Quotulatiousness

April 16, 2014

Handel’s Messiah – the Live Aid of 1750

Filed under: Britain, History, Media, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:08

In the Telegraph, Michael White explains why Handel’s Messiah really was the 18th century equivalent of Live Aid:

Every year, his masterpiece reliably comes round, filling musicians’ diaries with unending renditions of the Hallelujah Chorus and “Surely he hath borne our griefs” (or “worn our briefs” as choirboys have it), like a tonic for the flagging bank balance. And it will be the same this week, with a performance of some kind or other guaranteed to come your way, unless you’re living in the Outer Hebrides without a choir in sight or sound.

But for good measure, there’s also a BBC TV programme on Saturday in which the historian Amanda Vickery is looking at Messiah’s back story. And it seems her interest isn’t in the piece as a gift to musicians but as a gift to the poor — focusing on a London performance in 1750 that was, as she says, an 18th-century precedent for Live Aid.

This performance took place at the Foundling Hospital in London, which these days is a museum but was then a children’s home attracting the support of celebrated figures in the arts world. Painters including Hogarth gave it canvases to exhibit; composers such as Handel gave it music to perform. And the funds raised helped keep it going — in something like the manner of that other famous children’s home, the Ospedale della Pietà, Venice, where Vivaldi gave his services.

[...]

The only problem was that Handel depended for commercial success on operatic ventures that proved disastrously expensive and went sour when public tastes changed (as they always do). Hence his interest in writing English oratorios: they were cheaper to produce than opera, avoided over-priced Italian singers and attracted decent audiences.

Hence Messiah, which was written not for London but for Dublin, where it was premiered in April 1742. A large crowd was clearly expected because notices published in advance begged gentlemen to leave their swords at home and ladies to attend “without Hoops”. The critical information on those notices, though, was that making room for more people would “greatly increase the Charity”; because even this initial Dublin try-out was a fundraiser, designed for the relief of prisoners and an infirmary.

So it was good causes that helped swell the turnout. And from what we know of how it went, the audience was high-minded, entering into the spirit of an entertainment that was happening in a concert hall but none the less used sacred texts.

Jonathan Swift, the Dean of Dublin’s Anglican Cathedral, had initially tried to stop his choir being involved, on the grounds that a concert hall wasn’t the right place for such things, and that one of the soloists, Susannah Cibber, was a woman of loose morals. But when she sang “He was despised” she did so with such beauty that another clergyman in the audience stood up and shouted “Woman, thy sins be forgiven”: the kind of engagement you might wish of modern audiences, if only they could be distracted from their iPhones.

March 19, 2014

Alex Marwood: “Fred Phelps might finally be teaching us a lesson”

Filed under: Media, Politics, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:45

Alex Marwood contemplates the actual lessons to be drawn from the impending death of the head (former head?) of the flamboyantly repellant Westboro Baptist Church:

But here’s the thing that might indeed deserve celebrating: I think that, in his final hours, Fred Phelps might finally be teaching us a lesson. And it’s not the lesson that his spittle-bowed ranting, his family’s laughable adaptations of pop songs and psychotic banner-waving have been intended to teach us. For years now, I’ve looked at Westboro and wanted to ask them about their take on the Seven Deadly Sins. The old man and his numerous offspring seemed, you see, to base their style upon them. Wrath he had, in plenty — but Phelps also seem to be driven as much by envy (of the “fags” who were getting preferential enabling), a prideful self-belief only challenged by that of L Ron Hubbard, greed, as demonstrated in all those juicy court settlements from local councils who sought to limit his ‘freedom of speech’ and, well, frankly, quite a bit of sloth, sitting about in his compound sending the grandkids out to demonstrate. As to gluttony and lust — well, no one really knows what went on behind the walls of that compound when Louis Theroux wasn’t filming, but the guy has 13 kids and a bit of a paunch, which suggests a degree of busyness, to say the least. And here he is, at the end of his life, alone, unmourned and, as many people believe, anyway, probably going to hell.

So thank you, Fred. You’ve taught us how not to live our lives. Actually, I would hazard that, if anything, Fred’s career has done gay rights a favour. For every sad-act who got themselves sucked in by them, there will be thousands upon thousands who will have thought “well, if that’s the face of the moral Right, I’m out,” and gone and shaken hands with their local homosexuals. In a land where the values of Christianity often seem to have been warped by the twin evils of psychopathically Right-wing Right-wingers and greed-fuelled fraudsters, Phelps picked up the ball, glued spikes on it and kicked it into the faces of small children and then sued them for getting in the way. He will have done more to turn people away from his brand of God than even Morris Cerullo. So thanks, Fred! If any of the kids are looking for an example of a Christian life, we now have a perfect example to show them, and say “the opposite of that, basically”. Well played, and flights of something sing thee to thy rest!

February 25, 2014

Freedom of belief and “administrative law” in Colorado

Filed under: Business, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:05

L. Neil Smith on a controversial case in Colorado:

In a story that recently made national news, a Colorado baker who, for reasons of Christian conscience, refused to make a wedding cake for a homosexual couple, has been ordered by a Denver administrative law judge (and exactly what the hell is an “administrative law judge”, anyway?) to do so nonetheless — and make similar cakes for any other customers who request them — or face fines and possibly a stretch in prison.

He will file reports and be watched closely from now on.

I am not kidding.

The baker, who has said that he will disobey the order, is Jack C. Phillips, his bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop. The judge’s name is Robert Spencer. The gay couple are Charlie Craig and David Mullins. The lawsuit was brought on their behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Craig and Mullins originally filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Apparently Phillips had refused another such request, by a lesbian couple, some time ago, and, according to local talk show host Peter Boyles of 710KNUS, was deliberately targeted, or “shopped”, possibly by the judge, himself. Meanwhile, a Colorado Democratic legislator (whose name I can’t find) has just introduced legislation that would crank up the fine for this “offense” by 7000 percent.

In a specimen of logic so twisted it would make Pablo Picasso or Salvador Dali vomit, Spencer has issued Phillips a “cease and desist” order — an official order to stop not doing something. It’s exactly like a moment out of a nightmare collaboration between Stalin and Kafka.

Clearly, Baker Phillips has a right, under the First Amendment — a right currently being denied him — to believe whatever he wishes, and to follow the precepts of his religion, as long as he doesn’t deny anybody else their rights. He also has a First Amendment right to freedom of speech, which necessarily includes the right not to speak, when that appears more eloquent, or to employ his artistic insights, intuitions, and skills in support of a cause that he personally finds obnoxious.

Certainly Craig and Mullins have their rights, as well, but they don’t include compelling Phillips or anybody else to work for them, or to pretend as if they agreed with their ideas and help trumpet them to the world. The fact is, there are dozens of other bakeries in Denver more than willing to do that. But, as we now know from Obamacare, everybody has to comply. They want to get this guy and get him good.

February 11, 2014

Quebec’s anti-capitalist heritage

Filed under: Business, Cancon, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:15

At The Gods of the Copybook Headings, Richard Anderson looks at the problem Quebec has with entrepreneurial and capitalist tendencies:

The hatred of capitalism in the “Quebec Dark Ages” had little to do with Anglo economic dominance. That most quintessential of Canadian capitalist icons, the coureur de bois, was a black marketer who flouted the authority of the colonial government and the sanctioned merchant class. Official French society, on both sides of the Atlantic, has always despised businessmen, except for those rent seekers who paid homage to the powers that be. In New France these licensed traders were known as voyageurs.

This is a never resolved tension in Quebecois society, between the pure entrepreneur represented by the coureur de bois and the official capitalist represented by the voyageur. There has been no shortage in modern economic history of talented Quebecois entrepreneurs, but their efforts are widely regarded as being some how suspicious. There is something slightly unwholesome about turning a profit and speaking French at the same time.

This is not unique to French society. In most Catholic, or post-Catholic countries this suspicion of capitalism and free markets is endemic. To their credit the French-Canadians, unlike the Portuguese, never burnt businessmen at the stake for displaying “Jewish tendencies.” It was only in some of the Protestant societies that capitalism became somewhat respectable. My own suspicion is that this had less to do with theology and more to do with social dynamics.

February 2, 2014

Groundhog Day – “…when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect”

Filed under: Humour, Media, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:01

Jonah Goldberg‘s 2005 column on the movie Groundhog Day, which just keeps repeating:

When I set out to write this article, I thought it’d be fun to do a quirky homage to an offbeat flick, one I think is brilliant as both comedy and moral philosophy. But while doing what I intended to be cursory research — how much reporting do you need for a review of a twelve-year-old movie that plays constantly on cable? — I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my interest. In the years since its release the film has been taken up by Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and followers of the oppressed Chinese Falun Gong movement. Meanwhile, the Internet brims with weighty philosophical treatises on the deep Platonist, Aristotelian, and existentialist themes providing the skin and bones beneath the film’s clown makeup. On National Review Online’s group blog, The Corner, I asked readers to send in their views on the film. Over 200 e-mails later I had learned that countless professors use it to teach ethics and a host of philosophical approaches. Several pastors sent me excerpts from sermons in which Groundhog Day was the central metaphor. And dozens of committed Christians of all denominations related that it was one of their most cherished movies.

When the Museum of Modern Art in New York debuted a film series on “The Hidden God: Film and Faith” two years ago, it opened with Groundhog Day. The rest of the films were drawn from the ranks of turgid and bleak intellectual cinema, including standards from Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. According to the New York Times, curators of the series were stunned to discover that so many of the 35 leading literary and religious scholars who had been polled to pick the series entries had chosen Groundhog Day that a spat had broken out among the scholars over who would get to write about the film for the catalogue. In a wonderful essay for the Christian magazine Touchstone, theology professor Michael P. Foley wrote that Groundhog Day is “a stunning allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay, a sort of Christian-Aristotelian Pilgrim’s Progress for those lost in the contemporary cosmos.” Charles Murray, author of Human Accomplishment, has cited Groundhog Day more than once as one of the few cultural achievements of recent times that will be remembered centuries from now. He was quoted in The New Yorker declaring, “It is a brilliant moral fable offering an Aristotelian view of the world.”

I know what you’re thinking: We’re talking about the movie in which Bill Murray tells a big rat sitting on his lap, “Don’t drive angry,” right? Yep, that’s the one. You might like to know that the rodent in question is actually Jesus — at least that’s what film historian Michael Bronski told the Times. “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever-hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays. And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect.”

That may be going overboard, but something important is going on here. What is it about this ostensibly farcical film about a wisecracking weatherman that speaks to so many on such a deep spiritual level?

And on the subject of the groundhog whose day it is, here’s an old post with a local-ish connection: A tribute (of sorts) to Wiarton Willie.

December 27, 2013

QotD: The Church of England

Filed under: Britain, Humour, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:47

“Getting the PM to choose the right bishop is like a conjuror getting a member of the audience to choose a card. With the Church of England the choice is usually between a knave and a queen.”

“The bench of bishops should have a proper balance between those who believe in God and those who don’t.”

“Bishops tend to live a long time, perhaps because the Almighty is not all that keen for them to join him.”

“The plans for a new church in South London had places for dispensing orange juice, family planning, and organizing demos, but nowhere to celebrate Holy Communion.”

“Theology is a device for helping agnostics to stay within the Church of England.”

“The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England. God is an optional extra.”

Jonathan Lynn, “Yes Minister Series: Quotes from the dialogue”, JonathanLynn.com

December 17, 2013

Io Saturnalia!

Filed under: History, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:16

In History Today, Matt Salusbury traces the Roman festival of Saturnalia (which was celebrated on December 17th) and its relationship to Christmas in the late empire:

It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. But was Christmas, Western Christianity’s most popular festival, derived from the pagan Saturnalia?

The first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as ‘the best of times’: dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged.

[...]

Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honour of Saturn (satus means sowing). Numerous archaeological sites from the Roman coastal province of Constantine, now in Algeria, demonstrate that the cult of Saturn survived there until the early third century AD.

Saturnalia grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates under the Roman period. During the reign of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), it was a two-day affair starting on December 17th. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event. Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25th, around the time of the date of the winter solstice.

From as early as 217 BC there were public Saturnalia banquets. The Roman state cancelled executions and refrained from declaring war during the festival. Pagan Roman authorities tried to curtail Saturnalia; Emperor Caligula (AD 12-41) sought to restrict it to five days, with little success.

Emperor Domitian (AD 51-96) may have changed Saturnalia’s date to December 25th in an attempt to assert his authority. He curbed Saturnalia’s subversive tendencies by marking it with public events under his control. The poet Statius (AD 45- 95), in his poem Silvae, describes the lavish banquet and entertainments Domitian presided over, including games which opened with sweets, fruit and nuts showered on the crowd and featuring flights of flamingos released over Rome. Shows with fighting dwarves and female gladiators were illuminated, for the first time, into the night.

December 12, 2013

Sex and the Romans

Filed under: History, Media, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In the New York Review of Books, Peter Brown reviews a new book on the evolution of our knowledge about Roman sexuality at the start of the Christian era:

One of the most lasting delights and challenges of the study of the ancient world, and of the Roman Empire in particular, is the tension between familiarity and strangeness that characterizes our many approaches to it. It is like a great building, visible from far away, at the end of a straight road that cuts across what seems to be a level plain. Only when we draw near are we brought up sharp, on the edge of a great canyon, invisible from the road, that cuts its way between us and the monument we seek. We realize that we are looking at this world from across a sheer, silent drop of two thousand years.

Antiquity is always stranger than we think. Nowhere does it prove to be more strange than where we once assumed that it was most familiar to us. We always knew that the Romans had a lot of sex. Indeed, in the opinion of our elders, they probably had a lot more than was quite good for them. We also always knew that the early Christians had an acute sense of sin. We tend to think that they had a lot more sense of sin than they should have had. Otherwise they were very like ourselves. Until recently, studies of sex in Rome and of Christianity in the Roman world were wrapped in a cocoon of false familiarity.

Only in the last generation have we realized the sheer, tingling drop of the canyon that lies between us and a world that we had previously tended to take for granted as directly available to our own categories of understanding. “Revealing Antiquity,” the Harvard University Press series edited by Glen Bowersock, has played its part in instilling in us all a healthy sense of dizziness as we peer over the edge into a fascinating but deeply strange world. Kyle Harper’s book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is a scintillating contribution to this series. Not only does it measure the exact nature of the tension between the familiar and the deeply unfamiliar that lies behind our image of the sexual morality of Greeks and Romans of the Roman Empire of the classical period. It also goes on to evoke the sheer, unexpected strangeness of the very different sexual code elaborated in early Christian circles, and its sudden, largely unforeseen undermining of a very ancient social equilibrium in the two centuries that followed the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312. As Harper makes plain on the first page of his dense and vivid book, “Few periods of premodern history have witnessed such brisk and consequential ideological change. Sex was at the center of it all.”

October 16, 2013

QotD: Shylock on revenge

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act III Scene 1.

July 16, 2013

The authoritarian wing of the same-sex marriage campaign

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:28

A. Barton Hinkle wonders if gay couples can live and let live:

It was a great day when the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and threw out a California case that could have undermined gay marriage in the Golden State. On that day, gay and lesbian citizens won something profoundly important: acknowledgment of the right to live as they choose, without interference from others who think they know better.

Now the question is: Will gay and lesbian citizens acknowledge that everybody else has the same right? Some certainly will. But others are challenging the notion – and thereby undermining the case for their own hard-won victory.

David Mullins and Charlie Craig, for instance. The gay Colorado couple have filed a discrimination complaint against the owners of Masterpiece Cakeshop, who declined for religious reasons to make them a wedding cake. The Colorado attorney general’s office has taken their side. So, regrettably, has the ACLU.

And they have company: Similar complaints have been brought against bakeries in Oregon, Indianapolis, and Iowa; a Hawaiian bed-and-breakfast; a Vermont inn; a Washington florist; a Kentucky T-shirt company; and more. As gay marriage gains ground, cases such as these likely will flourish.

As they do, they will lend credence to the otherwise ludicrous assertion by social conservatives that there is a “homosexual agenda.” It will remain absurd to suggest gay people are trying to turn straight people gay. Changing other people’s sexual orientation has always been a conservative project, not a liberal one. But it will cease being absurd to suggest that requests for tolerance are actually demands for approval – and that those who claim to celebrate diversity actually insist upon ideological uniformity.

May 15, 2013

Pat Condell on the concept of “transcendence”

Filed under: Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:43

May 10, 2013

Colby Cosh on “gendercide”

Filed under: Cancon, Health, Law, Liberty, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:53

Despite the federal government’s efforts to keep this debate from happening, we apparently are going to be having a big national debate about abortion. (For those following from outside the borders of Former Soviet Canuckistan, Canada doesn’t actually have any abortion law on the books at the moment, and Stephen Harper’s government of “bitter-clinging, right-wing, Bible-thumping, fundamentalist Christian” Conservatives is desperate not to have to bring one in.) Colby Cosh explains why the efforts by some back-bench MPs to use “gendercide” as a way to force the government’s hand won’t work:

Here, then, is my contribution to the big conversation.

(1) “Gendercide” is incoherent religious militancy in cheap drag. (Editors certainly shouldn’t be taking sides by putting it in headlines as if it were an actual thing.)

(2) However you feel about personal eugenics, which is an accurate name for “mothers choosing babies that are likely to be better in some respect they deem relevant”, the Era Of It is arriving now and will not be wished away.

(3) Sex-selective abortion perpetrated for reasons of religious superstition is, upon all evidence, a marginal phenomenon in this country, probably a fading one, and quite likely to be an inherently self-correcting one. It makes a shabby excuse for blowing up the political truce our country clings to when it comes to the topic of abortion. (It seems remotely possible that Stephen Harper has perceived this and concurs with it.)

(4) In particular, no statute is likely to be effective against sex selection by mothers. We had one, you know, and it actually made a hypothetical exception for parents at risk of X-linked gene disease. A Liberal government devoted to “reproductive choice” criminalized sex-selective embryo implantation by means of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act; a Supreme Court found that law offensive to the Constitution; and a Conservative government closed the agency that was supposed to enforce it because it had accomplished the sum total of jack squat ever.

(5) People who wish to police sex-selective abortion had better figure out what exactly kinds they don’t like. And why. And what other reasons for a woman to have an abortion don’t cut their brand of mustard. And whether they really want their wives, girlfriends, daughters or nieces to end up as a future Case 6 running afoul of the law.

(6) Fellow-travellers of Mark Warawa who think he makes an awesome test case for parliamentary purity should consider looking for one that, pardon the metaphor, doesn’t have quite so many oopsies in its DNA.

April 27, 2013

The last Beguine

Filed under: Europe, History, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:53

An obituary (and short history lesson) in The Economist:

AT THE heart of several cities in Belgium lies an unexpected treasure. A gate in a high brick wall creaks open, to reveal a cluster of small, whitewashed, steep-roofed houses round a church. Cobbled alleyways run between them and tiny lawns, thickly planted with flowers, grow in front of them. The cosiness, the neatness and the quiet suggest a hortus conclusus, a medieval metaphor both for virginal women and the walled garden of paradise.

Any veiled women seen there now, however, processing to Mass or tying up hollyhocks in their dark habits and white wimples, are ghosts. Marcella Pattyn was the last of them, ending a way of life that had endured for 800 years.

These places were not convents, but beguinages, and the women in them were not nuns, but Beguines. In these communities, which sprang up spontaneously in and around the cities of the Low Countries from the early 13th century, women led lives of prayer, chastity and service, but were not bound by vows. They could leave; they made their own rules, without male guidance; they were encouraged to study and read, and they were expected to earn their keep by working, especially in the booming cloth trade. They existed somewhere between the world and the cloister, in a state of autonomy which was highly unusual for medieval women and highly disturbing to medieval men.

Nor, to be honest, was it the first thing Juffrouw Marcella thought of when, as a girl, she realised that her dearest wish was to serve her Lord. But she was blind, or almost so, and no other community would accept her. She wanted to work, too, and was not sure she could in an ordinary convent. The beguinages had originally been famous for taking the “spare” or “surplus” women who crowded into 13th-century cities in search of jobs. Even so, the first community she tried sent her back after a week, unable to find a use for her. (In old age she still wept at the thought of all the rejections, dabbing with a handkerchief at her blue unseeing eyes.) A rich aunt intervened with a donation to keep her there, and from the age of 21 she was a Beguine.

April 7, 2013

US Army labels Evangelicals, Catholics, the JDL and the LDS as extremist religious organizations

Filed under: Military, Religion, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:29

I have to assume this is a week-delayed April Fool’s prank:

US Army list of religious extremism

In addition to groups that probably belong on such a list (Hamas, Al Qaeda, the KKK), some of the more startling additions to the list:

  • Evangelical Christianity (U.S./Christian)
  • Catholicism (U.S./Christian)
  • Jewish Defence League (U.S./Judaism)
  • Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (U.S./Morman [sic])

Todd Starnes:

The U.S. Army listed Evangelical Christianity and Catholicism as examples of religious extremism along with Al Qaeda and Hamas during a briefing with an Army Reserve unit based in Pennsylvania, Fox News has learned.

“We find this offensive to have Evangelical Christians and the Catholic Church to be listed among known terrorist groups,” said Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. “It is dishonorable for any U.S. military entity to allow this type of wrongheaded characterization.”

March 17, 2013

Debunking St. Patrick

Filed under: Europe, History, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:02

In Slate, David Plotz separates the myth from what is known about the real St. Patrick:

Today we raise a glass of warm green beer to a fine fellow, the Irishman who didn’t rid the land of snakes, didn’t compare the Trinity to the shamrock, and wasn’t even Irish. St. Patrick, who died 1,507, 1,539, or 1,540 years ago today — depending on which unreliable source you want to believe — has been adorned with centuries of Irish blarney. Innumerable folk tales recount how he faced down kings, negotiated with God, tricked and slaughtered Ireland’s reptiles.

The facts about St. Patrick are few. Most derive from the two documents he probably wrote, the autobiographical Confession and the indignant Letter to a slave-taking marauder named Coroticus. Patrick was born in Britain, probably in Wales, around 385 A.D. His father was a Roman official. When Patrick was 16, seafaring raiders captured him, carried him to Ireland, and sold him into slavery. The Christian Patrick spent six lonely years herding sheep and, according to him, praying 100 times a day. In a dream, God told him to escape. He returned home, where he had another vision in which the Irish people begged him to return and minister to them: “We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more,” he recalls in the Confession. He studied for the priesthood in France, then made his way back to Ireland.

He spent his last 30 years there, baptizing pagans, ordaining priests, and founding churches and monasteries. His persuasive powers must have been astounding: Ireland fully converted to Christianity within 200 years and was the only country in Europe to Christianize peacefully. Patrick’s Christian conversion ended slavery, human sacrifice, and most intertribal warfare in Ireland. (He did not banish the snakes: Ireland never had any. Scholars now consider snakes a metaphor for the serpent of paganism. Nor did he invent the Shamrock Trinity. That was an 18th-century fabrication.)

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