I’ve found the last couple of months pretty confusing. I was disorientated by the speed of change as the country went into lockdown, sad for the loss of ministry opportunities that were being cancelled and unable to see the future clearly. I was sick too, having developed COVID-19 symptoms which lasted for six weeks.
As my head has cleared, many people are arguing that life is unlikely to go back to the way it was before the pandemic. Conceivably we are at one of those watershed times when life will never be quite the same again.
I have found myself asking, “How should we respond? Who can we learn from? Which followers of Jesus have made a real contribution to society at moments of great change like this before?”
A group of ancient men and women kept coming to mind. A group who were said to have saved civilisation many centuries previously and who might prove to be models for us right now to make a contribution in our time. They were Irish monks.
A bit of background may be helpful: by the start of the 6th century, Europe was in a mess. The Roman Empire had fallen and Germanic tribes were roaming across the continent, burning cities and destroying libraries as they went. They had little interest in literacy or the ideas that the finest Roman minds gave us, which we still benefit from today. Whether it was architecture, political theory, mathematics or the Latin Bible, they were in danger of being lost forever to those who neither understood nor cared for their enduring insights.
That they survived, is largely down to Irish Christians and those who fled to join them from across the former empire. These men and women embraced habits which ultimately made them a major force for renewal across Europe for several centuries, eventually making a significant contribution to the shape of the mighty Holy Roman Empire that began to emerge under Charlemagne.
What were these habits and how can we adopt them today?
They gave themselves to prayer.
Patrick and other Irish Christian leaders, inspired by the early desert fathers, would seek secluded places where they could combine prayer, the reading of scripture and often fasting as they sought God. They became known for a deep spirituality that was borne out of these times which were transformative for many and were often combined with visions and other powerful experiences of God’s presence.
They would pray for themselves and for pagan Ireland which was in the grip of warring tribes and Celtic druids. The results were remarkable, and within Patrick’s lifetime over 20% of Ireland’s tribes became substantially Christian, many monastic communities were started and many priests ordained.
As people found faith, the ideas at the heart of the Christian faith started to affect broader society. Ireland became a more peaceful and just place as warlords stopped fighting and slave raids became a thing of the past.
I find the Irish Christians’ thirst for God inspirational. It is something for us to imitate.
We must pray for ourselves, just as they did: that we will become courageous, deeply spiritual leaders who care about our world. And we must pray for our world too: reports of one in four adults attending church online since the start of lockdown should provide added impetus to pray for a spiritual awakening across our nation with deep and lasting societal change, just as Patrick saw.
They gave themselves to acts of cultural renewal.
In 6th century Europe books were a priceless commodity. The invention of the printing press was almost a millennia away and the largest libraries might have a few hundred books in them. The only way of producing more was to copy existing ones which was a highly skilful and patient craft that took many hundreds of hours to complete.
As books were destroyed right across Europe, scholars fled, bringing their scrolls and books with them, and it was the Irish monks who gave themselves to the long, demanding process of replication. The reality is that without their action we would, most likely, be without any knowledge of the Roman age and the wisdom they developed, to say nothing of the Latin scriptures or the work of the early church fathers.
It would be wonderful to think that there could be a renaissance of creativity that comes out of this current crisis. Of the arts? Absolutely. But also, importantly, of fresh solutions to the many challenges that the Coronavirus will leave in its wake.
They made an incalculable contribution to the cultures of Europe.
In the generations following Patrick’s death, warrior princes like Columba turned down the leadership of their tribe in order to follow God’s call to brave the stormy waters of the Atlantic in their flat-bottomed coracles and sail to Scotland, England and the continent.
Wherever they found themselves, they gave themselves to the same things they had done in Ireland. They prayed, shared their faith, served the local communities and gave themselves to the long hours required for creative cultural renewal.
Columba’s strategy was simple: every time more than 150 people gathered he would start another monastic community, ending up with 41 monasteries along the west coast of Scotland from his base on Iona.
Later, another Irish monk, Columbanus, inspired by the words of Jesus to put aside his love of home and family to follow God’s call, made his way to the continent where he founded communities in what is now France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Italy. Along the way he learned a dozen or more languages and launched a significant Christian movement.
At a time of great change and considerable danger for the cultures of Europe these Irish monks kept sharing their faith, copying books, teaching literacy and showing people that the message of Jesus Christ really is good news. Their influence on continental Europe was "incalculable".
As the new, post-pandemic world becomes clear, there will be a great opportunity for followers of Jesus to lead the way and, strengthened by faith and prayer, to make a huge contribution to the needs of a world that has been shaken to its core: let’s be ready to grasp the opportunity with both hands.