One of the most dramatic transformations of culture in the history of Western civilization was accomplished by humble, poor, foreign missionary teachers. Irish monks—C. S. Lewis’ forebears—trudged their way across Scotland, England, and the European Continent. And in their wake they left a lasting legacy of faith, of learning, and, indeed, of civilization.
Over the centuries between A.D. 550 and 1300, scores of Irish monks left their homeland and spread out across Europe, preaching the Gospel to violent, lawless pagans, teaching Scripture, literature and the arts and sciences to kings and peasants alike and establishing monastic communities which served as centers for not only evangelism and discipleship, but for education and culture. Their teaching brought God’s Word and civilization back to a Europe which had been conquered and ruined by barbarians.
These selfless, passionate, learned Irish scholars provide a model for Christian academicians transforming culture in the twenty-first century. They exemplify the role and impact Christians with advanced degrees can have, especially in cross-cultural contexts, or as we might say, when they are serving as academic missionaries—teaching and doing academic work in a culture not their own. Celtic Christianity was flawed and suffered from theological oddities, with imperfect leaders and followers, and with an inadequate understanding of grace, among many other problems. But the Irish monks provide a prime historic example of how educated Christ-followers are uniquely suited to be God’s tool for bringing Scripture and truth back to our world.
This paper will briefly review the historic backdrop and development of Celtic Christianity, describe the Irish missions movement and the two primary hallmarks of the movement, examine what motivated them and what made them successful and finally, look at some lessons we can learn from them for our day.
St. Patrick and Ireland
In A.D. 500 the state of civilization across Europe was bleak. Instability and chaos ruled. The greatest empire on earth had been looted by massive invasions of numerous tribes, including the original Vandals and the real Attila the Hun, as well as by the unrest of its own citizens. Libraries were destroyed. Thousands of books were burned. Education at all levels had declined. Even many priests, normally the most educated in the society, could barely use Latin. The foundations and superstructure of Western civilization were largely destroyed.1
But there was one corner of the globe which had neither been conquered by Rome nor devastated by the Vandals, too obscure and remote for conquering armies to bother with—the little island called Ireland.
Patrick was the definitive force in Christianizing Ireland.2 He was the first missionary since St. Paul and other apostles of the first century, and was, according to Thomas Cahill in his popular book How the Irish Saved Western Civilization, “the first missionary to barbarians beyond the reach of Roman law.”3 Patrick tirelessly ministered all across Ireland from 432 until his death in 461.
His ministry was marked by evangelizing, by preaching and by teaching. As the people were converted, he would begin teaching them, beginning with the basic skills of reading and writing, and moving on eventually to theological training. In this way, “the first Irish Christians also became the first Irish literates.”4
Tens of thousands of Irish came to faith in Christ. Patrick’s evangelistic results were solidified and established through his work of founding monasteries all across the country, which shaped Ireland for centuries. These monasteries were quite different from those in Europe in that they nurtured not only devotion to God, but also a cultivation of the mind. As one scholar summarizes it: “Whilst culture was sinking in the West, each of these centers was lighting a torch…a torch whose flame would soon be carried everywhere.”5
These monasteries became the centers for education, both theological and general, in Ireland. An integral part of the Irish monastery was study and development of the mind. During the sixth century, some of the Irish monastic schools became well known for their scholarship. Some such as Clonard, established in 520, attracted thousands of students, including many foreign students, some of whom came from as far away as the Orient.6
A broad and thorough education was assumed as a requirement for service to God. John Ryan, in his classic work on Irish Monasticism, asserts that, “The danger of knowledge was well known, but the danger of ignorance was considered to be incomparably greater. To the Irish mind an illiterate monk was a contradiction in terms.”7 Latin, including reading the classical authors required for a liberal education, theology (including canon law) and Scripture, with Scripture holding the highest priority, comprised the three major divisions of an Irish monastic education.
Ireland represented the apex of learning in the Western world; across the island, “the standard of learning was much higher than with Gregory the Great and his followers.”8 Several monasteries gathered impressive collections of manuscripts of the New Testament as well as classic literature and the early Church fathers. The transcription of books, primarily Scriptures but also the classical writers, became a primary mission of most of the monasteries beginning in the sixth century.9
But the higher level of education was only one of several ways in which Celtic Christianity was quite distinct from Roman Christianity. The Irish Church openly differed from Rome in several respects. Celtic Christianity generally focused more on “the good, the true and the beautiful” than Roman Christianity which tended to focus more on systems of governance, domination and oversight.
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
- 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
- Writings: Theologies
- Theology in words
- Christianity is a doctrine
- 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
- Writings: Biographies
- Theology in the arts, ritual, feasts, dance, songs
- Christianity is a way of life
IRISH MONKS BECOME MISSIONARIES
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.
Columban, or Columbanus (not to be confused with Columba/Columcille of Iona), born in A.D. 540, is considered to be the first truly great Irish missionary, because even more than Columba, “he was the pioneer who inspired the mass exodus later.”20
From his writings it is obvious that he received a thorough education. His Latin is excellent and he refers with ease and authority to both pagan authors and Christian authors.21 Dubois describes Columban, “Ordained to the priesthood, fully versed in things human as well as divine, humanist and theologian, he learnt to unite and make inseparable two seemingly conflicting sides of spiritual life—contemplation and action.”22
Marnell describes the unique environment of Bangor in which Columban was molded:
It was a life that drew the more gifted of Ireland’s youth away from the violence rampant then in Irish life, as it was in life throughout the western world, and gave them a life of the spirit and the intellect, a life of prayer, and a life of work, but a life in which, by some formula lost in the mists of time and never quite recaptured, the asceticism of the anchorite was combined with the missionary’s service to the people.23
This was in contrast to most of the non-Celtic monasticism of that time which was definitely “not missionary” and “did not seek to save the world but to flee from it. The primary objective of the monk was his own salvation, not that of others.”24 Marnell’s description of “the asceticism of the anchorite…combined with the missionary’s service to the people” truly captures the heart of the Irish academic missionary movement.
Late in the sixth century, Columban left Ireland with twelve disciples and sailed to Brittany. When they disembarked, they immediately began preaching to the pagans in that region. So many people responded to their evangelism that King Sigebert summoned them to his court. Columban persuaded the king that he could teach them about the Christian faith as well as culture and civilization.25 The king provided land for the missionaries where they established a monastery. It grew so rapidly that soon they had to search for a site to establish another monastery.
Thus, in 590, Columban established a monastery at Luxeuil, which, in Dubois’ words, “was to become the most brilliant center of learning and virtue in the Middle Ages.” At Luxeuil a stellar group of brilliant scholars in a variety of fields, as well as a host of skilled artisans and craftsmen, gathered. For Columban, it was important to teach both secular subjects and religious subjects.26 The Irish commitment to a full-orbed Christian worldview, and to a broad education (not only theological education for the priesthood) is evident throughout Columban’s work.
With growth came more distractions to the life of prayer and solitude, which Columban craved. So he would often hide away in a nearby cave for long periods of time. He is the only sixth-century theologian to leave an extensive collection of writings on devotional practices and prayer. One of his most famous prayers is: “Inspire us with Thy charity, O Lord, That our loving quest for Thee may occupy our every inmost thought; that thy love may take complete possession of our being, and divine charity so fashion our senses that we may know not how to love anything else but Thee.”27
Eventually Columban was forced to leave Luxeuil and the other centers he had established in the region, because he had offended the king with his preaching. So he and many of his disciples began another long trek, eventually ending up in Italy, where he established the famous monastery at Bobbio which “became from the first century of its foundation, an intellectual center of incomparable radiance; the learning and the holiness of the monks illuminated Northern Italy; the richness of its library astonished the world of the humanists, and for nearly a thousand years this privileged abbey experienced a marvelous extension.”28
Marnell states: “Of all the Irish peregrini on the Continent there can scarcely be any doubt that Columban had the most widespread and lasting impact. Within a generation France was dotted with monasteries, founded by men who had been trained in Luxeuil. Most of their founders were natives of France….Columban supplied the inspiration, the Franks supplied the personnel.”29 More than sixty disciples of Columban fanned out across Europe wielding wide influence over the Continent.30 More than thirty monasteries were founded as a direct result of monks trained at Luxeuil, and another two hundred monasteries had some indirect linkage to Luxeuil.31
Marnell colorfully describes Columban as,
A microcosm of the entire Irish monastic movement: he was a missionary to the pagan; a theologian who debated with bishops and even with a pope; a public figure feared and therefore courted, without success, by a regent and a king; a poet who could versify his faith but also write a rowing song; the sort of man who could fell a tree with one blow of an axe and then strangle a bear. Such men have messages for popes and barbarians alike.32
St. Gall and the Abbey
When Columban was driven away from Luxeuil, Gall, his lifelong friend and disciple who had left Bangor with him, accompanied him. In A.D. 610 they stopped at Lake Constance in what is today Switzerland where Gall established a monastery. He was in his early 50’s.
Gall was a man of intense piety who lived an austere, disciplined life. The abbey he established eventually became a center for education, beginning with a few individuals who gathered informally to be his pupils. Over the years, more Irish monks came to Gall’s abbey, among them, many scholars and teachers. The Abbey of St. Gall became one of the great educational centers of Europe for more than a thousand years. By the mid-800’s, according to Zimmer, St. Gall “was the most celebrated monastery in Germany at that time and for more than three hundred years it was looked upon as the chief nursery of learning of the whole kingdom. It owes its reputation greatly to its connections with Ireland and the work of learned Irish monks in its university.”33
With its growing reputation and educational quality, the abbey became the beneficiary of several generous bequests and a growing circle of wealthy individuals supported the work. This freed the more scholarly monks to devote themselves to study, writing and teaching. Gall gathered the greatest library in Europe.34
One of the most noted Irish teachers in Gall’s history was Moengal (or Marcellus) who arrived at Gall in 850. According to Zimmer, he “seems to have made a powerful impression upon the monks by his great learning, both in theology and the secular sciences.”35 An early history by Ekkehard, a Gall monk from the next century, notes that Moengal was “most learned in both divine and human matters.”36 He specialized in theology but also taught music.
According to Zimmer, “Moengal’s residence at St. Gall produced an unwonted impetus to composition among the inmates of the monastery….In my opinion there were very few men who, in the middle of the ninth century exerted such a beneficent influence upon the German mind in the cultivation of the higher arts and sciences as Moengal and his followers.”37 But Moengal was not only an outstanding academic; he also lived an exemplary life of devotion to God. Heiric, a contemporary of Moengal, writes that he was “the only philosopher of our time who is a man of perfect holiness.”38 He was an example of a scholar with high standards in both academic work and personal holiness.
Moengal was an excellent educator and demonstrated a commitment to the importance of a broad education. Moengal provided an education in what were the classic seven liberal arts of that day: the trivium—grammar, dialectic and rhetoric—and the quadrivium—arithmetic, music, grammar, and astronomy. A description by Notker, one of Moengal’s students who himself later taught at Gall, indicates that during the first three years of education, the student focused on Christian doctrine and memorized Scriptures and some of the creeds. They memorized the entire book of Psalms. Then they studied reading, writing and arithmetic, along with music and Latin grammar. Later they studied such books as Aesop’s fables and the classical writers, such as Virgil, Homer, Ambrose and others. Since there were few books, the teacher mostly read to the students while they copied the text on wax tablets and then memorized it. Students were also taught in free composition.39
The abbey itself provided education across the entire age spectrum, from primary to “university” level. Clark describes the plethora of academic and cultural activities at St. Gall around the middle of the ninth century:
Books were written, copied, and illuminated in the scriptorium. Musical works were composed, and the theory of music was taught. The monks observed the sun and stars to calculate the dates of church festivals. All the sciences known in that day were diligently studied, nor were the more practical arts and handicrafts neglected: painting, architecture, sculpture in wood, stone, metal and ivory, weaving, spinning, and agriculture were all the object of assiduous attention. Among the monks of St. Gall there were historians, theologians, artists, poets, and musicians.40
Clark also reflects on the unique combination of asceticism, self-sacrifice and scholarship which the monks at the Abbey of St. Gall possessed:
The calm of the cloisters was conducive to study, and many men whose natural aptitudes led them to love learning found a congenial home in conventual surroundings. Such men…united in their persons the piety of a monk and the accomplishments of a scholar….The scriptoria of the Benedictines are therefore the channel through which the intellectual treasures of classical antiquity passed into our modern world….The community was essentially aristocratic in its nature; the abbots were invariably nobles. This aristocracy of birth became in the ninth century an aristocracy of intellect. The monastery became an academy of scholars, poets, artists, and musicians. Not content with copying the works of antiquity, they studied them diligently and amassed a very respectable store of erudition.41
From its inauspicious beginnings, the Abbey of St. Gall had become “the intellectual center of the German world.”42 For another hundred years after Moengal, Irish scholars continued to influence education at Gall. Gall scholars in turn went out to found and to lead other monastic centers across Europe.
By 800 devoted Irish monks had scattered all over Europe. But Columba, Columban, Gall and scores of other monks were only the first wave of Irish academic missionaries to Europe.
IRISH TEACHERS IN THE CAROLINGIAN EMPIRE
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.
MOTIVATION OF THE MONKS
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
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
BALANCED LIVING AND LEARNING—TWO HALLMARKS OF THE IRISH MONKS
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
FACTORS IN THE SUCCESS OF THE IRISH ACADEMIC MISSIONS MOVEMENT
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.
LESSONS FOR CHRISTIANS TRANSFORMING CULTURE IN THE 21ST CENTURY
There are uncanny parallels between the times of these medieval missionary monks and our day. The spiritual and intellectual darkness of Europe in their time was staggering and pervasive. Today we do not have the scarcity of learning and education that existed in the Europe of those earlier centuries, but there are parallels and lessons nevertheless.
The concept of truth is being exterminated in the great halls of learning around the world. A deep darkness is settling over our planet. This darkness declares there is no God, there are no absolutes, there is no right and wrong, there is no intrinsic value in human life. Truth is deconstructed into relative bits of data with no meta-narrative to give meaning to life. This darkness has spread from university classrooms into entertainment and news media, into high schools and grade schools, from Columbine to Jeddah to Amsterdam to Prague. It has reached into the highest offices of our land and other nations of the world. Truth not only does not matter, truth does not even exist. God—if He is even there—is irrelevant. This spreading darkness seeks to still any voices that dare to disagree.
The darkness today comes in many forms and is known by many names—paganism, relativism, naturalism, deconstructionism, humanism, secularism. But it is darkness by any name—a darkness that threatens, if unchallenged by the Light, to make the twenty-first century a Dark Age of its own, indeed possibly the darkest century of all. Once again, we need Christians who can bring the good, the true and the beautiful back to a world that has denigrated these and has exalted the evil, the false and the ugly. So there are certainly lessons we can learn from these medieval monks.
1. As Christians we must realize that we are called to a significant role to not only lead individuals to Christ and to guide their spiritual formation but also to transform culture and society, even in our Dark Age. You are not merely a pawn in a cosmic chess game between God and Satan. You can make choices. You can make choices to respond to God’s call for significant service. As Ephesians 2:10 says, you are God’s masterpiece, his work of art, “created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for [you] to do” (NIV). You were created by God to make a significant difference in this world—whether in the home, in politics, in education, in business, in the arts, in law, in the media. It may not be prominent. Your impact may never be publicized, but just as surely as those faithful, humble monks walked with God and quietly invaded and changed their world, you can make a lasting difference in your world.
2. Transformation of culture requires engagement with the culture. Just as the monks of the Roman Church withdrew from society in order to save their own souls, there are many Christians today who retreat and withdraw—and tragically, sometimes, still lose their souls and those of their families. But the Celtic monks chose to pursue both godliness and engagement with their world. They did not retreat. They engaged and transformed their world.
3. We must be patient. Transformation of culture takes time, sometimes generations. Yet the insistence on “immediate results” is constant in many sections of evangelicalism today. Many Christians and ministry organizations who are conscientiously seeking to be faithful to God’s calling are pressured to continually give evidence of their “evangelistic effectiveness” for any given period of time, with the assumption that this is the only activity of Christian value. Yet those faithful Irish monks rarely experienced immediate results nor mass conversions. The monthly or even yearly “successes” they could chalk up were often sparse. But the quiet, steady proclamation and teaching of Christian truth eventually worked. As Marnell expressed it, “The army of Rome could not defeat the Franks, but the army of Christ could, and it was defeat in the name of Christ that was victory for the Franks.”81 When my wife, Teri, and I were sitting in the cathedral at Iona, we were struck by the fact that the place where we were sitting, was there as a result of one man’s obedience to God in A.D. 563. Aim for significance, but work with patience and dream with a long vision.
4. Significant living often requires sacrificial living. We must embrace God’s priorities for our lives and not the normal American dreams of comfort, security and affluence—basically a self-centered life. We must renounce those as life goals. When my son Lance was young, we were sitting in the car at a Dairy Queen one hot summer evening, listening to the deep voice of George Beverly Shea singing, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold.” Lance piped up from the back seat, “But Dad, I’d rather have both.” These poor monks freely chose Jesus—and Jesus alone. They made choices to walk away, often from wealth and comfort and security, leaving their country and their people and their culture, to live in strange and inconvenient and uncomfortable places. And in many respects we are here today as inheritors of their sacrifice, in bringing the Gospel to our forbearers.
5. Your education is a gift that is given to you to bless others, and not for your own pride or wealth. Our calling is to use our education to make a difference for God’s Kingdom. Education is important in God’s kingdom. Well-educated Christians, especially those with graduate degrees, are uniquely suited to be effective in both life-transforming and culture-changing impact.
6. We must communicate with both hearts and minds in our pagan post-modern culture. In some Christian circles today there is a narrow view of what God has called His followers to do in the world. This view, which has gained wide currency in some parts of evangelicalism, holds that the only truly worthy purpose of Christian ministry is to evangelize and plant churches. This truncated view of God’s message and his purpose for our world actually hinders effective evangelism and the full impact of the Gospel on the world, especially in the great centers of culture and education. This myopic perspective reveals a narrow view both of God’s kingdom and of the breadth of impact He calls us to have on the world as salt and light.
Had these Celtic monks brought a truncated message, aiming only for individual conversions, without also teaching and raising the level of knowledge about the world God created, their impact would have been greatly limited. Although their initial results in terms of conversions might have been greater had they focused only on evangelism, the long-term enduring results and historic changes would no doubt have been diminished. Europe would certainly not have been fundamentally transformed in the way that it was. Their efforts would probably have produced isolated individuals following Christ, but without the broad cultural, institutional and societal changes occurring. But in fact, their evangelism was enhanced and more effective, because of the authority with which they spoke on such a wide range of subjects.
Charles Malik, former president of the UN General Assembly and Security Council, made this declaration at the dedication of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College: “Christ being the light of the world, His light must be brought to bear on the problem of the formation of the mind….The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost the world….Responsible Christians face two tasks—that of saving the soul and that of saving the mind.”82
7. Finally, teaching is strategic in God’s kingdom. God has ordained that teaching impacts not only individual lives, but whole cultures and nations as well, as the Irish missions movement so powerfully demonstrates. Education and scholarship—learning and teaching about all of God’s truth and all parts of His world—is a divine calling and should be embraced as a holy task worthy of the Church’s best energies and resources.
The story of these Irish monks should encourage Christian professors and students to be faithful in their academic calling. Education is slow, it is costly, but it is certain to bring change. The impact of our lives, especially as academicians, will not be fully measured during our lives. But if done in humility and accompanied by a holy life, teaching, though slow, has significant, indeed, eternal impact.
My prayer is that the example of these medieval monks will inspire a growing movement of academicians with a global vision—those who voluntarily leave their homeland to teach in other nations. My primary vocation is to motivate and recruit individuals with academic credentials to serve in secular universities around the world through the work of the International Institute for Christian Studies. Thankfully, once again there are men and women who are responding to the call of the living God: a call not to a “Red Martyrdom” with firing squads and torture chambers, but to a martyrdom nevertheless—a martyrdom which compels them to leave parents and grandparents, friends and supportive churches, to leave comfortable homes, to leave academic and professional positions, financial security and emotional fulfillment to teach in secular universities overseas—where, if they were not present, no Christian voice would be heard.
They are leaving all of this to take on a martyrdom in which they die to an easy career path, tenured positions, camaraderie with valued colleagues, comfortable salaries and the warm fellowship of a loving church. In this martyrdom, they die to pride and financial independence by accepting a salary that is not only meager, but which often they have to raise themselves; a martyrdom which sometimes costs them the respect of family members and colleagues who don’t understand doing something as “stupid” as leaving all this, for that—just for the chance to teach in a university in another country. This is a martyrdom, which at its deepest level, can rend the dearest relationship with family and friends who shake their heads in utter amazement, “Why, why would you do this to us—and to yourselves—and to your children?”
I hope that the example of these humble monks will inspire you to follow a truly biblical model for dynamic living and learning: simultaneously cultivating the heart and cultivating the mind; focusing on both living a holy life of passionate love for God, and thinking and learning under the Lordship of Christ, realizing that no subject and not the smallest detail of life escapes his dominion.
Literacy and Scripture and ultimately Western civilization were preserved by faithful and sacrificial Irish monks who spent their lives cultivating mind and heart, salvaging Scripture letter by letter, walking across Europe, preaching and teaching, establishing centers for spiritual, artistic and intellectual growth, and in the process, salvaged a dying civilization—all because their hearts and minds were aflame for Christ. Let us too, in our day, with hearts and minds aflame for Christ, be faithful to treasure truth, transform culture and save both hearts and minds. Christians in general and scholars and artists in particular can model and articulate the good, the true and the beautiful and in so doing, once again “save Western civilization.” We can once again demonstrate that Christ truly makes all things new.
Dr. Daryl McCarthy is the President of the International Institute for Christian Studies. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.
1“Throughout the Middle Ages there was probably not a more barbarous period in Western Europe than the hundred years which ran from 650 to 750. Classical and clerical studies had fallen into utter decay. With very few exceptions, even the best instructed laymen scarcely knew how to read and write. The clergy, indifferently skilled in Latin letters, despised the national tongue which was in truth still undeveloped, and were totally ignorant of Greek.” (Louis Gougaud, Gaelic Pioneers of Christianity, trans. by Victor Collins. [Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1923], 42).
2The Nicois Frenchman Antoine Pagi (1624-1699) said of Patrick, “It is to him that the Irish owe the fact that their country has become the Island of the Saints and even, during our time, the center of influence in letters and sciences.” (Quoted by Christiani Chanoine, “Saint Patrick and the Christian Origins of Ireland,” in The Miracle of Ireland, ed . M. Daniel-Rops, trans. by the Earl of Wicklow. [Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1959], 20).
3Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization – The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 108.
5M. Daniel-Rops, The Miracle of Ireland, trans. the Earl of Wicklow (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1959), 10.
6H. Zimmer, The Irish Element in Medieval Culture, trans. and notes by Jane Loring Edmands (The Knickerbocker Press, 1891; reprint, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons: 1969), 45-46 (page citations are to the reprint edition).
7John Ryan, Irish Monasticism – Origins and Early Development (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), 378.
9John Ryan, ed., Irish Monks in The Golden Age (Dublin: Clonmore and Reynolds Ltd., 1963), 380.
10From Brian D. McLaren, “Why Leaning Back Can Help Us Move Forward,” paper presented at EFMA Executive Retreat, Kansas City, Missouri, September 17, 2002.
12William H. Marnell, Light from the West—The Irish Mission and the Emergence of Modern Europe (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 1-2.
15James P. Mackey, An Introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 106.
16J.M. Clark, The Abbey of St. Gall As a Centre of Literature & Art (Cambridge: University Press, 1926) 27. No source I have found reveals the reason for tattooing.
17Ryan, Irish Monks, 20-23.
19Ryan, Irish Monks, 103.
20Mackey, 106. See also Gougaud, 8.
22Marguerite-Marie Dubois, “Saint Columbanus,” in Ryan, Irish Monks, 45.
24Kenneth Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol. I : To 1500 A.D. (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 222.
25Dubois, “Saint Columbanus,” 46.
28Dubois “Saint Columban and his Disciples,” In The Miracle of Ireland, ed. M. Daniel-Rops. 64. See also Dubois, “Saint Columbanus,” 55.
30Dubois, “Saint Columbanus,” 56.
34Ibid., 15. At a time when there were still few books in Europe, the abbey library at Gall in Moengal’s time included copies of the Scriptures, works of Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Victorinus, Cassiodorus, Bede, Origen, the Etymologies of Isidore, Josephus, the Rules of Benedict and Basil, Eusebius, Priscian’s Grammar, Orosius, Solinus, Boethius, biographies by Jonas and Walahfrid and other authors. Joynt offers a detailed description of many of the ancient manuscripts from the St. Gall library (The Life of St. Gall, 49-57).
37Zimmer, 73-74, 77.
39Maud Joynt, The Life of St. Gall (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: 1927), 17. See Clark, 96-124, for an excellent comprehensive description of the textbooks and style of education.
43See Gougaud, 43-44, and Clark, 30, for two renditions of this account.
46Gougaud, 52. Not only were the Irish leading in scholarship across Europe, but gradually they and their students began replacing the older generation of Gallo-Roman Church leaders. Even though this does not appear to be one of their objectives, the credibility and scholarship of the Irish in education earned them a hearing in the broader church world. Marnell states that, “the Irish conquest of the Frankish Church…was completed within a half century of the death of Columbanus” as his students and in turn their students, took over the power structure of the Roman Church (118). Many Church leaders including bishops across Europe during this period were Irishmen, including Virgil in Salzburg, Israel in Provence, Donatus at Fiesole, Abel in Gaul, Tomianus and Helias, both at Angouleme. (Gougaud, 22-23). Fiaich lists several Irish leaders and scholars (Mackey, 120-125). Israel is probably the bishop who put the story of Branden (who was memorialized so much in Germany with Brandenburg and other cites) in literary form. See also Marnell, 187-189.
48Rene Aigram “The Contribution of Ireland to Medieval Christian Thought,” in The Miracle of Ireland, ed. M. Daniel-Rops, 137. Aigram lists many other Irish scholars, 132-137.
49Fiaich, Thomas O, Irish Cultural Influence in Europe, VIth to XIIth Century (Dublin: Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland, 1967), 4.
50Gougaud, xix-xx. Gougaud, writing in 1923 compares these Irish missionaries to the Irish missionaries of the early 1900’s. “This grand display of zeal led to fresh conquests for the Church of God, but in our own day it has been eclipsed by the splendid enthusiasm that has smitten men of brilliant minds and generous hearts, and impelled them, with an imperious urgency, to devote their lives to the conversion of China” (xxi).
51Cerbelaud-Salagnac, “The Monastaries of Ireland, Nurseries of Saints,” in The Miracle of Ireland, ed. M. Daniel-Rops, 46.
52J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, “Saint Aidan in England,” in Irish Monks in the Golden Age, ed Daniel-Rops, 37.
53“The exodus of the Irish monks and scholars had little of the modern foreign missionary movement about it. For one thing, the primary motive was ascetical rather than evangelical.” Fiaich (Mackey, 103).
54Fulbert Cayre , “Irish Spirituality in Antiquity,” in The Miracle of Ireland, ed. M. Daniel-Rops, 106-107.
55Quoted in Ryan, Irish Monasticism, 261.
56Cahill, 151. Ryan has an excellent discussion of the concept of martyrdoms (Irish Monasticism, 197-199).
57Clare Stancliffe, “Red, white and blue martyrdom,” in Ireland in Early Mediaeval Europe ed. Dorothy Whitelock, Rosamond McKitterick, and David Dumville (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 21. This is a detailed and technical study on the concepts of martyrdom among the Irish.
59Some historians believe that those who left Ireland and sailed away under the white sky were following the White Martyrdom, but it is unclear as to whether this terminology was used to refer specifically to leaving Ireland. Cf. Cahill, 184.
62Quoted by Peter O’Dwyer, “Celtic Monks in the Culdee Reform,” in An Introduction to Celtic Christianity ed. James P. Mackey, 168.
66Ryan, Irish Monks in the Golden Age, 15.
68Ryan, Irish Monks in the Golden Age 112.
72“To speak very strictly, there was held to be but one science, that of the Sacred Scriptures….The other branches of learning were only considered to be handmaids or assistants to religious education. The liberal arts, prosody, poetry, chronology, were in principle believed to have no other right to exist than in so far as they were useful in preparing the mind for the lectio divina, by which was meant the study of the Divine Thought as expressed in the Bible and handed down by tradition.” (Gougaud, 59).
76Marnell, 62, 73.
80Zimmer, 103, 106-108. Also Bernard Guillemain, “The Irish Saints in France,” in The Miracle of Ireland, ed. M. Daniel-Rops, 77.
82Charles Malik, The Two Tasks (Westchester, Illinois: Cornerstone, 1980) 31-32, 34.
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