The Celtic Revival: The Monasteries (4)
Too numerous to recount or narrate are the miracles and mighty works which God wrought for St. Bairre. For no one would be able to narrate them all, unless he himself or an angel of God should come to relate them. Still, this little of them may suffice as an illustration of his inner life and his daily conversation, his lowliness, his obedience, his compassion, his sweetness, his patience and gentleness, his love and pity and readiness to forgive, his fasting and abstinence, his earnest prayer, his patient waiting, and his mind continually intent on God…He was also the heavenly cloud wherewith was fructified the ground of the Church, that is, the souls of the righteous with the drops of his peaceful and virtuous teaching.
- Life of Bairre of Cork, (6th century)
And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 2 Timothy 2.2
We’re following two primary sources as we investigate the lessons to be learned from early Irish monasticism. One is The Martyrology of Oengus, from just after the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD), and the other is Charles Plummer’s compilation and translation of Lives of Irish Saints. While the stories narrated about the different monastic leaders bear certain similarities, there is enough difference in them to help us piece together some of the features of early Irish monasticism that enabled those holy foundations to play such a significant role in the progress of Christ’s Kingdom.
In the Life of Bairre of Cork we see some of the familiar late-medieval editorializing that attempted to establish this man of reputation under the authotiry of the Roman Church: his being mentored by Gregory the Great, for example, and taking his ordination vows in Rome. In reality, Bairre probably flourished near the middle of the sixth century.
Bairre’s life highlights two important aspects of monastic life. First was the commitment to learning. Even before coming to Cork to establish his monastery, Bairre was devoted to learning and teaching. He studied with those more learned than he, to gain as much as he could of Scripture. He gathered eager students around him, some of whom were already serving as pastors, and taught them day and night. So helpful was his teaching that those who were pastoring churches at the time pledged their devotion to Bairre as their overseer, as did those who went out from his teaching to start new churches.
Here we encounter the second lesson from the Life of Bairre, that of the paruchia, or spiritual family. Irish monasteries were aggressive in the work of evangelism and in starting churches and other monasteries. They worked hard, as Paul says we must (Eph. 4.3), to maintain spiritual oneness and unity. This unity was sustained in various ways, including the use of a common Rule of Disciplines, periodic visits between monks and pastors, and shared labors (teaching, ministry, missions, manual labor, and so forth).
These monasteries and churches were centers of worship, instruction, evangelization, and good works. The focus of Bairre’s paruchia seems especially to have been on nurturing the Irish out of paganism into the life of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit which is the Kingdom of God (Rom. 14.17, 18). “He was the consecrated ensign of the heavenly King, that made peace and concord between God and man. He was the high-steward and most noble overseer whom the High King of heaven sent to exact the tribute of virtues and good deeds from the clans of the Gael.”
These early Irish monastics labored to see the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. They were thus earnest students of the heavenly mysteries, eager imitators of Paul and Christ, devoted Timothies who learned well and taught for a legacy, and able shepherds of the flocks God entrusted to their care. They sowed Kingdom seed, cultivated Kingdom crops, and reaped Kingdom fruit in all their endeavors, as they always kept their focus on the “High King of heaven” whom they gladly served.
The old pagan ways of Celtic Ireland didn’t stand a chance against the devoted, united, focused efforts of leaders like Bairre to win, equip, send, and build together true followers of Christ. Many years later, Fursa, whom we will meet in a subsequent section of our journey, visited Bairre’s church, where he witnessed in a vision a golden ladder “awaiting the holy souls (who were to mount) by it to heaven”. Even long after his death, Bairre’s legacy continued to inspire and challenge generations of faithful servants of God.
May we be found as faithful men and women, able to teach others also, and eager to maintain the unity of Christ’s Spirit in the bonds of peace with fellow believers everywhere.
1. Should you be thinking about the faith legacy you will leave behind? Explain.
2. How has God been working through you of late in your Personal Mission Field?
Psalm 133.1-3 (Tryggare Kan Ingen Vara: Children of the Heavenly Father)
Behold, how sweet, how pleasant, when the brethren dwell together;
All in unity abiding find God’s blessing there presiding.
Like the precious oil of blessing flowing down on Aaron’s vestment,
God’s anointing rests forever where His people dwell together.
Like the dew of Hermon’s fountain falling down on Zion’s mountain,
So the blessing of the Savior dwells where unity finds favor.
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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.
 Plummer, Lives of Irish Saints, p. 19.