I recently had cause to write a short piece on whether or not the Celtic Church was a separate organisation from the Roman Church (it wasn’t!). During my background reading, I came across various arguments for and against, some balanced and reasonable, some not. Much of the writing on the subject falls into one of two types. The earlier type is the 17th to 19th Century ministers anxious to show that their church is the true reflection of that founded by Jesus Christ, not some revolutionary break-away body. The modern type, dating only from the last couple of generations, concentrates on the Celtic Church rather than the above debate and is more concerned with presenting an image of a ‘golden age’ of Christianity, when people felt close to nature and to God; when all aspects of life had its accompanying prayer or song and faith in a loving God permeated all of society. There was no need for an elaborate liturgy or governing hierarchy – God was present to all in his creation and equally accessible to all. As I am sure the reader will realise, there is some truth in this view but it is not the whole story.
Needless to say, the most useful commentary for my purposes was discovered months after completing the article! While searching for something totally different, I came across a photocopied page given to me by Fr Martin, oblate master of Pluscarden, on the gradual spread of the Rule of St Benedict. The page was from Luke Dysinger’s Introduction to his translation of the Rule (pp xxiv-xxv). So I thought that other oblates might be interested, even if they neither know nor care about the bee in my bonnet that is the Celtic Church versus Roman Church debate. Here is an excerpt:
‘Monasticism had existed in the West for nearly two hundred years before Benedict; and the most common practice in monasteries from the sixth through the eighth centuries was to use several monastic rules, the so-called regula mixta, to regulate monastic observance. Legends abound of early ‘Benedictines’ such as St Gregory the Great (c.540-604) and St Augustine of Canterbury (died c.605) who were supposed to have introduced Benedict’s Rule to different communities; but there is no certain evidence for its widespread popularity prior to the seventh century, nearly two centuries after Benedict’s death.
Celtic missionary-monks in the seventh century used Benedict’s Rule side-by-side with the much stricter Rules of St Columban. In their monasteries on the Continent the Rule of Benedict slowly proved itself, possibly due to its more balanced, compassionate approach; and it gradually displaced other rules. In England, Benedict’s Rule was one of the ‘Roman usages’ for which there was a growing zeal throughout the seventh century; and there too it replaced older Celtic usages. … In every generation the literal precepts of the Rule must serve as the basis for a communal lectio divina that results in highlighting certain aspects, and often de-emphasising other elements according to the Spirit working in the Church in any given age. But even though monks of every century have had their own unique and sometimes amusing interpretations of it, the Rule itself has remained, and for good reason.’
Why did this passage strike me as important? Well, I think that a message for today is that we need to be better at discerning what the Spirit is trying to achieve in the Church. If institutions as steeped in history and tradition as Benedictine monasteries can adapt their practices to changing priorities without losing sight of the whole picture, then so can countries, dioceses, parishes and families.
‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches; (the Prologue to the Rule verse ten, quoting Revelation:2:7; 2:29 and 3:22.)
Jane Coll, Oblate of Pluscarden