CELTIC MONASTICISM

Written by Vladimir Moss

CELTIC MONASTICISM

The Romano-British Church

The explosion of Celtic monasticism in the British Isles in the sixth and seventh centuries is one of the wonders of Church history. It emerged as if from a barren land far away from the established centres of Orthodox Christianity, “on the world’s edge”, as one of the Irish saints put it. And yet its Orthodoxy cannot be doubted, while its influence on neighbouring lands was profound and long-lasting.

When the Roman legions left the island of Britain in the year 410, the outlook for the Christians was bleak. The British Church had been founded by the Apostles, and probably the first church dedicated to the Mother of God in the West was built by St. Joseph of Arimathaea at Glastonbury in Western England. However, the British Church was slow to develop, and late in the second century the British King Lucius sent to Pope Eleutherius in Rome for missionaries, which suggests that apostolic succession had almost died out. Origen and Tertullian mention the British Church’s existence; some martyrdoms are recorded; and the names of a very few bishops living in the bases of the Roman legions – London, Lincoln, Gloucester and York – are known. But it was not until 306, when the Army in the North proclaimed St. Constantine the Great as emperor in York on the death of his father that literary and archaeological records begin to tell us of the existence of settled Christian churches and communities. In the fourth century the Romano-British Church grew, but remained small. Excavations have discovered the foundations of house-churches situated in the villas of rich landowners in the south, together with church plate and baptismal fonts, but no substantial basilicas. (According to tradition, however, there was a basilica on the Cornhill in London.) Three British bishops attended the Council convened at Arles by St. Constantine in 314 (Eborius of York, Restitutus of London and Adelphius of Lincoln or Colchester). And when the Emperor Constantius convened a Council at Rimini in 359, the British bishops were so poor that they availed themselves of their right to have their travelling expenses repaid from the imperial treasury. Later in the century St. John Chrysostom speaks about the British Church, as does St. Jerome, who calls Britain “the Roman island”.

The very first stone churches of which we have concrete remains were both dedicated to a foreign monastic saint, Martin of Tours in Gaul (+397). The first was built in Southern Scotland by St. Ninian of Whithorn, a bishop who preached to the Picts and had been a disciple of St. Martin. The second, at Canterbury, was still functioning when St. Augustine came from Rome to England in 597 in order to convert the Anglo-Saxon pagans to Orthodoxy. Now St. Martin was for the West what St. Anthony the Great was for the East – the founder and inspirer of monasticism; his feast, Martinmas (November 11), remained a major feast in both the Celtic and the Anglo-Saxon Churches throughout the Orthodox period. The fact that churches were being built in his name at such an early date suggests that the Romano-British Church venerated monasticism, even though no concrete evidence of the existence of monasteries in the Roman period has yet been found…
The sufferings of the British Christians after the removal of the Roman legions was compounded by a doctrinal divide, between, on the one hand, the Orthodox Christians, and on the other, the Pelagian heretics. Pelagius was a British monk who, early in the fifth century, travelled to Rome. There, shocked by the hedonistic life-style of the Romans, he preached the heresy that salvation is attainable by good works alone, minimizing the influence of original sin. His teaching was mocked by St. Jerome (who thought that Pelagius had been eating too much “Scottish porridge”), and condemned by Councils led by St. Augustine of Hippo in Africa and Pope Zosimus in Rome, as well as by the Third Ecumenical Council.

However, the heresy remained popular in Britain, and in 429 the Gallic bishop, St. Germanus of Auxerre, was invited by the British Orthodox to come to England and help them combat the heresy. He defeated the heresy in council, and even helped the British soldiers to organize a victory over the pagan Saxon invaders (he had been a Roman general before accepting the tonsure). In 447 he came again, accompanied by St. Lupus of Troyes. St. Germanus was visited by St. Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland (+ca. 461 or 493), whom he probably ordained to the episcopate. It has even been suggested that St. Patrick accompanied him on his missionary trips to England.

In St. Germanus’ debates with the Pelagians in Britain, the heretics are described as “men of obvious wealth”. It was therefore the poor who remained Orthodox, and the poor, of course, included the monks. This raises the interesting possibility that the growth of monasticism in Britain was stimulated by the contemporary struggle against Pelagianism. If so, then after St. Martin, St. Germanus was probably the second major influence on the growth of monasticism in Britain. We have no direct proof of this, but we know that the heresy continued to trouble the Church until well into the sixth century. Moreover, the later leaders of monasticism, such as St. David, archbishop of Menevia (+ca. 587), were at the same time the leaders of the struggle against the heresy.

It is clear, then, that, on the one hand, the British Church had major problems, both doctrinal and moral, in the sub-Roman period. But on the other hand, that there was a powerful new movement in the shape of monasticism which would both take the lead in the struggle against Pelagianism and demonstrate an extraordinary striving for moral perfection…

The Sixth Century

In the second half of the fifth century, the invasions of the pagans intensified. The British rulers Ambrosius Aurelianus, “the last of the Romans”, and the famous King Arthur, won some significant victories, but gradually the British Christians were forced to retreat to the mountains of Wales, to Cornwall and to the North-West. By about 540 the island of Britain was divided roughly in half, with the West belonging to the British Christians and the East to the pagan Saxons and Picts.

To make matters worse, a terrible plague broke out, and there was large-scale emigration from Western Britain to north-west France, to the province of Brittany. One of those who emigrated was the Welsh monk St. Gildas. From his island monastery at Rhuys, he wrote the first work of British history, On the Destruction of Britain. Composed in the spirit of the Prophets Elijah and Jeremiah, it blamed the plague and the victories of the pagans squarely on the sins of the British Church. The British were a rebellious nation, he said. At the end of the Roman period they had “ungratefully rebelled” against “Roman kings”, and had failed in their “loyalty to the Roman Empire”.
As for Gildas’ contemporaries: “Britain has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but they are wicked. They often plunder and terrorize the innocent; they defend and protect the guilty and thieving; they have many wives, whores and adulteresses; they constantly swear false oaths, they make vows, but almost at once tell lies; they wage wars, civil and unjust; they chase thieves energetically all over the country, but love and reward the thieves who sit with them at table; they distribute alms profusely, but pile up an immense mountain of crime for all to see; they take their seats as judges, but rarely seek out the rules of right judgement; they despise the harmless and humble, but exalt to the stars, as far as they can, their military companions, bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God… They hang around the altars swearing oaths, then shortly afterwards scorn them as though they were filthy stones…”

The clergy were hardly better: “Britain has priests, but they are fools, very many ministers, but they are shameless; clerics, but they are treacherous grabbers. They are called shepherds, but they are wolves ready to slaughter souls. They do not look to the good of their people, but to the filling of their own bellies. They have church buildings, but go to them for the sake of base profit. They teach people – but by giving them the worst of examples, vice and bad character. Rarely do they sacrifice and never do they stand with pure heart amid the altars. They do not reprimand the people for their sins; indeed they do the same things themselves. They make mock of the precepts of Christ, and all their prayers are directed to the fulfillment of their lustful desires. They usurp with unclean feet the seat of the Apostle Peter, yet thanks to their greed they fall into the pestilential chair of the traitor Judas. They hate truth as an enemy, and love lies like favourite brothers. They look askance at the just poor as though they were dreadful snakes, and shamelessly respect the wicked rich as though they were angels from heaven… They canvass posts in the church more vigorously than the Kingdom of heaven… They remain in the same old unhappy slime of intolerable sin even after they have obtained the priestly seat… They have grabbed merely the name of priest, not the priestly way of life.”

Gildas spoke kindly only of the monks: they were “the true sons” who led “worthy lives”. He mentioned “the habit of a holy abbot”, “the caves of the saints”, and how King Maglocunus, pondering “the godly life and rule of the monks”, had vowed “to be a monk forever”. And this reinforces our belief that there was a sharp divide between the corrupt life of the secular rulers and married clergy, on the one hand, and the monks, on the other, that mirrored the doctrinal divide...

British Celtic monasticism from the sixth to the eleventh centuries differed in no important respect from contemporary Eastern monasticism. It had the same emphasis on regular prayer (the Hours and Liturgy), fasting, obedience, eldership (starchestvo) , manual work and hospitality. Indeed, Celtic monasticism yielded very little to Eastern monasticism in its rigour. St. David was called “Aquaticus” because he drank only water (and ate only bread). His monks ploughed the fields with the yoke across their shoulders, eschewing animal labour. At meals, silence reigned. Laughter was forbidden. If a monk coughed while reading the psalms in church, he was given a penance. It was a Celtic custom to recite the 150 Psalms standing in cold water up to the neck – a practice inherited by the Anglo-Saxon monks. We know that such Eastern works as the Conferences of St. John Cassian, The Rule of St. Pachomius and St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony the Great were avidly read by British monks and nuns. Thus the great sixth-century Martyr-Monk Nectan of Hartland decided to leave the royal palace of his father, a Welsh prince, and become a hermit in England after reading the Life of St. Anthony. He was shortly followed by all his brothers and sisters, who then evangelized the whole of the north coast of Cornwall, meeting together once a year in the cell of St. Nectan for mutual comfort, counsel and reading of the Holy Scriptures.

This presupposes a degree of literacy in Britain that is perhaps surprising in view of the island’s remoteness. However, remoteness never deterred the Celts from travel in search of knowledge, even when it was especially dangerous. Thus the Welsh bishop St. Samson of Dol signed the acts of a Council in Paris in 556; British pilgrims travelled as far as St. Symeon the Stylite in Syria and Scetis in Egypt; and St. David went with two fellow bishops, Saints Teilo and Paternus, to Jerusalem.

The Irish Church

So far we have spoken only of the Churches of Wales, Scotland and Brittany. However, the most important of the Celtic Churches turned out to be the Irish Church. Now Ireland had never been part of the Roman empire, so it was almost wholly a pagan land. St. Celestine the Pope had sent a Bishop Palladius to Ireland, but his mission had failed. Ireland’s conversion to Christ in the fifth century was the work largely of one man, St. Patrick. The son of a deacon and grandson of a priest in Wales or Scotland, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates in his youth. But he escaped to France, where he became a monk and a bishop. Instead of returning to his homeland, however, he felt a call to preach to the Irish who had enslaved him. St. Patrick saw himself as a citizen of the Christian Roman Empire, and rebuked a Scottish ruler, Coroticus, for being a “tyrant”. His Epistle to Coroticus and autobiographical Confession are the earliest works of British literature, and breathe the spirit of humility and Apostolic Christianity. In an astonishingly short time he succeeded in planting monasteries for men and women throughout the island. And within a few decades of his death Ireland was producing her own native saints, such as the famous Abbess Brigid of Kildare (+522), “the Mary of the Gael”.

The Irish Church had certain characteristics that distinguished it from traditional monasticism. First, the abbots appear to have been more important than the bishops. Thus the many saints of the period were almost all abbots and abbesses, and there is hardly a mention of an Irish bishop after the death of St. Patrick. (An exception to this rule is Bishop Conleth, who lived in St. Brigid’s monastery in Kildare.) However, a possible explanation of this fact is that all the abbots were also bishops, which is why the writers of the lives of the holy abbots did not think it necessary to mention their episcopate. Certainly, it seems likely that St. Columba, the Irish Apostle of Scotland (+597) was exercising an episcopal ministry when he ordained the first Orthodox king of Scotland, Aidan Mor…

Hieromonk Gorazd (Vopatrny) of Charles University, Prague, has suggested that “bishops had a classical leadership role in the Irish Church until approximately the thirties of the 6th century. With the spread of monasticism the whole system of ecclesiastical control was effected. Jurisdiction was exercised not only by bishops whether they were also abbots or not, but also by abbots who were only priests. About one half of the main abbots were bishops and about a half were priests.”

Perhaps because the bishops were also abbots, the Irish Church appears to have been administered on tribal, rather than territorial lines, with abbots ruling extended “monastic families”. Thus St. Columba, who was a member of the royal family of the North Irish tribe of Ui Neill, appears to have been the leader of the Ui Neill monks throughout the island.

Secondly, there was a great emphasis in Ireland on learning - Irish history, classical literature, and Greek, Latin and Holy Scripture. St. Columbanus of Luxeuil (+615), is even thought to have known Hebrew… Some of the monasteries had schools attached to them with thousands of scholars, such as that of St. Finian, Abbot of Clonard (+552). Once St. Columba visited St. Finian, and was allowed by him to copy onto vellum (cow’s skin) Jerome’s translation of the Holy Scriptures, which differed from the Old Latin translation then in use in Ireland. Unfortunately, this led to a dispute between the two saints over who owned the new manuscript that ended in an Irish Synod exiling St. Columba from Ireland…

The copying of the Holy Scriptures led to the development of the unique illuminated art of the Celtic Churches. Several illuminated Gospels from this period, such as the Lindisfarne Gospel and the Book of Kells, are still in existence. A close study of these Gospels reveals a third peculiarity of the Irish Church – its close cultural connection with the Coptic Church of Egypt. Thus the interlacing pattern of the illuminations in Irish manuscripts, as well as the way in which men and animals are drawn, and even the pigments used in drawing them, have been traced to Coptic Egypt, as have the architecture of Irish churches and the “beehive” construction of Irish monastic cells.

Scholars have detected both Greek and Coptic influences on the language and liturgical practices of the Irish. Thus the Great Doxology in Mattins in the Irish Church followed the Greek practice exactly, and Greek words such as “Synaxis” and “Archimandrite” were in common use. However, the Irish word for a deserted place suitable for hesychasm, usually an uninhabited island, is disert, a Coptic term translated as pustyn’ in Russian, and desert in modern English.

Again, the typical Celtic Cross with a circle in the middle appears to derive from Coptic Egypt. Moreover, the Coptic saints Anthony and Paul are depicted on many Celtic Crosses. One found in Perthshire in Scotland bears a very close resemblance to an icon of SS. Anthony and Paul in St. Anthony’s monastery in Egypt.

The closeness between the Irish and Coptic Churches appears to have been unique in the context of East-West relations. In the seventh-century Antiphonary of Bangor we read: “This house full of delight/ Is built on the rock,/ And is indeed the true vine/ Transplanted out of Egypt." This would suggest that the Irish Church even derived from the Coptic Church. While this cannot be literally true, it is nevertheless true that the English scholar Alcuin of York, in a letter to Charlemagne, called the Irish monks “children of Egypt” (pueri egyptiaci). And the Irish Litany of Saints commemorates “the seven monks of Egypt who lived in Disert Uilaig”.

A fourth characteristic of the Irish Church was its zeal for missionary work. Now the Irish distinguished between three kinds of monasticism: green, red and white. Green monasticism was conventional asceticism, fasting and prayer. Red monasticism was martyrdom for Christ’s sake. White monasticism was exile from one’s native land for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the unbaptized pagans.

St. Columba was the first to undertake white monasticism, albeit involuntarily. He and twelve monks settled on the Scottish island of Iona and proceeded to evangelize the whole of North-Western Scotland. After him, St. Columbanus travelled from Bangor in Ireland to France, Switzerland and Italy. Several of the monasteries founded by him and his disciples are still in existence, such as St. Gall in Switzerland and Bobbio in Italy. Other Irish monks travelled to Germany, Austria and, perhaps, Moravia. We know that there were Irish priests at one time in Iceland, and the ninth-century Life of St. Brendan the Navigator suggests that he crossed the Atlantic many centuries before Columbus. And indeed, archaeologists have claimed to find Celtic inscriptions as far afield as Valaam in Russia, West Virginia and Newfoundland… Thus the Irish monks were the first globalists in Christian history. They were at the same time the most isolated and the most “Catholic”, in the sense of “universalist”, of Christians…

But the greatest achievement of Irish mission was probably the re-evangelization of Southern Scotland and Northern England, which had been conquered by the pagan Angles and Saxons. A mission led by St. Aidan, the first bishop of Lindisfarne (+635), set out from Iona and converted the North English kingdoms of Northumbria and Deira. The whole region became culturally a province of the Scottish-Irish Church, although soon it was producing great saints of English origin, such as Martyr-King Oswald of Northumbria (+642) and Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (+687).

Meanwhile, St. Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, who had been sent from Rome with forty missionary monks by Pope St. Gregory the Great, was pushing northwards. He had good relations with the Irish monks coming from the opposite direction, and within two generations almost all the Anglo-Saxons had been converted to the faith through the combined efforts of the Irish and Roman missionaries. The only major problem was a difference in the date for calculating Pascha: the Celts, through their isolation, used an older system that had been discarded by the Roman-Byzantine Church. However, at the Synod of Whitby in 664 most of the Irish accepted the Roman Paschalion. Those who dissented, together with their Saxon disciples, emigrated to the west coast of Ireland. The Irish of Iona also dissented for a while, until the English abbot St. Egbert brought them back into unity. With Celts, English and Romans now united in one Church, the Anglo-Saxon Church entered its golden age.

In 667, the Pope sent St. Theodore the Greek to England as archbishop of Canterbury. He condemned the Celts who rejected Whitby as schismatics, but in general consolidated the union of Celtic and Roman-Byzantine traditions still further. In 679 he convened an English Synod that condemned Monothelitism two years before the Sixth Ecumenical Council...

However, the Welsh Church refused to join this unity. Their bishops, out of hatred of the English who had conquered their lands, had refused to work together with St. Augustine in order to convert the English. For this refusal, as Augustine prophesied, the English pagans ravaged the great monastery of Bangor in North Wales, killing hundreds of monks.
But even after the Synod of Whitby the Welsh remained stubbornly aloof. As an Irish canon put it, “the Britons [of Wales] are… contrary to all men, separating themselves both from the Roman way of life and the unity of the Church”. However, in 768 the Welsh Bishop Eldod of Bangor brought the North Welsh back into unity, and the South Welsh followed in 777…

The Fall of the Celtic Churches

We hear less about the Celtic Churches in the last centuries before the western papist schism. However, there is no reason to believe that they did not continue to adhere to the traditions of their great ancestors. Moreover, when the Vikings invaded from the north in the ninth and tenth centuries, many Celtic island monasteries suffered collective martyrdom, from Skellig Michael off the south-western coast of Ireland, to Iona and Eigg in the north-west, to the Isle of May in the north-east of Scotland.

The leadership of Church life in the British Isles now belonged to the Orthodox Anglo-Saxon Church. But relations between the Celts and the English were in general good; and the English kings did not encroach on the lands or faith of, for example, the Welsh King Hywel the Good (+10th century) or the Scottish King Macbeth (+1057). It was only after the terrible Norman-papist conquest of England in 1066-70, and the consequent fall of Orthodoxy in England, that things changed significantly.

Scotland welcomed many of the English exiles fleeing from the Normans. But King Malcolm's wife Margaret, though an English princess of the Old Orthodox dynasty, began the process of removing the old-fashioned Celtic monks, called “Culdees”, “companions of God”, from all positions of power in the Church. While expressing admiration for, and frequently visiting, the hermits, who lived, as her biographer Turgot says, angelic lives, she began replacing them by monks belonging to the new papist orders.

However, according to Lucy Menzies, “it was not till the time of David I, son of Malcolm and Margaret, that the authority of the Church of Rome was fully accepted in Scotland and the Celtic Church, as such, disappeared from the mainland.”

Wales fared no better. After William of Normandy's "pilgrimage" there in 1081, a struggle took place between the papist and nationalist parties whose outcome was easy to foresee. It seems likely that the last independent Orthodox bishop in Britain was Rhyddmarch of St. Davids, son of Sulien the Wise, who reposed in 1096 and of whom the Annals of St. Davids say that he was "one without an equal or second, excepting his father, for learning, wisdom, and piety. And after Rhyddmarch instruction for scholars ceased at Menevia..."

It was probably the Irish who held out longest. But in 1172 an English pope awarded Ireland to the Norman King Henry II of England, and in the next century Scotland, too, came under Norman rule (as portrayed in the film “Braveheart”).

In 1314 the Norman English were defeated at Bannockburn by King Robert Bruce, and for a brief period the Celts of Scotland and Ireland dreamed of a “Greater Scotia”. However, this was a political movement having little spiritual significance: the great Celtic Church of SS. Gildas, David and Columba was dead…

If we wish to gain a feeling for the fiercely independent spirit of the Celtic Church in its golden age, we can do no better that turn to the letter which St. Columbanus of Luxeuil wrote to Pope Vigilius. The Pope was vacillating with regard to the heretical Three Chapters condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and the saint first discussed the possibility that he, the Pope may have fallen into heresy - there were no infallible Popes for the Orthodox Celts! In that case, he continued, those “who have always kept the Orthodox Faith, whoever these may be, even if they seem to be your subordinates,… shall be your judges… And thus, even as your honour is great in proportion to the dignity of your see, so great care is mindful for you, lest you lose your dignity through some mistake. For power will be in your hands just so long as your principles remain sound; for he is the appointed keybearer of the Kingdom of Heaven, who opens by true knowledge to the worthy and shuts to the unworthy; otherwise if he does the opposite, he shall be able neither to open nor to shut.”

“For all we Irish,” as he said to another Pope, “inhabitants of the world’s edge, are disciples of Saints Peter and Paul and of all the disciples who wrote the sacred canon by the Holy Spirit, and we accept nothing outside the evangelical and apostolic teaching; none has been a heretic, none a Judaizer, none a schismatic; but the Catholic Faith, as it was delivered by you first, who are the successors of the holy apostles, has been maintained unbroken.”

Vladimir Moss.
October 16/29, 2012.
St. Gall, monk of Bangor and enlightener of Switzerland.

I wish to express my thanks to Hieromonk Gorazd (Vopatrny), professor of Orthodox theology at the Charles University, Prague, for reviewing an earlier version of this paper and supplying his very useful comments.

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