Menu
A+ A A-

The Church, the Ennobler of Cultures

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

The cattle keepers had done with their day's labor, and were now noisily gathering in one of the halls on the monastery grounds.


Join the worldwide Magnificat family by subscribing now: Your prayer life will never be the same!

caedmon1It was a feast day, and that meant a celebration, not with wine, since it was too far north for grapevines, and what wine the good Abbess Hilda kept was for the sacrament and for visitors.  They'd be drinking beer, good dark stuff with the smell and the smack of the grain that grew in the fields of Whitby.

Caedmon knew what else it meant.  There's no such thing as a feast without song, and no festal song without praise of gods and the heroes of old.  So his father had sung tales of Sigemund and Ingeld, and his grandfather, and men going back countless generations, even to the days when giants roamed the earth.  Caedmon loved with a guilty love the tales of the heroes and their wars with giants and dragons, and of their enmities and feuds.  In those northern lands, where winter is long and dark, it seemed that the noblest of the heroes ended their days in defeat, but bravely fighting on to the last, strongest in will when their weary arms could hardly lift a sword.

They stirred something at once bitter and enticing in Caedmon's heart.  His hand reached toward the wooden cross about his neck.  And the men were silent while one of their fellows swept his fingers across the harp and sang of the demigod Weland the Blacksmith.  And when he ended his song they shouted like boys, and the harp made its way around the table, each man in turn to sing one of the old songs, while the beer flowed freely.

"Good brothers," Caedmon said, rising from the table, "it's my turn to see to the cows tonight," and he left, alone, for the stables.

Do not destroy, but purify

Caedmon didn't know it, but over a hundred years earlier a ship filled with northern prisoners of war put in at Rome, and there a man named Gregory beheld those young Saxons, tall and blond.  "Who are these people?" Gregory asked.

"Sunt Angli," the trader replied.  "They are Angles."

"Non Angli sed angeli," said Gregory: not Angles, but angels.  When Gregory became pope, he sent missionaries to the British Isles to bring the Gospel of Christ to those pagans.  Saint Augustine, first bishop of Canterbury, was one of those sent.  Augustine was a careful man, to whom Gregory sometimes needed to give gentle encouragement.  The pagan Angles and Saxons were rough customers.  They had the virtues and the shortcomings of a warrior society; courageous, intransigent, grudge-holding, heedless of the future, fiercely loyal, even while their poetry was filled with tales of treachery.  They worshiped their gods, and their shrines were stained with the rusty brown of immemorial human blood.

Augustine trusted Gregory's judgment more than he trusted his own.  "What shall be done with the pagan shrines?" he wrote to the pope.  "Shall we destroy them?" That seemed the obvious course of action.

So Gregory prayed for wisdom.

It wasn't simply a matter of the shrine, but of everything the shrine represented, the whole of that pagan life lived under the darkness of sin and error, even the wickedness of human sacrifice.  Why should any of it be preserved?  Yet Gregory thought of the strange domed temple to all the pagan gods, the Pantheon, now a church dedicated to all the saints.  There was an opening in that dome at the top through which the sun in its circling would shed light upon each of the twelve gods — now each of twelve saints.  The darkness of the pagan world was great, but not total.  God had left sinful mankind to the vanity of his imagination, and man had changed the glory of the incorruptible God, as Saint Paul put it, into an image of corruptible man, or of birds and beasts and creatures that slither upon the ground.  And yet man still longed for the true God in his heart.

"Do not destroy the shrines," Gregory wrote back to Augustine, "but purify them, and rededicate them to Christ."

"Do not destroy the shrines," Gregory wrote back to Augustine, "but purify them, and rededicate them to Christ."

"Sing me something"

What happened to Caedmon that night?  Bede the Venerable tells the story:

At the proper hour he laid his limbs to rest and fell asleep.  Then a man stood before him in a dream and hailed him, greeting him by name.  "Caedmon!" he called out.  "Sing me something."

Then Caedmon replied, "I don't know anything to sing, and that's why I left the beer-feast and came here — because I don't know how to sing."

"Nevertheless, you can sing."

"What shall I sing?"

"Sing me frumsceaft," said the man: Sing me the First-Making.

When Caedmon received this reply he began, in praise of God's creation, to sing verses and words he had never heard before, whose order is as follows:

Now let us laud the Lord of heaven's realm,
the Measurer's might and his mind-plan,
work of the Glory-Father as every wondrous thing,
Chieftain eternal, he established from of old.
He first shaped, for the sons of earth,
the high roof of heaven, holy Creator;
the middle-yard mankind's Lord,
Chieftain eternal, adorned after that,
made the earth for men, the Master almighty.

Then he rose from his sleep and committed to memory all that he had sung while sleeping, and to those words in the same fashion he added many other words worthy of a hymn to God.

It isn't often that a man, visited by a herald of God, composes glorious poetry in his dreams.  Caedmon told his foreman about it, and he in turn brought Caedmon before the abbess Hilda, who called the elders about her to advise her in the matter.  She instructed them to read to Caedmon one of the narratives from Scripture, to see what he could do with it, and when Caedmon returned on the morrow, singing the same story in the ancient meter of the heroic lays, Hilda rejoiced, and they all concluded that Caedmon had been blessed with a rare gift from God.  She invited Caedmon to leave the secular life and join them at the monastery.

To enter the Church is not to lose one's culture, but to raise it up — sometimes even from the dead.

So the very poetry that Caedmon could not sing at the beer-feast became the foundation for a new thing in the world — poetry of an ancient and pagan form, steeped in centuries of tradition, not destroyed but purified, built up into a shrine in honor of the great warriors Abraham and Moses and the Apostles, who served the true and only Lord, the God and Father of Jesus Christ.  For the monks continued to read to Caedmon, and he, who could not read, transformed all that he heard into beautiful and virtue-inspiring poetry, and the monks wrote it down.  They did this until the day the meek old man laid down his life in the infirmary, after asking for the Eucharist, making his peace with his friends, and turning his ear toward the dawn-song, as the monks in the chapel rose for lauds.

Baptize all nations

What happened in Whitby is a model for what the Church's missionaries have ever done.  Grace does not supplant nature, but perfects it.  To enter the Church is not to lose one's culture, but to raise it up — sometimes even from the dead.  When our Lady appeared to Juan Diego in Guadalupe, it wasn't as a European, but as a native princess.  When Matteo Ricci traveled to China to evangelize, he steeped himself in the wisdom of the Chinese; he became a mandarin, to convert the mandarins.  When Junípero Serra established his missions in California, he brought to the natives what for them were new tools, such as the millstone and the waterwheel and the winepress, and the cultivation of the grape, the olive, and other foods.  It wasn't to make them European, but to make them self-sufficient, strong enough to resist the depredations of bad men.  The mission churches were like the poetry of Caedmon, native ways raised up in honor of Christ.

This has been the Church's way.  The world confuses unity with uniformity, and charges the Church with doing what the world does — for the powers of the world can't bear contradiction, so they attempt to compel people to obey their will in their fashion, at their command, and in their time.  Wherever the Christless modern rulers go, they reduce things to one homogeneous mass.

But Christ didn't say, "Go and form all nations into one."  He said, "Go forth unto all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."  And when the people assembled in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost and heard the Apostles preaching, it wasn't all in the same language, but each in his own language, so that, if the cowherd Caedmon had been there, he'd have heard it in Anglo-Saxon, filled with the life of all that was good and noble in that culture.

For that's exactly what did happen, in that stable in Whitby, long ago.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: The Church, the Ennobler of Cultures." Magnificat (July, 2014): 195-220.

Join the worldwide Magnificat family by subscribing now: Your prayer life will never be the same!

To read Professor Esolen's work each month in Magnificat, along with daily Mass texts, other fine essays, art commentaries, meditations, and daily prayers inspired by the Liturgy of the Hours, visit www.magnificat.com to subscribe or to request a complimentary copy. 

The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2014 Magnificat
back to top