From Journeys on the Edges: The Celtic Tradition
I asked the earth and it answered: “I am not he.” I asked the sea and its creatures and they answered: “We are not your God, seek higher!” I asked the whole air, and everything in it, and it answered: “Anaximenes was wrong – I am not your God.” I asked the heavens, the sun, moon and stars, and they answered: “Neither are we God whom you seek.” I asked the whole frame of the universe about my God and it answered me: “I am not he, but he made me.” (Augustine, Confessions 10.6)
All The World’s a Sign
One of the attractive features of early medieval writings for us today is their sense of the closeness of God as manifested in the beauty and rhythms of nature. This is something that is foreign to much of the Christianity that we have received. We may sing “all creatures great and small” but this is a children’s hymn, and it is little more than stating in a homely way our belief in creation’s origin in God. So foreign indeed is this strand of rejoicing in the glory of the creation that some have seen it as a pagan legacy, a nature worship, or as the rejection of any distinction between matter and spirit. Another of the attractions of Celtic writings is a sense of forlorn remoteness we experience when we think about these people. We see them as people on the edge: monks living on windswept islands such as Iona off Scotland, Holy Island off Northumbria, Caldy and Bardsey off Wales, or Skellig Michael and Inisbofin off Ireland. We have an instant picture of a monastic spirit that flees the world of people in favor of the desert where, in their search of God, they will confront themselves and evil. These themes of creation and remoteness are intimately connected, and this chapter is an attempt to explore them.
One of the central themes of Christianity in the first millennium, both East and West, is that the world around us, and our very selves, are marked through and through with the imprint of our maker. This universe has all over it, from the heavens above down to the smallest detail on Earth, the tell-tale signs of something infinitely greater, beyond it, before it, and giving it purpose. In each thing there are the “footprints” of the Creator, and from these things humans can recognize that there is a God, and that there is an order in creation. These Christians took their lead from Paul writing to the Romans: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (1:19-20) But the creation is not just there with its maker’s marks upon it, it is there in this way precisely so that human beings, the focus of the creation, could look around them and learn, through reflection on the visible creatures surrounding them, of their origin and end. The universe was to be treated like a book. A book tells you about something greater than the words on the page; it is a recollection of something more real than itself. Just think that now you are reading this, but this is only a memory of the beliefs of those early Christians; they and their beliefs existed, and these words only exist as a shadow of those beliefs. So the “book” of the creation spoke of its author and communicated his most basic characteristics. Here lies the basis of what some modern writers have detected as the “eco-friendliness” in the early medieval Christianity that we are studying. We could describe this more accurately if we extended the book metaphor: if the creation is a book written by God, to be deciphered by humans in prayerful reflection, then one should turn its pages gently.
Signs and Things: Augustine
By the time that we see Christianity flourishing in the Celtic lands, from the later fifth century, this notion of the sacramental quality of the universe had been articulated theoretically by Augustine (354 – 430), as a simple formula that could be communicated easily to ordinary Christians by Eucherius of Lyons (who died mid-fifth century), and as part of the life of monastic Christian perfection by John Cassian (c. 360 – 435). Augustine is not usually put in the company of the other two writers, and it would have shocked some in the later fifth century to see them linked. Yet for those who came after them in Ireland and Wales there was little difficulty in weaving their ideas together: they lived with the notion that the universe is a sign, a pointer, a sacrament of the Word through whom it is made, and who enters that creation out of love for humanity to redirect us to our end.
Augustine had laid out his sacramental vision of reality quite soon after his baptism and, on this point at least, he hardly altered his opinion. His starting point was the distinction between “signs” and “realities.” Realities existed for themselves, but signs, while real things, referred the observant human being to something greater. So to one who knows its nature, smoke points to combustion, and the word and sound of “d-o-g” represents a small quadruped such as many people keep as pets. But just as we use signs as part of being human – words, symbols, metaphors – so God has ordained that the whole universe will address us in this manner. Everything had been made in a well-ordered way by the Creator in “order, and number, and weight.” (Wisdom 11:21) So whenever we look at a creature (that is, everything other than God) we should not just find matter, a neutral stuff we can do with what we like, but rather something that has order within it. Creatures have an order and purpose within them, the seed grows to be a tree and lives on in ordered cycles. The heavens move in an orderly way and bring the seasons, and so bring growth and harvest. Every living being is a wonder of complexity yet it carries out its task, for the Lord “has sweetly and powerfully disposed all things, ordering them from one end of the universe to the other.” (Wisdom 8:1) Whenever we see order – this is more than simple regularity, it is complex things “coming together” in harmony – then if our eyes are open (the gift of faith) we do not just marvel at this wonder, but are drawn beyond the order to the Orderer. Equally, everything we see can be described in number. There is one creation, so many stars, the heavens can be predicted through their numbered regularity, everything material can be measured. We must not just be fascinated with such arithmetic, but know that anything that can be numbered is limited, so beyond the numbered universe is the Being-beyond-number, the true Infinity of being, beauty and power. Likewise, material things all have a definite place in the creation. The world around us is not just a jumbled heap, so there is an organizing principle even in these things. Augustine referred to this using the scriptural term “weight.” This means that in even the least interesting bit of matter, there is a link to God, for it would not be where it is without the divine creative will which gave it its “weight,” its place in the whole scheme of things.
For Augustine, when we look around the material world we should be able to see two levels of reality: the beautiful, ordered creatures, and beyond them the mystery that gives them being. Here was the task of Christians: to raise their sights from looking “downwards” on the creation as something just there, to the beauty/order/number that is inherent in it, and then even higher to the Giver of its beauty. Faith was a task of seeing through corporeal things to arrive at the incorporeal. But here also lay the temptation for humanity. One could become so fascinated with the creation that one became engrossed, and failed to see that it is not an end in itself but the work of Another. Humans can use the creation and even enjoy it, but such enjoyment is transitory. The only enjoyment that is not marred by a limit is in God.
Augustine thought that the history of humanity’s beliefs was a tale of this confusion of creature with Creator, of passing things that are to be used as gifts and signs being treated as realities that are to be enjoyed forever. This had happened to the Israelites when they made the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) and “exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass,” (Psalm 106:20), and Augustine believed the process of distraction was laid out in detail in Wisdom 13. When the wisdom of the Greeks had led them to number the heavens accurately, they became so amazed by the numbering that they thought that the order itself was divine and powerful and so became slaves of astrology. Christians must be aware of a tension in their lives: they must value the creation as God’s gift and a precious sacrament pointing them back to the Alpha and forward to the Omega, but they must not stop short at the sacrament, they must look beyond to the God towards whom the cosmos points.
God’s Code: Eucherius
Eucherius, although only slightly younger than Augustine, was a very different sort of man. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, gives the impression of being on fire, a man of extremes. Eucherius, who died as Bishop of Lyons, conveys a sense of urbanity and moderation in everything. He and his wife decided they would retreat from the world to the island monastery of Lérins, and for many years they and their children lived there. He certainly knew of Augustine, and had read him, but he never mentions Augustine by name – a polite snub for his writings aimed at correcting some of the extreme positions of the older Augustine. Later, Eucherius was called from Lérins – which he considered an idyllic place – to be a bishop, and later again both his sons became bishops of nearby dioceses.
It was probably while the family lived on Lérins that Eucherius wrote his two short works on what we call spirituality: On contempt of the world (De contempt mundi) and In praise of the desert (De laude heremi). Their titles may be off-putting, but their message is similar to the sacramentalism of Augustine. There is beauty everywhere in the creation, for it reflects the beauty of God, if only we can see it. The life of calm reflection, of withdrawal from business and cares is not a flight from the world inspired by revulsion, but rather a movement to give oneself – and in his case his wife and children – the “space” to appreciate the goodness of God in the creation, and then to appreciate God. The world can fill us with business, distracted like Martha over many things (Luke 10:41), but it can also provide us with the means to recollect ourselves and see, in our wonder, the glory of God. There is a gentleness in Eucherius that makes his notions of “flight from the world” and his “deserted place” on Lérins far more appealing than the extremes described in some of the lives of the desert fathers. However the little book that would make Eucherius famous for five hundred years, and make him one of the most used authorities in the scriptural exegesis in early Christian Ireland, was written after he left Lérins for Lyons.
Aware of the needs of preachers who had to interpret scripture, Eucherius produced his Formula for a spiritual understanding (Formula spiritalis intellegentiae) which enabled one who knew the work to see through the surface (historical) level of scripture to its “higher” spiritual meaning. He noted all sorts of things mentioned in the scriptures from natural objects like the sun, moon, trees, fire, stones and animals, human objects like fields, houses, all the parts of the body, various numbers and references to places and actions; and then he found somewhere else in the scriptures where that same object was used in a clearly metaphorical way. Eucherius then latched on to that symbolic meaning, and declared that that was its deeper meaning throughout God’s revelation. So, for example, when we meet the word “field” (ager) in the scriptures (it occurs 253 times) what does it mean? Christ (what better interpreter could there be?) tells us that it signifies this world of ours (Matthew 13:38). So whenever we meet “field” (upon the authority of scripture itself) we can read this word as a code pointing to a higher realm where to those who know the code, it means “the world.”
What Eucherius had done was to create a two-tier world for scripture: there was the text you could read on the page in front of you, and there was the more real, more permanent and higher meaning to which it pointed through its symbols/codes. The text, the “letter” to use Paul’s image (2 Thessalonians 2:2), was a veil through which Christians had to move until they reached the world beyond the physically visible; this was spiritual knowing. Eucherius was in line with a pattern of interpreting scripture that had been developing since before the time of Jesus – and which affected many of the New Testament writers themselves – but he brought this sacramentalist view of the text to a new level both theoretically and practically. The scriptures stood on the edge of this fragile material world and offered a vision of a more lasting world. It was a vision with which Eucherius inspired countless Christians in the Celtic lands just as later, having been ignored by the scholastics, he inspired the Welsh/English poet Henry Vaughan (1622 – 1695) and, more recently, Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968).
Since the scriptures used images from this world, yet told of Heaven, the very things in the world could, for those with the eyes of faith, by symbols of a higher world. The whole material world could be a parable, not in words but things, to be decoded in the same way as the parables in the Gospels. This was the next logical development of the theory, combining the cosmic sacramentalism of Augustine with the textual sacramentalism of Eucherius. So that whether one read the scriptures or walked down the lane to work in the fields or just looked out of one’s window, one could take all that entered the mind as both real (in a transient earthly/physical way) and as the shimmering image of the higher Heavenly world. This world was now, for the Christian, just hovering on the edge of being. The call to the Christian was to move to its very limit and peer beyond. This could take place in reflection while walking and working, or in decoding the scriptures, and in the liturgy Christians could actually experience praising God with the inhabitants of that higher world: the angels and powers, and cherubim and seraphim, the choir of the apostles and prophets, and the white-robed army of martyrs (cf. the Te Deum). Whether walking, working, reading, or praying, one was in two world: this physical world which seemed so real but which was fragile and slipping away moment by moment, and the spiritual world which was intangible, clouded the senses, but which was real; and if one “had not a lasting city here” (Hebrews 13:14), then it was by no means certain that one had yet been granted a place “in the kingdom.” (Matthew 5:19) Christian life was in many senses a journey along an edge.
Ascetic Sacramentalism: Cassian
The third major influence on Christianity in Celtic lands was Cassian. A friend of Eucherius, he tailored his accounts of the fathers of the desert to the monastic situation in southern Gaul in such a way that others, throughout the West, found in him the ideal guide to the monastic life. His influence in Celtic lands can be judged by the fact that modern students of insular monasticism are constantly struck by similarities between Celtic practices and those of Eastern monasticism, and especially the monasticism of Egypt and Syria. Alas, the great cries of “links” between the Celts and the Egyptians, Greeks, or Syrians are misplaced: all such Eastern elements can be traced to the mediation of Cassian. Elements once common in the West (brought there from the East by Cassian), but which did not figure in Benedictine monasticism and which therefore disappeared elsewhere in the ninth century, survived longer in monasteries on the northwestern fringe of Europe.
Cassian, like Augustine and Eucherius, used a two-tier arrangement of knowledge, exegesis and the spiritual life. On the lower level there were the things of sense, which were ordered towards praxis, studied by historical exegesis, and belonged to the “actual life.” Leading on from that lower involvement were the things of the spirit, studied using various levels of spiritual interpretation, which belonged to the “contemplative life.” As with the other writers’ presentations, this is a sacramentalism where this world’s value lies in its being the stepping-off point into the realm of the divine. What was unique was that this process was fully part of a life of religious dedication. Both Augustine and Eucherius promoted the religious life, but one could read their writings on knowing and interpreting scripture and leading the life of faith without seeing any direct link to a life of asceticism or taking on the distinctive lifestyle of the monk. Not so with Cassian: the lower life was part of the everyday world and its engagements; the higher life demanded withdrawal, a purification from its allurements, and a definite decision to center one’s whole life on God. Without such a dedicated plan for discipleship one could at best lead a “mixed life” where, while one saw beyond the senses, one still treated them as if they had a reality of their own. Within Cassian’s view the decision to withdraw from the center of this world of the senses to its edge, and to remain there, constituted the significant human movement. The closer one was to the centers of this world, the more one was drawn down from the real objects of life and immersed in transient matter.
Fathers and Saints
Early insular writers took over from Augustine, Eucherius, and Cassian this two-tier universe where the material cosmos reflected a higher reality, and Christians possessed in revelation the key to “read” that higher reality through its sacrament, the lower world around them. Today, we wonder that writers whom we spend time distinguishing, such as Augustine and Cassian, or ignore altogether, such as Eucherius, could be read in this way, but for those early medieval writers what united the three far outweighed their differences. They were the fathers and so they must be part of the harmony of an orchestra. These writers became the great sources, and the theme was then filled out with lives of the desert saints. The first, and paradigmatic, vita of Antony of Egypt was written shortly after his death (c. 356) by Athanasius. Athanasius’s aim is clear from his preface: if you know Antony’s struggles and how he won them, “you will be able to train with zeal to imitate him.” He assumes that a way of life is better learned by imitation of lifestyle and habit than by a theoretical presentation, “for Antony’s life is an appropriate guide to monks in asceticism.” Translated into Latin c. 360 by Evagrius of Antioch, its influence spread through the empire within decades, as Augustine witnesses, and it was a basic text of monastic wisdom in the Celtic lands.
Jerome came next among the writers of monastic hagiography, inspired directly by Athanasius. His life of Paul of Thebes (written c. 376) was to determine who was regarded as the first desert hermit. Around 391 Jerome wrote lives of Malchus and Hilarion. While his purpose is moral in all three works, the later ones are more obviously guides to being a hermit, as well as to the routine for a group of ascetics, and are interspersed with the miracles of these Palestinian monks. Their popularity in Ireland can be judged from the fact that Paul is presented as one of the model saints encountered by Brendan on his monastic odyssey.
The third highly influential piece of hagiography was Palladius’s Historia Lausiaca (c. 419 – 420). Again inspired by Athanasius, Palladius stated his aim as providing learners with models for imitation from those strong in faith and ascetical endurance (Letter to Lausus). He supplied 71 such models by name. And, uniquely, Palladius included women among his model saints, even showing them teaching men! His influence can be seen in that his accounts of the stone cells built by Dorotheus as penance probably supplied the idea for the beehive-shaped stone cells built by Irish monks in places like Skellig Michael.
Most people today find these saints’ lives repellent: their miracles incredible, and detrimental to faith; their accounts of demons silly, or evidence for psychological disorders (for example Vita Antonii 8); while tales involving chastity evidence a profound anti-body fascination. This shift in appreciation vividly illustrates the shift in world-views between the early medieval period and our own. However, it is the manner in which insular Christians combined these hagiographic and monastic sources with a sacramental, virtually Neoplatonic, view of the universe that is one of the most interesting parts of their spirituality.
Living in Tension
We readily appreciate the negative aspects of much early hagiography, and it has become a commonplace to note the unbalanced nature of most of Jerome’s writings on the Christian life. Such criticism was not open to monks in the medieval monastery: these were the accounts of the saints who had been proven, and who now shared “the inheritance of the saints in light.” (Colossians 1:12) The achieved sanctity of those fathers meant that they, and so their lifestyles, must be valued as exemplary. However, the monastic rejection of material things was balanced in the Celtic lands by the need to study that same material world, as it was the book of nature to be interpreted in a manner analogous to the pages of the written law.
From our perspective, we tend to reject spiritualities which stress binary oppositions of matter and spirit, this world and the world to come, the transient and the everlasting, as being tinged with dualism, or at least as not giving sufficient attention to the creation around us. And, if one were to read only the prescriptions for penitence in the penitentials or the accounts of penance in saints’ lives, then that judgment would appear justified for the Celtic lands. However, their binary separation of the creation into two worlds is fundamentally different: the relationship between these worlds is not that of a negative and a positive, or a bad/defective world and a good/perfect world – such as one finds in many ancient philosophies and religions – but one of anticipation and fulfillment, of shadow and reality, of pointer and objective, of way and destination. The material existed not as an alternative to the spiritual, but for the sake of the spiritual. It was the place of the journey, and the higher world was the place which beckoned one to start out on the journey, and its destination. In this kind of relationship the lower cannot be ignored nor treated as an illusion or prison: it is the place where one must discover the basic things of God and where one must prove oneself. Likewise, the material world cannot be rejected as evil, for that would be to deny not only that it was the divine handiwork, but also it would involve rejecting the word of God which communicated itself sacramentally through it. The art and skill of the Christian life was to attend to the material not as an end itself (that was the basic sin of distraction that led to false gods and superstition), but as the sacrament of the true homeland.
So “the narrow way” of the Christian was to journey through life without rejecting the material creation (which would, in effect, be the same as becoming a dualist) and without rejecting the higher reality to which humans were called (becoming a materialist). It was a call to live a life of tense attention; they recognized that it was very easy to be pulled one way or the other, to an extreme which was false. However, in this temptation to extremes their concerns were different from ours. We are more likely to fear that the rejection of the creation would be our downfall as religious people (and so we scorn “pie in the sky when you die” type of spirituality); they were far more concerned lest instead of seeing through matter to the higher world, they lower their gaze to focus solely on matter. We see this difference, for example, in the concerns of the penitentials with the sinner who has ignored the higher world and become engrossed in the concerns of this life or the body. There is no corresponding set of warnings about the dangers of being so concerned with the spiritual world to come that one ignores the present world and one’s duties towards others.
Shadows and Thin Places
In several places in the New Testament there is an image that means very little to us, but which was of enormous significance in the early Middles Ages, that of the “shadow” (skia/umbra). We think of a shadow as something left behind, an after-effect, but in Colossians 2:17 there is the notion that the shadow of what is to come appears first, and afterwards “the substance,” which “belongs to Christ.” In Hebrews 8:5 the rituals from the time of Moses were regarded as “a copy and shadow of the Heavenly sanctuary.” Those earlier rituals were copied from “the pattern which was shown on the mountain,” and were given as an anticipation of the sacrifice of Christ. In Hebrews there is the implication that all Earthly liturgy is the “shadow” of the Heavenly liturgy. Equally, in Hebrews 10:1 it is declared: “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near.” In these references a shadow is an anticipation, a fore-type, a taster, and a direction-setter for the future towards a higher reality, to which we do not yet have access. We find this notion of “shadow” in J. H. Newman’s epitaph, ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem, which has implied motion and must be translated by something like, “I have moved from shadows and images to the true realities.” This notion of shadow is intimately connected with the notion of sacramentality: the sacrament is perceived now, but only as a sign; the reality for which it stands is both future and elsewhere.
In this sense the Christians of the early medieval period could refer to the material creation, the present world, as a shadow, and see the pattern of shadow-leading-to-reality in every aspect of their faith. The old covenant was a shadow of the new, the law a shadow of the gospel, the prophets a shadow of the Christ, the old liturgy a shadow of the new, the presence of the Word in the creation a shadow of the Word made flesh, the knowledge of God in nature and pagan religions a shadow of that preached by the church. The whole of this world was but a shadow of that to come. As such it was a sacrament within the whole plan of God; and sacraments are precious, and must be handled with respect and in a sacred way. To declare in this sense that this world is but a shadow has probably the opposite effect of denying it in a Platonic or Manichaean fashion – for now the world must be handled with care, and it must be read as a window on mystery.
This sacramentalist view of the world affected many other aspects of the world-view of Christians in the Celtic lands. First and foremost it accounts for the “valuing of the creation” that has attracted so many people to “Celtic spirituality” in recent years. More perversely, it has led some people to imagine that because “the Celts” could see that the creation was a revelation of God, this must indicate links with “paganism.” Such commentators fail to realize that all premodern Christianity was fundamentally sacramentalist. Incidentally, we have no evidence that there was anything approaching such a position in the paganism that Christianity replaced. Second, the sacramentalist view of the world enables us to understand the enormous value placed on the sacramental rites of Christianity which we can see in accounts of baptisms in saints’ lives or still see in beautiful altar plate such as the Derrynaflan chalice and paten or the Ardagh chalice. By extension, since scripture was read sacramentally we can understand the value they set on exegesis (decoding the signs) and why the vehicle of that sacrament (the actual book made of parchment) could have such a wealth of art lavished upon it as we see in manuscripts like the Book of Kells or the Golden Book of Echternach.
Today, many, if not most, Christians reject all of the physics and much of the exegesis of scripture upon which that early medieval sacramentalism was based. Moreover, for many Christians even the very notion of sacraments is problematic. What one person sees as a step towards another dimension, another Christian sees as a ritualized obstacle between the individual and God. Moreover, a consequence of a sacramental view is that one must value the community where sacred signs are treasured and decoded, and so one must see the community, the church, as itself sacramental. But this notion that to be Christian is to belong to a group is also a problem for many people, for there has been an emphasis on religion as an individual activity in much Christian preaching in recent centuries.
However, even allowing for these difficulties, that view of the world from long ago has still much to teach us. It can give a religious perspective to our ecological concerns and our desires to value the material universe as sacred, while avoiding the trends present in many New Age and neopagan cults where the Earth itself becomes the object of worship and is believed to be the source of spiritual power. Equally, it can remind us of the basic Christian belief that the Word is at work in the creation from the beginning and that all matter is “stamped” with the mark of its Originator. As the early Christian hymn used by John, and echoed in the creeds, says: the Word “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:2-3) Therefore our exploitation of the material creation as some neutral stuff at our disposal is incompatible with that belief in the creation. At the same time, the memory of the asceticism of those insular monks reminds us that there is no discipleship which does not demand a decision about our lifestyle, and a willingness to strive after the good. The sacramental world was seen by those saints in the Celtic lands as calling Christians to journey with the tension between the now and the not-yet. Recalling that view reminds us today that such a tension is still part of the Christian path.