The Celtic Revival: The Monasteries (2)
The ancient fortresses of the pagans
to which title had been gained by long habitation,
are empty and without worship
like the place where Lugaid dwelt.
The little places that were settled
by twos and threes
are Romes, with assemblies
of hundreds and thousands.
Though it was far-flung and splendid,
paganism has been destroyed:
The kingdom of God the Father
has filled heaven, earth, and sea.
- Oengus mac Oengobann, The Martyrology of Oengus (9th century?)
But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.”
- Acts 17.6
Ireland at the end of Patrick’s ministry was beginning to right itself unto the living God. Patrick had seen thousands of conversions to Christ. He had ordained many pastors, and many believing communities dotted the Irish landscape as the second generation of Celtic leaders began to emerge.
Christianity in Ireland took root among a people rich in culture, tradition, and religious conviction. There were no cities in Ireland, and no written language before Patrick. The people of Ireland were organized by tribal groups, and they were ruled by local kings, whose right to rule was determined hereditarily. The people who served the king, and whom he protected, lived in communities organized around a rath or ring fort. The king and his family lived within the wooden or earthen walls of the ring fort and were the center of tribal life.
As the people of Ireland converted to Jesus, many of those “ancient fortresses of the pagans” underwent a transformation. They changed from ring forts to monasteries, with the faith of Christ, rather than the political interests of local kings, as the central feature and organizing motif. Oengus relates how the venerable “Ráith Chruachan” on the Shannon River became the great monastery Clonmacnoise. “The fortress of Emain has melted away,” he reported, having been transformed into the monastery Glendalough. In many places where the pagan God Lugaid had been worshiped, now the worship of Christ prevailed.
Other monasteries began as monks, by twos or threes, set off to preach the Gospel and organize new communities of believers; or brought the monastic vision to bear on ring fort communities where the Gospel had already taken root.
Ireland and her people and culture were beginning to know the transforming power of the Gospel, and the impact of that transformation emanated from the many monasteries that began to appear and give new orientation and organization to Irish life.
The old gods and old society did not go easily, however. Christians had to work hard and suffer much for what they achieved in those generations after Patrick:
Though we have as our challenge
a battle with the furious Devil,
there remains to help us
the same Christ, a lofty pillar.
Though he was writing at the end of the period of the Celtic Revival, when the fires of revival had subsided, Oengus wanted to keep alive the spark that ignited and the flame that sustained that great season of reformation which swept over Ireland after Patrick. He called his readers to remember what the Celtic Revival was all about, and to continue the true legacy of Patrick and the driving force of the monasteries:
May our purpose be strong:
to strive for what is fittest.
Let us all love Jesus,
for this is the highest thing.
I’m often asked why The Fellowship of Ailbe has chosen to identify with Celtic Christianity. What greater purpose could we embrace than that which Oengus exhorted us to in the stanza just above? The consistent witness of the leaders of the Celtic Revival is for Christ and His Kingdom. Their achievement has been largely overlooked, and thus the lessons we might gain from them, and the encouragement they can give us, have been lost. We hope to recover some of their spark and flame as we labor in our own spheres to turn our upside-down world rightside-up for Jesus.
Psalm 42 (Nettleton: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing)
As the deer pants for fresh water let my soul, Lord, pant for You!
Let my soul thirst as it ought to for the Savior, ever true!
Tears by day have been my portion, tears by night have been my food,
While my foes add to my sorrow, saying, “Where now is your God?”
Now I pour my soul out in me as these thoughts come to my mind.
And I long to once again be where true worship I might find.
Oh my soul, be not despairing! Hope in God, and praise His Name!
For the Lord, your burden bearing, will restore your peace again.
Oh my God, my soul is weary, therefore I remember You.
Let Your grace and goodness near be, and Your promise, firm and true.
Lord, when trials and fears surround me, Your commands will be my song;
When distresses sore confound me, Your great love will keep me strong.
Lord, forget me not in mourning ‘neath my foes’ oppressing hand.
See their mocking, hear their scorning; help my weary soul to stand.
Hope in God, praise Him forever when despair on you has trod.
Look to Jesus; never, never doubt your gracious, saving God.
Lord Jesus, be the Highest Thing in my life, today and every day, and help me to…
The Legacy of Patrick
We hope your interest in the Celtic Revival is growing, and that you’ll begin looking more closely at this period as a source to inspire, direct, and equip you, just as we do at The Fellowship of Ailbe. Our book, The Legacy of Patrick, examines the lasting impact of that great saint’s life and ministry, and outlines the lessons to be gained from a more careful consideration of this period. Order your copy by clicking here.
I encourage you to prayerfully seek the Lord about becoming a supporter of The Fellowship of Ailbe. It’s easy to give to The Fellowship of Ailbe, and all gifts are, of course, tax-deductible. You can click here to donate onlinethrough credit card or PayPal, or send your gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 19 Tyler Drive, Essex Junction, VT 05452.
T. M. Moore, Principal
All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 All excerpts from Carey, pp. 190-192.