Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.


The first great monastic leader.

The Celtic Revival: The Monasteries (3)

Abbán, fair abbot of communities…

  - Oengus mac Oengobann, The Martyrology of Oengus (9th century?) [1]

Abbán went into Eile, and the king and the people of the country were holding a fair, and they were heathen; and Abbán came sowing the Word of God among them.

  - Anonymous, Life of Abbán (6th century)[2]
He also took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood by the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, and said, “Where is the LORD God of Elijah?” And when he also had struck the water, it was divided this way and that; and Elisha crossed over.

  - 2 Kings 2.13, 14

One of the earliest Irish monastic leaders was Abbán. The earliest record we have of his life dates from perhaps a 9th century manuscript, copied in the 16th century, although his ministry was within the period of the Celtic Revival, and his story appears to be from early in the period.

His dates cannot be accurately fixed, but he seems to have flourished at the time of or in the generation immediately following Patrick. He is perhaps a linear spiritual descendant of Patrick, although no such claim is made in his Life. The mention in his Life of Gregory, renowned early 7th century pope, as having ordained Abbán to the ministry, is probably an anachronism, meant to intimate the authority of the Catholic Church over the early Irish Church.

Abbán was the son of Cormac, who was king of Leinster. His father assumed that Abbán would follow him on the throne. It was not to be. Fostered by a pious family, Abbán from childhood showed a love for the Scriptures so that “he remembered the Scripture without any trouble or committing it to memory.” He determined to follow God in the work of preaching and teaching the Word. As he explained to his parents, “Everything is nought, save God.”

One of the reasons we believe Abbán to be early in the period is that he founded and was abbot of several monasteries – “fair communities”. This suggests there were more believers and aspirants to the clergy than existing monasteries could accommodate, so new ones were started, and abbots of one monastery often had to fill the duties of shepherding more than one community.

When he was 12 years old, Abbán apprenticed with Bishop Iubar, who was present at his birth and was his uncle. Iubar was bishop over several small congregations, and, in due course, he invited Abbán to join him in the work of one of these. The bishop “welcomed him for his godliness even more than for his near relationship to himself,” and he introduced him to the work of ministry. That work included not only pastoral duties, but supervising a group of monks who had attached to Iubar.

Abbán’s Life is peppered with miracles and wonders – typical embellishments in Celtic hagiography, though not necessarily without some basis in fact. Abbán started numerous churches and several monasteries, at the same time bearing the mantle of Patrick in evangelizing the heathen Irish. We learn that at least one of Abbán’s monasteries had a church within it, and we rather suspect this was the norm. Communities of people from all walks of life grew up around the monasteries, where the monks and other clergy lived, and all would need a place to worship together.

Abbán was deeply pious and was much concerned for the wellbeing of the people who lived in the “neighborhood” of his monasteries. He cared for the sick and needy, interceded with warring parties, and committed himself to praying crosfigell – an extended prayer vigil in which one intercedes with arms extended, as on a cross – for the peace of his neighbors. As all Irish monasteries would, Abbán’s kept sheep and cattle, and cultivated nearby lands to provide food for the members of the monastic community. Abbán also trained others for ministry – at least 140 “clerks” or clerics – and sent them off to do the work of evangelizing the lost and beginning new communities.

These glimpses into early Irish monasticism show us a model of faith that was deeply spiritual and, at the same time, entirely earthly. Study of Scripture, prayer, worship, and instruction in the faith combined with work in fields, among flocks and herds, and in caring for the members of the community, evangelizing the lost, and preparing the next generation of Christian leaders – these were the activities that made the early monasteries signs and outposts of the Kingdom of God.

We have much to learn from reflecting on the work of these Celtic monasteries. Churches must not think of themselves as existing primarily for their members. They are signs and outposts of the Kingdom, and so must give themselves, in all they do, to seeking that Kingdom and the righteousness, peace, and joy it brings to the world. As Jesus was sent into the world to bring near the Kingdom of God and His rule of grace and truth, so the church now takes up that same mantle and, following the example of our forebears, calls on the God of Elijah and Jesus to empower us for good works of witness and love.

Where is the LORD God of Elijah and Patrick? And where are the leaders who will wear the mantle of Abbán?

For reflection
1. As a Celtic monastery was to its surrounding community, you are to your Personal Mission Field. What does this imply for your work there?

2. What do we mean by saying that local churches are both signs and outposts of the Kingdom of God?

Psalm 78.4-7 (Foundation: How Firm a Foundation)
The glorious deeds of our God in His might,
And all of the works He has done in our sight,
Together with all of the words of His Law,
Would we on ourselves and our children bestow.

Lord, let all our children arise and declare
The truth of the Lord every day, everywhere,
And set all their hopes in God’s wonderful Word,
And never forget all the works of the Lord.

Lord, let Your Kingdom come spiritually, culturally, socially, materially, and in every other way, and use me to…

More about Abbán
If you’d like to learn more about Abbán, listen to his story in The InVerse Theology Project by clicking here.

Thank you
Thanks so much to those of you who faithfully support the work of The Fellowship of Ailbe. God uses your gifts and prayers to reach thousands of people every day in over 160 countries. We praise the Lord for His having moved and enabled you to share with us in this ministry.

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T. M. Moore, Principal
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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.

[1] All excerpts from Carey, pp. 190-192.

[2] Plummer, Lives of Irish Saints, pp. 3ff.

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.
Books by T. M. Moore

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