Celtic Monasticism


Monasticism seems to have been a more conspicuous feature of the Celtic Church than any other portion of the Western Church at any time. Not only was it a feature but, certainly in Ireland, the whole character of the Church was of a monastic nature. Its exclusively monastic constitution was closely bound up with its missionary character and, for a time, it was a matter of doubt as to whether the order of St Columbanus and St Columba, or that of St Benedict, would become the foundation for later Western monasticism.

Alongside the monastic clergy there were also a few secular clergy but it has to be said that they were in the minority. They lived under a much less harsh "rule" and, in various parts, were even allowed to be married. Notices of married bishops, priests, and deacons, and of various attempts to enforce clerical celibacy in the tenth century, and of the opposition encountered, prove that a married clergy existed in Wales till the eleventh or twelfth century.

The structures of the monasteries was of a simple and inexpensive character. Like the early Celtic churches they were built at first of earth, and wattles, or wood. It was not till the end of the eighth century that stone buildings were built in any number in Scotland and Ireland, and this largely as a protection against the ravages of the Danes. Of course, as with every rule, there were exceptions such as the buildings of "Candida Cassa" at Whithorn.

The Rule of these foundations, as laid down in the writings of St Columbanus, was very severe, far more so than the Rule of St Benedict. Its principles were, absolute and unreserved obedience, constant and severe labour, daily self-denial and fasting; and the least deviation from this Rule was visited with corporal punishment of a severe form.

The authority of the Abb was absolute within the muinntir (moastic settlement) even when a bishop was a member of the community. However, in certain things, particularly at the celebration of the mass, the bishop was respected and the Abb would often allow the bishop to perform the most important functions. Indeed, the Abb may not in fact have been ordained into priests orders as was the case with Colum Cille who was only ordained a presbyter. The office of Scribe (Scribhnidh or Scribhneoir, in Irish Gaelic) was one of great honour. In an Irish monastery, the penalty for shedding his blood was as great as that for killing an bishop or abbot! In Scotland, it was quite common for the scribe to be elected as abb and many bishops and abbots added to the dignity of their position by appending the title 'scriba' to their name. Colum Cille and his successor Baithene were both renowned scribes. Indeed, Baithene's talent was such that in a Psalter that he transcribed the only fault that St Columba could find within the whole work was a single omission of the vowel "i"! Important examples of this early Scottish style of script are preserved in an eighth century MS Life of Columba, by Adamnān, Codex A at Schaffhausen, and in the brilliant Book of Deer written by a native scribe of Pictland of Alba in the ninth century, now sadly languishing so many miles from its true home, in the library of Cambridge University.

The monastic was closely connected with the missionary character of the Celtic Church. A cursory glance at a list of Celtic foundations proves how widespread was the area once covered by its missionary endeavours and monastic foundations. It seems to have begun with a colonisation of Brittany from the British Church in the fifth century. A British Colony was established in Spanish Gallicia in the sixth century. In the same century we have the movement of Columba into south western Scotland. Also we had the work of St Donnan on Eigg, St Maelrubha on Skye, St Moluog on Lismore and Raasay, St Molaise on Arran and SS. Catan and Blaan on Bute. Having first accepted Christianity from the Britons, Ireland was the source of many notable missionary saints thereafter. St Fursa planted the faith at Burghcastle in Suffolk, Mailduf founded Malmesbury, St Berga, the foundress of St Bees in Cumberland, St Moninna who came to Burton-on-Trent, to name but a few. Because of the ease of access, many of the western and northern isles were visited at this time as were the more distant Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland. In modern times it has been suggested that these early Celtic missionaries even reached the shores of northern America.

Of course, the Irish saints, famous amongst whom were St Columbanus and St Gall, spread Celtic Christianity into many other areas of modern Europe.

A notable aspect of the Celtic form of monasticism was the search for a solitary retreat. Many of the great saints are recorded as having had a solitary retreat. Indeed, it was this search for isolation which resulted in many communities being founded on remote islands. On many occasions, as part of the ideal of sacrifice and mortal penance, the saints would deliberately cut themselves off from their "home country", Colum Cille himself being a notable example. It is said that he was not happy to settle till he reached a place from which he could no longer see his home country of Ireland.

There were three "degrees" of commitment for a Celtc peregrini - the Green Martyrdom, the White Martyrdom, and the Red Martyrdom. The Follower of the green route had the easier time and would find a place of isolation to retreat to within his or her own country. The white path took the missionary away from their home country, possibly as a punishment - a form of banishment - as was the case with Colum Cille. Those who chose the red route deliberately chose to find a desolate spot which would have a high probability of bringing them into contact with warlike "heathens" and thus would result in great risk to their lives and often death at the hands of the Vikings or Danes.



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