Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How can monks marry?

Oftentime people are confused when they learn that I am a Christian priest who is also married. "How can this be?" says the puzzled look on their face. And yet you could say the very same thing regarding this blog. "How can a monk be married?"

Good questions. The explanation to these questions is really quite simple. Celtic monasticism (and Christianity for that matter) was quite a different "brand" than that of the Roman kind. See my earlier blog entitled "Culture Clash" for a longer discussion. Remember that much of Ireland was influenced by the monks of the Eastern desert, particularly the writings of John Cassian. When this "brand" of the faith, returned to Ireland, it blended into with other local cultural understandings and ways of doing things, just as it has whereever it is taken, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

We also need to thing differently when we hear the word "monastery". The Celtic notion of "monastery" was worlds different than the typical medieval monastery which existed in Europe. Unlike Latin Christianity, which often had a large stone monastery, and a huge church with flying buttresses and cloisters, the Celts had nothing of the kind. A monastery to them, was something like a monastic village. The village, or small town would be enwalled, a wall on a lesser scale than say St. Andrews, or York. Inside the walls, there would be huts, wooden buildings, and of course clochans, those stone beehive huts famously linked with Celtic Christianity.  And quite cleverly, the Celts built these small communities in strategic places, so that they could also be places of influence, and be places for strangers, seekers, and passerbys to go. Monasteries open to the public-sounds Celtic to me!

As you can expect, the Celtic understanding of religious orders was also different and at odds with Latin Chrisitianity. And perhaps it was this which really jazzed the Latin church, so much that it would send over St. Augustine to basically clean house. For most of Christendom, religious orders consisted of deacon, priest, and Bishop, with the Bishop top dog. This was not the case in Eire. There, the abbot (there's that monastic influence again) was number one, and the Bishop was often relegated to evangelical duties. Perhaps due to the close knit communities and tribes and clans, these distinctions may have seemed artificial. Anyway, what resulted was a wider range of religious orders and offices. So here, monks could marry, clergy could marry, and women such as Brigit could be Bishops, over a thousand years before the rest of Christendom ever began seriously considering these issues.

The history of the Christian church of one filled with the  themes of both freedom and structure. I've always like the notion that more is better, and in this case I think that is true. The church today needs to rethink the way it's conceives of clergy and how its trains clergy. A good place to see how things can be different is to look at the example of the early Celtic Church, which was way ahead of it's time.

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