In its two-thousand-year history, Christian monasticism has taken various forms which, in different ways, have tended to initiate ascetics towards higher contemplation. It was not a question of a uniform and homogeneous phenomenon, but of ascetic ways that are sometimes very different from each other, of spiritual forms that are not always comparable even if, obviously, the reference to the same evangelical foundations makes them aspects of a single, grandiose ecclesial reality. Alongside the well-known monks of the Thebaid, the hermits of Syria, the many loners who in Lérins or in the monasteries resulting from the teaching of Cassian intended to follow the evangelical dictate “Leave everything and follow me!” Between the fourth and seventh centuries in Ireland it gave rise to a monasticism which constituted one of the most complex and richest spiritual phenomena among those that flourished on the continent. It was not a negligible event or circumscribed to a limited geographical reality, but a massive presence that in a short time reached a large part of the European regions, nourished the most diverse doctrinal spheres and substantiated contemplation, culture, art, miniature, goldsmithing, monuments, symbols and sacramental forms that have formed the basis of a very rich spiritual life. The monasticism organised in the northern islands of the continent had its own specificity that made it completely different from what we know of the Benedictine monasteries, arrived here just when those of the Celtic rite began to lose their driving force and tended to be absorbed in the foundations. “Latin.” Not only the different, very harsh forms of austerity, but their very consideration of the meaning of the sacramental life stemmed from a particular condition that made us perceive the cosmos and temporal rhythms as a continuous theophany that the monk simply had to contemplate as the reflection of “presence” of God.
The study of Christian-Celtic spirituality has met in recent years an attention and an extension that has touched various aspects of that ancient ecclesial structure and for the first time has not been limited to the narrow elite circle of Anglo-Irish specialists. It was a real rediscovery of a world analysed up to now in a limited way that however some authors have conducted adventurously, without adequate knowledge of the specific values of that reality, in some cases even presuming to find impossible correspondences with imaginative mythological cycles. . In the many manuals that study Christianity of the first centuries, despite the great diffusion and widespread presence in every area of social life, Celtic monasticism is often considered an “almost spontaneous” phenomenon, not comparable in any way to what has developed elsewhere . It was argued that this important phenomenon can only be considered a kind of provisional interlude that would follow the numerous hermit communities that flourished in southern Gaul and the Tyrrhenian islands, an experience functional to the subsequent arrival of the Benedictines who with their very articulated, organised, more attentive to the needs of community life and with their rich monasteries, they would have been the authentic initiators of the conventual civilisation that flourished throughout Europe. And yet, this kind of uncritical conviction always followed by scholars of the early medieval world and continued until our days without excessive denials, not only does not correspond at all to reality, but substantially ignores the peculiarity of the mystical experience of Celtic monks and contemplatives.
To better highlight the profound differences that distinguish the monks of the Celtic rite from all the other contemplative forms that emerged in the history of Christianity, in the course of the book we have focused not so much on the administrative structure, on the organisational specificities or on the episcopal history of the Northern islands, as on the liturgical particularities, on the types of prayer and on the “technical-realisation” modalities that have substantiated the Celtic churches, those that seem to differ in many points of view from the better known ascetic life of the Benedictines. It is the mystical-contemplative substratum in which these solitary ascetics moved, and much less ecclesial history, that shows their spiritual peculiarity. The Celtic monks who between the fourth and seventh centuries wandered relentlessly in the insular world of the North were not great protagonists in the doctrinal field and, although firmly anchored to the “mysticism of Light” of the Gospel of St. John, did not elaborate speculative systems in able to form the foundation of schools or communities of theological studies such as those that will later flourish on the continent. On the other hand, the same clumsy attempt made by some nostalgics of Druidic folklore to bring the doctrines of a heretic like Pelagius back to the spirituality of the Irish and Scottish ascetics is only the fruit of an interpretative poverty that shows, among other things, not to know at all the concrete roots from which Pelagianism took consistency, its denial of the ontological meaning of sin or the reduction of prayer and of the sacramental life itself to an empty vestige devoid of any “realising” significance, all things that would have horrified any monk Celtic.
In reality, the attention of these northern ascetics was turned to the conversion of the world and their rhythms of life were essentially modulated on the purification of the soul, on mysticism, on contemplation, on the Imitatio Christi. Their sacramental forms, the so singular prayers, the all-pervading psalmody, the rigid penitentials and the songs lead us towards an archaic, rocky, often harsh reality; they speak of a distant world, unreachable, silent, almost incomprehensible to moderns. A whole liturgical and “technical-realisation” arrangement of the most complex reveals a very different way of dealing with sacramental themes and those that are accustomed to listing within the wide and varied area of mysticism. From these distant monasteries emerge a number of ascetic practices, harsh austerities, invocations, praises, hymns, rules and organisational structures that appear extremely different from what one is used to seeing in other areas of the continent. The same singular organisation at once cenobitic, hermitic and “itinerant” of their monasticism has allowed those extraordinary figures of ascetics and tireless pilgrims known as Culdees (Céilí Dé, lit. “Spouses of God”) to emerge, a community of mysterious contemplatives whose basic characteristics are certainly not comparable to other conventual experiences and probably constitute the most authentic signature of Celtic monasticism. Their spiritual form reveals a depth that due to its specificity and its adherence to an immaculate reality can only be defined as “primordial”, which has remained substantially little known in its most authentic dimension, but which from the point of view of the History of Religions directs towards a mystical-contemplative substratum with extraordinary similarities with spiritual areas far from Europe such as Buddhist Tibet (藏传佛教), the India of the first Upanishads (उपनिषद्), the Islam of the Sufis (صُوفِيّ), the Siberian forests of the pustelnik (пустынник), Mount Athos of the Hesychasts (ἡσυχασμός), the China of the most closed Taoist or Daoism (道) brotherhoods, the Japan of the Yamabushi (山伏 — Lit: he who prostrates himself on the mountain) are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits.
Studying the apostolic activity of the monks and of those innumerable pilgrims who with tireless missionary zeal traveled the European continent, one cannot fail to note the enormous importance that the ancient-Celtic roots of the peoples from which ones they came from. It was not a question of the usual, consoling and vague “influence” that always remains on the surface and does not touch the heart of religious phenomena, but of the deeper dimension of Druidic spirituality. On the other hand, while in the rest of the continent the ancient religions were at the extreme limit of a cycle that was going to extinguish in a twilight without light, in Ireland the Christian missionaries found themselves in front of a priestly class still very vital despite the ancient past. and the “primordial” roots, fully aware of the values she was the bearer of, able to compete with the newcomers on the spiritual, doctrinal and ritual level. It was therefore a new event, substantially unknown to the other missionaries who traveled the continent, but who could only face Christian apostles perfectly aware of the richness of the ritual patrimony they faced. Their tireless activity, fuelled by an intense liturgical life and by a very deep mystical-contemplative substratum, led to the conversion of almost all of the priestly caste of the old Druidic religion and even in the short span of a few decades many of those sacred singers, austere seers and magicians-charmers have become famous Christian ascetics, authoritative saints, irreproachable bishops, enlightened abbots and indefatigable apostles. It is a unique event in the history of conversions that does not at all authorise the hypothesis of the improbable and, on the other hand, never existed “Latin acculturation of Ireland” which some scholar has thought, prisoner of a nineteenth-century mental scheme that forces him to repeat, in improper way and without adequate cultural foundations, formulas drawn from ethnology or sociology, and has substantially escaped in its true meaning and doctrinal implications to many historians of religions and Christianity who have preferred to simplistically consider Celtic monasticism a barbaric and rough than the Benedictine one.
The particular articulation of this traditional form, the result of the exceptional confluence in Christianity of the Filí, the authoritative representatives of one of the most ancient religions of humanity which in Ireland and Scotland had preserved their doctrinal and ritual foundations intact, has remained practically unknown to the many researchers who have studied the conversion of the peoples of the Roman Empire without in the least mentioning what was happening in the islands of the northern extremity of Europe. Precisely this symbiosis of the highest and “essential” forms of the Celtic world with Christian spirituality, which here has always tended to preserve the deepest and most creative impulses of Druidism, has prevented even the development in those lands of phenomena of authentic persecution from one or the other side and authorises to speak of a “Celtic monasticism” with its own precise doctrinal, liturgical and contemplative identity. On the other hand, the term “Irish monasticism” used by some specialists appears to be too limited to a specific geographical area and does not take into account that the type of spirituality and the conventual order that it underlies has also profoundly extended to Scotland, Brittany, to Wales, Cornwall, Armorica and even many regions of the continent. Just as it is now customary to distinguish for their peculiarities a “Syriac monasticism”, a “Thebaid monasticism”, a “Coptic monasticism”, a “Benedictine monasticism” or an “Athonite monasticism”, all contemplative forms substantiated by very distinct doctrines, symbols among the most complex and specific ascetic methodologies, the extreme articulation and substantial diversity of the spiritual forms that flourished in the islands of Northern Europe with respect to the others, authorise us to speak of a “Celtic monasticism” with its own precise mystical-contemplative identity and with a whole series of methods of prayer and liturgical-sacramental systems that make his existence in many respects a substantial emergence of a primordial, original spirituality.
We have avoided dwelling on the reasons and methods that led Celtic monasticism to be absorbed, slowly but surely, in the various families that sprang from the Benedictine Order, and we only touched upon the problem when it was strictly necessary for the purpose of an appropriate clarification of the topic. This process of assimilation lasted a long time, at least from the seventh to the twelfth century, it was slow, but continuous and inexorable, and led to the disappearance of almost all the sacramental forms, symbols, types of prayer and meditation that made up the specific characteristic of the spiritual world that from Ireland had spread among the peoples of the North and then had spilled over to the continent. And yet, some elements of that ancient spirituality must have remained tenaciously alive even when it seemed that the Celtic tradition had irremediably disappeared. Still in the middle of the twelfth century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, this great mystic and theologian considered the last of the Fathers of the Church, remained admired in the face of the spiritual elevation of what appeared outwardly as a simple ascetic and a humble abbot, one of the many Patres who had invigorated the Celtic monastic tradition, St. Malachi O’Morghair (Máel Máedóc Ua Morgair), the archbishop of Armagh, the heir to St. Patrick’s “primatial” See of Ireland.