The Holy Hierarch Saint Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne (†651)
“The Church in The British Isles will only begin to grow
when She begins to again venerate Her own Saints“
(Saint Arsenios of Paros †1877)
Celtic Monasticism, A Model of Sanctity By Hieromonk Ambrose (Father Alexey Young) — Part II of IV
“… Monasticism appeared attractive to a warrior people who were drawn to an ascetic lifestyle. … It appealed to a marginalized people who saw the monk as one who lived on the edge of things, on the very margins of life.
The Holy Hierarch Saint Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury († 690)
Christianity softened all of this, but Celtic Christians did not lose their fierceness which, under the influence of Christ, no longer expressed itself in a lust for war, but now was channeled into Christianity as a way of life–and this they pursued with a single-mindedness rarely seen elsewhere. “Monasticism appeared attractive to a warrior people who were drawn to an ascetic lifestyle. It appealed to a marginalized people who saw the monk as one who lived on the edge of things, on the very margins of life.” (Timothy Joyce, Celtic Christianity)
The Holy Hierarch Saint David of Wales, Bishop of Menevia Confounder of Pelagians († 601)
We see this in the lives of monks like St. Cuthbert and St. Guthlac, who “were uncompromising solitaries and their ascetic practices aroused wonder … To go all-out for something” is a distinctive mark of Celtic Christians. (Benedicta Ward, High King of Heaven). Another example is in the life of St. Columban who, we are told, “leaped over his mother’s grieving body, which was draped across her threshold, in order to head for” a monastery. (Lisa M. Bitel, “Ascetic Superstars,” www.christianitytoday.com/ch/60h/60h022.html)
It is perhaps not surprising then, to learn that the brave stories of the valiant and heroic King Arthur (who was an actual person) originated among the Celts and were only later picked up and modified and expanded by medieval troubadours and scribes elsewhere in Europe. These included tales of the Round Table and the noble Quest for the Holy Grail, as well as accounts of Arthur’s spiritual father, Merlin (who, by the way, was most probably a Celtic bishop named Ambrosius Merlinus, after St. Ambrose of Milan, and not a Druid priest, as used to be thought).
As an aside, may I say that Celtic hermit life “was no walk through a nature reserve or stay at a holiday camp. The hermit had deliberately chosen to live at the limits of existence, a human person containing both heaven and earth.” (Ward, op.cit.) Speaking of his own hermit days, St. Cuthbert testified that the demons constantly “cast me down headlong from my high rock; how many times have they hurled stones at me as if to kill me. But though they sought to frighten me away by one phantasmal temptation or another, and attempted to drive me from this place of combat, nevertheless they were unable in any way to mar my body by injury or my mind by fear.” (Quoted in Ward, Ibid.)
This account is amazingly close to the temptations suffered by St. Antony the Great in the Egyptian desert. But this is not surprising, because their Christianity– which is to say, their monastic life–was primarily influenced by and formed by the Christian monasticism of the Egyptian desert, and only incidentally from the continent of Europe. This means that Celtic Christians were more like the Byzantine or Slavic Orthodox Christians than Latin or Northern European Christians.
Early this last summer I had an appointment with a new diabetic specialist. Dr. Jennings was very intrigued and pleased to meet “a real live monk”, “But,” he said, “you don’t look like a monk.” I said, “What do you mean, I don’t ‘look like a monk’? I have a beard and wear a black habit.” He replied, “Well, you have to realize, Father, that my only images of monks have been formed by television commercials–where the monks are all wearing brown robes, are clean-shaven, have a bald spot in the center of their heads, and are advertising either ‘Beano’ or computers.” I’m afraid this really is the popular image of monks in our culture, today. Most of these images are based upon stereotypical ideas drawn from medieval Western monasticism and applied to both Celtic and Orthodox Christian monastics: it’s assumed that we all look like Francis of Assisi, and live in great stone monasteries with cloisters. But this is not an accurate image of Celtic.
Rather, Celtic monastic communities were more a relatively modest ‘monastic village’ than a huge complex of buildings. The village had a stone wall around it to keep animals in and thieves out. Within the walls were many small huts, whether wooden buildings or crude structures of mud and wattle. Later, especially in the west of Ireland, stone buildings were erected. Remains of many “stone clochans, called ‘beehive huts’ in English, are scattered over the countryside….There is no indication that any large church buildings were ever built….” (Timothy Joyce, Celtic Christianity) “Other monks and nuns lived out their days alone….in small wood-and-mud huts; they kept a cow or two, and accepted gladly the gifts of an occasional loaf or basket of vegetables from local farmers. The desire for a solitary life and time to spend simply yearning for God…must have drifted through the hearts of even the busiest abbot in the most bustling monastery.” (Bitel, op.cit.)
Stone clochan, Ireland
Monastic life was seen as an absolutely essential part of Christian life–the norm for all Christian life, not the exception–, and monks and nuns, hermits and hermitesses were the great heroes of the common people, who saw them, as St. Cuthlac put it, as “tried warriors who serve a king who never withholds the reward from those who persist in loving Him.” (Quoted in Bitel, Ibid.) Indeed, it is this quality of persistent, even stubborn heroism that particularly stamps the character of Celtic Christianity and, particularly, monastic life–for these were a people whose heroes were monks and nuns, not political leaders or other cultural figures.
St. John Cassian, who is still carefully read and studied by Eastern Orthodox monastics today, was well known to Celtic monks. St. John had spent years as a monk in Bethlehem and Egypt–and recorded his conversations with the Egyptian Fathers–later establishing a monastery near present-day Marseilles, France. The Life of the Egyptian Father, St. Anthony the Great was translated into Latin around the year 380, and we know that this was studied by Celtic monks, who depicted St. Anthony and St. Paul of Thebes on some of the great Irish “High Crosses” (about which I’ll say more, shortly). There was phenomenal literacy and very high culture among these monks. In addition, they also learned from the monks of the Egyptian desert how to practice daily “Confession of Thoughts.” Their monastic clothing was primarily made from animal skins, so that in appearance they actually resembled St. John the Baptist out in the wilderness–a far cry from the monastics of Europe in their sometimes rather elaborate woven cloth habits.Holy Martyr Saint Dymphna, Patron Saint of Mental Illness († 650)
Now we come to the interesting part: There are records of any number of Christians traveling to the Desert Fathers from the British Isles, and an old Celtic litany of the saints mentions seven Egyptian monks who came to Ireland and died and were buried there. Scholars believe that most of the contact between Ireland and Egypt occurred before the year 640. On an ancient stone near a church in County Cork, Ireland, there is the following inscription: “Pray for Olan, the Egyptian. Also interesting is the fact that even though there are no deserts in the British Isles, the Celts called their monastic communities diserts or “deserts.” This was particularly true of island monasteries or hermitages –those spiritual fortresses–, where the sea itself was like a desert, as an ancient poet said of St. Columban’s island hermitage:
“Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea…That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course.”
Saint Ninian Bishop of Whithorn, Apostle to the Picts († 432)
We have a wonderful description of a visit to the monks of Egypt near the close of the fourth century, written by Rufinus of Aquileia. He wrote: “When we came near, they realized that foreign monks were approaching, and at once they swarmed out of their cells like bees. They joyfully hurried to meet us.” Rufinus was particularly struck by the solitude and stillness of life among these monks. “This is the utter desert,” he observed, “where each monk lives alone in his cell….There is a huge silence and a great peace there.” (Quoted in Celtic Saints, Passionate Wanderers, by Elizabeth Rees)
Saint Ita (Ida, Dorothy), Hermitess in Limerick, Ireland, and Foster-Mother of Saint Brendan (†570)
[To Be Continued …]
Also, listen to Hiermonk Ambrose (Father Alexey Young) about THE UNIQUENESS OF CELTIC MONASTICISM at http://www.asna.ca/angloceltic/
For Part III go to https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/11/01/thin-places-a-journey-into-celtic-christianity-part-iii/
To follow an alternate route at our pilgrimage to the Celtic sacred sites and pilgrim routes of England, you may go to https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/11/05/scilly-pilgrimage/ and visit Scilly –pronounced “silly”–Islands! (/ˈsɪli/; Cornish: Syllan or Enesek Syllan) (Introduction of the “c” may be to prevent references to “silly” men or saints!) Yet another look at Christian faith from a Celtic perspective. The Isles of Scilly are an archipelago off the southwestern tip of the Cornish peninsula of Great Britain, comprising 5 Major, inhabited islands,St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, Bryher, St Agnes and 140 others.