Christian Monasticism And The Celtic Church

Christian monasticism arose in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. Either to escape persecution, or to flee from the follies of the world, some Christian priests became ascetics, and went to live in remote desert retreats, far from civilization. Seeking spiritual perfection, they adopted the ascetic traditions of the priests of the Hellenized Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis, copying some of their customs, such as shaving the head in a tonsure. Even the practice of living together in monasteries was taken from Isian tradition. By entering the desert with virtually no possessions, the Christian monks effected their escape from what they saw as a decadent and corrupt society, so that they could create a new, independent religious way. Their ultimate objective was the recreation of Paradise through the reunification of body and spirit. This was to be accomplished by re-establishing the human body as a point of contact

The Romanization of southern Britain also meant that elements of middle eastern religions were introduced there in the shape of the worship of Cybele, Attis, Isis, Sekhmet, Serapis, Mithras, Jupiter Dolichenus and Jesus Christ.

between heaven and earth. The fathers of this 'school', St Paul of Thebes and St Anthony of Egypt, viewed what they saw as the fallen state of human beings as an aberration from their natural state of grace. Through the resolution of disharmony, they argued, human beings could regain balance and wellbeing and return to their true condition as the image and likeness of God. Then, the unnatural separation between the physical and the spiritual world would be at an end.

However, this reunion of the human with the divine did not entail a war against nature, which they recognized as the perfect manifestation of God's creation. So, when a visiting philosopher asked St Anthony how he could survive intellectually in the desert without the scriptures, the saint gestured towards the landscape and answered: 'My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is present when I want to read the words of God.' This essential atextuality of existence was at the heart of this religious lifestyle. It was recognized in the Celtic Church, too. The author of the tenth-century Welsh poem in the Juuencus Manuscript, in the University Library, Cambridge, tells us: 'The Father has made wonders in this world that it is difficult for us to find an equal number. Letters cannot contain it, letters cannot express it.' This equation of spirituality with nature is perhaps the most important element of Celtic religion that was played down and often ignored completely by Christians in later times.

In the fourth century, once Christianity had become the state religion of the empire, monasticism became fashionable, and people began to travel to the desert monasteries to see for themselves how the monks led the spiritual life. Travel books, describing the monastic life and the lives of the more famous monks, were popular and disseminated widely. As a response to this, outside the deserts, in western Europe, monasteries based on the desert model were founded. Among the most successful were at Marseilles and on the holy island of Lerins in southern Gaul, and Liguge and Marmoutier, near Tours. Here, in imitation of the desert fathers, Christian monks attempted to separate themselves from the world, while, paradoxically, trying to convert Pagans, Stoics, Jews, Mithraists, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians, Atheists and Christians of other sects to their own beliefs.

At just the time when monastic ideas were fashionable, there was an important trade route that linked the western British Isles with the Mediterranean region. Archaeologists have discovered large amounts of pottery at post-Roman sites in southern Ireland, southwestern England and Wales, much of which originated in the eastern Mediterranean and

North Africa. Paradoxically, western Mediterranean artefacts are much less common. It was at this time that the Christian Fathers of the Egyptian desert became the main inspiration for Celtic monasticism, and links were forged between Egypt and the British Isles. Ireland, the major focus of Celtic Christianity, was not as remote as might first appear. In the sixth century, for instance, Cork was only three days' journey by sea from the Loire, and there was continuous maritime traffic. In the year 550, for example, 50 scholars from mainland Europe arrived in Ireland on one ship. They were visiting Ireland to study at the Celtic monastic schools, which had the reputation of being the best in western Europe.

During the period when the Celtic church was expanding and consolidating its sphere of influence, the western Roman empire was in a state of dissolution. Enormous westward movements of populations from eastern and northeastern Europe brought slaves, refugees, emigrants, pirates and invaders to most parts of western Europe. The southern and eastern parts of the old Roman province of Britain were taken over gradually by invaders and immigrants from what is now Holland, Denmark and north Germany. Areas which had become nominally Christian were re-Paganized either by the indigenous people reverting to their ancestral faith, or by the influx of Pagans from outside. Many Britons fled westward for refuge in areas not yet conquered by the Germanic invaders. There was a revival of druidism in Gaul. Around the year 460, many Britons emigrated to Armorica, the northwestern province of Gaul, which became the British colony called Little Britain, or Brittany. In the same period, northern Britain was being settled by Irish immigrants - the Scots. Irish invaders also settled in parts of what is now Wales and Cornwall. In this way, the northwestern fringe of Europe gradually became identified as the homeland of the Celts. So it remains today, with the exception of Cumbria, where Celtic traditions are lost.

While Roman rule persisted in Britain, there was some missionary activity to the peripheral regions. In the year 397, St Ninian, a British priest, went northwards to preach Christianity to the Picts, and built a church in Galloway. The Christian religion entered Ireland seriously with the mission of St Patrick from 432 onwards. Patrick brought into Ireland a religion that had strong connections with the Coptic church of Egypt. While Britain was undergoing the turmoil of constant warfare between indigenous Britons and invading Angles, Irishmen, Jutes, Picts and Saxons, the various tribes that lived in Ireland were spared the destruction. Thus Ireland more readily assimilated the Christian religion, which gradually absorbed and supplanted Paganism in both its religious and social functions. A new church grew up in Ireland, which, once established, began to spread beyond Ireland. The voyages of Irish monks are legendary, as recorded in the 'Life of St Brendan the Navigator' (The Lives of the British Saints, Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1908) whose travels, though embellished and misinterpreted by later commentators, recount his voyages around the islands of the northwest Atlantic. Irish missionaries extended their sphere of influence into western Britain and then across the Channel into mainland Europe. In western Britain, where the Anglo-Saxons had not yet penetrated, British and Irish Celtic priests travelled around preaching, fighting and founding churches and monasteries. There, the great monastic settlements of Glastonbury and Malmesbury were founded by Irish monks. In Northumbria, East Anglia and Wessex, Anglian and Saxon churchmen were trained by Irish priests. Sometimes, English priests even crossed to Ireland, as in the case of Agilbercht, the mid-seventh-century Saxon Bishop of Wessex, who had received his training there.

Before the Scots invaded Britain from Ireland, the Picts inhabited the part of Britain north of the Clyde and Forth called Caledonia. Although the whole matter of the origin of the Picts is contentious, it is possible that ethnically they were a combination of indigenous Iron-Age peoples and later immigrant Celts. Around the year 501,

Scots emigrated from Ulster to the Western Isles and Argyll, where they set up the kingdom of Dalriada as a colony dependent upon Ireland. A century later, under King Aidan, the Scots in Britain were secure enough to declare independence from the Scots who remained in Ireland. In the year 563, St Columba, who was escaping from self-created trouble in Ireland, founded the monastery on the holy island of Iona. Through this base on Iona, Irish missionaries were able to extend their realm of operations into Scotland and then southwards into the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. The monastery of Lindisfarne, which was the major Christian influence in Northumbria, was founded by Aidan of Iona in the year 635.

In the year 563, St Columba ...founded the monastery on the holy island of Iona. Through this base ... Irish missionaries were able to extend their realm of operations into Scotland and then southwards into the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria.

What is now southern Scotland was settled by Anglians from northern Germany, eventually being absorbed into the kingdom of Northumbria. The name of the city of Edinburgh — Edwinsborough, after the Northumbrian king Edwin — attests to the English presence here. Through this Anglian connection, Germanic elements were incorporated into Celtic art, leading to a Christian manuscript style that produced a perfect amalgamation of Celtic, Germanic and Coptic elements. During the last third of the seventh century, this art reached its most refined form. Although many fine manuscripts must have been lost over the years, and those which do survive may give a false impression, during the last third of the seventh century the full flowering of this style came into being in the Book of Durrow. In the next century, the Lichfield Gospels, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book oj Kells appeared. During the eighth century, Celtic art continued to develop the symbolic, non-figurative patterns that reflect the aniconic traditions of Byzantine iconoclasm and the parallel Islamic prohibition on images. This style of work was disseminated through western Europe by the network of Celtic monasteries that stretched from Ireland to Austria and Italy. Artistic forms came into being then that were later used as key elements in the high medieval art of the so-called Gothic style.

In Anglian Northumbria, Celtic Christianity came into direct competition with Roman Catholicism. In the year 664, a church synod was held at Whitby to discuss the differences between Celtic and Catholic practice. Then, it was decided to abolish the usages of the Celtic church in England, and to replace them with Catholic practice. This assimilation of the Celtic church in England was the beginning of a process that finally eliminated the Celtic church completely. From Northumbria, Catholic influence moved northwards into the land of the Picts. The Pictish high king Nechtan IV mac Derile formally established Catholic Christianity in his kingdom in the year 710, and in 717 expelled the Celtic churchmen of Iona from his realms. After England went fully Catholic, Celtic Christianity continued in Scotland and Ireland. Gradually, Catholic practices took over from the Celtic, though in the eighth century the Culdees appeared as a reformed

During the eighth century, Celtic art continued to develop the symbolic, non-figurative patterns that reflect the aniconic traditions of Byzantine iconoclasm and the parallel Islamic prohibition on images.

Celtic movement. In Scotland, it was not until 1069 that Celtic Christian usages were abolished, when, at the insistence of his wife, King Malcolm Canmore declared Scotland fully Roman Catholic, like England.

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