"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Wednesday 4 July 2018


The origins and motivations of monasticism
Written by Newman Nahas, M.Phil.

From its inception, Christianity produced many who, while remaining fully part of their local parish, were inspired to pursue rigorous ascetic lifestyles. Indeed, even the most primitive expressions of Christianity, such as St. Paul's letters, contain strongA ascetic emphases. However, the emergence of monasticism as a distinct ascetic movement, separated from the larger Christian community, does not appear straightaway. Rather, it emerges, in diverse forms and various regions, only around the fourth century AD. In this paper, I will trace the origins and depict the motivations of this movement, primarily as it appeared in the Christian East, and I will argue that monasticism should be understood as an organic outgrowth of the Christiankerygma -- that in the development of the monastic practice the Christian community changed its outer structure precisely to preserve its inner essence.

Understanding Asceticism and Monasticism: Preliminary Observations

I shall be using monasticism to refer to that ascetic movement characterized by anachoresis, or withdrawal from the Christian community and the rest of society. Monasticism does not have a monopoly on asceticism, as asceticism is a characteristic of many non- and pre-monastic Christians (as well as non-Christians). All monasticism is ascetic, but all asceticism is not monastic. What distinguishes monasticism from the broader category of Christian asceticism -- at least as I propose to use the terms -- is monasticism's emphasis on withdrawal.

Before continuing, however, I would like qualify what I have said in two ways. First, I would like to emphasize that the withdrawal which characterizes monasticism need not be seen as signaling a complete disconnection from society. The monk may still be strongly connected with the rest of the Church (and society) through his prayers. Some of us might think prayer a negligible connection, but in characterizing the motivations of the monks we must realize that they certainly did not share this assumption. And we must also realize that the personal success of the monk possessed communal consequences. When Anthony defeats the devils in the Desert, it is not only his own victory, but ours as well. There exists a profound solidarity, then, among all humans and especially among all Christians.

Moreover, in some cases the physical withdrawal is not permanent. After time apart, some anchoritic monastics resume contact with the rest of the community. St. Anthony is a prime example of this pattern: fortified by the freedom and insight which his withdrawal helped him obtain, he was enabled to help countless others find their own freedom. Indeed, many continue to find his life, words and prayers profoundly helpful even today, sixteen centuries after his death. Yet, what enabled him to be so helpful to society was precisely his withdrawal from society.

Second, I would like to emphasize that asceticism need not denote dualist motivations or a hatred of the body or the world. While no doubt certain ascetics, Christian as well as non-Christian, may have had a pessimistic estimate of the human body and of the physical world -- the monk Dorotheus's explanation of why he taxes his body being a fine Christian example: "It kills me, so I kill it" -- the dominant view that we find among orthodox Christian monastics is more in line with Poemen's remark: "We were taught not to kill the body, but to kill the passions." The great battle is against spirits and principalities, not flesh and blood; and the battle line is drawn not between the physical and the immaterial, but between godliness and ungodliness. The passions can be as much spiritual as physical. As Peter Brown observes,

In the desert tradition, vigilant attention to the body enjoyed an almost oppressive prominence. Yet to describe ascetic thought as "dualist" and as motivated by hatred of the body, is to miss its most novel and its most poignant aspect. Seldom, in ancient thought, had the body been seen as more deeply implicated in the transformation of the soul; and never was it made to bear so heavy a burden.1

Indeed, the great burden the monks placed upon the body was evidence of the great expectations they had for it. The body along with the soul was to be saved, and this is why not only the soul but the body, too, must be brought under a strict discipline. "Against all types of Dualism, pagan or pre-Christian, Antony's perfection is shown reflected in his bodily condition, retained right up to his death fifty years later, when he was still sound in all his senses and vigorous in his limbs, with even his teeth complete in number, though worn down to the gums".2

In the case of Syrian monasticism, however, some scholars have assessed the motivations of the monks to be extremely dualist.3 While a more thorough analysis of the Syrian monastic tradition must be deferred for now, at this point it is sufficient to note that this is not the only possible interpretation of the motivations of Syrian monasticism; and it is certainly not descriptive of the great sage of Syria, St. Ephrem, who, although not a monk in the more Egyptian sense of the word, was nevertheless an ascetic and had much to say on this question. "They greatly afflict their bodies," he wrote, "not because they do not love their bodies; rather, they want to bring their bodies to Eden in glory".4

The Struggle for Freedom

If the austere fasts, the minimal amounts of sleep and the austere lifestyle of the monk are not to be taken as a rejection of the body as such, how then are they to be taken? They should be taken, I would argue, as having a more positive aim: the acquisition of freedom. One who is addicted to wine does not enjoy wine. It is only when one can say "no" to wine that one can truly enjoy it. Christian asceticism is in a sense concerned with producing precisely this sort of freedom. Asceticism enables us to say no, without which ability we can never truly say yes. In the end, asceticism is therefore the true hedonism; without asceticism, pleasures are lost in the sea of necessity.

Asceticism is also able to cultivate our uniqueness and creativity. Slavery to the passions is an assault on one's unique identity and creativity. What is more boring and predictable than the behavior of a chap addicted to the affirmation of his ego? You can almost always anticipate what he is going to say, because it is usually.5 Unlike the one who is enslaved to a passion and who is thus in a category along with countless other similarly enslaved victims, the ascetic is one of a kind.

Thus freedom from the tyranny of the passions, or apatheia, is a fundamental aim of Christian asceticism and monasticism. Freedom from a tyrant can be brought about in two ways. One can either alter the character of the relationship with the tyrant, or simply get rid of him. Similarly, ascetic and monastic theology tends to approach freedom from "the passions" in two ways. One can see the passions in Aristotelian terms, as neutral capacities capable of being put either to evil or to good use, in which case the aim would be to transform or to educate them so that they may work for our benefit. Or one may see the passions in Stoic terms, as fundamentally diseased qualities, intrinsically evil, in which case the aim is simply to get rid of them.

Either way, however, both approaches agree that the common aim of the ascetic struggle is freedom from the passions, called apatheia, whether this 'freedom' implies reform or complete eradication. It should be noted that this state is not merely "apathy" or indifference,

still less a condition in which sinning is impossible, but it is on the contrary a state of inner freedom and integration, in which we are no longer under the dominion of sinful impulses, and so are capable of genuine love . . . It is no mere mortification of the passions, but a state of soul in which a burning love for God and for our fellow humans leaves no room for sensual and selfish impulses."6

Finally, it should be emphasized that Christian asceticism and monasticism are to be distinguished from other forms of ascetic practice by their strong conviction that the ascetic struggles, while free, are effected not merely by one's own labor, but by God's grace. We must always bear in mind the monk's conviction that it is Christ who is at work in him, and that without him he can do nothing. But with him, there is nothing worth doing which he cannot do.

The Different Kinds of Monasticism and the Different Regions in which they Emerged

We shall consider four major categories of monasticism: the hermitic, the coenobitic, the semi-hermetic and the native Syrian proto-monasticism. We shall also look briefly at the way in which these different forms of monasticism existed in the following four regions in the Christian East: Egypt, Asia Minor, Palestine and Syria.

The Hermit

First, there is the unmitigated life of withdrawal and seclusion: the eremitic life. This is found in particular in Lower Egypt, as well Syria, but there only after the fifth century. The great father of this form of life is St. Anthony. At about twenty years of age (c. 269), he heard Christ's words, "Go, sell all you have and give to the poor and come and follow me" read aloud in Church. He thus freed himself of the confines of his possessions -- although not without first securing a stable existence for his sister, for whose care he was responsible at the time (he entrusted her to a Parthenon, showing that community life for women already existed) -- and followed Christ into the Desert. His withdrawal was a gradual one: he moved further and further away from human society until, c. 285, he reached the deep desert, the outer mountain at Pispir, where he struggled day and night to liberate his true self from the 'zombiefying' delusions of the passions and the demons. Around 305, having attracted a number of followers who were inspired by his discipline and holiness, he came out of his seclusion to advise others in their own struggles.

In what sense is it characteristic of following Christ to flee to the desert? The answer to this may be found in considering Christ's own departure to the desert prior to his ministry, as well as his departure to the desert after the death of St. John the Baptist. Our Lord's decision to withdraw into the desert -- in the mind of the hermit -- is certainly not a meaningless accident, an arbitrary selection of a place without significance. St. Anthony is thus following Christ's model; indeed, he is following Christ himself. For, as Fr. Georges Florovsky brilliantly explains, while Christ, as the Second Person of the Trinity, is everywhere present, filling all things, there is something unique about the desert and the solitude which it symbolizes (and effects) that makes Christ's presence more easily realized:

By following out Lord into the desert, St. Anthony was entering a terrain already targeted and stamped out by our Lord as a specific place for spiritual warfare. There is both specificity and type in the desert. In those geographical regions where are no deserts, there are places which are similar to or approach that type of place symbolized by the desert. It is that type of place which allows the human heart solace, isolation. It is a type of place which puts the human heart in a state of aloneness, a state in which to meditate, to pray, to fast, to reflect upon one's inner existence and one's relationship to ultimate reality -- God. And simultaneously where the opposing forces to spiritual life can become more dominant. It is the terrain of a battlefield but a spiritual one. And it is our Lord, not St. Antony, who has set the precedent. Our Lord says that "as for what is sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceit of riches choke the world, and it becomes unfruitful." The desert, or a place similar, precisely cuts off the cares or anxieties of the world and the deception, the deceit of earthly riches. It cuts one off precisely from "this worldliness" and precisely as such it contains within itself a powerful spiritual reason for existing within the spiritual paths of the Church. Not as the only path, not as the path for everyone, but as one, full authentic path of Christian life.7

The Coenobitic Life

In many ways, the anchoritic life is the most potent. Yet, precisely for this reason, it is the most dangerous, with great spiritual risks. As Fr. Florovsky indicates at the end of the above quotation, it is not for everyone. For others, a more moderated form of withdrawal and seclusion is more suitable. One such alternative form of monasticism, possessing great inherent safeguards against delusion, is the communal life. Here a group of monks live together, under a common rule and in a common monastery, mutually supporting and encouraging one another. There are two great fathers of this form of monastic life: St. Pachomius of Egypt (286-346) and St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379).
This form of monasticism became common primarily in Egypt and Asia Minor. Within the former, it was popular in Upper Egypt, a part of the country less remote than St. Anthony's area. Pachomius's communities were found around Tabbennisi in Thebaid, near the Nile. Pachomius himself attracted a number of followers; at his death he was ruling over a nine monasteries for men and two for women.
In Asia Minor, Basil also strongly encouraged this form of monasticism as being more suitable for most people than the hermetic style. However, it is unlikely that Basil's inspiration came from Pachomius; it seems to have come instead from Syria. At any rate, Basil feared that the hermetic life, among other pitfalls, could lead to a neglect of the evangelical call to charity and philanthropy, and so his monasteries were also concerned directly with issues of social justice. "Basil adds to the mystical and inner emphases of monasticism, a strong emphasis on external acts of charity and philanthropy".8 He also insists on monastic obedience as a check on the "excess, the competitiveness, and the ostentation of histrionic individuals who were bringing the monastic movement into disrepute." Basil was also careful to insist that monks remain mindful of the normal worshipping life of the Church and they remained connected and obedient to the local bishop.9

The Skete and the Lavra

Third, there is the semi-hermetic form of monasticism, which is intermediate between the two already mentioned. In this situation, the monks did not live in complete separation, like the hermits; nor did they live in complete community, like coenobitic monks. Rather, there existed a number of independent groups of monks, each of which varied greatly in size, but which would all come together for a common liturgy or meal, especially on Sunday. "The great centres of the semi-eremitic life in Egypt were Nitria and Scetis, which by the end of the fourth century had produced many outstanding monks -- Ammon the founder of Nitria, Macarius of Egypt and Macarius of Alexandria, Evagrius of Pontus, and Arsenius the Great".10 Nitria was nearer to Alexandria and formed a natural gateway to Scetis. It was meeting place between the world and the desert where visitors, like John Cassian, could first make contact with the traditions of the desert. Here, we may suspect that the monasticism was more of a more learned sort, and that a more Greek-influenced type of monasticism evolved around an educated minority, of whom Evagrius Ponticus is an outstanding example.

This "semi-hermetic" model can also be found in Jerusalem, which became a great monastic center later in the fifth century. In the Judean wilderness, and especially around the desert of Gaza, there were great spiritual fathers of the Egyptian tradition. Indeed, in the fifth and sixth centuries, leadership in the monastic movement shifted to Palestine through the influence of such figures as St. Euthymius the Great (died 473) and his disciple St. Sabas (died 532). Judea became the home of the "Lavra".11 Here, a number of individual monks would have their own cells in proximity to a main leader and would meet on special occasions, just as in Nitria and Scetis. This sort of model preserved a greater level of solitude than was common in a coenobium. Another difference between the semi-hermetic and the coenobitic models is that the semi-hermetic arrangement often functioned as a preparatory phase for the anchoritic life, and seemed to tacitly presume that the anchoritic life was the superior. "This is in marked contrast with the ideal of Pachomius, or of Basil, for whom the coenobium is a lifelong vocation".12


Finally, there is the complicated situation of Syria. In order to understand the history of monasticism in Syria, we must realize that there were two phases in Syrian monasticism. The first phase we may call "proto-monasticism," and it is the phase dominant prior to the fifth century differing considerably from the Egyptian monastic traditions. The second phase is the one that receives the most attention among historians no doubt in part because it is also the one in which all the remarkable accounts of stunning acts of self-mortification are found. This second phase reflects a fundamental shift toward the Egyptian model, which had gained an irresistible prestige and momentum throughout Christendom.

There is very little direct information concerning the first phase of Syrian monasticism. The primary sources for this period are Aphrahat and Ephrem. To understand the distinctive characteristics of Syrian "proto-monasticism," two phrases need to be understood: ihidaya (literally: solitary, monk) andBnay Qyama (literally: sons of the covenant). These phases are used almost interchangeably, especially by Aphrahat; but they do seem to convey different nuances. The ways in which they are used, primarily by Aphrahat, give us a glimpse of the character of Syrian "proto-monasticism," and so it is worthwhile to pursue this matter in detail.
Let us begin with the ihidaya (plural, ihidaye). This term refers to single persons who were committed to serving God. Griffith parallels them to the biblical widows and virgins. We know that the ihidaye occupied a special status in the church. But while they could occasionally be found among the clerical orders (particularly the lower ones), this was rare. They were primarily lay persons, whether male or female. The term ihidaye, more specifically, seems to have been used with three major senses in mind, and accordingly tells us three main things about the monastic movement: The first sense is that of "monochos", conveying the sense of unmarried or continent; second, "monozonos" or "monotropos", conveying the sense of single-mindedness; third, "monogenes", conveying the sense of union with the Monogenes (the Only-begotten Son), the Ihidaya. Griffith thinks that this last sense, with its connection between the individual ihidaya and the Ihidaya(the Only-begotten), was the most prominent in the minds of the Syrians. As Aphrahat explains:

"For those who do not take wives will be served by the Watchers of heaven: the observers of consecrated holiness will come to rest at the sanctuary of the Exalted One. The Ihidaya who is from the bosom of the Father will gladden the ihidaye. There will be neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, but all are sons of the Most High. These things are befitting the ihidaye, those who take on the heavenly yoke, to become disciples to Christ. For so it is fitting for Christ's disciples to emulate Christ their Lord."13

Another important term that helps us understand native Syrian monasticism is Bnay Qyama. Qyama refers primarily to the sense of covenant, though it also connotes "station" and possibly "resurrection"; it was even used by Aphrahat to denote the whole Church. Accordingly, the Bnay Qyama (Sons of the Covenant) refers to a group of celibates who took upon themselves a special "station" in the life of the community. They assumed this station by covenant, or solemn pledge, at baptism, at which time they put on theIhidaya and became ihidaye. They also accepted to follow Christ's lifestyle in a uniquely uncompromising way, and in so doing they were revealing the life that would be lived in the age to come (and that which was lived in the pre-fallen state) -- the life to which all the baptized are called. Through their celibacy and uncompromising pursuit of holiness, they stood among their community as anticipatory images of the Resurrection to come. "Their status in the community served as a type for the expectations of all the baptized." Thus, they represented for the Church, what the Church was called to be.

It is difficult to say very much more about this movement. We can surmise that it was carried out neither in a strictly hermetic form, nor in a coenobitic form, although there may have been a proto-rule that the Bnay Qyamafollowed. Thus, it is difficult to pinpoint the differentia of this movement and to fit into the taxonomic system I have been employing thus far. Indeed, I wonder if perhaps it may not be better to call this movement simply a Syrian expression of pre-monastic asceticism. Why do we want to call it 'monasticism', if we define the differentia of monasticism as the emphasis on withdrawal, and we do not find such an emphasis among the Syrians? This phase of Syrian monasticism seems rather similar to the accounts of pre-monastic asceticism in other regions chronicled in Susana Elms's Virgins of God. On the whole, this first phase of native Syrian monasticism is still understudied, with many scholars disagreeing over its character and motivations; and perhaps, owing to the dearth of evidence, it is likely to remain in this state of enigma.

But by the fifth century, this ascetic tradition --whatever its characteristics-- quickly becomes displaced by the Egyptian variety. There is a greater emphasis now placed on many of the monastic themes, such as martyrdom, that were prevalent in Egyptian thought; and withdrawal is certainly more emphatically pursued. In the case of the Ihidaye and the Bnay Qyama, while some might have pursued withdrawal, most did not. After the fifth century, however, the opposite is true.

By this time, "in the Syriac speaking world the term ihidaya came to have the same range of meanings as did the Greek term monachos, the very Greek term that, if some modern scholars are correct in their surmises, writers of the early fourth century had first used in a Christian context to render the Syriac term ihidaya!".14 And it is during this period
that one begins to find the appearance in inner Syria of institutions typical of the "Great Church," including one that would uniquely mark Christian life for centuries to come, the institution of monasticism. This institution was easily as powerful and significant at the time as the institution of the hierarchical episcopacy, which also appeared in Syria in the fourth century."15

Nevertheless, the Syrians did not simply import Egyptian monasticism; they incorporated it into their region in a creative way that reflected their own idiosyncrasies. We find that these idiosyncrasies were expressed in a range of behaviour that might strike the modern reader as deeply disturbing, even deeply un-human. Chadwick describes the situation:

"In Syria and Mesopotamia asceticism occasionally took bizarre forms. The majority of the monks were simple Syriac speaking people, ignorant of Greek. Their recorded mortifications make alarming reading. A heavy iron chain as a belt was a frequent austerity. A few adopted the life of animals and fed on grass, living in the open air without shade from the sun and with the minimum of clothing, and justifying their method of defying society by claiming to be 'fools for Christ's sake.'16

However, I think Chadwick and many historians who similarly characterize the Syrian monks, fail to keep in mind that their austerities were not simply motivated by their simple-mindedness or personal imbalances. Peter Brown captures well their view of the fall, which I believe possesses the key to understanding their unique behaviour:

According to the author of the Book of Degrees, Adam had fallen because he had looked around him in Paradise with a hot lust for the land. He had wished to possess its rich soil. He had wished, through property, to replace God as Creator. He had set about creating economic wealth by labour, and had wished to pile up the physical wealth of progeny by intercourse. He had turned from the contemplation of God to build the society that we now know, a society ruled by the iron constraints of the "law of Adam."

The righteous might live decently in this society by the simple code of fallen Adam -- tilling their fields, doing good to their co-religionists, caring for the local Christian poor. God, who had shown mercy on Adam by allowing him to live by that law, would not deny the righteous their reward. But for those who had regained the first, Spirit-filled eyes of Adam, the present social world, the social structures of town, village, and the family, must seem, forever, unaccountably strange. The power of the "present age," made manifest in the care-worn state of organized society, and, only tangentially, the present state of human sexuality.17

Thus, many of the structures and customs of human society are understood as fundamentally the result of the fall. Such a conviction may indeed shed light on the curious behaviour of a Symeon of Emesa, who "would enter the women's section of the public baths, stark naked, with his robe on his head as a turban; and he would dance the jig with the townsfolk in the local tavern".18

We may disagree with the premises of the Syrian monks. But we should realize that if one starts with their premises and assumes that majority of the present structures of society are purely the product of the fall, then it makes good sense to flout the present structures of human society so conspicuously. Doing so would be the truly human thing to do, since the present state of affairs is supremely subhuman.
Syrian monasticism should therefore not be seen simply as a more extreme form of monasticism stemming from either a greater degree of dualism or intellectual simplicity, but rather as a form of monasticism stemming from a different theological emphasis. We may not accept their paradigm, but we should see its internal integrity and conceptual sophistication.

From Pre-Monastic Asceticism to Monasticism: Changing in Order to Stay the Same

Prior to the emergence of monasticism in the fourth century, the practice of asceticism was widespread, and a number of church fathers, East and West, had already developed an ascetical theology. Indeed, asceticism goes back to the New Testament, and less dramatically to the Old Testament. On the level of practice, many celibates or consecrated virgins could be found, be they widows choosing to remain in their bereaved state, young virgins choosing to consecrate their lives to God, clergyman choosing to pursue their ministry in a state of celibacy (or, if already married, choosing to live with their wives in continence), married couples among the laity similarly choosing to live together in continence, or even in some cases unmarried men and women choosing to live together as brother and sister (although this particular practice would quickly fall into disfavor).

"Anthony and the monks of the fourth century inherited a revolution; they did not initiate one. In the century that had elapsed between the youth of Origen and the conversion of Constantine, the horizons of the possible had already been determined, silently and decisively, in a slow folding of the moral landscape of the Christian world. Total sexual renunciation had become a widely acclaimed feature of the Christian life."19

No doubt Peter Brown is correct in emphasizing the continuity between pre-monastic asceticism and monastic asceticism. Asceticism was certainly no revolutionary idea; but Anthony's emphasis on withdrawal was, in some sense, revolutionary. Prior to Anthony, all examples of pre-monastic asceticism were undertaken within the milieu of the larger Church community and human society. We do not yet hear of specific cases of formal, systematic withdrawal. This is precisely, I think, the differentia of monasticism.

On the level of theology, however, there is not much in the way of innovation to be found. There is rather a profound continuity between the monastic and pre-monastic ascetic theology. "In the Writings of Clement of Alexandria and especially of Origen all the essential elements of an ascetical theology may already be found".20 Clement, for instance, emphasizes that "the aim of the Christian life is not to trouble ourselves with what lies outside, but to purify the eye of the soul and to sanctify the flesh," and that "Jesus heals the whole human person, body and soul." Clearly, for Clement, salvation is not merely the extrinsic imputation of righteousness; salvation is far more than merely a juridical declaration of righteousness. It is ontological: the Christian is to bemade righteous. In addition, we see a very holistic emphasis present in monastic theology: the whole person, body and soul is to be healed. Indeed, here we already find a framework that can happily support Chitty's observation: "One thing can be certain. This making a City of the Wilderness was no mere flight, nor a rejection of matter as evil (else why did they show such aesthetic sense in placing their retreats, and such love for all of God's animal creation?)".21 In Origen, too, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of martyrdom, and a very well developed understanding of the "senses of the soul" and the injunction to personal sanctification. Both Origen and Clement speak of mystical union with God. Such emphases would certainly figure prominently in subsequent monastic theology.

In understanding the motivations of the various monks, I should like to highlight two fundamental themes. First, there is the ideal of martyrdom, the recognition that nothing -- family, possessions, even our own life -- is more important than union with the Lord. From this point of view, ascetic life is indeed a renunciation of the present world, a sober recognition of its secondary status. Secondly, the monastic life is centered on another ideal: that of returning to (if not surpassing) the state prior to the fall. By returning to the pre-fallen state, the monk seeks not only his own redemption but also that of the created world around him. Since through man that the created world fell, through man the created world can be restored. While full restoration will occur only at the Parousia, the monks partially anticipate this restoration here and now. From this point of view, asceticism is indeed an affirmation of the created world; while the monks renounce the world, they are renouncing only the fallen state of the world. Their willingness to die to the world reflects their conviction that the world is not as it should be, a recognition with which the created world, itself, would certainly agree as it groans in anticipation of its redemption. Thus, the created world rejoices in the monk's striving for salvation, for it knows that its own salvation is tied to the monk's success. The monks are carrying out a supreme act of love for the world, striving to restore it to its true vocation and state. And so the monk's partial anticipation of the final redemption of all things is prophetic: it provides a glimpse of the world as it should be and will be.

"The denigration of marriage and sexuality may be the negative expression of the desire to return to the original blessings of paradise and the original, blessed condition of humanity and body. (And of course early Christian ascetic theorists understood both the similarities and differences between these two notions, and went to great lengths to distinguish the orthodox affirmation of the value of chastity, fasting, and other ascetic disciplines from the heretical -- namely, Manichean, Encratite -- condemnation of marriage and meat eating.)22

The themes of monastic theology were not innovations. They had their roots in the earliest expressions of Christianity and were articulated by many, well before the emergence of monasticism itself. Why, then, does monasticism emerge only in the fourth century and not before? If we cannot point to a new shift in theological understanding that could account for this new lifestyle, might we point to a shift in external circumstances?

After Constantine's conversion, the Christian situation became ripe for monasticism. Persecutions had ceased, and Christianity had become rather more socially acceptable. It was becoming possible, in a sense, to convince yourself that you were serving God when you were really serving Mammon. The Church was becoming increasingly influential in high society. Bishops had become increasingly important figures in the secular sphere. Many local churches had obtained considerable wealth, becoming substantial landowners. Although there is nothing inherently contradictory between the Christian gospel and such developments, these developments nevertheless changed the character of the challenge facing the Church.

From its beginning, Christianity was a call to self-denial, to a life of the cross. Without such willingness to part with one's old self, the new, true self could not arise. During the persecutions this call was often put before the Christian unambiguously: Do you have the discipline to accept the pain of parting with the familiarity of your fallen life for the sake of your true life in Christ? Christians could seldom hide behind a nominal acceptance of the faith. There were no secular advantages that might provide ulterior motives for becoming a Christian. Persecution kept sharp the line between being for Christ or against him.

After Constantine's peace, however, this line was no longer so sharp. With peace between the City of God and the City of Man, there was a danger of forgetting Christ's injunction that "My Kingdom is not of this world." The call to self-denial for Christ's sake was no longer being put before the Christian with such unmistakable directness. The invitation was becoming quieter, and had to come from within. "The monks with their austerities were martyrs in an age when martyrdom of blood no longer existed; they formed the counterbalance to an established Christendom".23 Monasticism, a formal life of internally imposed self-renunciation, emerges in response to the diminishing presence of externally imposed self-renunciation.

1. Brown, The Body and Society, 235. [back]
2. Chitty, The Desert A City, 4. [back]
3. Voobus's History of Syrian Asceticism is the primary proponent of this view. However, there is no consensus on the validity of his analysis, and others, like Dr. Sebastian Brock, would question the universal applicability of his assessment. [back]
4. St. Ephrem, On Hermits and Desert Dwellers in the Fathers of the Churchseries, by Catholic University of America. [back]
5. Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love, 55. [back]
6. Asceticism, 12. [back]
7. Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, vol. X: The Byzantine Ascetics and Spiritual Fathers. [back]
8. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin), 178-9. [back]
9. ibid., 178-9. [back]
10. Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, The Orthodox Church, 37-38. [back]
11. Chitty, The Desert A City, 15: "The word lavra does not occur in the fourth-century Egyptian records, and its monastic use seems to originate in Palestine. Perhaps the sense of market that comes instantly to mind when we connect it with the Arabic suq is not inappropriate. Here the ascetics brought together their produce on Saturday mornings, worshipped and fed together, and transacted any necessary business, taking back with them to their cells on Sunday evenings bread, water, and raw material for their handiwork for the coming week." [back]
12. Chadwick, The Early Church, 178-9. [back]
13. Wimbush and Valantasis, Asceticism. [back]
14. ibid., 238. [back]
15. ibid., 221. [back]
16. Chadwick, The Early Church, 180. [back]
17. Brown, The Body and Society, 336. [back]
18. ibid., 335. [back]
19. ibid.., 208-209. [back]
20. Chadwick, The Early Church, 177. [back]
21. Chitty, The Desert A City, xvi. [back]
22. Wimbush and Valantasis, Asceticism, 78. [back]
23. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 37.[back]

Bandits and Camel Drivers
The Desert Fathers:
Session One (42 mins)

Session Two

 Monasticism: The Heart of Celtic Christianity

Celtic Monasticism

Prayer of St. Columban of Iona

Kindle in our hearts, O God,
The flame of that love which never ceases,
That it may burn in us, giving light to others.
May we shine forever in Thy holy temple,
Set on fire with Thy eternal light,
Even Thy son, Jesus Christ,
Our Savior and Redeemer.
Source: www.asna.ca/angloceltic/index.html  

by Hieromonk Ambrose 
(fr. Aleksey Young)

With the imagery of fire and light contained in this wonderful prayer I want to move immediately to a recorded incident in the life of St. Columban, a description which shows how he himself personally experienced this "light" - which of course Orthodox Christians recognize as a vision of the Uncreated Light spoken of in Scripture and in the Holy Fathers. Here is the account:

"One winter's night a monk named Virgnous, burning with the love of God, entered the church alone to pray. The others were asleep. He prayed fervently in a little side chamber attached to the walls of the oratory. After about an hour, the venerable Columban entered the same sacred house. Along with him, at the same time, a golden light came down from the highest heavens and filled that part of the church. Even the separate alcove, where Virgnous was attempting to hide himself as much as he could, was also filled, to his great alarm, with some of the brilliance of that heavenly light. As no one can look directly at or gaze with steady eye on the summer sun in its midday splendor, so Virgnous could not at all bear the heavenly brightness he saw because the brilliant and unspeakable radiance overpowered his sight. This brother, in fact, was so terrified by the splendor, almost as dreadful as lightning, that no strength remained in him. Finally, after a short prayer, St. Columban left the church.  The next day he sent for Virgnous, who was very much alarmed, and spoke to him these consoling words: 'You are crying to good purpose, my child, for last night you were very pleasing in the sight of God by keeping your eyes fixed on the ground when you were overwhelmed with fear at the brightness. If you had not done that, son, the bright light would have blinded your eyes. You must never, however, disclose this great manifestation of light while I live.'" It's no wonder, then, that ancient writers said that, on the faces of Celtic monks who had advanced in spiritual life, there rested the glow of caeleste lumen, heavenly light."

With the imagery of fire and light contained in this wonderful prayer I want to move immediately to a recorded incident in the life of St. Columban, a description which shows how he himself personally experienced this "light" - which of course Orthodox Christians recognize as a vision of the Uncreated Light spoken of in Scripture and in the Holy Fathers. Here is the account:

"One winter's night a monk named Virgnous, burning with the love of God, entered the church alone to pray. The others were asleep. He prayed fervently in a little side chamber attached to the walls of the oratory. After about an hour, the venerable Columban entered the same sacred house. Along with him, at the same time, a golden light came down from the highest heavens and filled that part of the church. Even the separate alcove, where Virgnous was attempting to hide himself as much as he could, was also filled, to his great alarm, with some of the brilliance of that heavenly light. As no one can look directly at or gaze with steady eye on the summer sun in its midday splendor, so Virgnous could not at all bear the heavenly brightness he saw because the brilliant and unspeakable radiance overpowered his sight. This brother, in fact, was so terrified by the splendor, almost as dreadful as lightning, that no strength remained in him. Finally, after a short prayer, St. Columban left the church.  The next day he sent for Virgnous, who was very much alarmed, and spoke to him these consoling words: 'You are crying to good purpose, my child, for last night you were very pleasing in the sight of God by keeping your eyes fixed on the ground when you were overwhelmed with fear at the brightness. If you had not done that, son, the bright light would have blinded your eyes. You must never, however, disclose this great manifestation of light while I live.'" It's no wonder, then, that ancient writers said that, on the faces of Celtic monks who had advanced in spiritual life, there rested the glow of caeleste lumen, heavenly light."

In the life of St. Adomnan we read about the following incident:

"At another time when the holy man was living in the island of Hinba, the Grace of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon him abundantly and in an incomparable manner, and continued marvelously for the space of three days, so that for three days and as many nights, remaining with a house barred, and filled with heavenly light, he allowed no one to go to him, and he neither ate nor drank. From that house streams of immeasurable brightness were visible in the night, escaping through chinks of the door leaves, and through the key-holes. And spiritual songs, unheard before, were heard being sung by him. Moreover, as he afterwards admitted in the presence of a very few men, he saw, openly revealed, many of the secret things that have been hidden since before the world began. Also everything that in the Sacred Scriptures is dark and most difficult became plain, and was shown more clearly than the day to the eyes of his purest heart. And he lamented that his foster-son Baithene was not there, who if he had chance to be present during those three days, would have written down from the mouth of the blessed man very many mysteries, both of past ages and of ages still to come, mysteries unknown to other men..." 

(Fr. Gorazd Vorpatrny, "Celts and Orthodoxy," http://www.orthodoxireland.com/history/celtsandorthodoxy/view )

In the Introduction to his translation of the Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, the Righteous Fr. Seraphim of Platina wrote appreciatively about the Orthodox saints of the pre-schism West in Gaul, but of course he could have been writing about the Celtic saints of the British Isles from exactly the same period of time.

"A touchstone of true Orthodoxy," Fr. Seraphim wrote, "is the love for Christ's saints. From the earliest Christian centuries the Church has celebrated her saints-first the Apostles and martyrs who died for Christ, then the desert-dwellers who crucified themselves for the love of Christ, and the hierarchs and shepherds who gave their lives for the salvation of their flocks.

From the beginning the Church has treasured the written Lives of these her saints and has celebrated their memory in her Divine services. These two sources -the Lives and services- are extremely important to us today for the preservation of the authentic Orthodox tradition of faith and piety. The false 'enlightenment' of our modern age is so all-pervasive that it draws many Orthodox Christians into its puffed up 'wisdom,' and without their even knowing it they are taken away from the true spirit of Orthodox and left only with the shell of Orthodox rites, formulas, and customs....To have a seminary education, even to have the 'right views' about Orthodox history and theology-is not enough. A typical modern 'Orthodox' education produces, more often than not, merely Orthodox rationalists capable of debating intellectual positions with Catholic and Protestant rationalists, but lacking the true spirit and feeling of Orthodoxy. This spirit and feeling are communicated most effectively in the Lives of saints and in similar sources which speak less of the outward side of correct dogma and rite than of the essential inward side of proper Orthodox attitude, spirit, piety."

With this principle in mind-that the lives of the saints are of critical importance if we are to understand and pass on true Orthodox Christianity to the next generation-I want to continue by defining two important terms: "Celtic" (or "Celt") and "spirituality."

It may come as a surprise to learn that the Celts actually never called themselves "Celts." This word comes from the Greek Keltos, and means something like "the other" or "a stranger." The Greeks also called these people Keltoi, which was a word the Celts did adopt because it means "the hidden ones" or the "hidden people." In fact, the Old Irish word ceilid means "to hide or conceal." So these people were called "Celts" by those who came into contact with them and saw them as being quite different than other tribes and peoples. And they were. In their long, pre­Christian period they were a ferocious war-loving lot who fought just for the sheer joy of fighting. "One Roman writer described Celtic men as 'terrible from the sternness of their eyes, very quarrelsome, and of great pride and insolence'. Nor, to his dismay, did these qualities stop with the men. 'A whole troop of foreigners [he wrote] would not be able to withstand a single one if he called to his assistance his wife, who is usually very strong.' The Greek historian Strabo was more blunt in his assessment. 'The whole race,' he concluded, 'is war mad.'"

(No author given; Heroes of the Dawn: Celtic Myth)

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 channelled into Christianity as a way of life - and this they pursued with a singlemindedness 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) 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,"
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)

Stone clochan, Ireland

"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.)

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. Guthlac 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.
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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.
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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."

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)

St. David of Wales lived in the 6th century. He came from a monastery which had been founded by a disciple of St. John Cassian. So great is St. David that he deserves a whole lecture to himself, but today I'll just mention him in connection with the wisdom of the Egyptian desert: he possessed the gift of tears, spoke alone with angels, subdued his flesh by plunging himself into ice cold water while reciting all of the Psalms by heart, and spent the day making prostrations and praying. "He also fed a multitude of orphans, wards, widows, needy, sick, feeble, and pilgrims." (Edward C. Sellner, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints) The Roman Catholic scholar, Edward Sellner, adds: " Thus he began; thus he continued; thus he ended his day. He imitated the monks of Egypt and lived a life like theirs." (Ibid.) The same writer assures us that "because of its [the Celtic Church's] love of the desert fathers and mothers, it has a great affinity with the spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox [today]."

There are many other evidences of Eastern and Egyptian contact and influence, too numerous to list now. But in his interesting study, The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs, Fr. Gregory Telepneff mentions also the fascinating interlacing knots and complex designs found on the famous standing High Crosses, which show Egyptian or Coptic influence. "Celtic manuscripts show similarities to the Egyptian use of birds, eagles, lions, and calves....In the Celtic Book of Durrow, one can find not only a utilization of the colors green, yellow, and red, similar to Egyptian usage, but also 'gems with a double cross outline against tightly knotted interlacings,' which recall the 'beginnings of Coptic books.' [Henry, Irish Art]. There is at least one instance of the leather satchel of an Irish missal and the leather satchel of an Ethiopian manuscript of about the same period which "resemble each other so closely that they might be thought to have come from the same workshop' [Warren, Liturgy]." (Telpneff)
Culturally, then, I suggest that Celtic culture was a unique and intriguing blend of Egyptian and other Middle Eastern influences with native or indigenous cultural elements.

Before going further I want to say a few words about the term "spirituality." In our time this has become a wastebasket word into which we put whatever we want the word to mean. Our English word, "spirituality", comes from the French, and originally described someone who was clever, witty, or perhaps even mad! But our ancient Christian ancestors, whether from Russia, Europe, the Middle East, or the lands of the Celts, did not have such a concept. Certainly they did not see spiritual life as something separate from the rest of life. For them, spirituality was how they lived, how they prayed, how they worshiped God-and it was all bound up together, not separated out. Today, however, we have managed to artificially compartmentalize ourselves and our lives, making "spirituality" something that we do in addition to or separate from regular life. This has made possible a very artificial approach to the Celts.

Thomas O"Loughlin, one of the best of our present-day writers on the subject of Celtic Christianity, makes the following sage observation in his book, Journeys on the Edges:

"In the last decade interest in the attitudes and beliefs of the Christians of the Celtic lands in the first millennium has swollen from being a specialist pursuit among medievalists and historians of theology into what is virtually a popular movement. In the process more than a few books have appeared claiming to uncover the soul of this Celtic Christianity in all its beauty....[Many writers] operate by offering their own definitions of 'Christianity' past and present, and then setting these against their definition of 'Celt' or 'Celtic'. In this way they can reach the conclusion they want."

Typical of our modern arrogance and intellectual-spiritual poverty, we project our own feeble ideas back onto a more robust and spiritually rich time, treating the world of Celtic Christianity like a smorgasbord, where we take those things we happen to already "like," and put them together to form our own very distorted and sometimes even perverted "version" of the Celts. An example: It is a fact that in the early Christian centuries, Ireland, Scotland and parts of Wales were never subject to Roman rule-neither the old Roman Empire nor the Church of Rome held sway over "Celts." But some modern writers interpret this to mean that Celtic Christians, since they were "non-Roman," were therefore anti-Roman or even anti-authority and against the idea of an organized, patriarchal Church. There is absolutely no evidence for such a conclusion, although in fact Celtic Christians did have a quite different way of organizing communities than did Christians on the continent-but this was not out of rebellion, but because their own models were from Egypt and the East, not from Europe! The simple fact is that "the Irish church had always been at the edges of Roman Christianity, [and considered to be a] a barbarian church of limited interest to the Popes." (Paul Cavill, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England) "Although the climate and situation of Britain were very different from the hot deserts of Egypt, there were principles-simplicity, prayer, fasting, spiritual warfare, wisdom, and evangelism-that were easy to translate to the communities of these isles." (Michael Mitton, The Soul of Celtic Spirituality in the Lives of Its Saints) But this means that entering into the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical world of a Celtic Christian monk is difficult-not impossible, but difficult.

First we must realize that the Celts had no concept of privacy or individuality such as we have today. Families did not live in separate rooms, but all together; no one thought about the idea of "compartmentalizing space" and only hermits and anchorites felt a calling to be alone in spiritual solitude with God, although monks had separate cells, just as monastics did in the Egyptian Thebaid. The idea that people are separate individuals from the group was not only unheard-of, but would have been considered dangerous, even heretical. Self-absorption, "moods," and being temperamental-all of these things would have been considered abnormal and sinful. It wasn't until the 13th and 14th centuries that people in the West started keeping journals or diaries, and there were no memoirs-also signs of individuality and privacy, of singling oneself out from the family, group, or community-nor were there actual real-life portraits of individuals, until the 14th century. (The art of realistic portraiture developed in response to the medieval idea of romance-for an accurate portrait was a substitute for an absent husband or wife.)

Furthermore, "'the dominant institution of Celtic Christianity was neither the parish church nor the cathedral, but the monastery, which sometimes began as a solitary hermit's cell and often grew to become a combination of commune, retreat house, mission station...school [and, in general] a source not just of spiritual energy but also of hospitality, learning, and cultural enlightenment." (Ian Bradley, quoted in Mitten, Ibid.) It was only much later that people began to be gathered into separate parishes, and even later before bishops had dioceses that were based on geographical lines rather than just being the shepherd of a given tribe or group, "being bishops of a community, rather than ruling areas of land. The idea of 'ruling a diocese' was quite foreign to the Celtic way of thinking." (Ibid.)

If you think about what all of this means in terms of how we today view ourselves, the world in which we live, and the values that we have today, you can see how difficult it's going to be for us to enter into the world of the Celts. Today we are quite obsessive about such things as privacy and individuality, of "being our own selves" and "getting in touch with the inner man" and other such self-centered nonsense. But the Celtic Christian understood, just as did and do Eastern Christians, that man is saved in community; if he goes to hell, he goes alone.

So the orientation of those Christian Celts to God and the other world was very different than the orientation of our modern world, no matter how devout or pious we may be, and this makes the distance between us and the world of Celtic monasticism far greater than just the span of the centuries. A renowned scholar, Sir Samuel Dill, writing generally about Christians in the West at this same period of time, said: "The dim religious life of the early Middle Ages is severed from the modern mind by so wide a gulf, by such a revolution of beliefs that the most cultivated sympathy can only hope to revive in faint imagination ....[for it was] a world of...fervent belief which no modern man can ever fully enter into....It is intensely interesting, even fascinating...[but] between us and the early Middle Ages there is a gulf which the most supple and agile imagination can hardly hope to pass. He who has pondered most deeply over the popular faith of that time will feel most deeply how impossible it is to pierce its secret." (Quoted in "Vita Patrum", Fr. Seraphim Rose)

But is it really "impossible"? To enter their world-the world of Celtic Christianity, which is the same as Celtic monasticism--we must find a way to see things as they did-not as we do today-; to hear, taste, touch, pray, and think as they did. And this is what I mean by the word "spirituality"-a whole world-view. We must examine them in the full context of their actual world-which was a world of Faith, and not just any Faith, but the Christian Faith of Christians in both the Eastern and Western halves of Christendom in the first thousand years after Christ. Spirituality is living, dogmatic, theology. This is the only way we can begin to understand how Celtic Monasticism can be a model of sanctity for us living today, more than a millennium after their world ceased to be. Remember, I said it would be difficult to enter their world; difficult, but not impossible... When we speak of someone or something being a "model," what do we mean? In this instance-speaking about Celtic monasticism as a "model"-we mean something that is a standard of excellence to be imitated. But here I'm not speaking of copying external things about Celtic monasteries-such as architecture, style of chant, monastic habit, etc., which are, after all cultural "accidents." I'm speaking of something inward, of an inner state of being and awareness. It's only in this sense that Celtic monasticism can be, for those who wish it, a "model of sanctity."

But what do I mean by "sanctity"? We must be careful not to slip into some kind of vague, New Age warm "fuzzies" which are more gnostic than Christian and have more to do with being a "nice" person than encountering the Living God in this life. By sanctity I mean what the Church herself means: holiness—which is nothing more or less than imitation of Christ in the virtues, and striving to die to oneself through humility, so as to be more and more alive to Christ, successfully cutting off one's own will in order to have, only the will of Christ, as St. Paul says in his epistle to the Galatians (2:20): "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me... " So, holiness means dying to oneself and especially to one's passions, more and more, so as draw closer and closer to the Lord God Himself, through Jesus Christ, and Him crucified and risen. In addition, Celtic Christians had the concept of "hallowing" or "hallowed"-an old fashioned term that today has survived only in the unfortunate pagan holiday called "Halloween" (from "All Hallows Eve"-which began as the vigil for the Western Feast of All Souls Day and later took on vile pagan overtones). To early British Christians, something or someone that was "hallowed" was "set apart" from others and sanctified for service to God. Thus, a priest's ordination or a monastic's tonsuring was his "hallowing."

And so, thus it was that those blessed and hallowed monastics of Celtic lands modeled forth certain principles that we can still see, study, understand, and imitate today.

The Celts were masters of Christian simplicity. Nowadays there is a movement in our culture to recover some simple basics, but the model is often that of the Quakers or the Shakers or the Amish. Perhaps that's because those groups are easier and more attractive to imitate; I don't know. For the Celts, however, simplicity wasn't so much a question of externals-like furniture, architecture, and so forth. It was something internal, and it was founded upon the Lord's Prayer-in particular the phrase, "Thy will be done", as we find in the later commentaries of the Venerable Bede of Jarrow and Alcuin of the court of Charlemagne. This was crucial to living a simple Christian life: "Thy will be done" meant God's will, not our own--placing absolute trust in the Providence of God for everything-one's health, one's finances, the size of one's family or the size of a monastic community-everything. It meant dying to oneself, not having opinions and not judging others. This was where simplicity began, and from there it easily expressed itself in outward forms, such as not owning five tunics when just two or even one would be sufficient.

Simplicity did not necessarily mean "plainness," as we'll see shortly when we look at the intricate sacred art of the High Crosses. Celtic Christians were not "Plain People," like Quakers or the Amish. But they were "Simple People," in that they were single-minded and intensely focused on the other world and the journey through this life to God.

In common with all Christians at that time, the Celts had no concept of "private prayer" in the sense of spontaneously thinking of words or phrases to say to God. This practice belongs to a much later period in Christian history, when ideas of privacy and individualism had become more important than traditional ways of seeking God through prayer. This didn't mean that a Celtic Christian didn't pray outside the divine services, but for them, prayer was primarily liturgical, and this meant the Psalms. Most monks and nuns memorized the complete Psalter. Occasionally a particularly gifted monk would compose a prayer, such as the one I read by St. Columban at the beginning of this lecture. But in moments of need one remembered verses and phrases from the Psalms -such as "In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and He heard me," from Psalm 120, and "Hide not Thy face from me, O Lord, in the day of my trouble" (Psalm 10, or"In the Lord I put my trust" (Psalm 11).

Central to Celtic Christian culture was the Cross.

Even in the 7th and 8th centuries there were so-called Christians who were uncomfortable with the Cross of Christ and chose to ignore it, just as there are today. The Celts, however, had a particularly clear-headed understanding of the Cross. To quote Sister Benedicta Ward, a renowned scholar on the subject of the Desert Fathers as well as monasticism in the British Isles in the early Christian centuries: "The Cross was not something that made them feel better, nicer, more comfortable, more victorious, more reconciled to tragedy, better able to cope with life and death; it was rather the center of the fire in which they were to be changed." (op.cit.) It reminded them that they must pick up and carry their own crosses in this life and follow Christ, for dying to oneself has always been the great secret of holiness.

Thus, these monks and nuns saw themselves as warriors of the spirit, for to die to oneself was considered a greater act of heroism than dying on a battlefield in defense of one's tribe. "The Celtic Church was a Church of heroes...of strong and fiercely dedicated men and women." "The old Celtic warrior spirit was alive in them, [but now] put to the service of the Gospel and the following of Christ, the High King. Today [we might] find it hard to identify many [such] warrior Christians...[with] the active virtues of courage, strength, outspokenness, decisiveness, and the ability to stand up for something." (Joyce, op.cit.)

Nowhere was the Cross more loved and cherished than in the monasteries, where highly-carved and richly symbolic great "High Crosses"-some of them 15 feet and taller-- were set up-many of them still standing today.

These were not the suffering and bloody crucifixions found later in the West, particularly in Spain and Italy. Nor were these the serene and peaceful crosses of the Eastern Church. No, Celtic crosses were a genuine Christian expression all their own. Sometimes Christ is depicted, but often not; however, when He is shown, He is always erect, wide-eyed, and fully vested like a bishop, a great High Priest. In this form He is a symbol of victory over sin and death; He radiates invincibility.

"The way of the cross for [Celtic Christians] was the way of heroic loyalty, obedience, and suffering. It involved study and thought, doctrine and orthodoxy, art and imagination. It was a complete, unified way of life, lived intimately with God....[Our] fragmented modern world, both secular and religious, has a lot to learn from it." (Cavill, op.cit.)

A common ascetic practice, even for the laity, was called crosfhigheall or "cross-vigil", and it consisted of praying for hours with outstretched arms. St. Coemgen sometimes prayed in this position for days. Once he was so still, for so long, that birds came and began to build a nest in his outstretched hands.

Scholars believe that the Celtic High Cross patterns probably came from Egypt. There are no loose ends in these patterns; this symbolizes the continuity of the Holy Spirit throughout existence-for God has no beginning and no end.

An example of the love and respect they had for the Cross may be seen in an Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Dream of the Rood" ("rood" being an Old English word for "rod" or "pole", sometimes it also meant "gallows"). In the "The Dream of the Rood," Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, is shone as a "serene and confident young hero...[who] prepares for battle. He strips...and climbs up on the gallows [the Tree of the Cross], intent on saving His people. He is in control, self-determining, expressing His lordship         [And] the Cross trembles at the fearful embrace of its Lord." (Cavill, op.cit.) Listen, now, as the Cross, personified, speaks of how it raised up Christ:

"Unclothed Himself God Almighty when He would mount the Cross,courageous in the sight of all men. I bore the powerful King, the Lord of heaven;I durst not bend. Men mocked us both together. I was bedewed with blood.Christ was on the Cross. Then I leaned down to the hands of men andthey took God Almighty."(Ward, Ibid.) 
The interlacing, knot-work, plaiting, weaving patterns and spiral designs, with animals and plants and saints, and scenes from Scripture, which decorate almost every surface of a Celtic High Cross, are so distinctive and profound in their symbolism that they are a study all to themselves. Today I can only point out a couple of things.

Scholars believe that these incredibly complex patterns probably came from Egypt, but also may have some Byzantine influences. It's important to note that there are no loose ends in these patterns; this symbolizes the continuity of the Holy Spirit throughout existence - for God has no beginning and no end; only Christ is the Alpha and the Omega. The same is true of knot-work patterns, which are endless and cannot be untied. Spiral designs symbolized the Most High God Himself, the "motionless mover," around whom all things move. Some of these are what are called "Crosses of the Scriptures" because they are decorated with panels illustrating scenes from the Bible. High Crosses possess an almost dream-like quality in their complex geometric patterns, dignified and strong, heroic and towering over men, and yet also reminding those Christians of the Christian doctrine of kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ.

One of main factors contributing to the eventual decline and dissolution of a Celtic monastery was when the Cross began to no longer be a focus. "If monastic life...did not have at its center the reality of the Cross, it became a source of corruption....[for] 'Once a religious house or order cease[d] to direct its sons to the abandonment of all that is not God and cease[d] to show them the narrow way...it [sank] to the level of a purely human institution and whatever its works may be they are the works of time and not of eternity.'" (Dom David Knowles, quoted in Ward, Ibid.)

An essential dimension was asceticism (askesis) which, for the Celtic monk consisted of a kind of martyrdom. "A homily in archaic Irish, probably dating from the last quarter of the seventh century...speaks of [this]: 'Now there are three kinds of martyrdom, which are accounted as a cross to a man, to wit: white martyrdom, green and red martyrdom. White martyrdom consists in a man's abandoning everything he loves for God's sake, though he suffer fasting or labor therat. Green martyrdom consists in this, this, that by means of fasting and labor [a Christian] frees himself from his evil desires, or suffers toil in penance and repentance. Red martyrdom consists in the endurance of a cross or death for Christ's sake, as happened to the Apostles...'...For this reason, the Celtic tradition regarded monasticism as the Army of Christ (Militia Christi) and the monk as a soldier of Christ (miles Christi). Young men, in their effort to emulate the heroism of their ancestors, entered monasteries-the "Green Martyrdom." Instead of fighting in the Fianna (the Celtic army), they joined the Militia Christi to wage war against the evil spirits and sin." (Fr. Gorazd Vorpatrny, op.cit.) Not surprisingly, one writer calls these Celts "Ascetic Superstars." (Bitel, op.cit.)

"I should like a great lake of ale for the King of Kings;
I should like the angels of heaven to be drinking it through time eternal!"
- St. Brigit of Kildare

And yet, with all of this sober asceticism, the Celts never lost their native enthusiasm, exuberance, and just plain cheer, as we see in a prayer written by the wonderful 5th century Abbess, Brigit, when she exclaims: "I should like a great lake of ale for the King of Kings; I should like the angels of heaven to be drinking it through time eternal!" How could anyone fail to be charmed by such a character - a woman who was a great leader of monastics, both men and women, who was baptized by angels, got out of an arranged marriage by plucking out one of her eyeballs, and fell asleep during a sermon given by the incomparable Equal-to-the-Apostles, St. Patrick!

Finally, the Celts were Trinitarian Christians par excellence. This is partly because even before they were Christian they already thought in terms of threes. And for them-unlike most Christians today-the Trinity was very real, very alive, not something vague and theoretical. What one scholar calls a "Trinitarian consciousness" (Joyce, op.cit.) completely shaped everything about them. As another has said: "'We are here at a central insight of Celtic theology....Christ comes not to show up or illuminate the deformity of a fallen world but rather to release a beautiful and holy world from bondage  an affirmation, difficult but possible, of [that] which is the created image of the eternal Father and the all-holy Trinity.'" (Noel Dermot O'Donoghue, quoted in Joyce, op.cit.) "To follow the spiritual world-view of the Celtic Christians is to embrace a way of life that is a real commitment to the belief that the Trinitarian God is alive in this world." In the Celtic world, "Jesus Christ is our hero, our sweet friend....The Father is High King of heaven, a gentle and beneficent father, a wise and just ruler. The Spirit is a tangible comforter and protector ....This God is never to be reduced to the 'man upstairs' or anyone we can capture and box in. And yet this wonderful, mysterious God is close to us....[This] God is extremely good." (Ibid.)

Brothers and sisters: the sanctity of Celtic monastics is a model for us in that it combines heroism and joy in perfect and beautiful balance. For them, the heroic life was one completely dedicated to living intimately with the God-Man whom they described as "victorious," "mighty and successful," "the lord of victories," a great warrior to whom they pledged undying, fearless, creative and exuberant loyalty. And yet, for all of their heroism, their monastic world-view, could be 'summed up as the 'Christian ideal in a sweetness which has never been surpassed.'" (Nora Chadwick, quoted by Joyce in op.cit.) To slip into their world, even for just a few moments, as we've done here this afternoon, is, I believe, is not just inspiring; it's almost breathtaking.

Just as I began my talk today with a prayer of St. Columban of Iona, I would like to conclude with another prayer from this great Celtic monastic saint:

Prayer of St. Columban of Iona

Lord, Thou art my island; in Thy bosom I rest.
Thou art the calm of the sea; in that peace I stay.
Thou art the deep waves of the shining ocean. With their eternal sound I sing.
Thou art the song of the birds; in that tune is my joy.
Thou art the smooth white strand of the shore; in Thee is no gloom.
Thou art the breaking of the waves on the rock;
Thy praise is echoed in the swell.
Thou art the Lord of my life;


Liturgy and Prayer

A Benedictine community prays together six or seven times a day, consecrating the whole day to God. Our life is shaped by the liturgy and the liturgical seasons – none more so than Lent, Holy Week and Eastertide. St Benedict says “a monk’s life ought to be a continuous Lent” but only so that we are properly prepared to receive the joy of the Resurrection. Flowing from the liturgy, we spend much time in personal prayer. Withdrawing to a private place, we spend privileged time in personal prayer with God. Here we learn to experience silence, and hear God’s will for us. Prayer is not always easy or comfortable, but fidelity promises spiritual freedom.

“We shall run in the path of God’s commands, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (Pro.49)
Ways of Prayer

Lectio Divina
‘Your Word is a Lamp 
for my feet, and a light 
for my path.’ (Ps.119:105)

St Jerome said that ‘ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’ Monks and nuns are lovers of the Word. By spending time pondering scripture we grow into a relationship with Christ, the living Word. This is a characteristically Benedictine way of praying.

In our daily lectio divina we listen, meditate and respond to Christ speaking to us. Lectio is primarily an exercise in listening; we read slowly and attentively, waiting for Lord to speak to us through a word or phrase. Learning how to do Lectio can be tricky at the beginning, but our monks and nuns are always happy to help the “beginner”.

“With Christ’s help, keep this little Rule that we have written for beginners”

‘Do this in memory of me…’
The Eucharist makes the Church, the Body of Christ. It also “makes” the monastic community. Mass is a privileged time when we offer ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord along with the gifts of bread and wine, and, by receiving him in Holy Communion, allow him to transform us too into the Body of Christ, just as surely as the gifts are transformed. St Benedict wanted all goods of the monastery to be treated as sacred vessels of the altar. The dignity in the way we behave and pray in church is echoed in the way we live out the rest of the day. Our daily celebration and reception of the Lord’s gift of himself sustains and shapes our monastic day and indeed our whole lives, both as individuals and as a community.

Related image
‘Do this in memory of me…’
The Eucharist makes the Church, the Body of Christ. It also “makes” the monastic community. Mass is a privileged time when we offer ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord along with the gifts of bread and wine, and, by receiving him in Holy Communion, allow him to transform us too into the Body of Christ, just as surely as the gifts are transformed. St Benedict wanted all goods of the monastery to be treated as sacred vessels of the altar. The dignity in the way we behave and pray in church is echoed in the way we live out the rest of the day. Our daily celebration and reception of the Lord’s gift of himself sustains and shapes our monastic day and indeed our whole lives, both as individuals and as a community.


The school of the Lord’s service is where monks and nuns learn and practise communion. Life according to the Rule gives a daily experience of it, and provides for its support and nourishment. This is how monks and nuns are able to grow in communion to the wholeness of monastic integrity that is traditionally called purity of heart."

(To Prefer Nothing to Christ para 52)

Divine Office

The principal work of a monk or nun is prayer and especially that of the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office). A community comes together six or seven times a day to pray the prayer of the Church, and consecrate the whole day to God. Liturgical prayer calls us to open our hearts to the Word of God as it is addressed to us in the Psalms and other inspired books of Scripture, and in the writings of the Fathers of the Church.

‘O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.’ (Ps 50:17)

A retreat at Belmont Abbey, Hereford

(Ps 50:17)

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