Living Outside Imperial Power: The Celts and Church of the East

A wind-swept island called Iona off the coast of Scotland, home for centuries to a famous community of monks that still today sees over 150,000 pilgrims visiting each year. On the other side of the world in West Asia was a mountain-side monastery named Beit Abhe (house of the forest), also functioning for over seven centuries and now only known in historical records. Iona and Beit Abhe, the island off western Scotland and the monastery in what is now Northern Iraq, stand as remarkably similar spiritual power-houses founded within forty years of each other in the 6th century.

Two great mission movements of Christian history, the Celts of the British Isles, and the Church of the East in Asia, existed in seeming isolation from each other yet counted these two communities as some of their greatest reservoirs of spiritual, intellectual and cultural resource. These movements functioned beyond the far ends of the imperial power of the Roman Empire, living on the fringes yet having a deep impact on vast areas of Europe and Asia.

These two monastic communities, Iona and Beit Abhe, had a common commitment to scholarship of various kinds that also involved copying and preserving precious classical manuscripts. They both saw missionary monks emerging from the monasteries who travelled throughout the far corners of the known world including areas outside of Roman rule. Their scholarship and mission emanated from deep disciplines of monastic devotion, which drew these monks not to withdraw from the world as some monks have, but rather to a greater engagement in mission.

With both Iona and Beit Abhe, founded in 563 by St. Columba and 595 by Rabban (Syriac name for priest) Jacob, and while by no means the only monastic centers of their movements, there were representative features that can be compared. Indeed both the Celts and Church of the East founded hundreds of monasteries and schools. These monasteries in each movement linked together in networks that also provided way-stations of hospitality, pilgrimage and even as locations along trade routes.

These groups lived on the margins, far from the centers of the imperial power of their time. So different than much of Western Christianity as we have known it since Constantine in 312 C.E. declared the Roman Empire to be “Christian”. For these believers in the far western corners of Europe, and in Asia from Syria and Iraq to India and China, there was no state power behind them, no Emperor to defend them when they were under persecution.

The Church of the East was the pilgrim Church of Asia, wrongly condemned as heretics due to a misreading of Nestorius’ theology by Cyril and others, and similar to the Celts never had a Constantine or Charlemagne to provide the royal favor of “Christendom”. Yet both movements exerted a spiritual and intellectual power that deeply shaped their surrounding regions for centuries.

As Ian Bradley (1993:3) has written, “Celtic Christianity was a faith hammered out at the margins.” The same could be said for the Church of the East, who have lived for most of their history (even today) as minority communities within non-Christian empires or nations, whether under the Zoroastrians of Persia, or under Islam after the seventh century. Though never favored with the trappings of “Christendom”, the Celts and Church of the East generated powerful communities in places like Iona and Beit Abhe that copied and preserved manuscripts, translated significant classical works, and provided for some people groups even their alphabet of communication.

Both the Celts and Church of the East were pilgrim movements, monks on the move in a pilgrimage of mission. Yet they also had a rootedness of the particular, a local presence that was manifested in monasteries. Both communities as well as hundreds of other monasteries in these movements included daily singing of the Psalms. Iona and Beit Abhe carried on consistent daily devotional prayer and reading of the Bible for centuries, forming monks spiritually and intellectually. While both movements also had hermits and solitaries who existed for long stretches in caves or small enclosures, these monastic centers also had groups of monks living together where this spiritual depth could be formed in relationship with others.

Both movements have been accused at times by Imperial Church power of having heretical tendencies, the Celts due to some association with the Irish monk Pelagius in the 5th century, and the Church of the East due to a loose identification with Nestorius, also in the 5th century. In some ways this also pushed both to the margins, and it was on those same margins that their faith, identity and scholarship were developed.

Which leads us to wonder today, what have been the corrosive affects on the Church when it is too closely linked with power and affluence? These church movements were not perfect, and had many weaknesses. But they were largely free for much of their history from the corruption of soul and spirit that comes from the desire for power and money, whether it is political or cultural power.

As Murray (2004:28) wrote about the Church of the East in their first thousand years of history, “they were deliberately homeless followers of the homeless Jesus on a ceaseless pilgrimage through this world.” The same could be said about the Celts of the British Isles. But this journeying also came in both movements from solidly settled monastic communities that testified to the power of presence and permanence.

What does it mean to live uncorrupted by the craving for political power and material wealth? What would it mean for the Church all over the world to live without the lust for favor and protection from the power structures around them? 

Important questions for Christians of every nation today, especially where they are in a majority.

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