Who Preserved Western Civilization?

How Catholic monks saved the day.

On one bitter cold day in the year 406 AD, the Rhine River lay thick with ice, solid enough for hundreds of thousands of starving people to cross this icy bridge into a land we now called Europe. The unthinkable had happened. The mighty Roman empire had fallen and with it came the nomadic wanderings of a race of people historians call barbarians or illiterate non-Romans. Now these barbarians had the unfortunate habit of burning books and looting ancient artifacts. Why would do such a thing? To stay warm, I guess. Unstopped, they would have destroyed all western literature, from the writings of Greco-Roman cultures to sacred texts preserved in the Judeo-Christian culture.

Several key players walk onto our stage in this cultural cliff hanger. First came Charlemagne (747-814) who was the first great leader to emerge after the collapse of Rome. Some might call the next act in this story to be a miraculous insight. With the help of the brilliant scholar Alcuin of York, Charlemagne collected books and had them copied. 

Switch the scene to a rocky island off the Irish coast to a place called Skellig Michael. Centuries ago, Irish monks rowed across Dingle Bay to this desolate spot to escape the barbarians and to establish a permanent settlement. It was a good plan. I surmise that invaders must have gazed upon the foreboding landscape and decided no fool would ever live there. Thus, these intrepid monks were left to their own devices.

For over a century, Irish monks constructed beehive huts out of stone and hunched over parchment paper, diligently copying the great works of western culture, often under candlelight. One monk implored future readers to remember him. He copied Saint Jerome’s commentary on the Book of Daniel.

Good readers who may use this work, do not, I pray you, forget him who copied it: it was a poor brother named Louis, who, while he transcribed this volume, brought from a foreign country, endured the cold, and was obliged to finish in the night what he was not able to write by daylight. But Thou, Lord, wilt be to him the full recompense of his labors.

To this day, tourists can visit this sacred spot, albeit often inaccessible by boat, and see the remains of oratories, beehive cells, monastic cemeteries and Celtic crosses built of stone.

Even Hollywood deemed it a magical place. Two Star Wars movies were filmed on Skellig Michael. Spectacular aerial shots of the desolate outcrop can be seen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens Star Wars, The Last Jedi, and Star Wars: The Rise of Luke Skywalker.

2 thoughts on “Who Preserved Western Civilization?

  1. Wow! Kathryn how do you come up with all this wonderful history? I am left in awe. Thank you so much for sharing. Sister Dorine

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