Further thoughts on missionary monks

Reflecting on my most recent post, the question arising is: What did Gregory’s missionary monks do, what did they look like? According to the Venerable St Bede (672-735, saint of the week here):

As soon as they entered the dwelling-place assigned to them, they began to imitate the Apostolic manner of life in the primitive Church; applying themselves to constant prayer, watchings, and fastings; preaching the Word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as in nowise concerning them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they taught, and being always ready to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In brief, some believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their blameless life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine. There was on the east side of the city, a church dedicated of old to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, was wont to pray. In this they also first began to come together, to chant the Psalms, to pray, to celebrate Mass, to preach, and to baptize, till when the king had been converted to the faith, they obtained greater liberty to preach everywhere and build or repair churches.

When he, among the rest, believed and was baptized, attracted by the pure life of these holy men and their gracious promises, the truth of which they established by many miracles, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the Word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to have fellowship, through faith, in the unity of Christ’s Holy Church. It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the kingdom of Heaven. For he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his teachers a settled residence suited to their degree in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of divers sorts as were necessary for them. (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1.26 trans. Sellar)

These two paragraphs likely cover a longer period of time than it seems.1  Nonetheless, we see here the evangelistic or ‘missional’ outworkings of the contemplative life upon the Kentish court. The life of the missionary monks resembles in many ways that of a monastery whether we look to Benedict, Columbanus, Cassian, or Basil. It also looks a lot like Acts 2:

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

It is typified, according to Bede by:

  • prayer
  • watchings (or vigils)
  • preaching to as many as they could
  • despising all worldly things
  • receiving only what they truly needed from the disciples
  • submitting themselves to suffering
  • gathering together
  • chanting the Psalms
  • celebrating Mass

If we are being inspired by the contemplative missionary, the two most controversial are likely to be despising worldly things and receiving from those they taught. Concerning the latter, I believe the idea is not that they are seeking material gain but rather the opposite. Unlike Jim and Tammy Bakker, Augustine and his companions accepted only what they needed to survive. This is in accord with what St Paul says of evangelists as well as The Didache. We pay our pastors, after all. But it does mean that this aspect does not apply to any of us laypersons who wish to start emulating the monastic mission in our own lives.

Despising worldly things has always been a hang-up for the affluent. I have no easy way around it, honestly. In our culture, especially, we should probably be seeking the Freedom of Simplicity and endeavouring to be Dethroning Mammon.

I hope and pray we can take their example seriously in our lives as individuals, families, and church communities. Perhaps we can see similar results, with the conversion not of kings but of colleagues, bosses, friends, parents, siblings, or — to look higher — CEOs, judges, politicians. Imagine true disciples of Jesus Christ being made in our midst at every turn by contemplative activists?


1. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, argues that the process described by Bede may have taken years. I am not a Bede scholar, so I leave the question as to duration open. 

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Zeal: Hillsong, Bede, and Me

Worship at Hillsong Paris

Whilst in Paris, I visited three churches for Sunday morning services. While Notre-Dame’s Messe Gregorienne would be most in keeping with the overall theme and tenor of this blog, the one that has got me thinking most was, of all things, Hillsong Paris.

Hillsong Paris is a plant of the famous Hillsong Church in Australia. It meets in a theatre thrice on a Sunday, and at least fills the 12:15 service.  As one would expect the music is upbeat and loud, with a seemingly ‘professional’ quality to it. The musicians jumped around on the stage and ran and sang loudly. The songs were all in French save one, but the original English was projected at the bottom of the screen.

The Sunday I visited Hillsong Paris, Brian Houston, le pasteur principal of Hillsong was visiting from Australia. He gave the message with a very, very good interpreter who immediately fired off rapid-fire French after each of his sentences and even sought to mimic his gestures.

Say what you will about anything at Hillsong, Brian Houston is a man of passion. He has zeal for God and for seeing people come to a living, vibrant faith in the risen Jesus. As he preached about us seeking to find that glorious obsession which God has implanted into us, this passion, this zeal for God came through.

To be zealous you don’t have to be high-energy, of course. To have a passion for Christ and His mission you don’t have to be an electrifying speaker. But if you are high-energy, whatever it is that is your glorious obsession will be apparent to everyone around.

Opening of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

Whilst in Paris, I read from several books. I read most of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People during my Parisian month, and finished it a few days ago. If we wish to discuss zeal for the Lord and His mission, we need look no further than the tales of these early British bishops.

In Bede’s most famous work, the reader meets many of the big names from the Christianisation of early mediaeval Britain — Columba, Aidan, Wilfrid, Willibrord, Paulinus, Edwin, Oswald, Augustine, Germanus of Auxerre, Hild, Caedmon, Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop.

Most of these names are bishops. Augustine and other early bishops in southern England came over from the continent to bring the light of the Gospel to the ends of the world. They, and then their local successors such as Wilfrid and Cuthbert, laboured to see the English people receive the truth of Jesus and transform their world for the better. Joining these continental and English missionaries were the Irish, such as Columba and Aidan, approaching the island from the North and West.

Sometimes, due to the ire of a king, the missions would not go as planned. Thus Wilfrid found himself in exile for many years. Rather than sitting about moaning, he engaged in mission where he was, whether in England or Frisia. Sometimes, the kings helped the bishops, such as Edwin and Oswald. These men and women had a zeal for seeing the people of Britain — Anglo-Saxon and Pict — come to saving faith in Jesus.

But I? Where is my zeal for the Lord? Sure, I blog big. And I enjoy Christian literature such as Bede or Miroslav Volf or saints’ lives or Leo. But I go days and days without reading the Scriptures, without really praying. Church, regardless of denomination or preaching or ‘style of worship’ I find tiresome. Where is my zeal? And where can I get some?

Saint of the Week: St. Hilda (or Hild)

Last week, my wife and I visited Durham Cathedral, where they have a commemoration to St. Hilda — as well as the bodies of St. Cuthbert (saint of the week here) and the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here) and a commemoration to St. Aidan of Lindisfarne (saint of the week here). Since Hilda was also abbess of Caedmon’s convent (recent saint of the week here), it seemed more than high time to post about her as Saint of the Week.

Here is a re-post of what I originally wrote on this Northumbrian saint four and a half years ago:

Today’s feature is St. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, one of the many good English saints. Here’s the prayer from the Prayer Book for any saint:

O ALMIGHTY God, who willest to be glorifled in thy Saints, and didst raise up thy servant Hilda to shine as a light in the world: Shine, we pray thee, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth thy praises, who hast called us out of darkness into thy marvellous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I would reprint all of the Venerable Bede about her, but that would take too long. It is worth reading, and the story of Caedmon is part of hers, as he was a brother at her monastery. You can find it in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book IV.23-24; my translation of the Caedmon bits here.

Here is her entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Abbess, born 614; died 680. Practically speaking, all our knowledge of St. Hilda is derived from the pages of Bede. She was the daughter of Hereric, the nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria, and she seems like her great-uncle to have become a Christian through the preaching of St. Paulinus about the year 627, when she was thirteen years old.

Moved by the example of her sister Hereswith, who, after marrying Ethelhere of East Anglia, became a nun at Chelles in Gaul, Hilda also journeyed to East Anglia, intending to follow her sister abroad. But St. Aidan recalled her to her own country, and after leading a monastic life for a while on the north bank of the Wear and afterwards at Hartlepool, where she ruled a double monastery of monks and nuns with great success, Hilda eventually undertook to set in order a monastery at Streaneshalch, a place to which the Danes a century or two later gave the name of Whitby.

Under the rule of St. Hilda the monastery at Whitby became very famous. The Sacred Scriptures were specially studied there, and no less than five of the inmates became bishops, St. John, Bishop of Hexham, and still more St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, rendering untold service to the Anglo-Saxon Church at this critical period of the struggle with paganism. Here, in 664, was held the important synod at which King Oswy, convinced by the arguments of St. Wilfrid, decided the observance of Easter and other moot points. St. Hilda herself later on seems to have sided with Theodore against Wilfrid. The fame of St. Hilda’s wisdom was so great that from far and near monks and even royal personages came to consult her.

Seven years before her death the saint was stricken down with a grievous fever which never left her till she breathed her last, but, in spite of this, she neglected none of her duties to God or to her subjects. She passed away most peacefully after receiving the Holy Viaticum, and the tolling of the monastery bell was heard miraculously at Hackness thirteen miles away, where also a devout nun named Begu saw the soul of St. Hilda borne to heaven by angels.

With St. Hilda is intimately connected the story of Caedmon, the sacred bard. When he was brought before St. Hilda she admitted him to take monastic vows in her monastery, where he most piously died.

The most notable part of the example of St. Hilda is her perseverance through her sickness and trial. To quote Bede:

When she had governed this monastery many years, it pleased Him Who has made such merciful provision for our salvation, to give her holy soul the trial of a long infirmity of the flesh, to the end that, according to the Apostle’s example, her virtue might be made perfect in weakness. Struck down with a fever, she suffered from a burning heat, and was afflicted with the same trouble for six years continually; during all which time she never failed either to return thanks to her Maker, or publicly and privately to instruct the flock committed to her charge; for taught by her own experience she admonished all men to serve the Lord dutifully, when health of body is granted to them, and always to return thanks faithfully to Him in adversity, or bodily infirmity. (from CCEL)

We should all take courage from the example of this saint and realise that we can do things for God, make an impact, and rest in His grace, sure in the knowledge that our afflictions are temporal and we can still serve Him. St. Hilda’s “life was an example of the works of light, not only blessed to herself, but to many who desired to live aright.” (Bede again.)

Saint of the Week: St. Augustine of Canterbury

For those still curious about the doings of the Classic Christian Reading Group, this past week we read Bede’s account of St. Augustine, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book 1, chh. 23-26, par. 1 of 27, 29, 31, 33, 34; Book 2, Chh. 2, 3.

In the year of Our Lord 596, Pope St. Gregory the Great, Doctor of the Church, sent missionaries to the island of Britain to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon peoples dwelling there.  At the head of this expedition was the abbot (for the missionaries were monastics) Augustine (not of Hippo).  As these Italian missionaries got closer to the English Channel, they wavered in their commitment.  Why on earth were they going amongst a barbarian people who did not worship the Most Holy Trinity, did not honour the name of Christ, had strange customs, and spoke a language they did not even know?

They sent Augustine back to Gregory in Rome, but Gregory would hear none of it, but instead exhorted them not to turn back having put their hand to the plough, for it would have been better never to have started at all than to have chickened out in Gaul (France) — a common piece of advice to ancient and mediaeval monks and missionaries.

Strengthened by Pope Gregory’s words, they crossed over to the island of Thanet and made their presence known to Ethelbert, King of Kent.  Ethelbert went over and met them, allowing them to stay on the island for a while until he was certain of their motives.  Ethelbert’s wife was a Frankish princess named Bertha and herself a Catholic Christian (this is in distinction to Arian Vandals or Goths), so he had some knowledge of the faith.

Once King Ethelbert was convinced the were of good intent, the missionaries were given an old church in Canterbury to operate from.  Although he did not wish to convert at first, since it is a big deal to turn away from the customs and beliefs of one’s ancestors, Ethelbert saw no harm in allowing the Christians to preach among his people, allowing the people of Kent to believe as they chose.  If we consider the attitude of a good many Christian princes and bishops at this point in time, King Ethelbert’s tolerance is outstanding.

The missionaries lived together in monastic simplicity, sharing everything in common, and providing a stipend to the married missionaries who seem to have been involved in the project.  Their simplicity of life, miraculous signs, and clarity of preaching won many souls from among the English.  Canterbury became the seat of episcopal power in Kent, and remains the see city for the Church of England to this day.  Before long, King Ethelbert converted and was baptised, giving even greater freedom of movement to the missionaries both to preach and to restore old Roman churches that had fallen into disuse during the centuries of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the old province of Britannia.

Augustine was accordingly consecrated bishop in Arles, the nearest major episcopal seat.  Now that he was a bishop and the growth of the Church amongst the English was a more secure reality, he wrote to Pope Gregory about various questions concerning the life and order of the Church as it would become established in its new home, as well as questions surrounding the life and practice of the bishop.  Notable amongst St. Gregory’s replies to St. Augustine’s questions was the following encouragement:

… if you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome or of Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the Faith, whatever you have been able to learn with profit from the various Churches.  For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.  (Bede, Ecclesiastical History 1.26, trans. Shirley-Price, p. 79)

Such an attitude would seem shocking to people reared on Reformation myths of mediaeval Christianity, or with the knowledge of Charlemagne’s attempts at making all liturgy and practice uniform in the eighth century.  Yet this is not so surprising if we consider the vast world of ancient Christianity which spread from Ireland to Mesopotamia and even India and included various cultures.  There was and is much similarity among the traditional liturgies, be they Roman, Gallican, Byzantine, Coptic, Syrian, and so forth, but with flexibility for local variation.

According to one book I read, this embracing of the good from both the Roman and Celtic practices is what helped shape and form the Use of Sarum, the particular liturgy in use in England until the Reformation.  No doubt it was less florid in St. Augustine’s day.

This willingness to take what is good from the pre-existing culture is demonstrated in the evidence that remains of Anglo-Saxon Christianity as established by men like Augustine and Cuthbert and as it stood until the coming of the Frenchified Viking Normans in 1066.  For example, the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels demonstrate an artistic aesthetic that stands proudly beside the Celtic art of the Book of Kells.  Many of the considerations and prayers we find from the Saxons resonate with those we find amongst the monks of Iona.

Although there was some clash between the Roman missionary enterprise from the South and East and the Celtic from the North and West, much of what the modern Celtic movement in Christianity treasures existed within Anglo-Saxon Christianity as well.

However, the encounters between St. Augustine and the Celts were not all afternoon tea and crumpets.  The Celtic Church was not following the same date for Easter as the rest of the Church (ie. the Church from Spain and France to Mesopotamia, from Germany to Ethiopia), and they had their own monastic system.  St. Augustine tried to force the Celtic Christians to accept the universal date for Easter and to adopt Roman (ie. Benedictine) monastic practices.  They refused; many were slain by an Anglo-Saxon pagan king years later.  Bede attributes their deaths to their refusal to submit to St. Augustine.

As St. Augustine’s mission grew, he consecrated bishops in London and Rochester.  Many of the English became Christians during this time, and because of King Ethelbert’s conversion, many people with senior positions within the realm adopted Christianity or were promoted because they were Christians.  Ethelbert did not force his people to convert, maintaining his previous openness to people of other beliefs.

In 604, St. Augustine died.  The Church he helped found spread throughout all of England, and those worshipping communities have their successors amongst the worldwide Anglicans as well as English Roman Catholics.  A great harvest has been reaped, to glory of God Almighty.