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Death to Me is Gain

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

A young man was walking along the pebbled beach, looking out across the sea toward the east, and praying a prayer of longing.


bonifacestSaint Boniface
c. 675-754

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An elder man came up beside him.  Both wore the frock of the Benedictine monk.

"Peace-Friend," said the elder, using the name the lad had been given at birth, Winfrith, "I see that you still wish to leave us."

The young man smiled and bowed his head.

"It's not as if we had little work to do here in England," the elder went on, "You might be abbot anywhere in the land, Whitby, lona, Exeter, or maybe our own monastery here in Nutschalling.  Your work as head of our school is splendid.  You are more leamed than I."

"No, Father, you give me too much credit."

"I give you what you merit.  You understand, Winfrith, that to shore up the tower and to adorn it within is as necessary a work as to lay the foundation."

"That's true, my father.  But someone must lay the foundation.  And I think of those souls beyond the eastern sea.  They live in a forest of darkness and the cold of Satan's breath.  They are our kin."

"So are the men here in England."

"I can't let the desire go," said the younger.  "My own grandfather used to tell me the tales of Wotan and Freya and Thor, even after he had been baptized.  His brothers lived in Friesland, and knew nothing of Christ.  My uncles," he said, and paused.  "The stories are in my blood.  Warriors and heroes, in darkness."

"You would be giving up a life of honor and accomplishment here."

"It's in my blood."

Wielding the hammer

The place is Trier on the Moselle River, several years later, 722.  Winfrith has spent those years touring the lands we now call the Low Countries and Germany, witnessing the vigor of the new churches in Bavaria, assisting local bishops in returning lapsed Christians to the fold in Thuringia, and surveying the difficult and dangerous work that the first missionaries undertook in bringing the Faith to warlike Friesland and Saxony.  He has enjoyed close relations with Pope Gregory III and with abbots and abbesses all throughout western Europe.  In a few months he will be granted the pallium of an archbishop, his diocese being the whole region of Germany.  It is then that, according to one tradition, he will be granted the name by which we know him: Boniface.

According to Saint Willibald, a great blast from the skies shook the oak and struck it lengthwise, splitting it into four parts, and leaving Boniface unharmed.

"We've caught up with one another at last, good Father," says a stocky man with a bronze beard mingled with gray.  He has taken off his helmet and is washing his face at a horse-trough.  Old scars show their white jags here and there on his face and neck and arms.  "I bring a sword, and you bring peace."

"My Lord, the German tribes have been warring upon one another ever since they learned to speak.  They have been in love with war."

"I like it well enough too," he says.  "Is it the work of God?"

Winfrith considers the matter.  "Moses and the children of Israel smote the Amalekites, Gideon smote the men of Midian, and David slew his tens of thousands.  Our Lord is the Prince of Peace, and he said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword.  Yet we bring peace, too."

"There will be no peace so long as every petty lordling with fifty men can set upon an abbey with fire and battle-axes," said the fighter, whose name was Charles — Charles the Hammer.  "Unless we desire the peace of the Saracens.  Their peace is to burn every abbey to the ground and wash their hands in the blood of the monks and nuns.  Master Winfrith," he continues, "you're a preacher of great power and persuasion.  I know nothing of heretics and I can't tell a good priest from a bad one, unless its because the bad one keeps three mistresses instead of two.  But I will give you my protection.  You clean the churches and the monasteries, and I'll clear the battlefields.  Between us we may one day build something worthy for our Lord Christ."

Nine years later, at Tours, the wily Charles the Hammer, outnumbered as usual, would slam the door against the Umayyad army and drive them back to the Pyrenees.  Waterloo and Gettysburg were small matters in comparison with that battle.  Meanwhile, Winfrith, now Boniface, would travel thousands and thousands of miles, reforming abbeys, correcting peoples who had slid back into paganism, condemning a couple of bunko artist heretics, and founding churches everywhere.

Wielding the ax

We're at Geismar, in Thuringia, the heart of Germany.  A large crowd of people have gathered.  They are grumbling, angry, fearful.

When we think of Germany now, we see a land of rolling hills speckled with villages and towns, clean, fruitful, and industrious, a breadbasket of Europe.  But it was not so in the days of Boniface.  The pagan Germans were not farmers but herdsmen part of the time, and the rest of the time raiders, without written law, in a state of constant blood-feuding and warfare.  Many of the lands untouched by the monks were forests thick with trees, or soggy lowlands breeding flies.  It was natural that the Germans should bow in worship of trees, the greatest and darkest things around them.

Boniface had reasoned with them at his first arrival.  If the gods and goddesses marry and beget offspring just as men do, when did they cease?  If they have not ceased, why are they not infinite in number?  If they were begotten at some time, how can the universe have come to be?  His arguments were mildly stated but firm, as when he told them that they should not worship a mere tree, a plant born from a seed, but should instead turn to the true Tree of Life, which was the cross of Christ.  That tree gives life not because it is a tree, but because he who brings healing to the nations died upon it, and rose again.

So he had brought many to the Christian Faith, but found that after he had left, many had returned to pagan ways.  And now, to give those ways their death blow, he stood before an enormous oak supposedly sacred to the god of Thunder, whom we know from the Norse as Thor.  Boniface held a great ax in his arms.

Meanwhile, Winfrith, now Boniface, would travel thousands and thousands of miles, reforming abbeys, correcting peoples who had slid back into paganism, condemning a couple of bunko artist heretics, and founding churches everywhere.

"You say that this tree, a mere creature of the Lord God, is sacred to the Thunderer.  I say that thunder is no more than another mere creature of the Lord God, the only God.  You say that I will be struck dead if I harm the tree.  I say that I am protected by the cross of Christ.  Now we'll see who is right."

And while the crowd watched in horror, Boniface swung the ax and carved a good notch in its trunk.

What happened then?  According to Saint Willibald, a great blast from the skies shook the oak and struck it lengthwise, splitting it into four parts, and leaving Boniface unharmed.

Many pagans returned to Christ on that day, and many more embraced the Faith for the first time; it was the end of paganism in Thuringia.  From the wood of that oak, Boniface built a chapel to the one true God.  We may say also that from the noble and ancient German ways, pagans though the people were, would be built many good villages and towns and homelands, whose people were no longer given entirely to war.  The Church comes not to obliterate, but to cleanse and exalt.

Foes that bring triumph

Bishop Boniface never was one to rest upon his considerable accomplishments.  He was always on fire for the truth of Christ, thirsting to save the souls of men in darkness.

So we find him in the year 754, back in the northern flatlands of Frisia, ready to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation upon a large number of new Christians, when the pagans turned against them with the sword.  It is said that Boniface was carrying with him a treatise by Saint Ambrose, written as consolation upon the death of his brother Satyrus.  In that book, Ambrose says that God had not intended mankind for death, but, since Adam's fall, had prescribed death as "a remedy."

At first his fellow priests wished to fight, but Boniface persuaded them otherwise.  "Sons," he said, "cease fighting.  Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for evil but to overcome evil by good.  The hour to which we have long looked forward is near and the day of our release is at hand."

Christians triumph by defeat, when they suffer defeat in the midst of unflinching courage and burning charity.  The pagans had no sooner slain Boniface and his fellow priests, than they got drunk on the sacrificial wine and fell out with one another over the spoils, giving the neighboring Christian people time to muster against them and drive them to their destruction.  The relics of Boniface were soon scattered across Europe, as is fitting for the man without whom Europe might never have been.

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Death to Me is Gain." Magnificat (June, 2018).

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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.

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