Thinking Back

by Thomas John Mulvey, PhD

shamrock Childhood reflections of rural, 1870s Ireland and Celtic history. shamrock
Edited by Eric C. Biemiller and William L. Mulvey
Grandsons of Thomas John Mulvey, PhD

Copyright© William L. Mulvey, all rights reserved

Old Stories


Chapter Seven

Our family had the pious custom of assembling every night just before going to bed and "letting round the Rosary" followed by each one's own individual night prayers. The custom was confined to the season of Lent, starting with Ash Wednesday and ending with Good Friday; and from Easter until Ascension Thursday. We also kept p the custom from Christmas until the start of the Lenten season, making it continuous all year round except in the summer and fall.

We had a saying, which was founded on an accepted belief; that a child reached the age of the use of reason when he attained his seventh birthday; that before that time he was not capable of committing sin, in other words, was not responsible morally for his actions. By the same token, a child of seven, having reached the age of the use of reason, was considered old enough to take part in the family devotions. Consequently, the fall of 1877, I was permitted, nay, even in duty bound, to take my place in "letting round the Rosary." I was supposed to know, in a way, the meaning of the fifteen mysteries which were made the subject of our contemplation. For, the Rosary in its entirety considers each of fifteen events, or mysteries, connected with, or related to the life of the Blessed Virgin, and the life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of her Son, Jesus Christ.

The complete physical Rosary is a string of beads, consisting of fifteen decades of ten Ave Marias, or Hail Marys, introduced by Pater Noster, or Our Father, the bead representing the Pater Noster being somewhat larger than those representing the Aves, and separated from them by a short space. The string of fifteen decades is looped by bringing the two ends together and fastening them at the end of a third short string of beads of one Pater Noster and three Aves, which in turn ends in a Crucifix connected by wire, with the whole Rosary. The complete Rosary is divided into three parts, not physically, but in the recitation of it. There are three series of mysteries contemplated, namely, the five Joyful Mysteries, the five Sorrowful Mysteries, and the five Glorious Mysteries.

This complete physical Rosary of fifteen decades is worn by some Religious Orders of men and some of women. It is looped about the sash or girdle that they wear to hold their habit, or dress, in place around the middle of their body.

The popular physical form of the Rosary as it is known to most laymen and carried and recited by Catholics, consists of but five decades, the Crucifix and the short string of beads with which the five decades are connected, thus forming a Chaplet, or garland, one third the size of the full or complete Rosary.

Beginning with the Season of Advent, we said the Rosary each night just before retiring. We formed a semicircle around the turf fire with our backs to the warmth of it and our faces toward the rest of the room. Each one knelt at a chair and rested his forearms on its seat. I used a good-sized creepie stool on which to place my arms, but after awhile, I sank back on my hunkers, as did the rest of the family, until my father's voice would sound sternly: "Kneel up straight there, Thomas!"

There were just five of us who took part in this devotion of letting round the Rosary, namely, grandmother and grandfather, myself, then my father and mother, to name them in the order in which they knelt from left to right as we faced away from the fire.

My father began the devotion by blessing himself with the Crucifix, that is, by making with it the Sign of the Cross, from his forehead, to his breast, to his left shoulder, and across to his right shoulder, at the same time saying, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." He then proceeded to say the first half of the Our Father, to which we all responded with the second half, "Give us this day…." In the same way he recited the first half of the Hail Mary and we responded with the second half, "Holy Mary, Mother of God…" three times, thus accounting for the Pater Noster and the three Aves at the start of the Rosary, or Beads, as the Rosary was commonly called among Catholics.

This introduction consisting of one Our Father and three Hail Marys is commonly held to represent One God in Three Persons; the Our Father standing for One God, and the three Hail Marys representing the Three Persons of the trinity. This was the explanation of it given by my father. Of course he did not attempt to explain the mystery of the Trinity, for a mystery is something that surpasses the power of the human mind to understand. It is defined as an article of faith beyond human comprehension. He did however; tell us the story of Saint Augustine and his experience with the small boy on the Numidian shore of the Mediterranean; for Augustine was bishop of Hippo from 395 to 430 in his native Numidia, which is about coextensive with the modern Algeria in northern Africa.

It seems that while Augustine was engaged one day in meditating on and trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity, a small boy was sitting on the beach digging in the sand with a shell. Augustine walked past the boy several times without paying him the slightest attention, so absorbed was he in his profound and troublous thinking. Finally he took notice of the lad going to the water's edge and returning with a shell full of water which he emptied into the small hole that he had excavated in the sand. Time and again the boy made that round trip, and time and again Augustine walked past him without taking very much notice. To relieve his tortured intellect and to rest his tired brain, Augustine let his mind rest on the boy making the trip, first to the water's edge, then back again to the excavation in the sand, and emptying the water from his shell into the excavation. Augustine, his curiosity aroused, watched the boy for a while. He finally said to him:

"My son, what is it you are trying to do?"

The boy answered, "I am emptying the ocean into the hole in the sand."

Augustine smiled indulgently and said to the boy, "But, my son, you know that is impossible."

"It isn't any more impossible," said the boy, "than your efforts to solve the mystery of the Trinity," and with that, there was no longer any boy there. He had vanished in the few seconds that Augustine, wincing, had closed his eyes at the merited rebuke. He then realized that he had been talking to a visitor from heaven.

St. Patrick, preaching Christianity in Ireland about the middle of the fifth century, dealt more concretely with the same mystery when he held up the shamrock to his listeners on the hill of Tara and called upon them to recognize the three leaves on the one stem as a symbol of the Three Persons in the One Divine Nature.

This was the age, in the first half of the fifth century, when the controversies as to the nature of the Trinity were rife and agitating the whole of Christendom. Christianity had taken hold in the religiously indifferent, not to say, religiously confused Roman world, when Cicero could say that he did not see why a Hauruspex, that is, a soothsayer did not laugh in his sleeve upon meeting a fellow soothsayer. That was why Paul was listened to with so much attention on Mars Hill in Athens; for he saw that the Athenians, who, he said, were very religious, were all at sea and seeking some one who could speak to them with authority, with conviction; and Paul had all of that.

Christianity had found a place in the Roman world under Constantine the Great, emperor of Rome from 324 to 337, who himself was for a time a follower of and believer in the teaching of Aruis, called, by the Church, the Arch Heretic. This is the same Constantine who, about to march against Maxentius at the Mulvian bridge just outside of Rome, saw a cross in the sky, according to tradition, surrounded by the words: "In hoc signo vines," "In this sign thou shalt conquer."

It was the age of the great so-called heresies about the divinity of Jesus and his place, if any, in the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead. Was he of the same substance, or essence, as the Father? or of a similar substance? or of a different substance; or essence? There were the Manichaeans, of whom Augustine was at first a follower; then the Nestorians, condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431, because they maintained that there were two persons in Jesus, a human and a divine person joined in perfect harmony of action, but not in the unity of a single individual. Then there were the Arians who held that Jesus was not the eternal son of God nor of the same substance, or essence, as the Father.

My father used to hold forth on "Julian the Apostate," who, as Roman Emperor from 361 to 363, espoused a cult then widely spread in the Roman Empire and stemming from the Middle East. It was the cult of Mithras, or Mithraism, which was a development of Zoroastrianism, which was a religion of the Indo-Iranian people before they split into Persians and Hindus. Mithras is depicted as the god of light, a Sun of Righteousness. It came into the Roman Empire about the time of Pompey the Great and spread very rapidly. It appealed mainly to slaves, soldiers, and distress people, according to Wells in his "Outline of History," and promised them immortality, a promise that appealed to them as a compensation for their hard lot in this life.

The emperor Julian, who like his uncle, Constantine the Great, was at first a Christian. He was appointed governor of Gaul in 355 with the title of Caesar, and made his headquarters at Lutetia Parisiorum, the modern Paris, capital of France. He had many successful encounters with the Germans, who were still a thorn in the side of the Romans. He crushed them completely in 357 at Argentoratum, now Strasburg. In a dispute with Constance II, who ordered Julian to send him reinforcements, Julian's soldiers refused to march at the orders of Constance, but instead, proclaimed Julian emperor. When Constance died in the following year, Julian became master of the East as well as the West. He now formally renounced Christianity.

He initiated no bloody persecutions of the Christians, who were by this time too numerous to be so dealt with. But he struck at them in a different way: he despoiled the churches and prohibited Christians from teaching such subjects as philosophy, rhetoric, and all the higher branches of learning by and through which they could spread their doctrines. Christianity, indeed, in the first few centuries of its existence seems to have been in a very unsettled doctrinal state with very unclear ideas as to the nature of the Godhead, the place of Jesus in that Godhead, the doctrine, then forming, of the Trinity. There was conflict between Christianity and Mithraism, which Julian favored. The latter was nearly as widespread as the younger sect of Christianity, for a time considered as a Jewish offshoot and as such frowned upon and opposed by Roman officialdom and by the emperors themselves. It was considered a revolutionary religion opposed to the Roman economy. It taught equal rights for all men, despite the Pauline injunction of "Slaves, be obedient to your masters." But, little by little, Christianity, as its adherents became more worldly and more powerful, forgot its opposition to the possession of private property, to its advocacy of the distribution of all private wealth among the poor. It forgot about the rich young man in the Gospel whom Jesus told to sell his goods, give the money to the poor, and follow the Master.

As a soldier, Julian's fame constantly increased. However, while campaigning in Assyria, lack of provisions compelled him to retreat. It was during this retreat that he was mortally wounded. The tradition which my father narrated to me had it that when he fell and knew that he was dying, he took a handful of blood from his wound, cast it toward heaven with the words, "Galilean, thou hast conquered!"

That was merely a dramatic story handed down through the centuries and passed on, as is all tradition, orally from father to son, and intended to point up the consequences of disagreement with the accepted faith. The disputes and disagreements as to the articles of that faith shattered Christianity very nearly into shreds. At times some of the shreds were a sizeable portion of the whole cloth, for at one time nearly half of Christendom was Arian.

Christendom was rent in those early centuries by metaphysical and dialectical discussions. It puts one in mind of Omar Khayyam in the Rubiayat, when that philosophic tent-maker says:
    "Myself when young did eagerly frequent
    Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
    About it and about: but evermore
    Came out by the same Door as in I went."

Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five
Chapter Six My Father Leaves
For America
Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
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