The Secret of Kells: Finding Meaning in St. Patrick’s Day

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Page that opens the Gospel of John in the Book of Kells

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (and our partial Irish heritage), I watched the animated film The Secret of Kells (2009) with two of my children.  The movie is a fictional account of how the historical “Book of Kells” was produced and preserved by Irish monks during a period of Viking invasions of the British Isles.  The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels written in Latin, famous for its rich, intricate ornamentation.  The heroes of the movie are a young orphan boy, Brendan, and an elderly monk, Aiden, who cannot complete his life work, the Book of Kells, due to his failing eyesight.  Brendan befriends the monk and courageously helps him finish the Book, even in defiance of his uncle and caretaker, who is also the Abbot of the Monastery.

Though the threat of Viking invasion is a source of fear and tension throughout the story, the central conflict is not between the Irish and the Vikings, but between Aiden and the Abbot.  Obsessed with building an impregnable wall to protect the Abbey of Kells from the marauding Viking invaders, the Abbot is unconcerned about Aiden’s project and opposed to Brendan’s contributing to it, even imprisoning Brendan to prevent him from working on it. When the Vikings invade, the Abbot’s wall falls to protect them, resulting in a great massacre.  Aiden and Brendan manage to escape, and in hiding and exile finally complete the Book.  Now a grown man, Brendan returns to the Abbey with the completed Book of Kells, believing it would give light and hope to those suffering under Viking occupation and that it should not be kept hidden in a walled fortress, and gives it to his now elderly uncle, who regrets his neglect of the book and misplaced trust in the wall and finally appreciates the treasure the Book has become.

The conflict between Aiden and the Abbot symbolizes the timeless conflict over faith, over ultimate objects of our trust, especially in the face of darkness and threats against life and prosperity.  The Abbot trusts in the wall, representing the strength of men; Aiden trust in the Book, representing the faithfulness of God to the promises in His Word.  Aiden believes this book “will turn darkness into light” trusting by faith, and not by sight, that God’s Word was the hope of their civilization.  Scripture sharply contrasts these faith commitments in a dichotomous relationship:

8 It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in humans.
9 It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in princes.

Psalm 118:8-9

 

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
or seek help from the LORD.

Isaiah 31:3

This story reminds me of the history book How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill (1995), which argues that by preserving ancient books, both classical and Christian, during the violent social upheavals in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire, Irish monks quite literally rescued Western civilization from barbaric Germanic and later Nordic tribes.  We can learn from the story of Saint Patrick, and other Irish clergy who devoted themselves to preserving and disseminating books, that were it not for the faith-fueled risk-taking of men who valued these books more than their own lives, we would not have the civilization we are prospering in today.  We are all reaping the fruit of their forgotten labors.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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