Saint Boniface and the Felling of Donar’s Oak

For whatever reason, Paganism is on the rise.

I say whatever reason because I honestly don’t understand nature worship. At its best, nature is beautiful. But nature can also be incredibly deadly.

This deadly aspect of nature is a part of nature that we don’t see very often, mind you. With modern technology, we are able to avoid plagues and other sicknesses from spreading. After all, we have a garbage service that picks up our garbage every week and puts it away in a place far enough from us that the various creatures that live in the garbage heap do not live among us in mass quantities and spread diseases. We have modern sewage systems that largely allow us to be separated from our waste, aside from occasional bathroom accidents. But even with those accidents, we typically have access to disinfectants which can thoroughly kill off any disease before it impacts us. We have modern medical technologies that help us detect diseases before they spread too much and allow us to treat it immediately.

In fact, for those of us who live privileged lives, most of our encounters with nature are largely pleasant. After all, most of us (yours truly included!) live in cities. When we want to go into nature, we typically do it as a vacation in which we can de-stress and soak in the beautiful parts of nature while avoiding the less unpleasant parts. Plus, because we are on vacation, we may not have the duties or responsibilities that we would otherwise have, which simply adds to our relaxation.

Now, compare that sort of experience of nature with someone who spends eight hours a day as a migrant day laborer picking tomatoes by hand for minimum wage for a living in the hot Californian sun.

A big difference, no?

So, perhaps it is that sort of separation that many of us have with nature that causes some of us to go back to it. Yet, because most of us are in cities and unwilling or unable to go to the country. Combine that with the loss of religious identity and our increasingly secularism, adopting some sort of Pagan philosophy may seem to many to be the closest way that we can go back to nature in a spiritual sense.

Yet, there is a darker side of Paganism that I have been noticing cropping up, especially with younger white men. Essentially, many branches of Paganism are being used as white supremacist groups. In these neopagan groups, typically Odin is worshipped and the strength and brutality of the Nordic people is idolized. Because of the emphasis on heritage and the Nordic people, this is often used to emphasize the supremacy of whites.

Also, do I have to mention that white supremacy is bad??? Because it is. In fact, it’s really, really bad. It has been used to justify so many grave and terrible evils that I cannot possibly imagine even defending it in any possible form.

There is also definitely a hyper-masculine attitude underlying this belief in which the strong should dominate and overpower all. It’s a terrifying and yet fascinating story… here’s a good article about it, if you want to read more about it.

These groups often look upon Christianity with horror and disgust. For example, the neopagan white supremacist groups often hate Christianity because they believe that it is a religion that was forcibly imposed on the white people to integrate the white culture with other non-white cultures. They also believe that it emasculates the men and makes them weak.

And honestly, this kind of ideology unnerves me. During World War II, many in Hitler’s top leadership were fascinated with these Pagan sort of beliefs, and they based the Aryan super race belief on this. In fact, at one point in a failed marketing campaign, they tried to stoke up a nationalist frenzy by evoking the Viking heritage of the Nordic people. So, the fact that these beliefs are finally taking on and spreading is definitely Not Good in several different ways.

Still, we mustn’t lose heart. After all, it’s Saint Boniface’s feast day today.

See, what Saint Boniface is known for is cutting down a tree.

A big tree.

The tree was called Donar’s Oak, or Thor’s Oak, and it was worshipped by the Germanic pagans at the time around the place that is now known as Hesse, Germany. Now, at the time, certain groves and certain trees were considered to be sacred by the people of the time. It was in these groves where many of the religious rituals were done, including the various sacrifices to appease the pagan gods.

So when the Christian missionaries initially came to preach the gospels in the eighth century, they often found themselves facing a tree, or several trees, as one of the huge obstacles of the faith.

And so, what do you do when a tree is in your way?

You cut it down.

And that is exactly what Saint Boniface did! When he realized that the tree was a huge obstacle to the people’s faith, he chopped down the biggest tree in the grove, which was known as Donar’s Oak. Now, the tree was so large that everyone doubted that the man would be able to fell it. But, with a couple of ax strokes — hardly enough to make a dent in the tree! — the mighty oak toppled over. Thus, the people saw the felling of the tree as a miracle that must have been through the power of God and they accepted Jesus.

Saint Willibard, who also lived in the eighth century, recounts the story here:

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 Donar. 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. Then moreover the most holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree wooden oratory, and dedicated it in honor of Saint Peter the apostle.

Here’s an artwork depicting the event:

Saint Boniface Felling Donar's Oak, by Johann Michael Wittmer
Saint Boniface Felling Donar’s Oak, by Johann Michael Wittmer, c. 1861. Private collection.

In the picture, Saint Boniface, pictured in his bishop robes, outstretches his hands to invite people to take in the scene. Indeed, the tree must have just fallen, for an owl flies from the tree!

There are many different reactions to this miracle! An elder in red robes pauses and muses on the event. Several people outstretch their hands to him. Some of the warriors lay down their weapons. An elder pagan sits by and muses about the whole event. One women with a crown of leaves in her hair — probably some sort of priestess — points to Saint Boniface with incredulity.

Now, the sort of neopaganism that is on the rise nowadays often idolizes the strength of the individual. The strongest individuals are lauded whereas the weak are left behind. Thus, there is an intolerance of Christianity — after all, Christianity demands that we become weak and, in our weakness, we are made strong through God.

Or, as Saint Paul says:

NABRE

2Corinthians 12

6Although if I should wish to boast, I would not be foolish, for I would be telling the truth. But I refrain, so that no one may think more of me than what he sees in me or hears from me 7because of the abundance of the revelations. Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. 10Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

So, yes! We are weak!

Yet, we must have faith in the power of God. Though we may be weak, He is not. He is strength. If we submit to God and allow Him to work through us, we become all the more powerful because we work, not through our own power, but through God’s power.

And God is infinitely strong.

So let us take heart! The tree that couldn’t have fallen has fallen! The cross that held God once no longer holds Him anymore! Miracles abound all around us.

Let us keep our eyes open and turned always toward Christ!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of three, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer

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