The ancient Irish church/Chapter 7

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From the beginning of the mission of Saint Patrick to the death of Columbanus occupies a period of about two centuries—roughly speaking, the fifth and sixth. The end of that time saw one national Church for Ireland and Scotland, both countries being governed by the same rules, and holding the same doctrines; that is to say, they held the doctrine and discipline of the Church of Gaul as it was at the end of the fourth century. If any development or change had taken place, it must have been brought about independently of any outside influence. It is, therefore, a matter of great interest to the student of general Church history that we should obtain as accurate a picture as possible of the Irish Church in that age. There is perhaps no other way in which we can get as clear an idea of the state of Christendom, for, when changes are taking place, when new developments of doctrine and discipline are being worked out, it is often very difficult to say afterwards how far the process had gone at one particular time. But if at that time there has been a portion separated from the rest, and this portion has continued for centuries isolated, and free from the influences that were producing change elsewhere, we can form a fairly accurate picture of the state of things that existed when the separation took place, by a careful study of the phenomena presented, and an elimination of those peculiarities that are due to merely local causes.

The difference between the rule of Columba and that of Columbanus, which latter may have been founded on that of Comgal, has already been noted. We may hence conclude that in some places a stricter rule was followed than in others, and the conjecture may be hazarded that there was a regular gradation, from simple Christian villages which were called monasteries, but were monastic only in name, to those in which the strictest discipline was observed and the extreme asceticism of the East was more than emulated.

Some countenance to this idea is given by one of an ancient body of canons, attributed to Gildas, who is said to have come to Ireland in the latter part of the sixth century, at the invitation of the chief monarch, for the purpose of restoring ecclesiastical order, 'because all the inhabitants of the island had abandoned the Catholic faith.' This story of the mission of Gildas is discredited by the fact that the period when Ireland is said to have apostatized was in fact one of great spiritual activity, as shown by the works of evangelization undertaken by the different missionaries. But there can be no doubt that the canons are connected with the Irish Church, though probably they belong to a later period. The canon says that 'an abbot who is lax ought not to prohibit his monk from seeking a stricter rule.' Then by way of explanation, it is said, 'monks flying from a lax to a more perfect discipline, and whose abbot is irreligious or immoral and unfit to be admitted to the table of the saints, may be received even without the knowledge of their abbot. But those whose abbot is not excluded from the table of the saints, ought not to be received. How much more those who come from holy abbots, whose only fault is that they possess cattle, and ride in chariots, either from the custom of the country or because of infirmity. For these things are less injurious, if they are possessed in humility and patience, than labouring at the plough, and driving stakes into the earth with presumption and pride.'[1]

From this we may learn not only that some had stricter rules than others, but that there was considerable jealousy between the two classes. Those of lax rule had no sympathy with the stricter ones; and on the other hand the extreme ascetics looked down upon those abbots as unworthy who rode in chariots and had wealth of cattle. It was unavoidable, from the very circumstances of the case, that there should be this diversity. The greatest advocates of monasticism had never dreamt of its becoming the one rule of the Church; but this was the case in Ireland, and therefore it necessarily followed that the system should be modified to meet the circumstances of the case. Extreme asceticism might suit a few enthusiastic souls; but for the ordinary members of the Church, or even of the clergy, it was a yoke which they were not able and could not be expected to bear.

It was not merely in different monasteries that there was this difference in strictness; even in the same establishment the inmates were not all bound by the same rule. A man might become an ascetic without separating himself from his abbot, even though the abbot were one that did not follow a very strict rule himself or impose it on his followers. This brings us to consider the institution of anchorites, which forms such a very striking feature in the early Irish Church. These were men who were not contented with the ordinary Christian life, but were supposed to practise greater austerities than those among whom they lived. They dwelt apart, in the 'Desert,' as their portion of the monastery was called.

The name, Desert, recalls to us the fact that the original anchorites were monks of Egypt, who retired into a real desert, for the purpose of spending lives of loneliness and devotion. As far as we are able to judge of them, they presented a not very inviting picture. They were for the most part not only ignorant, but they gloried in their ignorance; they never engaged in any useful work; some of them seem to have laid aside every vestige of civilization and decency; they placed no bounds to their fanaticism; they banished from their hearts every human affection. Though their lives were in one sense examples of extreme self-denial, in another sense they were examples of extreme selfishness. Whatever may be thought of cenobites, or monks living in community, there can only be one opinion about the hermits. They were as a general rule useless and lazy, and under the cloak of humility were filled with spiritual pride.

When the monastic system was introduced into the West, the names were retained, but the things signified were far from being the same. When we speak of the Irish 'anchorites' living in a 'desert,' we must dismiss from our minds nearly all the ideas that we usually connect with these two words. First of all, the anchorites had scarcely one point in common with those of Egypt and Syria. They did not live lives of isolation, but formed part of the community. In later years there were 'enclosed anchorites' found in Ireland. These never left their cells, but spent their whole time each on the grave of his predecessor and with his own grave open beside him. But the old Irish Church was a thing of the past before these made their appearance. They were quite unknown in the period we are now considering. The old Irish anchorites had their duties to perform, like the rest of the monks. In Iona, for example, one of them was a bridge maker. It was not at all uncommon for the anchorite to be abbot of a monastery. Others were bishops, scribes, lawgivers, teachers. Some were even travellers. Of one we are told that he died in Italy.

A good idea of the life they were expected to lead is given us in an ancient 'Rule,' written in Irish, which is attributed to Columba, and belongs, if not to his age, at all events to an early period. Here the religious brother who prefers solitude 'is recommended to reside in contiguity to a principal church, in a secure house with one door, attended by one servant, whose work should be light, where only those should be admitted who converse of God and His Testament, and in special solemnities only. His time was to be spent in prayers for those who received his instructions and for all those who had died in faith, the same as if they had all been his most particular friends. The day was to be divided into three parts, devoted respectively to prayers, good works and reading. The works were to be divided into three parts; the first was to be devoted to his own benefit, in doing what was useful and necessary for his own habitation; the second part to the benefit of the brethren; and the third to the benefit of the neighbours. This last part of his pious works was to consist of precepts or writing, or else sewing clothes or any other profitable industrial work: so that there shall be no idleness, as God says, Thou shalt not appear before Me empty.'[2]

The 'desert' in which these anchorites lived was simply a place set apart for themselves. Sometimes this was near the monastery, as at Glendalough; sometimes it was actually in it, as in the case contemplated by the rule just quoted, and as we know to have been the case at Kells. The desert was a place where penitents might retire for a while and obtain ghostly comfort and advice, for many of the anchorites were famous as anmcharas, or 'soul friends.' For the regulation of these, both penitents and advisers, there was an officer appointed, who was called the 'Head of the Desert.'

When these facts are considered, it will be seen that it is most important that we should not be misled by words, when the terms used for the existing circumstances in one country are transferred to those of another. The words, monastery, monk, anchorite, desert, and the like have done more than anything else to give wrong ideas as to what the ancient Irish Church was like. We have seen that in Ireland the anchorite was simply a stricter monk, and when we remember that he was allowed to keep a servant and to receive visitors, we can scarcely say that his rule was too strict. It is very probable, however, that at first no such institutions existed, and that a considerable time elapsed before such a development was thought of. The ancient catalogue of the Irish saints to which reference has been already made tells us that it was the third order of saints who 'used to dwell in desert places, and to live on herbs and water and the alms of the faithful. They despised all earthly things and wholly avoided all whispering and backbiting.' But they were the least holy of the three orders, which shows that asceticism, though it existed at the time, was not regarded as a sign of great sanctity. On the contrary, those were more highly esteemed who needed no such help for the overcoming of sin. The catalogue further tells us that they were later in date than the first order of saints, who established mixed monasteries and had Saint Patrick for their leader. They were later also than the second order, which enforced celibacy, and indeed did not come into existence until the seventh century. That the movement was due to foreign influences is probable, from the fact that while some of them followed the usages of the Irish Church, others conformed to the rules observed by the Continental Churches. This is also borne out by the fact that the Annalists do not chronicle the death of famous anchorites until towards the close of the seventh century.

The conclusion therefore to which we are led is that this institution never at any time had much resemblance to that of the same name in Egypt and elsewhere, and although characteristic of an early age of the Irish Church, was unknown in the very earliest times.

  1. Quoted from Todd, Life of St. Patrick, p. 144.
  2. O'Curry, MS. Materials of Anc. Irish Hist., p. 374. The last sentence is given in Latin: 'Ut Deus ait: Non apparebis ante me vacuus.' The passage occurs in four places (once in the Apocrypha), but in no case is the Vulgate exactly as here quoted. It will be noticed that the meaning unemployed is given to vacuus, though the Biblical context requires the meaning empty-handed.