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

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Asceticism was prominent in Celtic monasticism and played a major role in the missions movement. In fact, some scholars such as Fiaich believe that asceticism, not evangelism, was the primary motivation of most monks in leaving Ireland.53 He claims that many monks left Ireland and went to pagan lands, not so they could evangelize, but so they could find seclusion and fulfill the ultimate self-mortification of leaving one’s beloved homeland.

But it seems more accurate to say that, in contrast to Roman asceticism, Celtic asceticism was not focused primarily on saving one’s own soul, but on saving others as well. Thus, academic-missionary monks found their drive for asceticism pushing them to strange and pagan cultures. All who have ministered cross-culturally know the death to self this requires. Christ’s words to the rich young ruler served as the divine call for many Irish missionaries: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The Irish monk realized that this mortal life is not lasting; eternal life is to be our true goal and focus. We reach that goal by denying ourselves in this life and seeking eternal values. Cayre points out that it was “complete detachment” from this life and “absolute abnegation” that led many monks to commit their lives to overseas mission service. “Self-denial is above all the road to sanctity….”54 What greater level of self-denial could a monk reach than to voluntarily exile himself from his homeland?

No doubt Patrick’s own example and testimony in leaving his native Britain to become a missionary to Ireland influenced many. He declared, “Whence came to me that gift so great, so salutary, the knowledge and love of God so intense that I might part with fatherland and relations?”55

Ireland was, according to Cahill, the “only land into which Christianity was introduced without bloodshed. There are no Irish martyrs” [in the first eleven centuries of Irish Christianity]….This lack of martyrdom troubled the Irish, to whom a glorious death by violence presented such an exciting finale.”56 Clare Stancliffe adds, “The Irish revered as martyrs not only those who died for their faith, but also those whose ascetic discipline made their lives a kind of daily immolation for Christ.”57

So the Irish developed a new kind of martyrdom. They called it Green Martyrdom, as opposed to Red Martyrdom. If they couldn’t lose their lives for Christ, they could die to their lives as they were. They would leave the comforts of home, go to the green hills and mountains or to an island and study Scriptures, copy Scriptures and commune with God. Gougaud states that “Voluntary exile appealed to them as the supreme immolation, and as being specially adapted to perfect the act of renunciation they had undertaken.” Phrases such as “for the welfare of the soul” and “to gain the heavenly fatherland” are used to describe their motivation.58 For many this Green Martyrdom led them to become missionaries.59


Cultivation of Holy Living
The monks and their movement were characterized by the dual cultivation of a holy life and the cultivation of the mind. Emerging as they did from the intense environment of the Irish monasteries, the early missionaries were intent on the holiness of God and on practicing holy lives themselves. In Ireland, according to Gougaud, “holiness so flourished there that soon it deserved the name of the island of the saints.”60 But Marnell points out that “in most cases, these saints were not such by virtue of formal canonization in the Catholic Church. They were holy men of God, honored for their holiness and wondered at for the self-discipline and self-denial of their lives.”61

While this focus on holiness sometimes developed into a graceless legalism, many of the monks were truly in love with a holy God and were seeking to be conformed to His holy image. One Irish tract from the eighth century entitled “Practices of Piety in Sinchell’s School” in the Book of Leinster is filled with practical guidance for living a holy life. “Who is nearest God? He who meditates on Him…In whom does the Holy Spirit dwell? In him who is pure without sin. Then it is that a man is a vessel of the Holy Spirit when the virtues come to replace the vices. Then it is that desire for God increases when desire for the world withers.”62

It was said of Columban that, as Daniel-Rops expresses it, “His passing through the country started a real contagion of holiness.”63 In fact the holiness of their lives was one of their primary means of evangelism. The pagan people with their debauched lives were attracted to the simple, pure lives of the monks. They saw something in these monks they wanted. Hertling asserts that “What induced the heathens to become Christians…was, perhaps, not so much the sermons these monks preached as the example of their lives entirely devoted to God.”64

Cultivation of the Mind
A commitment to the cultivation of the mind and to education lies at the center of this great missions movement. They were deeply committed to, in Aigram’s words, “the double formation, intellectual and spiritual.”65 They did not conceive any bifurcation between mind and heart. Their belief was, according to Ryan, that “Scholarship was only one degree less necessary to the Church than sanctity.”66 They were equally committed to cultivation of personal holiness through prayer and penance and cultivation of the mind through learning.67 As Ryan expressed it, “To the Irish mind true knowledge was a most valuable aid to holy living. To love God surely one must begin by knowing God. And the argument might continue: the fuller the knowledge of God, the greater the love of God in the heart should be.”68

Alcuin, the famous Briton who headed Charlemagne’s Palatine School, wrote a letter to “the Brothers who in the Isle of Ireland devoted themselves in various places to the service of God.” In this letter he “sketches out a science of teaching of profane letters oriented towards a study of the sacred Scriptures”; i.e., how to teach the entire range of academic disciplines from a biblical or Christian worldview.69 Sedulius, an Irish scholar at Liege, was known for his capability of “applying himself with success to the most diverse disciplines.”70