The year 510 saw the establishment of two great religious traditions. In Italy St. Benedict founded the Monastery of Monte Casino, while in Ireland St. Finnian founded the Monastery of Clonard. Although Benedict and Finian were born and died within a few years of each other, the continent that was alive with wild bears kept them from communicating or from even knowing about each other.
Finian, after a start in one of Patrick’s foundations, studied in Wales at a monastery that had gathered a trove of secular and religious manuscripts. With plans of returning to Ireland, Finian made copies of Rome’s classics and of St. Jerome’s vulgate Bible. Establishing a monastery at Clonard in County Meath, Finian trained the cleverest of his young monks to both appreciate and copy his manuscripts.
One time when I was roving about Ireland in a rented car I stopped for a visit in the church at Nenagh. The windows were impressive, and walking from one to another, amused by such names as St. Jarlath, Finbar, Ciaran, and Colman; I then came to a plaque that identified the saints as the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland.” They had all been abbots trained by St. Finian of Clonard.
The next day, riding into County Meath I tracked down the farm house of Donal Cusack, brother to Sister Laurentia with whom I had served at a parish in Florida. I had a grand evening with Donal in big chairs by his turf fire. Then, the following day I rode with Donal out to a line of sods he had bought, and I helped at turning them over for drying.
In coming away from the bog I thought to ask Donal if he knew where Finian’s monastery had been. “Sure, I’ll point out the spot to you. It’s just on a bit from here.” And a mile or two on he slowed down to point out over some fields. “Finian’s monastery would have been over there now, Father. There’s a small Protestant church on the spot.”
History’s disregard for Finian’s monastery is in contrast with the importance it has given to St. Benedict’s Monte Casino. I’ve read that Benedict, as the son of a Roman noble of Umbria, had loved a girl of his station; but feeling such disgust for the lazy vices of young men his age, he fled east of Rome to a cave in the high cliff of Subiaco.
Benedict wrote that in the three years he spent in solitude at Subiaco he gave full attention to the spiritual writings of John Cassain. That John, in turn, had schooled himself on the Life of St. Anthony. He over and over read from a book in which St. Athanasius had carefully described the attention the desert fathers had given to chanting the Psalms and practicing penances.
From near Subiaco young men became aware of the life Benedict was living, and as they came to him, he set them up in communities of twelve men each. Then, after some years he was informed that some family connection had deeded over to him the summit of Monte Casino south of Rome; and he made that his permanent foundation.
Both Finian’s and Benedict’s great European monastic traditions had stemmed from the Egyptian monastic experiments of Pachomius, the disciple of Anthony. But we must note a major difference between Benedict’s and Finian’s foundations. While Finian’s Irishmen went along with the severities of the Greek Stoics, punishing their bodies to strengthen their souls. Benedict’s monks followed the balanced Roman motto that called for a healthy mind in a healthy body. The spread of Benedictine monasticism through the ages is testimony to the practicality of St. Benedict’s rule.
The glory of Finian’s disciples stemmed from their dedication to learning. The work of their scriptoria preserved both the religious and the secular masterpieces of the past. In 1971 Sir Arthur Clarke used Sunday night Public Television to give us a sixteen part series on Western Civilization. One Sunday Night’s segment opened with a view of waves breaking on Iona, an isle in the Inner Hebrides. The camera then led us up a rocky path, while Sir Arthur was telling us, “In the 500’s Western Civilization escaped extinction by the skin of its teeth.” The monks of Finian’s disciple Columcille, making their parchment from the sheep they tended, had their quills working decade after decade, preserving the words of Isaiah and Cicero.