to cast away fear of heaven and earth, and to be ruled each man by his own contrivances and lusts?
Meanwhile, to an island numb with chill ice and far removed, as in a remote nook of the world, from the visible sun, Christ made a present of his rays (that is, his precepts), Christ the true sun, which shows its dazzling brilliance to the entire earth, not from the temporal firmament merely, but from the highest citadel of heaven, that goes beyond all time. This happened first, as we know, in the last years of the emperor Tiberius, at a time when Christ’s religion was being propagated without hindrance: for, against the wishes of the senate, the emperor threatened the death penalty for informers against soldiers of God.
Christ’s precepts were received by the inhabitants without enthusiasm: but they remained, more or less pure, right up till the nine year persecution by the tyrant Diocletian, when churches were razed throughout the world, the holy Scriptures, wherever they could be found, were burned in the squares, and the chosen priests of the Lord’s flock, together with their harmless sheep, were slaughtered – so that there should, if possible, be no trace of the Christian religion remaining in some provinces. Church history tells us what flights then took place, what killings, what varieties of death penalty, what falls of apostates, what crowns for the glorious martyrs: what mad rage afflicted the persecutors, what matching endurance was displayed by the saints. Indeed, the whole church, in close array, competed to turn its back on the shadows of the world and hastened to the pleasant kingdom of heaven, as to its proper abode.
Translation John Morris, The Ruin of Britain
Gildas begins his account of Britain’s “ruin” with a quick overview of what he intends to report, then a brief geographical description of the island he clearly loves.
Our first citation begins his discussion of Britain under Roman governorship. He writes of the British people that they have always rebelled against authority and striven with one another because they denied fear to God and charity and honor to one another. It is the highest “daring”, he insists, to live in violation of the great commandments, to neglect love for God and one’s neighbor. This paragraph is meant not only as a kind of indictment of the British character, as it has been from the beginning, but to show how that character persists in the present state of things in Britain, where men love their own “contrivances and lusts” more than God and His ways, as we shall see. Gildas here brilliantly summarizes the whole of his work – Britain has been a ruined people from the beginning and remains so to this day. The clergy and people of Britain in Gildas’ day have not made progress in the Kingdom of God; rather, they have regressed to their nation’s sad beginnings.
But this has not always been the case. Gildas elects to skip over the eons of darkness prior to the time of the Roman occupation, when paganism ruled the island. For him, Britain’s history – at least, that which is relevant to his argument – begins with Rome and, more specifically, with the coming of the Gospel to the island. He briefly recounts the violence with which Rome subdued Britain’s populace, then comes our second citation, concerning the coming of the “rays” and “precepts” of Christ to Britain. The Gospel came as a “present” to the rebellious British, a gift of the grace of God, just as it comes to every place. He offers no details as to how the Good News arrived in Britain. Legends involving St. Andrew and Joseph of Arimathea may have been in his mind, but he did not regard them either as sufficiently historical or relevant to mention. The proclamation of the Gospel in Britain began, Gildas reports, without hindrance or “enthusiasm”, during the reign of Tiberius, that is, toward the end of the first century and into the beginning of the second. At first Tiberius allowed the faith to propagate without persecution, even protecting soldiers in his army who had come to profession of faith in Christ.
For two centuries, then, believers in Britain kept the faith “more or less pure” until the persecution under Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century. Then the Church was savaged throughout the Empire, as Gildas briefly explains. He notes the “glorious martyrs” who refused to recant, whose “endurance” in the faith matched the determination of their persecutors, and who and gave their lives for the name of Jesus. So many died, in fact, that it seemed “the whole church, in close array, competed to turn its back on the shadows of this world and hastened to the pleasant kingdom of heaven, as to its proper abode.” He hints at the various extant historical records which he consulted to confirm his understanding of this period, perhaps a reference to Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. Our citations stop just as Gildas prepares to tell the story of Alban, which we will consider in our next installment.
The question might arise as to why Gildas thought it important, in calling the clergy and church of his day to repentance, to begin with this historical overview and background? Obviously he believed that history has weight, that it is beneficial to understand what God has done in the past, to mark how we frequently do not learn from past mistakes, and to remind us how easy it can be to revert to ways long abandoned or to diverge from those which have proven fruitful in previous generations. History also demonstrates the faithfulness of God, His persistent grace and patience, and the examples of forebears who, though long departed, might help us recover our footing on the Lord’s path. History serves to remind us that the Church must expect to struggle in this world, but that it must not capitulate in the face of pressure to conform. Instead, believers act heroically, and in line with their honored predecessors, when they endure in the faith against all opposition, their focus squarely on the eternal Kingdom and the promise of glory.
In a day when ignorance – even despite – of history characterizes so much of the contemporary Church, Gildas’ appeal to the weight of history provides an important reminder of why understanding our past matters. Many valuable lessons can be learned from history, from the period of the Celtic Revival, for example. But if we choose to remain ignorant of these, and to live the faith of Christ rooted only in our own experience and the temper of the times, cut off root and branch from the work of God in the past, it will be much easier for us to be dislodged from our firm footing in the faith once for all delivered to the saints and kept by the Spirit of God through the faithful lives and ministries of those who have gone before.
And this path, Gildas wants us to understand, leads not to renewal, but to ruin.
T. M. Moore
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