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The Dedicated Life
Monks and Hermits
"I ought not to conceal God's gift which he lavished on me in the land of my captivity, because then I sought him earnestly and I found him there, and he protected me from all evils, as I believe, because of his spirit dwelling in me, which has been at work within me up to the present day." Almost at the start of his Confession St. Patrick breaks into this great hymn of praise to the God who brought him back to Ireland and blessed his work there. The next paragraph moves into a tremendous credal affirmation, celebrating the creation, and the power of the Trinity. St. Patrick himself had first been brought to Ireland as a slave at the age of sixteen, and for six years afterwards served his master as a shepherd. These were years spent in the solitude and wilderness of the mountains and they had become for him a time of prayer. "I would say up to a hundred prayers in one day and almost as many at night: I would even stay in the forests and on the mountain, and would wake to pray before dawn in all weathers, snow, frost, rain." This man who celebrates the Trinitarian God, and who finds it natural to pray out of doors as he herds the sheep, is the man to whom traditionally Ireland owes its Christianity. Already we can see here something of its peculiar genius.
The actual historical foundations remain, however, much more difficult to establish with any sort of certainty. Even though the greatness of St. Patrick cannot be disputed it seems much more likely that the diffusion of Christianity in Ireland took place rather more gradually, beginning perhaps a century or so before his mission in the middle years of the fifth century (precise dates are disputed), and taking a further two centuries to complete. The sequence of events is not perhaps of such great importance. The characteristics of the Church which emerged during these years, and above all the very particular development of the monasticism which shaped it, are the subject of this chapter, for they laid the foundation for Celtic Christianity.
In a letter which St. Columbanus wrote to the Pope in the sixth century he described the Irish as a people "living on the edge of the world." It was a proud boast. It is also a significant clue if we are to appreciate the development of the Church in Ireland. The geographical location of the country, on the very western edge of Europe, explains why Christianity reached the country so late. This brought with it certain important consequences. Rome had never penetrated as far as here, and as a result there was none of the imperial infrastructure, found elsewhere in Europe, on which to build the Church. Instead there was a land with a strong, indigenous society and culture, a heroic, tribal society, with a long tradition of native learning. Much of this was to be absorbed and taken up, and was to colour the way in which Christianity was received and diffused. The Irish Church never turned its back on its past but rather rejoiced in its secular and pagan traditions. Here life was rural, hierarchical, family-based. Towns were non-existent; there was no tradition of urban life or culture. The chief landowners each lived in their own ring fort, the rath, as a small self-contained community, and formed part of a tribal area. Kingship was strong, and a king ruled his own tuath or tribe with a high-king over him who claimed sovereignty of the whole of Ireland. This kind of grouping was naturally carried over into the Church. There was little to differentiate an early monastery from a fortified homestead, except that in addition to its encircling wall and its number of small, rough huts inside, there would also be a church. These foundations, the centres from which the pastoral work of the Church radiated, were founded by certain great families, and it was the custom to choose the abbot or head of the monastery from the founder's family. Each monastery was independent, but it might exercise control over a number of daughter-houses, scattered, smaller foundations, so that the abbot was responsible for their jurisdiction as well. Each had its own rule or "code of behavior."
As a result it was not long before Ireland was covered with a number of great monastic houses, together with the lesser settlements attached to them. The Latin system of territorial, diocesan organization never came into being here. In less than a hundred years after the coming of St. Patrick, the Church in Ireland was not diocesan but monastic, governed by the abbots of important monasteries who might themselves be bishops or who might include a bishop among the members of their community.
Nowhere else in Christendom was the culture of a people so completely embraced within monasticism. St. Patrick himself tells us how astonished he was at the numbers of his newly baptized who chose to be monks and virgins of Christ. The same was also true in Wales. One of the reasons was that monasticism fitted so easily into the existing pattern of society. A monastery represented the religious activity of the tribe, it could only be founded in accordance with tribal land law, and so close were the tribal connections that if necessary a layman could be the abbot rather than allow it to be ruled by an alien monk. The abbot took on a patriarchal role, maintaining his influence and power at the expense of the prestige of the episcopate. An amusing sidelight on this is the fact that while in Anglo-Saxon law a bishop had the status of an earldorman, the principal administrator of the shire, in Welsh law his standing was no more than that of a free tribesman. The leadership of the Church thus lay in the hands of the monks. The monastic emphasis was so strong that the Pope was known as "Abbot of Rome" and Christ himself would sometimes be called "the Abbot of the Blessed in Heaven."
When a suitable site for a monastery had been established and time had been spent in fasting and prayer, the founder would mark out the boundaries of his settlement, or rath, and start to work to build the ditch and the enclosing wall. Modelled on the ring fort, the appearance of the monastic community would thus be that of a scattered cluster of small buildings encircled by a protective earthen wall. This wall, however, was neither fortification nor traditional enclosure for there was always much coming and going. The community was large and varied, with probably a big population of lay tenants. Most buildings were very simple, of wood or wattle and daub, with the church alone in stone. Even this was extremely small and unpretentious, without any attempt at architectural distinction. If the community grew larger it was usual to build more small churches rather than enlarge the main one. The monks themselves would usually be two or three to a cell. Separate cells might be allowed as a special privilege to older men in their declining years. The abbot at Iona had a hut to himself and this may have been the general custom. Special cells would also have been available for the artists, for all those engaged in the work of bookmaking, as well as for the craftsmen who were needed to make bells, vestments or crosses.
When from about the tenth century the great bell towers were built their actual physical appearance must have made a striking statement about the power of monasticism in the land. Sixty-five are still to be seen today in Ireland; tall and slender they range in height from 70 to 120 feet, and taper gracefully towards the distinctive bell cap. They always stand a short distance from the church and community which they overshadow, and even though they could become places of refuge, their main function was to provide a high place from which the hand bell, to call people to prayer, could be rung. These were four-sided iron or bronze bells, tall and narrow, formed of pla
Excerpted from Every Earthly Blessing by Esther de Waal. Copyright © 1991 by Esther de Waal. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Preface to the First Edition
I. THE DEDICATED LIFE
Monks and Hermits
Pilgrims and Exiles
II. THE CELEBRATION OF CREATION
III. THE LIGHT AND THE DARK
Sin and Sorrow
A World Made Whole
Posted December 30, 1999
Hundreds of books on Celtic spirituality have been published since 1991 when Every Earthly Blessing was first made available, but none has surpassed it. Esther de Waal writes with perceptive insight about the beauty and richness of the Celtic Christian world, especially its poetic tradition, but without romanticizing it. Every Earthly Blessing remains one of the best books in its field. - Cintra Pemberton, O.S. H., author of Soulfaring: Celtic Pilgrimage Then and NowWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 30, 1999
'I am very pleased indeed to see that Every Earthly Blessing is once again available, not least because it was among the books that first inspired my own interest in the Celtic Christian tradition. The current interest in Celtic spirituality has given birth to a number of other popular introductions. However, the great merit of Esther de Waal continues to be her ability to avoid naïve romanticism and to combine scholarship and personal devotion in a way that speaks eloquently to contemporary readers.' -Philip Sheldrak, author of Living Between Worlds: Place and Journey in Celtic SpiritualityWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 30, 1999
'Every Earthly Blessing is an enlightening book, reassuring in this unsettling world in which we 'live and move and have our being.' It is to me spellbinding. It is infinitely rereadable.' -- Barbara Gent, National Altar Guild AssociationWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.