On the summits of the highest love | Auf den Gipfeln der Höchsten Liebe
On the summits of the highest love | Auf den Gipfeln der Höchsten Liebe
Author: Enzo Farinella
Languages: English and German
On The Summitts of the Highest Love
Gallus and the Irish monks: grandfathers of European culture?
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages. It might have fallen further had it not been for the epic efforts of a band of Irish monks.
Take a walk through the vast courtyard of St Gallen Abbey. The stone church towers stretch 68 metres into the sky, clichés of clanging bells sound out, a scent of hot waffle drifts from an old cafe. A few bemused Asian tourists stroll around. It’s difficult to imagine things were ever otherwise.
But the history of the Abbey—and of founding father Gallus—is one of constant change. Enzo Farinelli, a Dublin-based Italian scholar, says it is also an inspirational story, one that needs to be retold for a modern and troubled Europe. He recently did so, with a book about the impact of Irish monks on Swiss history (“On the Summits of the Highest Love”).
It all begins in Ireland, he writes. 590 AD. Cold, wet, bogged, forested. A period of history hovering between Romans and Renaissance, under the gathering clouds of the Dark Ages. Pagan tribes competing for influence on this small island on the edge of the known world.
Pious bands of monks are scattered through the country. Vows of silence, seclusion. Sheltering from savage Viking raids in purpose-built round towers. They spread along the coasts, fusing early Christianity with liberal traditions of Antiquity, developing a culture that will turn the island into a beacon for dark times.
The island can’t contain them. They want to spread further, to take the word to the continent. Peregrinatio Pro Christo. Long before the waves of forced exiles from a hungry nation, they go with God’s purpose. A group of thirteen, led by Columbanus and his closest disciple Gallus, board a wooden ship, sail out into the Irish sea.
Quickly across Britain. Two decades in the northern territories of France, running skirmishes and conversions with the tribes until expelled by a local king. Go back to your own country, the king says. But they go south. Down the Moselle, along the Vosges, across the Rhine, glimpse the Alps, arrive at Lake Zurich.
The idea of Switzerland won’t be born for another four centuries. They find a mish-mash of tribes, German and Romansch dialects, heathen practices, a land for grabs after Rome’s downfall. Charismatic Columbanus woos some locals, scares off others. His twelve followers convert, teach, travel, found monasteries. Miracles are performed.
Again a jealous ruler expels them, the vicious Queen Brunhildis. Columbanus continues south, crosses the Alps. 610 AD. Rome, Lucca, Firenze, Bobbio, the most important monastic settlement in early Europe. Founds a famous library, saves copies of Cicero and Virgil from oblivion. Writes of Europe as a common cultural entity, the first on record to do so.
Gallus goes it alone
But Gallus? The favourite disciple can’t continue. He stays, sick, behind the Alps. Sick, or providentially divined? Farinelli wonders (tongue-in-cheek) if it was “one of the mysterious ways by which God guides his people as he likes”. Gallus is the perfect missionary, a gifted communicator. He can talk to everyone. Gallus has gall.
He reaches the shores of Lake Constance, north-east Switzerland, 612 AD. Trips over a thorn bush. Another accident? This is where I will found my monastic cell! he declares. He tames a bear, fishes a waterfall, recovers health. He gathers followers, prays, writes, teaches. Patiently. The monastery grows.
His reputation grows. Monks travel from far and wide to learn from him. He is asked to become bishop of the burgeoning monastery. He is asked to become abbot of Luxeuil in France, Columbanas’ old stomping ground. No, he says. He just wants to be a monk. To pray in solitude. So they make him a saint.
The monastery grows. Europe sinks further as the power vacuum left by Rome sucks in barbaric tribes and jealous princedoms. Gall dreams that Columbanus has died in Bobbio. He has. Gall’s legend grows. He founds his own scriptorium in the footsteps of his mentor. A music school will follow.
The monastery grows. 645 AD, Gall dies preaching, allegedly 95, a ripe age in these times. The foundations are laid. Two centuries later the abbey is the chief centre of learning and teaching in all Germanic Europe. Already named after its founder. Already attracting illustrious scholars from across the continent. Droves of pilgrims—the world’s first tourists—help pay the upkeep.
The new town of St Gallen spreads around like a lay overcoat. Tensions arise, are smoothed once monies and power are mutually assured. Manuscripts, gospels, the story of Gallus himself, are written in the library by Irish hands. Precious records of a time when learning was scarce, preserved learning scarcer.
Surviving modern times
1291, Switzerland is born. The legend of Gallus rolls on. St Gallen remains one of the most important centres of Christianity on the continent. The Dark Ages move towards a close. 1517, Luther pins his theses, the Reformation rears its head, the Catholic abbey is surrounded by a Protestant sea. It fights its corner. Preserves its place, imports ever more riches to the renowned library.
The Renaissance arrives, is built upon the classic Christian ideas the Irish monks sought to spread in the first place. Baroque masterpieces by local artists and architects adorn the growing and glowing cathedral. The inner dome (see photo) offers weary locals a glimpse of heaven.
1798, France stages a revolution. Religion falls out of favour. St Gallen sits on the faultline between secular French control and the monarchist Hapsburgs to the east. The French clinch it by a hair. The monastery is shut down, the monks chased out, the abbey secularised. But survives.
A boys’ school is opened. Modern tourists come in waves, from east and west. 1983, UNESCO recognises the indisputable impact of Gallus on the course of European culture. 2012, the abbey celebrates 1,400 years since the visionary monk tripped over his thorny root.
Today, 2018, the abbey plans an international exhibition of manuscripts to show the contribution of Irish learning to Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. To show how the monks brought new forms to writing, saved certain areas of learning.
But the message is even more than the medium, says Farinella. The monks left Ireland for Europe to “rebuild the human aspects of humanity” through their teaching. To provide the missing link between classical Europe and the modern Christian entity of today.
And so he wrote his book “to trace and elucidate [the monks’] work, and by doing so, remind our European Union, Switzerland included, of its cultural, historical and religious roots.”
A big idea. Gallus would be proud.
On the summits of the highest love-Auf den Gipfeln der Höchsten Liebe
"Sulle vette del massimo amore", la centralità del monachesimo irlandese nella storia europea raccontata da Enzo Farinella
Il giornalista e scrittore siciliano, d'adozione irlandese, ripercorre nel nuovo volume, il lavoro dei monaci irlandesi alla ricerca delle radici dell’Unione Europea
Un uomo attempato, con bisaccia al collo, sguardo fiero e occhi penetranti di nome Colombano, che 1400 anni or sono transitava per le vie di Milano che pur se dimesso negli abiti, fu ben accetto alla corte di Agilulfo e Teodolinda. E' la narrazione di colui che è stato definito il più eminente rappresentante dell’ascetismo irlandese e uno dei più grandi europei del suo tempo. La racconta Enzo Farinella nel suo nuovo volume "Sulle vette del massimo amore. Monaci irlandesi in Europa e in Svizzera" descrivendo la centralità dal VI al XIV del monachesimo irlandese nella storia universale. Secoli prima la Grecia e l'Italia dopo, primi culturalmente nella scena internazionale contribuirono a tratteggiare il nuovo volto della nostra Europa. Poi un lungo momento di stasi, per la vita e le sonnecchianti culture europee, che favorì la diffusione di centri religiosi da Bobbio in Italia, Iona e Lindisfarne in Bretagna, Luxeuil in Francia, S. Gallo in Svizzera, Wurzburg e Regensburg in Germania a Salisburgo e Melk in Austria, espressione viva ed operante dei monaci irlandesi cui ''l’Italia e l’Europa tutta sono debitrici nei loro riguardi''. Sottolinea lo studioso, ripercorrendo sapientemente il lavoro dei monaci irlandesi alla ricerca delle radici stesse dell’Unione Europea.
''Il nostro non è uno studio accademico – evidenzia Farinella, italiano di nascita ma di adozione irlandese per aver vissuto nel Paese verde oltre la metà dei suoi anni - ma un tentativo di comunicare questa importante pagina di storia. Qui non siamo interessati a quanto la tradizione, leggendaria o meno, ci ha tramandato, dovremmo riempire volumi. E’ nostro compito invece far rilevare la funzione cristiano-civilizzatrice-europea del lavoro missionario irlandese subito dopo la caduta dell’Impero Romano e quanto esso potrebbe ancora offrire alla nostra riflessione in questo momento di crisi per l’Unione Europea e il resto del mondo''.
Per Farinella, far conoscere ai suoi lettori la forza culturale impressa dai monaci irlandesi nel loro itinerante cammino in Europa, è nel corso degli anni divenuta più che una passione una mission intellettuale, profonda. Lo spirito delle sue ricerche risiede nella incontestabile affermazione che il merito della reintroduzione della cultura classica in Europa sia del monachesimo irlandese attraverso i suoi centri monastici, fondazioni, scuole, cittadelle universitarie, i suoi scriptoria in Italia, Inghilterra, Francia, Paesi Bassi, Germania, Austria, Svizzera e in altre nazioni, cui ''l'Irlanda può vantare un certo credito – asserisce lo studioso – riconosciuto anche da Papa Francesco dinanzi all’assemblea plenaria del Parlamento Europeo riunito a Strasburgo, il 25 novembre 2014, quando ha ricordato le fonti lontane della sua cultura, che provengono “da substrati celtic''.
Da convinto europeista, Enzo Farinella, prende esempio dalla forza del cambiamento che ha alimentato i monaci irlandesi. Il loro lavoro e soprattutto gli ideali di rispetto per la persona umana e la sua dignità, di giustizia, uguaglianza e solidarietà, ieri come oggi sono ancora i '' pilatri fondamentali di ogni società e ideali essenziali dei padri dell’Europa Unita ''Devono essere per tutti noi una sfida – ha ancora affermato il giornalista e scrittore Enzo Farinella - per lavorare con maggior vigore e costruire insieme la casa comune europea, che rimane il progetto politico più affascinante, più coraggioso e più importante che si sia mai visto in questi ultimi secoli''.
-recensione di Mimma Cucinotta, Paese Italia Press - Cultura Arte Spettacolo, 05 Febbraio 2018
The Irish Catholic – 12.07.2018
The author is a former cultural attaché at the Italian embassy in Dublin, who has settled in Ireland as a journalist and RAI correspondent, and has made it his mission in life to research and publicise the exploits of the Irish monks who carried their Faith and learning to the Europe of what is often called (perhaps mistakenly) ‘the Dark Ages’. The Roman Empire was crumbling and the barbarians poured in from the East. The story of how the Irish ‘saved civilisation’ in medieval Europe, to use Thomas Cahill’s phrase, has often been told. The late Cardinal Ó Fiaich used to warn that a number of these saviours were “doubtfully Irish”, but there is growing evidence that the Irish contribution to preserving Christianity and its monastic culture in what is today France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Switzerland was enormous.
These two books explore aspects of this era of achievement. Both books are illustrated and have a German as well as an English text, so that they can truly be shared by an international readership. The first gives special attention to St Gall (560-646 AD) and the monastery and cathedral of St Gallen which developed from his pioneering efforts. The northern Swiss canton where they are situated also bears his name. The library holds more than 400 Irish manuscripts and musical works copied by the monks. Among these is the famous ‘Plan of St Gall’, showing the layout of an ideal medieval monastery, an intellectual treasure of the first rank. Invasion A less known monastery is Reichenau, associated with the Irish monk St Pirmin (c.700-753 AD), which stands on an island in Lake Constance (the Boden See), which lies between modern Germany, Switzerland and Austria. This survived down to 1802 and the Napoleonic invasion of the region; some of its treasures were lost at that time, but many are preserved in the library in Karlsruhe (a creation of the 18th Century).
Farinella’s second book deals more with Austria and the work of St Rupert, the first Bishop of Salzburg and founder of the monastery of St Peter there which still exists. His Irish origins are uncertain, but there are traces of his work in Bavaria and along the Danube valley. He was followed in Salzburg by the definitely Irish St Virgil, or Fergal, born around 700 AD in Co. Meath. He was also renowned as a geographer, and taught that the world was round. He clashed with St Boniface, the Apostle of Germany, over baptisms and the independence of the Celtic church. St Zachary, who reigned as Pope between 741 and 752, the last of the Byzantine Popes, who has been described as a capable administrator and a skilful and subtle diplomat in a dangerous time, supported Fergal. ❛❛ They were territories, not countries, lands where the borders changed with each new local ruler” It is impossible for a modern reader to visualise the conditions in which these pioneering monks worked in. In those centuries theses regions, only just emerging as real nations , were akin to a forested wilderness (perhaps like North America a thousand years later). They were territories, not countries, lands where the borders changed with each new local ruler. One can only marvel at the missionary zeal and achievements of these saintly scholars and sturdy pioneers. They can truly be called a group of nation builders, for they are to be counted among the people who laid the seed bed of modern Europe.
-by Joe Carroll