Among other saintly commemorations today, we remember Ninian, the Enlightener of Scotland. From all apparent worldly analyses, St. Ninian was something of a failure. He’s called the Enlightener of Scotland, because he first brought the Christian faith there in the final years of the 4th century, but he wasn’t terribly successful. He never saw the astounding conversions the way Columba did nearly 200 years later.
Yet what drove Ninian was never a desire for numbers. Out there working among the savage Picts, quite past what everyone else at the time would have considered civilization, Ninian was unlikely to be receiving any Lifetime Achievement Awards. Indeed, he left so little evidence of his passing that some secular scholars even doubt his existence (but Bede didn’t, and that is, to be frank, quite good enough for me). If Ninian had wanted recognition or even the satisfaction of a job well and fruitfully done, he was in the wrong place.
St. Ninian, like all the saints and like all true Christians, was motivated not by any of these things, but rather by what we might call a “holy selfishness.” It is said that monks are permitted only one addictive passion—books. Likewise, Christians are permitted only one selfishness, only one consuming desire which they may seek to sate at any cost—the love of Christ.
What Ninian knew was that he had to try to missionize these impossible people, these nasty Picts. Why? Because in doing so, it brought him closer and closer to Christ. This might sound a bit shocking. Surely a saint is more altruistic! Surely he is driven by unselfish love for his fellow man! Surely he cannot have undertaken this almost monstrous effort just to satisfy his own spiritual pursuits!
But really, it is impossible to love one’s fellow man, truly love him with real unselfishness, if one does not love Christ. And the awful (that is, awesome to the point of inducing reverence which can be painful if not borne and practiced aright, i.e., to be awe-full) secret of Christian life is that in seeking to slake our thirst for the God-man, we find ourselves pouring out ourselves as drink for the God-man’s brothers and sisters. To love God is to love men, women and children. And likewise, to lose one’s life is to gain it. This is the meaning of the Apostle’s words: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
There is a perplexing paradox here. If we try to emphasize one side of this curious image—”altruism” or “piety” (however you might define them)—then we destroy the other. Ninian was not dedicated to “social change.” Nor was he some sort of sectarian, happy to live in cultic bliss without contact with creation. He was a priest, which means both those things and neither of them. Anyway, we know from experience that the pietist and the activist both lack true piety and true action. (And, if I may presume to say it, they usually lack true imagination, as well.)
Thus, as Mr. Eliot told us some years ago:
…And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
The rest, indeed, is no business of ours. We are called to have faith and to be faithful. We are not called to be successful, not even with what is ostensibly God’s work. After all, it is God’s work. What holy Ninian found was not, in the end, work at all. It was God.
And that is what he was after.