This is an excellent book subtitled ‘Hermits, Recluses and Spiritual Outsiders in Medieval England’ and states that it is historically ‘unclear’ how Celtic Christianity first spread in Ireland (between 500 – 800 CE) before spreading to the West Coasts of Scotland, Wales and Devon and Cornwall (South-West England). The Vatican has no records of its spread – although we know from the Roman ruins of ‘villas’ in the UK that in some Romano-British homes – ‘Christianity’ is included as one of many religions represented in the ‘shrine rooms’ between 100 – 400 CE (symbolised by ‘two-dolphins’ rather than a ‘cross’).
According to the research of Wolfgang Riehle – Celtic Christianity takes on its distinctive form in Ireland and Britain after the collapse of direct Roman Rule in the region. Its monastic-based institutes advocated and supported the isolated ‘hermetic’ tradition over that of the collective coenobitical tradition. Lay-communities of Celtic Christians assisted the monastic establishment ‘support’ the monks living in caves and specially constructed cells. The inherent ‘isolation’ of these sacred places were thought of as ‘door-ways’ between this (material) realm and the (immaterial) realm of the divine. Through the profound contemplation of ‘silence’ – it was believed that the ‘divine’ would eventually ‘revealed’ itself inside the mind and body of the contemplative (denoting a successful ‘mystical union’). Even lay-people were encouraged to participate in prayer-meetings and in the practice of self-isolatory contemplation.
This tradition was not linked directly to the Vatican and is thought to have migrated independently from the Desert Father tradition of the Middle East (emphasising the example of St Anthony). (I did read in another study, that a Roman Centurion may have brought Apostolic Christian monasticism to the British Isles after he was stationed in Palestine). This eventually met with the Benedictine tradition arriving in England – which was fully endorsed by Rome. The two traditions appear to have ‘influenced’ one another – before the Benedictines absorbed (and made use of) the Hermetic tradition. Celtic Christianity as a distinct institution faded away as it had no direct contact with the Middle Eastern tradition from which it arose.
The author draws an interesting distinction between the terms ‘hermit’ and ‘recluse’. A ‘recluse’ tends to live in a strict isolation in the same place (without meeting others or changing location) and ‘contemplates’ the ‘divine silence’ and ‘solitude’. A ‘hermit’, by way of contrast, although living in isolation for much of the time (and is no less disciplined than the ‘recluse’), nevertheless, does ‘interact’ with others from time to time. Perhaps people seek-out the ‘hermit’ because they know where he or she lives – whereas the home-place of the ‘recluse’ may not be so well known. ‘Looking within’ with a profound strength of purpose is the method that generates a deep ‘peace’ and a vibrant ‘wisdom’ in the Celtic Christian, monastic tradition.