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Celtic Legacy

Celtic Legacy 022 - The Alphabet of Devotion, Part 2

If there was a monastic rule of life for the community that gathered around Colum Cille on Iona in the late 6th century, it is probably reflected in “The Alphabet of Devotion,” compiled by Colmán mac Beógnai, one of Colum’s dearest friends and closest colleagues.

As we saw in the previous installment, life on Iona began in and revolved around holiness—loving God and neighbor. Holiness was essential not only for a thriving community but for a credible message. Colmán mac Beógnai continued his “ABCs of the Devotional Life” with a section on how a righteous person should proclaim the Word of the Lord, and this is the focus of this second installment on “The Alphabet of Devotion.” Here Colmán instructs the faithful in how they must speak the Word to one another and to the lost world to which they were sent.

In what manner should the truth be proclaimed?
  With humility, without indulgence;
  for the truth is not indulgent.
The humble person, however:
  he who is not truly humble is not righteous;
  he who is not righteous is not truly wise.
For there is no room for both true wisdom and unrighteousness in a person:
  thick is the veil between them.
His righteousness is nearer to encountering wisdom
  than his wisdom is to encountering righteousness:
  for a person is truly wise when he is righteous.

How should you speak the truth?
  Without bitterness, without indulgence,
  with patience, with gentleness.

- Colmán mac Beógnai, “The Alphabet of Devotion”

Holiness was the first order of business on the Holy Isle of Iona under the direction of Colum Cille. But Iona was also a base for evangelism and missions. Following the example of Colum, the monks of Iona would frequently embark on efforts to take the Gospel to surrounding tribes and peoples and even further afield, in Europe and Ireland.

To do this, they had to learn how to speak the truth of the Gospel. We do not find in Colmán’s “Alphabet” what we might expect when it comes to training monks to do the work of evangelism. No Gospel outlines, winning illustrations, or verses to memorize. No precise details as to how to lead a sinner in repentance and faith to Jesus. The emphasis on Iona was on character, not method.

Of course, the monks had to learn the truth, the Gospel of the Kingdom. But they were taught this every day of their lives. In their services of worship, times of personal devotion and study, even as they took their meals, the Good News of Jesus was constantly proclaimed, and they were continually renewed in it.

But to be effective in proclaiming the Gospel—whether amongst themselves or on mission to the surrounding world—monks needed to focus on character, beginning with humility. A humble witness would be a good listener. He would look for ways to affirm and encourage the person or people with whom he was sharing Jesus. He would not indulge any wickedness in speaking but would strive to master the language of the Kingdom of God, which is righteousness.

As monks increased in humility and righteousness, they would grow in wisdom. Wisdom would allow them to know how to speak to every individual they might encounter, whether noble or humble of station, learned or untaught, warrior or shepherd. Patience and gentleness would characterize the testimonies and preaching of Colum’s monks, just as they did his own witness to them. If the person to whom a monk was witnessing expressed some need or required some help, they would do what they could, as they had seen Colum do many times. But they were also ready to confront sin and unbelief, and to make sure that sinners were truly repentant. For thus their teacher did, as Adomnán, Colum’s biographer, reported:

That generous rich man, by name Brénden...also heard the saint’s [Colum’s] words spoken concerning himself; and kneeling at the saint’s feet, he prayed that the saint would raise a prayer for him to the Lord. First he was chidden by him for certain sins, and professing repentance he promised that he would henceforth amend.

Colum and his monks accepted their calling to be vessels of grace for bearing the Good News to the lost. They understood that they were “earthen vessels” and that humility was the appropriate posture for them. But as they moved about speaking the truth in love, fulfilling all righteousness, and manifesting the wisdom of God, God flowed His excellence and power through them, and many came to a saving knowledge of the Lord.

We also have been appointed as witnesses for our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us follow the example of Colum and his monks, devoting ourselves to learning Jesus throughout every day (Eph. 4.17-24), putting Him on in humility, righteousness, and wisdom so that, at every opportunity, we will speak the truth of God in love to the people around us.

To learn more about the Celtic Revival and its enduring legacy, click the bookstore tab at our website and order a free PDF copy of our book, The Celtic Revival: A Brief Introduction.

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T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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