How Did Celtic Christian Monasticism Contribute to the Life of the Church? (Page 2)

By Tim Yau  

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Influence of Pre-Christian Celtic Religion on Celtic Christianity; Origins of Celtic Monasticism; Structure of Celtic Monasticism; Education in Celtic Monasticism

Influence of Pre-Christian Celtic Religion on Celtic Christianity

As no religion is formed in a vacuum, it is worth mentioning some of the beliefs and practices of the pre-Christian Celts, to look for resonances which might be found in Celtic Christianity. 

The Celts were nature venerating, polytheistic and observant of female deities (Jones & Pennick, 1995, p.81).  The cult of a deity was identified with a location whether a spring, lake, river or forest.  The deities communicated with humanity in the context of nature (Cooper, 2003, p.37).  According to Davies the interpretation of religion and landscape surpassed anything found in the late classical world (Davies, 1994, p.10).  Smart goes even further and stresses that natural locations were more than just places of identification with deities, but Celts believed they gave them access to the ‘other’ world of the gods (Smart, 1995, p.275).

Smart continues saying Celtic Christianity took over many of the sacred spots to build churches, and saints instead of deities were then linked with healing springs and the like.  He says, ‘the magic of the Celtic world was transformed for the sober purposes of Christian living, and to win the hearts of those whose poetry was always bubbling to the surface.’ (Ibid).

Pre-Christian Celtic religion was loosely held together by Druidism.  The Druids were wandering preachers who travelled around, passing on their teaching to whoever would receive it (Jones & Pennick 1995, p.85).  The Irish Celts followed an independent Druidism which resembled that which Caesar saw in Gaul , but in comparison the Irish practice was unclear.  They held to the immortality and the transmigration of souls, worshipped the sun, moon, and nature, and they sacrificed to idols.  But their influence was much more a social than a religious one, in spite of the common misconception that they were exclusively a priestly class.  Above all, the druids were the educators of the nobility. (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05162a.htm 22-11-06 ).

At face value there seems to be some syncretism or at least mirroring by the Celtic Christian monks of the Druid’s ways.  They too were great wanderers (Smeeton, 1985, p.133).  They were fiercely independent, eschewing the authoritarian Roman approach, and promoted an incarnational theology in their spirituality and mission (Porter 2000 p.503).  Louis Gougaud has suggested that St. Patrick first of all set himself to convert Celtic leaders.  Because the leaders owned all the property, Patrick needed their favour to establish churches (Gougaud, 1932, p.38-39), but I would suggest that Patrick may be more in-line with Druidic method of linking with nobility than just strategic opportunism. Columban employed a similar tactic to Patrick, who, once receiving approval from rulers, chose sites with religious significance for his monasteries (O’Fiaich 1995, p.108).  By this process was Columban aligning himself with Celtic sacred places to incorporate or usurp the power of the Druids?  St. Columba said, ‘My Druid is Christ, the son of God, Christ, the Son of Mary, the Great Abbot, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost’ (Marsh & Bamford, 1982, p.110).  How do we make sense of such an overt reference to Druidism linked to Celtic ChristianityMackey writes:

‘We know from their earliest art that the wandering Celts (Christian monks) had an inherent ability to assimilate and to enrich whatever the peoples they encountered had to offer, while leaving all essential differences intact.  They could make quite distinctively their own forms borrowed from others, and contribute to the richness of the cultures of others without attempting to suppress these’ (Mackey 1995, p.19).

I would argue that the Celtic Christians did not reject the culture of pre-Christian Celtic religion, but chose to transform it by taking what was good and compatible and pointing to Christ through it.  A New Testament parallel can be found in Paul preaching in Athens (Acts 17); the ‘unknown god’ becomes a pointer to the Christian God.

Origins of Celtic Monasticism

Monasticism seems to have begun among the Celts in the late 5th or early 6th century, but its origins are ambiguous.  Patrick is often attributed the founding of Celtic monasticism, but instead he seems to have encouraged a private type of asceticism (Smith, 1990, p.217-218).

Ireland then has been described as the outer most ripple of the great monastic movement of the Greek and Coptic churches of the East (Chadwick, 1961, p.60).  The Egyptian desert monastics Antony of Egypt and Paul of Thebes often feature on the carved high crosses as evidence of the eastern influence, while monastic texts commend them as models to imitate (Culling, 1993, p.19).  Martin of Tours may have brought this eastern ascetic influence to Ireland via Ninian’s monastery at Whithorn in Scotland (Smith, 1990, p.217-218).

In the early 5th century historical sources describe Ireland as a largely nomadic and tribal society without any permanent settlements of any importance.  Therefore the monastic quest for solitude and isolation was well suited to the Irish way of life.  In Ireland it quickly became the dominant expression of Christianity.  You could say that the Irish church was monastic compared to monasticism in western Europe which was marginalized within the Roman Church (McGrath, 1999, p.258).  So strong was the monastic element in Celtic Christianity that Christ was sometimes referred to as “the Abbot of the Blessed in Heaven” (Culling, 1993, p.8).

Structure of Celtic Monasticism

Monasticism became increasingly integrated with its local society.  Suitably for a rural focused non-Roman church they did not organize themselves round urban bishops; instead the Church leaders in Ireland were abbots and abbesses.  Monastery's positions reflected the tribal centres in the country, and they were the thrust behind evangelistic missions.  It was perhaps this feature which made the Irish such effective missionaries in the lands of northern Europe which also lay beyond the urban world of the Roman Empire (MacCulloch, 1994, p.116).  Each tribe had its own abbey and abbot chosen from the family clan.  Bishops served only as the administrators of the sacraments, not as the leaders of the church (Smeeton, 1985, p.131).  Each monastery was independent unlike the monasteries in the rest of Europe which were bound together by the Rule of St. Benedict (Culling, 1993, p.8).  So different was the Celtic form of monasticism to the Roman mode that monks and nuns lived together, and followed different practices.  Smart even speculates that they had some antipathy towards Roman Christianity (Smart, 1995, p.261), which would resonate with their fierce independence.

Education in Celtic Monasticism

According to Bosch it was the Irish monks who contributed most to creating the tradition of monastic learning and educational activity after the fall of the Byzantine Empire (Bosch, 2005, p.233).  Equally Finucane believes that they were distinguished by a high level of cultural attainment (Finucane, 1990, p.307); this may have been encouraged by continental scholars who fled to Ireland from the barbarian invasions of the 5th century (Smith, 1990, p.217-218).  The monks of Iona illustrated this scholastic ideal with their copying of Scripture, Columba is said to have written out over three hundred copies of the Vulgate and the Psalter himself (Scott, 2000, p.211).  The monasteries become known as seminaries for the study of scripture and for strict discipline.  People came from far-and-wide to learn, which led to them to sharing the gospel further afield (Pierson, 2000, p.170).                                          (Continued On Next Page: Page 3) _________________________________________________

Text of "How Did Celtic Monasticism Contribute to the Life of the Church?" Copyright © 2007 Tim Yau. World rights reserved. (Used by permission).

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