The Celtic Revival: The Monasteries (5)
Far from his friends was Coemgen
Steadfastly among the crags;
Nobly and alone he saw the order
Which was brought to the brink of the fair lough.
At night he would rise without fear
To perform his devotion in this fort;
There he would early recite his hours
(Standing) habitually in the lough up to his girdle.
- Life of Coemgen (II) (7th century)
Deliver me, Jesus,
for I am your servant,
as you delivered Coemgen
from the falling mountain.
- Oengus mac Oengobann, The Martyrology of Oengus
But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.
- 1 Corinthian 9.27
The monastery at Glendalough (literally, “between the lakes”) was founded in the 6th century by Coemgen, or as he is more commonly known, Kevin, who died in 618. Glendalough became a center of learning, hospitality, evangelization, and ministries of various kinds including healings, peace-making, and teaching. It was in many ways typical of the monasteries serving the spiritual descendants of Patrick in that day.
Like many of the other ancient monasteries, Glendalough was a center of vital spiritual life, which reflected, in no small part, the spiritual life of Coemgen. The Lives which record his story (three exist, one an extended poem) all focus on Coemgen’s asceticism. He it is who prayed so long in crosfigell (cross vigil) that a bird built her nest in his hands, laid her eggs, and fledged her chicks before he finished. This story is no doubt intended to exaggerate Coemgen’s asceticism, which he seems to have practiced with admirable diligence.
Above the valley where Glendalough is located, a revered site marks the place called “Kevin’s bed”. Here, it is believed, is the “crag” on the “falling mountain” where Coemgen often retired to pray, contemplate, and look out over his community and its monks. We can imagine him there, meditating on Scripture, reviewing the work of the day, thinking ahead to the morrow, listening for the Lord’s leading, interceding for his brethren, and worshiping God with tears. A tradition has it that part of the mountain where he resorted for prayer nearly fell on him once, but Jesus kept and delivered him, so that he could return again and again.
In addition to his meditations there, Coemgen prayed the hours – those daily set times for reciting psalms and seeking the Lord – and frequently compounded the intensity of his prayers by standing waist-deep in the lake.
So renowned was Coemgen’s devotion to spiritual discipline that Broccán, a later biographer of Brigid, who lived a generation earlier than Coemgen, read him back into his Life of her, to help illuminate Brigid’s spiritual vitality. Commenting on the spiritual retreat of one of Brigid’s mentors, Broccán wrote:
His enclosure pleased the sage, the famous Coemgen,
whom the wind conveyed [thither] through a storm of snow,
to Glendalough, where crosses were endured
until peace came to him after suffering.
That is, “If Coemgen had seen the ascetic practices of Brigid’s mentor, he would have approved.” The reference to “crosses” surely intends Coemgen’s routine practice of crosfigell, emulating Moses on the mountain; and “suffering” alludes to the pain he endured, mentioned in the Lives, as he undertook such rigorous discipline on behalf of his monks and others.
Paul would have approved. He knew that we will not subdue our bodies for service to Christ in the ordinary time of our lives, unless we have first and frequently observed devoted time in prayer, meditation, waiting on the Lord, and listening to His Word. Jesus frequently retreated for seasons devoted to such ascetic practices, and it makes sense that we should do so as well.
Spiritual strength for everyday living derives from strength and time devoted to spiritual exercises with the Lord. The great saints of the Celtic Revival understood and embraced such a lifestyle, and they encoded it in the rules for their monastic communities. The vision and resolve necessary for obeying God’s Word, and for bearing consistent witness for Christ and serving others in self-denying love, do not just happen. They must be cultivated, nurtured, and put in place by subjecting our bodies to our souls, and our souls to Christ’s Spirit and Word.
And this is the function of spiritual disciplines. The example of Coemgen of Glendalough, and so many others, should encourage us in such practices in our day.
Psalm 27.4-10 (Joanna: Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise)
One thing we request but to dwell with You, Lord.
Your beauty to test and to think on Your Word.
In trouble You hide us secure in Your grace;
No foe may o’erride us: We sing of Your praise!
Hear, Lord, when we cry and be gracious, we pray!
Lord, do not deny us Your favor this day!
Our help, our salvation, though others may fall,
Preserve our good station when on You we call.
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.
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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.