Celtic Monasteries
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Early History of Monasticism

The word "monarchos" means a person who is alone, someone living a solitary life. Our words for "monk" and the "monastic" life come from this. The term "monasticism" describes a way of life chosen by religious men or women who retreat from society to live a life of prayer and spiritual struggle.

The earliest form of Christian monasticism appeared in the late third to early fourth century in regions around the eastern Mediterranean. Thousands of men and women like Saint Antony (died about 356 A.D.) withdrew into the Egyptian desert. They trained themselves to withstand the devil's temptations by fierce ascetic struggle. The form of training they developed included fasting from food and water for long periods as well as hard physical forms of prayer such as repeated prostrations or standing for long prayer vigils.

The biography of Saint Anthony was written by a Christian bishop from Egypt. This story inspired generations of people to follow Antony's example as solitary monks and nuns. The movement spread across the Roman Empire, so Antony is known as the Father of Monks.

Along the Nile River, in the shadow of the great pyramids, another monk established a form of communal monasticism. This man was called Pachomius. He introduced the idea of a life based on a pattern of work and prayer. Even though the idea of a solitary struggle has persisted to this day, it was the idea of communal monasticism which became far more widespread.

Monasticism in the late Roman world.

Gradually monasticism became central to life in the Roman world. This continued in the East after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. From the fourth century, after the founding of the first monastic institution in the heart of the capital city, Constantinople, monasteries were set up throughout town and country. By the early sixth century, there were over seventy monasteries in the East Roman capital of Constantinople. Monks and nuns began to play a critical role in the doctrinal debates in the Church.

One of the most important early monasteries was built on the site of the Burning Bush at the foot of Mount Sinai. Recognizing the religious and military significance of this holy place, the emperor Justinian I, constructed a heavily fortified monastery around the shrine to protect the monks. In the tenth or eleventh century, the monastery took the name of Saint Catherine after her relics were taken there. The monastery still follows the same monastic traditions to this day.

The first monks and nuns lived alone with very few possessions. However, communal monasteries soon became landowners. By the tenth century the monasteries of the east began to acquire substantial gifts of cash, precious liturgical objects, land, and livestock. Monasteries, in turn, provided a haven from the world for pious men and women, as well as centres where the poor or destitute could be helped.

A major contribution of the monasteries was their achievement in Scholarship. Monks copied ancient texts from fragile papyrus documents onto durable books of calf-skin. They provided the mediaeval world with copies books from the ancient world, as well as texts about hymnography, hagiography, and theology.  In the Byzantine world the monasteries encouraged a fiercely intellectual environment. Both monks and nuns were expected to be literate, and monasteries collected and copied large libraries.  For example, the library at the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine still contains more than 3,000 manuscripts in a variety of languages. The larger monasteries were also patrons of high quality art and architecture, such as church buildings, frescoes and wall paintings.

Celtic monasticism.

One of the outstanding features of Celtic Christianity was the monastic movement. Thousands of people learned about the earliest monks from the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, and copied their way of life. Tiny hermitages were built on cliffs, and rocky outcrops became monastic sites.

In Western Europe the culture of the Roman Christian world was largely lost in the Fifth and Sixth Century as pagan barbarians (such as the Goths, Lombards, Franks, and Anglo-Saxons) settled. Levels of education, literacy, scholarship and culture declined. This was the period often called the Dark Ages.

It was during this dark period that monasticism reached Britain and Ireland. The model of monasticism used in the Celtic lands was largely Egyptian or eastern, with the same monastic enclosure surrounding a collection of individual monastic cells. Monks and nuns took up a fierce struggle against temptation, using exactly the same methods as the earlier monastics of the desert. They even called their monastic centres the “desert”, and this word is common in Wales and Ireland. Monastic leaders such as Saint David or Saint Columba or Saint Columbanus established groups of monasteries, and wrote monastic rules for them - setting out the prayer services, penances and the fasting rules for the monks.

"We have not formed a community in the monastery for quiet or security, but for struggle and conflict. We have met here for a contest; we have embarked on a war against our sins ... The struggle is full of hardships, full of dangers, for it is the struggle of man against himself... day after day we wage a war against our passions..."    (Faustus, a Celtic Christian who became Bishop of Riez in France.)

Although many modern writers like to describe the Celtic Christians as if they were New Age nature lovers, they were in fact simply very traditional Christians who maintained the customs of the early Church. They believed in the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and Salvation, though they expressed these in their own unique way.

The Holy Trinity.
I arise today through a mighty strength,
The invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.
(From “The Deer's Cry" by Saint Patrick.)

There was also a gentle side to their monastic life, a very Celtic sense of oneness with nature and creation, often a sense of longing for perfection in a fallen world.
"That I might search all the books,
That would be good for my soul;
At times kneeling to beloved heaven;
At times singing psalms;
At times contemplating the King of Heaven, Holy the Chief;
At times at work without compulsion,
That would be delightful.
At times plucking duilisc from the rocks;
At times fishing;
At times giving food to the poor;
At times alone in my cell."
(From a poem by Saint Columba of Iona.)

The Celtic monasteries continued the earlier Eastern traditions of scholarship, artistic patronage and care for the poor or destitute. They became centres for producing outstanding liturgical metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, and stone carvings. The monastic libraries of Ireland and Northern Britain were some of the largest in Europe - though of course the books were destroyed later by the Vikings. Celtic monasteries produced some of the only people in Europe who could read Greek, and Irish monks were at the heart of theological debates across Europe. Monks poured out from the monasteries to bring Christianity, education and culture to many parts of Britain, Europe and Scandinavia. The Celtic monasteries and their monks have all gone now - replaced for a while by Benedictine houses and Roman Catholic customs - but the same way of life lives on in Coptic, Greek and Russian monasteries.

"A typical group of monastic buildings is preserved on Skellig Michael ... on a high crag above the sea. There are five huts, covered by corbelled domes of rough stone ... The church is in the shape of an upturned boat, and beside it is a stone cross ... The almost inaccessible site of the ancient monastery explains its preservation ... The huts, almost isolated beneath the sky, might symbolise the mystic spirit of the early monks, akin to the Greek monks of the Meteora ..."                                                                         ("From Theodoric To Charlemagne", Paolo Verzone, Methuen.)

The Rule of Saint Benedict.
The monastic Rule of Saint Benedict was compiled in the first half of the sixth century. This laid the foundation for a gentler form of monastic life that became normal in Western Europe. The rule-with its stress on moderation, obedience to the monastery's leader (the abbot), and a prescribed program of prayer, work, and study- drew on the tradition of earlier monastic writers, but introduced a more moderate rule of life. At the end of the Sixth Century the Roman missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons were generally Benedictine monks, so they took this model of monasticism with them. Gradually the Celtic form of monasticism was squeezed out to the far edges of Scotland and Ireland. By the ninth century, Benedictine monasticism was widespread. Our concept of a typical monastery that included a church with an adjacent cloister in the shape of a square courtyard comes from the Benedictine model. Around the cloister could generally be found the library, chapter house, dormitory, refectory, kitchen, cellar, infirmary, and other spaces essential to the daily monastic life.

One famous scholar of the Middle Ages wrote that the Rule of Saint Benedict taught people to become good monks, the rules of the Celtic monasteries taught people to become saints.