Patrick and Celtic Christianity: A Gallery of Extravagant Tales of Remarkable Faith

Brendan of Clonfert

Voyage of Brendan, written five centuries after his death. There we read that Brendan’s travels, in the company of numerous fellow—monks, took him to many earthly and heavenly places, and ultimately to “the Land of Promise.”

 

One account tells us that, as Brendan roamed uncharted seas, he encountered Judas Iscariot, temporarily released from his tortures on Sundays and feast days. Some even wonder if Brendan’s travels took him across the Atlantic to North America. Extravagant as some of these tales are, Brendan’s questing life symbolizes the spiritual yearning for the dwelling place of God.

 

David of Wales

With these words, David (called holy Dewi by those who loved him) gave his final blessing to a city gathered to say goodbye. David typified the early Welsh attraction to the Eastern monastic traditions, and his story is one of renunciation.

In their ascetic path of restraint, he and his followers made sure their journey into holiness would not be tripped up by the “little things.” Poverty, physical labor, and long hours of prayer characterized David’s life and that of his monks. His nickname, the Waterman, came from his abstinence from alcohol. It may also be tied to the legend that, at Bath, he purified its contaminated water and bestowed upon its springs perpetual warmth for bathing.

Though severe, David’s life, legend tell us, was replete with the miraculous. Angels foretold his birth, directed his work, served as his companions, appeared in his dreams, spoke to him of his impending death, and sang as they escorted him to heaven.

When Findbarr, a fellow abbot, was returning to Ireland via Wales, David gave him his horse and his blessing. These two simple gifts enabled Findbarr to cross the sea on horseback. Brendan, most impressed by Findbarr’s account of David’s blessing, exclaimed, “Wonderful is God in his saints!” and planned to seek out this great saint. (Brendan and Findbarr met at sea, the one on horseback and the other residing temporarily on the back of a whale.)

In typical Welsh fashion, David reportedly traveled to Jerusalem, where the patriarch ordained him archbishop. This legend enabled his followers to promote his see in Wales against that of Canterbury as the seat of Britain’s archbishop.

David’s gift of spiritual acumen, revealed to his father 30 years before he was born, was recognized by all the British people and he became the model for godly living. At the council he called at Caerleon, he led the opposition to the Pelagian heresy (which held that people can take the first important steps toward salvation by their own efforts without Divine grace).

Early Celtic art shows David on a hill with a dove resting on his shoulder, symbolizing both the wisdom and the prominence accorded him. If even half the events reported of him are historical, David was a passionate and pious Welshman whose leadership skills and spiritual gifts deeply influenced early British culture.

Comgall

So declared Comgall when he heard of the death of his confessor. This vivid expression reveals Comgall’s deep commitment to community life as the way of holiness, a conviction that resulted in his establishing one of Ireland’s largest and most renowned monasteries, Bangor.

Bangor resulted from Comgall’s personal sacrifice: a local bishop dissuaded the young Comgall from pursuing his dream of being a missionary. The sudden loss of this closely—held ambition drove him into retreat, with a handful of companions, to a nearby island. There they entered a life of severe asceticism—so harsh that several of his friends died.

When Comgall emerged from this time of exile, he was ready to take on his life’s work—the founding of Bangor. By the abbot’s death, the monastery had fathered so many other monasteries that Comgall had 3,000 monks under him. One of his most famous students was the missionary Columbanus. Comgall tutored him for more than 20 years (before the young student’s pilgrimage of penance and mission work), thus fulfilling vicariously Comgall’s own youthful dreams.

(614—680)

She was a dream come true for Britain—literally.

When Hilda was only an infant, her mother, Breguswith, had an unusual dream in which she was searching for her husband. In typical dreamy illogic, Breguswith looked under her clothing where she found a jewel that shed light over all of Britain. Hilda was that jewel for the seventh century.

According to Bede, she spent her “earthly life devoted to the work of heaven"—to the advancement of peace and charity, the eradication of economic inequality, an intimacy with Scripture, and the pursuit of good works. Her keen appreciation of the unique gifts and personalities of those under her direction enabled her to recognize and empower the lyrical talent of Caedmon, England’s first poet.

Hilda displayed mature leadership when she worked for the unity of the church even against her personal opinions. While abbess of Whitby, her reputation for wisdom led to the king’s scheduling the famous Roman-Celtic synod there (see “Culture Clash", p. 38). Though Hilda favored the Celtic tradition, she yielded to the council’s decision to adhere to Roman rites, and her example influenced others to do the same.

Her royal lineage turned out to be the least significant thing about her. Abbess of a large monastery, mentor to future leaders of church and nation, adviser to peasants and kings, Hilda was “Mother” to all who knew her. While Patrick receives no mention in the Venerable Bede’s history, Hilda’s life is told with honor.

—Kathy Mulhern

Missionary Inflexible

Thus began the peripatetic life of one of the most successful missionaries in history.

Columbanus continued his studies with Comgall of Bangor, whose monastery was famous for its rigidity. Not only did Columbanus thrive there, but he codified such austerity into two rules for monasteries—one for individual monks, the other for communities. These rules could be extremely harsh: merely desiring to hit someone meant 40 days on bread and water. Actually hitting someone (and drawing blood) meant penance for three years. Even speaking ill of the rules meant exile from the community.

Yet Columbanus had another side, which some of his sermons and letters suggest. A letter to Pope Boniface IV is loaded with puns about the previous pope, Vigilus: “Be vigilant, I urge you, pope, be vigilant and again I say be vigilant, since perhaps he who was called Vigilant was not.” In a letter to Gregory the Great, he made puns on Pope Leo’s name: “A living dog is better than a dead Leo [lion].” Columbanus is also credited with a spirited “Boat Song” which was chanted by monks rowing up the “two-horned Rhine.”

As playful as he could be, Columbanus was painfully serious about his faith. In his 40s, he left Bangor to follow God’s command, which was the same command given to Abraham: “Get thee out of thy country.” With 12 companions, he left for Gaul, large parts of which had reverted to paganism (and the remaining Christians were likely nominal or Arian heretics). He founded three monasteries in rapid success ion—An negray, Luxeuil, and Fontaine—each one growing so quickly new ones had to be created.

Before he could build many more, he had a run-in with the polygamous king, Theuderic, and his mother, Brunhilde, and was thrown out of the country. It wasn’t the only dispute in the hot-blooded monk’s life. He feuded with popes, kings, bishops, and even his own followers. (After Gall, one of his most faithful disciples, became ill and could not travel, Columbanus forbade him to say Mass. The ban was not lifted until Columbanus was on his deathbed.)

Columbanus and his men roamed the continent, preaching in what would become France, Germany, and Switzerland. Finally, he traveled to Northern Italy to convert the Lombards. There, in his 70s, he took part in the construction of Bobbio, the first Italo-Irish monastery, where he died November 23, 613. His legacy was extraordinary: He and his disciples founded at least 60—and possibly more than 100—monasteries throughout Europe.

—Ted Olsen, assistant editor

By Kathy Mulhern

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #60 in 1998]

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