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The Scriptorium

Brilliant Lamps

The faith of the martyrs often sustains the Church.

Gildas, The Ruin of Britain (4)

God therefore increased his pity for us; for he wishes all men to be saved, and calls sinners no less than those who think themselves just. As a free gift to us, in the time (as I conjecture) of this same persecution, he acted to save Britain being plunged deep in the thick darkness of black night; for he lit for us the brilliant lamps of holy martyrs. Their graves and the places where they suffered would now have the greatest effect in instilling the blaze of divine charity in the minds of beholders, were it not that our citizens, thanks to our sins, have been deprived of many of them by the unhappy partition with the barbarians. I refer to St. Alban of Verulam, Aaron and Julius, citizens of Caerleon, and the others of both sexes who, in different places, displayed the highest spirit in the battle-line of Christ.

Alban, for charity’s sake, and in imitation even here of Christ, who laid down his life for his sheep, protected a confessor from his persecutors when he was on the point of arrest. Hiding him in his house and then changing clothes with him, he gladly exposed himself to danger and pursuit in the other’s habit. Between the time of his holy confession and the taking of his blood, and in the presence of wicked men who displayed the Roman standards to the most horrid effect, the pleasure that God took in him showed itself: by a miracle he was marked out by wonderful signs. Thanks to his fervent prayer, he opened up an unknown route across the channel of the great river Thames – a route resembling the untrodden way made dry for the Israelites, when the ark of the testament stood for a while on gravel in midstream of Jordan. Accompanied by a thousand men, he crossed dry-shod, while the river eddies stayed themselves on either side like precipitous mountains. In this way he changed from wolf to lamb his first executioner, when he saw such a wonder, and made him too thirst strongly for the triumphal palm of martyrdom and bravely receive it.

As for the others, they were so racked with different torments, so torn with unheard of rending of limbs, that there was no delay in their fixing the trophies of their glorious martyrdom on the splendid gates of Jerusalem. The survivors hid in woods, desert places and secret caves, looking to God, the just ruler of all, for severe judgements, one day, on their tormentors, and for protection for their own lives.

Before ten years of this whirlwind had wholly passed, the wicked edicts were beginning to wither away as their authors were killed. Glad-eyed, all the champions of Christ welcomed, as though after a long winter’s night, the calm and the serene light of the breeze of heaven. They rebuilt churches that had been razed to the ground; they founded, built and completed chapels to the holy martyrs, displaying them everywhere like victorious banners. They celebrated feast days. With pure heart and mouth they carried out the holy ceremonies. And all her sons exulted, as though warmed in the bosom of the mother church.

Translation Michael Winterbottom, The Ruin of Britain

Gildas recalls the courage and suffering of those British martyrs of the early fourth century, Alban of Verulam chief among them. The martyrs of the early Church – “brilliant lamps” – were a source of great pride and encouragement for their fellow believers. They showed that life with Christ matters more than safety here and now. While many fell away during times of persecution, the martyrs stood firm in the faith and bore the brunt of suffering, even to the point of death. Jesus had promised suffering and persecution, and the martyrs saw no reason to deny anything of the experience of following Him that the Lord had prepared for them.

Interesting to me in this section is Gildas’ report of a miracle performed by Alban. Gildas is a historian, not a hagiographer. He is interested in the facts concerning conditions and events in Britain and not in embellishing, for whatever purposes, whether noble or base, the lives of particular individuals with fantastic stories of miracles or conversations with angels. His inclusion of this story about Alban indicates that he believed it actually happened, just as he reported it. If there were a thousand others present at the event, and at least one of them a former persecutor, it would not have taken long for the story to circulate far and wide, and to continue in circulation for over 200 years down to Gildas’ day.

I think we are too quick sometimes to dismiss such accounts, because we’re not familiar with their happening in our own experience or day. We should be careful about this, however. In every age of Church history reports exist from credible witnesses and reporters of God doing extraordinary signs and wonders through select individuals.

For ten years Roman authorities savaged the Church in Britain, but as the promulgators of this disaster died off and new leadership arose, the persecution gradually ceased. The resiliency of Christ then showed itself, as churches were rebuilt and a season of renewal began in Britain. We are now moving into the third decade of the fourth century, and everywhere signs of hope and awakening were in view. Gildas saw this as a moving of God’s Spirit – “the calm and the serene light of the breeze of heaven.” Only God can bring revival, and He often does so only after periods of trial and testing (cf. Ps. 66).

But, as we shall see, such seasons can be all too short. The faith of the church was compromised and political struggles would again wreak havoc throughout the island during most of the rest of the fourth century. Gildas gives us a hint of what is to follow in his mention of the “sins” of the British Christians who allowed the graves and sites of the martyrs’ suffering to go to ruin.

Church history follows cycles of renewal, flourishing, and decline in nearly every age and generation. But always there is progress in the unfolding of God’s Kingdom. Even a decline as deep as Gildas reports in The Ruin of Britain would not be fatal to the faith; revival, renewal, and awakening come again, even from unlikely sources, as God is pleased to remain faithful to His covenant and promises.

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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