EARLY IRISH MONASTICISM: AN UNDERSTANDING OF ITS CULTURAL ROOTS
By Catherine Thom (2006), T & T Clark, London and New York.
Reviewed by Dr Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap
THIS is a probing recent interpretation of the radical response to the Gospel as practised by early Irish monks.
Catherine Thom argues that what some have judged to be an overly harsh ascetical theology and praxis among Irish monks of the sixth to the eighth centuries is better interpreted as a total commitment to the maxims of the Gospel in which a passionate response does not count the cost but assists the person to achieve union with God.
Thom calls the process of total commitment “radicality”.
She writes that the intention of these monks was “love of God and neighbour as oneself. Simple as this sounds, it is the task of a lifetime and is intrinsic to the radicality which is the focus of this book” (p. XIII).
The first chapter is taken up with setting out the state of the question and is a comprehensive and valuable summary of the opinions that have been expressed and the issues that have been raised, such as cultural contact, continuity and discontinuity with the past, the Irish notion of history and the relationship of Irish monasticism to the Celtic Church.
The next four chapters deal with evidence concerning what the early Irish monks did and said as gathered from their Penitentials, Rules, the biography of Colum Cille and the preaching of Columbanus.
The general reader will find that the book gives a fascinating insight into Celtic spirituality supported by illustrations and photographs.
On the other hand, the scholar will be struck by the wealth of information and detail in the notes, some of which might arguably have found a place in the body of the text.
Although the author is at pains to stress what is unique to Irish monastic spirituality, the reader will easily note similarities with European monastic and mendicant spirituality.
For example the Irish passion for pilgrimage (p. 24) is similar to the Mendicant passion for itinerancy.
The Rule which St Francis wrote for hermits contains much of the same advice set out in the Irish Rules (p. 101).
For example, the dwelling is to be near a city where hermits can attend the recitation of the Hours. Those who live apart need special permission as a step of discerning their vocation, and, in any case, such separation is not for life.
The Rule of Ciaràn (p. 79) is at one with the Rule of St Francis in what it has to say about silence.
Its violation may lead to murmuring, giving false witness and belittling others whereas its observance promotes union with God.
Such insights into comparative spirituality make the book profitable to the general reader as one finds oneself on familiar ground.
Among the aspects of early Irish monastic spirituality which challenge the modern reader we note the role of the spiritual friend and the practice of individual Confession.
The penitential practices of the Irish were aimed at transformation (p. 29) and, so the author argues, rather than being mutilations the penances prescribed are aimed at generating spiritual energy (p. 28).
Private Confession as compared to public penance allows one to concentrate on reconciliation with God rather than the fear of public exposure (p.31).
It is interesting to see that even sinners who have been exiled or “excommunicated” are still under the guidance of an abbot (p. 58)
The book contains not only a wealth of the history of religious life, an analysis of a newly-founded Church maturing in a non-Christian environment and a description of how the faith might be inculturated, but also a provocative and stimulating challenge to personal faith development.