Hearts And Minds Aflame For Christ: Irish Monks—A Model For Making All Things New in the 21st Century

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Comparison of Roman Christianity and Celtic Christianity
Although the following is an over-simplification of two movements that encompassed a great deal of diversity, this comparison highlights some of the general distinctives of these two styles of medieval Catholic Christianity.10

Roman Christianity

  • Monasteries: To escape from church corruption
  • Objective: Save, cultivate their own souls
  • Location: Isolated, remote
  • Occupation: Primarily ascetics
  • Male dominated
  • Lifestyle: Prayer and silence
  • Focus: Narrow
  • Individual
  • Writings: Theologies
  • Reason
  • Theology in words
  • Christianity is a doctrine

Celtic Christianity

  • Monasteries: Extend the church’s mission
  • Objective: Save their own and other’s souls
  • Location: Near roads and sea lanes
  • Occupation: Ascetics, teachers, scholars, artisans
  • Both males and females lead
  • Lifestyle: Worship, prayer, study, work
  • Focus: Holistic
  • Communal
  • Writings: Biographies
  • Creativity
  • Theology in the arts, ritual, feasts, dance, songs
  • Christianity is a way of life


These distinctives led the Irish Church to reach out to other peoples. The desire to extend the church’s mission led some who were educated in Ireland to not be content with scholarship. They wanted to translate their education into blessing for others. They wanted to teach others. They wanted to spread the Good News about Christ’s Kingdom. Thus, the missionary movement, which would take Christianity back to Europe, sprang from the monastery schools scattered across Ireland.

These Irish missionary-monks are strategic in the history of the Christian movement. Daniel-Rops states: “‘The Irish miracle’ as we like to call it, is this second setting out of Christianity, from a country which had only just been baptized, and which was immediately dreaming of giving Christ back to the world. Ireland, between the fifth and the eighth century, was like a second Palestine, like a new cradle of the Christian faith.”11

William Marnell points out that,

History has often recorded the sweep of military might across the face of Europe….Only once in history has there been a quiet, all but imperceptible flooding of Europe by the Word of God, preached by ascetics at once rude and inspired….Never in human history has another nation as small as Ireland done so much missionary work in so many lands over so many decades as did the Irish in what, save for them, would indeed have been the unrelieved Dark Ages.12

These monks taught Scripture as well as the arts, languages, literature, history, the sciences and the classic writers. Zimmer says they “were instructors in every known branch of science and learning of the time, possessors and bearers of a higher culture than was at that period to be found anywhere on the Continent, and can surely claim to have been the pioneers—to have laid the corner-stone of Western culture on the Continent.”13

These early Irish missionaries were called peregrini, or those on a pilgrimage, usually a life-pilgrimage. Most of them walked everywhere they went. Because of their commitment to self-denial, they refused to ride any vehicle or animal overland. Not traveling on foot could bring excommunication and was considered as important as “continence and abstinence.”14 They usually traveled in groups of twelve plus a leader, just as Christ and his disciples did. Fiaich describes the monks in this way: “Each wears a white tunic covered by a cowl and is tonsured from ear to ear. Many carry the pilgrim’s staff, a leather water-bottle hanging from a belt and perhaps a gospel-book in its leather case slung across the shoulder.”15 Clark, among others, reports that the hair that was left behind the tonsure was long and flowing, and that they “tattooed certain parts of the body, especially the eyelids.”16

Columba, or Columcille, as he is sometimes called, born in A.D. 521, was the first noted Christian leader to leave Ireland to minister elsewhere. He had founded more than forty monasteries in Ireland. But in 563, Columba sailed to Iona, a small island off the coast of Scotland with twelve followers where he established a monastic center. Columba became very influential, even inaugurating the king of Scotland which, according to Ryan, was “the first recorded example in European history of the inauguration of a civil rule by an ecclesiastical one.”17

Iona can rightly be called the birthplace of the Church in Scotland and northern England. Monks from Iona were instrumental in the conversion of many across Scotland and Britain. By the time Columba died in 597, he and his followers had established 23 missions in Scotland and 38 in Britain.18 Eventually Irish missionaries converted more than half of England.19 Iona remains one of the most famous Irish monasteries in the world today.