The Disciplined Life

Celtic Christian leaders led highly disciplined lives together.

Anonymous, The Rule of Ailbe (mid-7th century)

Relate these words on my behalf to the son of Saran; the task he has undertaken is not light. Let his conscience be clear and far-seeing, let it be humble and without pride.
2. Let his work be silently done, without speech…
38. By patience and humility good, evil, and poverty are put in their proper perspective. Clerics should never be guilty of pretence. Two-thirds of piety consists in being silent…
4. Let him be without any stain of sin, and not be haughty. His smile should be joyous but without (loud) laughter, and he should not be vindictive, arrogant, or pompous…
12. He should not speak evil of, or harshly reproach, another, nor should he put anyone to the blush. Never should he violently rebuke anyone or carry on a conversation with a boorish person, and his speech at all times should be noted for its lack of boastfulness…
16. He should be constant in prayer, never forgetting his canonical hours. Let him give his mind to his prayer with humility and with great peace…
20. The Son of God should be invoked in all lectio
27a. Let the monks bear in mind that noble God is their father and holy Church their mother. Let their humility be not merely verbal, but let each one provide for his brother.
27b. When, through obedience, they go to carry out their duties, let their spirit be ‘This is a heavy task brother, let me do it.’…
40. Be constant in pointing out the obligation of the monastic rule.

Translation Uinseann Ó Maidín, The Celtic Monk

Each monastery of the Celtic Christian period had its own set of guidelines and protocols for how the monks should occupy their time. These “rules” were intended to create piety, charity, and order among the monks, which they would then carry with them into their ministries to one another and the surrounding community.

I find these “rules” fascinating and, in some cases, troubling. At their best they are useful handbooks for developing and maintaining a life of deep spirituality, Christian character, and productive work. As we see in the excerpt above, monks were expected to devote themselves to prayer and Scripture (“lectio”) as well as to their duties at the monastery and toward one another. The rules become troubling to me when they become so detailed – prescribing so many genuflections, limiting what monks can eat, trying to manage even their smiles (!), and so forth – and in certain punishments prescribed for violations of the rule. Theirs was a different time, of course from ours, and what they needed to further the cause of Christ would have been different from what we need as well.

The rules were put into various forms, including poetry and catalogs. Monks were expected to learn them and to live by them in community and in the world. When Brendan was preparing for his ministry, he was expected to read the rules of as many monastic communities as he could, both so that he understood what he was getting into and also so that he could develop a rule for his own community which would be in line with the tradition of other monasteries.

Everybody lives by some rule of disciplines. For most of us these are unwritten; we just repeat the same habits, protocols, practices, and routines each week, largely without thinking too much about. But the monasteries of Celtic Ireland were in the business of forming disciples of the Lord, and they could not afford to leave that work to mere unwritten protocols. The monastic rules created an environment of seriousness and discipline and served as an effective tool for keeping men focused on their calling in the Kingdom of God. A rule was a powerful resource for making the best use of one’s time in the light of his commitment to Christ and a particular community. We might expect that some similar tool would be of benefit to us today as well.

For more insight to the legacy of the Celtic Christian period, order a copy of T. M.’s book, The Legacy of Patrick, from our online store.

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 Essex Junction, VT. 

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