Friday, November 26, 2010

The Rule of Columba

This is a follow up to yesterday's blog article. As I was thumbing through Celtic Christianity Ecology and Holiness, I noted one of the entries included the Rule of Columba. The Rule of Columba is a famous rule, especially in Celtic studies. That got me to thinking today, and I realized how important it would be in a blog like this, to include it, and provide some commentary. After all, the Rule represents one of the great Celtic contributions to monastic Christianity, which we have seen was a major force in helping to transform a pagan Europe. So here then is the Rule (drumroll):

Be alone in a separate place near a chief city, if thy conscience is not prepared to be in common with the crowd.

Be always naked in imitation of Christ and the Evangelists.

Whatsoever little or much thou possessest of anything, whether clothing, or food, or drink, let it be at the command of the senior and at his disposal, for it is not befitting a religious to have any distinction of property with his own free brother.

Let a fast place, with one door, enclose thee.

A few religious men to converse with thee of God and his Testament; to visit thee on days of solemnity; to strengthen thee in the Testaments of God, and the narratives of the Scriptures.

A person too who would talk with thee in idle words, or of the world; or who murmurs at what he cannot remedy or prevent, but who would distress thee more should he be a tattler between friends and foes, thou shalt not admit him to thee, but at once give him thy benediction should he deserve it.

Let thy servant be a discreet, religious, not tale-telling man, who is to attend continually on thee, with moderate labour of course, but always ready.

Yield submission to every rule that is of devotion.

A mind prepared for red martyrdom [that is death for the faith].

A mind fortified and steadfast for white martyrdom. [that is ascetic practices] Forgiveness from the heart of every one.

Constant prayers for those who trouble thee.

Fervour in singing the office for the dead, as if every faithful dead was a particular friend of thine.

Hymns for souls to be sung standing.

Let thy vigils be constant from eve to eve, under the direction of another person.

Three labours in the day, viz., prayers, work, and reading.

The work to be divided into three parts, viz., thine own work, and the work of thy place, as regards its real wants; secondly, thy share of the brethen's [work]; lastly, to help the neighbours, viz., by instruction or writing, or sewing garments, or whatever labour they may be in want of, ut Dominus ait, "Non apparebis ante Me vacuus [as the Lord says, "You shall not appear before me empty."].

Everything in its proper order; Nemo enim coronabitur nisi qui legitime certaverit. [For no one is crowned except he who has striven lawfully.]

Follow alms-giving before all things.

Take not of food till thou art hungry.

Sleep not till thou feelest desire.

Speak not except on business.

Every increase which comes to thee in lawful meals, or in wearing apparel, give it for pity to the brethren that want it, or to the poor in like manner.

The love of God with all thy heart and all thy strength;

The love of thy neighbour as thyself.

Abide in the Testament of God throughout all times.

Thy measure of prayer shall be until thy tears come;

Or thy measure of work of labour till thy tears come;

Or thy measure of thy work of labour, or of thy genuflexions, until thy perspiration often comes, if thy tears are not free.

Just a few observations. First, the Rule is short enough that the monks could easily have memorized it. This would have been "easy" when one considers monks were urged to memorize all 150 of the Psalms! There's a mental challange for you.

Second, note how the rule stresses simplicity of life. No wonder that St. Francis would find inspiration for the Celtic monks who helped shape his outlook on life.

Third, note the emphasis on pilgrimage, the stress on journey in one's faith. As I have remarked in previous blog articles, this is one of the distinctive feature of Celtic Christianity.

I also love the phrase "Everything in its proper order."  It's almost as if the Rule is allowing for all the crazy curves, and ups and downs, which comes ones way. This is the "everything else" file, or "other duties as indicated". The Celts were no dummies, nor were they fundamentalists. They understood that life was full of gray areas, ambiguities, and that these "spaces", were as important as the rest. This is a Rule which is both strict and flexible.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Celtic Christianity Ecology and Holiness

"the British Church has always represented an ideal for those who have known of it, and not simply as a Golden Age of innocence and purity which in the words of Nora Chadwick, has "never been surpassed and perhaps been equalled only by the ascetics of the eastern deserts, " but also, and more importantly, as an alternative seed, "a light from the west," perhaps obscure and even alien, but nevertheless powerful and true with the kind of reality we seem to need today." (pg. 9-10).

Celtic Christianity Ecology and Holiness (1982) was given to me by a friend and I never really looked at it till this morning. And how pleasantly surprized I was! It's not like anything I thought it would be. These past fews months I expected some long agrument on how the Celtic church and saints were the  founding members of the Green party. Not so!

Celtic Christianity Ecology and Holiness is a wonderful anthology of  Celtic stories, sayings, tales and legends. In addition, the book also contains a useful introduction and fascinating drawings and pictures which will appeal to anyone interested in Celtic studies. Leafing through this small book reminded me of David Adam's wonderful books which contain the same satisfying sensual blend. Then again, this is precisely one of the attractive features of Celtic Christianity-that it also appeals both to the mind and the senses-they are not mutually exclusive. 

The book is "framed" by a useful essay outlining the heritage of Celtic Christianity. The essay deserves several readings and argues the main features of the Celtic tradition are ecology, learning, science, poetry, and art. In this sense, the books title is somewhat deceiving. Nonetheless, the writers argue that the Celtic church offered an alternative "brand" of Christianity than what was taking place on the European mainland, and the natural environment played a key role:

"It was not only that these scribes and achorites lived by the destiny of their dedication in an environment of wood and sea; it was because they brought into that environment an eye washed miraculously clear by continious spiritual exercise that they, first in Europe, had that strange vision of natural things in an almost unnatural purity." (pg. 22).

Here monasteries flourished, and the Seven Liberal Arts flourished, producing great men and women saints. Columbanus was one of the greatest Celtic saints:

"What is best in the world? "To do the will of its maker. What is this will? That we should do what he has ordered, that is, that we should live in righteousness and seek devotedly what is eternal. How do we arrive at this? By study. We must therefore study devotedly and righteously. What is our best help in maintaining this study? The Intellectus, which probes everything and, finding none of the world's good in which it can permanently rest, is converted by reason into the one good which is eternal". (pg. 23)

Celtic Christianity Ecology and Holiness introduces the reader to fourteen saints some better known than others including Patrick, Brigit, Findian, Senan, Brendan, Kevin, Ciaran, Mochudan, Columba, Columbanus, Gall, Fursey, Aidan and Cuthbert.  This is the perfect kind of book to keep on the nightstand, so that you can dip into it each night before you go to sleep, flip through its pages, and learn something new about the great tradition of Insular Christianity.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thomas Merton on Celtic Monasticism

I've been on a bit of a Merton binge of late and happened to be looking at Mystics and Zen Masters (1967). There I located some additional thoughts on Celtic monasticism in the essay "From Pilgrimage to Crusade" which I wanted to comment on.  Some of the Fr. Merton's ideas are reminiscent of what he  said in Wisdom of the Desert, however what is new here is a wonderful discussion of how the Celtic understanding of pilgrimage can also be a  model of one's own faith journey.  Another example of old and new wineskins. The rugged and often extreme monastic, inner monk experience of the past is not something limited to the few. Rather our faith journey is to have the same sense of adventure and sacrifice as demonstrated by the Celtic monks of old. Merton notes:

"Peregrinatio, or "going forth into strange countries," was a characteristically Irish form of asceticism. The Irish peregrinus, or pilgrim, set out on his journey, not in order to visit a sacred shrine, but in search of solitude and exile. His pilgrimage was an exercise in ascetic homelessness and wandering. He entrusted himself to Providence, setting out with no definite aim, abandoning himself to the Lord of the universe."(pg. 94)

Not an easy thing that! And definitely a brand of faith which goes way beyond the platitudes one often encounters in the church, or religious television. This understanding of faith journey is not a one time thing. Rather its something which is ongoing-the change is ongoing. Yet it is within that process of journey, one finds their own salvation.  The concept reminds me of the biblical teaching that one finds oneself, when one loses oneself.

"The objective of the monk's pilgrimage on earth was described as the "place of resurrection"-the place divinely appointed, in which the monk is to settle down, spend the rest of his days in solitude, doing penance, praying, waiting for the day of his death. To leave Ireland in search of this privileged place was to "go on pilgrimage for the love of God" or "in the name of God". If the pilgrimage were a "navagation," then the monk was seeking for a "desert in the sea." The Irish has a predilection for lonely islands." (pg. 96)

Fr. Merton is saying something which is very important. And that is the Celtic notion of pilgrimage and faith journey is something which also applies to us today. The idea of venturing out, and taking risks, going into the unknown places, should be a regular part of our spiritual experience. And it's not something that is just intellectual. Authentic faith also includes life style, decisions about how we live and where we go. This is what Columba, Brendan, and Aidan did. And it is also what you and I should do as well.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Reading from the Carmina Gadelica

God be with me lying down,
God with me rising up,
God with me in each ray of light,
nor I a ray of joy without him.

Christ with me sleeping,
Christ with me waking,
Christ with me watching
every day and night.

God with me protecting,
God with me directing,
The Spirit with me strengthening
for ever and for evermore.
Chief of Chiefs. Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thomas Merton's Ways of the Christian Mystics

"Peregrinatio, or "going forth into strange countries," was a characteristically Irish form of asceticism. The Irish peregrinus, or pilgrim, set out on his journey, not in order to visit a sacred shrine, but in search of solitude and exile. His pilgrimage was an execrise in ascetic homelessness and wandering. He entrusted himself to Providence, setting out with no definite aim, abandining himself to the Lord of the Universe. Since Ireland is an island, this meant entrusting oneself to the hazards of sea travel, and there are records of Irish peregrini who simply floated off aimlessly into the sea, abandoning themselves to wind and current, in the hope of being led to the place of solitude which God Himself would pick for them. In this way, some came to Wales or Cornwall or to the isles of western Scotland."
                      Thomas Merton Ways of the Christian Mystics (1961)

A previous article on one of Thomas Merton's books generated some excellent discussion and also caused me to reflect on some of my other favorite Merton books. Ways of the Christian Mystics is another fascinating book on Chrisitan mysticism which is well worth reading and studying. I say this because the book (and others discussed on this site) emphasize the importance of an inner mystical Christianity, which also emphasizes praxis. In other words, true Christianity is not just about believing certain ideas, but is also about behavior and seeking to live a specific kind of life in a community. Moreover, this is another book which the serious Celtic Christian should read and have in their personal library. I would specificaly recommend readers read the entire book but to focus specifically on the chapters on Pilgrimage to Crusade; the English Mystics; and Protestant Monasticism.

Readers with a specific Celtic interest should note the introduction contains an excellent discussion on aspects of Celtic spirituality, specifically the distinctive Irish notion of pilgrimage.  I've provided a sample in the quote above, and the discussion is not to be missed. It places the mission of Columba and Brendan in historical context. The Celtic monk's vocation "was to mystery and growth, to liberty and abandonment to God, in self-commitment to the apparent irrationality of the winds and the seas, in witness to the wisdom of God the Father and Lord of the elements." (pg. 16). Columba, Brendan, and thousands of others went! No doubt this idea was a backbone in the Celtic mission.

There is also a fascinating discussion of Protestant monasticism. This book was written fifty years ago and mentions Taize in passing but accurately describes the landscape in the church today. Here Merton sounds prophetic as monastic groups have literally exploded in popularity in the Protestant world. These orders (Celtic, Franciscan, Dominican, and Benedictine) can enhance one's spiritual experience and church members in all mainline denominations are encouraged to join. "Most important of all, Proestant monasticism implies a rediscovery of the contemplative patterns of life characteristic of the ancient Catholic orders. Active works of charity have an important place in the life of the new communities, but it may be said that they are predominantly contemplative." (pg. 168)

Journey, having a rule of life, reflection on Scripture, prayer, and being part of a community. These are all features of the Christian mystic, past and present. We are fortunate to have a writer like Thomas Merton who can open up old worlds of the past, and make them seem new and fresh.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thomas Merton's Wisdom of the Desert

Thomas Merton, that great Trappist monk, is an American treasure. Merton is a creative and wonderful writer, who wrote many important books on monasticism and spirituality. Today, I'd like to briefly discuss Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert (1960), one of Merton's shortest books, a collection really, and explain why the book is important from a Celtic perspective.

As I have discussed in other blog articles, Celtic Christianity derived part of its unique blend of spirituality from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a group of monastics who had fled the "society" of Europe for the stern quietude of mid East. Men and women went there by the thousands. they must have been seen as unique centers of learning at the time. There were large monastic communities in Egypt, modern day Israel, and Arabia. These places offered an alternative to the popular Christianity of the day. Their stories circulated in the writings of Cassian and others and generated much interest. And herein demonstrates the breadth and adaptability of the Celtic view: blending the wisdom of the East with the Druidic vision on the home front as well. How difficult is that?

Merton's Wisdom of the Desert begins with a wonderful essay which sets the writings of the Desert Fathers in context. There Father Merton shares with us, that the Desert writers have always been one of his favorite group of writers, and that what follows is a collection of  his favorite "sayings". I went through the book this morning (it's only 81 pages long) and selected some of my favorite "sayings". These Zen like quotes tell us something about the spiritual experience of the Fathers and their desire to live authentic spiritual lives. For me, this is feature is the magnet of the book, which keeps me coming back for more.

Here are a few:

A brother asked one of the elders, How does far of the Lord get into a man? And the elder said; If a man have humility and poverty, and judge not another, that is how fear of the Lord gets into him.

A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him; Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.

Abbot Pastor said: The virtue of a monk is made manifest by temptations.

An Elder said: Just as a tree cannot bear frut if it is often transplanted, so neither can a monk bear fruit if he frequently changes his abode.

Once some robbers came into the monastery and said to one of the elders; We have come to take away everything that is in your cell. And he said: My sons, take all you want. So they took everything they could find in the cell and started off. But they left behind a little bad that was hidden in the cell. The elder picked it up and followed after them, crying out: My sons, take this, you forgot it in the cell! Amazed at the patience of the elder, they brought everything back into his cell and did penance, saying: This one really is a man of God!

These "sayings" invite us to an inner-directed Christianity which I think is needed today. "Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything"! In other words, you already possess in you, all that you need. One just has to ruminate! And it is my experience, this is what drives folks to be part of monastic communities today. To be more "real".

I love these "sayings" and reading them often sets off other thoughts. Check saying XXVIII, on the principle of stablity. St. Benedict later made this the backbone of his religious order, and helped to transform Europe. And how about saying XCIV? Ever seen that one before? Reminds me of that great scene in  Hugo's Les Miserables when Bishop Myriel gives his silver candlesticks to Jean Valigean. Who knows, maybe Hugo got his idea for that scene from here.

If you want more about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, check out Benedicta Ward's The Desert Fathers (2003).

Monday, November 1, 2010


For the past week I had the pleasure to watch HBO's series called ROME. I had heard about it, and seen it for sale at a local shop, and finally bought it. And I'm glad I did. Rome is an incredibly reaslitic no holds barred production, which attempts to depict Roman life circa 50BC.

The series is weaved around the lives of two Roman soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus (pictured above) who happen to be in many of the key events of the time.

ROME has it all. Passion, story, violence, nobility, deceit, murder, debauchary-everything you would expect from Rome (although that sounds alot like life in America today). And along the way, one meets Julius Caeser, Mark Anthony, Cleopatra, and Augustus Caesar. It's gripping stuff, fascinating entertainment, and a great way to learn history.

While watching and enjoying Rome, you can also learn a great deal about the Celtic World. You will see Roman skermishes with the Gauls; you will see the tragic Gaulic leader Vercingetorix; you will witness a world just at the time that Christ was born. You will encounter a young King Herod. And probably like me, you will want more and wonder why they cancelled this incredible series after two years.

You will also get to see the Celtic world through Caesar's (Roman) eyes. Caesar is an important person in Celtic studies even though it might be for all the wrong reasons. He was the governor of southern Gaul and launched a military campaign to bring the area under Roman rule. Caesar joureyed to Gaul twice and wrote about them in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Commentary on the Gallic Wars, 50AD. Lucius and Titus's were actually mentioned in the Commentary and the directors imaginatively weaved the story around them. Caesar powers of observation are noted as he recognized there were three different tribes people whom he called "Galli". He also understood the importance of the Druids. Caesar was the first person to call Ireland "Hibernia" or "the winter place".

Tired of the waste land on TV? If you liked the films Gladiator or Sparticus, you would do well to check out Rome.  In an age of stupid, this production reaches high and delivers.

Hail Rome, full of life and intrigue!