If you want to capture the idea of Celtic Monasticism in words, you’ll find that words themselves seem inadequate. I have struggled for weeks now to present the essence of this movement, and I find it no easier now than when I started. Every word I choose has a sense of passion, of vitality, of enthusiasm, of intense dedication, and yet even these extravagant phrases fall short of catching the elusive nature of my subject. To call the Celtic Church rich would be to create an image of financial wealth that, actually, it never enjoyed. To call it poor would be to do injustice to the lasting treasures it endowed on all who encountered it. To even use the words monastic or monk conjure up images quite different, for most of us, than what really occurred. I am left with a sense of reaching for the right words, but finding them just beyond my grasp. I’m afraid that this is exactly what happens when we try to dissect or analyze a living thing.
I’m sure many of us have had the experience of being in love. We know that we’re in love, yet I think most of us would find it hard to say exactly why we love that person and not another. For me, describing the Celtic Church is a bit like that. I have come to know and love it, but sometimes, I can’t exactly say why.
What about this group of people can inspire us more than a thousand years after they breathed their last? What are we looking for that we think these people can somehow give us? And, most importantly, what did they find that enabled them to leave home and family to bring the gospel to a dangerous, barbarian world?
I think that our own pilgrimage has brought us face to face with these saints of old, not merely because some of us are Celtic by descent, nor that we like hearing the old stories, much like fairy‑tales in some ways, but because we have come to feel deeply, that these Celtic Monks have something vital to say to the Church today, again facing a dangerous, barbarian world, no less in need of the Gospel than it was 1200 years ago.
Join with me in meeting these saints, and hopefully, touching their hearts. This is to be a pilgrimage of the heart, entering a cloister of your own making, and preparing for the mission God will send you on.
And now: In the eye of the Father who created us,
In the eye of the Son who purchased us,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed us,
Let us begin our journey ……..
Background and Organisation
Long before the Gospel ever made it’s way to Britain, Celtic people lived here and observed some traditions which made the spreading of the Gospel among them uniquely possible.
We know now that tremendous migration occurred among the Celts. It was once thought that only great calamity such as famine or drought could move people from one place to another, but now we see that the Celts seemed to shift from one part of Celtic territory to another almost aimlessly.
This “aimless” wandering will play such a significant part of the later Celtic Mission that I think it worth mentioning now. Also, the Celts maintained “bardic schools”, “Bards” being that class of the Druids who carried on the history, music, and general knowledge of the culture. This learning was completely oral, and often took decades to complete.
The value of these schools in Ireland and Northern Britain was such that Celts from Gall, Spain, and Southern England would often send an oldest son to train there. These schools and their dedication to learning was to be adopted by the Christianized Celts, and later became responsible for such works of art as the Books of Kells and Durrow, and the Lindisfarne Gospels. It would also be responsible for preserving almost all that we know of the Classical World, by copying the texts of Greece and Rome, in addition to religious texts, and keeping these manuscripts safe during the tumultuous Middle Ages.
As I said, the learning in these schools in Pre‑Christian times was completely oral. The Druids felt that it was sacrilegious to write anything down. They felt that part of their souls would be captured if a written record existed.
Obviously, the modern descendants of the Celts have overcome this feeling, since some of them are the most prolific writers in the world.
Leadership is another aspect of Celtic Life that was adopted by the Early Celtic Church.
(Now, let me make one aside. When I speak of Celtic Monasticism, or the Celtic Church, I am speaking of the same thing. In the Celtic Christian world, every church was monastic. The leadership was provided by abbots who were bishops, and hardly any distinction existed between the cloister and the church. We’ll explore that more later, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t confusing anyone with my interchangeable use of the words church and monastery.)
If someone was the leader of a Celtic Village or tribal settlement, it was an indication that character, training, and performance had all come together in that individual. This means that a charismatic method was used to determine leadership. In much the same way as Celtic warriors chose their leaders, that is, on the basis of actual performance in battle, the villages chose their judges and priests by their practical demonstrations of wisdom and insight.
When the Celtic Church first appeared, the value of this method became immediately apparent. In a land without seminaries, and no cathedral schools yet built, only practical apprenticeships were available for the training of each new generation’s leaders. This resulted in a repetition of our Lord’s own methods with His Disciples.
The Early Celtic Christian leaders often chose twelve recruits, and took them along on their Missions. Eventually, these each led their own missions, with twelve more disciples of their own. This can result in very individualized “theologies”, since each church leader was trained by only one other leader, each with incomplete information.
In fact, there were tremendous differences of approach between all of the Celtic Missionaries, but apparently, and fortunately, a great deal of agreement about the essential truths of the Gospel.
Another comment may be helpful at this point. When we speak of the Celtic Church, or even a specific part of it, like the Early Irish Church, or the Early Northumbrian Church, it is very important not to think of them as we do our modern churches.
If I were to visit ten Anglican Churches on the same Sunday, I would hear virtually the same prayers, readings, and experience a very similar type of worship. This is not to say that some churches aren’t more “alive” than others, only that the forms are usually quite similar.
On the other hand, from what we know of the Early Celtic Churches, there is no hint of uniformity about their services. Often each local abbot would compose the prayers used for worship. Often the whole liturgy for Communion would be changed and a new one adopted as the result of some itinerant pilgrims contribution.
Unfortunately, many of these prayers and liturgies are lost to us, and only their echoes are found in the liturgies of Celtic places in the Late Middle Ages.
The setting for all of this activity can be called Celtica. That is the name borrowed from Herodotus the Greek Historian who describes the vast expanse of Celtica.
At the time we are describing, Celtica consists of Southwestern Britain, Wales, Scotland, Northumbria, Ireland, Man, and Brittany. Before their conquest by the Romans, the Celts occupied most of Europe north of Italy. They stretched from Asia Minor, where the Gospel was first brought to Celts in Galatia (Galatia = home of the Galls; Galls = Celts) all the way west to the Atlantic Shores where the remnants of Celtic People still reside.
In all this area, there were only two Celtic language groups, one related to modern Irish, and the other related to modern Welsh, so many of these remote Celts could nevertheless communicate with each other.
As settlers came to Britain from Rome, they also brought their new‑found Faith. We still don’t know for sure when the Gospel reached Britain in any substantial way, but we do know that it was very early in the life of the church.
By the year 314 AD, there were at least three Celtic British Bishops representing Britain at a Church Synod in Arles in France. Such an early start for the Celtic Church helps explain some of its later uniquenesses. At that time, for example, the Council of Nicea had not yet occurred. This means that the “Great Age of Church Uniformity” had not yet begun.
In the early days of the Christian Church, faith was recognized by acts. These acts could be acts of testimony, or evangelism, or service, or even martyrdom. As the church grew in numeric strength, and even became “legal” under Constantine, these distinguishing acts were less and less significant.
Now, if we wanted to make sure someone was a Christian we had to get them to agree a formula describing their faith. I am not against the Creeds in their purest sense, but something grew out of this movement of defining Christianity that badly affected our Celtic friends back here in Britain.
After getting the whole church to agree to one doctrinal position, it was only a small jump to require identical practices as well as beliefs. That is where the problems started for the Celtic Church.
The Celtic Controversy
For several hundred years, the Celtic Church had enjoyed great success in its mission to evangelize Northern Britain. The entire island of Britain had in some way been reached for the Gospel by the work of monks from Iona. Exactly when Iona was first established as an outpost for Christianity is not known for certain, but its role from the time of Columba is surely known.
Columba was in self‑appointed exile from his homeland of Ireland, this coming about for variously described reasons, including penitence for a wrong, possibly murder, guilt for some undisclosed transaction, shaming his patrician family, or avoiding a dispute between leading families. Whatever the actual reasons, Columba, also called Columbkille by the Irish, set out for The Isle of Iona in 563 with twelve travelling companions. This was to be of great importance to the Northumbrian Church, since only sixty years later in 635, Aidan left the community in Iona to begin work in Northumbria, and consequently founded the Monastic Community at Lindisfarne where, as we all know he served as its first Abbot.
The connection to Iona and Ireland becomes slightly more significant when we consider the events that follow. As I have said, the early Celtic Church was flourishing at a time when no other type of Christian movement had successfully reached Northern Britain. When, in the seventh century, another missionary movement did reach Northumbria, and inevitable clash occurred.
While the Church in Britain had enjoyed its independence and distinctive character, the continental church had grown more and more structured. When Rome instituted a mission to England, in 597, Augustine brought a very different concept of the church to Canterbury. This church did not accept the possibility of the Celtic Church continuing to operate in its own sphere without coming under the authority and structure of the Roman organization. This difficulty was not due to any doctrinal problem, but rather to some merely external observances.
In the three hundred years before this time, disputes had arisen over the correct date for Easter. Since this is based on a calculation of the lunar year compared to the Solar year, different calculations will obtain different dates. The method used by the Celtic Church was considered outmoded and unacceptable. It only came to a head, as these things often do, when it affected a royal family.
As it happened, King Oswy of Northumbria was converted to Christianity through the ministry of Aidan, therefore keeping the Celtic Traditions and calendar, but his wife. Queen Eanfled, became a Christian through the mission of Paulinus, connected with Augustine’s Roman mission. This left her celebrating the Christian feasts, particularly Easter, on the Roman schedule.
Bede the Venerable tells us.
“The Queen with her followers kept Easter as in Kent… When the King had ended the Lenten fast and was celebrating Easter, the Queen and her party continued in Lent, being only at Palm Sunday.”
This situation brought about a need for decisive action in a way that no previous attempts at conformity had done. When a synod was called at Whitby, in 663, the conclusion was already established. No regional church could set their own traditions above or beside the Universal Traditions of the Church. From this moment, the fate of the Celtic Church was truly decided. All churches were required to come into conformity with the representatives of Rome at Canterbury, and all liturgies and calendars were to conform as well.
This was legislated in 663, but as much as 500 years would pass before most traces of the Celtic Church were erased. Why cause such a furore over such an insignificant thing as a date? Well, the answer goes much deeper than when Easter was to be celebrated.
At its heart, the issue is one of hierarchy. If the Celtic Church could claim independent decisions on its holidays, and perhaps on some other minor issues like appearance of its monks or choice of Liturgy, then perhaps it would rebel against the Church on weightier matters as well. If, for example, the Roman Church levied a penalty of excommunication for some political allegiance, then a church un‑allied with Rome could ignore such a ban.
In fact, this very thing happened, or at least is reputed to have happened during the time of Robert the Bruce. All Scotland was declared excommunicated, and Robert’s coronation therefore invalid, when, from out of nowhere Celtic monks and priests came forward to offer consecration for Robert’s Crown, and Communion for his people. This strongly encouraged the Scottish people in their struggle for independence.
In many parts of Celtic Britain, the Monks and Abbots simply ignored these new orders from Rome, but eventually all Britain was brought into a measure of compliance one way or another. One of the ways chosen was both spiritually and politically expedient. All of the sites of Celtic Monasteries were eventually offered to other monastic groups, such as monks from Cluny, many Benedictine Houses, Cistercians, Augustinians, and others. This created the appearance of supporting the monastic work of these places, but served to displace the Celtic Traditions responsible for establishing the work.
The factor ignored in any legislating of spirituality is that living things reproduce. It is precisely because the Celtic monks embodied a vital aspect of Christianity that we are still aware of their work and ministry. Many people would like to focus only on the ways that these primitive Christians differed from the rest of the Church in problematic ways, but I would rather learn about the ways that led them to Life.
We could spend much time on some of their peculiar observances, for example that many Celtic clerics were not celibate, but lived in monastic community with their wives and children. But let us rather look at the style of life and devotion chosen by these peculiar people.
Life in a Celtic Monastery.
If you were to find yourself somehow transported back to the seventh century here in Northumbria, you might try to find a monastery, but you had better learn what to look for.
To start out, it is likely that there were few stone buildings in Northumbria at that time, so looking for a modern “ancient” abbey would probably get you nowhere. Even castles were mostly made of wood and daubed with mud at that time. To find a stone church or abbey you might have to go as far south as York. However, you could ask anyone along the Great Coastal Road (that’s the A1) where to find some Christian monks, and you would undoubtedly be directed to the new settlement at Lindisfarne.
Arriving on Holy Island, yes it already had that name as well, you would locate the monastery as a small circle of wooden huts with a larger rectangular building at one end. This building would serve as chapel and gathering hall, until such time as a larger, more permanent building could be erected. Each monk lived in their own hut, or cell, more like hermits in a group than brothers in a family.
This contributed to each monks need for solitude and privacy, but unlike hermits, gave the opportunity for close interaction at the Hours, and at meal times, some of which were held in common.
Very scant information exists as to the nature of the Monastic day at this time. We know, for example that the Hours were observed by Celtic Christians, and that all participate fully in the observances of these Hours, but we do not know what prayers or texts were used. This is a sad loss, since the scraps of information we do have, and the traces of Celtic prayers surviving in adapted form in Ireland and The Highlands have been a source of great blessing to anyone who encounters them. The original Office must have been an inspiring work indeed!
These Daily Offices were observed at least three, and possibly six times a day. Since “business‑people” were excused from the rigors of attending Office, there was a recommendation to recite the prayers in their hearts, wherever their business took them. The few traces and survivals of these prayers that we know about are found in books like the Carmina Gaedelica of Scotland, and some of the martyrologies of Irish monks, written in Old‑Irish. These are gradually being deciphered, so the future does at least hold the prospect of more information about them.
For the form and text of Holy Communion, we again rely on a few sources, none of them as old as we would like. In the Book of Deer, and the Stowe Missal, we have shadows if not the substance of the Celtic Liturgy. This liturgy has been translated in part by R C West for the SPCK, but so many prayers have been shortened or edited by him, that I think an entire translation still needs to be done.
For those of you who read Latin, the whole text of the Stowe Missal is found in F E Warren’s wonderful book, ‘The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church’. I hope to translate some of these things myself, but it will be a few months, if not years, till I find the time. Moving on from the formal to the informal, we may look at the lifestyle of a visitor or member of one of these communities.
The first thing I think of when I consider monasticism is the idea of obedience. The whole concept of a monastery seems to imply submission to an abbot. That further implies a rule to be followed, since no abbot could have the time to decide every monks activities individually. Although we do not possess a Rule for Celtic Monks in Britain at the time of Lindisfarne’s founding, we do have several documents relating to Celtic Monastic Life in Ireland and on the Continent at about the same time.
These “Rules” and “Penitentials” describe not only the discipline expected of a full member, but also the attendant punishments for infractions. I hope a brief example will suffice to show the intensity of commitment expected of these monks.
From the “Rule of Columbanus”: 7th Century Continental
Let the monks’ food be poor and taken in the evening, such as to avoid repletion, and their drink such as to avoid intoxication, so that it may both maintain Life and not harm (their souls): vegetables, beans, flour mixed with water, together with small bread of a loaf, lest the stomach be burdened and the mind confused. For indeed those who desire eternal rewards must only consider usefulness and use. Use of life must be moderated just as toil must be moderated, since this is true discretion, that the possibility of Spiritual progress may be kept with a temperance that punishes the flesh. For if abstinence exceeds measure, it will be a vice and not a virtue; for virtue maintains and contains many goods. Therefore, we must fast daily, just as we must feed daily.
From the “Penitentials of Vinnian”: 7th Century Ireland
1: If anyone has sinned by thought in his heart and immediately repents, he shall beat his breast and seek pardon from God, and so be whole.
3: If, however, he has thought evil and intended to do it and has not been able to do it, since opportunity has failed him, it is the same sin but not the same penance; for example, if he intended fornication or murder, he has, by his intention, already committed the sin in his heart which he did not complete by a deed; but if he quickly does penance he can be helped. His penance is this: half a year he shall do penance on an allowance of bread and water, and he shall abstain from wine and meat for a whole year .
I hope these examples clarify the intensity of the monastic commitment. The times were much as ours, in that morality was virtually nonexistent outside the church.
These penitentials go on to record the appropriate penances for theft, drunkenness, witchcraft, fornication, abortion, murder, greed, and the list goes on. I think it amusing to reflect on the fact that these were punishments for erring monks! I can only wonder what kinds of sins were committed by those with no standards! It was a virtual necessity to hold up a moral standard, but even though the strictness find may not reveal mercy, we are told from many anecdotes of these early saints Lives’ that they indeed could show a great deal of mercy when circumstances indicated the need.
The Lessons We Can Learn
In such a brief outline. I have been compelled to leave out far more than I could include. I regret not knowing my audience better, in that I may have unintentionally told you many things you already know, and not told you the thing you need. I hope that something here proves to be of value at least in stimulating your further inquiry into the lives and spirituality of our fathers and mothers in the Faith. I guess that you’ll know many celtic saints and sites, as it were, first‑hand, since you live and work where these missions took place. I envy you your proximity to these Holy places, but I share with you a proximity to the Most Holy Place.
If we learn only about the Faith of these early pilgrims, we will have missed the most essential part of their story. Their greatest value to me, is in looking with them toward Him who inspires us both. Perhaps it is that peculiar aspect of Celtic Art that reminds me most of this need.
Most of you I’m sure have seen decorated Celtic Crosses. Some of them have been engraved with patterns called celtic knots, while others have figures from nature or the Gospels covering their surface. The interesting thing to me, is that you can look at both at the same time. That is, even when you “focus” on the decoration, you are always mindful that it is a cross. When you “focus” on the cross, even the decoration reminds you that it is there.
I am asking you to do the same with the monks from our Celtic past. As you look at these people, find the “focus” that permits you to look at Christ at the same time. Then, we will have absorbed the reflection I think they wanted us to see.
Keene New Hampshire USA