7. The Monastic Vision


Reading the Monastic Vision into Scripture

The Desert, vows of poverty, separation from the world, asceticism, celibacy, and the communal life are all themes and topics touched on by the New Testament (Luke 5:16, Matthew 19:21, 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1, 1 Corinthians 9:27, Mark 2:20, Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:7-8). Whereas the modern Evangelical reader of Scripture may see these as merely tangential themes to the theology of the New Testament, to the medieval mind these themes were central to the monastic vision of the Christian life.

Monks in the Desert

Christian monasticism was motivated by a desire to seek God through a life of asceticism and prayer. The term asceticism is derived from the Greek word for ‘exercise’, ‘training’. It occurs in the New Testament only once in the verbal form ‘to strive/take pains’ in Acts 24:16. However, self-denial was a core teaching of Christ (Mk. 8:34) and to many early and medieval Christians to deny self was a fundamental aspect of life in the imitation of Christ.

Some pre-Christian Jewish communities in the Holy Land (like the Essenes at Qumran) lived strict communal lives of celibacy in the desert. The roots of Christian monasticism can be seen in the ascetical movements of the early Church. To Egyptians, Antony and Pachomius, are generally seen as the forerunners of the eremitical (hermit) and cenobitical (communal) life.

In the year 272 Anthony of Egypt left all he had to go to the desert to seek God after hearing the words of Christ read at church: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” …And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:21, 29). The Egyptian Christian Pachomius founded a monastery in 320 in Egypt and attracted large numbers of monks. The teaching and wisdom of the Egyptian monastics was recorded in sayings of The Desert Fathers

In Syria Simeon Stylites (d. 459) spent 47 years on top a pillar in a life of prayer and contemplation. His asceticism drew large crowds of supporters. The monk was increasingly viewed in late antiquity as the successor of the martyr, a model to be emulated through their dying to self.

The monastery was an attempt to realize the ideal of the primitive Christian community in Acts 4:32–35, and the higher calling of the Apostles, “we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

Monasticism as Reform or Protest Movement?

The unity of state and church in the fourth century along with the rise of infant baptism led to growing numbers of nominal Christians. On this point Harnack’s summary is apt, “There were many who did not become Christians but finding themselves Christians remained so. They were too strongly stamped by Christianity to leave it, and too little stamped to be Christian indeed.” (Das Mönchtum, 14). In the face of a growing laxity among Christians, leading theologians in both the West and East encouraged the monastic life as the authentic Christian life in imitation of Christ.

Continental influences on Monasticism in Ireland

Ireland did not receive her Christianity from the Bible alone. She was widely influenced by the church culture and theology around her in Britain and Gaul and by the writings of the church fathers. Missionary bishops like Palladius came to Ireland from Gaul in 431 and bishop Patrick came from Britain probably in the latter part of the fifth century. Both Gaul and Britain had strong monastic communities.

British Missionary Influence in Ireland

Saint Patrick encouraged celibacy for young Christian converts in Ireland (Conf. 42). This should be understood as a call to the monastic life. As Patrick himself wrote, “Never before did [the Irish] know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!” (Conf. 41)

Monasteries in Ireland

Monasteries in Ireland quickly became powerful centres of religious training and order. By the 630s there is clear evidence that certain monastic churches were gaining a predominant position in the Irish Church. The medieval English historian Bede noted that the abbots of Iona exercised unusual power, even over the bishops in their territory. “This island [i.e. Iona], however, is accustomed to have an abbot in priest’s orders as its head, so that both the entire province and also the bishops themselves are required, by an unusual ordering of affairs, to be subject to his authority. This is in accordance with the example of Iona’s first teacher, who was not a bishop but a priest and a monk” (Bede, HE iii.4). Charles-Edwards has noted that good evidence exists for two claims, apparently opposed to each other: both that the Irish Church was episcopal and that it was peculiarly monastic in that the authority of abbots might override that of bishops.

Some Rules in the Irish Church c. 550

A century after Ireland’s first bishop (Palladius) Ireland was still predominately pagan. The earliest surviving rules (canons) of the early Irish church date from c.550. The rules laid down by the Irish church for its members include the following canons:

  • Irish Christians must not act like pagans.

  • Irish Priests are forbidden from wearing kilts and their wives (!) must wear head coverings

  • Irish Christians who consult druids or believe in Vampires will be excommunicated

  • Candidates for baptism must undergo 40 days of fasting and preparation (this is clearly not infant baptism)

  • A church worship leader (literally “a psalmist”) who quits and lets his hair grow long is to be excluded from church “until he returns to his former status.”

Life in Irish Monasteries

The Irish word for a monastic hermitage is Dísert, which is borrowed from the Latin word for a desert (desertum). This shows us how the tradition of the Egyptian desert fathers was very influential in the imagination of the Irish church. Pagan Ireland had a strong tradition of fostering children between powerful families as a means of building loyalty and unity between clans. The Irish phrase in-aice-le literally means ‘in fosterage with’ and later came to mean simply ‘near’ or ‘next to.’ Young children could be brought to monasteries to be fostered by the monks, with some, though not all, later becoming monks themselves. "Have many fostered Christ?" The early Irish medieval writer Tírechán puts the question in the mouth of the daughter of king Loíguire in his mid-seventh century memoir. Evidentially an Irish pagan would naturally expect that the son of God would have the honour of many foster parents. An Irish monk’s hair was marked by his tonsure (shaving the top of one’s head), which in the early Irish church was probably in a Δ shape.

Prayer and Study

Irish Children and novices would be taught to read and write the Psalter in Latin. Young monks were expected to memorize the Psalter and produce their own written copy. Singing the Psalms every day was a central part of monastic life. Religious poems in Irish abound from this period and some are very beautiful (e.g. Be Thou My Vision, probably written around 950). The Scriptures were read, memorized, copied, and illuminated. The writings of the church fathers were widely read and respected. Irish Biblical commentaries were produced (even study Bibles!)

The Monastic Vision

The monastic life was widely seen in medieval Ireland as the best way of following after the life of Christ and the Apostles. Monasteries benefited Irish culture, education, and society in numerous ways, but one must ask does the monastic life adhere to Scripture and to the life of Christ? One can rightly questions as to whether monasticism contributed to the growing secular-sacred divide in medieval Christianity. Whatever the answer to these questions, it cannot be denied that the monastic vision dominated early Irish Christianity.

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