The American Monastic Newsletter

Volume 30, Nr. 3, October 2000             Richardton, ND 58652


Dan Ward's Column

Celtic Monasticism


The very heart of Celtic society and Celtic monasticism was the community built on the Celtic tribe with its strong ties of family and kinship. The Celtic society and monasticism espoused the communal values of the people. Thus the Irish language found concepts of personal possession and individual ownership quite alien. A person had "my portion" of the world's goods but the world's goods existed for all. Each person had his/her share of the basic needs and without any thought of acquiring material things for their own sake.


Monastic Travelers


Celtic monastics were travelers. Traveling constantly, they did so, not to evangelize but as a monastic practice to express their inner journey. Despite efforts at stability, the Celts found it better to travel hopefully rather than to arrive at some predetermined destination. As wandering monastics, the Celts did not have the purpose of evangelizing, but they did so by their lives. This evangelical aspect of Celtic monasticism respected the idea of the community and the communal values rooted in the local tribe and kinship.


Thus, as they traversed across Europe, the Celtic monastics lived alongside the people with whom they wanted to share the good news of Christ, to understand and to respect their beliefs and not to dominate or culturally condition them. They respected the strong bond of tribe in each place and among each people. They believed that they were not bringing Christ to new people, but discovering the Christ already there. To evangelize was to liberate the Christ who was already there in all his richness.


Benedict, himself, must have had this concept, since his way was not to merely reestablish Monte Cassino in a new place, but to have the monastics adapt to the place: the work, the rhythm, the food and the clothing. The present flowering of the richness of Celtic spirituality, which was a very monastic spirituality, helps monastics again to see the depths and roots of our European continental monasticism. Why? The answer is because Celtic monasticism and continental monasticism both derive from African continental monasticism. Celtic monasticism highlights again what monasticism is about: the journey, the community, the communal concept of material goods, the communal values of community life, and the need to live and respect the culture of the place and the times. Monasticism is, or should be, the circle of people called community with the wind of the place wrapping around it, the sun of the place giving it light, the ground of the place giving it support. Monasticism is the circle of people whom Abba Dorotheos of Gaza described. He said that as the spokes of the wheel get closer to one another they move closer to the God who is the center, and as they become closer to God who is the center, they become closer to one another.


Communio / Comununal


From the Celts to Basil to Benedict, monasticism was to be communal for the most part. The Rule itself is permeated with the aspects and details of living together in one place with a rather stable group of people, but why communal life? St. Basil said it is communal because only then can a monastic live love every day. Without a community how can a monastic show love? Benedict, for his part, emphasized the same by his details to service among the members, service to and for each other daily. For Benedict, communal life also gives the help of others on the journey of life and love. "With the help of many brothers/sisters" the journey of life can be traveled. Add to this the Celtic idea of a tribal society with strong bonds of family forming a life together based on communal values rather than on individual values and desires. Herein lies the communal nature of cenobitic life: to live love daily, to be supported and supportive on the journey, to be a people of communal values.


This is monastic profession in the cenobitic tradition. It is conversatio morumwhich is the profession of the life as a monastic and is common to all expressions of monastic life from anchorite to cenobite. It is the profession of the "Battle of the Heart" as Abba Antony calls it, the profession of seeking purity of heart as Cassian teaches or, more simply, through monastic practices, the discovery of the God within whom pulsates the life-giving blood of love.


In addition, what characterizes cenobitic monastic profession is obedience and stability. However, clear the mind of any legal concept of these words, any authoritarian notions, and any division of these two as separate vows, they are but the concrete expression of where conversatio morum is to be daily lived. In the cenobitic tradition, the monastic makes the journey to the God within, to live in the raw happenings of daily life with real people in a real place.


Obedience bonds the monastic's profession to these people. With these people the monastic makes the journey. One's travels are weavings with, in, through and around these people. Stability bonds a monastic to a particular place, a real and identifiable piece of God's creation. Here nature lives. Here is where earth and heaven become the monastic's soul friends revealing to him/her the God within and the God without. Here in this place is his/her sacred well. Cenobitic monastic profession is tied to people and to place. In discovering God with these people within this place, the monastic discovers God in all creation.


Of course, this may all sound too ideal or unreal but it is real. A monastic, even a cenobite, is a traveller, a traveller who may never or seldom leave a place. The monastic is a traveler nonetheless because in the hallways of the monastery, he/she daily can discover a new part of the inner journey, if he/she listens to the people and the place.


The communal nature of monastic life is monasticism's gift from the Church to the Church. It is the basic monastic eucharist. Just as the Eucharist is Christ's gift to the Church that the Church gives back to Christ in the Eucharistic celebration, so too is monastic communal life. In the common life monastics receive the Church, they are the Church and they give the Church back to the Church. This, it seems, is why Vita Consecrata states that monastic life is the eloquent sign of communio, communion. In a monastery, God dwells because the community dwells. This is the image of the Church.

Daniel J. Ward, OSB
Monk of St. John's Abbey


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