In the EWTN series “The Major Religious Orders of Men” (my past blog), the host Fr. Charles Connor, Ph.D., said that Eastern monasticism came to Ireland perhaps before 400 AD.
Fr. Connor did not have extensive time to explain, but mentioned that it is believed this long-distance transplanting of the austere Eastern monastic traditions to Ireland occurred by trade and commerce.
Huh? Just how does that happen?
Did the Irish say in 400 AD: "We need to adopt a severe form of bodily deprivation — let's go online and order ourselves a desert monk from Egypt. Maybe we will get free shipping if we order three."?
Or maybe a ship captain from Egypt just yelled from his boat in an Irish harbor: "Hey Irish, have you heard of the new trend sweeping the East? In Egypt and Asia Minor some Christians live in the desert in extreme asceticism, fasting, depriving themselves of sleep, enduring heat and cold with little protection — they flee the world and live in seclusion, it's very popular."
Well apparently it was not just by word of mouth. Irish monks were taught Greek (the language of the East) by Greek-speaking monks at a time when knowledge of Greek had virtually disappeared from mainland Europe.
In fact, monks in Ireland not only developed a monasticism inspired by the distant East, but the Irish also acquired ancient texts which they began copying — becoming a crucial link in the preservation of many ancient Greco-Roman documents. They must have gotten them from Cappadocia public library by Inter-library loan.(1)
By the 500s AD Irish monasteries were the most important centers of learning in Europe.
By the 600s AD the Irish monks living an Eastern monastic tradition were evangelizing mainland Europe.
"And when Charlemagne reigned (771-814 AD), Irishmen were at his court, "men incomparably skilled in human learning"." (2)
God's track record of spreading the Gospel by sending St. Paul all over the ancient world in several long missionary journeys is well known. But God's means by which austere Eastern monasticism was delivered to far away little Ireland for spreading the Gospel in Europe shows that God runs the tightest ship in the shipping business.
Eastern monks to Ireland? No problem, they will be there by 10:00 AM.
(1) Cappadocia is a part of modern Turkey and also had a strong Eastern monasticism tradition. New Advent has an excellent overview of Eastern monasticism.
(2) Quote on Charlemagne court from New Advent article on Ireland.