Spiritual Disciplines

Spiritual disciplines were the foundation of monastic life.

Growth in holiness must be accompanied by moderation. The monk should strive after holiness with sincerity and joy of heart. His mind should be perpetually attuned to heaven, manifesting a preference for light over darkness.

- The Rule of Cormac Mac Ciolionáin

Our interest
We are interested in understanding the various monastic rules that have survived from the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD).

From these monasteries – Glendalough, Clonfert, Moville, Bangor, Derry, Iona, Lindisfarne, Luxeuil, and many, many more – streamed thousands of devoted missionaries, scholars, and pastors who led and fueled a revival of Christian faith that endured for four centuries, brought renewal to the spiritual, cultural, and social lives of millions of people, and “saved civilization” throughout Europe.

Nothing like this can be achieved without vision, discipline, and clear goals. In this series we are seeking to understand the kind of discipline Celtic Christians submitted to in devoting their lives to God and His Kingdom. Perhaps we can learn from their example ways that we might better prepare and live for the cause of revival, renewal, and awakening in our own day.

The rules of monastic discipline surviving from this period give us a glimpse into the spiritual, relational, communal, vocational, and cultural lives of these ancient people. By understanding these rules we hope to gain insights and practices that can enable us better to rule our own lives for the cause of Christ and His Kingdom.

Five kinds of discipline
The purpose of monastic rules and the goal of monastic life, in the best manifestations of that expression of the Celtic Revival, was to promote love for God and neighbors, as we have seen. By nurturing a clear and compelling vision of Christ and His Kingdom, members of a monastic community grew to fear and love the Lord, and devoted themselves to building a community where love for God and neighbor was the rule and practice of all.

But, as Columbanus reminded us, achieving such a vision does not come easily. One must submit to a disciplined life, following a rule of disciplines, if one is to gain discretion and subdue and re-order the ways of the flesh in order to seek God and His Kingdom and glory. For Celtic Christians it was not enough to desire God’s Kingdom, nor to seek it in vague or merely personal ways. As communities, Celtic Christians bound themselves in covenants of mutual edification and support, and these took the form of the monastic rules, some of which are preserved for us in The Celtic Monk by Uinsean Ó Maidín.

The monastic rules surviving from the period of the Celtic Revival are clear about the kinds of discipline this would require. Five different types of discipline are included in these rules, not in any particular order, but scattered about in various ways. These disciplines were spiritual, relational, vocational, communal, and provisional in nature, and we will explore each of these briefly, in order to understand their role in nurturing love for Christ and His Kingdom.

We begin with spiritual disciplines.

Primary spiritual disciplines
The monastic rules preserved in The Celtic Monk follow in many ways the prescriptions for the training of the soul which we glimpsed in the Monks’ Rule of Columbanus. The practice of spiritual disciplines was considered most important in training the mind, subduing the heart, bridling the will, and shaping the life. Most frequently mentioned among the spiritual disciplines of the monastic rules from this period are prayer and reading and study of God’s Word. Less frequently mentioned are the disciplines of silence, fasting, Sabbath-keeping, and alms-giving. Let’s take a closer look at the role of prayer and the Word.

Prayer. By far the discipline most frequently commended is prayer. For Celtic Christians, prayer was the quintessential Christian activity. Life in a Celtic monastery was structured around periods of prayer throughout the day, as we shall see when we consider the communal disciplines, and within an atmosphere of prayer without ceasing.

Prayer was one of the three daily duties of the céli dè monks from later in our period, along with the Word and some form of work (The Rule of the Céli Dè). This undoubtedly reflects long-standing practice among the monastic communities of this period, since we find this same prescription in The Rule of Colum Cille, which appears to have based on a rule from early in the period. Prayer was often accompanied by bodily gestures, such as genuflections, prostrations, and the cross vigil. These were meant to dramatize and intensify prayer, by adding physical exertion and symbolic postures to the effort.

Monks were encouraged to pray at various intervals during the day, hanging their day, as it were, on this most foundational spiritual discipline (The Rule of Comghall). At the same time, they were expected to master the discipline of constancy in prayer – prayer without ceasing (An Incomplete Fragment).

The psalms appear to have been a primary source of guidance for prayer. Monks both recited the psalms prayerfully and sang or chanted them. They were expected to pray all the psalms, but flexibility was sometimes granted for each monk to determine the particular schedule or regimen he would follow.

Prayers consisted of praise, thanksgiving, intercessions, confessions, and declarations of repentance and faith. The effect of all this praying – both individually and communally – must have been to keep the sense of the unseen Christ near at all times. This, we must suppose, would contribute to increasing love and fear for Him and to remembering the primacy of seeking His Kingdom and righteousness.

The Word of God. Monks applied themselves to the Word of God in four ways: reading, hearing, copying, and studying. The Rule of Cormac Mac Ciolionáin explains that a monk “should ceaselessly converse with the Scriptures”, which gives us some idea of the degree of familiarity with Scripture that was expected of monks. The goal, as Cormac goes on to explain, was so to fix the lives of monks in the Kingdom of Christ that a monk “should have no interest in the passing things of life.”

Celtic monks practiced the discipline of “sacred reading” – lectio divino. In this discipline reading, meditation, and prayer provide a focus for extended contemplation of the Word. The Rule of Carthage explains that monks should “[b]e studious and well informed in laws and rules”, by which are meant the Scriptures. Moreover, their learning should be in line with orthodox teaching; thus, monks were expected to read and study the fathers of the Church in their understanding of Scripture (An Imcomplete Fragment).

Copying Scripture would have helped in two ways, first, by deepening the impression of the monks on the content of God’s Word and, second, by providing resources for use in teaching and sharing the Word within and beyond the monastic community. Each monastery included a Scriptorium where copies of Scripture were prepared and stored, and every monk would take his turn on this task, presumably, by some order of rotation unique to each monastery.

These spiritual disciplines were fundamental to life in a Celtic monastery. Practiced individually and communally, they provided the foundation for all aspects of community development, allowing monks individually and together to “strive after holiness with joy and sincerity of heart.”

What mattered most as new monasteries and churches were built was that a solid spiritual foundation should be in place. Buildings and members would come only after a community had been established on the practices of prayer, the Word, and the other spiritual disciplines essential to Christian life and growth.

T. M. Moore

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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