Happy St Patrick’s Day! I commemorated the feast of the Apostle to Ireland with a post about the man himself a while back. Another year, I posted about his missionary predecessor, Palladius. This year, I’d like to commemorate St Patrick by mentioning some of those people who are his spiritual descendants, men and women who trod the ancient path of Jesus as a result of the conversion of Ireland.
St Brigid seems to be the only one here who didn’t leave Ireland …
St Aidan of Lindisfarne (d. 651) — An important missionary to England, St Aidan was a monk from Iona and was instrumental in the conversion of Northumbria. I’ve posted about him here.
St Brigid of Kildare (c. 451 – c. 523) — St Brigid has occasionally been accused of not existing; recent scholarship says she did. She was an abbess and foundress of abbeys in Ireland. She also wrote some grand poetry.
St Brendan the Navigator (c. 484 – c. 577) — One tradition that arose in early mediaeval Irish Christianity was wandering as a spiritual exercise — similar to pilgrimage, but not with Jerusalem or any such place as a destination. St Brendan decided to sail West, and he met various wonders along the way, including sea monsters and an icy gateway to Hell. You can read the medieval account of his voyage here. He also founded abbeys and suchlike in Ireland.
St Columbanus (540-615) — St Columbanus was a monastic missionary to the Continent where his mission was more about founding monasteries and bringing renewal to the church than converting the heathen. He founded some very important monasteries in Italy and Gaul, and his Rule was used throughout the seventh century and into the eighth. I have discovered his Sermons, Letters, and Rule online as well as his very interesting Boat Song. He was an important part of the Insular contact with the Continent, coming from Ireland and founding monasteries at Luxueil and Bobbio, both of which were important in the Merovingian and Carolingian age. You can read a seventh-century account of his life online as well, written by Jonas, who became a monk at Bobbio three years after Columbanus’ death.
John Scotus Eriugena (815-877) — Eriugena was a notable theologian and philosopher in the ninth century who helped establish the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the western tradition. Some have found commonalities between him and Maximus the Confessor, others between him and Buddhist texts. Eriugena is not a canonised saint. You can read about him at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
So, since you probably can’t get out to the pub tonight, stay in with a Guinness or a whiskey, and read about an Irish saint or two!
The link above is to an article criticising a post about ways to allegedly bring in and keep more Millennials. Young fogey that I am, I might be a Millennial (b. 1983), and I agree that “church growth” models based on business models, that seek to gain and retain us based on better or hipper technocracy will fail.
So what will keep Millennials?
Give us Jesus, or give us death. We want that old time religion. And a lot of us, staying put or running towards Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, seem to have found it. And we like it. Give me St Bernard or St Clement, give me the Blessed Sacrament, give me Jesus, over an Instagrammable “worship experience” any day.
Yesterday (leap day, of all days in the calendar!) was the feast of John Cassian, monastic founder and one of the ascetic fathers of Latin Christianity. Clearly, though, he has something of a mixed reputation to get a feast that comes only once every four years!
Cassian’s reputation is marred by the predestination controversy, in which the Augustinians in Gaul (modern France) were so particular and powerful that an anti-Pelagian such as Cassian could still come under suspicion and find himself labelled “semi-Pelagian”. Cassian’s teaching on this subject is found in his thirteenth Conference. What we find there has been called by one scholar “semi-Augustinian” rather than semi-Pelagian. Vladimir Lossky, in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church says that what Cassian writes here is essentially Eastern in spirit, which is no surprise, since Cassian is from the Balkans, lived as a monk in Bethlehem, toured Egypt’s monasteries for about ten years, and spent time with John Chrysostom in Constantinople before moving West.
But Cassian, despite this label, despite so inauspicious a feast day, has had an enduring influence on Western asceticism and mysticism, from St Benedict to Steve Bell. Besides a couple of obvious references in Benedict, if you look through the commentary on the Rule by Georg Holzherr, you will find many passages inspired or paralleled by Cassian.
Indeed, Cassian is one of the great ascetic fathers of the Latin church — hundreds of copies of his main works, the Institutes and Conferences, exist. His teaching about the inner life has found eager readers in every generation. What is the telos (end) of the monastic life? The Kingdom of Heaven. What is the skopos (goal)? Purity of heart. Aim for purity of heart, and you will find the Kingdom of heaven. This wisdom is not just monastic but for all Christians, is it not?
His teaching on discretion is a reminder that true Christian asceticism at its best is not typified by standing on a pillar, tying a chain around your waist, wearing iron underwear, or mortifying the flesh to such extremes that you become ill. It is typified, in Cassian as elsewhere, by the words of Sergei Bulgakov, ‘Discipline the flesh that you may gain a body.’ It is what Kallistos Ware calls ‘natural asceticism’.
Conference 10 on prayer is a classic treatise on the subject — and the reason we say, ‘O God, make speed to save us. / O Lord, make haste to help us,’ at the start of the daily office!
It has been a long time since I read all of Cassian in full; in recent years, I have only whetted my appetite with the selections in The Philokalia, Vol. 1. There is a lot of wisdom, as I recall; I’ve blogged about it here. Clearly, being unpopular in your teaching about predestination is not enough to keep you from being read and digested for centuries. In fact, Lossky says that Cassian’s popularity results in St Bernard’s views on grace and freewill being more like the Eastern Church’s than the predominantly Augustinian West (take that for what it’s worth, though; I am skeptical about Lossky because of his misunderstandings of Aquinas on the Trinity).
I am going to be revisiting Cassian in greater depth soon. I think, though, that he is precisely the sort of guide to Christian “spirituality” we need in this age — an ascetic master esteemed in both the Latin and Greek churches who was not fully engulfed by either side of the predestination debate who sought purity of heart for the purpose of finding the Kingdom of Heaven.
As the empires and kingdoms of the human race descend into madness, that is the true Kingdom we all need.
Last night we had our second meeting about John Eldredge, Wild at Heart. We were discussing Chapter 2, which is about the wild heart of God, especially as it is manifested in Jesus. At one point, Eldredge says that all the images of Jesus we have around are limp and passive — at least, all the ones he’s seen in churches are.
And I thought, ‘Well, clearly he’s been to all the wrong churches.’
So I went through my postcard collection to bring a few non-limp Jesuses to show the other guys. These aren’t the exact postcards, but here are the images of Jesus I brought to study last night:
San Marco, Venice
A twelfth-century piece of Limoges work of Christ in majesty now in the Musée de Cluny, Paris
The stained glass window of the Last Judgement from St Andrew’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral, Inverness
Jesus and Apa Mena, a sixth- or seventh-century Coptic icon now in the Louvre
The dome of Machairas Monastery, Cyprus
The Cross as Tree of Life from San Clemente, Rome
The apsidal mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome
The Triumphal Arch and apsidal mosaic of San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome
The images of Christ we see inevitably influence us and our faith, they affect how we view our Lord and Saviour. This is part of why the Reformed reject them — they can skew just as easily as uphold a right faith in Christ. And it must be admitted that Eldredge is not wrong about so much Protestant religious art.
One of the guys last night said that so much Protestant art is sappy and sentimental because it’s made for children, to illustrate a story or make the Bible accessible. It is not art for adults. He is probably right, which troubles me — my toddler likes Art of the Byzantine Era, Pauline Baynes’ illustrated Nicene Creed, and the occasional bookmark of the Sistine Chapel right alongside his Dr. Suess, Paw Patrol, and Beatrix Potter.
Why do we sell our children short and underestimate them?
What sort of messages about Jesus are we communicating to them and ourselves through this art?
‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,‘
against which Wild at Heart is reacting.
I think John Eldredge wants,
‘Mighty Jesus, fierce and wild.‘
The art above, most of which is medieval (with one each of modern Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican items), presents us mighty Jesus, King of Kings. He sits enthroned, passing judgement. He reigns as he dies, bringing life to the world. He can certainly be your Friend. And he blesses us from his majesty. Loves pours forth from his Sacred Heart.
Christ the King, throned in glory — this is the great theme of so many medieval mosaics and frescoes.
Yet he is the upside-down king, and here is why the Reformed are concerned about these images. Christ in glory — certainly true. But not wholly true.
One image I did not bring but wish I could have was the crucifix from Vercelli:
Christ is standing on the cross, in power. As King. Not hanging in weakness as in the later, Gothic crucifixes. At the moment of his greatest human weakness, at the point of his death, Jesus is at his most powerful. Some Byzantine crucifixion icons have the inscription, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of Glory,’ to emphasise the point.
Whatever our position on any of these images in particular or images of Christ in general, Eldredge has a good point — the carpenter of Nazareth Who refashions the crooked timber of humanity into something beautiful was neither limp nor passive.
Today we commemorate Caedmon, our first recorded English poet. You can read my translation of Bede’s account of Caedmon here. Since I’ve blogged about Caedmon before (here and here), my mind is moving in other directions upon this commemoration of the poet, namely “religious” poetry more widely.
Poetry is the imaginative aspect of human language, the grasping after symbol and metaphor and those moments that dance around the periphery of our vision, seeking to translate the sublime into ink and paper (or pixels on a screen — or carvings on a stone). The poetic mode is not simply verse, not simply the arrangement of human language into line and meter making use of literary devices.
It is that, of course. It is also more like … the grasping of language at the numinous? Even (especially) when it is ordinary.
When we reach for that, when we attempt to rearrange language into line and verse with metaphor and simile, symbol and personification — then even the gore of the dead, the crushing of corpses, in the plains of Ilium rises to the sublime. The horror of the Iliad, that is, is transposed to a higher mode of language through Homer’s poetry than a simple synopsis would make it out to be.
What is interesting is that poetry is not simply there at the fundaments of religion.
It is there at the fundaments of language and literature.
From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things are everywhere.
–One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Dr. Suess
Poetry, like the “funny things” of Dr. Suess, is everywhere. Greek literature does not begin with a prose treatise on government. It begins with Iliad and Odyssey, followed quickly by Theogony, and then, soon thereafter, the Homeric Hymns. Deep in The foundational works of Greek literature are not only poems but also the foundational works of the Greek religious thought-world.
Christianity was born from Judaism, and thus born already with the Psalms, those hymns to YHWH composed and sung by the Jewish people over generations. But it was also born with the canticles in the Gospel of Luke (Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis), with the poetic (if not formal verse) prologue to John, with the prose hymn of Philippians 2.
Every culture that has Christians in it ends up writing poetry. In the ancient world, this means we get to enjoy, besides the Latins I tend to mention, the Greeks such as Romanus the Melodist and Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Syriac authors like St Ephraim (how many times have I mentioned Ephraim the Syrian on this blog, I wonder?), Jacob of Serugh, and beyond. Medieval Armenia produces Gregory of Narek.
And so the Gospel washes ashore in England, headed for Canterbury from Rome and for Lindisfarne from Ireland. Both continental ‘Roman’ Christianity and insular Irish Christianity are versed in poetry — and the Irish in both Latin and Irish verse (I am fond of St Brigid’s and St Columba’s poetry). With such tutors as these, it comes as no surprise that the English start singing praises of their new God and King.
And our own English tongue has produced a wealth of poetry, of expressing with words something of the inexpressible, of coming close to the Uncreated Light, finding your mind so small, yet wishing, nevertheless, to praise the Holy Trinity, or to attempt to trace the outlines of your own beating heart as you catch a glimpse of Him, whether in the Holy Communion or maybe simply some daffodils.
In today’s utilitarian world, where the Prosperity Gospel wants to use Jesus to get rich quick, where we try to parse the mystery of the Eucharist to its last moment, where people walk out of sessions on biblical theology saying that they didn’t ‘get anything out of it’, where we want our sermons served up with a good side of ‘what should I do’, where we forget transcendence in favour of social action —–
God breaks through.
And He has some poets to help us see Him — Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, as well as singer-songwriters Steve Bell and John Michael Talbot all spring to mind.
A couple of years ago, I posted about why ancient/early medieval monks read, sharing an excellent quote from Pierre Riché’s book about early medieval education. Lately, I’ve been looking into the libraries of some famous monasteries that gave us copies of Leo’s letters, and I thought I’d share a bit of what these late antique and early medieval monks were reading.
The two monasteries I’m really interesting in sharing with you about are Bobbio, founded by St Columbanus (famously Irish and therefore ‘Celtic’ — for my misgivings about ‘Celtic Christianity’, start here), Corbie, founded in the seventh century by monks from Luxeuil — Luxeuil was also founded by Columbanus.
The monastery of Bobbio was founded in 614 and is considered the ‘Montecassino of northern Italy’ — Montecassino being St Benedict’s monastery. However, whereas Montecassino is still a functioning monastery, Bobbio is not, having been suppressed by the French in 1803 along with many Italian abbeys.
Like many monastic centres on the continent, Bobbio maintained contact with Insular Christianity throughout the Early Middle Ages, visible in both the persons who passed through, their way of writing, and sometimes the language they wrote in. For this reason, I think Bobbio is of interest for those who invest themselves in ‘Celtic’ Christianity.
Here’s what they were reading in the early days, gleaned from Richter, Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages, a book more interested in discussing Bobbio’s relationship to Ireland than the contents of the manuscripts.
The contintental fathers of the church:
One of the earliest Bobbio manuscripts is a copy of St Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, S. 45 sup. [saec. VII]).
Another potentially seventh-century Bobbio manuscript is a fragment of Pope St Gregory the Great, Dialogues — a collection of lives of Italian saints, include St .Benedict (Stuttgart, Wurttemburgische Landesbibliothek Theol. et Philos. QU. 628).
Orosius (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana D. 23 sup.)
St Augustine of Hippo (Turin A. II.2)
St Basil (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, C. 26 sup.) – Columbanus liked Basil; this is presumably from the ascetic corpus, the Asketikon
Gennadius — presumably his Lives of Illustrious Men (Milan, O. 212 sup.)
One of the things I like to point out is that, even if culture and isolation and history and other factors meant that Irish Christianity took some of its own interesting turns along the course of the Early Middle Ages, Irish Christians still saw themselves as part of this big, catholic family.
Law! Apparently, our earliest copy of the first surviving Lombard law code survives in many fragments from Bobbio (St-Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek 730). This makes sense — monks, no matter how hard they try, are still part of wider society.
The Bible! Because of the difficulties facing manuscript survival and the sad history of the monastery, we only have some fragments from the Bible. But if you consider the Rule of St Columbanus, they must have had Bibles!!
Manuscripts that were at Bobbio a bit later include The Life of St Columbanus, the Rule of St Columbanus, a commentary on the Psalms (logically enough, given how much Psalm-singing Columbanus required), Adomnán of Iona’s On the Holy Places, St Augustine of Hippo on Matthew and Luke, and some other material connected with Ireland.
Richter (pp. 146ff.) also discusses the presence of books on computistics (something Irish and English Christians were very into back in the day), Roman secular authors, and grammars.
What I have not found in Richter’s book is any reference to the Bobbio Missal (Paris, lat. 13246), somewhat suprisingly. This Missal is an important witness to seventh- or eighth-century liturgical practice in places that we might cautiously think of liturgically as ‘Gallican’. However, it seems that it was probably not at Bobbio at the time. Oh well. Still, follow the link above and see what it looks like.
Corbie was founded in the mid-600s by monks from Luxeuil and flourished throughout the Early Middle Ages. It originally followed the regula mixta — a blend of Benedict and Columbanus. It was dissolved during the French Revolution. My source here is more intensively focussed on the manuscripts than for Bobbio — David Ganz, Bobbio in the Carolingian Renaissance.
First things first: One of our oldest canon law manuscripts is the Collectio Corbeiensis (Paris, lat. 12097, sixth-century: this manuscript is from the patristic era itself!). This manuscript was not copied at Corbie, but it came there in the seventh century, so it is relevant to the discussion. It is comprised mainly of the canons of church councils and papal letters. On the one hand, law is important for the running of a monastery. On the other hand, the sources for canon law are not themselves beyond the scope of theology (as demonstrated by John C. Wei, Gratian the Theologian).
Ganz lists these manuscripts as having been written at Corbie in the Merovingian age (so before the later 700s):
Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum I-VI (abridged; Paris, lat. 17655)
Pope St Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel (St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 14).
A manuscript with Gennadius On Ecclesiastical Dogmas and select letters of St Jerome (St Petersburg Lat. Q v I 13)
Rule of St Basil (St Petersburg, Lat. F v I 2).
Gospel of Matthew (St Petersburg, Lat. O v I 3).
Gospel of Mark (St Petersburg, Lat. O v I 2).
A manuscript of Origen, On Balaam and Balak and John Chrysostom, De Reparatione lapsi (London, British Library, Burney 340 + St Petersburg, Lat. F v I 4)
St Augustine, On the Agreement of the Gospels (Paris, lat. 12190)
Jerome-Gennadius, On the Lives of Illustrious Men (Paris, lat. 12161)
Isidore of Seville, On Laws — Etymologies V 1-27, IX 4-6, 22, and Lex Romana Visigothorum (Paris, lat. 4403A)
Since St Isidore of Seville is sometimes considered the last of the western church Fathers, what we see them writing at Corbie is the Church Fathers and the Bible.
They also acquired some manuscripts from elsewhere:
A manuscript containing various works of St Augustine on grace, the Institutes of Nilus the Monk, The Rule of the Four Fathers, and The Rule of the Master (Paris, lat. 12205, sixth-century)
St Augustine, City of God books 1-10 (Paris, lat. 12214 + St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 4, sixth-century)
A manuscript containing: Rufinus, De Fide; Fulgentius, De Fide Catholica: Origen on the Song of Songs; Jerome On the 42 mansions; Jerome To Demetrias (St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 6-10)
A variety of works of St Augustine (Paris, lat. 13367, sixth-century)
Pope St Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job I.18-V.38 (Paris, Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2061).
Another patristic volume containing a selection of texts falsely attributed to St Cyprian as well as works of Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Sedulius (Paris, lat. 13047)
St Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch (Paris, lat. 12168)
Old Latin translation of the Gospels (Paris, lat. 17225).
Fragments of Ephrem the Syrian
Various saints lives
A volume with Isidore, Augustine, Chrysostom, Caesarius (Paris, lat. 14086)
What we see is that monks were reading the Fathers and reading the Bible. Bibles don’t survive as well, it seems. More specifically, they were reading Bible commentaries and books about the ascetic life.
And what is the lesson we gain from these old monkish books?
Ad fontes! What nourished these souls, alongside their rigorous regime of prayer, were the Scriptures and the Fathers. It was not the latest, newfangled spiritual teacher. It was not ’40 days to mountain-top experiences of God’. It was not the prosperity gospel. It was the austerity of asceticism, reading the Fathers, singing the Psalms, studying the Bible.
Eucharist this noon included John 1:29-42 as the Gospel lesson, wherein At John the Baptist makes this famous proclamation. I couldn’t help but think of the ninth-century mosaics at Santa Prassede in Rome.