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obtain the destruction of the army of the King of Connaught, fasted against Connaught for three whole days and nights.
King Diarmid and Tara were cursed by S. Ruadhan, assisted by eleven saints of Ireland. In the narrative there is a point of interest connected with this practice of fasting. The twelve saints instituted their fast against the King, fasting alternate days. Thereupon he, in retaliation, fasted against them, and so long as one kept even with the other, neither could get the mastery, so the saints bribed the king's steward, with a promise of heaven, to tell his master a lie, and to assure him that he had seen the twelve eating on their fast day. When Diarmid heard this, he broke his fast, whereupon the saints got ahead of him and triumphed. 26
Another remarkable story is that of Adamnan, the biographer of S. Columba. Irghalach son of Conaing had killed Adamnan's kinsman Niall. The saint thereupon fasted upon Irghalach to obtain a violent death for him. The chief, aware of this, fasted against Adamnan. The saint not only fasted, but stood all night in a river up to his neck. The chief did the same. At last the saint outwitted the chief by dressing his servant in his clothes and letting Irghalach see him eat and drink. The chief thereupon intermitted his fasting, and so Adamnan got the better of him, and obtained his death. When the Queen heard how he had been over-reached, she was in terror lest the saint should curse her unborn child. So she “grovelled at his feet," imploring mercy for the child. Adamnan consented only so far to curse it, that it should be born with one eye. 27
We have spoken particularly of this levy of a distress by fasting, for it gives us the clue to the extravagant asceticism, not of the early Celtic saints only, but of the yogis and fakirs of India.
The Celtic saints were perfectly familiar with the law just described ; they put its process into operation against the chiefs with excellent effect. By no great effort of mind they carried their legal conceptions into their ideas of their relation with the Almighty. When they desired to obtain something from a chief, they fasted against him, and God was to them the greatest of all chieftains, so they supposed that to obtain a favour from God they must proceed against Him by levying a distress.
This lies at the root of all fakir self-torture in India. The ascetic dares the Almighty to let him die of starvation. He is perfectly assured that He will not do it, lest He should fall into disrepute among the people, assured also that He will be brought to submit, however reluctant He may be, in the end, just as would a human chieftain.
26 Silva Gadelica, ii, p. 82. 27 “ Fragmentary Annals,” ibid., pp. 442-3.
This, indeed, is frankly admitted in the Tripartite Life of S. Patrick. Patrick was ambitious of obtaining peculiar privileges from God, notably that of sitting in judgment over the Irish people at the Day of Doom. To obtain this he instituted a fast. When in a condition of nervous exaltation he fancied that an angel appeared to him and intimated that such a petition was offensive to God, and he offered him some other favour in place of it. Patrick stubbornly rejected all compromise, and continued his fast, as the writer says, “in a very bad temper, without drink, without food.” After some time he fancied that the angel approached him again, offering further concessions. “I will not go from this place till I am dead,” replied Patrick, “unless all the things I have asked for are granted to me.” In the end he fell into such a condition of exhaustion of body, that he became a prey to hallucinations, thought the sky was full of black birds, and deluded himself into the belief that the Almighty had given way at all points. 28
A like story is told of S. Maidoc of Ferns, who desired to obtain some outrageous privileges—that no successor of his should go to hell, that no member of his community or tribe should be lost eternally, and that till the Day of Judgment he might be able daily to deliver a soul from hell. He fasted against God, to wring from Him these privileges, and continued his fast for fifty days, and deluded himself into the belief that he had forced the Almighty to grant everything. 29
There is a story of three scholars in the Book of Lismore that also illustrates how completely this legal notion of transacting business with the Almighty affected the minds of the early Celtic Christians. Three scholars resolved on reciting daily the Psalter, each taking a third ; and they agreed among themselves that in the event of one dying, the others should take his Psalms on them in addition to their own. First one died, then the other two readily divided his fifty Psalms between them. But presently a second died, and the third found himself saddled with the daily recitation of the entire Psalter. He was highly incensed against heaven for letting the other two off so easily, and overloading him with obligations. Then, in his. resentment, regarding God as having treated him unjustly, we are informed that he fasted against Him.
In India the fakirs possess power over the people who flock to them
28 Tripartite Life, p. 115. Tirechan, the most trustworthy of the biographers of S. Patrick, speaks of this fast.
29 Cambro-British Saints, p. 243.
to entreat the gods to obtain for them abundant harvests, or the burning of an enemy's house, the recovery of a sick child, or the wholesale destruction of an enemy's family. A man who sits on spikes, has voluntarily distorted himself, or who lives half buried in the earth, is supposed to be all powerful with the gods. Why so ? Because through his self-tortures he has wrung a legal power over the gods to grant what he shall ask. The very same race which underlies the Hindu population of India underlay the Goidel in Ireland and the Brython in Britain. That race which to this day sets up menhirs and dolmens there, strewed Ireland and Cornwall with them at a remotely early period. That same race has scattered these remains over Moab. We find the same legal and religious ideas in India and in Ireland ; as also in Moab, which is likewise strewn with dolmens. Balaam comports himself just as would a Christian saint many centuries later in Erin, because these ideas belong to the non-Aryan Ivernian race everywhere. Monachism among the Celts, doubtless, received an impulse from such books as the Historia Lausiaca of Palladius, and the Life of S. Martin by Sulpicius Severus; but it did not originate from the perusal of these books. It had existed as a system, from a remote antiquity, among the pagan forefathers of the saints.
Everything conduced to engage the Christian missionaries in a contest of ascetic emulation with the medicine men of Paganism. They strove to outstrip them, for if they fell short of the self-torture practised by the latter, they could not hope to gain the ear of the princes and impress the imaginations of the vulgar. In the instance of S. Findchua we have a man emerging from Paganism, practising frightful austerities, and eagerly invoked to occupy the place hitherto assigned to the Druid. Surely he simply trod the same path as that pursued by the necromancers before him. Of S. Kevin it is said that he remained for seven years without sleep, and that he held up one arm till it became rigid, and a blackbird laid and hatched her eggs in his palm.30 S. Erc is said to have spent the day immersed in a river. S. Ita to have had only earth for her bed.
This immoderate and astounding self-torture enabled the saints in Celtic lands, with all confidence, to appropriate to themselves the keys of heaven and hell, and to give assurance of celestial felicity to whom they would, and denounce to endless woe whoever offended them. S. Patrick is said to have promised heaven to a story-teller, who had amused him with old bardic tales, and to a harper for having
30 Irish Liber Hymnorum, ii, 192 ; Giraldus Camb., Top. Hibern., ii, 48 ; Book of Lismore, p. 334.
performed well on his instrument.31 As we have already seen, the twelve saints of Ireland promised heaven to the unfaithful steward on condition that he should tell his master a lie, and so deceive him to his destruction. S. Carannog threatened to shut heaven against S. Finnian unless he would get into the tub he had prepared for him as a bath.32 Senan of Iniscathy threatened King Lugaidh to deprive him of heaven if he thwarted him, and he left assurance with his community that no man buried in his churchyard should go to hell. 33 S. Finnian of Clonard made the same promise relative to his own burial ground. 34
So much, then, for the ferocious self-torture exercised by the early Celtic saints. But in many cases there was a nobler motive in the hearts of these venerable fathers than one of mere following in the traces of their pagan predecessors, and outrivalling them. A clue to their conduct may be found in an incident related of S. Columba.
One day he saw a poor widow gathering sting-nettles. He asked her the reason. She replied that she had no other food. The old man trembled with emotion, went back to his cell, and bade his attendant give him thenceforth nettles only to eat. He had come among the Picts to be an apostle, to poor as well as to rich, mean as well as noble, and he would not fare better than the lowliest among those to whom he ministered. The story goes on to say that the disciple, seeing the aged master become thin and pinched on this meagre diet, employed a hollow elder stick with which to stir the nettles, over the fire, and he surreptitiously introduced a little butter into the hollow of the stick, that ran down and enriched the porridge. 35
There are, moreover, remarkable instances among the Irish ascetics of their standing high above a narrow formalism. Some travellers came to Ruadhan of Lothra during Lent, and he at once produced a meat supper, and, to exhibit true hospitality, not only sat down at it himself, but bade his monks do the same. Some travellers came to S. Cronan, and he at once produced all he had for their refreshment, and sat down with them. “Humph !” said a stickler for rule, “At this rate, I do not see much chance of Mattins being said.” “My friend,” said Cronan, “ in showing hospitality to strangers we minister to Christ. Do not trouble about the Mattins, the angels will sing them for us." 36
31 Silva Gadelica, ii, pp. 137, 191. 32 Breviary of Léon, 1516.
33 Book of Lismore, pp. 210, 214. 34 Ibid., p. 219.
35 Ibid., p. 302. 36 Vitæ SS. Hibern. in Cod. Salamanc., p. 548.
At the same time that the saints were vastly hospitable they refused to regale kings and their retinue when this was demanded as a right. It was one of the conditions of subjection to a secular prince to have to find him in food when he called, and to furnish his beasts with provender. Compliance with the demand established a dangerous precedent, for vassalage brought with it liability to military service. It was accordingly stubbornly resisted.
When Maelgwn Gwynedd was hunting in the neighbourhood of S. Brynach, he sent to the saint a command to prepare supper for him and his attendants. “But the holy man being desirous that he and his brethren and also his territory should be free from all tribute, asserted that he did not owe the king any supper, nor would he obey in any manner to his unjust command.” Naturally this produced an explosion of anger, but it ended in the saint furnishing the meal, which the king formally acknowledged as being accorded him out of charity, and not as a due. 37
S. Senan absolutely declined to pay tax to Lugaidh, the petty local king. Then the king sent his race-horse to be turned out on Senan's pasture, saying he would take his dues in this manner. Accidentally the horse was drowned, and this led to violent threats on the king's part and demand for compensation.
The three obligations required of a monk were obedience, chastity, and poverty. Obedience, according to the Life of S. David, must be implicit. 38 According to the Penitential statutes of Gildas, a monk who neglected executing at once the orders of his superior, was deprived of his dinner. If he forgot an order, he was let off with half a meal. If he should communicate with one whom the abbot had excommunicated, he was put to penance for forty days.39 According to the rule of S. David, if a brother should even say of a book that it was his own, he was subjected to penance. 40 This, however, may be a later addition, for certainly, as we see by instances in the Lives of the Saints, it was not an universal rule. With regard to transgressions of the rule of chastity, great severity was shown, as the Penitential Canons show. A nun, who had transgressed, when she died, was sunk as an accursed thing in a bog. 41
It is difficult to say with any amount of confidence how many were the offices of devotion performed by the monks during the day and night, because so many of the Lives are late, and writers described
37 Cambro-British Saints, pp. 10–12.
38 Ibid., p. 128. 39 Præfatio Gilde de Penitentia, caps. ix, xi, xii ; in Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, i, pp. 113-114. 40 Cambro-British Saints, p. 128.
41 Book of Lismore, p. x.