By Calvin Lane
Although he’s not on the Book of Common Prayer’s calendar, the enigmatic early medieval saint Gildas the Wise (Gildas Sapiens) has often been commemorated on January 29. The day is also my birthday and I’ve held old Gildas in affection since I discovered him some twenty years ago as an undergraduate majoring in medieval history. Gildas was a crotchety sixth-century Romano-British monk, and he’s best known for his acid criticism of his fellow Britons’ moral failings. In his “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain,” he blamed their lax life-styles — especially the moral failings of the clergy — for the troubles they were experiencing from interloping invaders. Put differently, your problems are divine chastisements, and you deserve them. Before I say more of substance, I would like to note that a friend (also a priest) highlighted to me that the name “Gildas the Wise” sounds like the video game avatar name of a teenage boy who has read the Tolkien canon more times than anyone ought. Also, I commend pronouncing the name Gildas with a short-a for the puerile effect.
But there’s more to the man than his name (or the effect of his name). Certainly, scholars who work on the early middle ages are familiar with Gildas. His De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae included a number of important details about sixth-century Britain ranging from its cultural relationship to the dying embers of the Roman empire to geographical markers. Specialists in the practice of historiography likewise know Gildas, as his work was utilized by a range of folk in their claims about English history — Bede in the seventh century, Alcuin in the eighth, Polydore Vergil and Archbishop Matthew Parker in the 16th, and the donnish Tractarian Bishop William Stubbs in the 19th.
Why, though, should a Christian care much about this rather sharp-tongued and very dead monk? And let’s honest: are shrill moralistic Jeremiads all that helpful?
I find Gildas appealing not only for his quant name, but also the connection he exposes between the everyday comings and goings of lives, our mores, and their consequences. In short, life is a lot messier, stickier, and smellier than comfortable, technologically-surfeited westerners realize. We work hard to deny these realities about life and death, but here we are. There are rhythms to human life, individually and corporately, which cannot be denied. And those rhythms spin out and put us where we are. To put it one way, you, dear reader, have your life at this moment because a man and a woman some years ago had sex. Your back may ache because you (like me) are probably too sedentary. Freckles on a child’s face come from playing in the sun. And the relationships you have with people in your church and wider community did not simply appear from the heavens as Gnostic inspiration nor did you purchase them conveniently on Amazon. I’m somewhat surprised that more people are not commenting on the bigger picture of the COVID pandemic: the role of climate change, population expansion, and the enormous leaps in global trade and travel since the last pandemic a century ago. All of these are factors for good or ill.
While I certainly don’t mean to imply in pantheistic fashion that God is simply a part of nature, Gildas, for me, nevertheless signals our interconnections for good or ill. He reminds me that our minds don’t float in some calm, objective either; he shows me that our lives are always in the middle of the stream. Heidegger is helpful here, as is Donne’s fashionable quote about no man being an island, but cranky old Gildas the Wise reminds me that there are ripples to my life, ones I send out and others I absorb. He reminds me that there is an earthy givenness to our lives, and that these fleeting lives are marked by limitations and finitude.
Gildas reminds me that I cannot — dare not — presume to rise above all those connections and ripples, above my own body, because it would only be pretense, a fraud which would bear consequences known to God alone.
And yet it is this same life that God chose to inhabit, a vulnerable life filled with pain and confusion but also joy, a life marked by deep and unavoidable connections to others. My life then, is hidden with Christ (Col. 3:3), not through my own Gnostic or technical attempt to rise above the world and all its mess, but rather by God’s work, in his mercy, to redeem and reclaim the mess as his own.
Coda — I sense that Gildas’s feast is well positioned in the season after the Epiphany, a time where we work out the significance of the Incarnation and ask who Christ is before the Lenten journey begins again. We may be well-served to see how it is this contingent life, and not some other ideal life, that the Son of God entered.