In the United States today, we are plagued by hatred, racism, and fear. We suffer political leaders who are unable to rise to the challenge of creating a truly United States, let alone a united world. Many religious leaders among evangelical Christianity, which seems to be nearly the only form of Christianity the news media cover, lack the will, the grace, the talent, or the insight to break new paths forward for all people in creating God’s realm here on earth.
It is a grim situation. And though the scale and context are different, the challenges we face in the 21st century are in some ways similar to those faced on the European continent in the early Middle Ages, after the cataclysmic fall of the Roman Empire and the creation of power vacuums across the continent. The church that the Empire had embraced was in utter disarray, having sold out to powers and principalities that Jesus himself opposed. How would the death spiral of political and ecclesiastical decline be stopped? One answer came from the Irish monastic tradition.
In a really beautiful, hourlong documentary produced by the RTE and rebroadcast by the BBC, former Irish President Mary McAleese makes the case that St. Columbanus, a monk who left from Bangor (near modern Belfast) and set up monasteries on both sides of the Alps, essentially provided the spiritual vigor and leadership to pull European Christianity back from the precipice. In all, Columbanus and his successors founded more than 100 monasteries, which became centers of learning where young leaders who would become heads of European dynasties were educated.
The documentary also features Alexander O’Hara, a fine scholar (with a Ph.D. from St. Andrews…I’m slightly biased…) who has done extensive research on Columbanus and his biographer, Jonas of Bobbio. Rather than tell you all about it, here is a link to the informative and approachable film, Mary McAleese & the Man Who Saved Europe.
What was it Columbanus was able to do where others failed? What kind of vision does it require to found religious institutions in an era when they are being deserted? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a president bright enough to do a documentary?