Tradition and Transformation

Celtic Christianity
Trinity College
Summer, 2007





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Reading: Unit 4

Hughes, CEIS,143-193.

Unit IV: Monks, Monasteries, and Meaning

Asceticism of Celtic Christianity
Many of the spiritual lives, written for a religious audience, arose out of the ascetic character of Celtic Christianity. There was an ascetic strain within Celtic religious practice from the start. It was influenced by:

  • 1. The Traditions of the Desert Fathers

  • Extreme asceticism was characteristic of the Eastern Christian tradition, and in this regard Celtic monasticism had more in common with the East than the West. It displayed a liking for hermits, isolated retreats, and tests of endurance. Antony and St. Paul of Thebes were held in high regard by Christian Celts. They featured on the high crosses and are mentioned in monastic texts as models to imitate. Their example led to a flourishing of ascetic life, whereby people would go to a remote place for spiritual retreat, equivalent to the monks of the East withdrawing to the desert. Solitude without exile was found in the díseart (desert place), of which 80 examples survive in Ireland that have it as a place name element. This shows a direct link with the Coptic monks of Egypt. Some monks resorted to these deserts for short periods of time, e.g. Celtic bishops did so during Lent for fasting and prayer.

  • 2. The Native Celtic Background

  • The Celtic Church was a church of heroes, charismatic leaders, strong and passionate men and women. The old Celtic warrior spirit was alive in them, but was now put into the service of the gospel, following Christ, the high-king. This trait is exemplified in Colmcille (Columba). He was a warrior but also a poet, writer, and storyteller who had a heart afire with love of God. He founded a number of monasteries notably Derry, Durrow, and Iona. In 563 he went into exile to Iona, from where he evangelized the native Picts, confronting many native leaders to call them to faith and belief in Christ. His monks were involved in preaching, baptizing, founding churches, choosing leaders of the new Christian church which was taking root. He became known for many healings, miracles and taming of wild beasts. By these achievements he aptly illustrates the continuity between the heroic pagan past and the ascetic monks of the Christian era.

  • 3. Scripture

  • For Celtic Christians Christ was a hero who did not shun personal sacrifice in order to save his people. The emphasis is on His heroic suffering not on the atonement or resurrection. Irish eucharistic liturgy was built around this feature of sacrifice. The Irish word aifreann derives from offerendum, sacrifice. The Christ-like example was shown in two examples:

    First, in Patrick's Confession there is a deep and mystical sense of God's presence. It records eight visions and they focus on the presence of Christ. They arise out of Patrick's prayers and meditations on Scripture. Through prayer, scripture, personal experience, and service, his knowledge of Christ increased. His faith grew out of a self-imposed discipline, and he displays an ascetic dimension and close association with the natural world. His imitation of Christ was shown by the fact that he sought out lonely places to pray, modelled his work as bishop on the image of the Good Shepherd, and in his suffering he desired to be like Christ. Like Christ he was tempted but he preferred poverty to riches and security, and sought to make Christ his own. He believed that he had received grace in order that others might receive salvation, and this compelled him to live for Christ.

    Secondly, Bede speaks with admiration of the ascetic life lived by Irish monks, especially Aidan of Lindisfarne (580-651). He had been sent by Iona to evangelize the Northumbrians. He chose Lindisfarne (in the north east of England) as the base from which the conversion of Northumbria would proceed. He became a friend of King Oswald, a partnership which was to transform the kingdom for Christ. Thus Lindisfarne was established in order that Aidan and his monks could go out on missionary journeys, pilgrimages, claiming and naming daily life and whole communities for God. Their rule was for the whole of life. Bede wrote: "The highest recommendation of his [Aidan] teaching to all was that he and his followers lived as they taught." It is apparent that for Bede, Aidan hallowed time and turned journeys into pilgrimages with the stories of the Bible and the poetry of the Psalms. Aidan's mission was marked by simplicity of life, journeying from a community of prayer and discipleship set in a familiar place, with rhythm of prayer, scripture, and psalm to accompany the journey. Aidan embraced the challenge of addressing both king and public justice, as well as the conversion of a rough and wild people. All this activity brought healing and holiness, combining provisionality with stability and obedience to a Christ-like adventure of faith.

    Ascetic Practices: Monastic Rules
    Monastic life in the West soon by necessity came to be regulated or ordered by a rule of life. The Rule of Benedict was formulated at a time of rapid change, danger, and insecurity in the 5th century. There were extremes of wealth and poverty, social dislocations, and insecurities as the Roman Empire drew to a close. Benedict's rule did not prevent the collapse of the Roman Empire, but it did provide a definition, order, and stability for the regulation of monastic life for the next one thousand years.

    In Ireland each monastery was independent, and so there was no standard or uniform rule covering all monasteries in Ireland such as the Rule of Benedict which came to form the basis of monastic practice in Continental Europe. Irish monasteries had their own rules, four of which survive from before 800 AD. The strictness of these rules depended on the priorities of the founder and the circumstances of a particular monastery. The main thrust of the rules was a challenge to follow Christ. Details concerning the monastic life itself were regarded as secondary to this primary objective. Thus Irish rules sought to encourage the spirit. There was less of a concern with practical details, hence they were selective in their treatment and unsystematic, and therefore distant from the practical and comprehensive code formulated by Benedict. Most rules, however, dealt with essential practices like prayer, penitence, food and drink consumption, obedience, manual labour, study, poverty, and silence. There was much emphasis on watching, fasting, praying day and night. Commitment to such a regime might only be achieved by a few keen ascetics. For the rest, the flexibility of Irish monasticism recognized the different talents and temperaments of people, such that not all were expected to follow a disciplined asceticism.

    Th first genuine rule to survive is that of Columbanus. On the Continent his rules proved so severe that only the most brave could live by them. They are likely also to have been more severe than what obtained in most Irish monasteries. In Ireland there were double monasteries with men and women who lived in adjacent buildings. These kind were generally presided over by a woman and they were found also in Gaul and Britain (e.g. Whitby under Hilda). Celtic hagiographers did not doubt that both groups lived together in the same monasteries and their readers appear to have taken this state of affairs for granted.

    Ascetic Practices
    Too often a rule of life to the glory of God can be corrupted by the legalism of those who abide by lists and who turn the spirit into law. A rule of life does not have to be reduced to legalism. It can provide a framework in which true freedom and growth are nurtured. Psalm 119 shows the way in which discipline and delight work together in an adventure of faith. Verses 6,11,14,15,32,47,54,97,103,131,147,164, show that there is no escapism from the toughness of life, but there is a joyful discovery of God's truth within it. Deriving from such a basis a rule must be appropriate: it must contain sufficient flexibility and adaptability to become a basic principle, rather than become an unbending prescription.

    The ascetic practices of the Celtic monks have been condemned for their excessiveness. In the lives of the saints there are cases where the saint prays for so long that birds come to rest in his outstretched hands; where a vigil is kept in ice-cold water up to the neck; where he sleeps on bare earth with a stone for a pillow; and where he wears chains that bite into his flesh producing sores. What was all this for? The Celtic monks believed that the body was made to offer its sacrifice of praise to God. Thus the cross-vigil or praying with outstretched arms was very popular. Also praying the Psalms in ice-cold water is mentioned often. Some other ascetic practices of note were:

    1. Fasting
    Fasting distinguished the Christian as different. The purpose of withdrawal from society was to mark one as different from others. Self-denial of food, in a society where there were periodic food shortages, was a special sign of spiritual endeavour. There are cases where the saint engaged in a total fast from food and drink during the three Lents (In addition to the ordinary season of Lent (called Lent of Jesus), the Irish also observed Lent of Elias (winter), and Lent of Moses (after Pentecost). Most refused meat and alcohol, except on special occasions like Easter. Fasting was thus a form of asceticism. Not all communities were ascetics but all would regularly fast. This attitude also encompassed celibacy and the denial of human comforts. All this self-denial and fasting was practised in the belief that such made the spirit more alert to God.

    2. Sexual Denial
    Sexual behaviour was one of the major means of identifying Christians in a barbarian world. Christian leaders were to be celibate. Christians practised monogamy (rather than the polygamy common in Europe), avoided divorce, and avoided sexual intercourse for any purpose other than procreation within marriage. Irish monks who were ascetics were famous for sexual denial.

    3. Exile
    The Celtic Church had no martyrs to boast of but three types of martyrdom were espoused:
  • red: whereby one shed one's blood for Christ
  • white: through a commitment to the ascetic life
  • glas (blue): state of penitence
  • The greatest ascetic achievement of Celtic Christians was their passion for pilgrimage. Some medieval sources saw exile as a punishment but Celtic monks and women took up permanent exile voluntarily. They left home, families, Ireland itself for a life of wandering. Only by cutting themselves off from everything familiar could they devote their minds and bodies to God. Like Augustine of Hippo, the Irish ascetics believed that every Christian was an alien in a carnal world. (We will be examining the tradition of journeying in more detail in Unit 6.)

    Prayer as an Ascetic Practice
    Prayer was at the heart of Celtic asceticism and it made its practitioners effective witnesses to God. Ascetics were living out fully what most Christians could only do partially. Because Irish monasteries were closely tied up with Irish tribal society, it came to have abuses and problems. The Celi De (clients of God), group of reforming monks of 8th and 9th centuries, were famous for their rigorous schedule of prayers. The Celi De recalled monks to an austerity of life and life of devotion that had subsisted in the early stages of monastic development in Ireland. There was the recitation of hymns, genuflections, cross-vigils, gospels read aloud at meals, the 150 psalms recited daily, along with several Lord's Prayers. Ascetic practice was accompanied by unceasing prayer, whether the recitation of long litanies which allowed the monk to succeed over any temptation (e.g. Breastplate of Patrick), or nearness to nature accelerating the spirit in prayer. Patrick prayed in the bleakness of winter whereby the cold conditions made him aware of the cold hearts of his captors, in contrast to the warm heart of God. Cuthbert spent hours praying in the cold sea.

    The ascetic approach presents us with a challenge. The miraculous element as found in the saints lives is upsetting for post-Enlightenment rationalists. There have been attempts to demythologize the Celts and extract the miraculous in a way that was often done for the New Testament. If one tries to sanitize Celtic Christianity of its miraculous elements, then this eradicates it of an important part of its self-understanding and identity.

    Similarly, in the case of the hagiographers, there is a need to recognize that their writing flowed out of their culture. They loved a story and its full meaning was brought out by embellishment of the account. This attribute is attractive to postmodern charismatics, mystics, and New Agers. Did they echo the miracle stories of the gospels (cf. Acts 3:1-11) or cast the saints in the mould of heroes of pre-Christian mythology? One commentator (Kenney) has written that the popular image of the saint arose "neither from habitual virtue nor resulted primarily in holiness: it was the christianized counterpart of the magic potency of the druid."

    Certainly in the lives of the Saints there is exaggeration. The Celtic saint does not merely fast, pray, keep vigils, discipline the flesh for these practices are taken to the extreme by the hagiographers. To dismiss such practices as hagiographical conventions would be wrong. They reflect an ascetic ideal far removed from the more balanced discipline of the Western Church. For hagiographers the Celtic ideal meant an ascetical change, climaxing in a state of perfection in which the spirit utterly transcends the flesh. This emphasis on subduing the body has made the Celts open to the charge that there was element of Pelagianism operative in their religious practices. Pelagius maintained that perfection was attainable and so it was the duty of the Christian to strive to achieve it. For the Celts there was an element of severity, but the stress on the love of God and love of neighbour was paramount. In all this the motive was the love of God, the folly of the cross, the call to discipleship, the teaching of Christ and following him in this life by taking up the cause of the cross. The pursuit of these ideals accounts for the strong ascetic character of Celtic Christianity.

    All this asceticism and mortification of the body was undergirded by a system of penitential exercises imposed on the sinner in the context of the practice of soul friendship. It is to this aspect of Celtic Christianity that we turn next.