Introducing the Rule of St Benedict: Contexts

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The rabbit hole that led from Atheist Delusions to The Benedict Option has now, unsurprisingly, led me to the Rule of St Benedict itself. I’ve decided to write a series of posts looking at the Rule, its meaning, and perhaps what it means today. Mostly it will be my own musings, and not scholarly work on sixth-century Latin monasticism. Out of laziness, I shall sometimes use the abbreviation RB to refer to it.

RB was written around the year 540 in south-central Italy by Benedict of Nursia, abbot of the monastery of Montecassino. All that we know about St Benedict’s life we get from St Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) several decades later in Dialogues, Book 2. This is not to say that Gregory is not accurate. It is just a fact worth establishing.

As I’ve said on this blog ad nauseam, Benedict’s Rule was not an immediate best-seller or ‘success’. A good example of that is the fact that, as R. A. Markus argues in Gregory the Great and His World, St Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow monk-missionaries of the 590s were not Benedictine, even though Gregory was a big fan of St Benedict. So let’s start with some foundations in ecclesiastical history, ca. 500-604.

Ecclesiastical and Monastic History in the Sixth Century

The monastic and ecclesiastical world into which the Rule was born was not centralised. There were no monastic orders to organise the various monasteries. You did not need authorisation from the local bishop to become a monk or a hermit. There was certainly a monastic and ascetic tradition in Latin Christianity, of course. Benedict draws on that, especially The Rule of the Master and (St) John Cassian (variously on this blog; start here). But monasticism was looser, simply a group of likeminded persons and institutions with no formal relationship, whether following the Rule of St Caesarius of Arles (who died in 542, around the time Benedict wrote the Rule) or, later on at Luxeuil and Bobbio, St Columbanus (who died in 614).

Although most people did see the Bishop of Rome as head honcho number one, this did not mean he actually had any active jurisdictional powers outside of his own Metropolitan area of Suburbicarian Italy. Thus Kathleen G. Cushing, Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century sums up what I have also observed about Gregory:

Gregory clearly was convinced that the pope was the jurisdictional as well as the spiritual head of the Church; yet it is evident from the letters in his Register that he understood this chiefly in terms of the Roman Church being the final court of appeal rather than as an executive authority. More important for Gregory was the pontiff’s pastoral role, which obliged him to have cura animarum (care of souls) for all the churches under his headship. This was not, as has often been argued, a claim for ‘absolute’ authority. Rather, Gregory understood papal primacy in terms of defending and extending the faith, along with securing ultimate appellate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. (58)

This is important to establish. Simply because the bishop of Rome was not yet the high medieval papacy that developed in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries does not mean that the Late Antique and Early Medieval Christian West was disunited. Monks, priests, bishops, kings, saw themselves as part of one big, happy Christian Church, united with Rome and with each other, even if they disagreed about things like the date of Easter or the role of the Bishop of Rome, or if they differed from place to place in matters of liturgical or monastic observance.

That is, I reject the retrojection of 16th-century Gallicanism into 6th-century Gaul.  I also reject the idea that Insular (aka ‘Celtic’) Christianity was in opposition to its continental brethren. Things were looser back then, and even the pope knew it. Gregory was willing for his missionary-monks to keep local Christian observances where they found any and not seek to completely Romanise all the customs. Some centralising tendencies did exist amongst the Roman missionaries, it is true. Ecclesiastical history is rarely black and white.

Other tendencies in the sixth century include some of the first large canon law collections that survive for us. This is part of a wider cultural phenomenon of synthesis, encyclopedism, codification, and establishing a tradition to pass along, and we see it in Boethius as translator and commentator on Aristotle as well as philosopher in his own right, Cassiodorus’ Institutions, the Justinianic  legal corpus, and, in a century, the works of St Isidore of Seville.

Anyway, Benedict wrote his Rule for his own monastery at Montecassino, and he did so as part of a wider cultural world of Latin monasticism, whether in Ireland, Gaul, Spain, or Italy. He sought to make something that would be easily followed and not especially burdensome compared to some other rules. He drew on the wider ascetic tradition, as already noted above. And, like most early Christian monastics, he established a rule of prayer for his monks centred on the Psalter, something in common with the fourth-century Egyptians and contemporary Irish.

Sixth-Century Italy

540, the approximate date of RB, was five years after Belisarius invaded Italy to ‘reconquer’ it from the Goths on behalf of Justinian. There is so much that could be said about Italy in this century, as well as about Justinian, as well as about the papacy and the Goths, the papacy and Gaul, Gaul and Constantinople, etc, etc. If such things float your boat, I’ve written on sixth-century history on my other blog. Start with The Sixth-Century West, which links to the others.

What I think we should note is that the Byzantine-Gothic war lasted for decades and ruptured the cultural and economic fabric of Italy. It is thus important for Italy’s transition from ‘late Roman’ to ‘medieval’. Campania, where Benedict lived, was one of the areas of campaign. Perhaps, in a small way, he was trying to do what Rod Dreher and others say, and provide an anchor in a stormy sea. He never notes it explicitly, though; his Rule could just as easily have been written a century before or a century after (NB: some say it’s actually seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, but we’ll avoid that discussion here — see the relevant portions of Gert Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism for a refutation).

Before the coming of Belisarius, Italy had been stable. The Goths ruled pretty much as the late Romans had. Maybe better? Hard to judge. After Justinian’s victory and the Pragmatic Sanction of 554, there was only a brief interval before the coming of the Lombards who started taking over so much that Justinian had gained. The sixth century was not Italy’s best.

But it gave us Benedict, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Arator of Liguria, Ennodius, Venantius Fortunatus, Columbanus, and Gregory the Great. It also gave us some spectacular mosaics in Rome, Ravenna, and elsewhere. Political instability and economic decline do not always equal cultural stagnation.

In a very short space, this is the world of Benedict. A united but diverse world, where things have been going well but are starting to go poorly.

In the series that follows, my thoughts on RB will start with the Prologue and draw in various strands of thought. There are no guarantees where I’ll draw from, but it seems that it may be best to ponder how the Rule might be adapted for us today, and then reflecting with my own thoughts and connections to Late Antique/Early Medieval monkery and to later forms of Benedictine monachism (which will include not just the Order of St Benedict but Cluny and the Cistercians as well; other orders that use RB are the Tironensians and Camaldolese, while Trappists are technically the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, so also use RB).

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Early Monastic Rules

In my discussions of The Benedict Option, the question of possible contenders with Benedict for adaptation today has come up, and rightly so. My argument is that, if we survey them all, we may very well find something more well-suited to our situation(s) than the Rule of Benedict — well and good for us as individuals. But more widely, Benedict’s will win for a few reasons, and I think that’s okay.

But if you were interested in other ascetic rules for living, where can they be found? Here are some English translations of some of them (I’ve not read all of these; I stumbled upon some in the library at work) that you might consider. Many are from Cistercian, whose monastic ressourcement I approve. I note alongside whether these were considered by St Benedict of Aniane in his Codex Regularum of the 800s. He was a fan of rigorist rules, but opted for Benedict on the grounds that its moderation would be more achievable.

Early Monastic Rules: The Rules of the Fathers and the Regula Orientalis, trans. C.V. Franklin, I. Havener, J. A. Francis.

This includes five monastic rules associated with the fourth- and fifth-century Desert Fathers of Egypt. They are all quite short, so may be flexible according to today’s needs. They are in Benedict of Aniane.

The Rule of St Basil in Latin and English by Anna M. Silvas

This is the fourth-century Rule of St Basil of Caesarea. In Benedict of Aniane.

Pachomian Koinonia, Volume 2, by Adalbert de Voguë

This includes the earliest rule for monks living in community, from fourth-century Egypt.

The Rule of the Master, trans. Luke Eberle.

This is a longer, more rigorous rule than Benedict’s, generally believed to have been used by Benedict as a source. It is probably from early sixth-century Italy. In Benedict of Aniane.

The Celtic Monk: Rules and Writings of Early Irish Monks, trans. Uinseann Ó Maidín

The rules of Ailbe, Comghall, Colmcille, Ciarán, the Grey Monks, Cormac Mac Ciolionáin, Carthage, Céli Dé, and Tallaght as well as an incomplete fragment and a selection of other short texts. The translator tells us the security of these attributions as well as probable dates of composition.

Columbanus, The Monks’ Rules, trans. G. S. M. Walker

The above links to an online version of Walker’s translation that was also published as a parallel translation with the Latin text of all of Columbanus’works. A new translation is forthcoming from Cistercian in a couple of weeks. Written by an Irishman living on the Continent around the year 600. In Benedict of Aniane.

Leander of Seville, A Book on the Teaching of Nuns and a Homily in Praise of the Church, trans. John R. C. Martyn

This is everything Leander (d. 601) wrote that survives. The former is his rule. In Benedict of Aniane.

The Canons of Our Fathers: Monastic Rules of Shenoute trans. Bentley Layton

This is the first attempt to gather Shenoute’s rules in one place. Coptic with English translation. Shenoute is possibly the greatest Coptic writer; he lived in the 400s.

There are others that have been translated into English, I have no doubt. But these would certainly make more than a good start for the curious.

The Benedict Option: Why history matters and 6th-century monasticism

I’m blogging through The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. In my first post, I set out my reasons and credentials and then considered some of my problems with Dreher’s broad-stroke history of fifth-century Rome. Today, allow me first briefly to explain why the history matters in a book like this, and then to start to look at three more historical issues raised for me in Chapter 1: monasticism, post-Roman powers, and ‘barbarism’. Note also that I’m shamelessly self-linking to old ‘saint of the week‘ posts today.

Why history matters here

There is a sense in which books that seek to apply the spiritual lessons of the Rule of St Benedict today need not worry about the fifth- and sixth-century Italian context of the Rule. What matter are the timeless lessons of Benedict and Benedictine spirituality, as applicable today as they were at Montecassino in 540, at Wearmouth and Jarrow in 731, at Cluny in 900, at Citeaux in 1140, etc. I don’t recall if Esther de Waal’s book Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict gives a historical introduction or not; but that fine book doesn’t need one for the lessons of the Rule to affect your life.

For The Benedict Option to have full force, however, there needs to be some understanding of how today’s society, culture, politics, look like that of the 500s. The point of this book is that we are in a similar crisis of civilisation, and so we can apply the lessons of St Benedict to our current situation to help our religious and cultural institutions survive and maybe even thrive in a new, post-Christian world.

If the parallel fails, the book doesn’t necessarily fail. But its import and power weaken.

So I’m not just nitpicky because I am a pendantic academic (mind you, I am a pedantic academic) but because history is crucial to the matter of this book.

Monasticism

The early Middle Ages (once upon a time, ‘Dark’) owe a lot to the monasteries. This is true. Dreher states it thus:

In these miserable conditions, the church was often the strongest — and perhaps the only — government people had. Within the broad embrace of the church, monasticism provided much-needed help and hope to the peasantry, and thanks to Benedict, a renewed focus on spiritual life led many men and women to leave the world and devote themselves wholly to God within the walls of monasteries under the Rule. These monasteries kept faith and learning alive within their walls, evangelized barbarian peoples, and taught them how to pray, to read, to plant crops, and to build things. Over the next few centuries, they prepared the devastated societies of post-Roman Europe for the rebirth of civilization. (15)

This is not strictly true.

Yes, as the paragraph before this states, western Europe became much more greatly impoverished at this time, in terms of cultural production and long-distance trade. Bryan Ward-Perkins, in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, has some famous images of early Anglo-Saxon pottery and late Roman pottery from Britain, as well as size comparisons of cattle. Mediterranean pottery disappears from the British archaeological record. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that they sometimes have trouble telling whether settlements in Wales are Stone Age or Post-Roman. So, yes, the economic decline led to cultural decline in many parts of western Europe after the loss of Roman imperium.

We must, however, see Benedict in the world of Italy in 540 first, before sending him out to Gaul, Spain, Britain, Germania. Italy in 540 was five years into the decades-long war between Justinian’s eastern Romans and the local Gothic regime. Campania, where Benedict lived, had probably suffered a great deal as a result of war strategies of both Goths and east Romans. Perhaps people were drawn to Benedict’s monastery on Montecassino as a refuge from war and poverty. Likely enough.

But in Italy beyond Rome, the political problem was not that the church was the strongest or only government, but that there were two governments who were very strong, but neither quite strong enough, both vying for control.

Anyway, the biggest problem I have with paragraphs like this is that they conflate a few centuries of monastic history into a single, Benedictine moment. Frankly, Benedict was not a big deal during the Byzantine-Gothic war, and in the places that best fit the ‘fall of civilisation’ model of post-Roman history, even if monks are highly significant for the survival and endurance and spread of Christianity and culture, they are not Benedictines yet, not at this crucial cultural moment that is imagined to parallel ours.

That is to say, if we are concerned about how monasticism helped preserve western civilisation, it is not immediately to Benedict that we should look. Dreher knows that Benedict’s Rule was one of many (I think), noting that it ‘is a more relaxed form of a very strict earlier one from the Christian East.’ (15) I don’t know which Rule Dreher has in mind; Benedict is, more properly, a shortening and remix of the Latin Rule of the Master, itself from Italy a bit before Benedict, with some wisdom taken from John Cassian. Perhaps he has Cassian in mind, but I don’t know.

In the 500s and 600s, then, if we are concerned with the preservation of Christian spirituality and the transmission of western culture, Montecassino is still only a small part of the story. We need to note the many independent/inter-related movements within the history of monasticism, sprouting such texts as the Rule of the Master, the rules of St Caesarius of Arles (470-542), the Rule of St Columbanus (543-615) in northern Italy, and others.

We need also to look at the movement of monastic mission in Ireland and Britain, classically epitomised by St Columba (521-597; saint of the week here), Apostle to Scotland and founder of the monastery on Iona, as well as St Aidan (d. 651; saint of the week here) a monastic evangelist who founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. Alongside (and at times in competition with) them is St Augustine of Canterbury (mission, 597-604; saint of the week here) who probably did not use the Rule of St Benedict, despite having been sent by St Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604; saint of the week here), one of St Benedict’s biggest fans.

In fact, the preservation of texts and culture, while Montecassino plays a role, is, off the top of my head, more in evidence in the Irish monasteries, in Columbanus’ monasteries such as Luxueil and Bobbio, and in Cassiodorus’ villa-turned-monastery at Vivarium than in the original Benedictine moment. Benedictine monachism is only concerned with the preservation of texts inasmuch as they are related to the interpretation of Scripture and the spiritual life. Cassiodorus (485-585), on the other hand, wrote his Institutions of Secular and Divine Learning as a full educational programme for his monks.

That is to say, that if monasteries are broadly what Dreher describes them as being, the phrase ‘thanks to Benedict’ is false. The monastic movement of the sixth and seventh centuries is not yet Benedictine. Benedict does not found an order. The ascendancy of Benedict’s Rule will come much later as a result of its ascendancy in Britain, and then the missional efforts of British mission-monks like Sts Boniface (saint of the week here) and Willibrord (saint of the week here) in Germanic lands in the eighth century. Thus, Charlemagne (d. 814) will favour it over all other monastic rules and solidify its place in Christian spiritual life.

But in 540, or even in 600, this is not what Benedict’s Rule is doing or even trying to do.

The poetic mode of St Columba

St ColumbaA few weeks ago I posted to commemorate the poet-theologian St Ephraim the Syrian; St Ephraim shares his feast, 9 June (as celebrated in the West), with St Columba, as it turns out. St Columba was my first Saint of the Week when I was still on top of that — I even revisited him. In that first post, I discussed St Columba the missionary; in the second, St Columba the wonderworker (Columba Thaumaturgus?).

We must not forget St Columba the poet, a mode I highlighted in the first of those posts when I quoted from his hymn, ‘Adiutor Laborantium’. That poem is a plea from ‘a little man / trembling and most wretched, / rowing through the infinite storm / of this age’, that Christ might save him and bring to paradise, to the unending hymn (trans. Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Markus, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery).

Another poem attributed to St Columba (‘persuasively if not certainly ascribed’ p. xiii) is included in P. G. Walsh and Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18), ‘Altus Prosator’. ‘Altus Prosator’ is a hymn in honour of the Most Holy Trinity:

It is not three gods we proclaim,
but one God only we affirm,
by faith’s integrity, in three
person’s exceeding glorious. (1.9-12)

Columba goes on to extol the glorious works of God in creation, starting with ‘the good angels … / and archangels, and further ranks / of principalities and thrones / and powers and virtues’ (2.1-4), then telling of Lucifer and his rebellion before singing of God’s creation of the world. Here is a sample stanza:

Formed he the stars, put in their place
as lamps to light the firmament;
the angels joined in eulogy,
for his wondrous creation of
that boundless mass, praising the Lord,
the craftsman of the heavens above,
in proclamation that wins praise,
with utterance meet that knows no change,
and sang in noble harmony,
discharging thanks unto the Lord,
doing this out of love and will,
not from the gift that nature prompts. (Stanza 6)

Here we see angels doing as they are meant — praising God. Satan, on the other hand, seduces ‘our firstborn parents, both of them’ (7.2), and suffers a second fall. Up to Stanza 8, this is like a small, early mediaeval Paradise Lost.

Now, Columba moves on to the fierce power and potential violence of God’s created world, exemplified by the Deluge. But, although the world could be deluged at any time, God keeps creation regulated. I imagine that a life lived in the Western Isles of Scotland makes one think of the power and ferocity of rain and wind.

This is a hymnic poem, of course:

Mighty powers of our great God
make the earth’s globe suspended stand,
its circle poised in the abyss
by God’s support beneath, and by
the almighty one’s strong right hand (12.1-5)

If this is ‘Celtic’ ‘panentheism’, it is much more like the ‘panentheism’ of Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way, where the acknowledgement of God being everywhere in creation is not a limitation of God but simply the recognition of His transcendent yet immanent Self; that is, God is not in creation in a nature-god sort of way. He is everywhere, Almighty, sustaining all things by His power. We can find Him anywhere, with or without ‘Thin Places’.

Take heed Stanza 14 — St Columba believed in a round earth!!

Columba’s praise of God speaks of the salvation history in the Old Testament next, reminding us of the coming Day of Judgement, ‘a day of sadness and of grief’:

So trembling shall we take our stand
before the dais of the Lord,
and we shall render and account
of all desires that we held dear (18.1-3)

Christ descends with the Cross as his standard, and human and angelic voices will join with the four beasts of Revelation in hymns, ‘the Trinity is praised by all / in threefold chorus without end.’ (22.11-12)

There is no mention, however, of the saving grace wrought on the Cross. I am too Protestant for some of this, I fear:

we shall be his comrades there,
drawn up in all our diverse ranks
of dignities, according to
enduring merits of rewards,
and shall abide in glory there
eternally, for ever and ever. (23.7-12)

Christ is King. There is Tree of Life imagery earlier. He judges the world. But where is the Crucifixion? The fear of Hell and hope of Heaven, yes. But we move straight from Moses to the Day of Judgement.

Nonetheless, there is so much of value in this Irish, this ‘Celtic’, poem of the Early Middle Ages, written in Latin by a missionary abbot on an isle in the Hebrides. I wonder if life in the Hebrides makes one more acutely aware of the Day of Judgement? There is sound theology, beautiful imagery, and a good amount of secular learning — knowledge (scientia) of the natural — created — world is a fitting place to extol the Creator.

‘Altus Prosator’ is an abecedarius; each stanza begins with a different letter of the Latin alphabet, from A-Z in 23 stanzas (lacking from our viewpoint: J, U, W). It is rhythmic, written in heavy trochees: ‘Altus Prosator, vetustus’. Out on the edge of the world, we can see the united world of Latin culture, visible here in this sixth-century Irish poet and the beauty and theology of his verse.

Ascension in the Merovingian World

Bobbio Missal, fol. 146v
Bobbio Missal, fol. 146v

Lately, my wanderings have brought me into the sixth and seventh centuries in Gaul and northern Italy — particularly, into places assorted with the Irish mission-monk Columbanus (543-615) who founded several monasteries in Gaul/France and northern Italy, notably Luxeuil and most notably Bobbio where he died. If his letters are genuine, he corresponded with popes and supported the continuation of a two Easter system (Irish [Old Roman] and Roman [Dionysius Exiguus]). He was also in league with northern Italy’s supporters of the Three Chapters, some of whom were in schism with Rome over the issue. (I’ve blogged about the Three Chapters Controversy a few times; most clearly here).

Liturgically, besides the pertinent chapter in Columbanus’ Rule for Monks, I have found myself with Irish and Gallican service books from Bobbio and Luxeuil as a result of this Columbanus investigation. This needs quick clarification before people start ranting about early medieval independence from Rome. First, the Irish service books I’ve been playing with are in Latin, such as the Antiphonary of Bangor and the Stowe Missal (this book has no relation to Columbanus); there are Latino-Irish hybrid litanies, as I’ve found. But a lot of Irish-Celtic-Insular Christian stuff is in the Latin language, despite Ireland and Scotland never really being politically Roman and Wales just barely.

If you read St Patrick’s Confession or the Life of St Columba by Adamnan (or Adamnan’s De Locis Sacris) — or the works of St Columbanus! — you’ll find a sense that these Insular church leaders saw themselves as part of a big Christian church that included the Isles, Gaul, and Rome.

Second, the Church in Gaul did not have a Late Antique or Early Mediaeval independence movement. They were certainly liturgically distinct, and they had their own monastic traditions, and so on and so forth. But they copied far too many papal letters in their canon law books, sought legitimacy from too many popes, and considered too many popes legitimate heads of the western Church to take ancient Gallicanism seriously as an independence movement. I’m sure someone has found a way to read the texts that will seem to prove me wrong. Have at me!

Nevertheless, liturgy before print and before Trent was never united. That’s almost the point of calling the English book of services the Book of Common Prayer. In the Early Middle Ages, it was even less completely united — the regularisation of canon law, biblical texts, monasticism, and liturgy of the Carolingians would work against such local trends, but it there was always a force for diversification in the Middle Ages. I’ve written before about this elusive quest for common prayer.

This is a very long preamble, but this is because most of us have far too many misconceptions about the Early Middle Ages and the mediaeval church. They may not have been as centrally organised as they are now, and they may have disputed just what it meant for the Bishop of Rome to hold primacy, but the Christians and Churches of western Europe saw themselves as structurally and organically united, and division and independence were problems for them.

Anyway, here’s some liturgical stuff from the Merovingians.

Around the year 700, someone put together a lectionary in Luxeuil, one of Columbanus’ monastic foundations. The readings recommended in that book for the Feast of the Ascension are Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 4:1-13; John 13:33-35, 14:1-14; and Luke 24:49-53. Maybe use some of those in your devotions today or in this season of waiting betwixt today and Pentecost?

A much more significant liturgical product of the Merovingian world is the Bobbio Missal (Paris, BnF, lat. 13246). This manuscript was found in Bobbio Abbey — the monastery where Columbanus died — in the 1600s by Jean Mabillon. Mabillon dates it explicitly to the 600s; Rosamond McKitterick places it towards the end of that century or the turn of the next. It is of southern Gallic origin, and seems to represent some sort of ‘Gallican’ usage — certainly not Ambrosian, Mozarabic, or Roman.

On the feast of the Ascension, we encounter this in the Bobbio Missal (fol. 146v-147v):

O Lord, our God, you are wondrous in the highest—you ascended above the heavens of heavens for the raising of the trophy of your flesh between the service of the angels, you bore it when they rushed to your arrival in the power of heave—grant us something of the ascension in our hearts so that we may also follow you there with faith where we know that you reign at the right hand of the God the Father.

The Secret

The mystery (sacramentum) of the Lord’s Ascension — of our Lord Jesus Christ who, after he was called, ascended to the Father, in order to send the multiplied joys of our faith —  celebrates that he hinders for us the memories of his promise so that we may be worthy to run with joy in his second coming. [apologies for this translation]

Contestum

Truly Almighty God is, indeed, worthy though Christ our Lord who died for our sins and rose for our justification, who broke the bronze doors and iron locks with the bindings of destroyed hell, then rising from the dead, on the fortieth day, with all his disciples watching, he ascended to heaven because he himslef is our expectation whom we expect to come from the heavens to strengthen the body of our lowliness with the body of his glory.

So if you were a catholic Christian in southern Gaul in the 600s, and you turned up at Eucharist on Ascension Day, you would likely have heard those Bible passages read, and those prayers prayed!

Celtic Spirituality — Ad fontes! (leis na foinsí?)

Celtic Cross on Iona, img from Trip Advisor

I don’t know Irish, so that Irish in parentheses in the title is possibly wrong. Anyway, this blog is many things, as you know. One of those things is not only to be a source of meditations upon the Great Tradition of Christianity — ancient, mediaeval, modern — but also to draw you to the sources — texts, art, practices — of the Great Tradition. To that end, I put together some bibliographies a while ago (basic, not-so-basic, on the Trinity, the Church Fathers online as well as ‘where to begin‘); there’s a chance I should tweak these, but every time I try, I don’t know what to add/remove!

To these bibliographies I have now added ‘Sources for “Celtic” Christianity.’ I think there is much wisdom amongst Christianity as it was practised in the British Isles from the Late Roman period to the Early Middle Ages (and beyond, frankly — two words: St Anselm). A lot of other people have, over the years, found something fresh and new in these Insular expressions of the Christian faith, such as we find in poems like this one attributed to St Brigid of Kildare (451-525):

I would like to have the men of Heaven
in my own house;
with vats of good cheer
laid out for them.

I would like to have the three Marys,
their fame is so great.
I would like people
from every corner of Heaven.

I would like them to be cheerful
in their drinking.
I would like to have Jesus, too,
here amongst them.

I would like a great lake of beer
for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family
drinking it through all eternity. (Source: Celtic Literature Collective)

Irish, Scottish, and Anglo-Saxon saints live in a world that, to modern(ist/ised) eyes seems liminal in many ways. They wrestle with demons. They encounter Christ and the saints in dreams. They feel a oneness in God’s good creation. They make friends with birds. These men and women from the edge of the mediaeval world draw us in.

Much ink has been spilled over the centuries praising the early saints of Ireland and Scotland, and in the past several decades there has arisen a movement of ‘Celtic’ spirituality amongst Protestant Christians that has both ‘liberal’ and ‘evangelical’/’charismatic’ strands. Some of the material from this Celtic spiritual movement is fairly accurate in its portrayal of Insular Christianity. Other material is not — although some of that other material may still be helpful to modern readers!

Thinking about ‘Celtic’ — Insular — Christianity, I wish to strip away much of this modern romanticism. Yes, there is much good amongst these particular Christians. If they can enliven your spiritual life, set you on fire for Christ, and draw you nearer to him — good! But they are not perfect, and Christianity on the Continent was not hopelessly lost and warped, either. In order, therefore, to clarify the water, we need to come to grips with the actual writings and sources and art and liturgy of these communities.

What were the actual spiritual practices of Christians in Ireland and the British Isles?

What was their relationship with the Continent?

What were their theological teachings?

The best place to start is the writings themselves. So I put together a bibliography of primary sources. I’ve not read them all, but hopefully they will be helpful. If there are texts within my temporal bounds (up to 793) that I should include, let me know!

Time to dig into church history — this field should be booming!

If you’re going to dislike Zosimus, find a reason beyond, ‘He was Pope, dude!’

Back in 2010, my now PhD supervisor remarked that as confessional entrenchment/denominational attachment has decreased, so has interest in ecclesiastical history (is this one reason we rebranded ourselves here as History of Christianity?). I’m not sure if this is true or if it was simply a feeling she had, but if it is true, I’m not so sure it makes a lot of sense.

I think that church history as a field of study can truly blossom with lessened denominational hostilities. This thought came to me today while reading about this guy Apiarius of Sicca Veneria in North Africa. Briefly, he was a presbyter who was removed from holy orders by his local bishop and decided to appeal to Rome. Pope Zosimus got involved and — well, ecclesiastical history. An important moment in western canon law, despite how little attention it tends to receive.

The book I was reading, Merdinger’s Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine (complaint: Why always Augustine?), observed that this issue has been misread and obscured by a lot of scholarship because of the confessional commitments of the scholars discussing it. A crude caricature of the scholarship in this case is pretty much the same as it always is whenever the popes get involved:

Catholics: Well done Popes exercising your apostolic authority against those rebellious Africans.

Protestants: Well done Africans in resisting the arrogant self-aggrandisement of the Popes.

This is also not far from every time the Bishop of Rome butts heads with orthodox Eastern Bishops, Gallic bishops, Sicilian bishops, Spanish bishops, Welsh and Irish bishops, and so forth. The pope and/or his representatives or those who at least side with him are pictured by Catholics as representing good order and good government, putting right the wrongs of the world, and by Protestants as representing the arrogation of worldly power and the stamping out of true Gospel spirit in the provinces.

Sometimes one side has more of the truth than the other, but it’s not really what’s usually going on.

With weakened, once-ingrained confessional prejudices clouding our vision less, we are in a time when scholarship about ecclesiastical history can really flourish. No longer need Catholics be embarrassed by badly behaved popes to sweep under the rug. No longer need Protestants hunt for some sort of proto-Protestant resistance. No longer need Protestants ignore the entire history of the church from the death of Augustine to 31 October, 1517 — nor need they ignore the awkward Catholicky (emphasis on ‘icky’) bits from before the 430 cut-off date, where church fathers whose Christology and triadology, and even beliefs about salvation, they praise also do awkward things like, well, exercise monarchical episcopal authority in their hometown. Or send people relics. Or talk about Eucharist in terms of sacrifice. Or have anything to do with canon law. Or burn incense.*

Also, we can lay off the anti-papal polemic. Gregory the Great sent missionaries to England because he thought London would become a rival patriarchate? Really?

And we can turn our eyes to the world beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Since we no longer feel compelled to obsess over our own Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran history, we can look at the history of the church in Mesopotamia or Ethiopia. We can ponder Franciscans in the Caliphate. We can take into consideration the Church of the East (‘Nestorian’) in China during the Middle Ages.

We have 2000 years of ecclesiastical history to play with. Just because something didn’t happen within one’s own confessional sphere of influence doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting and doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold wisdom for the church today.

*Fun fact: St John Chrysostom whose exegesis is much beloved by low-church evangelicals of late did all these things.