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Celtic Christianity and the Monastic Vocation

During the Dark Ages of Europe, some remarkable men and women, fired by their new experience of Christianity, travelled from Wales to Ireland, and from Ireland through Scotland and northern England and south-west Britain, sharing the light of Christ with all whom they met. Celtic saints, revered by the Church for their holiness and wisdom, took Christianity and literacy south through Brittany to southern Italy, east to the Ukraine, and north to the Faroes and Iceland. Monasteries and churches were founded wherever these Christian men and women traveled, teaching those they met the love of God. The Celtic Church of the 5th and 6th centuries was not an identifiable organization with a central leadership. Led by monastic abbots rather than diocesan bishops, it was marked out by its ethos, a philosophy markedly different from the Church of Rome.


No other Christian community has lived so closely with the Jewish Law. Each day and at every service passages of the Bible were read, the Psalms recited and the scriptures meditated upon. Those showing particular promise were entrusted with the careful copying of the Bible. Against the austerity and simplicity of their way of life, the elaborate and rich illuminations of their manuscripts show the central place the scriptures held. The Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, were condensed for ease of use, and found great popularity among those who sought to explain the Bible to the illiterate.


The roots of Celtic monasticism are found in the lives of the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers. During the 3rd century A.D., Christians in Egypt fled the distractions and temptations of the cities to live solitary lives of prayer, meditation and fasting in the desert. Legends about St. Antony (251-356 A.D.), his duels with the forces of evil, and years of solitude in the most inhospitable areas of the desert became the heroic model for others. However, some found the rigors of solitary life too hard, and chose to live in close proximity to their brethren, meeting on Saturdays and Sundays for services, but living apart through the week. Early Celtic Christians called from the world to live as monks and nuns followed their forebears into their own "deserts" desiring separate and radical lives of prayer.



The Monastic Vocation


Celtic monastic settlements were usually established without there being any intention of founding a large community. A hermit built his cell in a place of solitude, a "desert", and cleared an area of land on which to grow food.  Gradually others would be drawn to join him, clearing more land and establishing their own cells nearby. Each monastery had huts set aside for travelers and the sick, for the principle of hospitality was important in the Celtic tradition. Finally, a wooden chapel or oratory was constructed in which the community could meet to exercise the discipline of regular prayer. Some of these communities consisted of fewer than ten people while others might consist of hundreds or even thousands. The leader or abbot of the monastery was regarded as a wise spiritual director rather than a strict disciplinarian, although bishops living within the monastery would come under his authority.


Many of the monks and nuns enjoyed a life of freedom compared with their continental Roman brethren, usually meeting together only once a day for worship and Eucharist, and establishing their own patterns of prayer, work and study in their cells. Perseverance through recitation of the Psalms was at the center of Celtic monastic prayer. All 150 Psalms were learnt by heart and it was usual to recite as many as 50 at one time. Fasting, silence and abstinence from sleep were practiced regularly. Penitential positions of prayer were common—for example standing for long periods in cold water with arms outstretched cruciform. By subjugating their bodies, some Celtic Christians believed that their souls would be released and rise to God.


Larger monasteries attracted pupils, often the children of royal households and landowners, who learnt to read and write, to sing and to appreciate the arts.  They lived the full rigors of the religious life, taking part in manual labor as well as in daily prayer and study.


The Celtic Church was not afraid to assimilate the best parts of the culture in which it found itself, and art thrived and was refined in the monastic setting.  The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells reveal in their margins and painted pages small animals and mythical doodles, designs from pagan art now sanctified to the glory of God.


The wooden crosses set aside at places for preaching and at important memorial sites were gradually replaced by permanent standing crosses made of stone. The Latin-style cross was too tall to be surrounded by the circle of the much earlier Chi-Rho symbol, so a stylized circle simply embraced the shaft and crossing.  Crosses at Clonmacnois in Ireland, Margam in Wales, and Iona in Scotland, among many other high crosses to be found all over the Celtic world, are craved with Bible stories and intricate abstract designs testifying symbolically to the mystery of the faith.


Women held a significant place in the Celtic Church, for the Celtic Christian had been influenced by the Druidic religion that had gone before, and both men and women held authority in Celtic monasteries. Many communities were mixed, with monks and nuns living within conjoined enclosures, and some of those involved in monastic life were married.

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