Pulverizing Idols: Lessons From Saint Olav | Stephen Sparrow | July 23, 2007
A recent issue of that prestigious magazine Canadian Geographic contained an article on the Faeroe Islands, in which the writer claimed that when St. Olav brought Christianity to the Faeroese, he gave them the choice of either conversion or decapitation--pretty tough stuff, aye? And no doubt many readers of that piece will shake their heads and mutter about the negative impact of Christianity and how much better those "innocent" pagans would have been if Olav had just left them alone.
Okay, so one thousand years ago that was the Viking way, but the writer of that piece has badly distorted things by not telling the full story. St. Olav had good reasons for issuing such ultimatums since he himself had come from that same paganism--he had been one of those people--until his conversion provided him with first-hand experience of how God's grace has the power to turn lives around: hence his impatience with the worship of pagan deities whereby entire communities were trapped in a web of sorcery, slavery, infanticide, and human sacrifice.
An analogy with any criticism of St. Olav might be to ask if the role of the public health official is to withhold knowledge of hygiene from those ignorant of its benefits! Anyway, the converts were grateful and Olav, who was also a king, wasn't canonized for nothing, and for nearly five centuries after his death, his incorrupt body was venerated at a popular shrine in the Norwegian city of Trondheim. Many healings were attributed to Olav's intercession until the madness phase of the Protestant Reformation saw "reformers" take over the magnificent cathedral shrine, dispose of the saint's body, and outlaw such veneration.
The warrior saints like Olav or Joan of Arc present something of a paradox for "conventional" Christian belief, and yet both Olav and Joan are recognised as martyrs. Their apparently warlike avocations were directed toward founding peaceful societies based on faith and reason. Olav fought against paganism to bring peace to Norway through Catholic unity and was slain in battle. Nineteen-year-old Joan of Arc, claiming inspiration from God, persuaded the conquered French king to put her in charge of an army that then defeated the English occupation forces and ended the Hundred Years War--the longest continuous war in European history. Although captured by the English and executed after a "jacked-up" trial for heresy, Joan's feat of arms led to the reinstatement of the French monarchy and the restoration of law and order for both cities and countryside.
On the question of law and order it should be noted that in the Gospels Jesus never spoke against either war or the trade of soldiering. In fact, the words of one Roman soldier are immortalised at the very centre of the Mass. "Lord I am not worthy ..." However, Jesus did speak of the peace He would hand onto us (John 14: 23-29) saying that it was a peace the world cannot provide and in Matthew 11:12, Jesus made it abundantly clear what sort of peace He meant, "it is by violence that the Kingdom of Heaven is taken," in other words the peace of Christ can come only by using violence against our own passions. And peace is not a retreat from the world. The martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero described it in these words.
"Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty."
All this begs some questions: was Christianity merely a vehicle for giving "modern" Western civilization its kick-start? Or is it the means by which individuals attain eternal salvation? Or is it both of these things? Obviously the answer is both, with Christianity's real aim of saving souls coming first and the social and civic advantages accruing to any State from its Christian roots, following on as a by-product. However, the issue of the positive effects of Christianity has in recent years become clouded by the secular mass media's infatuation with liberalism, much of which has infected the various mainstream Christian confessions, including even Catholicism.
In a splendid little book entitled Values In A Time Of Upheaval, Pope Benedict XVI gives liberalism and its ugly offshoot relativism a thorough airing. Benedict relates how early in his academic career he encountered an older priest who opined that we should be grateful God had permitted so many people to be "unbelievers in good conscience", since if they were to be converted the burden of Faith and its attendant moral obligations would be unbearable. In other words, "faith made salvation harder, not easier ... Untruth, remaining far away from truth, would be better for man than truth." It goes without saying that such woolly thinking makes a mockery of the Incarnation and especially the command from Jesus to go out and teach all nations.
But wait, there's more. Benedict also told of a priest debater who argued that a conscience scarred by the serious error of rejecting God, could still lead to salvation, citing as an example, the fanatically conscientious conviction of Hitler's SS troops in World War II. The mind boggles at such conclusions but it does explain why today relativism is gaining ground so quickly, and why inside some Christian confessions--those without a Magisterium--relativism has even smoothed the way for serious sin to be accorded the status of sacrament: sodomy and abortion are two obvious examples. Today's relativists are trying their utmost to see that traditional Christianity is banished from public life. For them neither good nor evil exist except as outdated meaningless terms. However, not only nature abhors a vacuum; so also does the spiritual life and as more and more people drop Christian practice from their daily lives, more and more they become the prey of demons such as astrology, Wicca, Tarot, palmistry, crystal reading and a whole host of other counterfeit religions used to fill the vacuum left by Christianity: a Christianity, which ultimately is the only guarantee for the preservation of good governance, civil order and personal freedom.
Pope Benedict in his writings uses the Gospels to illuminate the strong connection between law and grace. Human beings are social creatures--Benedict describes us as "called to communion". Yes we are called to voluntarily obey authority, both the moral authority of Christ's commandments and the civil authority of the State under which people attempt to live in peace and justice. The Parable of The Talents solemnly reminds us of the obligation to use our God-given gifts to change the world for the better; that means spiritual inertia is not a virtue. Let's face it, in Christian terms this world is a sacramental place, infused at every turn with God's creative love, and as such, the world is set up for human beings to use in the service of God. Yes, following Christ results in good citizenship.
The Prophet Moses earned a reputation for pulverizing idols when, after descending from Mt Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he found the Israelites worshipping a golden calf, and with righteous anger he destroyed it. The Christian Viking missionaries were hardly different and when confronting a pagan community, would often assemble the common people to watch while they boldly strode into "sanctuaries", smashing idolatrous symbols and challenging the warlord to a duel, the outcome of which would be either death or baptism for he and his followers. Yes, Olav wasn't the only one using such persuasion, and when considering their options, the villagers would readily switch allegiance from the avaricious deity who fed off their fears, to worship the God of the Christians who freely dispensed the grace and mercy that leads toward both eternal salvation and personal freedom.
Like Moses and Olav, we're also duty bound to pulverise idols--those idols that dwell within each of us even if only in embryonic form--I refer to the seven deadly sins. And the best way to pulverise them is by the regular reception of the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. But we need to do more. Spiritual timidity (not to be confused with humility) is the curse of Anglo-Saxon Catholicism. Evangelical Protestant Christianity is not afflicted with it and neither is Islam, so why should we be? After Pentecost the apostles were never timorous in using whatever means they had at their disposal to proclaim the Gospel--thank God. So in seeking inspiration, should we not take a leaf out of St. Olav's book of fearless proclamation and witness?
This article will appear in a slightly different form in the August 2007 issue of Marist Messenger. It is printed here with the kind permission of the author. © 2007 Stephen Sparrow.
Other IgnatiusInsight.com Articles by Stephen Sparrow:
Gaudi's Grand Cathedral: Temple Sagrada Familia and Its Saintly Architect
Eugenio Zollis Path to Rome
St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Patron Saint of Common Sense
Forty-Four Hours in Lourdes
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Stephen Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi-retired and reads (and writes) for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Sigrid Undset, Dante Alighieri and St Therese of Lisieux. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined a family wood working business, retiring from it in 2001. He is married with five adult children. His other interests include fishing, hiking, photography and natural history, especially New Zealand botany and ornithology.
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