Gildas, The Ruin of Britain (4)
“Wash your heart clean of wickedness, Jerusalem,” as it is said, “and be saved.” Do not reject, I beseech you, the unspeakable mercy of God, who by his prophet thus calls the wicked to leave their sins: “I shall speak suddenly to the people and to the kingdom, to uproot and scatter and destroy and ruin.” This is how he vehemently encourages the sinner to repent: “And if that people repents its sin, I shall repent of doing the evil thing I said I should do to them”. And again: “Who will give them the heart to hear me and keep my commands, and prosper all the days of their life?” And again, in the Song of Deuteronomy: “A people without plan or prudence: would that they would be wise and understand and have regard for what comes last of all! How can one man pursue a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight?” And again the Lord in the gospels: “Come to me, all of you who are burdened and in trouble, and I will make you rest. Lay my yoke on you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
You may hear this with deaf ears, spurning the prophets, despising Christ, regarding me, worthless as I am, as of no importance; though it is with sincere piety of mind that I obey the pronouncement of the prophet: “I shall surely fill my courage with the Spirit and virtue of the Lord, to announce to the house of Jacob its sins, and its crimes to the house of Israel”, to avoid being one of the “dogs that are dumb and cannot bark”: and the words of Solomon: “He who says the wicked man is just will be cursed by peoples and hated by nations; but those who condemn shall have hope of better”, and again: “Do not be respectful of your neighbour if it should cause his fall, and do not keep back a word when it would do good”, and also: “Save those who are being led to die, and do not hesitate to ransom those who are being killed”: because, as the same prophet says, “riches will be of no avail on the day of wrath; it is justice that frees from death”; “if the just can scarce be saved, where will the wicked and the sinner appear?” But if so you will surely be caught up in the dreadful eddying and the fiercest surges of the dark torrent of Hell. It will always torment you, yet never consume you. Useless and too late then will be the clear sight of your punishment and your repentance from sin: for at this favoured time and on the day of salvation you are delaying your conversion to the true path of life.
Translation Michael Winterbottom, The Ruin of Britain
Gildas has just finished a lengthy section in which he showed how the British nation declined, from the time of the first martyrs to his own day, under the leadership of various kings. The focus in this overview is on the failure of the kings to fulfill their duty as unto the Lord. As the Roman armies withdrew from Britain, the people became vulnerable to raiders and invaders of various sorts, and a season of general disquiet and unfruitfulness settled on the land, during which time the people drifted away from God and into lives of wickedness. After a period of truce with their enemies and respite from raiding Picts and Irish, the nation once again knew prosperity, and with prosperity, increased godlessness: “And it was not only this vice [fornication] that flourished, but all those that generally befall human nature – and especially the one that is the downfall of every good condition nowadays too, the hatred of truth and its champions and the love of falsehood and its contrivers: the taking up of evil instead of good, the adoration of wickedness instead of kindness, the desire for darkness instead of sun, the welcoming of Satan as an angel of light.”
In short, as far as the British people of the fourth and fifth centuries were concerned, “Everything they did went against their salvation, just as though the true doctor of us all granted the world no medicine. And this was true not merely of worldly men; the flock of the Lord and his shepherds, who should have been an example to the whole people, lay about, most of them, in drunken stupor, as though sodden in wine. They were a prey to swelling hatreds, contentious quarrels, the greedy talons of envy, judgement that made no distinction between good and evil: it looked very much as though, then as now, contempt was being poured on the princes, so that they were seduced by their follies and wandered in the trackless desert.”
More trouble ensued, the act of God’s judgment: the coming of the Saxons to bring devastation to the increasingly godless nation. Only after many years and the battle of Badon Hill were the Saxons defeated, but the kings who succeeded them did not lead the nation to revival and renewal. Instead, general decline in prosperity – material and spiritual – became the new status quo, and the kings of Britain ruled like tyrants over the people for their own ends. Gildas then rehearses the “five tyrants” of Britain presently causing the people such misery and leaving them without an example of godliness to follow. His call to repentance, which I quoted above, is directed at all Britain of his day, but in particular at the kings and clergy of the land.
Let’s note a few things about this call to repentance.
First, for Gildas there is no distinction between “secular” history and Church history. All history happens under the watchful eye of God, Who is advancing His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Kings and clergy and people are all accountable to God, Who judges and blesses people according to their faithfulness in seeking Him.
Consequently, Gildas did not shy away from addressing “political” issues in his ministry. Instead, taking his cues from the prophets and the Lord Jesus, he exposed the deeds of darkness in his own generation, wherever they were to be found, and called those guilty of sin to remember their responsibility to God, repent of their wickedness, and return to the fold of the Lord, lest they come under His eternal wrath.
In Gildas’ worldview, bad politics and a poor economy are the result of broken fellowship with God. The solution to such ills is not different politics and economy but spiritual renewal and return to the truth and grace of the Lord. This is a theme that will recur throughout the period of the Celtic Revival. Men cannot know true peace and happiness apart from being right with God.
In case anyone may wonder why a mere monk dares to indict kings, clergy, and people alike, Gildas grounds his words in the example of the prophets of the Old Testament and the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s only doing what the prophets did and what Jesus showed by His own example. He calls the nation to be clean of its wickedness and to receive the mercy and forgiveness of God, lest their ruin become even more pronounced and their eternal condemnation be ensured. Those who read his words may “hear this with deaf ears, spurning the prophets, despising Christ, regarding me, worthless as I am, as of no importance…” but if they do they “will surely be caught up in the dreadful eddying and the fiercest surges of the dark torrent of Hell.”
The Good News is that mercy and forgiveness are there for the asking; the bad news is that failure to seek such grace results in self-condemnation and eternal misery.
Here is preaching (writing) that has historical context, Biblical foundations, prophetic insight and urging, contemporary relevance, and a passionate plea for repentance, revival, and renewal on the part of all who read.
And Gildas has only just begun.
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.
Call to Repentance
- T.M. Moore
- September 14, 2014
Gildas' voice is needed in our day.
Gildas, The Ruin of Britain (4)
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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