Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The word and the flesh

Here is an old story, told in these parts, of the coming of Cristianity to Ireland. I told the story in Climbing Brandon.
Saint Brendan and his brethren are erecting a church at Cloghane, at the foot of Mount Brandon. They ask the local pagan chieftain, Crom Dubh, for a contribution. He volunteers a bull, knowing full well that the bull is wild and dangerous. Brendan's monks attach a halter to the bull's neck and lead the animal placidly away. Crom Dubh is furious and demands the bull's return. Brendan writes the words Ave Maria on a slip of paper and suggests to Crom Dubh that the paper weighs more than the bull. Nonsense, asserts the pagan chieftain. A scale is arranged and, sure enough, the paper outweighs the bull. Crom Dubh is so impressed that he submits to conversion, along with all of his tribe.
A clash of cultures. The bull represents the untamed nature of Europe's Celtic fringe, a place dramatically sensitive to the diurnal and annual cycles of the Sun, to light and dark, heat and cold, battle and strife, sexuality and fecundity. Until the coming of Brendan and Patrick, Crom Dubh and his people lived up to their necks in nature, their gods were multiple and randy, their animals fierce, their sustenance precarious. Then along came the Word, scribbles on a slip of paper. A new way of living in the world, from southern latitudes where the solar cycles are not so pronounced. A faith of city residents -- shoemakers, tax collectors, tally clerks, potters, tailors, weavers, bakers, surveyors. All flesh is grass and its glory is like the wild flower's; the grass withers, the flower falls, but the Word of the Lord remains forever.

The word outweighs the bull. Brendan and his early Christian contemporaries bring to the North a new religion of the word, abstract, immaterial. The Book becomes supreme, given from on high. The wars of the pagan Irish tribes were fought over cattle, women; the stories that come down to us are of passionate love affairs, elopements, abductions, feats of arms. The wars of the Mediterranean will be fought over words, legalisms, nuances of meaning, revelations written down and endlessly dissected. The new deity from the South is supremely aloof to the comings and goings of the Sun, sweating beasts and growing plants, sex and procreation. The new deity enters the world in the guise of his desexualized son, the offspring of a virgin. His message is clear: The world of nature is a base and fallen place, to be abandoned as soon as possible for the transcendent and immaterial advantages of heaven. In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God.