HOW THE IRISH RECEIVED CHRISTIANITY.
For the conversion of pagans to Christianity, many exterior proofs of revelation were vouchsafed by God to man in addition to the interior impulse of his grace. Those exterior proofs are generally termed "the evidences of religion." They produce their chief effect on inquiring minds which are familiar with the reasoning processes of philosophy, and attach great importance to truth acquired by logical deduction. To this, many pagans of Greece and Rome owed their conversion; by this, in our days, many strangers are brought, on reflection, to the faith of Christ, always presupposing the paramount influence of divine grace on their minds and hearts.
But it is easy to remark that, except in rare cases, those who are gained over to truth by such a process are with some difficulty brought under the influence of the supernatural, which forms the essential groundwork of Christianity. This influence, it is true, is only the effect of the operation of the Holy Ghost on the soul of the convert; but the Holy Ghost acts in conformity with the disposition of the soul; and we know, by what has been said on the character of religion among the Romans and the Greeks in the earlier days of the Church, that it took long ages, the infusion of Northern blood, and the simplicity of new races uncontaminated by heathen mythology, to inspire men with that deep supernatural feeling which in course of time became the distinguishing character of the ages of faith. Ireland imbibed this feeling at once, and thus she received Christianity more thoroughly, at the very beginning, than did any other Western nation.
The fact is--whatever may be thought or said--the Christian religion, with all the loveliness it imparts to this world when rightly understood, though never destroying Nature, but always keeping it in mind, and consecrating it to God, truly endowed, consequently, with the promises of earth as well as those of heaven--the Christian religion is nevertheless fundamentally supernatural, full of awe and mystery, heavenly and incomprehensible, before being earthly and the grateful object of sense.
Without examining the various formularies which heresy compelled an infallible Church to proclaim and impose upon her children from time to time, the Apostles' Creed alone transfers man at once into regions supernatural, into heaven itself. The Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the mission of the Hold Ghost on earth, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the dead, are all mysteries necessitating a revelation on the part of God himself to make them known to and believed by man. Do they not place man, even while on earth, in direct communication with heaven?
The firm believer in those mysteries is already a celestial citizen by faith and hope. He has acquired a new life, new senses, as it were, new faculties of mind and will--all things, evidently, above Nature.
And it is clear, from many passages of the New Testament, that our Lord wished the lives of his disciples to be wholly penetrated with that supernatural essence. They were not to be men of the earth, earthly, but citizens of another country which is heavenly and eternal. Hence the holiness and perfection required of them--a holiness, according to Christ, like that of the celestial Father himself; hence contempt for the things of this world, so strongly recommended by our Lord; hence the assurance that men are called to be sons of God, the eternal Son having become incarnate to acquire for us this glorious privilege; hence, finally, that frequent recommendation in the Gospel to rely on God for the things of this life, and to look above all for spiritual blessings.
That reliance is set forth in such terms, in the Sermon on the Mount, that, taken literally, man should neglect entirely his temporal advantages, forget entirely Nature, and think only of grace, or rather, expect that the things of Nature would be given us by our heavenly Father "who knows that we need them."
Nature, consequently, assumes a new aspect in this system. It is no longer a complexity of temporal goods within reach of the efforts of man, and which it rests with man alone to procure for himself. It is, indeed, a worldly treasure, belonging to God, as all else, and which the hand of God scatters profusely among his creatures. God will not fail to grant to every one what he needs, if he have faith. Thus God is always visible in Nature; and redeemed man, raised far above the beasts of the field, has other eyes than those of the body, when he looks around him on this world.
Had Christianity been literally understood by those who first received it, it would have completely changed the moral, social, and even natural aspect of the universe. The change produced throughout by the new religion was indeed remarkable, but not what it would have been, if the supernatural had taken complete possession of human society. This it did in Ireland, and, it may be said, in Ireland alone.
To begin with the preaching of St. Patrick, we note his care to impart to his converts a sufficient knowledge of the Christian mysteries, but, above all, to make those mysteries influence their lives by acting more powerfully on the new Christian heart than even on the mind.
Thus, in the beautiful legend of Ethne and Felimia, the saint, not content with instructing them on the attributes of God, the Trinity, and other supernatural truths, goes further still; he requires a change in their whole being--that it be spiritualized: by deeply exciting their feelings, by speaking of Christ as their spouse, by making them wish to receive him in the holy Eucharist, even at the expense of their temporal life, he so raises them above Nature that they actually asked to die. "And they received the Eucharist of God, and they slept in death."
Again, in the hymn of Tara, the heavenly spirit, which consists in an intimate union with God and Christ, is so admirably expressed, that we cannot refrain from presenting an extract from it, remarking that this beautiful hymn has been the great prayer of all Irishmen through all ages down even to our own times, though, unfortunately, it is not now so generally known and used by them as formerly:
"At Tara, to-day, may the strength of God pilot me, may the power of God preserve me, may the wisdom of God instruct me, may the eye of God view me, may the ear of God hear me, may the word of God render me eloquent, may the hand of God protect me, may the way of God direct me, may the shield of God defend me, etc.
"Christ be with me, Christ before me, Christ after me, Christ in me, Christ under me, Christ over me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left; . . . Christ be in the heart of each person whom I speak to, Christ in the mouth of each person who speaks to me, Christ in each eye which sees me, Christ in each ear which hears me!"
Could any thing tend more powerfully to make of those whom he converted, true supernatural Christians--forgetful of this world, thinking only of another and a brighter one?
The island, at his coming, was a prey to preternatural superstitions. The Druids possessed, in the opinion of the people, a power beyond that of man; and history shows the same phenomenon in all pagan countries, not excepting those of our time. A real supernatural power was required to overcome that of the magi.
Hence, according to Probus, the magicians to whom the arrival of Patrick had been foretold, prepared themselves for the contest, and several chieftains supported them. Prestiges were, therefore, tried in antagonism to miracles; but, as Moses prevailed over the power of the Egyptian priests, so did Patrick over the Celtic magicians. It is even said that five Druids perished in one of the contests.
The princes were sometimes also punished with death. Recraid, head of a clan, came with his Druids and with words of incantation written under his white garments; he fell dead. Laeghaire himself, the Ard-Righ of all Ireland, whose family became Christian, but who refused to abandon his superstitions, perished with his numerous attendants.
But a more singular phenomenon was, that death, which was often the punishment of unbelief, became as often a boon to be desired by the new Christian converts, so completely were they under the influence of the supernatural. Thus Ruis found it hard to believe. To strengthen his faith, Patrick restored to him his youth, and then gave him the choice between this sweet blessing of life and the happiness of heaven; Ruis preferred to die, like Ethne and Felimia.
Sechnall, the bard, told St. Patrick, one day, that he wished to sing the praises of a saint whom the earth still possessed. "Hasten, then," said Patrick, "for thou art at the gates of death." Sechnall, not only undisturbed, but full of joy, sang a glorious hymn in honor of Patrick, and immediately after died.
Kynrecha came to the convent-door of St. Senan. "What have women in common with monks?" said the holy abbot. "We will not receive thee." "Before I leave this place," responded Kynrecha, "I offer this prayer to God, that my soul may leave the body." And she sank down and expired.
The various lives of the apostle of Ireland and his successors are full of facts of this nature. Supposing that a high coloring was given to some of these by the writers, one thing is certain: the people who lived during that apostleship believed in them firmly, and handed down their belief to their children. Moreover, nothing was better calculated to give to a primitive people, like the Irish, a strong supernatural spirit and character, than to make them despise the joys of this earth and yearn for a better country.
There are, indeed, too many facts of a similar kind related in the lives of St. Patrick and his fellow-workers, to bear the imputation, not of imposition, but even of delusion. The desire of dying, to be united with Christ; the indifference, at least, as to the prolongation of existence; the readiness, if not the joy, with which the announcement of death was received, are of such frequent mention in those old legends, as matters of ordinary occurrence, surprising no one, that they must be conceded as facts often taking place in those early ages.
And, more striking still, this feeling of accepting death, either as a boon or as a matter of course, and with perfect resignation to the will of God, seems to have been throughout, since the introduction of Christianity, a characteristic of the Irish people. It is often witnessed in our own days, and manifested, equally by the young, the middle-aged, or the old. The young, closing their eyes to that bright life whose sweetness they have as yet scarcely tasted, never murmur at being deprived of it, though hope is to them so alluring; the middle-aged, called away in the midst of projects yet unaccomplished, see the sudden end of all that before interested them, with no other concern than for the children they leave behind them; the old, among other races generally so tenacious of life, are, as a rule, glad that their last hour has come, and speak only of their joy that at last they "go home" to that country whither so many of their friends and kindred have gone before them.
This in itself would stamp the Celtic character with an indelible mark, distinguishing it from all other, even most Christian, peoples.
The second sign we find of the firm hold the supernatural had taken of the Irish from the very beginning is their strong belief in the power of the priesthood. This is so striking among them that they have been called by their enemies and those of the Church "a priest-ridden people." Let us consider if this is a reproach.
If Christianity be true, what is the priesthood? Even among the Greeks, from whom so many heresies formerly sprang before they were smitten into insignificance by schism and its punishment-- Turkish slavery--when the great doctors sent them by Providence spoke on the subject, what were their words, and what impression did they make on their supercilious hearers? St. John Chrysostom will answer. His long treatise, written to his friend Basil, is but a glowing description of the great privileges given to the Christian priest by the High-Priest himself--Christ our Lord.
When the great preacher of Antioch, though not yet a priest, describes the awful moment of sacrifice, the altar surrounded by angels descended from heaven, the man consecrated to an office higher than any on earth, and as high as that of the incarnate Son of God--God himself coming down from above and bringing down heaven with him--who can believe in Christianity and fail to be struck with awe?
Who can read the words of Christ, declaring that any one invested with that dignity is sent by him as he was himself sent by his Father, and not feel the innate respect due to such divine honors? Who can read the details of those privileges with respect to the remission of sin, the conferring of grace by the sacraments, the infallible teaching of truth, the power even granted to them sometimes over Nature and disease, without feeling himself transported into a world far above this, and without placing his confidence in what God himself has declared so powerful and preeminent in the regions beyond?
Such, in a few words, is the Christian priesthood, if Christianity possesses any reality and is not an imposture. Among all nations, therefore, where sound faith exists, the greatest respect is shown to the ministers of God; but the Irish have at all times been most persistent in their veneration and trust. And if we would ascertain the cause of their standing in this regard, we shall find that other nations, while firmly believing the words of Christ, keep their eyes open to human frailty, and look more keenly and with more suspicion on the conduct of men invested with so high a dignity, but subject at the same time to earthly passions and sins; while the Irish, on the contrary, abandon themselves with all the impulsiveness of their nature to the feeling uppermost in their hearts, which is ever one of trust and ready reliance.
But this statement, whatever may be its intrinsic value, itself needs a further explanation, which is only to be found in the greater attraction the supernatural always possessed for the Irish nature, when developed by grace. They accept fully and unsuspiciously what is heavenly, because they, more than others, feel that they are made for heaven, and the earth, consequently, has for them fewer attractions. They cling to a world far above this, and whatever belongs to it is dear to them.
Hence, from the first preaching of Christianity among them, all earthly dignities have paled before the heavenly honors of the priesthood. They have been taught by St. Patrick that even the supreme duties of a real Christian king fall far below those of a Christian bishop.
The king, according to the apostle of Ireland - and his words have become a canon of the Irish Church - "has to judge no man unjustly; to be the protector of the stranger, of the widow, and the orphan; to repress theft, punish adultery, not to keep buffoons or unchaste persons; not to exalt iniquity, but to sweep away the impious from the land, exterminate parricides and perjurers; to defend the poor, to appoint just men over the affairs of the kingdom, to consult wise and temperate elders, to defend his native land against its enemies rightfully and stoutly; in all things to put his trust in God."
All this evidently refers only to the exterior polity and administration. But "the bishop must be the hand which supports, the pilot who directs, the anchor that stays, the hammer that strikes, the sun that enlightens, the dew which moistens, the tablet to be written on, the book to be read, the mirror to be seen in, the terror that terrifies, the image of all that is good; and let him be all for all."
Under this metaphorical style we here discern all the interior qualities of a spiritual Christian guide, teaching no less by authority than example.
And, in the opinion of the converts of Patrick, were not the bishops, abbots, and priests, supported by an invisible power, stronger than all visible armies and guards of kings and princes?
"When the King of Cashel dared to contend against the holy abbot Mochoemoc, the first night after the dispute an old man took the king by the hand and led him to the northern city-walls; there he opened the king's eyes, and he beheld all the Irish saints of his own sex in white garments, with Patrick at their head; they were there to protect Mochoemoc, and they filled the plain of Femyn.
"The second night the old man came again and took the king to the southern wall, and there he saw the white-robed glorious army of Ireland's virgins, led by Bridget: they too had come to defend Mochoemoc, and they filled the plain of Monael." 1
(1 Many quotations in this chapter are from the "Legend. Hist." by J. G. Shea.)
In the annals of no other Christian nation do we see so many examples of the power of the ministers of God to punish the wicked and help and succor the good, as we do in the hagiography of Ireland. Bad kings and chieftains reproved, cursed, punished; the poor assisted, the oppressed delivered from their enemies, the sick restored to health, the dead even raised to life, are occurrences which the reader meets in almost every page of the lives of Irish saints. The Bollandists, accustomed as they were to meet with miracles of that kind, in the lives they published, found in Irish hagiography such a superabundance of them, that they refused to admit into their admirable compilation a great number already published or in manuscript. Nevertheless, the critics of our days, finding nothing impossible to or unworthy of God in the large collection of Colgan and other Irish antiquarians, express their surprise at their exclusion from that of Bollandus.
No one at least will refuse to concede that, true or not, the facts related in those lives are always provocative of piety and redolent of faith. They certainly prove that at all periods of their existence the Irish have manifested a holy avidity for every thing supernatural and miraculous. Do they not know that our Lord has promised gifts of this description to his apostles and their successors? And what the acts of the Apostles and many acts of martyrs positively state as having happened at the very beginning of the Church, is not a whit less extraordinary or physically impossible than any thing related in the Irish legends.
Every Christian soul naturally abhors the unbelief of a Strauss or of a Renan as to the former; is it not unnatural, then, for the same Christian soul to reject the latter because they fall under the easy sneer of "an Irish legend," and are not contained in Holy Writ?
At all events, the faith of the Irish has never wavered in such matters, and to-day they hold the same confidence in the priests' power that meets us everywhere in the pages of Colgan and Ward. The reason is, that they admit Christianity without reserve; and in its entirety it is supernatural. The criticisms of human reason on holy things hold in their eyes something of the sacrilegious and blasphemous; such criticisms are for them open disrespect for divine things; and, inasmuch as divine things are, in fact, more real than any phenomena under natural laws can be, skepticism in the former case is always more unreasonable than in the latter, supposing always that the narrative of the Divine favors reposes on sufficient authority.
It is clear, therefore, that since the preaching of Christianity in Ireland, the world showed itself to the inhabitants of that country in a different light to that in which other men beheld it. For them, Nature is never separated from its Maker; the hand of God is ever visible in all mundane affairs, and the frightful parting between the spiritual and material worlds, first originated by the Baconian philosophy, which culminates in our days in the almost open negation of the spiritual, and thus materializes all things, is with justice viewed by the children of St. Patrick with a holy horror as leading to atheism, if it be not atheism itself.
Without going to such extremes as the avowed infidels of modern times, all other Christian nations have seemed afraid to draw the logical conclusions whose premises were laid down by revelation. They have tried to follow a via media between truth and error; they have admitted to a certain extent the separation of God and Nature, supposing the act of creation to have passed long ages ago, and not continuing through all time; and thus they are bound by their system to hold that miracles are very extraordinary things, not to be believed prima facie, requiring infinite precautions before admitting the supposition of their having taken place; all which indicates a real repugnance to their admission, and an innate fear of supposing God all-powerful, just, and good. It is the first step to Manicheism and the kindred errors; and most Christian nations having, unfortunately, imbibed the principles of those errors in the philosophy of modern times, have almost lost all faith in the supernatural, and reduced revelation to a meagre and cold system, unrealized and not to be realized in human life.
Not so the Irish Religion has entered deep into their life. It is a thing of every moment and of every place. Nature, God's handiwork, instead of repelling them from God himself, draws them gently but forcibly toward Him, so that they feel themselves to be truly recipients of the blessings of God by being sharers in the blessings of Nature.
And must God's ministers, who have received such extraordinary powers over the supernatural world, be entirely deprived of power over the inferior part of creation? Who can say so, and have true faith in the words of our Lord? Who can say so, and truly call himself the follower and companion of the saints who have all believed so firmly in the constant action of God in this, the lesser part of his creation?
And this faith of the Irish in the power of the priesthood is not a thing of yesterday. It dates from their adoption of Christianity, to continue, we hope, forever. It ought, therefore, to be carefully distinguished from that love for every priest of God which beats so ardently in the hearts of them all, and which was so strengthened by a long community of persecution and suffering.
In Ireland, as in every other Christian country, the priesthood has always sided with the people against their oppressors. During the early ages of Christianity in the island, the bishops, priests, and monks, were often called upon to exercise their authority and power against princes and chiefs of clans, accustomed to plunder, destroy, and kill, on the slightest pretext, and unused to control their fierce passions, inflamed by the rancor of feuds and the pride of strength and bravery. Some of those chieftains even opposed the progress of religion; and it is said that Eochad, King of Ulster, cast his two daughters, whom Patrick had baptized and consecrated to God, into the sea.
For several centuries the heads of clans were generally so unruly and so hard to bring under the yoke of Christ, that the saints, in taking the side of the poor, had to stand as a wall of brass to stem the fury of the great and powerful.
Bridget even, the modest and tender virgin, often spoke harshly of princes and rulers. "While she dwelt in the land of Bregia, King Connal's daughter-in-law came to ask her prayers, for she was barren. Bridget refused to go to receive her; but, leaving her without, she sent one of her maidens. When the nun returned: 'Mother,' she asked, 'why would you not go and see the queen? you pray for the wives of peasants.' 'Because,' said the servant of God, 'the poor and the peasants are almost all good and pious, while the sons of kings are serpents, children of blood and fornication, except a small number of elect. But, after all, as she had recourse to us, go back and tell her that she shall have a son; he will be wicked, and his race shall be accursed, yet he shall reign many years.'"
We might multiply examples such as this, wherein the saints and the ministers of God always side with the poor and the helpless; and their great number in the lives of the old saints at once gives a reason for the deep love which the lower class of the Irish people felt for the holy men who were at once the servants of God and their helpers in every distress.
The same thing is to be found in the whole subsequent history of the island, chiefly in the latter ages of persecution. But, as we said before, this affection and love must be distinguished from the feeling of reverence and awe resulting from the supernatural character of their office. The first feeling is merely a natural one, produced by deeds of benevolence and holy charity fondly remembered by the individuals benefited. The second was the effect of religious faith in the sacredness of the priestly character, and remained in full force even when the poor themselves fell under reproof or threat in consequence of some misdeed or vicious habit.
Hence the universal respect which the whole race entertains for their spiritual rulers, and their unutterable confidence in their high prerogatives. In prosperity as in adversity, in freedom or in subjection, they always preserve an instinctive faith in the unseen power which Christ conferred on those whom He chose to be his ministers. This feeling, which is undoubtedly found among good Christians in all places, is as certainly only found among particular individuals; but among the Irish Celts it is the rule rather than the exception.
Well have they merited, then, in this sense, from the days of St. Patrick down, the title of a "priest-ridden" people, which has been fixed on them as a term of reproach by those for whom all belief in the supernatural is belief in imposture.
Another and a stronger fact still, exemplifying the extent to which the Irish have at all times carried their devotion to the supernatural character of the Christian religion, is the extraordinary ardor with which, from the very beginning, they rushed into the high path of perfection, called the way of "evangelical counsels." Nowhere else were such scenes ever witnessed in Christian history.
For the great mass of people the common way of life is the practice of the commandments of God; it is only the few who feel themselves called on to enter upon another path, and who experience interiorly the need of being "perfect."
In Ireland the case was altogether different from the outset. St. Patrick, notwithstanding his intimate knowledge of the leanings of the race, expresses in his "Confessio" the wonder and delight he experienced when he saw in what manner and in what numbers they begged to be consecrated to God the very first day after their baptism. Yet were they conscious that this very eagerness would excite the greater opposition on the part of their pagan relatives and friends. Thus we read of the fate of Eochad's daughters, and the story of Ethne and Felimia.
The whole nation, in fact, appeared suddenly transported with a holy impetuosity, and lifted at once to the height of Christian life. Monasteries and nunneries could not be constructed fast enough, although they contented themselves with the lightest fabrics--wattles being the ordinary materials for walls, and slender laths for roofs.
Nor was this an ephemeral ardor, like a fire of stubble or straw, flashing into a momentary blaze, to relapse into deeper gloom. It lasted for several centuries; it was still in full flame at the time of Columba, more than two hundred years after Patrick; it grew into a vast conflagration in the seventh and eighth centuries, when multitudes rushed forth from that burning island of the blest to spread the sacred fire through Europe.
How the nation continued to multiply, when so many devoted themselves to a holy celibacy, is only to be explained by the large number of children with which God blessed those who pursued an ordinary life, and who, from what is related in the chronicles of the time, must have been in a minority.
Of the first monasteries and convents erected not a single vestige now remains, because of the perishable materials of which they were constructed; yet each of them contained hundreds, nay thousands, of monks or nuns.
But, even in our days, we are furnished with an ocular demonstration of what men could scarcely bring themselves to believe, or at least would term an exaggeration, did not standing proof remain. God inspired his children with the thought of erecting more substantial structures, of building walls of stone and roofing them in with tiles and metal; and the island was literally covered, not with Gothic castles or luxurious palaces and sumptuous edifices, but with large and commodious buildings and churches, wherein the religious life of the inmates might be carried on with greater comfort and seclusion from the world.
At the time of the Reformation all those asylums of perfection and asceticism were of course profaned, converted to vile or slavish uses, many altogether destroyed to the very foundations; a greater number were allowed to decay gradually and become heaps of ruins.
And what happened when the English Government, unable any longer to resist public opinion, was compelled to consent that a survey be made of the poor and comparatively few remains still in existence, in order to manifest a show of interest for the past history of the island; when commissioners were appointed to publish lists and diagrams of the former dwellings of the "saints," which the "zeal" of the "reformers" had battered down without mercy? To the astonishment of all, it was proved by the ruins still in existence that the greater portion of the island had been once occupied by monasteries and convents of every description. And Prof. O'Curry has stated his conviction, based on local traditions and geographical and topographical names, that a great number of these can be traced back to Patrick and his first companions.
It is clear enough, then, that, from the beginning, the Irish were not only "priest-ridden," but also very attached to "monkish superstitions."
Yet we could not form a complete idea of that attachment were we to limit ourselves to an enumeration of the buildings actually erected, supposing such an enumeration possible at this time. For we know, by many facts related in Irish hagiology, that a great number of those who devoted themselves to a life of penance and austerity, did not dwell even in the humble structures of the first monks, but, deeming themselves unworthy of the society of their brethren, or condemned by a severe but just "friend of their soul," as the confessor was then called, hid themselves in mountain-caves, in the recesses of woods or forests, or banished themselves to crags ever beaten by the waves of the sea.
Yes, there was a time when those dreadful solitudes of the Hebrides, which frighten the modern tourist in his summer explorations, teemed with Christian life, and every rock, cave, and sand-bar had its inhabitant, and that inhabitant an Irish monk.
They sometimes spent seven years on a desert islet doing penance for a single sin. They often passed a lifetime on a rock in the midst of the ocean, alone with God, and enjoying no communion but that of their conscience.
Who knows how many thousands of men have led such a life, shocking, indeed, to the feelings of worldlings, but in reality devoted to the contemplation of what is above Nature--a life, consequently, exalted and holy?
Passing from the solitudes to the numerous hives where the bees of primitive Christianity in Ireland were busy at work constructing their combs and secreting their honey, what do we see? People generally imagine that all monastic establishments have been alike; that those of mediaeval times were simply the reproduction of earlier ones. An abbot, the three vows, austerity, psalmody, study--such are the general features common to all; but those of Ireland had peculiarities which are worthy of examination. We shall find in them a stronger expression of the supernatural, perhaps; certainly a more heavenly cast, a greater forgetfulness of the world, its manners and habits, its passions and aims.
Patrick had learned all he knew of this holy life in the establishment of Lerins, wherein the West reflected more truly than it ever did subsequently the Oriental light of the great founders of monasticism in Palestine and Egypt.
The first thing to be remarked is the want, to a great extent, of a strict system. The Danes, when Christianized, and the Anglo- Normans, introduced this afterwards; but the genius of the Irish race is altogether opposed to it, and the Scandinavian races in following ages could hardly ever bring them under the cold uniformity of an iron rule.
Did St. Patrick establish a rule in the monasteries which he founded? Did St. Columba two centuries later? Did any of the great masters of spiritual life who are known to have exercised an influence on the world of Irish convents? Not only has nothing of the kind been transmitted to us, but no mention of it is made in the lives of holy abbots which we possess.1 (1 The "Irish Penitentials," quoted at length in Rev. Dr. Moran's "Early Irish Church," are not monastic rules, although many canons have reference to monks.) St. Columbanus's rule is the only one which has come down to us; but the monasteries founded by him were all situated in Burgundy, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy--that is to say, out of Ireland, out of the island of saints. He was compelled to furnish his monasteries with a written rule, because they were surrounded by barbarous peoples, some of whom his establishments often received as monks, and to whom the holiness of Ireland was unfamiliar or utterly unknown. But why should the people of God, living in his devoted island, redeemed as soon as born by the waters of baptism, be shackled by enactments which might serve as an obstacle to the action of the Holy Ghost on their free souls?
Thus, it is reported that St. Mochta was the only one who practised his own rule exactly, his monks imitating him as well as they could. St. Fintan, who was inclined to be severe, received this warning in a vision: "Fight unto the end thyself; but beware of being a cause of scandal to others, by requiring all to fight as thou doest, for one clay is weaker than another."
Thus, every founder, every abbot even, left to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, practised austerities which in our days of self- indulgence seem absolutely incredible, and showed themselves severe to those under their authority. But this severity was tempered by such zeal for the good of souls, and consequently by such an unmistakable charity, that the penitent monk carried his burden not only with resignation, but with joy. This, in after- ages, became a characteristic feature of Irish monasticism.
The life of Columba is full of examples of this holy severity. In St. Patrick's life we read that Colman died of thirst rather than quench it before the time appointed by his master.
How many facts of a similar nature might be mentioned! Enough to say that, after so many ages, in which, thanks to barbarous persecutions, all ecclesiastical and monastic traditions were lost to Ireland, through the sheer impossibility of following them up, the Irish still show a marked predilection for the holy austerity of penance, though the rest of the Christian world seems to have almost totally forgotten it.
But if the Irish convents lacked system, there was at the same time in them an exuberance of feeling, an enthusiastic impulse, which is to be found nowhere else to the same extent, and which we call their second peculiar feature after they received Christianity. This is beautifully expressed in a hymn of the office of St. Finian: "Behold the day of gladness; the clerks applaud and are in joy; the sun of justice, which had been hidden in the clouds, shines forth again."
As soon as this primitive enthusiasm seemed to slacken in the least, reformers appeared to enkindle it again. Such was Bridget, such was Gildas, such were the disciples of St. David of Menevia in Wales, such was any one whom the Spirit of God inspired with love for Ireland. Thus the scenes enacted in the time of Patrick were again and again repeated.
And when a monastery was built, it was not properly a monastery, but a city rather; for the whole country round joined in the goodly work. As some one has said, "it looked as if Ireland was going to cease to be a nation, and become a church."
With regard to the question of ground and the appropriation of landed property, what matters it who is the owner? If it be clan territory, there is the clan with nothing but welcome, applause, and assistance. If it be private, the owner is not consulted even; how could he think of opposing the work of God? Thus, we never read in Irish history - in the earlier stages at least - of those long charters granted in other lands by kings, dukes, and counts, and preserved with such care in the archives of the monastery. It seems that the Danes, after they became Christians, were the first to introduce the custom; after them, the Anglo- Normans, in the true spirit of their race, made a flourishing business of it. The Irish themselves never thought of such at first. There was no fear of any one ever claiming the ground on which God's house stood. The buildings were there: the ground needed to support them: what Irishman could think of driving away the holy inmates and pulling the walls about their ears?
The whole surrounding population is busy erecting them. Long rows of wattles and tessel-work are set in right order; over them a rough roof of boards; within small cells begin to appear, as the slight partitions are erected between them. Symmetry or no symmetery, the position of the ground decides the question; for there is no need of the skill of a surveyor to establish the grade. Does not the rain run its own way, once it begins?
How far and how wide will those long rows reach? They seem the streets of a city; and in truth they are. The place is to receive two, three thousand monks, over and above the students committed to their care. And, in addition to the cells to dwell in, there are the halls wherein to teach; the museums and repositories of manuscripts, of sacred objects; the rooms to write in, translate, compose; the sheds to hold provisions, to prepare and cook them, ready for the meal.
For the most important edifice--the temple of God--alone stones are cut, shaped, and fitted each to each with care and precision. A holy simplicity surrounds the art; yet are there not wanting carven crosses and other divine emblems sculptured out. Within, the heavenly mysteries of religion will be performed. Should you ask, "Why so small?" the answer is ready. That large space empty around holds room enough for the worshippers, whose numbers could be accommodated in no edifice. The minds of Irish architects had not yet expanded to the conception of a St. Peter's. Inside is room enough for the ministers of religion; without, at the tinkling of the bell, in the round tower adjoining, the faithful will join in the services.
Nor was it only in the erection of those edifices that a cheerful impulse, which overlooked or overcame all difficulties, was displayed. The monastic life was not all the time a life of penance and gloomy austerity, but of active work also and overflowing feeling, of true poetry and enthusiastic exultation. We read in the fragments we still possess how, on the arid rock of Iona, Columba remembered his former residence at Derry, with its woods of oaks and the pure waters of its loughs. In all the lives of Irish saints we read of the deep attachment they always preserved for their country, relatives, and friends; what they did and were ready to do for them. And though all this was at bottom but a natural feeling, the extent to which it was carried will make us better acquainted with the Irish character, and explain more clearly that extraordinary expansion of soul which, in the domains of the supernatural, surpassed every thing witnessed elsewhere.
"In a monastery two brothers had lived from childhood. The elder died, and while he was dying the other was laboring in the forest. When he came back, he saw the brethren opening a grave in the cemetery, and thus he learned that his brother was dead. He hastened to the spot where the Abbot Fintan, with some of his monks, were chanting psalms around the corpse, and asked him the favor of dying with his brother, and entering with him into the heavenly kingdom. 'Thy brother is already in heaven,' replied Fintan, 'and you cannot enter together unless he rise again.' Then he knelt in prayer, the angels who had received the holy soul restored it, and the dead man, rising in his bier, called his brother: 'Come,' said he, 'but come quickly; the angels await us.' At the same time he made room beside him, and both, lying down, slept together in death, and ascended together to the kingdom of God."
This anecdote may tend better than any thing else to show us how Nature and grace were united in the Irish soul, to warm it, purify it, exalt it above ordinary feelings and earthly passions, and keep it constantly in a state of energy and vitality unknown to other peoples. For, in what page of the ecclesiastical history of other nations do we read of things such as these?
With regard to their country, also, grace came to the aid of Nature; the supernatural was, therefore, seldom absent from the natural in their minds, and something of this double union has, remained in them in every sense, and has, no doubt, contributed to render their nationality imperishable in spite of persecution. How ardent and pure in the heart of Columba was the love of Ireland, from which he was a voluntary exile! Patrick, also, though not native born, yielded to none in that sacred feeling; one of the three things he sought of God on dying was, that Erin should not "remain forever under a foreign yoke:" Kieran offered the same prayer, and their reason for thus praying was that she was the "island of saints," destined to help out the salvation of many.
Religion has been invariably connected with that acute sentiment ever present in the minds of Irishmen for their country; and it is, doubtless, that holy and supernatural feeling which has preserved a country which enemies strove so strenuously to wrest from them.
But it was not love of country alone, of relatives and friends, which enkindled in their hearts a spirit of enthusiasm; their whole monastic life was one of high-spirited devotedness, and energy, and action, more than human.
We see them laboring in and around their monastic hive. How they pray and chant the divine office; how they study and expound the holy doctrine to their pupils; how they are ever travelling, walking in procession by hundreds and by thousands through the island, the interior spirit not allowing them to stand still. There are so many pilgrimages to perform, so many shrines to venerate, so many works of brotherly love to undertake. Other monks in other countries, indeed, did the same, but seldom with such universal ardor. The whole island, as we said, is one church. On all sides you may meet bishops, and priests, and monks, bearing revered relics, or proceeding to found a new convent, plant another sacred edifice, or establish a house for the needy. The people on the way fall in and follow their footsteps, sharers of the burning enthusiasm. Many-how many!- were thus attracted to this mode of life, wherein there was scarce aught earthly, but all breathing holiness and heavenly grace!
Thus the island was from the beginning a holy island. But zeal for God in their own country alone not being enough for their ardor, those men of God were early moved by the impulse of going abroad to spread the faith. Volumes might be written of their apostleship among barbarous tribes; we have room only for a few words.
They first went to the islands north of them, to the Hebrides, the Faroe Isles, and even Iceland, which they colonized before the Norwegian pirates landed there. Then they evangelized Scotland and the north of England; and, starting from Lindisfarne, they completed the work of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, which was begun by St. Augustin and his monks in the south.
Finally, the whole continent of Western Europe offered itself to their zeal, and at once they were ready to enter fully and unreservedly into the current of new ideas and energies which at that time began to renew the face of that portion of the world overspread by barbarians from Germany. Under the Merovingian kings in France, and later on, under the Carlovingian dynasty, they became celebrated in the east of France, on the banks of the Rhine, even in the north through Germany, in the heart of Switzerland, and the north of Italy. This is not the place to attempt even a sketch of their missionary labors, now known to all the students of the history of those times. But we may here mention that at that time the Irish monarchs and rulers became acquainted with continental dynasties and affairs through the necessary intercourse held by the Irish bishops and monks with Rome, the centre of Catholicity. Thus we see that Malachi II corresponded with Charles the Bald, with a view of making a pilgrimage to Rome.
We learn from the yellow-book of Lecain that Conall, son of Coelmuine, brought from Rome the law of Sunday, such as was afterward practised in Ireland.
Over and above the Irish missionaries who kept up a constant correspondence from the Continent of Europe with their native land, it is known that many in those early ages went on pilgrimages to Rome; among others, St. Degan, St. Kilian, the apostle of Franconia; St. Sedulius the younger, who assisted at a Roman council in 721, and was sent by the Pope on a mission to Spain; St. Donatus, afterward Bishop of Fiesole, and his disciple, Andrew. St. Cathald went from Rome to Jerusalem, and on his return was made Bishop of Tarento. Donough, son of Brian Boru, went to Rome in 1063, carrying, it is said, the crown of his father, and there died.
It has been calculated that the ancient Irish monks held from the sixth to the ninth century thirteen monasteries in Scotland, seven in France, twelve in Armoric Gaul, seven in Lotharingia, eleven in Burgundy, nine in Belgium, ten in Alsatia, sixteen in Bavaria, fifteen in Rhaetia, Helvetia, and Suevia, besides several in Thuringia and on the left bank of the Rhine. Ireland was then not only included in, but at the head of, the European movement; and yet that forms a period in her annals which as yet has scarcely been studied.
The religious zeal which was then so manifest in the island itself burned likewise among many Continental nations, and lasted from the introduction of Christianity to the Danish invasion. What contributed chiefly to make that ardor lasting was, that every thing connected with religion made a part even of their exterior life. Grace had taken entire possession of the national soul. This world was looked upon as a shadow, beautiful only in reflecting something of the beauty of heaven.
Hence were the Irish "the saints." So were they titled by all, and they accepted the title with a genuine and holy simplicity which betokened a truer modesty than the pretended denegation which we might expect. Thus they seemed above temptation. The virgins consecrated to God were as numerous at least as the monks. These had also their processions and pilgrimages; they went forth from houses over-full to found others, not knowing or calculating beforehand the spot where they might rest and "expect resurrection." Such was their language. Sometimes they applied at the doors of monasteries, and if there was no spot in the neighborhood suitable for the sisters, the monks abandoned to them their abode, their buildings and cultivated fields where the crops were growing, taking with them naught save the sacred vessels and the books they might need in the new establishment they went forth to found elsewhere.
Who could imagine, then, that even a thought could enter their minds beyond those of charity and kindness? Were they not dead utterly to worldly passions, and living only to God? It would have been a sacrilege to have profaned the holy island, not only with an unlawful act but even with a worldly imagination. Had not many holy men and women seen angels constantly coming down from heaven, and the souls of the just at their departure going straight from Ireland to heaven? Both in perpetual communication! Had the eyes of all been as pure as those of the best among them, the truth would have been unveiled to all alike, and the "isle of saints" would have shown itself to them as what it really was-a bright country where redemption was a great fact; where the souls of the great majority were truly and actually redeemed in the full sense of the word; where people might enjoy a foretaste of heaven-the very space above their heads being to them at all times a road connecting the heavenly mansions with this sublunary world.
True is it that there were ever in the island a number of great sinners who desecrated the holy spot they dwelt on by their deeds of blood. The Saviour predicted that there should be "tares among the wheat" everywhere until the day of judgment.
It was among the chieftains principally, almost entirely, that sin prevailed. The clan-system, unfortunately, favored deadly feuds, which often drenched all parts of the island in blood. Family quarrels, being in themselves unnatural, led to the most atrocious crimes. The old Greek drama furnishes frightful examples of it, and similar passions sometimes filled the breasts of those leaders of Irish clans. Few of them died in their beds. When carried away by passion, they respected nothing which men generally respect.
It would, however, be an exaggeration to suppose on this account a distinct and complete antagonism to have existed between the clan and the Church, and to class all the princes on the side of evil as opposed to the "saints," whom we have contemplated leading a celestial life. We know from St. Aengus that one of the glories of Ireland is that many of her saints were of princely families, whereas among other nations generally the Gospel was first accepted by the poor and lowly, and found its enemies among the higher and educated classes. But in Ireland the great, side by side with the least of their clansmen, bowed to the yoke of Christ, and the bards and learned men became monks and bishops from the very first preaching of the Word.
The fact is, a great number of kings and chieftains made their station doubly renowned by their virtues, and find place in the chronicle of Irish saints. Who can read, for instance, the story of King Guaire without admiring his faith and true Christian spirit?
It is reported that as St. Caimine and St. Cumain Fota were one day conversing on spiritual things with that holy king of Connaught, Caimine said to Guaire, "O king, could this church be filled on a sudden with whatever thou shouldst wish, what would thy desire be?" "I should wish," replied the king, "to have all the treasures that the church could hold, to devote them to the salvation of souls, the erection of churches, and the wants of Christ's poor." "And what wouldst thou ask?" said the king to Fota. "I would," he replied, "have as many holy books as the church could contain, to give all who seek divine wisdom, to spread among the people the saving doctrine of Christ, and rescue souls from the bondage of Satan." Both then turned to Caimine. "For my part," said he, "were this church filled with men afflicted with every form of suffering and disease, I should ask of God to vouchsafe to assemble in my wretched body all their evils, all their pains, and give me strength to support them patiently, for the love of the Saviour of the world. "1 (1 This passage is given in Latin by Colgan (Acts SS.). In the original Irish, translated and published by Dr. Todd--Liber Hymn--there are more details.)
Thus the most sublime and supernatural spirit of Christianity became natural to the Irish mind in the great as well as in the lowly, in the rich as well as in the poor. Women rivalled men in that respect.
"Daria was blind from birth. Once, whilst conversing with Bridget, she said: 'Bless my eyes that I may see the world, and gratify my longing.' The night was dark; it grew light for her, and the world appeared to her gaze. But when she had beheld it, she turned again to Bridget. 'Now close my eyes,' said she, 'for the more one is absent from the world, the more present he is before God.'"
Even though one may express doubt as to the reality of this miracle, one thing, at least, is beyond doubt: that the spirit of the words of Daria was congenial to the Irish mind at the time, and that none but one who had first reached the highest point of supernatural life could conceive or give utterance to such a sentiment.
That more than human life and spirit elevated, ennobled, and, as it were, divinized, even the ordinary human and natural feelings, which not only ceased to become dangerous, but became, doubtless, highly pleasing to God and meritorious in his sight. An example may better explain our meaning:
"Ninnid was a young scholar, not over-reverent, whom the influence of Bridget one day suddenly overcame, so that he afterward appeared quite a different being. Bridget announced to him that from his hand she should, for the last time, receive the body and blood of our Lord. Ninnid resolved that his hand should remain pure for so high and holy an office. He enclosed it in an iron case, and wishing at the same time to postpone, as far as lay in his power, the moment that was to take Bridget from the world, he set out for Brittany, throwing the key of the box into the sea. But the designs of God are immutable. When Bridget's hour had come, Ninnid was driven by a storm on the Irish coast, and the key was miraculously given up by the deep."
Where, except in Ireland, could such friendship continue for long years, without giving cause not only for the least scandal, but even for the remotest danger? In that island the natural feelings of the human heart were wholly absorbed by heavenly emotions, in which nothing earthly could be found? Hence the celebrated division of the "three orders of the Irish saints," the first being so far above temptation that no regulation was imposed on the Cenobites with respect to their intercourse with women.
"Women were welcome and cared for; they were admitted, so to speak, to the sanctuary; it was shared with them, occupied in common. Double, or even mixed monasteries, so near to each other as to form but one, brought the two sexes together for mutual edification; men became instructors of women; women of men."
Nothing of the kind was ever witnessed elsewhere; nothing of the kind was to be seen ever after. Robert of Arbrissel established something similar in the order, of Fontevrault in France; but there it was a strange and very uncommon exception; in Ireland for two centuries it was the rule. This alone would show how completely the Christian spirit had taken possession of the whole race from the first.
It is this which gives to Irish hagiology a peculiar character, making it appear strange even to the best men of other nations. The elevation of human feeling to such a height of perfection is so unusual that men cannot fail to be surprised wherever they may meet it.
Yet far from appearing strange, almost inexplicable, it would have been recognized as the natural result of the working of the Christian religion, if the spirit brought on earth by our Lord had been more thoroughly diffused among men, if all had been penetrated by it to the same degree, if all had equally understood the meaning of the Gospel preached to them.
But, unfortunately, so many and so great were the obstacles opposed everywhere to the working of the Spirit of God in the souls of men, that comparatively few were capable of being altogether transformed into beings of another nature.
The great mass lagged far behind in the race of perfection. They were admitted to the fold of Christ, and lived generally at least in the practice of the commandments; but the object proposed to himself by the Saviour of mankind was imperfectly carried out on earth. The life of the world was far from being impregnated by the spirit which he brought from heaven.
In the "island of saints" we certainly see a great number open out at once to the fulness of that divine influence. Herein we have the explanation of the deep faith which has ever since been the characteristic of the people. "Centuries have perpetuated the alliance of Catholicity and Ireland. Revolutions have failed to shake it; persecution has not broken it; it has gained strength in blood and tears, and we may believe, after thirteen centuries of trial, that the Roman faith will disappear from Ireland only with the name of Patrick and the last Irishman."
NOTE.-It is known that F. Colgan, a Franciscan, undertook to publish the "Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae." He edited only two volumes: the first under the title of "Trias thaumaturga " containing the various lives of St. Patrick, St. Columba, and St. Bridget:-the second under the general title of "Acta SS."- Barnwall, an Irishman born and educated in France, published the "Histoire Legendaire d'Irlande," in which he collected, without much order, a number of passages of Colgan's "Acta," and Mr. J.
Dr. Todd, from Irish MSS., has given a few pages showing the accuracy of Colgan, although the good father did not scruple occasionally to condense and abridge, unless the MSS. he used differed from those of Dr. Todd. The whole is a rich mine of interesting anecdotes, and Montalembert has shown what a skilful writer can find in those pages forgotten since the sixteenth century. Mr. Froude himself has acknowledged that the eighth was the golden age of Ireland.