Saintly Marching

A review of When the Saints Go Marching by Barry Sloan


Barry Sloan has written a book that recounts his journey on the trail of Columbanus. As with many pilgrims he discovered a number of things; factual, spiritual and practical. Within the pages of this book there is a movement in Barry’s heart, closer to God:

“He doesn’t drive by on the other side of the road. He doesn’t shrug his shoulders, saying “I would love to, but my car’s already full”. He is not fiddling in his glove compartment as he drives by. He doesn’t ignore me. He stops for me. He offers me His help. He goes the extra mile for me. As I stand here and look up at that cross, I know he would go to hell and back for me. In fact, he already has.”

He talks of his Northern Ireland childhood, with the hindsight of age. It is good to see someone shift perspective to one of acceptance where before there was suspicion being brought up within a culture of distrust.

“To put it blankly, Northern Ireland Protestants don’t really do monks. Monks, like saints, tend on the whole to be a Catholic thing. For this reason I am not quite sure what to expect.”

As Christians in the 21st century it is so hard to keep the world at bay, to not rush to the latest technological gadget and to find a whole gamut of things we could do instead of serving the Lord. Barry gives his own insight into the spiritual disciplines of Columbanus and his monks:

“Although I acknowledge the value of discipline and sacrifice in living the spiritual life as a follower of Christ, I find a lot of these medieval practices extreme, and indeed bizarre. On the other hand I can’t help thinking it would do us all no harm to reconsider our values and priorities in relation to worldly possessions, obedience, faithfulness, serving others, keeping our promises, and living a balanced life of work, study and contemplation.”

In a world of “pick and mix” religion, not only losing loyalty with historic denominations but also adding in a sprinkling of Eastern religions, pagan or wiccan practices with a “as long as it does no harm and feels good” mentality. It is refreshing to hear from someone who notices it. Of course it is easier to sit in church for an hour on a Sunday and return to the world afterwards. The signs of all-in-all Christians are the ones that are seen in the other hours of the week. Barry speaks of one woman he met on his journey:

“Jenny, like many of her contemporaries, seems to be an adherent of religion-to-go, a lighter version of pseudo-Christianity that does not make demands on or complicate the modern day self-serving lifestyle. Throw in a few elements of far eastern religions along with a sprinkling of esoteric what’s-in-it-for-me superstition and you end up with the patchwork religion that seems to be so trendy in the fickle minds of many Europeans today.”

As Barry concludes his book, he gives a vision of church which is wonderful. Free from bricks and mortar mentality and encompassing the growing of disciples, showing sacrificial love that breaks down the barriers created by man.

“My Columban adventure has convinced me more than ever that modern day Europe needs this kind of church. A church that is faithful in calling disciples of Christ who will make the world a better place. A church that is prepared to die to itself in order to serve the so-called “last, lost and least”. A church that is more a movement, than a monument — always reforming, and breaking down walls, crossing borders as it reaches out to others in love.”

This book is a journey on many levels: It is a geographical tour of Columbanus’ life from Bangor to Bobbio. It is a social commentary on modern day Europe, our habits and culture, and how God’s grace still abounds in our postmodern world. But much more than that it is a personal spiritual journey that with humour and contextual commentary takes us into the heart of a true believer as he grows closer to God.

Well worth the read!

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