Friday, August 31, 2018

Saints preserve us

Making cow"s eyes - St Herbot
Summer has been slow, sad and full of difficulties, but I have to say that working on the new book about Breton saints has revived my tenderness for this bunch of introverted loners and misogynistic misfits. The tension between what they mostly wanted - isolated contemplation and spiritual struggle in the throes of landscape - and what became expected of them in terms of community leadership, man management and political nous (or maybe nowse) was nothing if not challenging. Some - St Pol, for example - rose above it all and maintained a lofty saintliness that was proof against the worst excesses of wordliness: others, like St Ronan, fought every battle with asperity and, one is tempted to think, the relish of a waspish personality. His namesake, the philosopher Ernest Renan, says he was more a spirit of the earth than a saint: 'son caract√®re √©tait violent  et un peu bizarre'. St Herbot just gave it all up and settled down in a quiet spot away from people to commune more comfortably with cattle.
But their legacy is immense, and the particular nature of Breton faith that cherished them so is equally endearing. I am currently reading Anatole Le Braz's Au pays des pardons in which he describes (or rather tells how it was described to him) the pardon of St Servais when the faithful of Cornouaille and the faithful of Vannes turned up ready for a brawl, comported themselves as teams and fought for the privilege of hoisting the sacred banner of the saint, whilst the little statue of Servais was smashed to smithereens under the blows of staves and had to be replaced each year. The wounded were taken home on carts, bleeding and groaning.
Pardon of St Eloi - a more orderly affair