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

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Daniel-Rops summarized the impact of the Irish missions movement: “There is scarcely a country in the whole Christian West of the period which has not more or less borne the mark of these men, there is scarcely one which does not owe to them the awakening among their people of faith which was to be that of the great Christian middle ages.”71 What was it that caused obscure monks from the remote island of Ireland to wield such influence which would endure over the centuries? Several factors contributed to the breadth, depth and the longevity of their impact.

1. Christian Worldview
They articulated a full-orbed, holistic Christian worldview. They generally viewed all of living and learning under the Lordship of Christ and made no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. This made it possible for them to see no contradiction between teaching the Bible and teaching the classics of Western civilization from a Christian worldview. Celtic prayers are alive with the dynamic presence of God in all of creation. There is no dualism or two-storied universe for the Irish. This is all God’s world.

2. Breadth of Learning
The parallel aspect of their full-orbed, Christian worldview, was the fact that they promulgated a breadth of learning across many disciplines. Even though Gougaud’s research supports the thesis that they often viewed other disciplines as useful only insofar as they served theology, nevertheless they embraced a full breadth of knowledge about God’s world.72 The breadth of their teaching insured the breadth of their audience. They impacted not only monks and nuns, but laypersons as well through their teaching across Europe.

3. Global Vision
Often island inhabitants tend to be insular, narrow and provincial in their perspective and outlook. And that was certainly true of most of the population of the island of Eire. But it was most certainly not the case for these Irish monks. Their passion for Christ led naturally to a breadth of vision—if not global, then certainly far broader than most of their compatriots possess—which encompassed a large portion of their world. They took the Gospel as far south as Italy, as far east as Kiev and as far north as Iceland and the Faroe Islands. They assumed that the Lordship of Christ should be proclaimed in the farthest reaches of the globe.

4. Provided Added Value to Secular Leaders and Institutions
As academic missionaries, the Irish monks often found that their educational credentials and their ability to teach both “secular” and “sacred” subjects opened doors to them that would have otherwise been closed, particularly in the courts of pagan rulers. The rulers were willing put up with some theology, in order to take advantage of the other subjects the monks could teach.

5. Exemplary Lives
The monks, especially in the early years, generally matched their teaching of a Christian worldview with dedicated and sacrificial lifestyles. Granted, they were often, from our vantage point, legalistic, but most were earnestly devoted to God and to living a holy life. The Irish academic missionaries demonstrate that intellectual skill does not have to be divorced from spiritual devotion nor from missionary zeal.

6. Established Educational Institutions
They established centers and institutions of learning which long outlived them. Many of these monasteries and schools continued to serve as centers of learning for centuries after the Irish founders had passed on. Not only did they bring Christianity and civilization back to the Continent, the institutions they founded continued to disseminate education across Europe for centuries. Through these institutions, the Irish monks made education widely available. In that Dark Age, a great educational vacuum existed and they responded to fill this vacuum. As they preached the Gospel, they wanted their converts to be able to understand their new faith. This required that they be taught, often beginning at the most rudimentary level of education. In this way they brought education and civilization back to Europe—to both peasant and king. We can only speculate on how differently Europe might have responded to the invasion of Islamic forces had it not been reinvigorated by the evangelism and education of the Irish.73

7. High Standards of Excellence
Generally these monks were not only intense on attaining perfection in their spiritual lives, but they also sought excellence in their academic pursuits. Zimmer describes them as having “a purely Christian training and severely simple habit of mind, joined to the highest theoretical attainments based upon a thorough knowledge of the best standards of classical antiquity. These Irishmen had a high mission entrusted to them, and they faithfully accomplished their task.”74

8. Training National Leaders
The goal of the early monks was to, as Zimmer puts it, make themselves “superfluous… so that, in many instances, the second generation of monks…” would be native to that country.75 And it worked. This provided a strength and resilience that carried the institutions far beyond what they would have been had they aimed to establish purely “Irish” institutions which would be mere monuments to their own national heritage. Marnell refers to one of their main objectives as being “self-liquidation.”76 For all of their love and loyalty to their homeland, these Irish monks were decidedly non-ethnocentric; they were ethnically inclusive. The Irish monks seized every opportunity to train leaders at the highest levels, leaders who would shape Europe. They seemed to instinctively understand the “top-down principle,”—that by shaping the heart and mind of a leader, one is able to multiply his influence through the many individuals and institutions that the pupil in turn will influence. Teaching kings and emperors and their sons earned them credibility and a reputation as teachers and also enabled them to wield broad influence across Europe.

9. Second Language Acquisition
Fortunately for a people so committed to propagating the faith in other cultures, many of the Irish monks apparently had a keen facility for language learning. As Fiaich says, “Wherever they went, language difficulties never seem to have caused them a problem.”77 Columban worked in an area with three languages with relative ease. Gall quickly learned the language around Lake Constance. Many of these academic missionaries could write poetry in either Latin or Irish, some in Greek.78

10. Produced Books and Libraries
Libraries played a central role in the institution-building process. At each monastery the monks copied manuscripts, thus literally producing their own library—all this on a Continent where most libraries and books are been destroyed centuries earlier. As they painstakingly copied manuscripts not of Scripture but of many of the Greek and Latin classics, they preserved the literary treasures of Western civilization. Their libraries in turn attracted more scholars and enhanced the reputation of the monasteries as centers for learning. At the end of the tenth century the library at Bobbio held 700 volumes, including 220 volumes presented by various scholars in the ninth century (40 from Dungal alone). By 850 the library at Gall held 428 volumes and by the end of the ninth century, 533 volumes. The books in both libraries, while primarily theological, also included a good collection of works in other fields as well, such as grammar, astronomy, medicine and literature.79 These libraries served as two of the largest repositories for the treasures of civilization in the Western world.

Tragically, over the centuries, the quality of the Irish missionaries changed and their motives became mixed. A general flabbiness spread across the movement as evidenced by an unwillingness to sacrifice and a focus on personal fulfillment. Greed became widespread, with some monks “demanding money for their services.” Avarice was especially pronounced at institutions that had grown wealthy because of their growing fame and reputation. Intemperance, particularly drunkenness, and other vices also took their toll on both the credibility and the effectiveness of the Irish monks.80 Eventually, the great movement that had brought Christianity and civilization back to Europe died away.