One of the greatest of the anamcaras whose writing has been passed down to us is known as Pelagius. He was likely a Welsh monk, originally named Morgan (which in Welsh means “sea-born”). It has often been said that we don’t have any surviving writings by Pelagius’ own hand – but that is not true. We have several letters from Pelagius as well as other Pelagian teachers which have been translated from Latin into English by BR Rees in his book Pelagius: Life and Letters.
Pelagius had travelled to continental Europe to preach and teach. He does not identify his travels with the Celtic idea of pilgrimage, but his choice to leave home and travel abroad preaching the gospel was very much in line with other Celtic teachers like Patrick, Columcille, and Columbanus. Now, it must be said, that the early Celtic notion of pilgrimage was not the same as our modern one. It was not a trip to a specific location honouring a saint or miraculous event but rather a setting off into the unknown away from clan and family.
Because clan was such an important part of Celtic culture this form of pilgrimage was seen as a kind of penance and ascetic practice. Patrick said in his confession “Whence came to me that gift so great, so salutary, the knowledge and love of God so intense that I might part with fatherland and relations?” Whether or not this was Pelagius’ motive for travelling and preaching in the heart of the Roman Empire, I could not say. But he certainly was so much afire with love of the gospel that he left home and family.
Pelagius was primarily an anamcara, his concern was with the inner condition and the style of life which flows from it. He did not write much about metaphysics or christology. Pelagius taught that to be a Christian is more a way of life than it is a set of doctrines. He taught that people can live good lives even if they are not Christians. He taught that people have inherent worth and goodness and that we can achieve great things if only we have the patience to live truly virtuous lives. His writings emphasize both the imperative of holy living and the inborn ability of all people to live the way Jesus taught.
For Pelagius, the beginning of a holy life must be firmly rooted in hope. Without hope we never even strive for goodness. For this reason Pelagius emphasised the beauty and power of the human soul. Not only, Pelagius taught, does Christ call us to live in a radical new way but God has also given us all of the tools which we require to do so. This is, perhaps, best demonstrated in the opening of his letter to Demetrias who was a young woman, about fourteen years of age, just beginning to pursue the holy life.
“Whenever I have to speak on the subject of moral instruction and the conduct of a holy life, it is my practice first to demonstrate the power and quality of human nature and to show what it is capable of achieving, and then to go on to encourage the mind of my listener to consider the idea of different kinds of virtues, in case it may be of little or no profit to him to be summoned to pursue ends which he has perhaps hitherto assumed to be beyond his reach; for we can never enter upon the path of virtue unless we have hope as our guide and companion.”
This emphasis on way of life over doctrine became a foundational aspect of early Celtic monasticism and the emphasis on hope and human goodness became the foundation of the Irish system of soul healing which used spiritual practices to heal the illness of sin and restore a person to the image of God in which they were created.
It was believed that sin is not original to the human condition at all but is rather accumulated through life by what Pelagius referred to as “the long habit of doing wrong” or what we might call today inter-generational trauma and systemic evil. The goal of the Christian life, in the eyes of Pelagius and many other Celtic teachers, is to remedy the vices which we have accumulated over the course of our lives by developing virtues in their place. This was done through teaching, spiritual practices, and a mystical drawing from the well of goodness which is implanted inside us, what many today would think of as grace.
Pelagius is often accused of teaching that the holy life can be lived entirely by virtue of our own free will and without the help of God, but his teaching is much more subtle than that. This inner goodness which is the source of our ability to live the holy life is in fact the image of God in which we are created. Without this inner gift, or the law imprinted on our hearts as the prophet Jeremiah put it, we would not be able to do all the wonderful things Pelagius and Jesus both assure us that we can do.
This inner teacher and healer is the light of Christ within and is the source of our free will. Pelagius’ mystical teaching is so simple that it often gets overlooked altogether. Augustine accused him of promoting nothing more than “law and teaching” and not having any sound doctrine of grace, but I believe he had a deep understanding of grace. If we understand that our free will is, in itself, an unearned gift from God then everything starts to come together.
We need both grace and free will in order to come to holiness but, and here’s the part that is really important, grace is beyond our ability to control. Grace is God’s free will and we can do nothing to change it. Grace is so much larger and more important than our measly human wills, but it is not ours to command. So, an understanding of Christianity which speaks too much of grace and not enough of free will misses the mark because ours is not to understand grace, ours is to use our free will in response to grace.
An emphasis on free will does not deny the importance of grace, but rather it recognises and works within the limits of the human condition and most importantly it instills hope in the one who hears it. Hope for a better future, hope for a healed soul, and hope that we can do great things. With the doctrine of original sin all hope is lost because there is no healthy state for us to be restored to.
So have hope, dear sisters and brothers. Have faith in the light of Christ which shines within you. Know that holiness is within your reach if you only are willing to stay the course and see yourself with true humility and honesty. You are capable of achieving great things and if you hear the call of the gospel in your heart then you know it is to great things you are being called.
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