Demolishing Thor’s Oak: An Early Medieval Model for Modern Catholic “Iconoclasm”
(The Angelus, January-February, 2021.)
St. Willibald (c. 700-c.787), founder of the diocese of Eichstätt in Bavaria, is our first guide to the life of St. Boniface (c. 675-754), a fellow countryman from Anglo-Saxon Britain. Born as Winfrid, St. Boniface was given this, his second and better-known name---which was taken from that of an early episcopal martyr of Tarsus in Asia Minor---at the behest of Pope Gregory II (715-731). It was that great pontiff who appointed him as a missionary bishop; as the Apostle to the still heathen German tribes; the Saxons in particular.
St. Willibald tells us that in 723, quite early in his mission, St. Boniface dealt with one specific problem in his mission territory in a quite dramatic manner. Taking an axe into his hand, he chopped down a sacred tree---variously named as Thor’s, Jupiter’s, or Thunder Oak---located at Gaesmere, near the present day town of Fritzlar in northern Hesse. Modern Catholics in these current dark days can draw three crucial lessons of perennial value from this clear-cut act of brazen public “iconoclasm”.
The first, fundamental, and perhaps most obvious of such lessons is that there is a good kind of “image-smashing” alongside a bad one. Affirmation of this truth flows inevitably from a faithful acceptance of the fullness of the message of the Incarnation of the Word. Magnificent testimony to this truth can be found in the writings of many of the Eastern Church Fathers, especially those of St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), elaborated upon by St. John of Damascus (c. 675-749) and St. Theodore the Studite (759-826) in the era of the Iconoclast Controversies (726-842). Their teachings helped mightily to ensure the dogmatic decisions of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) and the ultimate “Triumph of Orthodoxy” over the Iconoclasts in 843, commemorated every year in the Eastern Churches through the recitation of various “anathemas”, such as the following:
To those who persist in the heresy of denying icons, or rather the apostasy of denying Christ, and who are not counseled by the Mosaic law to be led to their salvation, nor convinced to return to piety by the apostolic teachings, nor induced by patristic exhortations and explanations to abandon their deception, nor persuaded by the agreement of the Churches of God throughout the whole world, but who have once and for all joined themselves to the portion of the Jews and Greeks: for the blasphemies cast by the Jews and Greeks at the prototype, have been shamelessly used by the former to insult through His icon Him that is depicted therein; therefore, to those who are incorrigibly possessed by this deception and have their ears covered towards every divine word and spiritual teaching, since they are already putrefied members, having cut themselves off from the common body of the Church, ANATHEMA.This wondrous “anathema” points to Saints Maximus, John, and Theodore’s realization that there is no way that one can accurately understand that God’s Creation as a whole is an “icon”, a sacred image, unless every one of its elements is “venerated” in its fitting and proper place in the divine hierarchy of values. This hierarchy of values, before all else, demands recognition of the need for man’s Redemption from sin, and the constant, corrective, and sanctifying, transformative Grace that can only come from the greatest of the iconic elements of the natural world: Jesus Christ, who is the Incarnation of the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, responsible for the creation of the universe in the first place.
Severing the iconic character of any given aspect of Creation from the saving and sanctifying Grace of the Cross of the Incarnate Word, and then offering to that isolated natural element an unquestioning acceptance on its own terms is a hideous error at the very least. Worshipping it as a floating bit of fallen debris that has wandered away from its true place in nature is a pagan blasphemy at its very worst, crying out to the heavens for a good “iconoclast” to expose and crush its hopeless but nevertheless destructive attempt at a coup d’état against the hierarchy of values. Failure to take up the “Catholic Iconoclast Burden” would be a dereliction of duty contributing to the blocking of fallen man’s need to focus on the corrective and transformative work of the Incarnate Word. This labor alone clarifies the supernatural framework in which each and every specific element of nature actually can and indeed must play an iconic role reflecting and leading men to the glory of God, explaining why acts of bad iconoclasm against them are an insult to the Divine Plan in the process.
A second lesson of great importance emerging from St. Boniface’s assault also involves the hierarchy of values, but this time with respect to the conditions under which one may legitimately undertake an act of good “iconoclasm”. Allow me to introduce this teaching by citing in detail what Willibald tells us about the demolition of Thor’s Oak:
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 practiced inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites; while others, with sounder minds, abandoned all the profanations of heathenism, and committed none of these things. With the advice and counsel of these last, the saint attempted, in the place called Gaesmere, while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Thor. And when in the strength of his steadfast heart he had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak's vast bulk, driven by a blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and, as if by the gracious compensation of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length, were seen, unwrought by the brethren who stood by. At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling.
What we read here is very much in tune with previous and future guidelines given to missionaries from Rome, such as those provided by Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) for St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604) in his expedition to Anglo-Saxon Britain in 598, as recorded by St. Bede the Venerable (c. 672-735), along with the Responses of Pope Nicholas I (c. 800-867) to the Bulgarians in 866 at the time of the Latin missions in the Balkans. Both these pontiffs identify the role of the missionary as one requiring great caution in approaching pagans, their beliefs, and their sacred images.
Underlying their nuance is a profound perception of just how existential the truly life changing “turning around” that “conversion” entails really is. Psychologically astute, these papal instructions drive home the fact that what one wants to do through “conversion” is to allow a man to “turn around” from a belief rooted in a valid natural desire to give meaning to his life in an impossibly false and self-destructive way to one answering that legitimate longing for existential meaning in a fully true and fruitful manner. Too harsh and too immediate an assault on a rooted pagan belief or custom could destroy these ties to a praiseworthy hunt for Truth in a dangerous way, replacing them only with a hopeless nihilism that benefits no one but Satan. But balancing prudence and evangelical zeal is not an easy task; missionary work is not to be left in the hands of unprepared sissies.
St. Willibald’s account of St. Boniface’s dramatic action near Fritzlar is in conformity with the guidelines of Gregory and Nicholas. For the Apostle to the Germans does not set about his obviously iconoclastic deed as a direct assault upon untutored pagans’ central beliefs. Quite the contrary is true. Willibald tells us that Boniface’s primary reason for the demolition of Thor’s Oak was the backsliding of German Catholics who had already converted. These new believers were returning to blasphemous image worship, and it was they who, first and foremost, were the object of his concern. If we are to infer anything about the remaining German pagans in the region, Willibald’s chronicle seems to identify a disturbed state of mind regarding the battle of divine images and whose side to come down upon definitively: that of the old pagan gods and their totems or the Cross of the God of the Christians. It seems to me that St. Boniface, completely convinced of the falsity of Thor and the truth of Christ, understood that his successful destruction of a tree whose proper iconic role in the hierarchy of values was being obscured through its improper pagan adoration, would bring these wavering pagans firmly, once and for all, into the Camp of the Saints. In short, the act of good “iconoclasm” had bad or weak Catholics as its primary target, and fence-sitting outsiders as its secondary focus.
Surely there is no doubt where I am taking this argument. Many contemporary Catholics globally---but most commonly in the formerly Christian West---have lost their Faith or are in the process of abandoning it. Perhaps even worse, those who have already left the flock often openly work to demoralize and undermine the commitment of those who wish to remain loyal members of it by disguising their very real apostasy. This apostasy, both open and disguised, is taking place from the top of the Catholic world to the bottom, displayed in everything from the adoration of Pachamama to the worship of the LGBTQ agenda as something eminently moral but long hidden from wicked Christians’ world view, to the adulation of Joe Biden and his Moloch-like love for abortion as though he were the model of a solid Catholic statesman.
Our remaining brothers and sisters in the Faith are scandalized, but also demoralized by this ever-expanding madness, given that it is rarely contested by much of the Judas clergy, who lead their flock to the unquestioning veneration of patently false images. Their scandalized and endangered belief cries out to the heavens for good iconoclasts to destroy such open idolatry root and branch. Once again, a failure to answer that cry would be a dereliction of duty: not only to already existing and imperiled Christians, but also to the many, many people outside of the Catholic world who are longing for the True Faith and need its fundamental “icon--- the Word Incarnate and all that is corrected, redeemed, and transformed through His Revelation and His Grace---to shine forth and smother the dark light emitted from the manifold “Thor’s Oaks” worshipped by our sick and dying world.
But there is also a third lesson to be gained from what happened at the original Thor’s Oak. Let us remember that St. Boniface undertook his missionary labor after having gained the promise of military protection from the chief Frankish political leader, Charles Martel (c. 688-744), who was extending his political influence eastward into more easterly German regions at the time.
Now the letters of the Apostle of the Germans admit that this military and political alliance was a double-edged sword, since his “protector”, like all men, could do bad as well as good. In point of fact, he believed that Charles Martel had all too often flexed his muscles in the religious realm in the wrong way, and to such a degree that he told his son Pepin that he believed his father was actually rotting in hell. In admitting this danger, Boniface was doing nothing other than reiterating the truth that the sacred character of each and every aspect of nature, all of which were meant to reflect and lead to the greater glory of God, political and military authority included, could only exercise their iconic roles properly under the corrective and transformative guidance of Christ and Christ’s Church. Many confessors and martyrs were to drive that point home in other acts of good iconoclasm; in public preaching and exhortation designed to humble an invasive State claiming to know what was pleasing to the Lord on its own steam, and demanding worship of its improper decisions as the God’s honest truth.
But exercise that role properly the State must! The Great Commission specifically indicates that it is not just individuals but nations that are to be converted to the worship of the Christian God. Nations involve authoritative institutions, and one of these is the State—the legitimate State---whose God given task is to crush what harms the people that it rules. The good iconoclasm represented by the demolition of Thor’s Oak---aimed primarily at saving Catholics from plunging back into the hands of the devil, and secondarily at giving the final push to those wavering between the worship of proper and improper “icons”---must ultimately demand authoritative State protection for a necessary image smashing. If it does not do so, legitimate State authority is replaced by illegitimate, egotistical, arbitrary, often hidden---dare we say “Deep State”?---force. And this---whether in St. Boniface’s day or that of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Nancy Pelosi---shows no nuance or prudence in its demand for tossing the icon of the Cross at the foot of the Antichrist.
Catholics of the world! Sharpen your axes! The choice between battling for the True Faith, aided by the legitimate State, and the Bad Guys, leaning upon raw power, is all too clearly not outside Fritzlar but at our doorstep.
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