Wednesday 24 April 2013

Saint Egbert of Iona, April 24

On April 24 we commemorate Saint Egbert, one of the Saxons who pursued the study of the monastic life in Ireland. I have found myself increasingly interested in this group of saints and hope to bring accounts of as many of them as I can. Colin Ireland's paper Seventh-century Ireland as a Study Abroad Destination establishes the historical context for their studies and can be read here. Canon O'Hanlon has a very full entry for today's saint in which he paraphrases the evidence from The Venerable Bede for Egbert's career. And a most interesting career it is too. The monastery of Rathmelsigi where our saint studied was the spiritual and intellectual powerhouse which produced the mission to the Low Countries headed by Saint Willibrord. Whilst there, Egbert was also a witness to the devastating plague which carried off so many of his fellow students, including his own brother. The description of Egbert's ascetical practices shows that he had learnt the Irish spiritual tradition very well, yet at the end of his life he was instrumental in bringing the Roman computation of Pascha to the monastery of Iona. As a Catholic writer, Canon O'Hanlon writes approvingly of this, Anglican writers of the same period tended to see the 'Celtic Easter' as evidence of the Irish church's independence from (or even hostility to) Rome. Celtic romanticists similarly viewed the Paschal Controversy as a battle between a free-spirited Celtic Church on one side and an oppressive, authoritarian Roman Church on the other. Modern scholarship now views the Paschal Dating Controversy in a different context, a 2007 thesis brings together an overview of the subject and can be read online here.


THE Acts of this holy man were first written by Venerable Bede, who lived at a period, not very remote from the age of the subject selected for his imperishable record. From this Memoir, succeeding writers have chiefly drawn. In John Capgrave's "Nova Legenda Angliae," we find a notice of St. Egbert, Monk; and, Trithemius makes him an Abbot and a ruler, over the monasteries of St. Columban. This mistake has been repeated by Wion, Menard and Bucehn. St. Egbert, abbot, appears, classed at this date, among the Irish Saints, whose biographies Colgan designed publishing. Dean Cressy has published very fully an account of this holy man, in his Church History of Brittany. The Bollandists have published his Acts, with a previous commentary, and notes. In Baillet's " Les Vies des Saints," the name of St. Egbert appears at the 24th of April. Bishop Challoner, Le Comte de Montalembert. Les Petits Bollandistes, and Rev. S. Baring-Gould have historic accounts of this celebrated man.

St. Egbert was an Englishman by birth, and issued from a noble race. It is thought, he was born, among the southern Saxons, owing to the rather ambiguous way, in which Bede introduces him to the notice of his readers. Some authors, he says, thus inform us. For some time, Egbert was brought up in the famous monastery of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, and in the days, when Finan or Colman had been Bishops of Lindisfarne. At this time, likewise, it was very common for many of the Saxon students, to leave their native country, and to dwell in Ireland. Either to improve in sacred learning, or to embrace in that Island a more holy and continent life, was their chief purpose. Among these were Edilhun and Egbert, two young men of great capacity, and belonging to the English nobility. The former was brother to Ethelwin,'s a man no less beloved by God. Afterwards, he went over to Ireland for the purpose of study. Having been well instructed, Ethelwin returned into his own country. Having been made Bishop in the province of Lindsay, he governed most worthily, and for a long time, that church, committed to his charge.

While Egbert and Edilhun were in a monastery, which in the language of the Scots was called Rathmelsigi, and when all their companions were either snatched away from this world, by that great mortality, which prevailed A.D. 664, or when these were dispersed into other places, the two Saxon students were both attacked by the same pestilential disease. They were most grievously ill, for some time. Then, thinking he should die, Egbert went out in the morning from the infirmary, and sitting alone, in a convenient place, he began seriously to reflect on his past actions. Filled with compunction at the remembrance of his sins, the face of Egbert was wet with his tears, and from the bottom of his heart the penitent prayed to God, that he might not die as yet, but that he inight first have time to do penance for the past negligences of his childhood and youth, as also to exercise himself more abundantly in the practice of good works. He also made a vow, that he would live a stranger and pilgrim abroad, so as never to return to his native island of Great Britain: moreover, that besides the Canonical hours of the Divine Office—if he were not bodily sick—he would daily sing the whole Psalter to the Almighty's praise, and that every week he would pass one whole day and night in a rigorous fast. After these tears, prayers, and vows, he went back, and found his companion asleep ; and then, lying down upon his bed, he also began to compose himself for rest When he had lain quietly awhile, his companion awaking looked on him, and said, "O, Brother Egbert, O, what have you done? I was in hopes we should have entered together into everlasting life." Egbert then replied : "However, be assured, that you shall receive what you have asked for." Egbert had learned in a vision, what the other had prayed for, and that his request should be granted. In short, Edilliun died the next night; but, Egbert, getting the better of his distemper, recovered. He lived for a long time, afterwards, and gracing the degree of priesthood to which he was promoted, with actions worthy of his sacred calling. Humility, meekness, continence, simplicity, and justice, rendered him a perfect man ; so that he did great service, to his own countrymen, and also to the nations, both of the Scots and of the Picts, among whom he lived in exile, giving them the holy example of his life. Owing to his labours in preaching, by his authority in correcting, and through his piety in relieving such as were in need, with what he received from the rich, Egbert effected great good. He added to the vows already mentioned, that during Lent he would eat but once in the day; and even then, nothing but bread and thin milk, and that doled out by measure. This fresh milk he used to put in a vessel the day before; and, the next day skimming off the cream, he drank only what remained, and eat a little bread. This same method of abstinence he took care always to observe, for forty days before the Nativity of our Lord; and likewise, for the same number of days after Pentecost.

During his youth, for some time, St. Chad led a monastic life with our saint in Ireland. Both lived in the exercise of prayer, of abstinence, and of meditation on the Divine Scriptures. The most reverend Father Egbert, being in conversation with Hygbald, a most holy and mortified man, who was Abbot in the Province of Lindsey, and who had came out of Britain to visit him, their subject of discourse, as it became holy men, was upon the lives of the fathers that had gone before them, and with a desire to imitate them. Mention being made of the most reverend Prelate Chad, "I know a man," said Egbert, "in this Island, yet living in the flesh, who, when that man passed out of this world, saw the soul of his brother Cedda come down from heaven, with a company of Angels, and taking his soul along with them, they returned thither again. Our saint admonished Egfrid, King of the Northumbrians, to desist from his unjust expedition into Ireland, in 684, and not to hurt an innocent people, that had done him no harm. But, refusing to hear him, and laying waste that nation, which had always been most friendly to the English, and not sparing even the churches or monasteries, Egfrid was justly punished the following year. Leading his army against the Picts, and being drawn by them into some defiles among the mountains, all were destroyed, in that expedition. One of the principal occurrences in the Life of St. Egbert is referable to the mission of Saints Willebrord, Swibert and their companions, into Germany. Thither, the saint desired to have gone himself, but he was prohibited by manifestations from heaven, which induced him to alter his intentions. However, he was mainly instrumental, in directing the attention of his associates to that great work. There were people called Frisons, Rugians, Danes, Huns, Old Saxons, and Boructuarians, from whom the Angli and Saxons, dwelling in England during Venerable Bede's period, were known to have descended. There were many other nations in these parts of Europe still following their pagan rites, and to whom the soldier of Christ Egbert had designed to repair. Sailing about Britain, he resolved to try, if he could deliver any of them from Satan, and bring them over to Christ; or, if he could not effect this, he designed to visit Rome, where he might see and reverence the monuments of the Blessed Apostles, martyrs of Christ. However, he was hindered from performing any of these things, owing to the oracles and the power of heaven. When he had chosen companions, the most strenuous and fit, to preach the word, while excelling both in virtue and learning, and when he had prepared all things which seemed necessary for their voyage; there came to him one day, and early in the morning, a brother, who was formerly a disciple and servitor to Boisil, that priest beloved of God. That brother related to Egbert a vision he had seen that night. "When after Matins," said he, "I lay down in my bed, and had fallen into a slumber, there appeared to me my old master and most loving tutor, Boisil, who asked me, whether I knew him ? I said, 'yes ; you are Boisil.' He replied, ' I am come to bring Egbert the answer of the Lord our Saviour, which nevertheless must be delivered to him by you. Tell him, therefore, that he cannot perform the journey he has proposed, for it is the will of God, that he should rather go to teach in the monasteries of Columba.'" This illustrious Cenobiarch was the first teacher of the Christian faith to the Picts, beyond the northern mountains; and, he was the first founder of that celebrated monastery in the Island of Hy, which continued for a long time in great veneration, among the Scots and Picts. Having heard the words of this vision, Egbert ordered the brother that had related it to him, that he should say nothing about it to any other person, lest perhaps it might be an illusion. However, considering within himself, he apprehended the admonition was a real one; and, he did not desist from preparing for his projected journey to teach the gentiles. A few days afterwards, the same brother came to him again, stating that Boisil that very night, also, had appeared to him after matins, and that he had said, "Why did you communicate to Egbert in so negligent and in so tepid a manner, what I enjoined you to tell him? Go now, and let him know, that willing or not willing, he must remain in the monasteries of Columba; because their ploughs do not go straight, and he is to bring them to the right way." Hearing this again, Egbert commanded the brother not to reveal the same to any person; and though he was assured of the vision, Egbert made another attempt, to begin his intended journey with the brethren already mentioned. When they had put on board all that was necessary for so distant a journey, and while they were waiting some days for favourable winds; so violent a storm arose one night, that after having lost some part of the cargo, the ship ran aground, and was left upon her side among the waves; yet, whatever belonged to Egbert and to his companions was saved. Whereupon, he dropped the designed voyage, and he quietly remained at home. However, one of his companions, named Wicbert, was remarkable for his contempt of this world, and for his great learning, having for many years lived a stranger in Ireland. There, he led an eremitical life in great perfection, and, afterwards, he went abroad. Arriving in Frisia, he preached the word of salvation, for two whole years to that people, and to Rathbod their king. Yet, he did not reap any fruit, from all his labour among these barbarous auditors. So, returning to the beloved place whence he proceeded, he gave himself up to our Lord, in his accustomed spirit of recollection; and, since he could not profit those that were without, by bringing them to the true faith, he laboured to be so much the more serviceable among his own people, by those examples of his virtue, which were given.

When the man of God, Egbert, perceived, that he was neither permitted to preach to the gentiles, being withheld on account of some other advantage to holy Church, and regarding which he was beforehand admonished by the Divine Oracle, nor that Wicbert, who went into those parts, had met with any success, he still attempted to send to this work of the Word some holy and industrious men. Among these, that great man Willebrord was most eminent, both as regarded his priestly degree and his merit. Those missionaries, being twelve in number, visited Pippin, Duke of the Franks and they were kindly received by him; and, whereas, he had lately subdued the hither Frisia, from which he had expelled King Rathbod, the Duke sent them thither to preach. These missionaries are deservedly looked upon, as the Apostles of the northern countries of Europe; which, under God, owe their Christianity to the Apostles' zeal, and to that of St Egbert, the great promoter of this mission. St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, had laboured successfully to introduce the discipline of the Roman Church into his diocese, in opposition to the Scottish usages; but, still great opposition was manifested to that reform by the monks, who had retained the Irish custom, to the time of Egbert. The holy man next took into hands that other great work, for which he was reserved. His chief task was inducing the monks of Hy, with the other subject monasteries, to observe the canonical celebration of Easter. Coming from Ireland to the monastery of Hy, in 716, Egbert was honourably and with much joy received by the monks. Being most persuasive in his teaching, and most devout in practising what he taught, Egbert was very willingly hearkened to by all; while, owing to his godly and frequent exhortations, he brought them away from their tenacious adhesion to that tradition of their ancestors. To them might be applied the words of the Apostle, that they had the zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. However, Egbert soon taught them to celebrate the principal solemnity of Easter, after the Catholic and Apostolic manner. This appears to have been the result of a wonderful dispensation in the Divine goodness; for, since the Irish people had been careful to communicate to the English, willingly and without envy, the knowledge they had of God's truths, it was even just, that they should afterwards, by means of the English, be brought to a perfect rule of life, and in such things as those, in which they had been defective.

On the death of Conamhail, in 710, Dunchadh, became Abbot over lona, which monastery he governed, and his death is recorded, at A.D. 717. Under Abbot Dunchadh, and about eighty years after they had sent Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, to preach the Gospel to the English nation, those monks of Hy adopted that generally received rite, for the mode and time of observing Easter. They abandoned, in like manner, the former Irish style of tonsure, by shaving the head from ear to ear, and they adopted the Coronal shape, on the top of their heads. The man of God, Egbert, remained thirteen years in the aforesaid Island, which he had, as it were, consecrated to Christ, by the light of a new grace. He there promoted ecclesiastical society and peace, among the fraternity. This is the Egbert, so called Abbot of Iona, who is mentioned by Colgan, with a festival for the 24th of April, A.D. 729; however, he seems to have had no authority, for assigning the holy man so high a position in the abbey. A record of his death, by Tighernach, only styles him, the soldier of Christ.

Egbert had now attained the ninetieth year of his age, and the time for his release approached. In the year 729, Easter Sunday was celebrated on the 24th of April. Having performed the solemnities of his Mass in memory of the Resurrection of our Lord, Egbert departed that very same day from this world. He passed to heaven, there to complete, or rather, there to celebrate, without end, with the Lord, with the Apostles, and with the rest of its happy citizens, the joy of that great festival. This he had begun upon earth, and with those brethren, whom he had converted to the state of unity. It was a wonderful dispensation of Divine Providence, that this venerable man did not only pass out of this world to the Father on Easter-day; but, also, while Easter was kept that very day, on which, heretofore it had not been observed, in that place. The brethren, therefore, were glad, because of their having now the assured and Catholic knowledge regarding the time for observing Easter. They rejoiced in the patronage of that Father, now going to the Lord, and by whom they had been corrected. He rejoiced, likewise, that he had been kept so long in the flesh, until he saw his hearers receive and celebrate Easter with him, on that very day, which before they always avoided. Thus, this most Reverend Father, being assured of their correction, rejoiced to see the day of the Lord. He saw it and was glad.

It has been stated, that Egbert was venerated, at Dorn, in Sutherland; and, this is recorded, in the Scottish Menology of Thomas Dempster. His office, as a semi-double, was formerly recited in the Diocese of Utrecht ; because he was regarded, as having been instrumental in bringing the Christian Faith to the Low Countries. In the Irish as in the English Martyrologies, this holy man is commemorated. According to the Martyrology of Tallagh, veneration was given, at this date, to Echtbricht, a Saxon. The Roman Martyrology and Father Stephen White commemorate this saint, at the 24th of April. Ferarius, in his General Catalogue of Saints, and Ghinius, in his Natal Days of Holy Canons, have a record of his feast. In Henry Fitzsimon's "Catalogus Aliquorum Sanctorum Iberniae," this Abbot Egbert is also classed among our national saints, and Venerable Bede's authority is given, for placing his feast at the 24th of April. Mirseus and Molanus have entered it, among Festivals of Saints belonging to the Netherlands, because of the interest felt by Egbert, in promoting the establishment of the Gospel in that country. In the Anonymous Catalogue of Irish Saints, published by O'Sullivan Beare, his name likewise occurs, and also, in nearly all the ancient and modern Calendars.

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