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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie


Rumsey, Patricia M


Sacred Time in Early Christian Ireland. The Monks of the Nauigatio and the Céli Dé in Dialogue to explore the Theologies of Time and the Liturgy of the Hours in pre-Viking Ireland.


London-New York: T & T Clark 2007. XIV, 258 S. gr.8°. Geb. £ 70,00. ISBN 978-05670-3205-8.


Gerald Bonner

This is a work of great erudition and widely-ranging interests, but not easily explained to readers with a limited or non-existent know­l­edge of early Irish Church history. R.’s intention is to compare and contrast the attitudes to the Monastic Office in two Irish Latin compositions of the late eighth- and early-ninth centuries: the Navigatio Sancti Brenandi and the Rules of the Céli Dé. At first sight the two works would seem to be utterly different. The Navigatio de­scribes an imaginary voyage by St Brendan, Abbot of Clonfert (c. 406–c. 575) with twelve companions in search of the Terra repromissionis sanctorum, the earthly paradise in the Western Ocean.
The work became immensely popular in the Middle Ages, sur­viving in 116 Latin manuscripts and translations into French, Flemish, German, Middle English, Italian, Provençal and Norse. Its geography however, is that of the Pilgrim’s Progress, and its intention is the same: to present the Christian Life in the form of an imag­inary journey. The Céli Dé, on the other hand, was an austere religious order, known principally through its rules, outstandingly The Teaching of Máel Ruain of Tallaght and The Rule of the Céli Dé, though these differ from more conventional rules, like those of the Master and St Benedict, in that they contain anecdotal mate­rial as well as legislation. Máel Ruain himself (796), a rather grim personality, seems to have set his stamp on the movement as a whole.
The title of the study may cause some confusion. R. does not discuss time as a philosophical concept but rather equates it with creation, which is both good in itself and to be enjoyed in itself, but fallen, and a source of temptation. Brendan and his companions enjoy the goodness of the various strange societies which they meet– the Paradise of Birds; the Island of Sheep; or the Island of the Three Choirs and, in a famous encounter, console Judas Iscariot, periodically given holidays from Hell in which he cools himself in the Arctic north. Brendan and his monks are not unaware of evil in the present fallen world; but they have confidence in the Risen Christ, who is with them to the end of time. As a consequence the recitation of the Divine Office is a communal and joyous affair, performed in company with the rest of creation, a hymn of praise offered to God by His creatures, uttered in Time but making harmony with Eternity. The mysterious figure called the Procurator or Steward, who frequently appears in the Navigatio to help Brendan and his monks, is seen by R., in company with other scholars, as a type of Christ. He appears in the rôle of 1. Servant (182); 2. Shepherd (183–184); 3. The Way (184–185); and 4. The Image of Light (185–186). »Close reading of the above examples shows that, for the writer of the Navigatio, Christ is not simply the Jesus of history, living His earthly life long ago in the past, but the ever-living High Priest, interceding for us constantly before the throne of the Father, and actively present in the life of the Church as it presented itself to him (the writer) in the life of the monastic community.« (189)
The mood of the Céli Dé is very different. For them the world was essentially a place of sin and temptation, which required un­ceasing intercession. Thus, though they routinely observed the Monastic Office, its importance was surpassed by regular private devotions, particularly the practice of the ›Three Fifties‹, the daily recitation of the entire psalter, supplemented by devotion to the feasts of individual saints. This practice reinforced an already exis­ting tendency in the Western Church to historicism, thereby di­minishing the liturgical ›temporal cycle‹, in which the individual believer was involved in Christ’s earthly life and ministry from His Nativity at Christmas to His Resurrection and Ascension, in favour of the commemoration of and increasing devotion to the cult of individual saints.
While R. accepts the sincerity of the Céli Dé’s devotion, her sympathies are very much with the author of the Navigatio, and she mentions with approval J. Wooding’s suggestion that the Navigatio was written as a deliberate critique of the Céli Dé lifestyle by some­one who had been closely involved with or had even perhaps left a Céli Dé establishment. Certainly, the Céli Dé ethos was a sombre one. One can expect a reference to woman as man’s ›guardian devil‹ as a monastic cliché (209), but the strain of life in a monastery where the lavatories were thought to be the abode of evil spirits, requiring the protection of the sign of the cross by the individual who was pre­paring to use them (208), seems by any standards to be excessive.
What however seems to be clear, at least to the reviewer, is that the two opposed outlooks which R. describes in such detail, represent two tendencies which are to be found in Christianity from its earliest days, and will no doubt continue to the Day of Judgement. Most of us, like R., prefer the outlook of the author of the Navigatio: but the gloom of the earnest Puritans of the Céli Dé is likely to be with us to the end.