Moved by love alone: St Guthlac of Crowland and St Kevin of Glendalough

Moved by love aloneCatherine Swift

Even the most courageous of those who are willing to devote their life entirely to God need the help and companionship of others as they go through life. Catherine Swift, a lecturer in Irish Studies at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, writes on hermits.

In the time of the Emperor Hadrian, the Romans began the long process of draining the Fenlands, cutting the large parallel dykes known as the Car Dyke and the Midfendic which linked up the main rivers and eventually drained into the Wash. However, this was only the beginning of nearly two thousand years of land reclamation which continues to the present day. In the early eighth century, the Anglo-Saxon writer Felix could still say of the region: There is in the midland district of Britain, a most dismal fen of immense size which begins at the banks of the river Granta not far from the camp which is called Cambridge and stretches from the south as far north as the sea. It is a very long tract, now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes of black waters over- hung by fog, sometimes studded with wooded islands and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams.

Oh God thou art my God,' I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. So I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary, beholding thy power and glory. Because thy steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise thee. I will bless thee as long I live; I will lift up my hands and call on thy name. (Psalms 63, 1-4)

Into this drenched landscape, a young son of a Mercian noble named Guthlac travelled 'through trackless bogs' into the 'more remote and hidden parts of that desert'. Guthlac had been a soldier and a commander. However, at the age of twenty-four, he resolved to abandon his family and friends to travel to the monastery at Repton (Derbyshire) where he adopted the tonsure of St Peter. He remained in Repton for two years, learning the Psalms and studying Holy Scrip- ture before deciding that his vocation was to live the life of an anchorite and hermit.

The wording of his life may imply a knowledge of the island monastery of Lérins, training ground for many of the leaders of the fifth " and sixth-century Gaulish church. The island in the marsh where Guthlac eventually settled, known as Crowland (modern Lincolnshire), was occupied by phantoms of demons, unknown portents and terrors of various shapes when he arrived " just as Lérins was occupied by venomous beasts and innumerable serpents before it was settled by its anchorite leader, Honoratus. At Crowland, Guthlac made himself a shelter in a burrow cut into an earthen mound. Like many of the hermits of Egypt and the Near East, he dressed in skins rather than in wool or linen and 'from the time when he began to inhabit the desert, he ate no food of any kind except that after sunset he took a scrap of barley bread and a small cup of muddy water.'

Like the Egyptian hermits, too, a major temptation in his vocation was accidie and despair. John Cassian identified this as a particular problem for the solitary, one which led either to excess sleep or to fleeing one's cell back to the world. According to Felix, his biographer, Guthlac fought against this with all the power and vigour that he had used against his earthly enemies but at the same time throwing his dependence entirely on God:

I call upon you, God, for you to answer me; turn your ear to me, hear what I say. Show the evidence of your faithful love, saviour of those who hope in your strength against attack. Guard me as the pupil of an eye, shelter me in the shadow of your wings from the presence of the wicked who would maltreat me; deadly enemies are closing in on me (Psalm 17.6-9).

Despite the honour that we accord to early hermits today, Church authorities often worried about the dangers of a life lived alone. St Basil of Cappadocia, for example, was dubious about the value of a solitary life. In his Asketikon, widely dispersed in the West under the title Regula Basili, he meditated on whether it was better to live alone or with brothers. He concluded that a life spent in company had many advantages; it was easier to provide the necessities of life and there would be people to help one recognise and correct one's own faults. It was also difficult to fulfil the commandment to show love without people to share that experience. Basil does not condemn solitary life but he makes it clear that he felt communal living was a higher calling. John Cassian, who did so much to bring eastern monasticism to Gaul and the West in the early fifth century, argued on similar lines and in his Conferences, he makes it clear that while both lifestyles were to be valued, the cenobium or community was the proper beginning for all religious, and hermits should not live on their own until they had gone through a rigorous training. The rule of Benedict follows Cassian in this. Even in Egypt itself, reservations could be expressed:

A brother questioned Abba Matoes saying, 'What am I to do? My tongue makes me suffer and every time I go among men, I cannot control it but I condemn them in all the good they are doing and reproach them with it. What am I to do?' The old man replied, 'If you cannot con- tain yourself, flee into solitude. For this is a sickness. He who dwells with brethren must not be square but round so as to turn himself towards all.' He went on 'It is not through virtue that I live in solitude but through weakness; those who live in the midst of men are the strong men.'

A precaution taken by many hermits, some- what paradoxically, was to live with others. Guthlac himself, in his old age, lived with a brother called Beccel. So, too, did the Irish hermit Fursey who left his monastery at Cnobheresburg " thought to be Burgh Castle near Yarmouth " in order to live with his uterine brother Ultán as an anchorite in East Anglia. This may have been a common arrangement for it is notable that the most frequent depiction of hermits on the great stone crosses of Ireland and Britain are of the two hermits Paul and Anthony breaking bread together. This iconography is based on a story derived from Jerome's life of St Paul. For sixty years a raven brought Paul half of loaf of bread to allow him to continue his life of prayer but when St Anthony visit- ed him, the raven brought a full loaf. We find depictions of this incident on the great Ruthwell cross in the Scottish borders but also in Ireland on the Castledermot crosses, Kells (Market Cross and South Cross), Monasterboice, Moone and Bantry amongst others. Eamonn Ó Carragáin1 has suggested that the symbolism can be summed up as a call to risk the desert in order to live on bread daily given from heaven which should be broken together. He quotes St John's gospel:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever and the bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world (John 6.51-2).

Another arrangement was more akin to the approach often taken today in that the hermit lived in relative proximity to a larger monastic community which took on the responsibility for making sure he (or indeed she " for the Brehon laws of Ireland, in particular, tell us of female solitaries) " was fed. This was the arrangement which was eventually adopted by perhaps the most famous hermit of Irish tradition, St Kevin of Glendalough. Glendalough is one of a series of valleys south of Dublin, many of which contain mountain lakes and water courses. Glendalough is distinguished from the others by the fact that it contains not one but two lakes but also by the large area of relatively rich land around the lower lake. It was on this that the major settlement developed, known as the civitas or city of Glendalough, which seems to have acted as an episcopal centre with a substantial secular population. At the upper end of the valley, in contrast, were the sites associated with the original retreats of the founding saint. Interestingly, the sites in question, Temple na Skellig and Reefert Church, appear to have continued as hermitages right through the Middle Ages and subsequent leaders of Glendalough, such as the twelfth-century Laurence O'Toole, would often spend the whole of Lent in solitary retreat, leading the life of an anchorite. At Crowland, too, a large minster community developed around the site of the earlier hermitage; it is not clear whether solitaries continued to form part of the later community but it seems likely.

The earliest manuscript containing a life of Kevin is now found in an Austrian collection and has been edited and discussed by Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel. In this, Kevin is said to have spent time as a hermit, living notinacavebutupatreewherehewas found by a wandering cow which was being pastured in the valley. Nora Chadwick in the 1960 Riddell memorial lectures at the University of Durham pointed to the fact that Kevin's particular form of eremitic lifestyle had Near Eastern predecessors:

A close found in recluses of the Syrian desert, referred to by Greek writers as 'Graziers' and 'Tree-dwellers'. The'are so described because they had no hous- es, ate neither bread nor meat and drank no wine but dwelt constantly on the mountains and passed their time in praising God by prayers and hymns... the or 'tree-dwellers', a small number of ascetics related to the pillar-saints. John Moschus speaks of a monk, Adolas, who came from Mesopotamia and dwelt in a large plane tree and made a window through which he used to talk to visitors. Among the Opuscula of the Maronites is the story of a saint who lived in a cypress tree in Syria. In Europe we hear of Luke the 'pillar-saint', a monk of St ZachMyISAMs on Mount Olympus who had formerly used the hollow of a tree as a cell before graduating to his column.

This form of relatively rare eremitical practice appears to have been reasonably wide- spread in early Ireland, perhaps because much of early Ireland, unlike Syria or Palestine, appears to have been covered with widespread forest. A ninth-century poem refers to a resident in a tree-based airiuclán, a loan-word derived from Latin oraculum or oracle, a place where one hears prophetic utterances:

My little aireclán in Túaim Inbir (ivied tree-top); a full mansion could not be more delightful, with its stars in due order, with its sun and its moon.

That its tale may be told to you, it is Gobbán who made it; my beloved God from Heav- en is the thatcher who has thatched it.

A house (tech) in which rain does not fall, a place which spear-points are not feared; having no hurdle around it, it is as bright as though one were in a kitchen- garden.

Another poem of the same ninth-century date also begins with the image of the aireclán and mentions the same concern over possible attacks on isolated individuals. This second text also adds important details about an Irish hermit's lifestyle:

All alone in my aireclán without a single human being along with me; such a pilgrimage would be dear to my heart before going to meet death...

A cold fearsome bed where one rests like a doomed man; short hazardous sleep; frequent early invocation...

Dry bread weighed out " let us carefully cast our faces down "; water from a bright and pleasant hillside, let that be the draught you drink.

An unpalatable meagre diet, diligent attention to reading, renunciation of fighting and visiting (céilide " companionship), a calm easy conscience. ...

Let the place which shelters me amid defended enclosures of many lann be a delightful little place hallowed by burial- cairns with me alone there.

Although the hermit in this text is living without a human companion, he is fed by dry bread which is likely to have been provided by others and he is also living amidst defended enclosures described by the word lann. This word, which may be a borrowing from the Welsh, appears to refer to an ecclesiastical community. Such an arrangement of hermitages dependent on larger settlements is mentioned at Durrow by Adomnán2 and also appears recorded in yet another ninth-century text, known to modern scholars under the name Regula Columb Cille " the rule of Columba.

The opening sentence of this rule runs: Bith innuathad il-Iucc foleith hi fail prímcathrach, minap inill lat cubus beth i coitchenndus na sochaide: 'if your con- science does not allow you to be in the company of a multitude, then live alone in the vicinity of a prímcathair [pre-eminent settlement].' Though written for solitaries, the emphasis on community continues in succeeding provisions:

Whether you possess much or little in the way of food, drink or clothing, let it be retained with the permission of a senior. Let him have control of its disposition, for it is not becoming for a follower of Christ to be in any way superior to his free brethren.

Have a few devout men who will discuss God and the scriptures with you. Let them visit you on great feast-days, that so they may strengthen your devotion to the words and precepts of God.

Hold no converse with anyone who is given to idle or worldly gossip or with anyone who grumbles about what he can neither prevent nor rectify. All the more should you have no dealings with a tattler carrying tales from friend to foe; simply give him your blessing.

Let your vigils be constant day by day but always under the direction of another...

Out of compassion you should do without your due allowance of food and clothing so that you may share with your less fortunate brothers and with the poor in general.

It is a mistake, therefore, to think of the early anchorites and hermits of Britain and Ire- land as living in total isolation from Church authorities or indeed, of assuming that the desert which they sought was characterised by dry sands and hot weather. Mountains, trees, islands and bogs were all retreats which were exploited by those seeking to dedicate themselves totally to God. And yet, the very act of seeking out the desert and their fervent dedication made them people of authority in their local community and gave them a status as advisors and spiritual guides. Such people would also teach the wider population of Christians outside the religious community, though he or she does so not with the authority of an ordained man but simply as an admired ascetic who proffered advice and support. As the Benedictine anchorite Grimlaicus described it, writing in ninth-century Metz:

Solitaries do not have people committed to them but it is their task, moved by love alone, to nourish those who come to them with a banquet of spiritual words and humbly and privately to inspire people to serve God and so be converted. They must take care not to restrain the rigor of their exhortation with a view to gaining human favour. Furthermore, we [as solitaries] ought to preach every day by keeping silence and we will preach by keeping silence when we show others how to live well and put before them examples of light.

Felix's Life of Guthlac has been edited and published by Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge 1956). The most detailed study of Glendalough (which includes an edition of the earliest life of St Kevin) is Glendalough " City of God edited by Charles Doherty, Linda Doran and Mary Kelly (Dublin 2011).