The Benedictine and Celtic Traditions
- Common Ground?
by Rt Revd Dom Alistair Bate OSBA, M.A.Div
These days if the average church-goer in the British Isles ever gives a thought to the Celtic church he will most likely think first of the great Celtic monastic foundations which dot the countryside, especially in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Glendalough, Clonmacnoise and Kildare; Iona and Lindisfarne might come to mind, but whatever thoughts are prompted, they will almost invariably involve monastic ruins and perhaps some regret and nostalgia for the demise of a once great tradition.
Similarly Benedictine monasticism may bring to mind the many ruined abbeys all over the British Isles, sad casualties of the Reformation, perhaps first and foremost among them, Glastonbury, the mother church of our Isles. Our average churchman might even be fortunate enough to be aware of the living monastic tradition, for unlike Celtic monasticism the Benedictine tradition is alive and relatively well, and one might say has even
received a new lease of life in the New Monastic movement. Of course in the 20th century there has been a bit of a
revival of Celtic spirituality too and this naturally includes some new communities, both traditional and experimental. The Celtic Orthodox community at St Dolay in Brittany is a good example of the former whilst the Iona Community is perhaps the best known example of the latter.
St Benedict was just 31 years younger than his contemporary, St Brigid of Kildare, one of the great Celtic foundresses. They drank at the same literary well; sharing similar monastic influences such as the traditions of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the writings of St John Cassian, though it is true to say that the Celts had a stronger connection to the semi-eremitical tradition of Egypt via Lérins and Tours than the Latins who were more influenced by the cenobitism of St Pachomius and St Basil, whom St Benedict refers to as “Our Holy Father”.
Nevertheless, even making allowances for the Celtic love of solitude and the wilderness, the two traditions had much more in common than not, as can be witnessed in this beautiful and well known poem attributed to the seventh century monk, St Manchán of Lemanaghan, Co Offaly:
"I wish, O Son of the living God, O ancient, eternal King,
For a hidden little hut in the wilderness that it may be my dwelling.
An all-grey lithe little lark to be by its side,
A clear pool to wash away sins through the grace of the Holy Spirit,
Quite near, a beautiful wood around it on every side,
To nurse many-voiced birds, hiding it with its shelter.
A southern aspect for warmth, a little brook across its floor,
A choice land with many gracious gifts such as be good for every plant.
A few men of sense we will tell their number
Humble and obedient. to pray to the King :
Four times three, three times four, fit for every need,
Twice six in the church, both north and south: Six pairs besides myself
Praying for ever the King who makes the sun shine.
A pleasant church and with the linen altar-cloth, a dwelling for God from Heaven;
Then, shining candles above the pure white Scriptures.
One house for all to go to for the care of the body,
Without ribaldry, without boasting, without thought of evil.
This is the husbandry I would take, I would choose, and will not hide it:
Fragrant leek, hens, salmon, trout, bees.
Raiment and food enough for me from the King of fair fame,
And I to be sitting for a while praying God in every place."
The Benedictine life strives for a balance of prayer, work and study and these three are also found in St Manchán's poem. First of all, the Divine Office, which St Benedict refers to as the “Work of God”, is alluded to by Manchán's wish for a choir of twelve monks to sing the Divine Office antiphonally. A monastery of about a dozen monks would also have been normal on the continent during this period. Work is represented by Manchán's wish to cultivate a garden, keep some bees and do a bit of fishing, whilst that third pillar of Benedictine spirituality is a little harder to spot, but it is also there, as Manchán finishes his poem wishing to be able to sit “for a while praying to God in every place”. This perhaps alludes to the same kind of Lectio Divina – prayerful reading – which St Benedict taught.
Thus, far from there being a great gulf between the practice of Celtic monks and their Benedictine brothers the essence of the life was the same - space to be alone with God, single-mindedly focussed on the Divine Presence. The Benedictines found a particularly suitable home amongst the English and of course their influence has been very formative for the Anglican tradition, whereas in the Celtic countries the indigenous monasticism was gradually replaced, occasionally by "black" Benedictines, though more often by reformed branches of the order such as the Cistercians and Valliscaulians, whose charism of austerity and simplicity was not only true to the letter of the Rule but also more in tune with the Celtic temperament and the Celtic love of the natural world as the dwelling place of the Most High. As an Irish Cistercian Abbot remarked to myself on one occasion, “What you need to understand Alistair is that the differance between Benedictines and Cistercians is the differance between agriculture and culture”! Human culture, art and music are indeed wonderful gifts to be used in the service of God but for the true contemplative there is no substitute for the simple desert experience. I believe that both St Benedict and St Manchán would agree.