Pt. 1 Insular Christianity Series
East Mediterranean Christianity
The academic and sociological background of early Christianity was utterly different from that of the Celts. While a heroic society was established in the still unconquered Celtic countries of the north-western fringe of Europe, the eastern Mediterranean was following a very different pattern of life. Here were the most highly civilised, prosperous, and populous provinces of the Roman Empire, provinces which had a long history of material wealth, centralised government, and intellectual vitality.
In spite of the economic decline of the third century, Egypt and Syria still boasted splendid cities, fine palaces and luxurious villas, gymnasia and baths, all in sharp contrast to the hill cities and small enclosures of the Celtic peoples. Imperial trade was repressively controlled by the reforms of Diocletian, but industries were still carried on (though now the factories often executed orders for the state), and trade routes remained open. It would hardly be possible to imagine a sharper contrast to the insular society of the Celtic world than that afforded by the cosmopolitan centres of the East Mediterranean, by Antioch, for instance, that home of merchant shipping, or Damascus, receiving the silks and spices of India and China, or Alexandria, with its wharves and factories, bazaars and schools. The eastern Mediterranean in the fourth century still enjoyed many of the graces and refinements of a partly commercial civilisation, and though Christianity set small value in theory on the material amenities of its surroundings, yet these were the commonplaces of its environment. By the time of the late Empire the normal meeting-place for Christians was not the dim austerity of the catacombs, but the civilised comfort of a Roman villa. How would Christianity transplant to the crannogs, forts, and ranches of the insular Celts?
A society under highly centralised government brought Christianity to maturity, determining the structure which framed its belief. The emperor represented public authority, and became the source of law and the symbol of divinity. He controlled the vast machine of the bureaucratic state, manned as it was by an army of officials carrying out routine administration. Ecclesiastical organisation was modelled on the system used by the state, though in a modified form. In both church and state the centre of local government was the town, from which the surrounding countryside was administered. Church and state were both divided into provinces, though the boundaries were not identical. The Curia of the bishops of Rome, with its system of accounting for the administration of papal estates, its courts of law, and its chancery, was the nearest approach to bureaucratic government which the barbarian west ever met during most of the early Middle Ages. However weak in fact were individual popes, the machinery of government lay to their hands, to be used and developed by an intelligent will.
Just as behind the administration of the secular church there lay a long tradition of centralised authority, so behind Christian theology lay a long history of abstract thinking. For philosophy was the very heart of a liberal education in the Hellenistic world, where educated men were expected to interest themselves in intellectual concepts. Many of the philosophical systems of the Empire were first worked out in Greek, a language whose subtleties made it a flexible vehicle for conceptual argument, where accurate expression is the essential prerequisite for clear definition. Latin speech was much less well equipped for such discussion, as the Christian theologians of the Middle Ages found, and the Celtic peoples, with their literature of poetry and lively dialogue and lofty elucidations, the highly technical language of their law tracts, had no tradition of philosophical debate comparable to that of the Greeks. In fact, their only major neoplatonist philosopher was the ninth-centuries genius John Scotus Eriugena, he had learned Greek before he conceived his system. But systems of classical philosophy did not determine the ideas of all peoples of the Empire. Many were aware of the impotence of their own powers, and needed some prolonged power outside themselves to wield transfiguring guardianship of them. Such people were aware of sin, not merely of ignorance; they wanted a superhuman experience, they longed to be united to a god, to be made partakers of divinity. The mystery religions, arrival in the Empire from the East, answered this longing.
Christianity combined features of an intellectual philosophy with qualities of a mystery religion. As a religious philosophy it was probably most nearly akin to Neoplatonism, of which Philo, an Alexandrian Jew and contemporary of S. Paul, was a precursor, Plotinus, teaching at Rome in the fourth century, the chief systematiser, and Proclus the exponent in the Academy at Athens. Both Neoplatonism and Christianity provided intellectually satisfying dogmas together with opportunity for religious aspirations. Both provided philosophical system, moral discipline, and ecstatic revelation. But the Neoplatonist’s revelation, though it transcended intellect, pre-supposed it, while for the Christian love was the only essential pre-requisite. Christianity, beginning with the claims that God had become man, that, by the ordeal of His passion and the miracle of His resurrection, He had brought salvation to the world (a claim which must to the casual observer have classed it with the mysteries), later had its doctrine formed in the intellectual tradition by men like Clement and Origen of Alexandria, Athanasius, and Augustine. Even the simple pious, who formed the main body of its adherents, were used to hearing discussion of ideas, doctrines, and philosophies. The audience which could attend with interest to the Pauline epistles was very different in its intellectual attitude from the audience which listened to the Irish tales of cattle raids and similar adventures.
Theologians of the eastern Mediterranean played a major part in the formation of Christian doctrine. Egypt and Syria also gave birth to that monasticism which was to reappear later with such marked similarities in the remote Celtic west; understandably to reappear, since the desert sloughed off much of the paraphernalia — which Christianity had acquired by its development in a world of urban civilisation, material wealth, and bureaucratic government. The men who sought solitude in the desert turned their backs on town and village, they abandoned property with the cares of its administration, they even left communal worship for private communion. Monasticism meant a fresh start. Popular Christianity require complex organisation if the church were to be saved from degeneracy, but organisation inevitably left little room for individual ardour. In the burning sun and icy vigil of the desert, organisation withered away, each man pursued his own soul’s need.
Desert theology, as expressed by the Greek Evagrius Pontus – Εὐάγριος ὁ Ποντικός (AD 345–†399), demanded a long period of ascetic discipline which culminated in contemplative experience. Each monk chose his own solitude, natural cave, or stone hut, and applied to himself what discipline he saw fit, or voluntarily sought it from a more experienced brother. The food was meagre, the hours of prayer long, and practical work was undertaken only because it was a cure for ‘accidie’, ‘the destruction that wasteth at noonday,’ that neurosis of frustration which was the occupational disease of contemplatives. Difficult as this life was, many contemporaries found its objects worth striving for. The men who attempted it believed that its attainable goal was a state of indescribable blessedness. The readers of the Life of the early hermit, S. Antony, saw in him not a gloomy fanaticism, but a realisation of the felicity for which they longed. [Athanasius, Life of St. Antony, transl., R. T. Meyer, London, 1950, cc. 14, 44, 50, 56, 73 and so forth]
The solitude and fasting of the desert brought with it some of the marvellous phenomena common to many ascetic religions. It was probably inevitable that, with many simple people fleeing to the desert, some should mistake the means for the end, and behave as if the phenomena were the prime object of monasticism; but the theologians leave no doubt that ascetic discipline was for the emptying of the self, for the cultivation of a state of passivity, so that God might take possession. ‘Moses, fasting, talked with God,’ writes Athanasius, ‘Elijah, fasting, saw visions and was finally taken up by a chariot into heaven.’ The contemplative ideal was the object of the desert, solitude and ascetism were its necessary conditions.
The solitary had no obligations to work, no social responsibilities, no outside authority to exercise discipline. Sitting alone among the rocks of the desert, he either pursued his spiritual warfare with intense activity or the terrifying monotony of the desert became intolerable. Desert solitude was not in fact always total or perpetual. The beginner usually lived for a time alongside some experienced hermit. In some areas, such as Nitria in northern Egypt, many hermits lived in the same neighbourhood, with common bakeries and common church, a guest house and some minimum standard of common discipline. [On the mountain live some five thousand men with different modes of life, each living in accordance with his own powers and wishes, so that it is allowed to live alone, or with another, or with a number of others.’ Palladius, Lausiac History, transl. W. K. L. Clarke, S.P.C.K., 1918, pp. 57-9 (pdf)] It was possible to spend months or years in the desert and then return to the world, for each man, though he might ask advice, was entirely free to follow his own judgement. ‘Be to them an example, not a lawgiver,’ was the typical maxim of one desert father. Indeed, the individualism of the desert was far too difficult a responsibility for ordinary men, who needed the pressure of public opinion to sustain them when their love was cold and their wills weak.
It was the Egyptian Pachomius who revolutionised monasticism by introducing three entirely new elements — corporate life, obedience, and work. He organised fully resident communities under the direction of a superior, where a considerable part of every day was spent in materially productive work for the benefit of the monks and of the world outside. The Pachomian prior had disciplinary powers, while the superior of the whole confederation of all Pachomian houses had extensive economic resources as well as moral authority, rather as a great Celtic abbot was later to have. But even within the authoritarian régime of Pachomius there were still opportunities for individual judgement, for the standard of asceticism set within the community was a minimum standard, which any monk might better if he willed. The harshness of the desert was still not far from Pachomius’ demands.
His younger contemporary Basil the Cappadocian crystallised that union of the contemplative ideal of monasticism with the conception of social obligation towards which Pachomius had worked. ‘If a man love God,’ said Basil, ‘then he must love his brother also’: so even while he encouraged his monks in contemplative prayer, he built an almshouse and a hospital, and attached a school to his monastery. His sister Macrina, acting in the same spirit, turned the family residence into a convent for women, but in times of famine went out to gather up the babies who had been abandoned at the roadside. His younger brother set out intending to lead the hermit’s life, but came across some helpless old people, so stayed near them, fishing and providing for them all. The ruthlessness of the desert is absent from Basil’s monasticism. ‘He reconciled . . . and united the solitary and the community life,’ writes his friend Gregory Nazianzen, ‘so that the contemplative life might not be cut off from society, nor the active life be uninfluenced by contemplation.’ The combination of the two was to prove a truly creative element in western monasticism.
Within a few decades of its beginning, monasticism had already developed along varied lines. Antony is the type of the complete solitary, but before long parts of the desert were a honeycomb of hermits’ cells, the more accessible being visited by serious inquirers and even pestered by tourists, so that one hermit built himself an underground passage into which he could crawl away when sightseers arrived. Pachomius, the Egyptian and ex-soldier, was the desert’s first great organiser, who built houses, installed priors, drew up rules, and set his monks to hard practical work, separating them into residences according to their trade, so that his monasteries had some elements of a factory. Basil, educated Greek, from a family familiar with social service, encouraged his small household of monks to set before their imaginations the service of those in want, a service not incompatible with the heavenly vision.
The period of pre-Benedictine monasticism was a great adventure, when the potentialities of monastic life for good or ill were still only half-realised. Monasticism was then varied, fluctuating, dependent on the views of a founder, subject for its fulfilment to the will of the individual monk. Born in a flight from the world, it was not nearly so conditioned, as was the secular church, by the structure of contemporary society. Towns and bureaucratic government were not essential to its origin or development.
Monasticism was therefore a form of Christian life which could be easily transplanted to a completely alien society. Nevertheless, a journey of nearly three thousand miles separates the eastern Mediterranean from the lands of the Celtic west, a country on the outer edge of the world of which Syria and Egypt lie at the heart. How did monasticism transfer itself from the eastern deserts to the plains and forests, the coasts and highlands of the Celtic west?
The Western Provinces
Christianity reached the western provinces of the Empire not by formal missions but by casual contacts, establishing itself first in the towns, where it was organised on the same lines as in the eastern Mediterranean. By the end of the fourth century it had become a socially respectable religion, professed by many of the well-to-do and well-born; its leaders the bishops were responsible administrators, performing a number of social services, respected by the population.
S. Martin of Tours was one of the first to practise the monastic life in Gaul. The well-bred Gallo-Roman bishops did not all welcome his consecration as bishop of Tours about 372, for he was a social outsider who inherited no traditions of command, an ex-soldier of insignificant looks, ill-dressed, unkempt and excitable. [“They said… that Martin was a despicable individual and quite unfit to be a bishop, what with his insignificant appearance, his sordid garments and his disgraceful hair.’ Sulpicius Severus, Life of Martin, c. 9, transl. Hoare, The Western Fathers, pp. 22-3] The monasticism he established was of a semi-eremitic kind, following a strictly ascetic régime. About two miles outside Tours, where the Loire bends gently, on the level land between the cliff face and the river, Martin lived with eighty or so monks, who spent their time almost entirely in private prayer, not maintaining themselves by their own labour. [Ibid., p. 24. ‘His own cell was built of wood, as were those of many of the brethren; but most of them had hollowed out shelters for themselves in the rock of the overhanging mountain … No one possessed anything of his own; everything was put in the common stock. The buying and selling which is customary with most hermits (monachi) was forbidden them. No craft was practised there except that of the copyist, and that was assigned to the younger men. The older ones were left free for prayer. It was seldom that anyone left his cell except when they assembled at the place of worship. All received their food together after the fast was ended. No one touched wine unless ill-health forced him to do so. Most of them wore clothes of camel’s hair; softer clothing was looked on as an offence there’] His disciple Sulpicius Severus had already written a popular Life of the saint before Martin’s death in 397, and he followed it with Letters and Dialogues, that with Gaius Junius Faustinus Postumianus containing anecdotes of the life and teaching of monks in the African and Syrian deserts, on whose practices Martin seems to have modelled his own.
It is hard to discover a theory of the monastic life either in the career of Martin or in the writings of Sulpicius. The solitary life was apparently valued highly, the attitude to work was negative, there was no conception of social service by the monks as a body, though Martin himself went out on preaching and healing tours. In spite of Sulpicius’s humour and the fluency of his literary style, the intellectual content of his work is meagre: extreme ascetism and miracles which are the phenomena of early monasticism take the place of any reasoned exposition of the nature and purpose of monastic life.
It was the eastern monk John Cassian who made the theory of Egyptian and Syrian monasticism widely known in the west, translating some of the technical terms of Greek ascetic theology into Latin speech and thought. Cassian was no legislator, although, as it happens, we are familiar with his ideas because he wrote them down to provide regulations and teaching for bishop Castor of Apt’s new foundation at Apt, [the monastery of Manauque (Monanque) in Provence which followed the monastic rule of John Cassian] forty miles north of his own settlement at Marseilles. He was interested primarily in contemplative prayer, that state of blessedness in which the individual soul is possessed by God. He believed in the superiority of the solitary over the community life, and he shared the desert Fathers’ negative attitude to work. Love of one’s neighbour was desirable only as a means to perfection, it was not the fruit of a good life: on the contrary, it was a state of mind inconsistent with that tranquillity which is essential to contemplation. ‘Who can, with tranquil mind, … gaze upon the glorious majesty of God while engaged in works of charity?’ asks Cassian. “Who can contemplate the immeasurable blessedness of heaven at that very moment when he is ministering alms to the poor, when he is welcoming visitors with gracious hospitality, when he is concerned with caring for the needs of his brethren?”[Collationes, xxiii, 5, transl. E. C. S, Gibson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd set., xi, Oxford, 1894, p. 522. For Cassian’s thought see O. Chadwick, John Cassian, pp, 120-33, 137-67.] There is little conception here of social obligation, little consciousness of the needs of the world outside the monastery, troubled and devastated as it was by invasions and disasters. Yet Cassian performed an immense service to Latin monastic thought by rationalising for the West the asceticism of Egypt, emphasising that an ascetic activity like fasting is a means to an end, stressing the need for absolute obedience to superior direction during the preliminary period of training in a community before the monk could proceed to the high adventure of solitude.
Honoratus, a contemporary of Cassian, founded, on one of the islands of Lérins off the coast of the French Riviera, a monastic settlement which seems to have combined a high degree of individualism with a definite conception of social obligation. Lérins had both a coenobium and hermitages to which the senior brethren could withdraw to pursue their own standard of perfection. Honoratus ruled his monks with strict discipline, yet, if we are to judge by the moving portrait of him drawn by his disciple Hilary of Arles, his rule cannot have been irksome. For he was clearly a man of unusual imagination and human sympathy: “You would hardly believe what trouble he took to see that no one became depressed,’ writes Hilary. “He discerned what was troubling anyone as easily as if he carried everyone’s mind in his own.’[Discourse on the Life of S. Honoratus, transl. F. R. Hoare, op. cit., p. 263, for the consideration he gave to each personality and the different treatment to suit each monk. Cf. p. 270. Honoratus may have inherited something of this understanding from his own pagan father, who had tried to distract him from Christianity and to ‘renew his own youth in a kind of comradeship with his young son’, Ibid., p. 252.] One of his favourite verses from the Psalms was: “Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord be glad.’[Ibid., p. 279, quoting Ps. 105.] He saw the monastic life as the means by which individuals might express their love for God and join themselves to Him.[‘binding me with the chains of love for Thee’. Ibid., p. 268] Yet he joined the contemplative ideal with awareness of the needs of the world. Whereas many of the Egyptian monks were not allowed to bring their property to the group which they joined, [See Chadwick, Cassian, p. 53] Honoratus and some of his disciples brought substantial patrimonies to Lérins, which enabled them to offer practical relief to refugees from areas devastated by the barbarians. [Hoare, op. cit., p. 265. ‘His material resources matched his bountiful spirit .. . those who had dedicated possessions to works of mercy were eager to take them to him to be dispensed. . . . This was the cause of the continual stream that came to him from so many devastated regions.’] Honoratus himself accepted the invitation to Arles as bishop, at a time when Gallic bishops were having to take over some of the administrative functions of the older Roman magistracy. His disciple and biographer Hilary succeeded him at Arles, and, indeed, Lérins provided so many candidates for episcopal sees that it became known as a ‘nursery of bishops’.
Even more important, several of the monasteries of southern Gaul were noted for their intellectual enlightenment. Martin had been simple and unlearned, Honoratus was from a cultivated family. Whereas Sulpicius, writing of S. Martin, is the true vulgarisateur, stylistically facile and intellectually thin, Cassian of Marseilles is writing for a more intelligent public. For Cassian virtue, not miracle, is the sign of perfection.
The schools of Marseilles and Lérins joined with vigour in the great theological dispute on the relative place of grace and freewill which shook the church in the early fifth century. They formed an influential section of the anti-Augustinian party, refusing to accept that God had predestined some to salvation and others to damnation, a doctrine which they recognized as perversive of all moral effort. Cassian saw the human will as sick rather than dead to all good, needing divine help, but sometimes able to make the first faint turnings, naturaliter, in the direction of God. Throughout his teaching he emphasised the necessity for constant effort by the individual in the spiritual life.[For a full discussion of Cassian’s position see Owen Chadwick, Cassian, pp. 109-38.]
The anti-Augustinians of Marseilles and Lérins have sometimes been described as semi-Pelagian’s, but the insular Celt Pelagius [He is called an Irishman by Jerome in a vituperative passage, of which the phrase ‘Scotorum pultibus praegravatus’ is a sample. But see Paul Grosjean in ‘Notes d’hagiographie celtique‘, Anal. Boll., lxxv (1957), pp. 206-11, who argues for a British origin] had gone much farther than they were prepared to go in his insistence on the power of man’s will, independent of grace. It is possible that ‘grace’ had a sinister meaning for Pelagius, for in the contemporary Codex Theodosianus (Eng. Theodosian Code) it often signifies ‘favouritism’. Thus, a God who was gratiosus might have seemed to some a corrupt God, the potentia he wielded might imply oppression, while gratia must be sought by the defenceless to escape from tyranny. [J. N. L. Mytes, ‘Pelagius and the End of Roman Rule in Britain’, J.R.S. L (1960), 21-36. It is, however, impossible to believe that Augustine and his supporters were using the words in this way.] Pelagius had been trained in Rome in legal studies. He believed both in the goodness of God and the dignity of man, and maintained that God had given man free will, which enabled him to choose between good and evil. Man was capable of perfection because God had so created him, but the desire for good was the action of his own will, and man would ultimately be judged on his own achievements by an impartial God.
Pelagius’ doctrine was condemned in 418, but in the distant province of Britain the ‘enemies of grace’ gained power. By this time Christianity had long been established in Britain. It had arrived at least as early as the second century, for Tertullian, writing about 200, suggests that it had even penetrated beyond the territory under Roman occupation.[Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca Christo vero subdita.] The British church had organised itself along the same imperial lines as the church on the Continent: bishops from three British cities attended the Council of Arles in 314, British bishops were present at the Councils of Sardica in 347 and of Rimini in 359, where three of them had their travelling expenses paid from public funds. In the following century British Pelagianism was felt to be sufficiently menacing for two bishops, Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes, to head a Gaulish mission in 429 intended to stamp out the heresy. This was only partially successful, and a second mission was dispatched in the 440s. Even so, some of the writings of Pelagius must have been preserved and treasured, for Irish scholars were quoting from him several centuries later.
The mission of Germanus, as reported by his fifth-century biographer Constantius, proves that Roman Britain had a population sufficiently educated to interest itself in theological discussion. The debate, presumably held in Latin, between the Pelagian disputants and the Gaulish bishops was attended by a vast crowd, who followed the argument with enthusiasm; the Pelagian’s came forth ‘flaunting their wealth in dazzling robes’ and made speeches of ‘empty words drawn out to great length’, before the Gauls answered with their ‘floods of eloquence’. Constantius’ account also demonstrates the close links between the church in Gaul and in Britain. The Gauls clearly felt some responsibility for Christians in the neighbouring province. According to the contemporary chronicler Prosper of Aquitaine, Pope Celestine, advised by the deacon Palladius, sent Germanus of Auxerre to Britain.[Chronicon s.a. 429; Migne, P.L., li, 594-5; Mommsen, Chronica Minora i (1892) 473. For Palladius, see infra, pp. 32-3] Constantius, writing about sixty years later, reports that a deputation of Britons appealed for help directly to a Gaulish synod. [M. G. H. Script. Rer. Mer., vii (1920), 259; Hoare, Western Fathers, p. 295.] The British church was not to be abandoned to heresy, even though the province was finally lost to the Empire.[Dr Myers argues that Pelagianism provided a rallying point for men in revolt against Rome, and that the Gaulish mission had political as well as theological motives.]
The churches of Gaul and Britain were at this time very similar in organisation. But whereas monasticism in Gaul was firmly established by the middle of the fifth century, and beginning to exercise a profound influence on the secular church through its learning and its personalities, there is no evidence of any comparable monastic movement in Britain. Monasticism was known there. Pelagius is called a monk, but his active life was spent abroad. The British bishop Fastidius wrote treatises on “The Christian Life’ and ‘The Preserving of Widowhood’. Faustus, another Briton and semi-Pelagian, journeyed south to the Mediterranean to become a monk at Lérins. We see the monk presbyter Riocatus travelling back home to Britain, carrying with him books from southern Gaul. [Sidonius Apollinaris, Epistolae ed. Krusch, M.G.H., viii, 157] Britain had monks, but, as far as we know, she had no monastic schools in any way comparable to Lérins or Marseilles, no monastic bishops like Martin or Honoratus.
Monasticism in Gaul was still a comparatively recent development in the fifth century, and there was probably a time-lag before it grew to strength in the remoter parts of the Christian world.
Britons at this period were travelling even beyond Gaul, and might go on pilgrimage to the eastern Mediterranean. ‘The Briton, sundered from our world,’ writes Jerome in Bethlehem, ‘if he has made progress in religion, leaves his western sun and seeks a place known only to him by fame and the narrative of the scriptures.’[Ep. xlvi. 10, ed. and trans., J. Labourt, Saint Jéróme, Lettres, ii, Paris, 1951, p. 110.] The author of the semi-Pelagian letter De vita Christiana, who may be the British bishop Fastidius,[Ed. C. P. Caspari, Briefe, Abhandlungen und Predigten, Ep. 1; see R. S. T. Haslehurst, The Works of Fastidius, London, 1927, pp. 2 ff.,] left his young daughter with a Sicilian lady before proceeding eastwards. In the late fourth century Britons were still part of the Empire, and journeys within the imperial frontiers were still possible.
A few Britons went far afield, but Gaul was their nearest neighbour, and the most immediate outside influence on the British church. The church of Gaul had, at this time, incorporated but not yet fused together a number of varied and even incompatible elements. There were the well-born and often cultivated Gallo-Roman bishops, benevolent officials performing public duties. Some men of this type would naturally find themselves in opposition to the ill-educated wonder worker, Martin, and the unsophisticated approach to Christianity which he represented. They were also suspicious of the more extreme forms of eastern asceticism which were filtering into Gaul. Gregory of Tours wrote in the sixth century of a would-be stylite who found the country folk worshipping an image of Diana, so set up a pillar beside her on which he stood through summer and icy winter preaching the new faith. So successful a rival to Diana did he become that the village people helped him to drag down and smash the image. But in spite of this, the bishops disapproved his manner of life: ‘A base-born man like you,’ they told him, ‘cannot be compared with Simon of Antioch, who lived on a column.’ So, arguing the unsuitable climate and the needs of his brethren, the bishops persuaded him to come down, and one day, having summoned him to a village some way off, they had his pillar destroyed.’[History of the Franks, viii, 15] Such forms of austerity were not to be encouraged.
The intellectual monasteries of southern Gaul followed a more rational asceticism, using it as a way towards contemplative experience, and combining it in some cases with a high degree of social obligation. To all these varieties of Christian thought and organisation the Celtic west lay open.