On a warm day in the year of 724 a tall, stern, blue-eyed Englishman walked into a clearing near town of Geismar in Hesse, Germany. The man--Wynfrith was his name -- was a cleric who had only recently returned from Rome and an audience with the holy father in which progress reports on the Christianizing of the northern peoples had been duly reported. Having been appointed a bishop on the grounds of his tireless enthusiasm in unmasking and discrediting of false prophets, and summoning of public sinners to repentence Wynfrith was now returning to the north to correct a malady that had crept into those distant swamps during his absense. He was fired by his visit to the Pontiff. So holy was this Wynfrith that his own sins, such as they were, did not suffice to fill his capacity for repentance and he was often compelled to report the sins of others as well, especially those of his fellow missionaries who were of Gaulish or Irish birth.
Wynfrith had spent some years among the barbaric tribes of of the lowland countries known as Frisians, a fish-eating people long thought to be of such a low and unimportant state of life that the Roman exploratory expedition of the year 47 (described by the elder Pliny) considered the territory to be, like Ireland to the West, not worth the trouble of conquest. Now, several hundred years into the attempted Christianizing of these boggish folk the best of the men like the Englishman were suffering considerable frustration, for the Frisian chiefs were cunning and often insincere in their Christian practices. Wynfrith had been in need of some persuasive force, and now, armed with a letter from the Frankish chief Charles Martel (provided by that rough-edged strongman only with the persistent promptings of the holy father) he was in a much better position to correct certain wretched practices that would later be so well described by his assistant Willibald of Eichstatt:
Now at that time many of the Hessians, brought under the Catholic faith and confirmed by the grace of the sevenfold spirit, received the laying on of hands; others indeed, not yet strengthened in soul, refused to accept in their entirety the lessons of the inviolate faith. Moreover some were wont secretly, some openly, to sacrifice to trees and springs; some in secret; others openly practised inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites..
Many of these actions and evil habits, it must be said, were attributable less to the native lack of refinement but to the slack and vicious ways of various Celtic clerics, an unreliable lot to say the least of the matter. There was, to pick one egregious example, one Fergal, a man whose false cosmological argumentation would not be revealed to the world by a zealous researcher in the year 1951; another, calling himself Aldebert, was ingenious in his many affectations; he was able to imitate the gait and manner of a poor apostle. This fool had grieviously misled the innocent ("seduxit multitudem rusticorum"), claiming absurdly to know eight angels on a first name basis, blasphemously announcing that his birth had occurred from his mnother's side following apreliminary annunciation by a calf (a strange claim even in an age when beasts were known to talk freely); the worst of it was the man's announcement that he possessed a letter sent from heaven and written in the hand of Jesus Christ himself.
No wonder that these simple Frisian folk, still half believing in their ancient pagan gods, were so susceptible to these abuses. If only those root beliefs could be cut out from their spirits!
Crossing the Alps that freezing winter of 7xx, Boniface had thought a good deal about how to effect this, and now on this fine spring day he had an idea. What Wynfrith had now focussed his attention was a particular object in the middle of Geismar that could not help from time to time to raise some nagging doubts. It was a huge oak tree that the natives had formerly called Wotan, but which they now in their Christian state, did sullenly refuse to discuss. Their gloomy denials had become all the more evident when Wynfrith had suggested that the timber from the tree would serve most excellently for the new chapel to be dedicated to Saint Peter...One could well imagine what nightly orgies went on there...
In future centuries this stalwart Englsihman would be known to the world as Saint Boniface fbut on that morning drenched with sweat and fired with passion he advanced toward the gloomy tree solemn trree he cou d feel all eyes on him much as one feels when entering a convenience store in an unfamiliar and troubled city neighborhood on a hot summer night near the LA airport. Saint Boniface as he would later be known to the world, advanced inot the clearing bearing in his hands a great iron axe, and began then to sewing with all his power, perhaps more than all his power, at the tree.asvanced into the clearing with an axe and with mighty swings began to hack at the tree, before the hushed crowd of heathens. Again and agian he struck as the sweat poured from his body and now the rhythm of it pleased him and the tree began to shiver as he reached the poin to f drolets of sap began to ooze from it and as the moment of climax became immanent the tree shivered as the tempo increased
quote p 28
"raining blow after blow of the axe upon the gnarled and massive trunk, till at last with a mighty crash the giant monster ffell, its trunk bursting asunder into four parts which, as they ffell to the ground, miraculously shaped themselves into the arms of a cross, "
There was a moment of suspense while all, up to now "in their souls were most earnestly cursing. the enemy of their gods" waited to see whter the old gods would roar from the tree but with a great crack it split into four pieces and toppled, light streaming from the sky onto the head of the sweating saint.
"The shuddering pagans," according to Boniface's hagiographer, Father Baring Gould, "at once bowed before the superior might of the Christians"
Life goes on. Peak moments give waty to reality. But not forever. There exists within the State Library at Fulda, along with the magnificanet sarcophagus bearing the body of Boniface, a gospel, written in an Irish hand, from which the saint would read to the faithful on the morning of Pentecost, June 5, 754. The book is badly damaged, evidently by sword cuts and spattered with dried blood, the blood of the saint himself, who was attacked on that morning by a gang of Frisians...
Thor, it seemed, had taken his revenge.
Church History, 33:235-247 (1964)
Willibald, The Life of Saint Boniface (eng
rlm / dak