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Catholic religious orders Destruction of Greco-Roman world Dominion (book)

Dominion, 5


How the Woke monster originated

A soothsayer lay buried nearby who, according to Homer, had interpreted the will of Apollo to the Greeks, and instructed them, at a time when the archer god had been felling them with his plague-tipped arrows, how to appease his anger. Times, though, had changed. In 391, sacrifices had been banned on the orders of a Christian Caesar. Apollo’s golden presence had been scoured from Italy. Paulinus, in his poetry, had repeatedly celebrated the god’s banishment. Apollo’s temples had been closed, his statues smashed, his altars destroyed. By 492, he no longer visited the dreams of those who slept on the slopes of Gargano… In 391, the endemic aptitude of the Alexandrian mob for rioting had turned on the Serapeum and levelled it; four decades later, the worship of Athena had been prohibited in the Parthenon. [pages 159-160]

By the end of the fifth century, it was only out in the wildest reaches of the countryside, where candles might still be lit besides springs or crossroads, and offerings to time-worn idols made, that there remained men and women who clung to ‘the depraved customs of the past’. Bishops in their cities called such deplorables pagani: not merely ‘country people’, but ‘bumpkins’. The name of ‘pagan’, though, had soon come to have a broader application. Increasingly, from the time of Julian onwards, it had been used to refer to all those—senators as well as serfs—who were neither Christians nor Jews. It was a word that reduced the vast mass of those who did not worship the One God of Israel, from atheist philosophers to peasants fingering grubby charms, to one vast and undifferentiated mass…

Certainly no Christian could imagine that it was enough merely to have closed down their temples. The forces of darkness were both cunning and resolute in their evil. That they lurked in predatory manner, waiting for Christians to fail in their duty to God, sniffing out every opportunity to seduce them into sin, was manifest from the teachings of Christ himself. His mission, so he had declared, was to ‘drive out demons’. [page 161]

Five pages later Holland speaks of a remarkable pope:

Gregory, though, had no illusions as to the scale of Rome’s decline. A city that at its peak had boasted over a million inhabitants now held barely twenty thousand. Weeds clutched at columns erected by Augustus; silt buried pediments built to honour Constantine. The vast expanse of palaces, and triumphal arches, and race-tracks, and amphitheatres, constructed over the centuries to serve as the centre of the world, now stretched abandoned, a wilderness of ruins. Even the Senate was no more. [page 166]

The rhythms of the city—its days, its weeks, its years—had been rendered Christian. The very word religio had altered its meaning: for it had come to signify the life of a monk or a nun. Gregory, when he summoned his congregation to repentance, did so as a man who had converted his palace on the Caelian into a monastery, who had lived there as a monk himself, pledged to poverty and chastity, a living, breathing embodiment of religio. The Roman people, hearing their new pope urge them to repentance, did not hesitate to obey him. Day after day, they walked the streets, raising prayers and chanting psalms. Eighty dropped dead of the plague as they went in procession. Then, on the third day, an answer at last from the heavens. The plague-arrows stopped falling. The dying abated. The Roman people were spared obliteration…

Gregory, when he sought to make sense of the calamities being visited on Italy, turned above all to the Book of Job. Its hero, given through no fault of his own into the hands of Satan, and plunged into abject wretchedness, had endured his sufferings with steadfast fortitude. Here, so Gregory argued, was the key to understanding the shocks of his own age. Satan was abroad again. Just as Job had been cast into the dust, so now were the blameless suffering disaster alongside sinners. [pages 167-168]

Some pages later the author introduces us to the subject of how Christian eschatology began to be understood:

The new Jerusalem and the lake of fire were sides of the same coin. For the earliest Christians, a tiny minority in a world seething with hostile pagans, this reflection had tended to provide reassurance. The dead, summoned from their graves, where for years, centuries, millennia they might have been mouldering, would face only two options. The resurrection of their physical bodies would ensure an eternity either of bliss or torment. The justice that in life they might either have been denied or evaded would, at the end of days, be delivered them by Christ. Only the martyrs, those who had died in their Saviour’s name, would have been spared this period of waiting. They alone, at the moment of death, were brought by golden-winged angels in a great blaze of glory directly to the palace of God. All others, saints and sinners alike, were sentenced to wait until the hour of judgement came. This, though, was not the vision of the afterlife that had come to prevail in the West. There, far more than in the Greek world, the awful majesty of the end of days, of the bodily resurrection and the final judgement, had come to be diluted. That this was so reflected in large part the influence—ironically enough—of an Athenian philosopher. ‘When death comes to a man, the mortal part of him perishes, or so it would seem. The part which is immortal, though, retires at death’s approach, and escapes unharmed and indestructible.’ So had written Plato, a contemporary of Aristophanes and the teacher of Aristotle. No other philosopher, in the formative years of the Western Church, had exerted a profounder influence over its greatest thinkers. Augustine, who in his youth had classed himself as a Platonist, had still, long after his conversion to Christianity, hailed his former master as the pagan ‘who comes nearest to us’. That the soul was immortal; that it was incorporeal; that it was immaterial: all these were propositions that Augustine had derived not from scripture, but from Athens’ greatest philosopher. Plato’s influence on the Western Church had, in the long run, proven decisive. [pages 171-172]

I have always been suspicious of Plato and Aristotle for the simple fact that they were the pagan philosophers that Christianity spared in the Middle Ages. What did all those pagans whose works disappeared with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria have to say?

Monks who knelt for hours in sheeting rain, or laboured on empty stomachs at tasks properly suited to slaves, did so in the hope of transcending the limitations of the fallen world. The veil that separated the heavenly from the earthly seemed, to their admirers, almost parted by their efforts. ‘Mortal men, so people believed, were living the lives of angels.’ Nowhere else in the Christian West were saints quite as tough, quite as manifestly holy, as they were in Ireland.

That the island had been won for Christ was a miracle in itself. Roman rule had never reached its shores. Instead, sometime in the mid-fifth century, Christianity had been preached there by an escaped slave. Patrick, a young Briton kidnapped by pirates and sold across the Irish Sea, was revered by Irish Christians not just for having brought them to Christ, but for the template of holiness with which he had provided them. Whether working as a shepherd, or fleeing his master by ship, or returning to Ireland to spread the word of God, angels had spoken to him, and guided him in all he did; nor had he hesitated, when justifying his mission, to invoke the imminence of the end of the world. A century on from Patrick’s death, the monks and nuns of Ireland still bore his stamp. They owed no duty save to God, and to their ‘father’—their ‘abbot’. Monasteries, like the ringforts that dotted the country, were proudly independent. [pages 173-174]

The infinite mendacity of Christianity is particularly noticeable in Ireland. It is known that the average Irish person has a relatively low IQ compared to the European countries with the highest IQ. It was sheer stupidity to inject seminal chalice into the asses of the novices, instead of impregnating the Irish women. The Catholic vows of celibacy resulted in the poor monks burning themselves internally, trying to calm their impetus with the cloistered ephebes: a dysgenesis opposite to what the Jews have been done for centuries. Even rabbis marry, promoting eugenics that has led them to conquer the highest IQ.

An iron discipline served to maintain them. Only a rule that was ‘strict, holy and constant, exalted, just and admirable’ could bring men and women to the dimension of the heavenly. Monks were expected to be as proficient in the strange and book-learned language of Latin as at felling trees; as familiar with the few, ferociously cherished classics of Christian literature that had reached Ireland as toiling in a field. Like Patrick, they believed themselves to stand in the shadow of the end days; like Patrick, they saw exile from their families and their native land as the surest way to an utter dependence upon God. Not all headed for the gale-lashed isolation of a rock in the Atlantic. Some crossed the sea to Britain, and there preached the gospel to the kings of barbarous peoples who still set up idols and wallowed in paganism: the Picts, the Saxons, the Angles. Others, heading southwards, took ship for the land of the Franks.

Columbanus—‘the Little Dove’—arrived in Francia in 590: the same year that Gregory was elected pope. The Irish monk, unlike the Roman aristocrat, came from the ends of the earth, without status, without pedigree; and yet, by sheer force of charisma, he would set the Latin West upon a new and momentous course. Schooled in the ferociously exacting monasticism of his native land, Columbanus appeared to the Franks a figure of awesome and even terrifying holiness. [pages 174-175]

This [eternity], when supplicants ventured through the woods that surrounded Luxeuil and approached the settlement founded by Columbanus, was what they hoped to find. The very wall that enclosed the monastery, raised by the saint’s own hand, proclaimed the triumph of the City of God over that of man. The shattered fragments of bath-houses and temples had been built into its fabric: pillars, pediments, broken statuary. These, converted to the uses of religio, were the bric-à-brac of what Augustine, two centuries previously, had identified as the order of the saeculum. [page 177]

No surprise, then, that in time the wings of the most powerful angel of them all should have been heard beating golden over Columbanus’ native land. Almost certainly, it was Irish monks studying in Bobbio who brought home with them the cult of Saint Michael. From Italy to Ireland, the charisma of the warrior archangel came to radiate across the entire West. [page 178]

An icon depicting the Archangel Michael in St Mark’s Basilica, Venice, 11th century. This image appears in Holland’s book.