Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Columbian Monasteries and Rule

Below is an 1882 paper on the monasteries and rule of Saint Colum Cille published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record. I had the impression that the author wanted to see Saint Columba as a monastic founder in the style of later figures such as Saint Francis or Saint Dominic, men with a specific religious charism who therefore founded monastic orders with a distinctive identity. Yet he was forced to admit that no such distinctive Columbian rule existed. That said, however, the paper is still an enjoyable and informative read, and the author acknowledges the influence that eastern monasticism, which does not have the same tradition of distinctive monastic orders as the west, had on Ireland. The writer credits Saint Patrick with bringing this influence to Ireland after his sojourn at the monastery of Lerins. Modern scholarship still acknowledges the Gaulish influence but many contemporary academics are not convinced that Saint Patrick ever studied there. The paper ends with a sideswipe at Protestant appropriation of the 'Celtic church' and a stout rebuttal of the charges that monks were lazy and ignorant. Instead the author demonstrates what a source of pride the Irish monastic heritage was to the national revival movement of the nineteenth century. The paper also left me with a desire to read more recent scholarship on the Columban family, I've had Máire Herbert's 'Iona, Kells and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba' on my must-read list for some time.


[Follow up from IER August 1881]

HAVING already considered the negative side of the equation, and shown what the Columbian monks were not, let us now look at the positive side of our friend's query, " What was the mode of life, the religious rule of the monks of St Columba?"

All the houses founded by St Columba, or in his name and by his authority or that of his successors, in Ireland, then called Scotia, and in Caledonia or Albyn, were united by subjection to the same head, and the practice of the same role of life; formed in fact one great Religious Order. Columba himself during his lifetime, and his successors, the abbots of Iona, down to the ninth century, exercised jurisdiction over all these monasteries, as superiors-general. The monks of all these houses formed one religious family, just as the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Dominicans now. So many as thirty-seven different monasteries in Ireland alone recognised Columba as their founder and ruler. The Order was known as the Family of St. Columcille or the Columbian Order. Constant communication was kept up between the monasteries, which were visited by the superior-general, and monks were removed from one monastery to another by the authority of the superiors. It is evident from the lives of the Saint that Columba made many journeys to Ireland to visit and direct the many monasteries which he had founded here. His later visits are rendered memorable by the miracles which he wrought and by the wonderful demonstrations of enthusiasm, veneration, and affection, of monks and people towards him. The continuous solicitude and love with which this great Father regarded all his children, as well those who were far away as those under his eye, are shown in the touching narrative of Adamnan, the relative and ninth successor of Columba as Abbot of Iona, born only a quarter of a century later. One day he was observed to stop suddenly short in the transcription in which he had been engaged in his little cell in Iona, and was heard to cry out with all his strength, " Help, Help !" This cry was addressed to the guardian angel of the Community, and the appeal was made in behalf of a man who had fallen from the top of the round tower, which was then being built at Durrow, in the centre of Ireland.' Another time at Iona, on a day of chilly fog, he was seen suddenly to burst into tears. When asked the reason of his distress, he answered, " Dear son, it is not without reason that I weep. At this very hour I see my dear monks at Durrow condemned by the Abbot to exhaust themselves in this dreary weather building the great round tower of the monastery, and the sight overwhelms me." The same day and at the same hour, as was afterwards ascertained, Laisran, the Abbot of Durrow, felt within himself something like an internal flame, which enkindled in his heart a sentiment of pity for his monks. He immediately commanded them to leave their work, to warm themselves and take some food, and even forbade them to resume their building until the weather had improved. The same Laisran, who afterwards came to deserve the name of Consoler of the monks, was a relative of Columba, and became his third successor at Iona, showing further the union between all the Columbian monasteries. In the history of Libranus we are told that the Saint prophesied to him, " you shall die after a good old age in one of my monasteries in Scotia (Ireland)." He died accordingly in Columba's famous monastery of Durrow. The Four Masters at the year 936 have the record, " Dubhthach, successor of Colum Cille and Adamnan in Ireland and Alba, died." For from the beginning of the Danish invasions in the ninth century, during which the Northmen ravaged the island and burned the monastery three different times, the Abbots of Iona ceased to exercise the office of Superior-General. The government of all the monasteries belonging to the family or order of Colum Cille was removed from Iona to another of the Saint's foundations at Kells, where a successor of Columba, Superior General of the Order, titular Abbot of Iona, Armagh, or some other great Irish monastery, and bearing the distinctive title of Coarb, resided for three centuries more. Yet even in the thirteenth century the monastery of Iona existed as a house of the Columbian Order. Colgan relates that in 1208 Kellach who seems to have been the Abbot, erected a monastery in Iona in opposition to the monks or seniors, A Council was held in Ireland attended by the Bishops of Tirone (Derry), Tirconnell (Raphoe) the Abbots of Deny and Armagh, O'Cobhtoich, a Columbian monk, afterwards Abbot of Derry. They decided against Kellach, whose monastery at Iona was destroyed, and Amalgod O'Ferral, Abbot of Derry, was elected Abbot of Iona.

There can, we presume, be no doubt that the religious of all these Columbian communities in Scotia and Albyn, observed the same monastic rule. But was there a written rule drawn up by Columba, different from the rule of other Irish monasteries founded by St. Patrick? St. Wilfrid in his answer to St Colman, at the Conference of Whitby, speaks of the "regulam ac praecepta" of Columba and his followers. Colgan reckons the Columbian rule as one of the eight principal rules formerly observed in Ireland. Usher and Ware speak of Columba's rule as still extant. The former observes that it is written in very old and difficult Irish.

Still we believe that at the present day the opinion of the most competent authorities is, that no rule of the Columbian Order distinct from that of other Celtic monasteries is at present known to exist. It is true that a very ancient Irish monastic rule, of which a summary is given by O'Curry, is called the rule of St, Columcille. But from its contents it is clear that this rule applied not to the Columbian communities, but only to hermits or anchorites, always numerous in Ireland, and who lived in solitary cells, in islands, in caves, on mountains, and in deserts, perhaps under the direction of St. Columcille. O'Curry gives a brief account of the eight Celtic monastic rules referred to by Colgan, of whose authenticity, he says, there can be no reasonable doubt. The fourth is the rule of St, Columcille, and is a "precept for the regulation of the life of a religious brother who preferred solitude to living in community." This evidently is the rule spoken of by Usher and Ware. Colgan speaks of two rules written by St. Columcille; one for his monasteries, of which, if such were ever written by him, no trace can now be discovered, the other for brethren living in a desert. On the whole, it seems that we may safely conclude with Cressy, who tells us that Columba's rule was a rivulet from that of St. Patrick, that is to Bay, founded on the monastic system first brought into Ireland by her great Apostle. That was the system followed in the monastic establishment of St. Martin of Tours, where St. Patrick spent four years, and received his training for the ecclesiastical state, and at Lerins, the constitution of whose monastery was the same as that of St. Martin. Baronius tells us, that the system of life brought into Gaul by St. Martin, was the same as that established by St. Augustine, in Africa. That most noble kind of life led by the solitaries of the Thebaid was first introduced into Gaul by the great St. Athanasius, the friend, the disciple, and the biographer of St. Anthony," father and head of all the anchorites of the Thebaid, and first founder of the monastic life. Athanasius lived in the desert as one of Anthony's monks, for six years. Exiled to Treves by Constantine, in 336, he instructed the clergy by word and example in the religious life which he had learned from St. Anthony. From Treves it quickly spread through Gaul, and was first regularly established by St, Martin, who, when Bishop of Tours, founded the famous monastery of Marmoutier, on the Loire. Having served twenty campaigns with the cavalry, he then devoted himself to a more arduous warfare, and like St Augustine, at Hippo, lived with his priests and religious, from whose number were drawn so many saintly bishops. The monastery of Lerins, whose constitution was the same as that of St. Martin, and where St. Patrick also studied the religious life, was founded by St. Honoratus, on a rocky and desert island, off the coast of Provence, changed by the labours of the monks into a paradise of verdure and bloom, and it became a famous school of theology and philosophy, and a nursery also of saints and bishops. The great and modest St. Vincent, the first controversialist of his age, was the contemporary there of St. Patrick; so also was Salvian, the most eloquent man of his time after St. Augustine, surnamed the Master of Bishops, though himself only a priest In such sanctuaries of religion and learning, and under such masters, did St. Patrick study that religions life, first practised by St. Anthony, carried into Gaul by St. Athanasius, and regularly established there by St. Martin, Such was the system of religious life taught and established here by our great Apostle, and practised in the Celtic monasteries. It was the same system, as we have seen, which St. Augustine established in Africa, inasmuch as it was derived from the same source.

After his conversion Augustine returned to his native place, Thagaste, where he formed a religions community; and after his ordination," he established a house at Hippo, in a garden given to him by Valerius, the Bishop. This, also, like th establishments of St. Martin of Tours, and St Honoratus, became a school of the Church, a seminary of bishops. Posidius, the pupil and friend of Augustine, mentions ten bishops of his own acquaintance who had studied in his school When raised to the episoopacy he left his monastery, but still continued to lead the same kind of life with the clergy of his see, who gave up all personal property, and were supported by a common fund. We have seen, that after this example, most of the early Irish bishops were monks or the disciples of monks, and continued to live in conventual life after their elevation to the episcopacy, and their houses were also the colleges in which students were trained for the sacred ministry.

The rule therefore [scanned text unclear] by St Augustine [scanned text unclear] founded at Hippo, and over which he had placed his sister, together with his great work " De Opere Monachorum," drawn from the same source as the system of St Martin, cannot fail to give us a true idea of the manner of life and religious rule of these ancient Irish monks; and an examination of the observances and peculiarities spoken of in Adamnan, O'Donnell, and the other biographies of St. Columba, will show us that the mode of life followed by the Columbian communities, was founded on the monastic system brought into Ireland by St. Patrick, and was substantially the same as that followed by the monks of St. Martin, St. Honoratus, and St Augustine, differing, no doubt, in some details in the case of Columba. The word regula, therefore, need by St Wilfrid and others, with regard to St. Columba, is fairly taken to mean the observance or discipline of the Celtic monasteries, not a written rule peculiar to St. Columba's monks. We have also in the rule of St. Columbanus, drawn up by him for the monasteries which he founded in Gaul, the religious practices and life of the Irish monks reduced to writing; for the rule of St. Columbanus embodies the religious spirit of his country, and is in this respect precisely, distinguished from the rule of St. Benedict. Columbanus formed his rule from the system followed in the monasteries of Ireland, of one of which, viz., Bangor, he had been himself a monk. Born some four years before the departure of Columba for Iona, and dying eighteen years alter him, his rule must be, in substance identical with that followed in the Irish monasteries of Columba; for down to the Danish invasions, the Irish monasteries, particularly in the North, were guided and controlled by the spirit of his successors and disciples.

In his celebrated treatise De Opere Monachorum, the greatest of the Fathers of the Church inculcates the strict duty of manual labour on all monks. He refers to the example of patricians who watered with their sweat the monastic gardens, and senators who toiled at hard labour. He refers to St, Paul making tents to supply his bodily needs. He met the reasoning of some who wished to give up manual labour, in order to sing more continuously the praises of God, by replying that they could both sing and work as the boatmen and labourers often did. The days of monks, he said, were to be divided between manual labour, study, and prayer. St. Columba established his monastery at Iona on thee same foundation of mental and manual toil. A prince himself of the royal race of Niall, and possible heir to the monarchy, he had learned under St Finnian in the monastery of Clonard, to practise that manual labour, which in Ireland, as in Africa and Gaul and the East, formed a chief part of the life of the monk. There he had ground over night the corn for the next day's food, with Kieran the carpenter's son from Fuerty, near Roscommon, destined to found at Clonmacnoise a centre of religion, learning, and civilization, scarcely less renowned than that of his young companion at Iona.

That postulants became members of the Columbian order by taking the monastic vows, we learn from various passages in Adamnan. Thus in the history of Libranus we are told that after he had confessed all his sins to St. Columba, after he had done penance for his sins for seven years, after he had discharged all obligations to his parents and others who had claims upon him, he was at length admitted into the brotherhood of Iona. "Libranus took at the same time the monastic vows with much fervour." And the Saint then foretold to him, " you shall die after a good old age in one of my monasteries in Scotia." He died accordingly in Columba's monastery of Durrow. He tells us also of two strangers who came to Iona from a distant land. The Saint having embraced them asked them the objects of their journey. They said: " We are come to reside with you for this year." The Saint replied: " With me you cannot reside for a year unless you take the monastic vow." " They entered the chapel with the Saint, and on bended knees took the monastic vow." Usually he did not admit postulants to the vows, till after a long probation. He made an exception in the case of these brothers, because his prophetic knowledge showed him that they should soon pass to their eternal rest. The Saint then said to his monks; " These two strangers, who have presented themselves a living sacrifice to God, who of Christian warfare have fulfilled a long time within a short space, will pass away from earth to Christ our Lord this very month.'" And so it was. A monk could not make these solemn vows, binding him to the religious state, till he was at least twenty years of age.

The same unquestionable authority shows us that in the communities of Columcille were practised fasting of a very severe kind, prayers to the saints, observance of festivals, on which they had solemn Mass as on Sundays, Masses for the dead; in fact, that in their houses all the rites and ceremonies of the Catholic Church were observed thirteen hundred years ago, just as they are observed in religious communities to-day. The simplicity of the fare of the monks is shown by what we read of a wicked man named Benan, who once sent to ask the remains of the meal which the monks of Iona had just eaten, in order to turn them into derision. Baithen, who succeeded Columba, sent him what remained of the milk which had made the meal of the brethren. After he had drunk it the scoffer was seized with such suffering that he was converted, and died confessing his sins. Besides milk, they used herbs, pulse, meal moistened with water, and a little bread or biscuit. They eat only in the evening, so as to render fasting a daily practice. They abstained from flesh meat, but were allowed fish. We have seen in a former number Columba directing his monks in fishing in the river Boyle, when following his advice they hauled in two salmon of enormous size, and St. Gall and his master were often occupied in fishing. They, however, supplied their visitors and guests with meat. They learned also that fasting and corporal austerities did not of themselves make saints, and obedience, humility, chastity, discretion were inculcated as even more necessary than bodily mortifications. In the intervals of labour, and through the watches of the night, they recited the canonical hours of the divine office, and prayed in their own cells. They had time, too, allowed to devote to study, and to attend the lectures of their professors. The Columbian monks wore mantles of white wool, over which was the monastic cowl, and all bore the Irish tonsure.

The illustrious prince and sainted Abbot Columba, set himself the example of labour and humility to the humblest of his monks, each of whom he loved as a dear child. We find him ever despising rest, untiring in labour. From various parts of the same authentic and edifying history we learn how faithfully St Augustine's precepts with regard to monastic labour were practised in the Columbian monasteries. The chronicles of these ruined abbeys and vanished monks indisputably prove that those on whom an ungrateful posterity have possessed themselves of the fruits of the labour of twenty generations of religious, have slandered as "lazy," were the most indomitable toilers, mentally and corporally, whom the world has ever known. They show us that the men "who cleared the thorns from the souls of our fathers were the same men who had cleared the soil" from forests, and left by their labour the fens and untilled moors, now rich and green pasturage around their plundered and desecrated sanctuaries. We read of Columba himself kneeling before pilgrims, and before his monks just come from the labours of the field, taking off their shoes, washing and respectfully kissing their feet. He dwelt in a hut built of planks, within the monastic enclosure. Up to the age of seventy-six he slept there upon the hard floor, with no pillow but a stone. His stone bed at Kells still remains there. He laboured at outdoor work, toiling like the least of his monks. His entire life bears the mark of his ardent sympathy with the labourers in the field, from the times of his early travels as a young man in Ireland, when he furnished the ploughman with plough-shares, and had the young men trained to the trade of blacksmith, up to the days of his old age, when he could only follow afar off the labour of his monks. The monks of Iona were also sailors, and besides cultivating the ungrateful soil of their desolate island, had also to "row, and cross the sea in their leathern barks," and accompany their abbot in his voyages through the islands. It becomes comparatively easy to represent to ourselves with Montalembert " the tall, old man, with his fine and regular features, his sweet, powerful, and penetrating voice, looked upon as one of his most miraculous gifts, the Irish tonsure high on his shaven head, and his long locks falling behind, clothed with his monastic cowl, and seated at the prow of his coracle, steering through the misty archipelago and narrow lakes of the north of Scotland, and bearing from isle to isle and from shore to shore, light, justice, and truth, the life of conscience and of the soul" .

Such was his love of the Sacred Scriptures that he in said to have made with his own hand, three hundred copies of the holy Gospels, a labour of love at which he toiled from youth to age. The last day of his life found him copying part of the Psalter, and leaving finished a page with a verse of the thirty-third psalm, he stopped and said: "Let Baithen (his successor) write the remainder." Of his immense labours in preaching the Gospel, we do not here intend to speak. His sainted biographer, kinsman, and successor relates, how when he could no longer go out to work with his brothers, he put down his pen to bless them as they came home from the fields.

Besides their manual labour, the monks of the Columbian Order, after the example of their great Father and founder, devoted themselves to literary work. Montalembert says that the Irish Church was entirely swayed by the spirit of Columba and his successors and disciples, during the time which is looked upon as the Golden Age of its history, down to the Danish invasions in the eighth century. Speaking with special reference to the Columbian monasteries, this celebrated writer, who spent many years of unremitting toil in drawing every fact and statement from original and contemporary sources, subjected to the moat rigorous investigation,' says : —

" It has been said, and cannot be sufficiently repeated, that Ireland was then regarded by all Christian Europe as the principal centre of knowledge and piety. In the shelter of its numberless monasteries, a crowd of missionaries, doctors, and preachers were educated for the service of the Church and the propagation of the faith in all Christian countries. A vast and continued development of literary and religious efforts is there apparent, superior to anything that could be seen in any other country in Europe. Certain arts— those of architecture, carving, metallurgy, as applied to the decoration of churches — were successfully cultivated, without speaking of music, which continued to flourish both among the learned and the people. The classic languages, not only Latin, but Greek, were cultivated, spoken, and written. And in Ireland, more than anywhere else, each monastery was a school, and each school a workshop of transcription, from which, day by day issued new copies of the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers of the primitive Church — copies which were dispersed through all Europe, and which are still to be found in continental libraries. Columba, as has been seen, had given an example of this unwearied labour to the monastic scribe; his example was continually followed in the Irish Cloisters, where the monks did not entirely limit themselves to the transcription of Holy Scripture, but reproduced also Greek and Latin authors, sometimes in Celtic character, with gloss and commentary in Irish, like that Horace which modern learning has discovered in the library of Berne. These marvellous manuscripts, illuminated with incomparable ability and patience, by the monastic family of Columba, excited four hundred years later the declamatory enthusiasm of a great enemy of Ireland, the Anglo-Norman historian, Gerald de Barry. Exact annals of the events of the time were also made out in all the monasteries. These annals replaced the chronicles of the bards; and so far as they have been preserved, and already published or about to be published, now form the principal source of Irish History."

We remark that according to O'Curry, the Annals erroneously called the Annals of Kilrouan, ought to be called the Annals of Inch-Mac-Nerin, in Loch Cé. This is the island, on which, as we have seen, St. Columba founded his monastery. Dr. Nicholson describes these annals in his Irish Historical Library thus: " Annals of the old Abbey of Inch-Mac-Creen, an island in the Lake of Loch Kea, very different from those of the Holy Trinity, an Abbey in the same Loch, of a much later foundation." The Columbian monastery of Inch-Mac-Nerin, now called Church Island, flourished down to the thirteenth century, if not later.

Let us add the testimony which the learned Usher has borne to the strict discipline of the ancient Irish monasteries, to the piety, purity, learning, and zeal of the Irish monks: —

" Our monasteries in ancient times were seminaries of the ministry; being as it were so many colleges of learned divines, whereunto the people usually resorted for instruction, and from whence the Church was wont to be supplied with able ministers, the benefit whereof was not contained only within the limit of this island, but extended itself to foreign countries likewise. For this it was that drew Egbert and Ceadda, for example, into Ireland, that they might there ' lead a monastic life in prayer and continency, and meditation of the Holy Scriptures.' This was the principal means whereby the knowledge both of Scriptures and of all good learning was preserved in that inundation of barbarism, wherewith the whole West was, in a manner, overwhelmed. They (the monks) did observe perpetual virginity, which is not commanded, whereas for not sinning it is sufficient to observe the precepts. Our monks were religious indeed. How then did these men live? Walafridius Strabo tells us that, ' some wrought in the garden, others dressed the orchard; Gallus made nets and took fish wherewith he not only relieved his own company, but also assisted strangers.' And the Apostle's rule is generally laid down for all monks in the Life of Fursaeus : ' 'I'hey who live in monasteries should work with silence, and eat their own bread." Such monks, as Bede affirms, loved to regulate their watches, fastings, and prayers, and manual labour according to the will of their governor."

Altogether, looking at the manner of life, religious rule, and observances of the Columbian monks, one is struck with the thought, that the " primitive Protestantism of the Celtic Church " was something very different from latter-day Protestantism; and when we are told that these ancient Irish Columbian monks were " good Presbyterians, and preserved for centuries the pure doctrine, church government, and discipline of Presbyterianism,'' we can only marvel that the present doctrine, church government, and discipline of Presbyterians, are so different from their primitive forms.

Such were the saintly monks who dwelt of old in St Columcille's monastery, at Aseylyn, by the swift flowing Boyle, and Inch-mac-Nerin, on the fair Loch Cé. Those who have possessed themselves of the lands watered by their sweat, and fertilized by their ceaseless labour, whose own lives are so filled with work, well may talk of their laziness. Those who owe their knowledge and civilization to their unwearied literary industry, well may talk of their ignorance.

J. J. K.

Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume 3 (1882 ), 23-35

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