Sunday, July 24, 2011

Places that should be Catholic: Holy Isle and the Cave of St. Molaise; Arran, Scotland


In Scotland's Firth of Clyde, between the Kintyre Peninsula and mainland Scotland, lays the small, quiet island known as Arran. Arran is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I was fortunate enough to have been able to visit it and bike around the island back in 1998, an experience I shall never forget. It's winding country lanes, lonely castles and beautiful seascapes are forever etched in my memory as the  loveliest places in a country that already abounds with loveliness.

Slightly off the east coast of Arran sits an even smaller island, which locals simply call the Holy Isle. The tiny island is only 1.9 miles around and can easily be passed over as just another one of western Scotland's thousands of tiny islands. Holy Isle, however, was once the home of one of Scotland's early saints, St. Molaise of Leighlin, also known as St. Laisren or St. Laserian.

St. Molaise was an Irish monk of Iona; details of his early life are non-existent but it is possible that he was a disciple of St. Columba. He most certainly met Pope St. Gregory the Great, for he was ordained bishop by the great pope during a trip to Rome sometime around 600 and later returned to Iona as Gregory's legate to the foundling Scottish churches, supporting the Roman doctrine on images against certain Celts who had iconoclastic tendencies. He also argued for the Roman calculation of Easter against the Celtic practice.

Not much is known of the life of St. Molaise. He spent much of his time as a hermit on the Holy Isle, praying in a cave on the hill of Mullach Mòr. He is the subject of the early Celtic tale the Vision of Laisren, one of the first pieces of Christian Scottish literature. In this tale St. Molaise (called Laisren or Laserian) is terrified by a vision of hell in order that he might return and warn his brother monks who were living in half-hearted obedience to their rule. St. Molaise died in 639 and his feast day is April 18th. According to a bizarre legend of questionable authenticity, his death came as the result of plucking out some sort of cursed hair from the eyebrow of St. Sillán. This hair had the strange property that anyone who looked upon in the morning it would die; having plucked it and looked upon it in the morning, Molaise immediately died. This legend has all the fantasy and tragedy of the classic Irish-Celtic sagas (the Death of Diarmid, for example).

Regardless of the historicity of the legends surrounding St. Molaise, he was clearly an important individual in the development of Christianity in Scotland. As a bishop ordained by St. Gregory who argued in favor of the Roman practices, and as a possible convert or disciple of Columba, he is an important link between the primitive foundation of the Scottish church and the later episcopal establishment we read about in Bede.

Thus, it is especially sorrowful that the Holy Isle, and the hermit cave of St. Molaise, have passed into the possession of the pagans. This island and the cave where St. Molaise passed countless nights of lonely penance is now in the hands of the Samyé Ling Buddhist Community. The Buddhists have set up a "Centre for World Peace and Health on the island where they host retreats initiating people into Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques. The road up the island off the ferry is decorated with Tibetan prayer flags and stupas.

Nor has the cave of St. Molaise been spared from being decorated by the heathens. This sacred spot is now decorated with Tibertan Buddhist prayer flags, ostensibly to honor St, Molaise (as if the prayers of the saint and the meditations of the Buddhists have anything in common), but in my opinion they actually insult the saint and offend God in this.

The cave of St. Molaise on Holy Isle, defiled by the prayer flags of Tibetan Buddhists

This brings up an interesting question - to what degree, if any, does it honor Christ when His saints are honored by pagans? Some, upon hearing this story, may say that it does us honor that even the pagans acknowledge the holiness of one of our saints; should we not rejoice at this? I disagree; I believe it is offensive to the saints when they are honored by pagans in the manner described above.

There are two ways a non-believer can attempt to honor a saint; one is by honoring something in the saint that they believe approximates to their own false religion; the other is by being so impressed with the saints devotion to the Catholic religion that they give a reluctant honor in spite of the fact that the saint is Catholic and they are not. In the first case, the saint is honored not because he is a Catholic but because he is (erroneously) believed to approximate to a pagan; in the second case, he is honored as a Catholic. I believe that the first type of "honor" is offensive to God and to the saint while the second does justice to the saint. Some examples are in order.

Let's take St. Clare. She is often honored by atheist feminists. These feminists honor her, not because she was a devoted, Catholic saint who loved God, but because she disobeyed her father's wishes in a patriarchal society and blazed a trail for feminist revolt by assuming a role of leadership in a world dominated by men. Obviously, this view is skewered, but the point is that they do not honor Clare because she is Catholic; they honor her because they believe that she has something in common with them - that she is a sort of proto-feminist, in whom modern feminists can find something to look up to. Of course, Clare's life and teachings are obscured and twisted to fit this mold, but this necessarily happens when non-Catholics attempt to honor Catholic saints for something other than their Catholicity. Clare is here not being honored as a Catholic, but as some sort of feminazi. This is an example of the first way that a non-believer can honor a Catholic saint, and I believe this sort of "honor" does not truly honor the saint and is offensive to God, because it disregards what is most important about that saint (their identity as a Catholic) and misconstrues what that saint's life revolved around. Clare might have been a powerful woman leader, but she would have had nothing to do with modern feminism had she been acquainted with it.

If we took our first example from Clare, let us take our second example from St. Francis. Now I will speak of the second manner in which a non-Catholic or pagan can honor a saint, and in this manner they can do him justice. Let us recall Francis' memorable journey to the holy land and his conference with the Sultan of Egypt in the Muslim camp outside Damietta. There is exposition of the faith and willingness to die for it so astounded the Sultan that he gave Francis a grudging respect and honor. The Little Flowers of St. Francis, which embellish the story somewhat, relate it this way:

St Francis standing before him, inspired by the Holy Spirit, preached most divinely the faith of Christ; and to prove the truth of what he said, professed himself ready to enter into the fire. Now the Sultan began to feel a great devotion towards him, both because of the constancy of his faith, and because he despised the things of this world (for he had refused to accept any of the presents which he had offered to him), and also because of his ardent wish to suffer martyrdom. From that moment he listened to him willingly, and begged him to come back often, giving both him and his companions leave to preach wheresoever they pleased; he likewise gave them a token of his protection, which would preserve them from all molestation (XXIV).

In this case the Sultan honors Francis precisely because of what is most important about him - his identity as a Catholic; he marvels and honors him "because of the constancy of his faith." Unlike the example above of the feminists honoring Clare, here Francis is honored by a non-Catholic not in spite of his Catholicism, but because he is such an exceptional Catholic.

Note, too, that the response of the Sultan is different. He does not choose to honor Francis with the implements of Muslim worship; on the contrary, he encourages the spread of Christianity and later in the story even professes a wish that he could convert! He honors Francis because he is a Catholic and honors him in a way that Francis would approve of. He does not honor Francis because Francis in any way approximates to anything found in Islam; he honors Francis because Francis is so unlike what he has known in Islam.

We could also cite, in this vein, the tale of Naaman the Syrian, who though a pagan, marvels at the power of Elisha to heal him. He honors Elisha by asking for earth from Israel so that he can honor the true God and expresses sorrow that he must still participate in the external worship of the state gods of Syria. He says:

"Let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD. But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this” (2 Kings 5:17-18).


Again, Naaman honors Elisha not because Elisha reminds him of something good in his own paganism, but because Elisha has demonstrated the power of the true God where the pagan gods have been dumb. It is because the God of Israel is so unlike Rimmon that Naaman marvels.

So, how are we to understand the prayer flags at the cave of St. Molaise? I believe this is a case of the first example, where the pagans are honoring St. Molaise, not because they appreciate him as a Catholic saint who loved our Lord Jesus Christ deeply, but because they see in him a "holy man" in whom they think to find some approximation to their own tradition of contemplation and meditation. In Molaise the hermit they see (errantly) a proto-Buddhist, and as such they honor him not as a Catholic but with the implements of their own false religion.

I think this misconstrues the life and work of St. Molaise, does no honor to the saint and is offensive to God. I don't know how this cave and island came into the possession of the
Samyé Ling Buddhist Community. I do not know why the Catholic Church in Scotland could not get a hold of it; probably because the Catholic Church in Scotland is too busy just trying to stay in existence. It is a tragedy. This place should be a Catholic shrine in the hands of Catholics. If nothing else, some Catholic zealot should go there and tear those prayer flags down, even as Gideon tore down the altar of Baal in his village. Will not someone rid Holy Isle of these troublesome prayer flags?

Pray for the restoration of Holy Isle and the cave of St. Molaise to the Catholic Church! St. Molaise, ora pro nobis!

Related Article: St. Boniface and the Zeal of Gideon

3 comments:

Brigit said...

An Irish barrister, Colum Kenny published a book called Molaise - Abbot of Leighlin and Hermit of Holy Island in 1998. The final chapter deals with the sale of the island. There were 3 different owners between 1958 and 1991, the island had formed part of the estate of the last Duchess of Hamilton. A couple from Dublin called Morris were the final owners, although at one time they were in talks with Cardinal O' Fiach about forming a trust to be run jointly by the Irish and Scottish churches, eventually they approached the Tibetan Buddhists about purchasing the island. It has to be said that there was opposition to the move, but this mainly came from the Presbyterians, for otherwise there was much soggy ecumenism in the air. The comments quoted by Kenny are the usual waffle, the abbot of Nunraw apparently spoke about the parallel monastic traditions in Buddhism and Catholicism and stated that we are indebted to the Buddhist monks for bringing Holy Island to new life!

Anonymous said...

Norse mythology. Celtic mythology, Cave mythology Oxford companion to World mythology might help with original genetics of the cave.European people in the so-called Beaker and Battle-ax cultures of the third millennium b.c.e. King blood axe Norse mythology.If it's an heritage site the rest is axiomatic.

Kate said...

Hi, it's a beautiful place and the people who run the project on the island are lovely (I've visited it). The intention of the project is to promote peace, tolerance and inter-faith harmony and it is very respectful of the beliefs of others. Their website even stresses that it is not a Buddhist Centre, along with the following details regarding ownership passing to them:

'In 1990, Lama Yeshe was approached by Mrs Kay Morris, who owned Holy Isle together with her husband. Mrs Morris, a devout Catholic, had been instructed by Mother Mary in a dream to pass Holy Isle to him, to be used for peace and meditation'.

Incidentally, Buddhism should not be viewed as a religion, it's a philosophy, so applying the term 'pagan' or 'non-believer' is open to challenge. I think religious tolerance & peaceful intentions (i.e. not inciting people to 'rip' the prayer flags down that belong to the 'heathens') is a good thing. My guess is that you won't be approving this blog through moderation on the grounds of heresy. I hope I'm proved wrong.

Best wishes, Blessings, Namaste & Shalom.