A Catholic Reader

Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Author: Lisa Nicholas, Ph. D. (page 1 of 19)

Put on the Armor of Light, on St. Patrick’s Day and every day

Illustration from Slate.com

As this article from Slate acknowledges, very few concrete facts about Ireland’s patron saint have survived. Much that we think we know is merely legend. Keeping that in mind, did you ever wonder why Saint Patrick is credited with expelling snakes (not wolves, not badgers, not even demons) from the Emerald Isle?

I’m not going to dispute whether holy Padraic literally chased serpentine creatures from Ireland, but you have to admit that on a symbolic level the story is apt. Serpents have a long history in Christian iconography, representing the deceptions of the devil. As an early missionary to the island, the fifth-century monk we know as St Patrick was successful in converting many from their pagan superstitions, and for more than a millennium Ireland was known as one of the most thoroughly Catholic lands upon Earth. Since pagan gods have long been regarded as being inspired by fallen angels, who presented themselves as deities, there could be no more appropriate legend about the Christian monk who persuaded the Irish people to abandon their old beliefs and turn to the One True God, than to have him expel the snakes from Ireland.

Ireland, alas, seems determined to put its Catholic heritage behind it. This article on the site of the Irish broadcasting company, RTE, for instance, seems bent on debunking the idea that there ever were snakes in Ireland for Patrick to expel. It doesn’t really matter, though, whether there were any serpentine species native to the island of Ireland, since the legend’s power is in the spiritual truth it seeks to convey, rather than literal fact.

St Patrick stood for truth, shedding abroad in the ignorance of pagan hearts the Light of Christ. And today, despite the coming of a new spring, sometimes lately it seems that the world is getting a bit darker every day. When that happens, it’s time to put on the armor of light! For Saint Patrick’s Day, take a look at this old post, wherein you will find the wonderful prayer known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate: Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Now Arm Yourselves!

If you’re already familiar with the hymn based on that prayer, you might like this very different musical rendition of the ancient prayer by that name:

©2016 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Homer’s Tardis: Literature is the best kind of time machine

Classics Illustrated cover: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

One of my favorite kinds of speculative fiction is the time travel tale, not the H. G. Wells sort of thing that takes you into a distant, purely speculative future, but the kind that takes a modern person and sends him (or her) into the past. The earliest piece of time travel literature that I can recall reading was an Classics Illustrated version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I read probably at age ten or eleven. (I had already been introduced to King Arthur several years earlier, through a Golden Book storybook based on Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.)

Imagining past lives

Time travel stories allow us to visit the past in our imagination, but we are always conscious that we are visitors, outsiders — and therein lies the limitation of the genre. It is always more interested in commenting on (or even passing judgment on) the past, rather than showing it to us as it had been lived. When I was reading A Connecticut Yankee, I was more interested in the world Twain was ridiculing than I was in the show-off shenanigans of his Yankee. Twain had a beef with the romanticization of the past, which he believed had helped cause the American Civil War, so he wasn’t too kind to King Arthur. I found this irritating rather than illuminating.

In my teens, I also read a number of historical novels, mostly about medieval English royalty. I enjoyed the details of historical setting and circumstance, but there again I was aware of the irritating anachronism inherent in the enterprise. I didn’t particularly enjoy the way modern authors seemed to think that twelfth century England was interesting chiefly because of the dynastic struggles of the Plantagenets — I’m sure people living in those days were concerned about such things only insofar as they had a real effect on their daily lives.

Later, I got a very different view of medieval life and concerns, by reading stories actually written in the twelfth century. Now that was (time) tripping! These stories, at first seemed strange to me. I guess I was experiencing first hand the truth of that saying: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” To understand such a story, I had to get inside the mind of a twelfth century reader (or writer) and try to understand not only their day-to-day concerns but also the furniture of their imaginations. To the extent that I succeeded, the literature really did transport me to a world lost in time.

Homer’s epics take me to an even stranger, more primitive world, different from our own in so many ways, and yet his over-sized heroic figures seem to embody universal human traits in a marvelous way. That, I believe, is why they are, in a peculiar way, timeless. As foreign as ancient Mycenaean Greece is to us today, Homer’s stories somehow manage both to embody that age perfectly and yet transcend the limitations of history and the particularities of culture. That is a mark of Homer’s genius — not every ancient epic manages that kind of transcendence. I can understand the motives of Homer’s Achilles or  Odysseus — or, for that matter Sophocles’ Oedipus — in a way that I can’t really sympathize with Gilgamesh or some other ancient heroes, who seem to lack a truly human dimension.

Touching the past

Mycenaean sword

The bronze blade has crumbled, but the gold hilt remains as bright as when it was last grasped by some Mycenaean hero 3,500 years ago.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I’ve also long been fascinated with archaeology, particularly of the ancient Mediterranean world. I first discovered this fascinating field as a seven-year-old, after a traveling encyclopedia salesman gave us the A volume of the World Book Encyclopedia as a sample. (I promptly read it cover to cover, and fell in love with archaeology and, to a lesser extent, anthropology.)  I’ve since had a number of opportunities to actually walk the streets of the ancient past, in Spain and Italy. Thanks to the painstaking work of archaeologists, I’ve walked the streets of Pompeii — lost to the world for nearly two thousand years, and then brought back to light, stunningly preserved — and descended into the ancient cemetery that lies beneath St Peter’s Basilica, imagining the families that picnicked there long ago with the relics of departed loved ones. I love to read about archaeological discoveries that shed new light on the ancient world.

One such recent discovery, described in this recent news story, reminded me that Homer’s epics, wreathed though they were in myth and legend even in his day, nevertheless take place in a world that was still familiar to the poet who described them (although he lived several centuries after the events he described).

Archaeologists digging at Pylos, an ancient city on the southwest coast of Greece, have discovered the rich grave of a warrior who was buried at the dawn of European civilization.

He lies with a yardlong bronze sword and a remarkable collection of gold rings, precious jewels and beautifully carved seals. Archaeologists expressed astonishment at the richness of the find and its potential for shedding light on the emergence of the Mycenaean civilization, the lost world of Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus and other heroes described in the epics of Homer.


Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus — those guys are all buddies of mine, whose homes I’ve visited, not by touring archaeological sites, but by way of the time machine created by Homer. I’ve lived through their travails with them, grieved with them and for them. No travel agent can provide that kind of experience. And even though archaeology can allow us, literally, to touch the past, it cannot allow us to live it. Ancient literature, however, when read well, can do just that.

Timeless truth

This may be one reason Homer’s epics were so highly regarded, even in his own day. The ancient Greeks believed that the best was already behind them, and they sought to learn from the past, where greater wisdom lay than anywhere in their contemporary world. Homer’s heroic poems capture the past so masterfully that Greeks in following centuries actually regarded them as a kind of encyclopedia or textbook that they used to educate their children. This is why, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates objects to “the lies of the poets” — every son of a prominent family was steeped in Homeric literature from a young age, a practice that Socrates (both the historical Socrates, and Plato’s literary character) believed filled their heads with dangerous ideas, not just of bravado and heroism but warped ideas about the gods. (Curiously, this puts Mark Twain and Plato on the same side.) One of the most important things Plato is doing in The Republic is proposing a better way of educating young men destined to be leaders. He objected not so much to fiction as to false ideals, which is why he has Socrates invent truer fictions.

Ornate book cover, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer

Keep your Tardis, this is my time travel device of choice.

Today, I don’t think we need to worry that Homer will warp the minds of our young — quite the opposite. Today, in fact, we may have the opposite struggle — to get young people (and older ones, as well) to see how much truth is conveyed by these ancient tales of legendary figures. Few people in the modern world appreciate the real value of imaginative literature. Time travel stories, though, remain popular, and one of  TV’s most popular characters is the time-traveling Doctor Who, so there may yet be hope.

I’ll be returning to my series on ancient epic, by the way, so get the Tardis warmed up for a return to Augustan Rome and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I’m also planning a post on some of my favorite time travel fiction, including Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and Andrew M. Seddon’s Ring of Time.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas