Sunday, November 22, 2015

The unhappy man who lay with his mother

Our humble little publishing operation, Cruachan Hill Press, is about to release a new edition of the Life of St. Columba as told by St. Adamnan, Abbot of Iona. St. Columba (521-597), also known as Columcille, is one of the great saints of the Irish golden age and is known as the Apostle to the Picts and the Apostle of Scotland. The book will also contain several original essays on Columba and Irish Catholicism, as well as an appendix on the hymns of St. Columba. It should be available in the beginning of December.

In working my way through the Vita of this remarkable saint, I came across a section in which St. Columba encounters a penitent who had committed a particularly heinous sexual sin. The saint's reaction is very interesting, especially in light of our contemporary situation vis-a-vis the divorced and civilly remarried, finding "value" in homosexual relationships, etc. Let us read the section in its entirety, taken from St. Adamnan's Life of St. Columba, Book I, Chapter 1:

Regarding an Unhappy Man Who Lay With His Mother

At another time, the saint called out the brethren at the dead of night, and when they were assembled in the church said to them: "Now let us pray fervently to the Lord, for at this hour a sin unheard of in the world has been committed, for which rigorous vengeance that is justly due is very much to be feared."

The next day he spoke of this sin to a few who were asking him about it. "After a few months," he said, "that unhappy wretch will come here to the Iona with [Brother] Lugaid, who is unaware of the sin." Accordingly after the few months had passed away, the saint one day spoke to Diormit [his attendant], and ordered him, "Rise quickly; lo! Lugaid is coming. Tell him to send off the wretch whom he has with him in the ship to the Isle of Mull, that he may not tread the sod of this island." He went to the sea in obedience to the saint's injunction, and told Lugaid as he was approaching all the words of the saint regarding the unhappy man.

On hearing the directions, that unhappy man vowed that he would never eat food with others until he had seen St. Columba and spoken to him. Diormit therefore returned to the saint, and told him the words of the poor wretch. The saint, on hearing them, went down to the haven, and as [Brother] Baitan was citing the authority of Holy Scriptures, and suggesting that the repentance of the unhappy man should be received, the saint immediately replied to him, "O Baitan! This man has committed fratricide like Cain, and become an adulterer with his mother." 

Then the poor wretch, casting himself upon his knees on the beach, promised that he would comply with all the rules of penance, according to the judgment of the saint. The saint said to him, "If you do penance in tears and lamentations for twelve years among the Britons and never to the day of thy death return to Ireland, perhaps God may pardon thy sin." 
Having said these words, the saint turned to his own friends and said, "This man is a son of perdition, who will not perform the penance he has promised, but will soon return to Ireland, and there in a short time be killed by his enemies." All this happened exactly according to the saint's prophecy; for the wretched man, returning to Hibernia about the same time, fell into the hands of his enemies in the region called Lea (Firli, in Ulster), and was murdered."

The man appears to have killed his brother and committed incest with his own mother. I want to note Columba's reactions as the various aspects of this tale unfold. First, when he hears of this sin, his immediate response is horror at the wickedness that has been done. The sins of fratricide and of laying with one's mother is a sin against nature, "for which rigorous vengeance is justly due and very much to be feared." On account of this, he encourages his brethren to "pray fervently" on account of this monstrous act. Columba's initial response is revulsion at this act against nature - he is not interested in finding anything good in the incest and "walking together" from that point. His primary concern is the justice and vengeance of God.

Second, when he finds out that this "unhappy wretch" is planning on visiting the monastery of Iona, he tells his attendant to "send off the wretch whom he has with him in the ship to the Isle of Mull, that he may not tread the sod of this island." He recognizes Iona as a place consecrated to God and is concerned lest the the presence of an unrepentant sinner guilty of such a grotesque crime should pollute the sanctity of the island. He is not concerned with how the "wretch" will feel upon being sent off. He does not put up banners on his church proclaiming how "affirming" and "inclusive" it is. He does not believe that welcoming this unrepentant sinner into the congregation of Iona will be the first step in a gradual leading of the sinner towards the fullness of faith. No - he is mortified that such a person would want to set foot on his island and orders him to be sent off.

Well, in imitation of the Canaanite woman of the Gospel, the sinner begs to see St. Columba, and St. Columba finally relents. It is interesting that one of the monks, Brother Baitan "citing the authority of the scriptures", suggests that the man is penitent and should be received. Baitan seems prone to quickly and easily reconcile the sinner, perhaps moved by a kind of false mercy that would claim to restore grace without the requisite penance. Columba responds by explaining to Baitan the gravity of the sin - essentially saying that this is no ordinary sin, and that ordinary repentance will not be sufficient to restore this man to grace. Because this man has murdered his brother and lain with his mother, "a sin unheard of in the world", an extraordinary degree of penitence is necessary. Columba rightly states that it must be ascertained whether this man has demonstrated sufficient contrition and the willingness to do the proscribed penance. Thus Columba balances Baitan's swift application of reconciliation with a necessary obligation to justice.

The man seems willing to listen to the saint. He throws himself at Columba's feet and promises to do whatever the saint should tell him. This is a pivotal moment, the moment of grace. How does Columba respond? Is he overly anxious to assure the man that he is forgiven, that he should not be scrupulous about his sins? Does he quickly reconcile the man and tell him to follow his conscience regarding whether or not he should return to communion? Does he give him three Hail Mary's and tell him not to worry about it any more? On the contrary, he tells him, "If you do penance in tears and lamentations for twelve years among the Britons and never to the day of thy death return to Ireland, perhaps God may pardon thy sin."

Of course Columba, being a saint, has the gift of foreknowledge and knows that "this son of perdition" will not complete his penance but will return to Ireland impenitent and be murdered by his enemies.

I will not offer any further comment here except to note the gulf that exists between St. Columba's method of interacting with this sinner and the path favored by the modern apostles of mercy. Was St. Columba being unmerciful? It's hard to say how his foreknowledge changes things; would he have behaved differently if he did not already know this man would die impenitent? Who knows - but the point is that Columba's whole orientation is different than what we see being trotted out these days. The modern apostles of mercy have little concern with the objective state of the sinner's soul, no worry for God's vengeance, only trifling care for His justice, and practically no concept of holiness. They - and those who follow them - have become the "unhappy wretches."

Considering the man had committed murder and incest, Columba's penance was merciful. The point is that mercy does not always look the way the Kasperites think it should.

1 comment:

Konstantin said...

Reminds me of what I recently read about Ven. Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky of Lviv who, in his pastoral letter "Thou shalt not kill" warned his diocesans against the plague of murder (political murder, abortion, suicide, "normal" murder) that was afflicting Ukraine during WWII. He exhorted the confessors to give penances that corresponded to such an unspeakable crime. Especially in cases where the sinner committed a number of murders and exhibited a certain sadistic tendency, a penance should be given that corresponded to "the sense of justice of the people"...which I interpret to mean that the culprit had to turn himself in, which might have meant the death sentence for him. Catholics back then probably weren't that scrupulous about the death penalty...

On the other hand you also have saints that didn't give hard penances, but would themselves do penance for the penintent's sins, for example the Holy Curé (if that version is true). There is also a story about St. Vincent Strambi reading the heart of a man in confession who had killed someone but didn't think it was indeed murder. I can't remember what penance he gave him, but I think it was rather light in comparison...