Monasticism Reaches the Far West

Chapter 3

Monasticism Reaches the Far West

A dreadful change took place all over the Continent of Europe during the fifth century. Instead of peace, there was war everywhere; instead of law and order, there was fear and violence; instead of Christian rulers, the people had to obey pagan chiefs of the invading Teutonic tribes, who fought among themselves for the best land and swaggered about the palaces of the Romans they had killed. Christians forgot the far-off days of Roman persecution and remembered only that Roman justice had reigned wherever they travelled along Roman roads. The change was so appalling that many believed the coming of the barbarians signalled the end of the world.

In a way they were right; for the Church they knew was a product of the Roman Empire, shaped and developed under her wide-spread, protective wings. The kind of Christianity to which most people had grown accustomed by the end of the fourth century, could only flourish against the solid background of the State. Under the new conditions, for instance, men only laughed if the Pope explained that, though he behaved like a weak man, he was really all-powerful. These rough pagans could only be impressed by those who lived their religion. The new conditions needed a new pattern of Christian living; and, fortunately for the future of the Church, this monastic pattern had already been designed during the fourth century. Indeed, it was already being practiced by groups of the keenest Christians in most countries, before the crash came.

This set-back was as sudden as the set-backs you used to get when you played snakes and ladders. Down went the Church from the top of a ladder to the bottom of a disastrously long snake. If she had grown dangerously rich and worldly before the crash, she now lay apparently ruined and helpless. Without State protection, with lines of communication blocked by the lawless men who used the Roman roads, with her valuable possessions stolen or burnt, the position looked hopeless. Only isolated groups of Christians remained dotted about the map of Europe, like tiny islands liable to be swamped in a dark stormy sea of pagans who lived by the rule of force.

But during the previous four centuries the Church had accumulated a great heritage of wisdom and knowledge. Where her books were burnt and her scholars killed, that knowledge vanished. But the Anglo-Saxon tribes only destroyed British civilization in the east of the island. And so, oddly enough, it fell to the Celtic Church in Ireland, in Wales, in Cornwall and in the remoter parts of Scotland to be the guardian of the classical literature of Greece and Rome. Celtic scribes copied and recopied St. Jerome’s marvellous fourth-century translation of the Bible into the Latin spoken by all educated people. Celtic scholars preserved in their schools the teaching of the Early Fathers who had hammered out the present doctrine of our Church in Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt, North Africa, Italy and Gaul. Most important of all, Celtic saints were nearly all missionaries. It was they who shaped their Church into a monastic pattern amazingly well adapted to the spreading of Christianity. It was they who first carried the Gospel back to the Continent, that the rule of love should once again oust the rule of force and change barbarism into a new Christian civilization. Most people knew something of the Church before the Dark Ages. The story few know is the story of the part played by the Celtic Church in turning that darkness into light.

The Celts had no sooner had the meaning of the monastic way of life explained to them, than they began to put it into practice. But other fourth-century Christians were more cautious. They could see how badly the high moral standard set by the early Church had broken down, now that people joined the Church because, with the Emperor a Christian, it was the fashionable thing to do. Even their bishops were apt to set a bad example by living too lazily and luxuriously in their palaces, though there were some so devoted to Christ that their names are still remembered to-day. The question anxiously asked again and again was whether the monastic pattern of life would strengthen and purify the Church. It was answered for many by reading the fourth-century best seller, The life of St. Anthony, a book that set people talking and filled them with new hope. Among those whose whole lives were changed by reading it, was a schoolboy in Central Europe; we know him as St. Martin. About the year 326 he got hold of someone’s precious copy.

The book told the story of Anthony, a rich Egyptian Christian who, when he was twenty, had given away all he possessed and gone to live alone with God in the desert by the east bank of the Upper Nile. He was still living there when St. Martin read about him, but he no longer lived alone. His nearness to God (that is, his holiness) had drawn men to him from all over Egypt and beyond, so he let them build huts near his cave and he planned now they should spend their time.

The bishop who wrote about St. Anthony had often stayed with him, and he told how these men – monks, they called themselves – spent their days alone in their huts. They divided each day into periods of prayer study of the Scriptures,

Some monks made copies of the great Greek and Latin classics as well as the Bible, in a world which, without printing machines, contained very few books. On Sunday they all met to praise God, to listen to St. Anthony’s sermons, and to receive communion from any priest who might be staying with them. Men of all classes lived side by side; and what people found particularly astonishing was that slaves were taught to read and the nobles were set to work on the land.

Christian Centres of Learning

In this first monastery, men tried to recapture that awareness of God’s presence that comes from obeying the first of Christ’s commandments: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.’ It is too easily lost in the busy world. But at first glance they appeared to neglect their fellowmen, tell we remember that many of the precious books that escaped the destruction during the Dark Ages were the work of those desert monks. For the invaders did not think it worthwhile to burn down the poor little huts in which the scribes patiently copied out the life-giving books of the world. Every day, too, St. Anthony’s monks prayed long and earnestly for the whole of Christ’s Church militant here in earth. To-day we tend to undervalue this powerful way of loving our neighbour.

Christians had used the deserts of Palestine, Syria and Egypt as places of refuge long before Anthony made his home in a cave at the beginning of the fourth century. They fled from Roman taxes, Roman military service, Roman persecution. Some discovered they preferred the solitary life. When they found out what St. Anthony had done, other Christian leaders started monasteries, each one reflecting the character of its abbot. St. Pachomius had been one of Constantine’s soldiers, used to well-built, orderly camps. His monks therefore lived in walled cities on the banks of the Nile. Forty slept in each of the separately-built dormitories. Other buildings were the church, the kitchen, the dining-room, the library, the hospital; and the baker’s, cobbler’s, blacksmith’s and carpenter’s shops. Though much of the day was spent prayer and learning, the monks also worked silently in their gardens, fields and shops, sending the goods they produced down the river in their own ships to be sold for the good of the poor. In Asia Minor, St. Basil’s monks were even more practical. They ran hospitals and schools for those outside the monastery.

St. Anthony, St. Pachomius and St. Basil were but three of hundreds of abbots at work in the Middle East during the fourth century. But in none of the monasteries could men become monks for life until the abbot considered them fit to take their final vows. Then they promised to be absolutely obedient to their abbot, to live in poverty without possessions, and to give up all thought of marriage. It was a hard life, for the abbot had charge of the souls as well as the bodies of the monks and demanded from them an even stricter kind of discipline than that practised nowadays by those in training for the Olympic Games. On Wednesdays and Fridays they fasted, nor was there much to eat on the other days of the week.

On Sundays greedy, lazy or disobedient monks had to confess and repent of their sins in public outside the church. The long hours of silence each day must have been hard to bear at first; but with the defences of the Empire cracking under increasing pressure from the barbarians, men felt a desperate need for spiritual discipline. They flocked to the new monasteries like soldiers volunteering to fight an unseen enemy. Nor was it only the men. Abbesses with groups of nuns also made the deserts their home.

Indeed, by the end of the fourth century there were seven thousand monks in the region of the Nile alone. And by then monasticism had overflowed from the deserts and travelled as far west as Italy, Africa and Gaul where St. Martin, who had remembered St. Anthony all through his military service, founded the first monastery in the west shortly after the middle of the fourth century.

St. Martin and the Celtic Church

By that time St. Martin had been ‘dreaming of the desert’ for so long that, had you talked to him as the Briton, Ninian, did on his way to Scotland from his studies in Rome, you would have thought he had lived for years in Egypt. St. Martin could describe the hot, dry climate so suited to the monastic life. He made his own monks copy the bare feet, linen tunics, hooded capes, sheepskin cloaks (it gets cold at night in Egypt) and stout staffs of the desert monks. He knew amusing stories of the desert like the one about the tough monk who had been, before his conversion, what we would call a gangster. When, one night, two men crept into his little hut to rob him, he could easily have killed them. Instead, he used his strength to rope them together and carry them to church. There he asked his abbot what on earth he was supposed to do with his, cursing bundle, seeing that he was not allowed to hurt the contents.

St. Martin envied those monks whose abbots allowed then to live as hermits. He, too, preferred to be alone. He understood the Egyptian hermit who explained that, if you entertained men, then the angels ceased to visit you. Apparently, however, Egyptian angels did not mind animals, and I hope you will read some of the many delightful stories of desert hermits who made friends with such creatures as wolves and lions. If you do, you will notice that they have exactly the same flavour as stories of our Celtic saints and their beloved birds, beasts and insects.

Now the great saints of the Celtic Church of Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Brittany, organized their Church after the monastic pattern first laid down in the west by St. Martin, that ardent admirer of St. Anthony. It is important, then, to know as much as we can about St. Martin; and fortunately, a friend who knew and loved him, wrote his life while the saint still lived. After doing his military service, St. Martin studied under St. Hilary, Celtic bishop of Poitiers, who persuaded him to become a priest. Because of his championship of the Catholic Faith, the Arian heretics (who had grown very strong by the middle of the fourth century) banished St. Hilary to Asia Minor, where he visited St. Basil’s monasteries and so admired eastern services that, after his return, women in Gaul began to go to church in eastern veils, and bishops began to carry eastern staffs and to wear crowns instead of Roman mitres.

The music of the Eastern Church also inspired St. Martin’s teacher. Indeed, the success of St. Hilary’s missionary work in south-west Gaul was largely due to the marvellous hymns he composed and sang. Singing was a sure road to the hearts of his countrymen, for though their language was half Latin, the Celts in Gaul were still full of poetry and music. One of St. Hilary’s hymns, ‘We praise thee, O God,’ you will find in the Book of Common Prayer. St. Ninian learnt it from St. Martin and carried it off to Scotland, from whence it crossed over to Ireland and South to Wales.

St. Hillary gave St. Martin land on which to live as a hermit. But, drawn by a holiness that made him able to heal men’s souls and bodies, disciples began flocking to St. Martin just as they had done to St. Anthony. Though it was only a collection of huts, his first western monastery at Ligugé, near Poitiers, was called the White House, the word ‘white’ standing for holy. St. Ninian’s White House, or Candida Casa, in Wigtownshire, was the first of many in Celtic-speaking countries.

The Celtic Church a Family

By 371, so many people had grown to love St. Martin that they forced him to leave his peaceful White House and be consecrated Bishop of Tours. Most of the bishops who laid their hands on St. Martin (just as the Apostles had laid their hands on the bishops of the early Church) must have wondered at the people’s choice. But in consecrating St. Martin, they gave him power to become the apostle of all Gaul. He never went near his palace nor sat on his grand bishop’s throne, but lived outside the city walls in a cell where, as the rich bishops learnt to their horror, he slept on the cold ground. This time so many disciples joined him to help to reform the Church, that the place was called Marmoutire, the Celtic for ‘Big Family’.

Here, scholars, nobles and workmen lived in caves and hut. They followed St. Anthony’s Egyptian routine and, despite the cold winters, they too wore the roughest clothes and ate so little food that it is a wonder they had the energy to farm and garden as they did. The well-fed bishops of Gaul could not imagine why St. Martin’s Roman and Celtic nobles willingly did the work of slaves; nor why Roman scholars who had loved to talk learnedly should spend hours silently copying out the Bible. But soon they began to understand. By praying, working and learning with his monks, St. Martin strove to make them strong enough to leave him. Soon he was choosing batch after batch of twelve monks, each group to be sent wherever there was a country district that knew nothing of Christ. Usually, only one of the monks could preach; but, after all, living as Christ lived has always impressed people far more than sermons.

The priest of each party, ordained by his bishop, St. Martin, was there to baptize, confirm and give communion to those who joined the Church. With a staff in his hand, he would set out on the great adventure, carrying in a leather satchel the precious Bible he had probably written out himself on skins instead of paper; and in another parcel, he carried the gold cup and plate made by the monks at Marmoutier for use at Communion. Beside the priest walked carpenters and masons to build the church and huts of the new settlement, and to teach the peasants their craft. Land had to be cleared and ploughed, and grazing found for the monk’s animals. So St. Martin sent also a gardener, a farmer, a herdsman, and strong labourers. Lastly, there was always a trained smith and, of course, a cook to prepare their simple meals. These groups of twelve men were naturally led by their priests, carefully chosen by St. Martin; but his little churches, would never have spread all over the countryside of Gaul had he not discovered that every kind of man can help to build the Kingdom of God on earth, provided dedicates himself to the work.

Very often the peasants resented the smashing of their idols and temples and the cutting down of their sacred trees. But Martin visited all his monastic settlements once a year to discuss such difficulties, to encourage weary priests, to praise flourishing settlements, and to ordain new priests and bishops. These bishops, consecrated by St. Martin, enabled a settlement to become the mother house of yet more monasteries manned by the peasants of Gaul themselves.

Unfortunately St. Martin’s biographer hardly mentions the part played by the women in making the Church in Gaul fit to help to convert the Teutonic invaders who swept across the country in 405, only eight years after the saint’s death. But knowing St. Martin’s concern for the poor, we may trust the story that the first hospital in the western world was in his city of Tours. Here the old, the friendless and the sick were looked after tenderly by the women among St. Martin’s followers who had, like the monks, renounced marriage and children that they might give their whole lives to serve Christ’s Church. There were schools too, and it is good to think of St. Martin visiting them and resting among the children while they sang him one of St. Hilary’s grand hymns.

St. Martin could see into the future; so he knew these children were to be the brave guardians of Christian faith and learning, when the soldiers of the Empire could protect the Church no more. When St. Ninian visited St. Martin, he found an old man but a marvellous teacher. Through him the saints of the Celtic Church learnt how the two great commandments of Christ balance each other: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God . . .’ and ‘thy neighbour as thyself’ He taught them first to learn to pray and then to learn to work: to pray to God through Christ, and to work for the men and women for whom Christ died.