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

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Charlemagne (A.D. 742-814), who did much to lay the foundation for modern education, received many Irish scholars into his court. When he first began to gather scholars, he invited some from Italy, Spain and Britain. Two Irishmen joined this group around 782, Clemens and another one whose identity is not certain. The story from Gesta Caroli Magni, of the arrival of these two Irishmen, is intriguing.

Two Irish monks landed on the coast of Gaul along with British traders. It was obvious that these monks were knowledgeable in a broad range of subjects. Although they had nothing to sell, they stood up in the market as if they were hawking wares. They shouted, “Anyone who hungers for knowledge should come to us and receive it, because it can be bought here.” They had observed that most people value what they pay for, more than something they are given without cost.

When Charlemagne heard about these two monks, he summoned them to the palace, and asked them if they indeed possessed true wisdom, as he had heard. They replied, “Yes, we do, and we will gladly teach those who ask for it in the right way and in the Lord’s name.” When the king asked what their price was, they answered, “We only ask, O King, for a place to live, for good and intelligent men to teach, and for food, drink, and clothing—the basics necessary for life.” When Charlemagne saw their sincerity, dedication and breadth of knowledge, he was convinced that they must join the growing band of scholars in his court.43

Earlier Irish monks had often found a welcome at the courts of the Merovingian kings for their teaching and preaching. Zimmer notes that “as in the early part of the seventh century, the Merovingian kings welcomed the Irish apostles who spread Christianity and the first elements of culture among the German tribes,” so that later in the ninth century, “in schools and monasteries all over France, the Carolingian kings employed Irish monks as teachers of writing, and tutors in grammar, logic, rhetoric, astronomy, and arithmetic.”44

Charlemagne’s association with the monks was ironic, because, he “was not especially interested in furthering asceticism. He founded a few monasteries, but to him they were not important for the practice of the full Christian life, but rather as centers of education and civilization.” The monks brought added value to the educational enterprise and thus were welcomed because of their credentials and expertise.45

A long list of Irish monks and scholars played strategic roles in training leaders and in the development of the educational structure in the Carolingian empire.46 Alcuin wrote from his position at Charlemagne’s court school that all the outstanding and best-educated teachers in Britain, Gaul and Northern Italy were from Ireland.47 In 876, Hierac of Auxerre, who was himself trained by Irish teachers at Laon, declared, “Here we have almost the whole of Ireland, despising the sea and its dangers, transporting itself to our shores with a company of its philosophers; the more a Scot [as the Irish were known then] is well instructed and able, the more readily does he decide on this exile, knowing it to respond to the wishes of a new Solomon.”48 How interesting that the higher the credentials, the more likely the scholar was to serve overseas, leaving his homeland.

The extensive travel of the Irish missionary-monks is all the more amazing in this era when most people never traveled more than a few miles from their birthplace. But the Irish were traveling as far north as Iceland and Greenland, as far south as Italy and eventually, east as far as Jerusalem and Kiev.49 And they did it all for the sake of education and evangelism.


What was it that motivated these scholars—many of them from noble, wealthy families— who by nature enjoyed the reclusive life of study and prayer, to abandon the security and the predictable schedule of the large, well-established monasteries of their homeland and leave it all to become missionaries to strange lands and pagan people?

Love For Christ
The foremost motivation, especially for the early monks, was simply their love for Christ. As Gougaud eloquently states:

Christ had set their hearts on fire, and even today, after the lapse of so many centuries, our souls burn within us when we read the brief phrases that embody the great motive which led to the wanderings of these saintly exiles….These are, it is true, varied in form, but are generally crystallized in such words as ‘for the love of God,’ ‘for Christ,’ ‘for the Name of the Lord,’ and ‘for the love of the Name of Christ.’….they were indeed ‘of Christ enamoured wholly’ and had in full and bounteous measure that personal affection which…lit up their hearts with the white heat of a great passion that no sacrifice could satiate and no suffering subdue….They yearned to win all to Christ.50

These were truly academicians who loved God with their total being, including their minds, as Scripture commands.

Passion For Evangelism
Many of these monks, especially those during the first century of the movement, were genuinely seized by a desire to win the lost to Christ and the Church. Cerbelaud-Salagnac said:

The Irish monastic movement, which was admirable in itself, would have been no more than a purely local phenomenon and of no universal importance if [it] had been confined in its action with the island. This was not the case. On the contrary, the numbers of monks from Ireland, fresh from the great monastic schools, strike us as impetuous apostles, eager to carry the Gospel to the four corners of Europe, and to implant at all the latitudes monasteries submitted to their iron rule!…Ireland gave 115 missionaries to Germany, 45 to France, 44 to England, 36 to Belgium, 25 to Scotland and 13 to Italy. If one may accept the testimony of Jonas, the biographer of Saint Columban, no less than 620 missionaries had left Luxeuil to swarm over Bavaria alone. Naturally they would not all have been Irish, but a good number among them must surely have been.51

Even the practice of always walking was more than a legalistic commitment to self-denial for many. Walking made it easier for the monk to meet people and evangelize them. Walking brought the missionary closer to the people he was trying to reach.52