Thursday 1 August 2013

Life a sparrow's flight? Converting the pagan king and his priests to Christianity


[King Edwin], hearing these words, answered, that he was both willing and bound to receive the faith which Paulinus taught; but that he would confer about it with his chief friends and counsellors, to the end that if they also were of his opinion, they might all together be consecrated to Christ in the font of life. Paulinus consenting, the king did as he said; for, holding a council with the wise men,' he asked of every one in particular what he thought of this doctrine hitherto unknown to them, and the new worship of God that was preached? ...

Another of the king's chief men, approving of his wise words and exhortations, added thereafter: "The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again.

So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed." The other elders and king's counsellors, by Divine prompting, spoke to the same effect.

...Coifi, hearing his words, cried out, "This long time I have perceived that what we worshipped was naught; because the more diligently I sought after truth in that worship, the less I found it. But now I freely confess, that such truth evidently appears in this preaching as can confer on us the gifts of life, of salvation, and of eternal happiness. For which reason my counsel is, O king, that we instantly give up to ban and fire those temples and altars which we have consecrated without reaping any benefit from them."

In brief, the king openly assented to the preaching of the Gospel by Paulinus, and renouncing idolatry, declared that he received the faith of Christ...

From Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, ed. by A.M. Sellar, [1907]


I was visiting Bede's World recently - a museum devoted to that great man on the site of his monastery - and found myself sitting alone for a while in the large  Hall of the reconstructed Anglo Saxon settlement - a small version of the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.  

Bede's story is very beautiful, and its effect can easily be understood - but the apparent pagan assumption of the nature of life as contrasted with what is to follow or what went before is alien to the modern mind - because the modern mind perceives nothing before nor after - and perceives nothing to be explained except that brief event of feasting in the hall, which is seen as justified only by the degree of personal pleasure being experienced.

It is fascinating that the pagan kings of the dark ages, living in an uncivilized world of cold, starvation, war, toil - were so much more spiritual than we are; such as to be persuaded to change their whole way of life by an existential insight and a metaphysical argument - expressed in a poetic metaphor.



dearieme said...

"Bede's story is very beautiful": indeed it is. I can remember the first time I read it; I can remember being stunned by it.

Later I decided that it must be one of the finest pieces of propaganda ever written.

Jan said...


Have you ever read "The Pagan Bible" by Melvin Gorham? Curious about what your thoughts about it would be.

Full text available here:

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - I would rather call it evangelism!

@J - I don't know it, and am not particularly inclined to read it, since I spent decades inside a (neo-)pagan interpretation of Christianity (mostly derived from Robert Graves), so it is not a novelty to me.