Celtic Spiritual Poetry (5)
Faith with works,
desire with constancy,
calmness with devotion,
chastity with humility,
fasting with moderation,
poverty with generosity,
silence with conversation,
distribution with equality,
endurance without grievance,
abstinence with exposure,
zeal without severity,
gentleness with justice,
confidence without carelessness,
fear without despair,
poverty without pride,
confession without excuse,
teaching with fulfilling,
climbing without falling,
lowliness towards the lofty,
smoothness towards the rough,
work without grumbling,
guilelessness with wisdom,
humility without partiality,
the Christian life without hypocrisy –
all these are contained in holiness.
- Colmán mac Beógnai, “The Alphabet of Devotion” (ca. 600 AD)
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which isyour reasonable service.
- Romans 12.1
“The Alphabet of Devotion” is a monastic text composed by Colmán mac Beógnai, who studied with and may have been a nephew of Colum Cille. He became abbot of the monastery of Lynally in County Offaly, and he died in 611 AD at the age of 56. He composed “The Alphabet of Devotion” as a suite of short poems designed to teach and reinforce the primary values of the monastic life.
And, when we keep in mind that the monasteries of the 6thand 7thcenturies were the centerpieces of Irish Christianity, we can assume that what was taught there concerning the life of faith was intended to extend from the monasteries to Christian people generally, through the work of the monks among the people.
In “The Alphabet of Devotion,” therefore, we have an excellent look at the ideal Christian life, as this was understood around the turn of the 7thcentury. What were these many monasteries trying to accomplish? What were their goals? What vision did they cast, and what manner of discipleship did they pursue among and with the people of Ireland?
The opening poem of “The Alphabet of Devotion” makes clear that the goal of Christian life is holiness. The word “Alphabet” does not refer to the structure of the poem, but to the content. This is not an “ABC” poem like “Helper of Workers.” Rather, it sets forth the “ABCs” – the fundamental elements – of Christian life, the goal of which, for every believer, was to increase in holiness. It is a call and goal that reaches back to the Law of God (Lev. 11.44), the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 5.48), and the example and instruction of the apostles.
This opening poem sets up a series of contrasts which suggest a kind of via media between extremes as the path of holiness. Christians must have faith – that is, trust in the Lord from the heart – but this must issue in works. They must nurture sound affections – desire, calmness, zeal, fear, and humility chief among them – but these must be tempered, lest they lead believers astray. Thus, desire must not be up and down, hot and cold, but constant and measured. Fear of God must not cause us to despair of ever knowing His love.
The life of holiness is a disciplined life as well. It includes fasting, self-denial, confession (and other prayers), learning, simplicity of life, and a lived witness before the lofty and rough alike. Yet none of these must be done in the extreme or as a matter of pride.
In community with other believers, Christians must practice generosity, equality, sharing, and honesty. They must encourage one another in their journey so that they make progress in the faith (climbing) without backsliding or falling into sin. Holiness is not only an individual goal; it is the objective of the entire community. As each person learns and practices the benchmarks of holiness, they and the community increase in true religion – Christianity without hypocrisy.
The form of “The Alphabet of Devotion” is borrowed from pre-Christian Celtic poetic forms. “The Alphabet” is an excellent example of taking every thought captive to Jesus Christ, which Celtic Christian poets and artists did in magnificent manner (2 Cor. 10.3-5). Colmán demonstrates his understanding of common grace – God’s favor and kindness even toward those who do not know Him – by taking pagan poetic forms and imposing a Christian narrative on them. In today’s excerpt, he employs these paired terms to mark out a middle path to holiness. In other excerpts we will see him employing different poetic forms to advance his disciple-making narrative.
“The Alphabet of Devotion” is an excellent example of how poetry can be used in making disciples and ordering a community of believers into a mutually edifying life of growing together in the Lord. As we shall see, it is a powerful exposition of true Christian faith, and in that regard, it can serve as a corrective to our often misguided views of what it means to be a Christian today.
The opening note of “The Alphabet” lands on our desktop like a salvo from heaven: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
Questions for Reflection
1. What goals for the life of faith does your church encourage its members to pursue? What goals are you pursuing?
2. How would you explain the idea of holiness to a new believer?
Psalm 15.1-3(Arlington: This is the Day the Lord Has Made)
Lord, who may dwell within Your tent, or on Your holy hill?
All those who keep Your covenant and walk within Your will.
All they who with integrity work peace and righteousness,
Forever in God’s house shall be forgiven, kept, and blessed.
Let truth from every heart proceed, and slander disappear:
Thus shall we know God’s grace indeed and feel His presence near.
Lord, help me to increase in holiness. Today, help me climb up higher into Jesus by…
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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.
I will be drawing from two translation of “The Alphabet of Devotion”: John Carey, King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998), pp. 231 ff; and Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus,Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995, 1997), pp. 195 ff.