Orthodox America

  Orthodoxy’s Western Heritage

An excerpt from the manuscript book, The Severing of the Branch (How England Lost the True Faith), by Vladimir Moss


             In the year 495 some fishermen beheld the holy Archangel Michael standing on the ledge of a rock high above the sea on the western side of what is now called St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.  As with the similar appearance of the Archangel in Rome a century later, the meaning was clear:  peace had returned for the people of God.

            And yet they profited little from it, if we are to judge from Gildas:  “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 prople, but to the filling of their own bellies….They look askance at the just poor as though they were dreadful snakes; and, showing no regard for shame, they respect the wicked rich as though they were angels from heaven.”

            But green blades were rising amidst this wintry worldliness.  As Gildas was writing, some of the greatest saints, not only of sixth-century British, but also of Western Christianity in general, were coming to maturity.  Saints such Finian, Ciaran, Kevin, Columba, Brendan and Ita in Ireland; Kentigern in Scotland; David, Cadoc, Teilo, Peternus, Oudoceus and Samson in Wales; Petroc and Nectan in West Wales (Cornwall); and Malo, Winwaloc and Paul Aurelian in Brittany.

            All of these were monastic saints; for the flowering of the Celtic Churches in the sixth century was, in the first place, a flowering of the monastic life.  This took three basic forms:  cenobitic, heremitic and missionary…

            In the earliest extant life of a British saint, the Vita Samsoni, written c. 600 by a monk of Dol, we read of how the laxer monasticism of the previous generation gave way to the more rigorous kind represented by St. Samson, in a south Welsh monastery.

            “One dark night a monk took a solitary stroll into the grounds of the monastery, and what is more serious, so it is said, owing to stupid intoxication fell headlong into a deep pit.  Uttering one piercing cry for help, he was dragged out of the hole by the brothers in a dying condition, and died in the night from his misadventure.  And it came to pass when the bishop heard of it that he made all the brothers to remain just as they were and spend the night together; and then, having assembled a council, after Matins, all the men of this monastery, with one accord, chose St. Samson to be abbot.  And when he submitted (to be abbot), though not willingly, he trained the brothers gently to the proper rule.  And while he held the primacy in this place, the brothers regarded him as a hermit rather than as a member of an order of monks.  And consequently, amidst feasts of plenty and flowing bowls, he made a point of fasting always from food and drink.  Of vigils there is no need to say anything, inasmuch, as I have already stated, he never at any time allowed his body to rest in bed.”

            While cenobitic monasticism flourished under the influence of such models as St. Martin’s monastery at Tours, St. Germanus’ at Auxerre and St. Honoratus’ at Lerins, heremitic monasticism received no less of an impulse from the example of the Egyptian desert.  The Irish martyrologies record the deaths of eleven Egyptian monks in Ireland, and St. Athanasius’ Vita Antonii stimulated many young Celts to imitate the great Antony in a western desert.  One of these was the eldest son of the pious Welsh prince Brychan, Nectan, who crossed the Bristol Channel and established his hermitage “at a certain wooded solitude,” as his 12th-century Life says, near Hartland in Devon.

            The Life continues:  “After the holy man had thus lived some time in this wooded solitude, it came to pass that a certain man named Huddon, who was obedient to the Lord in all things, was dwelling in a certain place four leagues distant from the holy man’s hut.  Gazing on him, and wondering that such a man should live there, he was at first afraid to approach, but after a short time plucked up courage to go and speak to him.  He asked him if he knew anything about the sow and her young.  Nectan showed him where they were, and the man took them and returned to his master and told him about the holy man and what he had seen and heard.  And his master, after hearing what he told him, was touched with a feeling of compassion for the hermit’s state of extreme porverty, as if it were his own, and going to him humbly, he devoutly offered him, in the spirit of charity and fraternity, two cows which were very good milkers.  St. Nectan accepted them with thanksgiving as an offering of brotherly love, valuing more the intention of the giver than the gift itself, allowing himself to depart a little from the voluntary poverty he was enduring for Christ’s sake….”

            The Rule of St. Columba defined three kinds of martyrdom:  red (shedding of one’s blood for Christ), white (the sufferings of asceticism) and green (exile for Christ’s sake).  The latter path was followed by many Celtic monks, especially Irishmen.  They spread the light of Christ as far north as Iceland, as far west as America (cf. the voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator), as far south as Italy (cf. St. Columbanus’ great monastery at Bobbio), and as far east as Moravia (where the foundations of an eighth-century Irish church have been excavated at Modra).  The most famous of these monastic exiles and missionaries, and the most important for our story, was St. Columba of Iona.  Having been sentenced by St. Laserian to win as many men for Christ in exile abroad as he had caused (indirectly, and in a just cause) to die at the battle of Cuil Demhni in Ireland, he set out for the west coast of Scotland with twelve monks, and arrived at the tiny island of Iona on the day of Pentecost, 563.  First he climbed the highest hill on the island and ascertained that he could not see his beloved Ireland from its summit.

            Then he said to his people:  “ ‘It would be well for us that our roots should pass into the earth here.  It is permitted to you that some one of you should go under the earth of this isle to consecrate it.’  Then Odhran rose quickly and said:  ‘If you accept me, I am ready for that.’  ‘O Odhran,’ said Colum-kille (Columba), ‘thou shalt receive the reward of this:  No request shall be granted to anyone at my tomb unless he first ask of thee.’ ”  Then Odhran “was seized with bodily illness and brought to the last extremity.  And when the venerable man visited him in the hour of his departure, he stood a little while at his bedside blessing him, and then went quickly - out of the house, his life ended.  Then the illustrious man, walking in the little court of his monastery, his eyes lifted up to heaven, was for a long time lost in wonder and admiration.  But a certain brother, Aedhan by name, son of Libir, a man of religious and good disposition, who alone of the brethren was present at the time, began on bended knee to ask the saint to tell him the cause of this so great astonishment.  To whom the saint said:  ‘Now have I seen in the air holy angels warring against the enemy powers, and I give thanks to Christ the Judge that the angels have prevailed, and have borne up to the joys of the Heavenly Country, the soul of this exile, the first who has died among us in this island.  But I beseech thee not to reveal this holy secret to anyone in my lifetime.’ ”