St. David of Wales, the Celtic Churches and Eastern Orthodoxy - Part 1
ST. DAVID OF WALES, THE CELTIC CHURCHES AND EASTERN ORTHODOXY
The phenomenon of the Celtic Churches, far to the west of the main centres of Orthodox Christianity in the East, and yet quite clearly of the same spirit as Eastern Christianity, and comparable to it in the rich abundance of its spiritual fruit, has fascinated Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. How could such a rare and beautiful flower arise in such an isolated and seemingly inhospitable environment? Fr. Gregory Telepneff has provided part of the answer to this question in his book The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs by demonstrating the strong links between Celtic and Egyptian monasticism. However, he identifies the Celtic Church with the Irish Church and its offshoots in Scotland and Northern England, excluding the Church of Wales from his review. The reason he gives for this exclusion is very surprising: “The fifth and sixth centuries in British ecclesiastical life were a time of decay, both externally and internally. That such a Church could have been the center of spiritual influence outside of its borders is hardly probable”. The purpose of this article is twofold: to show, on the one hand, that Fr. Gregory is mistaken in his estimate of the British (Welsh) Church by reference particularly to the Life of St. David of Wales, and on the other, to provide further confirmation for the correctness of his main thesis, that the Celtic Church as a whole was integrally linked with the Orthodox Church of the East.
One has to admit that the critics of the Church on the British mainland were eminently well-qualified. In his Confession, St. Patrick, while mentioning that he was from a clerical family (his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest), has nothing good to say about the state of his native Church. Nearly a century later, the Welsh St. Gildas the Wise, in his On the Ruin of Britain laid into his native Church with extraordinary fierceness.
The British were an unruly lot, in his opinion. At the end of the Roman period they had “ungratefully rebelled” against “Roman kings”, and had failed in their “loyalty to the Roman Empire”. As for Gildas’ contemporaries: “Britain has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but they are wicked. They often plunder and terrorize the innocent; they defend and protect the guilty and thieving; they have many wives, whores and adulteresses; they constantly swear false oaths, they make vows, but almost at once tell lies; they wage wars, civil and unjust; they chase thieves energetically all over the country, but love and reward the thieves who sit with them at table; they distribute alms profusely, but pile up an immense mountain of crime for all to see; they take their seats as judges, but rarely seek out the rules of right judgement; they despise the harmless and humble, but exalt to the stars, as far as they can, their military companions, bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God… They hang around the altars swearing oaths, then shortly afterwards scorn them as though they were filthy stones…”
The clergy were hardly better: “Britain has priests, but they are fools, very many ministers, but they are shameless; clerics, but they are treacherous grabbers. They are called shepherds, but they are wolves ready to slaughter souls. They do not look to the good of their people, but to the filling of their own bellies. They have church buildings, but go to them for the sake of base profit. They teach people – but by giving them the worst of examples, vice and bad character. Rarely do they sacrifice and never do they stand with pure heart amid the altars. They do not reprimand the people for their sins; indeed they do the same things themselves. They make mock of the precepts of Christ, and all their prayers are directed to the fulfillment of their lustful desires. They usurp with unclean feet the seat of the Apostle Peter, yet thanks to their greed they fall into the pestilential chair of the traitor Judas. They hate truth as an enemy, and love lies like favourite brothers. They look askance at the just poor as though they were dreadful snakes, and shamelessly respect the wicked rich as though they were angels from heaven… They canvass posts in the church more vigorously than the Kingdom of heaven… They remain in the same old unhappy slime of intolerable sin even after they have obtained the priestly seat… They have grabbed merely the name of priest, not the priestly way of life.”
Gildas spoke kindly only of the monks: they were “the true sons” who led “worthy lives”. He mentioned “the habit of a holy abbot”, “the caves of the saints”, and how King Maglocunus, pondering “the godly life and rule of the monks”, had vowed “to be a monk forever”. And this leads us to believe that there was probably a sharp divide between the corrupt life of the secular rulers and married clergy, on the one hand, and the monks, on the other. Moreover, this divide may have reflected, in part, a doctrinal divide, between, on the one hand, the Orthodox Christians, and on the other, the Pelagians, who, in their debates with St. Germanus of Auxerre are described as “men of obvious wealth”.
Pelagianism was a heresy that denied original sin and over-emphasized the role of free will in salvation. Snyder writes: “What [Pelagius’] religious upbringing in late-fourth-century Britain was like we do not know, only that he was undoubtedly Christian and well educated before he left for Rome at the beginning of the fifth century. Pelagius’s story is that of the Mediterranean world c.410, but the spread of his heresy after his disappearance in 418 directly involves Britain. Pelagian bishops were sufficiently influential in the British Isles to worry the pope and warrant the missions of Germanus to Britain and Palladius to Ireland. Claims that Pelagianism played a political role in Britain’s separation from Rome and subsequently split the island into factions have never been adequately demonstrated.…”
It is clear, then, that, on the one hand, the British Church had major problems, both doctrinal and moral, in the century and a half after the Roman legions left in 410, but on the other, that there was a powerful new movement in the shape of monasticism which would both take the lead in the struggle against Pelagianism and demonstrate an extraordinary striving for moral perfection rarely seen before or since.
The origins of Celtic monasticism are often ascribed to Gaul, not only because Gaul was the nearest place where monasteries are known to have existed in the fifth century, but also because the saints who made the biggest impact on the early Celtic Church all had close links with Gaul. Thus St. Ninian of Whithorn (+397) built the first stone church in Britain in honour of his teacher, St. Martin of Tours. Again, the scourge of British Pelagianism, St. Germanus of Auxerre, was himself a Gallic bishop. And St. Patrick of Ireland, the first founder of monasteries in the Celtic lands, was trained in Gaul and received Episcopal consecration there. Moreover, it is tempting to ascribe the origin of the Eastern influences found in Celtic monasticism to the Gallic Church insofar as the latter had strong links with the Church in the East. Thus St. John Cassian, a Roman and a former spiritual son of St. John Chrysostom who travelled extensively throughout the East, eventually settled near Marseilles. Cassian’s works, together with those of Saints Athanasius and Pachomius the Great (both Coptic monks), were well known both to St. Patrick and to the later monastic founders of Britain and Ireland.
However, Fr. Gregory has argued persuasively that while Eastern influence was exerted indirectly on the Irish Church through Gaul, there was also extensive direct influence from the Coptic Church of Egypt. Only such direct influence could account for a number of peculiarities of Celtic monasticism and liturgical life which distinguish it from Gallic monasticism but link it with Coptic monasticism.
In addition to the evidence Fr. Gregory produces to support this thesis, we may cite the strong evidence for direct trade routes by sea from the Eastern Mediterranean to South-West Britain. Thus in about 320 BC a Greek called Pytheas published his work On the Ocean, which described his journey through the Straits of Gibralter to South-West Britain and on as far north as the Orkneys, Ultima Thule. In the first century BC, Diodorus Siculus describes the inhabitants of Britain who “are especially friendly to strangers and have adopted a civilized way of life because of their interaction with traders and other people”, their main trade being in tin. He describes an island off the coast of Britain called Ictis, which most authorities identify with St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. St. Michael’s Mount was so-called because a fisherman had a vision of the Archangel there in 492. It was visited by two of the early British monastic founders, St. Cadoc and St. Keyne. J.W. Taylor cites evidence that these tin-traders of South-West Britain were in fact of Eastern, probably Jewish origin; so that when Joseph of Arimathaea came to this part of Britain after the crucifixion, he was following a well-worn trade route established by his own countrymen.
An interesting confirmation of the tin trade with the East comes from the seventh-century Life of St. John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria. The captain of a ship from Alexandria laden with twenty thousand bushels of corn told of his journey to Britain: ’We sailed for twenty days and nights, and owing to a violent wind we were unable to tell in what direction we were going either by the stars or by the coast. But the only thing we knew was that the steersman saw the Patriarch [St. John] by his side holding the tiller and saying to him: “Fear not! You are sailing quite right.” Then after the twentieth day we caught sight of the islands of Britain, and when we had landed we found a great famine raging there. Accordingly when we told the chief man of the town that we were laden with corn, he said, “God has brought you at the right moment. Choose as you wish, either one ‘nomisma’ for each bushel or a return freight of tin”. And we chose half of each.’
Extensive evidence for a trade in tin with the Eastern Mediterranean, which was exchanged for the wine and oil essential for the celebration of the Church services, has been discovered during archaeological excavations at Tintagel, “King Arthur’s Castle”, on the North Cornish coast. Over three hundred imported vessels have been found. Some of the buildings excavated have been interpreted by some authorities as the remains of an early sixth century monastery founded by St. Juliot, and by others as the fortified seat of the rulers of Dumnonia (south-west England), including Mark and Tristan.
Snyder writes: “Even if the settlement on the headland turns out to be thoroughly secular, there is still strong evidence of early Christianity at Tintagel. Thomas led two seasons of excavations at the Tintagel parish churchyard, which is on the mainland not far from the castle. His team uncovered two slate-lined graves, two rock-covered burial mounds, and one memorial pillar; associated imported pottery and a cross on one of the slates identify the site as early Christian (c.400-600).”
Again, John Marsden writes: “The eighth-century Irish Litany of Pilgrim Saints includes an invocation of the ‘Seven monks of Egypt in Diseart Uiliag’ – a site tentatively identified as Dundesert near Crumlin in Antrim – and raises the remarkable prospect of Egyptian monks finding their way to Ireland along seaways which had even then been known to Mediterranean navigators for three thousand years. Glass fragments of Egyptian origin and with no Roman connection have been excavated at Tintagel in Cornwall. They have been dated to the third century AD – which would make them almost precisely contemporary with the emergence of monasticism in Egypt – and must have been brought to Cornwall along the same sea-road which had been in regular use by Phoenician tin traders plying the Cornish coast as early as the sixth century BC.
“If Egyptian glassware could reach Cornwall in the third century after Christ, there is no reason why holy men out of the Egyptian desert should not have continued further along the same prehistoric seaway to make landfall in Ireland. If, indeed, they had done so, it would well explain why so many Irish hermits in search of retreat from the world should have been seeking a ‘desert place’ in the ocean, how variant Gospel readings known to derive from the Desert Fathers came into Irish usage, how Coptic textual forms found their way into the seventh-century Book of Dimma from Tipperary, and why the third-century St. Antony of Egypt features so prominently in the carvings on the high crosses at Kells and Monasterboice [and the Isle of Man].”
William Dalrymple has pointed out a very close resemblance between a seventh-century rock-carving from Perthshire depicting Saints Anthony and Paul of Egypt with an icon in St. Anthony’s monastery in Egypt. And he cites the words of the seventh-century Antiphonary of the Irish monastery of Bangor:
The house full of delight
Is built on the rock
And indeed the true vine
Transplanted out of Egypt.
“Moreover,” he continues, “the Egyptian ancestry of the Celtic Church was acknowledged by contemporaries: in a letter to Charlemagne, the English scholar-monk Alcuin described the Celtic Culdees as ‘pueri egyptiaci’, the children of the Egyptians. Whether this implied direct contact between Coptic Egypt and Celtic Ireland and Scotland is a matter of scholarly debate. Common sense suggests that it is unlikely, yet a growing body of scholars think that that is exactly what Alcuin meant. For there are an extraordinary number of otherwise inexplicable similarities between the Celtic and Coptic Churches which were shared by no other Western Churches. In both, the bishops wore crowns rather than mitres and held T-shaped Tau crosses rather than crooks or crosiers. In both the handbell played a very prominent place in ritual, so much so that in early Irish sculpture clerics are distinguished from lay persons by placing a clochette in their hand. The same device performs a similar function on Coptic stelae – yet bells of any sort are quite unknown in the dominant Greek or Latin Churches until the tenth century at the earliest. Stranger still, the Celtic wheel cross, the most common symbol of Celtic Christianity, has recently been shown to have been a Coptic invention, depicted on a Coptic burial pall of the fifth century, three centuries before the design first appears in Scotland and Ireland.”
Just across the Bristol Channel there is the famous monastery of St. David, first archbishop of Menevia and patron of Wales (+589). Professor E.G. Bowen of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, believes that the whole of south-western Britain was subject to the influence of the Egyptian Church in the fifth and sixth centuries, and that the geographical situation of St. David’s main monastery would have made it a central point of diffusion of this influence: “We know that the early persecution of Christians in the Roman Provinces of Egypt and the Near East caused many there to flee to the Desert. At first, they lived solitary lives practising extremes of hardship. Later, however, some came together in large or small groups for work and worship, and so renounced the World. They were visited in the Desert from time to time by leading Christians in the West and these, on returning home, set up their own monasteries in imitation of those of the Desert. Lerins, near Marseilles, and Ligugé, and Marmoutier, near Tours, are cases in point. The pattern of these Gaulish monasteries ultimately spread to Britain. Even more significant it would appear is the fact that modern archaeologists have been able to show that the lands around the Eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor and the Aegean islands were in post-Roman times in direct trade contact with south-western Britain. Certain types of wheel-made pottery clearly non-British in character have been found in recent years in Southern Ireland, Wales and the South-West Approaches. Exactly similar pottery occurs in such Eastern Mediterranean ports and depots as Tarsus, Athens, Antioch and Constantinople. The pottery concerned is of two types. Some are red coloured platters and table wares – classified as Type A and often stamped with Christian symbols, and secondly, Type B which are portions of amphorae used as wine containers, transporting wine from such centers as Rhodes and Cyprus and other Aegean islands. The wine was imported by little Celtic monasteries for use in the Eucharist and some, of course, reached the tables of the aristocrats. It is important to note… that the Western Mediterranean area is not involved – the sea route appears to have passé through the Straits of Gibraltar direct to Western Britain with the coastlands of the Bristol Channel being particularly involved. If this pottery could travel to the monasteries around the shores of south-western Britain (where many pieces have been recorded) so, too, could pilgrims, books, and ideas; so that there can be no longer any doubt that it was along these western sea-routes that full monastic life (found first of all, it would appear, in Britain at Tintagel on the north coast of Cornwall between 470 and 500 A.D.), arrived. The monastic pattern spread rapidly afterwards to such sites as Llanilltyd Fawr, Nantcarban, Llandaff, Caldey, Glastonbury, St. David’s and Llanbadarn Fawr and other places in Wales before passing over to central and southern Ireland… Activity at St. David’s must, therefore, have been intense at this time. Here the major land and sea routes met. It must have been a veritable ‘Piccadilly Circus’ in Early Christian times…”
The first full-length Life of St. David was written by Bishop Rhigyfarch of St. David’s towards the end of the 11th century, only a few years before the Church of Wales became subject to Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury and, through Canterbury, to the heretical Roman papacy. As such, it represents a kind of “swan-song” of British Orthodoxy, a last witness to the greatness of the old Celtic tradition by one of the last independent bearers of that tradition. Rhigyfarch’s account of life in St. David’s monastery at Menevia is fascinating because of the clear evidence it provides of the Eastern influence on Celtic monasticism in its peak period:
“Such an austerity did the holy father decree in his zeal for the monastic system, that every monk toiled at daily labour, and spent his life working with his hands for the community. “For who does not work,’ says the apostle, ‘let him not eat’. Knowing that carefree rest was the source and mother of vices he bowed down the shoulders of the monks with pious labour, for those who bow heads and minds in leisurely repose develop a spirit of instability and apathy with restless promptings to lust.
“Thus they work with feet and hands with more eager fervour. They place the yoke upon their shoulders; they dig the ground unweariedly with mattocks and spades; they carry in their holy hands hoes and saws for cutting, and provide with their own efforts for all the necessities of the community. Possessions they scorn, the gifts of the wicked they reject, and riches they abhor. There is no bringing in of oxen to have the ploughing done, rather is every one both riches and ox unto himself and the brethren. The work completed, no complaint was heard: no conversation was held beyond that which was necessary, but each performed the task enjoined with prayer and appropriate meditation.
“Labour in the fields once ended they would return to the cloisters of the monastery, and they spent the whole of the day until evening in reading, writing, or praying. When evening was come, and the stroke of the bell sounded in the ear of any one, when only the tip of a letter or even half the form of the same letter was written, they would rise quickly and leave what they were doing; and so, in silence, without any empty talk or chatter they repair to the church. When they had finished chanting the psalms, during which the voice and heart were in complete accord, they humble themselves on bended knees until the appearance of the stars in the heavens should bring the day to a close. After all had gone out, the father remained alone to pour forth his prayer to God in secret for the condition of the Church.
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