THE ANCIENT CELTIC CHURCH had intimate ties with the same Desert Fathers of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine who fostered the ascetic literature and monasticism of the Byzantine and Slavic Orthodox Churches. We can look at Celtic Christian spirituality and monasticism in the light of Orthodox and Catholic Christian monastic and ascetic tradition seen today.
Celtic traditions influenced how Christianity was practiced giving birth to a unique expression of the faith marked by optimism, mysticism, and a deep love for nature. The Celtic veneration of the saints did not so much focus on the major names but rather on those local holy men and women who contributed their sanctity to the people and place in which they lived and worked. And so in Wales, Scotland, Brittany, and Ireland we have many saints whose stories are unwritten but remain firm in the hearts of the people.
The relationship of the earth and people is and must be a sacred one. The air, water, and soil provide the material basis for our life. These are gifts of God. We are entrusted to be the good stewards. Without care for these gifts, our personal and national sovereignty cannot be maintained.
In the Carimina Gadelica, an anthology of Scottish folk prayers and poems, we see how Celtic Christianity carried a nature-positive spirituality into the modern world. The Christian people of Gaelic-speaking Scotland offered prayers and poems of praise at every moment of the day and in every setting. Nature for them means more than the environment. There is flowing from all things part of nature the song of the presence of the Divine Creator. Mary and all the saints join those who sing the songs and recite the poems. For them and for us, there is no separation between nature and grace or between nature and humanity. All is interwoven into a beautiful spiritual tapestry.
Bear this in mind: just as you are not separate from God, or not separate from grace, so too you are not separate from the rich tradition of Celtic wisdom. Whether you are a Celt by ancestry or by the stirrings of your heart, if you embrace Celtic wisdom, you are part of it. The choices you make, the poems you write, the decisions you come to in your life to honor the natural world, are all part of the symphony of Celtic mysticism. Celtic spirituality is not a museum installation; it is a living path of insight and illumination.
The Gaelic word neart is defined as "force, pith, power, might, energy, vigor, vast quantity and superabundance." It is a wonderful word that represents how a variety of spiritually significant values intersect in the Celtic mind. Nert represents the spiritual energy that flows through all things and especially in us. It is the Divine love shared with us in abundance.
No matter what material challenges we may face, we are all steeped in spiritual wealth.
Once we choose to believe in God as the force for life and power and miracles, we can begin to feel that power flowing through our lives. We can recognize it by the trail it leaves behind-- a trail of happiness, of satisfaction, of the Divine presence moving through our portion of the world.
"Miracle" is related to "mirror and refers to a reflection of Divine power in our lives: a reflection of nert. That can come in small as well as huge ways several times a day.
The Celtic tradition has a reputation for optimism. Celtic Christianity is a remarkably positive expression of the Christ path. If we live in a universe pulsating with power and abundance, then ultimately our problems are solvable and surmountable. There is nothing to fear. This is one with the message of Jesus, "Be not afraid." Optimism is a choice. It's a product of faith, for it requires a hopeful approach to life.
If you want water to flow through a pump, you have to prime it. If you want neart (God's grace) to flow through your life, you must "prime the spiritual pump" by creating space for the abundance of God's grace to be manifest. That space is created through hospitality, generosity, and charity -- good Celtic virtues all.
Celtic folk love to talk about the "thin places," those places where the separation from the physical and spiritual worlds often intersect more frequently than normal. Examples of these thin places can be churches, old monasteries, sacred wells, lakes, sites of apparitions by holy ones, and the like, and places of great natural beauty and power. Thin places provide the visitor with refreshment and a connection with the power of the God.
Every Celtic saint, famous or humble, stands for celebrating the rich tradition of spiritual devotion, and reminds every one of us ordinary mortals to live a life of sanctity and spiritual virtue. Celtic spirituality is the spirituality of intimacy and closeness between the mortal and heavenly worlds. If the spiritual realm is so available to us, then also holiness is within each person's grasp. You don' have to be Brigid or Patrick, David or Columcille to manifest the life of devotion. Simply choosing to do it is all it takes to get started on the journey. It's a long and arduous journey, mind you, but a path that has been trod by many feet before us.
Little children are often afraid of the dark. But the fear disappears in the light of day. Light has its way of dispelling the real or imagined evils of darkness. In our spiritual journey, we all have times of darkness that seep into the light. Sometimes ill health, addictions, loss of a job, troubles in a marriage, problems at school, bulling by others, and a host of other situations make it hard to hold on to the light. Yet from the dark times we come to not only appreciate the light more but find ways and means to keep it with us. Just as a lamp illuminates our path in the night, so prayer and trust in God's love can drive the evils that afflict us from our hearts and minds. We become aware of alternatives to meet and conquer the evils. We in fact become the torches of God's light and life not only for ourselves but for others in need of it.
Nature is the ultimate window through which Celtic meditation may be accessed. Some times it is easier to find God in nature than in church. Saint Anthony of Padua would agree. To the Celtic mind the line the separating creator from creature is joyfully ambiguous. Don't worry about getting it right, simply follow your heart and allow the devotion to God to flow.
The ancient Celtic Church had intimate ties with the same Desert Fathers of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine who fostered the ascetic literature and monasticism of the Byzantine and Slavic Orthodox Churches. This essay attempts to elucidate Celtic Christian spirituality and monasticism in the light of Orthodox Christian monastic and ascetic tradition. Specific points are illustrated with salient examples drawn from the Celtic Saints, the ancient Christian East and, for a perspective closer to our own times, from nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox monasticism, along with commentary from contemporary Orthodox writers. These flourishings of monastic sanctity, separated by great distances in space and time, manifest a deep internal kinship and harmony.
At the present time, there is an increasing interest in Celtic Christianity in Western Europe and North America. Various problems of the present age naturally compel thoughtful and sensitive individuals to ponder what wrongs have been committed throughout history and why Western civilization faces such problems, be they practical or spiritual in nature. There appears to be a nostalgia for a unified perspective, a renewed vision and approach to both the spiritual and the material world. Perhaps, without being fully understood, this nostalgia, as such, finds a refreshing spring of pure water in Celtic Christianity, in the saintly personalities and poetry of its monks. Here, the searching soul comes upon a new perspective and unified vision of reality. But this pleasing discovery is not always accompanied by the realization that Celtic Christians found this same renewed perspective only through a long, arduous, and often painful spiritual struggle—one which opens the way for Divine Grace to effect the interior changes that enable a person to see reality in such a wholesome way.
In his day, Julius Cæsar noted that the entire Gallic nation was very religious.1 Of course, he was speaking about pagan Celts, but a deep religiosity has been a characteristic of the Celts in general over the centuries, and especially during the Christian era. Alexander Carmichael, who collected folklore in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland during the nineteenth century, is another, more recent witness to the deep religiosity of the Celts. He observed that the music of their hymns had a distinct individuality, which resembled, but was clearly distinct from, the old Gregorian chants of the Church. He ventured the opinion that this peculiar and beautiful music was that of the old Celtic Church.2 Nor have the Celtic Saints been forgotten:
Isabel Mac Eachainn said that a widow woman at Tabal, Mull, had a cow ill with the tarbhan (swelling from surfeit), and she was wringing her hands and beating her breast to see her beloved cow in pain. At that moment she saw Calum Cille, Columba, and his twelve disciples in their curachan (little boat or coracle), rowing home to Iona. The widow ran down to the rudha (point) and hailed Calum Cille, and asked him to heal her cow. Calum Cille never turned a dull ear to the poor, to the penitent, to the distressed, and he came ashore and made the ora to the white cow, and the white cow rose upon her feet and shook herself and began to browse upon the green grass before her.
‘Go thou home, bronag, and have faith in the God who made thee and in Christ the Saviour who loved thee and died for thee, and in thine own self, and all will go well with thee and with thy cow.’
Having said this, Calum Cille rejoined his followers in the curachan and resumed his journey to Hi. There was no one like Calum Cille, no one, my dear. He was big and handsome and eloquent, haughty to the over-haughty and humble to the humble, kind to the weak and wounded.3
Ireland and the other regions inhabited by Celts abounded in churches and monasteries during the first millennium of the Christian era. Celtic Bishops and Priests led their flocks to spiritual perfection, to holiness. Of course, not everyone attained such heights, but there were surprisingly many who did; it was not without reason that Ireland was called Insula Sanctorum (the Island of Saints). The Celtic spiritual Fathers (anamcharas and periglours) helped to heal the interior wounds of their spiritual children; they gave them strength and courage for further spiritual struggles. On the ancient Celtic holy sites in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and elsewhere rested the glow of that cæleste Lumen (heavenly light), shining from the faces of the Celtic monks who had advanced in spiritual life and attained theosis (deification).
Celtic clergy helped to spread the Christian Faith in a peaceful and blessed way. Some time toward the end of the sixth century, there began an exodus from Ireland of the Scotti peregrini, among whom was St. Columbanus. They contributed greatly to a spiritual and cultural renaissance on the European continent. It is possible that their missionary efforts reached as far as the territory of the present Czech Republic. One might say that all of this was too beautiful to last forever. The Holy Spirit, at work in the local Celtic Churches, produced this wonderful blossoming, which gave form to the very best and most beautifully distinctive qualities and gifts of the Celtic peoples. Yet, one of the greatest tragedies of Church history is the withering of this very special blossom of Celtic Christianity on the stalk of the Church.
As I became more deeply acquainted with Celtic Christianity, through reading the ancient lives of Celtic Saints and visiting the holy sites in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England, I became convinced of a deep inner spiritual unity between Celtic Christianity, which has almost vanished, and Orthodox Christianity. This deep inner unity is not surprising; spirituality is living dogmatic theology, dogmatic theology reified in life. The confession of the Orthodox Faith formed the same spirituality in the Celtic peoples that it did in other peoples and cultures that confess Orthodox Christianity. Thus, Celtic Christianity has not perished completely. Its holy places retain their unique spiritual atmosphere and a pilgrimage to them can enrich anyone who is appropriately motivated and spiritually sensitive. The Celtic lands produced numerous Saints who are alive in God and who are helping those who turn to them with faith in their prayers.
The Origins of Monasticism in the West.
Gilbert Hunter Doble has written that, "the most characteristic feature of the Celtic Church was its preference for the monastic and eremitic life," and that, "the history of the Celtic Church is largely a history of monks and monasteries."4 Monasticism, like Christianity, has its origin in the East and quickly spread through Palestine, Egypt, and Syria to the West. In the fourth century, monasticism reached Gaul, through the efforts of St. Martin of Tours (ca. 315-397). St. Martin lived as a hermit on an island off the Ligurian coast. In 360, he became a member of the clergy surrounding St. Hilary at Poitiers. In Ligugé, not far from Poitiers, he founded a semi-eremitical community, the first monastery in Gaul. In 370 or 371, he was consecrated Bishop of Tours. He lived in a solitary place nearby, where another monastery was soon founded, Marmoutier. His example led to the establishment of other monastic communities elsewhere.5
The influence of another monk, St. John Cassian, was also very important in Gaul. St. John spent a number of years as a monk in Bethlehem and Egypt, and was thus familiar with the life and teachings of the Desert Fathers. About the year 415, he established a monastery and a convent at Marseilles. In his Institutes, he related the traditions of monastic life and also analyzed the eight cardinal passions. In the Conferences he recorded his talks with the Egyptian spiritual Fathers. His writings on monastic life were studied by the Celtic monks on the British Isles.6 A contemporary of St. John Cassian, St. Honoratus (ca. 350-429), founded a monastery on one of the islands of Lérins (now St. Honorat) off Cannes in the south of France, where he settled after a pilgrimage to Greece and Rome around the year 410. St. Lupus of Troyes also became a monk here, and later accompanied St. Germanus of Auxerre to Britain in 429. It is possible that St. Patrick, the Apostle of the Irish, lived for a time on Lérins.7
St. Athanasios of Alexandria, the defender of Orthodoxy at the First Œcumenical Synod in Nicæa, in 325, had a profound knowledge of monastic life. In 336-337, he was exiled to the West, to Trèves (Trier). It was probably at the request of the monks in the West, to whom he dedicated this work, that he wrote his famous Life of St. Anthony, during his third exile in Upper Egypt between 356 and 362. The life of St. Anthony was translated into Latin around 380 and profoundly influenced and contributed to the development of monastic life in the West. This work was read on Iona, and St. Anthony and St. Paul of Thebes are depicted on several Irish high Crosses.
A disciple of St. Martin of Tours, St. Victricius, Bishop of Rouen, visited Britain in about 396. In Rouen, there was a monastery of men and a chorus virginum at the end of the fourth century. According to his biographer, St. Victricius may have borrowed his monastic Rule from Trèves. It is quite likely that Saints Ninian and Patrick, both Roman Britons, were influenced by the monastic movement in Gaul, which also influenced St. Germanus of Auxerre, whose two missions to Britain not only strengthened the British Church in Orthodoxy, but also contributed to the development of monasticism in Britain. The British Church maintained close contact with the Church on the Continent. This contact was later impaired, but not entirely broken, by the Anglo-Saxon incursions. In the days of St. Jerome, Britons travelled to the holy sites of Palestine and some visited the Desert Fathers in Egypt. We learn from the Historia Religiosa of Theodoretos of Cyrrhus (fifth century) that many Britons also flocked to the pillar of St. Symeon the Stylite.8 The old Irish litany of Saints mentions seven Egyptian monks who were buried in Dysert Ulaidh in Ireland.9
Thus, the monastic ideal and practice of spiritual life reached the British Isles through the Gallican Church, through pilgrims who traveled to the East, through spiritual literature (e.g., the Life of St. Anthony and the writings of St. John Cassian), and perhaps also through pilgrims who traveled from the East to the West, such as the seven Egyptian monks buried in Ireland.
The Significance of Monasticism.
Even in the Old Testament times, the members of the Old Testament Church, that is the people of Old Israel, were called to holiness, as it is written in the Book of Leviticus (19:1-2): "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the congregation of the children of Israel, and thou shalt say unto them, Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy." In the New Testament, members of the Church are called to spiritual perfection, as we read in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (5:48): "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father Which is in Heaven is perfect." This Commandment indicates the path which all true Christians are to follow, without expecting it to "end" at any point.10 This is the path of spiritual perfection. Those who persevere through the trials of this life will continue to travel this path in the future life beyond the grave.
All true Christians, without exception, are called to this ideal. There are not two ideals: one for the laity and another for monastics. St. John Chrysostomos gives the following instructions to a Christian parent: "You are very mistaken if you think that one thing is expected of lay people and something else from a monastic. The difference between them is that one enters into marriage and the other does not; in everything else they have the same responsibilities."10a A saintly Bishop in Russia during the nineteenth century, Ignatius (Brianchaninov), wrote that what is important is Christianity and not monasticism; monasticism is important only insofar as it brings the monk to perfect Christianity.
When the rich young man asked the Savior what good thing he should do in order to inherit eternal life, the Lord Jesus Christ replied to him, that if he wanted to enter into eternal life, he had to keep the commandments. When the young man persisted in his questioning, the Lord told him, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven, and come and follow Me" (St. Matthew 19:21). The Savior also speaks about those who do not live in marriage, because they have renounced it for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, and adds: "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (St. Matthew 19:12).
The Apostle Paul writes, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: "He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit; but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband." The Apostle then says: "And this I speak for your own profit, not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction" (7:32-35).
Thus, while all Christians are called to spiritual perfection, whether they are married or not, these citations from the New Testament clearly show that poverty (non-attachment to material things) and purity are effective means for attaining spiritual perfection in this life, with the help of God.
From the beginning of the life of the early Christian Church, there were those who longed for spiritual perfection, for total commitment to their Lord, and for undivided service and consecration to God. Outward solitude and quiet, a life apart from the world, and living in a community of like-minded Christians are other aids and means for attaining this noble goal. Gradually, some deserts and uninhabited regions were settled by spiritual warriors. Some lived in small groups, others in larger communities: cœnobitic monasteries. Others, whose spiritual state corresponded to such a way of life, lived completely alone as anchorites. Various rules regulating the monastic life were soon developed and ascetic literature began to be recorded and circulated. Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov) notes that monasticism was thus established in the early Church by the Holy Spirit, and the holy Elder Barsanuphius of Optina says that monks are called to be the light of the world and, in the future life, to be kings and Priests.
The various monastic rules, pertaining to clothing, diet, and a special way of life separated from the world, are tools employed to attain a spiritual goal. But sometimes these outward things, while in themselves good and important, may be misapplied and hinder a person on the spiritual path. Elder Barsanouphius of Optina wrote:
There are two kinds of monasticism: outward and inward. The outward one is easy to acquire, but it is difficult to become a monk inside. Outward monasticism includes the practice of external asceticism, such as fasting and vigils; it also includes orderly attendance at the Divine services and sobriety. One cannot dispense with outward monasticism, but one must never be satisfied with it alone. Outward monasticism without the inner may even be harmful.
Elder Barsanuphius goes on to speak about the Prayer of Jesus as an important factor in the formation of the inner monk:
The Prayer of Jesus sanctifies the entire interior life of the monk; it gives him strength in combat. Inner monasticism is the purification of the heart from passions and the struggle with thoughts. Outward monasticism on its own does not bring spiritual profit; interior fire is required.11
So, a person may spend his entire life in a monastery without making any progress on the path of interior purification. One may even lead a worse life in a monastery than in the world. True monasticism is very difficult; it is the university of spiritual life.
Theosis: Man’s Purpose and His Fallen State.
In the book of Genesis we read: "And God said, Let Us make man according to Our image and likeness" (Genesis 1:26). The Church Fathers, since ancient times (e.g., St. Irenæus of Lyons), have distinguished between the Divine image and likeness. Man was created in the image of God, but he had yet to attain His likeness, to become like God, to achieve full theosis. However, man fell. The first man, Adam, prior to his fall, possessed an internal unity through God’s Grace (charis, gratia). He was turned Godward in love. But when he sinned, he lost this special Grace which had protected and united him. The good order of his soul was corrupted, and a corrupt and sinful man came into existence.12 The passions that overcame man were not outside forces which entered from without and which must be uprooted. Rather, they are energies of the soul which have been distorted and need to be transformed. In the human soul, there are three faculties: the intelligent (logistikon), appetitive (epithymetikon), and the incensive (thymikon). These three faculties must be directed toward God. When they turn away from Him, they become sinful passions. A sinful passion is therefore a movement of the soul contrary to nature.13
The first man did not carry out the task which lay before him, "to cultivate and to keep" (Genesis 2:15), to strengthen himself in goodness and cooperate with Divine Grace to attain full deification and become god by Grace. Because of the fall, the Divine Œconomy for man had to be adapted; however, the goal for which man was created did not change. St. Athanasios of Alexandria states that God became man so that man might become god.13a This teaching about theosis is to be found in the writings of the Church Fathers from the earliest times; it has Biblical origins.
The idea of personal and organic union between God and man— God dwelling in us and we in Him—is set forth in the Gospel according to St. John and the Epistles of St. Paul. The latter sees the Christian life mainly as a life in Christ. The same idea is expressed also in the Second Epistle of St. Peter: "According as His Divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness..., that by these ye might be partakers of the Divine Nature" (II St. Peter 1:3-4). In Orthodox theology, man’s salvation and redemption mean his deification. This teaching must always be understood in the light of the distinction between God’s Essence and His Energies. Union with God means union with the Divine Energies, not with the Divine Essence.14
An early witness to this teaching about the distinction between the Divine Essence and Energies is provided by St. Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century. In "Letter 234," he writes: "We know our God from His Energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to His Essence. For His Energies come down to us, but His Essence remains unapproachable."14a This teaching was later developed by one of the greatest theologians of the Orthodox Church, St. Gregory Palamas.15 The union between God and man is a true union, in which man retains his full personal integrity and personal characteristics without ceasing to be human.
Deification involves the body also.
"Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit," wrote the Apostle Paul (I Corinthians 6:19). At the Resurrection, the bodies of the Saints will be transfigured by Divine Light, as the body of the Lord was transfigured on Mount Tabor. Even in this present life, some Saints have experienced the beginning of this visible and bodily glorification. In the Apophthegmata Patrum, a collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers, we read of Abba Pambo: "Just as Moses received the image of the glory of Adam, when his face was glorified, so the face of Abba Pambo shone like lightning, and he was as a king seated on his throne."15a The body is sanctified and transfigured together with the soul. The Divine Grace present in the Saints’ bodies during their lifetime on earth remains active in their Relics after their death, which is the reason behind the veneration of holy Relics in the Church.16
By His Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Founding of the Church, the Lord opened for His most precious creature, man, the path to his true goal, to theosis. In the Mysteries of Baptism and Chrismation, a person receives the fullness of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. But he must still make this Grace "his own"; he must go through the process of acquiring the Holy Spirit. St. Mark the Ascetic says that Christ as Perfect God gave to the Baptized the perfect Grace of the Holy Spirit, which is revealed and manifested insofar as a person lives the Divine commandments.17
According to St. Gregory of Sinai, there are two ways to achieve the activity (energeia) of the Holy Spirit which a person receives in Baptism. The first way is for a person to struggle to fulfill the commandments over a long period of time, with great labor and effort (the active life, praxis). The second way is noetic prayer, "the continual and skillful invocation of the Lord Jesus." St. Gregory also describes certain external techniques for interior prayer, including bodily posture and breathing while offering up the Jesus Prayer.18
The call to sanctity and spiritual perfection is directed to all Christians and therefore all true Christians do everything that is in their power to acquire the Holy Spirit and to achieve inner unification and the healing of the passions. They discover that there are various steps of spiritual ascent to purification of the heart and illumination, when the intellect (nous) is united with the heart, in ceaseless prayer, to achieve theosis.19
The process of spiritual advancement is not something mechanical or magical, however, as if by certain actions we can "force" Divine Grace to effect our internal transformation. Divine Grace brings about this internal change when the time is ripe. But it can also be said that it works in correspondence with a person’s own struggle and efforts in repentance and humility. "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?" (St. Luke 11:13). The coöperation (synergy) of Divine Grace with a person’s own free will is thus required.
Monasticism: Martyrdom and Militia Christi.
Great effort is necessary to enable a believer to traverse the path of spiritual perfection. A degree and form of spiritual combat (askesis) is required of all Christians. The path to theosis is difficult. It is truly the way of the Cross, a narrow path leading to life everlasting. In fact, St. Athanasios the Great compares the ascetic or eremitic life of St. Anthony the Great to a daily martyrdom.19a A homily in archaic Irish, probably dating from the last quarter of the seventh century, also speaks of martyrdom:
Now there are three kinds of martyrdom, which are accounted as a cross to a man, to wit: white martyrdom, green (glas) and red martyrdom. White martyrdom consists in a man’s abandoning everything he loves for God’s sake, though he suffer fasting or labor thereat. Green martyrdom consists in this, that by means of fasting and labor he frees himself from his evil desires, or suffers toil in penance and repentance. Red martyrdom consists in the endurance of a cross or death for Christ’s sake, as happened to the Apostles in the persecution of the wicked and in teaching the law of God.20
This division of bloodless martyrdom into "white" and "green" is peculiar to Irish monasticism, "white" representing the first great step in renunciation of the world, and "green" the practice of exceptional austerity within the ascetic life.20a
The comparison of monasticism with martyrdom is very apt and is related to the concept of spiritual life as combat: the struggle with one’s self and with the fallen spirits who assail true Christians who labor for spiritual perfection. For this reason the Celtic tradition regarded monasticism as the Army of Christ (Militia Christi) and the monk as a soldier of Christ (miles Christi).21 Young men, in their effort to emulate the heroism of their ancestors, entered monasteries. Instead of fighting in the Fianna (the Celtic army), they joined the Militia Christi to wage war against the evil spirits and sin.22
Spiritual life in the Orthodox tradition is very practical and sober. It can bring its adepts to great heights of spiritual perfection. But the path is very arduous and demanding. Orthodox monasticism has been called the "science of sciences" and "art of arts." This science and art must be learned from a master who is thoroughly conversant in it, if indeed one can find such a genuine teacher or Elder. Here is the rôle of the institution of Eldership: True Eldership is a special gift (charisma) of the Holy Spirit. A true Elder knows God’s will, insofar as it is revealed to him, and is thus able to guide the person who entrusts himself to his spiritual guidance to spiritual perfection in God without hindrance.
People often suffer because they do not know how to make decisions, what they should do, and which path they should follow. A spiritual guide can protect his disciple from making wrong decisions and taking a wrong step, if the disciple consults and heeds his guide in the spirit of humble and loving submission. A three-way relationship can be established: the Elder is enlightened by Divine Grace, the disciple is strengthened by the Grace of God, and the Holy Spirit thus works in both. The gift of spiritual guidance by a God-bearing Elder is not always available to a Christian, and Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov) issues the following warning:
An indispensable condition of such submission is a Spirit-bearing guide who by the will of the Spirit can mortify the fallen will of the person subject to him in the Lord, and can mortify all the passions as well. Man’s fall and corrupt will implies a tendency to all the passions. It is obvious that the mortification of a fallen will which is effected so sublimely and victoriously by the will of the Spirit of God cannot be accomplished by a director’s fallen will when the director himself is still enslaved to the passions....
It is a terrible business, out of self-opinion and on one’s own authority, to take upon oneself duties which can be carried out only by order of the Holy Spirit and by the action of the Spirit. It is a terrible thing to pretend to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit when all the while relations with satan have not been broken and the vessel is still being defiled by the action of satan! It is disastrous both for oneself and one’s neighbor; it is criminal in God’s sight, blasphemous.
It will be useless to point out to us that Saint Zachariah who was living in obedience to an inexperienced elder, his natural father Karion, attained to monastic perfection, or that Saint Acacius found salvation while living with a cruel elder who drove his disciple with inhuman floggings to an untimely grave. Both were in obedience to incompetent elders, but they were guided by the counsels of Spirit-bearing Fathers and the most edifying examples which were in abundance before their eyes. Therefore, they could only have remained in outward obedience to their elders. These cases are outside the general rule and order. ‘The mode of action of Divine Providence,’ said St. Isaac the Syrian, ‘is completely different from the common human order. You should keep the common order.’
Perhaps you retort: A novice’s faith can take the place of an incompetent elder.
It is untrue. Faith in the truth saves. Faith in a lie and in diabolic delusion is ruinous, according to the teaching of the Apostle.23
There have been, and continue to be, many situations where believers cannot reap benefit from a God-bearing spiritual guide. Yet this does not mean that the path to spiritual perfection is closed. In these cases, the Christian struggling for perfection must then turn to studying the Holy Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers—especially that which corresponds to his situation and spiritual condition—and also seek out the advice of like-minded persons with more experience in spiritual life. But even such advice should also be checked with the teachings of the Holy Fathers.
Such a path is naturally more arduous and fraught with greater dangers. But if a person conducts his spiritual life aright, in repentance and humility, and fights the spiritual battle lawfully (cf. II Timothy 2:5), he gradually comes to understand himself and to become aware of the extent of his corruption and sinfulness. This confirms him in the basic principles of true humility and ever-deepening repentance. He wages a prolonged and persistent struggle against his passions, bad habits, and weaknesses. Each day he takes account of his weaknesses and failures, learning inner prayer, confessing his sins to the Priest whom God provides for him, and partaking of the Holy Mysteries.
The Apostle Paul regarded himself as the chief among sinners, and any person who is living a proper spiritual life reaches the same conclusion about himself. Such a person begins to taste of humblemindedness and the deep state of repentance known as joy-creating lamentation, the first steps in the purification of one’s conscience and the attainment of inner peace and that living faith which opens the way to spiritual joy and freedom from the tyranny of the passions. The Kingdom of God begins to rule within such a person. Because of serious failings and faults, Divine Grace often hides its operation, in part for didactic reasons, that is, to demonstrate one’s total dependence on God’s help and to effect a direct experience of the truth of the Savior’s words: "Without Me ye can do nothing" (St. John 15:5). This experience leads a person to cry out with all of his heart, entreating the Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on him.
In the Christian monastic tradition, the institution of spiritual Fathers and Elders existed from the earliest times. There were a number of God-bearing Elders among the Egyptian Desert Fathers, and such holy spiritual Elders can be found throughout the history of the Orthodox Church down to the present day. Celtic monasticism was also adorned by such holy spiritual guides, such as St. Columba of Iona. In the Celtic Church there existed the very important institution of spiritual Fathers, who in Ireland were called anamchara ("soul-friends," anamcara, from the Latin animae carus); in Welsh, periglour. Each monk had his spiritual guide, anamchara, to whom he was to open his heart, confess his thoughts, and reveal his conscience (manifestatio conscientiae). An ancient Irish saying comments that a person without a soul-friend is like a body without a head.24 Through his writings, St. John Cassian was a teacher of spiritual life in the British Isles. He also instructs his readers concerning the benefits of revealing one’s thoughts to the Fathers, though not indiscriminately. (One should, he says, consult spiritual Elders who have spiritual discernment [diakrisis].) In the Life of St. David of Wales we find additional evidence of the practice of the confession of thoughts. In §28, it is recorded that the monks in St. David’s monastery revealed their thoughts to the spiritual Father.25
I.M. Kontzevitch has left an account of his visits to the Optina Hermitage in pre-Revolutionary Russia, where Elder Anatoly (Potapov) heard the monks’ confessions of thoughts. He describes the impressive scene of the concentration and reverence with which the monks, one after another, would approach the Elder, kneel, receive his blessing, exchange a few short sentences with him, and leave calm and consoled. This happened twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. Thus, life in Optina was truly without grief and all the monks were kind, joyful, and concentrated, immersed within themselves.26 Here we see that the same practice that was followed in the monasteries of Wales in the sixth century was in use in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. The efficacy of this universally applied custom is captured in a Celtic proverb: "As the floor is swept every day, so is the soul cleansed every day by confession."
The Celtic spiritual Fathers helped and counselled not only monks, but also the lay people who had recourse to them. The soul-friend was to be a guide who helped in all the trials and difficulties of spiritual life. The purpose of this revelation of conscience was to heal the wounds inflicted by sin and enable one to continue his path to unification with God. A truly wise soul-friend was one who had learned humility. Everyone was recommended to choose a humble and experienced soul-friend.27 In responding to this widespread recommendation, these spiritual Fathers often made use of penitential manuals which enumerated the penances for various sins.28
Celtic Christians took the spiritual life very seriously, and to attain their spiritual goal they employed various forms of external asceticism, such as standing in cold water, "cross vigils" (cross figell, from crux vigilia), or the "ascetic practice of praying all night long with arms outstretched in the form of a Cross,"29 and prostrations (slectain), that is, kneeling down and touching one’s forehead to the ground. "There was an anchorite in Clonard, a man of great asceticism. He made two hundred prostrations at Morning Prayer, a hundred at each hour of prayer, and a hundred at vigils. In all, he made seven hundred each day."30 "In a Culdee text from around the eighth century we learn that monks were normally not to perform more than two hundred prostrations daily."31 Such prostrations continue to be a part of the liturgical life and prayer rule of both monks and lay people in the Orthodox Church.
In addition, regulations concerning fasting have always been an important part of the external asceticism of monastics. Abstaining from meat and discretion in drinking wine were monastic traditions from the earliest times in the Christian East, and in the Rule of Cormac Mac Ciolionain (ca. 900) it is stated that a monk should renounce meat and wine.32
Prayer: Praxis and Theoria.
The heart of monastic life was prayer: private prayer and participation in the communal Divine services in Church. According to John Ryan, "A very large proportion of the Irish monks progressed so far in prayer that they were capable of unbroken contemplation. The evidence for this is the growth of the anchoretical habit."33 Although we do not find in Irish sources a description of the method of interior prayer, the fruits of the spiritual struggles of the Celtic monks indicate that noetic prayer was learned from the same sources that have been preserved and elaborated upon in the Orthodox East. This ascetic tradition distinguishes between two aspects of the spiritual life: praxis and theoria. Praxis consists in the purification of the heart from passions, with the help of prayer, obedience, fasting, vigil, silence, the chanting of Psalms, and patience in tribulations. This corresponds to the process of purification, the first degree of the spiritual life. Theoria is the illumination of the intellect (nous) and the vision of the uncreated glory of God. According to St. Gregory the Theologian, praxis is the way to theoria. Theoria is identified with the vision of uncreated Light, uncreated Divine energy, the union of man with God, theosis. Thus, theoria, vision, and theosis are closely related. There are various degrees of theoria: illumination, Divine vision, or a prolonged vision which may last for hours, days, weeks, or even months. Noetic prayer is the first stage of theoria. A person is granted theoria through praxis, and when this state of theoria ceases, he resumes praxis anew.34
The biographer of St. Samson of Dol says that the Saint never ceased to pray either during the day or during the night (cf. I Thessalonians 5:17). Like some Desert Fathers, St. Samson sometimes appeared transfigured. Once, when certain persons went to call him to a council, they saw his face shining like that of an Angel. The same is recorded about the Egyptian Desert Fathers Abbas Or and Theonas.35 According to St. Gregory Palamas, Adam, before his fall into sin, was originally clothed in the garment of glory, of Divine Light and splendor. He participated in the Divine Light. The light at the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor manifested to the Apostles not only the future glory of the Kingdom of God, but also this lost state of the beatitude of Adam in Paradise before the fall. Before the fall, the natural elements did not harm man. Animals looked to man as to their King and rendered him service. In the Saints, those who attained the illumination and deification lost by Adam, the same phenomenon is observed: wild animals are not afraid of them, do not harm them, and serve them faithfully. They recognize their King in the Saints, as it was in the beginning. Many such accounts are found in the lives of Celtic Saints.36
Theosis: Uncreated Divine Light.
Some Celtic Saints reached a very high degree of spiritual life. Revelations of the uncreated Divine Light (cæleste lumen, divina lux) accompanied St. Columba of Iona, as recorded in the Saint’s Life written by St. Adomnan. Here are two such instances:
At another time when the holy man was living in the island of Hinba, the Grace of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon him abundantly and in an incomparable manner, and continued marvelously for the space of three days, so that for three days and as many nights, remaining within a house barred, and filled with heavenly light, he allowed no one to go to him, and he neither ate nor drank. From that house streams of immeasurable brightness were visible in the night, escaping through chinks of the door leaves, and through the key-holes. And spiritual songs, unheard before, were heard being sung by him. Moreover, as he afterwards admitted in the presence of a very few men, he saw, openly revealed, many of the secret things that have been hidden since before the world began. Also everything that in the Sacred Scriptures is dark and most difficult became plain, and was shown more clearly than the day to the eyes of his purest heart. And he lamented that his foster-son Baithene was not there, who if he had chanced to be present during those three days, would have written down from the mouth of the blessed man very many mysteries, both of past ages and of ages still to come, mysteries unknown to other men, and also a number of interpretations of the sacred books.37
In a second narrative, St. Adomnan speaks about a disciple of the Saint named Berchan, who, contrary to the Saint’s prohibition, came at night to his cell and saw through the key-hole that his lodging was filled with the glory of heavenly brightness (cælestis splendore claritudinis).38
The Life of St. Basil the Great contains a similar account of persons to whom it was granted to behold the Saint at prayer in his cell totally illuminated in the uncreated Light of God, the Light of Divine Grace.39 The same manifestation of spiritual life occurred in sixth century Ireland and in fourth-century Asia Minor; one can find numerous examples in the monastic Saints of the Orthodox Church throughout the centuries up to present times. This phenomenon is explained by Metropolitan Hierotheos in his book on St. Gregory Palamas. When man attains to the vision of the uncreated Light, he is deified. Deification is man’s union with God. This union offers Divine knowledge, which surpasses human knowledge. There are many degrees of vision of the Divine Light, but there is no end to perfection. The degree of vision depends on the person’s spiritual condition and on God’s gift.40
St. Columba passed through the first stage of spiritual ascent, purification of the heart; he was released from all evil thoughts. He attained a higher level, the illumination of the intellect (nous), which is related to the acquisition of unceasing, noetic prayer, wherein a person is delivered from ignorance and forgetfulness and is therefore constantly aware of God, and finally attained vision of God. Thus, the words of the Gospel were fulfilled in him: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (St. Matthew 5:8).41
Selfless Love, Spiritual Freedom, Spiritual Realism.
When a person attains purity of heart, his selfish love is transformed into selfless love for God and his fellow man. He loves others without expecting anything in return. He loves independently of whether others love him. When selfish love is changed into selfless love, the spiritual struggler becomes a real human being. The cure of man consists in this transformation.42 With this higher level of spiritual life comes spiritual freedom and a true, rather than a legalistic or external, understanding of monastic life. This can help elucidate the behavior of the Celtic monks—for example, their travels (peregrinatio) during the days when Celtic Christianity was flourishing. All outward things served them as means for attaining a spiritual goal.
Metropolitan Hierotheos observes that many people think that the rigor of the ascetic struggle makes a man hard and insensitive to the problems of life, as well as indiscreet in giving advice. But in fact, the opposite is true. When one lives the ascetic life in a godly way, in deep humility, he removes the mask of fragmentation and becomes a real man. Then he acts naturally, understands the questions and problems of others, and can provide practical and realistic guidance.43 Thus, it was written of the Optina Elder St. Ambrose (†1891), that he knew that everything in life has its value and its consequences; thus, there was no question which he would not answer with compassion and goodwill. For example, he advised an old woman about how to care for her turkey-hens.44 When another woman asked another Optina Elder, St. Nektary (†1928), about how she should serve the Lord, the Elder replied: "From the time that you entered into lawful marriage, you have continuously served the Most Holy Trinity. For a woman, lawful marriage is the beginning of her service to the Most Holy Trinity."45
St. Adomnan also preserved an interesting story from the life of St. Columba. The wife of a certain man named Lugne, who lived on the island of Rechru (Rathlin), had an aversion to her husband, because he was very ugly. She did not want to enter into marital relations with him. When the Saint learned about this, he tried to talk to her, but she told him that she was prepared to do anything, if only he should not ask her to do that. She even expressed her willingness to enter a convent. The Saint replied: "What you suggest cannot rightly be done..., for it is forbidden to separate what God has lawfully joined together." St. Columba proposed that all three of them should fast and pray to the Lord. The Saint prayed for them during the night. The next day, St. Columba asked her if she was ready to enter a convent, and she confessed that during the past night her heart had been changed from hate to love.46 The few examples cited here demonstrate that spirituality is a living dogmatic theology. Because, in the first millennium for the Christian age, the Celtic Churches confessed the same orthodox Faith as the Orthodox Church, it is not surprising to find a deep inner unity between Celtic Christian spirituality and traditional Orthodox spirituality.
1.. Anna Bauerová, Zlaty vek zeme Bóju [The Golden Age of the Land of Boii] (Prague: 1988), p. 182. [The name "Bohemia" is derived from a Celtic tribe called the Boii—Author’s note.]
2. Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica [Gaelic Poetry] (Edinburgh: 1997), p. 29.
3. Ibid., pp. 655-656.
4. G.H. Doble, Lives of the Welsh Saints, ed. D. Simon Ewans (Cardiff: 1971), p. 45.
5. Donald Attwater, Dictionary of Saints (London: 1983), p. 227.
6. Ibid., p. 193; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: 1979), p. 246. St. John Cassian is mentioned in the poem, "Amra Choluimb Chille," which was composed around the year 600. At least some parts of the Conferences[Collationes] were known by the author of the poem, "Altus Prosator," which may have been written by St. Columba himself (T.O. Clancy and G. Markus, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery [Edinburgh: 1995], p. 217). The writings of St. John were read by St. Columbanus, too. They are also an important source for hymns and collects in the "Antiphonary of Bangor" (Jane Stevenson, "Introduction," in F.E. Warren, The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church[Woodbridge: 1987], p. xlii, n. 200).
7. Attwater, Dictionary, pp. 169-170.
8. A.M. Allchin, Celtic Christianity: Fact or Fantasy? (Wales: 1993), pp. 12, 22; Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: 1993), p. 10; Doble, Lives of the Welsh Saints, pp. 43-45.
9. About this litany, see N. K. Chadwick, The Age of the Saints in the Early Celtic Church (Felinfach, Wales: 1960), p. 113.
10. In this vein, see the comments of St. Maximos the Confessor: "He who thinks that he has achieved perfection in virtue will never go on to seek the original source of blessing, for he has limited the scope of his aspiration to himself and so of his own accord has deprived himself of the condition of salvation, namely God. The person aware of his natural poverty where goodness is concerned never relaxes his impetus towards Him who can fully supply what he lacks. He who has perceived how limitless virtue is never ceases from pursuing it, so as not to be deprived of the origin and consummation of virtue, namely God, by confining his aspiration to himself. For by wrongly supposing that he had achieved perfection he would forfeit true being, towards which every diligent person strives" (St. Maximos the Confessor, "Third Century of Various Texts," §§14-15, in The Philokalia [London: 1981], Vol. II, pp. 212-213).
10a. Third Discourse, "To the Believing Father," §14, in Works [in Russian] (St. Petersburg: n.d.), pp. 109-110.
11. Nadezhda, No. 8 (Frankfurt am Main: 1982), p. 107.
12. I.M. Kontzevitch, Stjazhanije Ducha Svjatago v Putjach Drevnej Rusi [The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in the Ways of Ancient Russia] (Paris: 1952), pp. 11-12.
13. Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, O rthodox Spirituality (Lebadeia, Greece: 1996), pp. 236-237.
13a. "On the Incarnation," ch. 54, §3, Patrologia Græca, Vol. XXV, col. 192B.
14. Timothy Ware (Bishop Kallistos), The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth, England: 1986), pp. 236, 237.
14a. "Epistle 234," §1, Patrologia Græca, Vol. XXXII, col. 869AB.
15. Ware, The Orthodox Church, pp. 29, 77.
15a. Pambo 12.
16.. Ibid., pp. 237-239.
17. Monks Kallistos and Ignatios, "Nastavlenije bezmolstvujushchim" ["Instructions for Hesychasts"], in Dobrotoljubije(Jordanville, NY: 1966), Vol. V, p. 221.
18. David Balfour (ed.), Saint Gregory the Sinaite: Discourse on the Transfiguration (Athens: 1982; offprint fromTheologia,Vols. LII, No. 4-LIV, No. 1 [1981-83]), pp. 138-158.
19. See Metropolitan Hierotheos, Orthodox Spirituality, p. 44. "In ascetic theology the heart is the essence of the soul and the intellect (nous) is the energy of the soul. When the intellect enters the heart and acts therein, there exists a unity between the intellect-nous (energy) and the heart (essence) of the soul" (ibid., pp. 34-35).
19a. Life of St. Anthony,§47, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. XXVI, col. 912B.
20. John Ryan, Irish Monasticism (Dublin: 1992), pp. 197-198.
21. Ibid., p. 196.
22. Hugh Conolly, The Irish Penitentials (Dublin: 1995), p. 9.
23. [St. Ignatius Brianchaninov], The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, trans. Archimandrite Lazarus (Jordanville, NY: 1983), pp. 43-45.
24. Conolly, Irish Penitentials, p. 14.
25. A.W. Wade-Evans, Vita Sancti David per Ricemarchum [The Life of St. David by Ricemarchus] (U.K.: 1904), p. 50.
26. Kontzevitch, Stjazhanije Ducha Svjatago, pp. 31-32. On Eldership, see pp. 30-40.
27. Conolly, Irish Penitentials, pp. 15-16.
28. On extant penitential manuals of Irish origin, see Conolly, Irish Penitentials, pp. 32-33; see also J.R. Walsh and T. Bradley, A History of the Irish Church 400-700 A.D. (Dublin: 1991), pp. 111-125.
29. Father Gregory Telepneff, The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs (Etna, CA: 1998), p. 35.
30. "The Rule of Tallaght," 103, in The Celtic Monk: Rules and Writings of Early Irish Monks, trans. Uinseann O Maidin (Kalamazoo, MI: 1996), p. 129.
31. See Oliver Davies, Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales (Cardiff: 1996), p. 154, n. 61; cf. St. John Cassian, "Conference X," §§10, 14.
32. The Celtic Monk, pp. 53-55.
33. Ryan, Irish Monasticism, pp. 331-332.
34. Metropolitan Hierotheos, Orthodox Spirituality, pp. 26, 60-61. "Noetic prayer is the state when the intellect (nous) returns within the heart and prays there"; "Nous is a word used in various ways by the Church Fathers. It indicates either the soul or the heart or also an energy of the soul. Nous is primarily the eye of the soul, the purest part of the soul. Nous is not identified with reason; in English translations of Orthodox ascetic works it is often rendered by the word ‘intellect’" (idem, A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain [Lebadeia, Greece: 1998]), pp. 189-190.
35. Davies, Celtic Christianity, pp. 14-15. Cf. Acts 6:15: "And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel."
36. Kontzevitch, Stjazhanije Ducha Svjatago, pp. 11-12; Elissa R. Henken, The Welsh Saints: A Study in Patterned Lives (Cambridge: 1991), p. 108.
37. Adomnan’s Life of Columba, ed. and trans. A.O. Anderson and M.O. Anderson (Oxford: 1991), p. 209.
38. Ibid., p. 213.
39. Archimandrite George, Deification as the Purpose of Man’s Life (Thessaloniki: 1997), pp. 46-47.
40. Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Saint Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite (Lebadeia, Greece: 1997), p. 351.
41. Ibid., p. 352.
42. Idem, Orthodox Spirituality, p. 64.
43. Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Saint Gregory Palamas, p. 97.
44. I.M. Kontzevitch, Optina Pustyn i jeja vremja [Optina Monastery and Its Era] (Jordanville, NY: 1970), p. 269.
45. Ibid., p. 511.
46. Adomnan’s Life of Columba, p. 165.