Friday, December 7, 2012

Monasticism (14)

Irish Monasticism (part 2)

In Ireland the church was always the local church. There was nothing else. The local tribe was the point of meeting one with the other, and the number of tribes was enormous, though they might be joined up in little kingdoms or bigger ones. When the tribe responded to the Gospel, an enclosure would be set aside, with boundaries and ‘termon’ crosses, sometimes with a ditch, sometimes with a wall, clearly marking out to everyone that the area was sacred. Within it a tiny church of wattle and daub would be built. That would not take long.

In many places there seems to have been no shortage of aspiring monks. As for sites, as one travels to the places they chose one is amazed by the astonishingly beauty of the places they picked. In particular the sea islands (particularly off the West coast) and the many Lough Islands furnished such places in abundance. Even today travelling throughout the island the memory of the founding saints is singularly well preserved, though often there is little detail. Something is known of some 250 from this early period but this does not include many more, without number, whose names are hardly known, were never recorded, or which have become lost.

Whoever they were, bishops, monk or hermits (and some bishops were monks or even hermits) some founded several churches. 4000 is the estimated overall number. Of course nothing survives of the perishable materials used. But where wood was plentiful, churches were also made of planks; or if there was little wood, in stone. Apart from Duleek (7C), the first stone churches however appear to be the tomb-shrines of founder saints in the 8C, but then in increasing numbers from the 8th -10th  centuries. As stone churches these can be recognised by the ‘antae’, that is, flat projecting gable-ends, which imitate upright corner timbers on their wooden predecessors. They had doors in the west (gable) end and sometimes a wonderful doorway made of very large well-dressed stones. As the churches were often small, the people stood outside - outdoor altars being in some cases provided where they could say their prayers. There were perhaps a few larger churches, first in wood, and later in stone.

Many monasteries were built at tribal centres or at meeting places on tribal boundaries.  As some monastic communities grew they attracted a resident local community in an arrangement that was of benefit to all. The monasteries provided their spiritual ministrations to local families and taught the children; families helped with the agricultural labour, and with livestock. The dynamic went well – monastery and village grew together. This enabled the monks to take on such great tasks as creating and copying of literature and highly specialised metal-ware. But there were drawbacks. The principal one was that the tribal leader asserted his right to appoint the abbot, who might well turn out to be one of his own family. Worse still, when tribes were involved in a fight, the monks were expected to join in. Then there were the ‘manaim’.

In spite of the fact that the origin of this term and that of the word ‘monk’ is the same these were not the married monks, but men with families who lived round the monastery and who, with their families, lived under considerable religious discipline alongside their spiritual if not natural brothers in the monastery. This included no small degree of sexual abstinence. Any suggestion that these were monks indulging in gross laxity or immorality has to be discounted. Such a life sounds like another of those Irish solutions which had its rationale ‘on the ground’. It is all about finding ‘in-between meanings’. The Irish have always helped us think outside of our boxes – that is very much part of being Irish. Tertiaries in Western monasteries is another ‘in-between arrangement’. In the East married men have always been encouraged to spend time in a monastery. 

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