Common Wisdom: From These Stones…

In the town of St. Andrews in Scotland there is more than the Royal and Ancient Golf Course. Nestled along the street called the Scores, skirting the sea, is a lovely little Catholic church in the Scottish style, fringed with flowers, where the stalwart pastor, Fr. Brian Halloran, presides with dignity and devotion.

The solid orthodoxy of St. James Parish is a testimony to the resilience of the Holy Spirit working in the universal Church, for especially in this area of Fife, where there are even fewer Catholics than in the rest of Scotland, the Reformation exploded with full force and still leaves its mark. At the climax of those years of blood and intrigue, the grim reformer John Knox, followed by a mob from the coastal towns, marched up the south coast of Fife to St. Andrews. Beginning on Sunday, June 1, 1559, he preached for four days in the great cathedral, calling for cleansing of the temple that had been sullied by popish corruption.

Knox so inflamed his listeners that on June 15, in the words of Russell Kirk, “the mob, roused to fury, put a wild end to eight centuries of ecclesiastical history.” In one savage day they desecrated and destroyed the cathedral, the Augustinian priory and the Dominican friary, smashing the statuary and burning the treasures. The cathedral, now but a shell, was never used again; it became eventually a stone quarry for the townspeople. By the 18th century, when Johnson and Boswell saw it, it was in its present ruin. Johnson himself was moved by the “mournful images” it conjured, lamenting that Knox incited a mob without knowing where it would end. Surely, Johnson mused, one could disagree with a man over doctrine without pulling his house down about his ears.

Even today one does not stroll over these ruined stones without a pang for the huge, beloved cathedral, once the largest in Scotland and the center of the Scottish Church from the tenth century until its demise at the hands of Knox’s reformers. On this windswept seaside site Christianity put down roots as early as the eighth century, when Bishop Acca of Hexham is said to have brought the relics of St. Andrew the Apostle to the land of the Picts. Thereafter St. Andrews became a place of pilgrimage.

St. Margaret, wise and beautiful wife of King Malcolm III, aided the pilgrims by paying for ferries to carry them across the Firth of Forth to St. Andrew’s shrine. She and her son, David I, who was likewise canonized, changed the course of Scottish Christendom; they united the Celtic and Roman strands of the Scottish Church and encouraged the Benedictine and Cistercian monasticism that flowered in Scotland and northern England after the Norman Conquest.

The ruins of the great old Scottish cathedrals and abbeys such as St. Andrews, Melrose, Jedburgh, and Dryburgh set one to wondering what Scotland was like, what Britain and Ireland and the Continent were like when all Christendom was one, when civilization was centered around and nurtured by cathedrals and monasteries. The medieval world was largely a kingdom without borders, a universe inspired, instructed, and infused by the Church universal. It was a world rich in art, architecture, poetry, philosophy, theology; it was a world that gave birth to monumental institutions such as the university, the English common law and representative government, the town as we know it, the mechanisms of free trade. Transcending all these efflorescences was the Church universal.

In contrast to the medieval mind that responded with integrated cohesion to the Christian principle of universality, the modern squint, fostered by the Reformation and the Enlightenment, appears as a deformity of fragmentation. One wonders whether in the providential plan of history there will be ever again a recovery of the universal principle in which faith and culture are one. Will there be ever again a civilized mind so sure of the truth of faith that it can dare, with only modest means, to erect the stones of a nave so vast as once graced St. Andrews Cathedral, or send such towers soaring to the sky?

A partial answer, at least, lies quietly in the unlikely modern university setting of St. Andrews. Charming though the old city is, and romantic to the core, the modern pagan mind rides full tilt here. Yet at Fr. Halloran’s Catholic parish on the sea, students and visitors find the very sacraments, the doctrine, the faith that are the universal Church of Christ. Here is the universal Church that lives in Rome with Pope John Paul II, that overflowed with fervor on the Holy Father’s Pentecost celebration this year. Here, too, in this small parish, is the universal Church that redeems the scattered stones of the old St. Andrews Cathedral.

  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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