Light From The West: The Irish Mission and the Emergence of Modern Europe

This book is a history of Irish missionaries who sold their possessions and sailed to Europe to bring Christianity to “the regions beyond.” William H. Marnell’s most important missionary insight is this:

In a missionary country the monastery and not the parish is the obvious pattern of organization.[1]

Oh man. This is so interesting. Are there “missionary countries” today? Wait, did he say “monastery?” Do I have to become a monk? What is a parish? Let’s answer three questions to clarify Marnell’s thinking:

  1. Are there “missionary countries” today? Blincoe: Think unreached peoples today.” Unreached peoples are mainly in Asia and the Middle East.
  2. Are there monasteries today? I do not like the idea of joining a monastery. Blincoe: Think “mission agencies” where Marnell uses the term “monastery.”
  3. What is a parish? Blincoe: We would say “church” where Marnell uses the term “parish.”

With these somewhat equivalent terms, William Marnell proposes a “two structures” theory of God’s redemptive mission. His observation is still true: Among unreached peoples, the mission agency and not the church is the obvious pattern of organization.

The Irish missionaries sailed for “missionary countries,” that is for European countries in the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries. They believed what God spoke in Isaiah 49:6, “I will make you a light to the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” They believed in Romans 1:5, “We have received grace and apostleship in order to bring the Gentiles to the obedience of faith.” Let us get on our knees and thank God that the Irish missionaries believed they were blessed to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Marnell writes:

Only once in world history a quiet, almost imperceptible flooding of an entire continent was set in motion by Christian missionaries. Irish peregrini, “exiles from the world,” missionaries traveled by sea and then overland, each generation going farther than all who had gone before them.[2]

Columba Sets out for Scotland. In the spring of 563 Columba sailed out of the port city of Derry bound for a place God would show him. His coracle of wicker and hides was capacious enough for twelve companions and supplies.[3] He arrived in what is now Scotland, claimed it for Jesus Christ, and founded the missionary monastery at Iona. His missionaries drove themselves southward, converting and establishing missionary-monasteries. and kept going southward. Thus, Scotland was converted, as was Northumbria. In one generation Christianity was strongly entrenched in much of East Anglia and in parts of Mercia. This was almost entirely the work of the Irish monks and stemmed from Iona and Lindisfarne.[4]

St. Columbanus Sets Out for France. Columbanus and 12 chosen monks arrived on the coast of France in 590, pushed inland, and repaired the crumbling walls of an ancient fort at Annegray. They undertook the far from simple task of cultivating thew wilderness and swamps and “a desert that is more than a little recalcitrant in the foothills of the Vosges.”[5] Thousands of local people asked to be taught and baptized, despite the austerity of the life the monks expected of all who joined their community. So great was the response to their preaching that the need for a larger monastery was unmistakable. That is how the mother house came to be built at Luxeuil.

Monastic Vows. Columbanus wrote a rule for his monastery at Luxeuil which has importance to scholars of Irish monasticism:

  • The monks of Columbanus might eat half as much as the monks of Benedict, but they were to sing twice as many psalms.
  • The basis of the cuisine was cabbage and other vegetables, with bread of a rudimentary sort. The dinner bell sounded well toward evening.
  • Conduct was rigidly defined, and misconduct was corrected on the already mentioned principle of opposites: silence for the overtalkative, cultivated meekness for the bellicose, vigils for those drowsy at divine service, and beatings for sinners of every sort.

With such hardship to endure, did the applications for the monastery fall off? Marnell writes:

All the axioms of modern psychology crumble before the facts of life at Luxeuil and Fontaines, and all the other monasteries spawned by them in the land of the Franks. Young men were not repelled by their austerities; they were drawn in great numbers by their challenge. As time passed the hardships did not blunt the challenge but more and more aspirants came forward to meet it, and monastery after monastery came into being from the seedbed of Luxeuil.[6]

Two thoughts must be borne in mind when the phenomenon is faced. One is that all life was hard in the seventh century, life in the fields and woods, life in the camp, life in the city, but in fields and woods, camp and city there was not safety comparable to the relative safety of the monastery. The other and more elevated one is based on the sermons of St. Columbanus, of which thirteen survive. They sound the note of hell fire, but it is not the dominant note. They constantly stress two sets of values, the earthly and the heavenly, and the meaningless quality of the former when measured by the latter.[7]

Light from Luxeuil. Columbanus struck the flint at Luxeuil, then carried it to darkened places throughout Burgundy, Austrasia, and Neustrai, reaching south and west across the Loire into Aquitaine. After his death, Columbanus’ successors penetrated what now is Belgium, touched the Rhine, and showed Switzerland the road to Christendom. By the most austere reckoning at least thirty-five monasteries were founded under the direct influence of Luxeuil, and Daniel-Rops estimates that some two hundreds monasteries could have traced their ancestral lines ultimately to the foundation that Columbanus brought into being near the Vosges.[8] In 654 Philibert founded the monastery of Jumièges on a tract of land granted him by King Clovis II and his pious queen Bathild. He dedicated an abbey altar to St. Columbanus and proceeded to build at Jumièges a port of entry for merchandise coming up the Seine from England and Ireland, with corn and cattle imported from the British Isles and clothing and shoes traded for them. It is recorded that the monks of Jumièges used to catch porpoises and make candles from their oil with which to light their vigils. Furthermore, in anticipation of one of the supreme charities of the Middle Ages, they outfitted boats and sailed great distances to redeem slaves and captives.[9]

German Monasticism. From the missionary-monasteries at Fontenellel and Jumièges a new chapter opens in the history of Luxeuil and the Irish monasticism in Europe. There was something instinctively centrifugal about the Irish monks, and it was at once the source of spiritual strength and temporal weakness. Their instinct was for the remote, the hard of access, the place of seclusion far from the city and the court. Their very monasticism was unstable, with the monk having the instinct of the anchorite, seeking at least from time to time, and often permanently, the solitary cell. Deicola plunging into the forest and Ursicinus seeking out the mountain top were the ancient Irish tradition. Such men were inspirations to others, gaining them the status of major prophets, but it had little in common with the institutional Church beyond the common faith. It is entirely consistent with the thinking of the Irish founders of new monasteries that they should be established  deep in the forests and the mountains,[10] in places as Annegray, Lure, St. Ursanne and to a degree Luxeuil. In two generations these wilderness monasteries would attract many who wanted to live in the light that the monasteries had created. Even Paris was first established as a monastery.

The institutional Church was gradually passing from the old, decadent Gallo-Roman hands into the hands of men trained at Luxeuil or in the tradition of Luxeuil. The Irish conquest of the Frankish Church, if epigrammatic succinctness may for the moment replace literal truth, was completed within a half century of the death of Columbanus.[11]

“In a missionary country, the monastic pattern was the obvious form of organization.” A monastery was built near Sithiu, Mommelinus was made abbot, and then a providential grant of land gave Omer and his associates a better site, an island in the River Aa. Here was built the second monastery of Sithiu. Mommelinus then was elevated to the bishopric of Noyon-Torunai, and Bertinus succeeded him as abbot. Then, when it was no longer a missionary country, that is, when there were a great number of Christians, the administration changed to what we normally think of as the church pattern. The monastery at Sithiu became a Benedictine abbey and was rechristened to bear the name of Bertin, its last Columbanian abbot. A city grew between the river and the hill on which the Church of Sainte-Omer now stands, perpetuating the name of the missionary who who established Christianity there, St. Omer.[12] 

Irish and Belgian Monasticism. Rombaut followed a vision (of a martyr’s crown) to Mechelen (Malines) where he founded an abbey. He was martyred there about the year 775, and today is patron saint of that city.[13]

Celtic Mission to the Regions Beyond. Marnell writes:

Other Celtic missionaries such as Pirmin of Reichenau,[14] St. Fridolin,[15] and Sigisbert[16] established monasteries in what today is Switzerland. History remembers St. Virgil,[17] and St. Kilian of Würzburg[18] as missionaries to Germany. Marnell write, “In appraising the Irish contribution to the conversion of Germany, it is fair to add to the work proceeding from the known monastic centers what cannot in a literal sense be added, the work of individual monks who lived, worked, and died as individual peregrine and whose names today are written only in the Book of Life.”[19] Farther east we meet St. Rupert establishing the monastery in Salzburg[20] and the Celtic missionaries arriving in Carinthia, Austria’s southernmost state.[21] Other Irish monks went to Iceland.[22]

Irish monks spread all throughout in France establishing at least twelve sending bases, including Paris, Besançon, Rouen, and Strasbourg. The genius of their plan to go to the regions beyond was their expectation that new believers would become “missionary monks.” Marnell writes,

From their sending bases new missionary bands moved eastward into win the Belgic tribes, then followed the Main River to Mainz and Würzburg. Some went south to Munich and the Inn River (near modern day Innsbruck). Bern and Theinau in Switzerland had their Irish monastic establishments as did St. Gallen nestled in the Grissons. The saints pierced the mountain barrier and brought the light to Salzburg in Austria; to Piacenza, Bobbio, and Fiesole in northern Italy; to Rome itself, and beyond Rome to Taranto and Palermo. Irish monks ranged from the Faroes and Iceland in the north to Sicily in the south. Never in human history has another nation as small as Ireland done so much missionary work in so many lands over so many decades in what, save for them, would indeed have been the unrelieved Dark Ages.[23]

Map Created for Robert A. Blincoe by The Map Archives. Used by Permission

At St. Gallen in Switzerland is one of the greatest repositories in the world of ancient manuscripts and early printed books, its greatest treasures displayed in a room that is itself a work of priceless art.[24]

The Irish Pattern of Church Governance. The abbots of the monasteries, like the apostles of the New Testament, had an original authority in the church, for it was the abbots who established churches in the wilderness and swamps of Europe. The government was on the shoulders of the abbots, not the bishops. Marnell writes:

This Roman pattern [governance by bishops over dioceses] was not the pattern that Ireland was to know, and no one has ever offered a complete explanation of that fact . . . .  One reason is fairly obvious. In a missionary country the monastery and not the parish is the obvious pattern of organization. The monastery is the focal point from which missionaries can go out to a partially converted people as from a base of supplies that are both spiritual and physical, and the focal point to which they can return when the need arises.[25]

Everything follows from this important question: Are there non-Christian people groups in any country? If “yes,” Christianity will spread by “missionary monasteries,” or, in today’s terms, by mission societies. There may well be churches in a non-Christian country, but in such a countries the church is normally comprised of tiny, insular ethnic Christian minorities. Such churches formed long ago, and today survive by taking care to stay to themselves. It is not right to expect these marginal congregations to risk their future by taking on the task of establishing “churches among the Gentiles”[26] (Romans 16:3-4). Marginal churches in Islamic countries or India do not want trouble. They have made a deal with the powerful non-Christian majority: peaceful co-existence. This Christian fraction of the population is so different from the great number of Muslims or Hindus that they have quietly agreed never to make trouble. This is hard for Americans to see. We visit these marginal churches in the Middle East (Syria, Jordan, Iraq) or Asia Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia), and, unfortunately, give them money. with the hope that the marginalized local believers will someday take upon themselves the witness to the great majority of people. No matter how you slice it, this is baloney.

Therefore, among non-Christian people groups, the obvious pattern for establishing Christianity is mission agencies, or, to use an older term, missionary monasteries.

When the Celtic monks arrived in Scotland, then in north England, and then in France, they established sending bases to extend the work to regions farther beyond; they also established churches, to teach the Christians that had been won. But note: while it as a missionary country the abbots chose the bishops. This pattern existed for centuries. And why not? The apostolic teams in the first century had an original authority over the churches. Marnell writes:

The divergence from the usual pattern, which found Irish bishops as well as priests under the administrative authority of abbots was not without a logic of its own in a land where the process of conversion was continuing. There are certain church functions that only the bishop can perform: confirmation, ordination, and consecration of church property. These are precisely the functions most commonly in demand in a missionary country as the Church becomes established, and so bishops are in a demand at least as great as the demand for priests. But in such a country the ordinary daily functions of the two orders are identical, and both bishop and priest can do their work more effectively if freed from administrative responsibility of the religious headquarters, the monastery out of which they work. There is no particular paradox in a bishop being under the administrative authority of an abbot in a missionary country in which the Church is organized on a monastic basis. Bishop and priest do the work of Mary; the abbot can do the task of Martha.[27]

When a people group is no longer non-Christian (a tipping point that we are not discussing here), the need for a church planting mission agency diminishes. Christians prefer church culture, that is, attending church, worshipping with Christians, registering the baptism of their children, and, as Hudson Taylor wrote, “rejoicing in their own security while millions perish for lack of knowledge. The fire for mission still burns in the hearts of apostolic Christians, and these few find one another and organize new mission agencies to establish Christianity among unreached peoples.  As it was in the beginning, there are two structures of God’s redemptive mission.

References Cited

[1] William H. Marnell, Light from the West: The Irish Mission and the Emergence of Modern Europe (New York: Seabury Press, 1978). 27

[2] Ibid. 1

[3] Ibid. 36

[4] Ibid. 67

[5] Ibid. 82

[6] Ibid. 84

[7] Ibid. 84-5

[8] Ibid. 103

[9] Ibid. 114

[10] Ibid. 114-5

[11] Ibid. 118

[12] Ibid. 123

[13] Ibid. 139-140

[14] Ibid. 155

[15] Ibid. 157

[16] Ibid. 158ff.

[17] Ibid. 164

[18] Ibid. 168

[19] Ibid. 187

[20] Ibid. 176

[21] Ibid. 184

[22] Ibid. 197 ff.

[23] Ibid. 2

[24] Ibid. 2

[25] Ibid. 28

[26] Paul wrote, 3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their necks for me. 4 Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them (Romans 16:3-4). All of Paul’s mission aimed at,  establishing churches among non-Christian populations. Unfortunately, most so-called mission work today aims at teaching or paying Christians overseas. What Paul’s missionary teams were achieving is still rare and warranted in our day.

[27] Marnell, Light from the West: The Irish Mission and the Emergence of Modern Europe. 28