The ancient Celts were robust travellers who moved throughout Europe. Some acted as mercenaries for the Roman army, then settled in Galatia where they may have read Paul’s Epistle.
Celtic influence on twenty-first century Christendom began with Irish raiders of the fifth century. They abducted a 16-year-old Briton who was made a slave-herdsman on the Slemish Mountains of Ireland. In his misery, Patrick remembered the God of his grandfather and father. He began to pray. Day and night he prayed.
God answered by giving him visions, providing him with freedom and then calling him back to preach to those who had enslaved him. God blessed his ministry and in the next century many islands of the Hebrides became home to hermit-monks. In 563 AD Columba – warrior, priest, monk – established a monastery on Iona which became a base from which monks spread the Gospel across the land inhabited by fierce Picts which is present day Scotland.
After five hundred years, the Celtic monasteries had been ravaged by Viking raids and defeated politically by the Roman church. Celtic voices of worship were silent for a millennium. Then, like a seed long dormant, the Celtic branch of Christianity began to grow and flower.
The Irish Celts, a rural people, did not assume that the physical was the enemy of the spiritual. Rather, in their world view, physical activities supported spiritual practice. For example, as monks walked for visitation, they chanted Psalms. A comparable practice in our time would be to use our cell phone for calling up Scripture passages we wish to memorize and meditate upon, or to have a page of Scripture verses on the passenger seat of our car for reference at stop lights.
Creation was seen as a textbook for learning about the Creator. The traditional prayer referred to as Patrick’s Breastplate, like the Psalms, incorporates vivid physical description: “The virtues of the starlit heaven . . . the whiteness of the moon at even . . ..” Also, liturgies from both Patrick and contemporary sources make reference to Christ’s presence in every direction: above, below, beside, to the left and right, within, without. David Adam’s book of Celtic prayer, Rhythm of Life, which was published at the end of the last century, provides prayers for each day of the week and gives one of those days over to prayers that focus on creation.
Another characteristic of Celtic prayer, both then and now, is the strong focus on the Trinity and the naming of the three members of the Godhead. Prayers of the Northumbria Community in Northern England always begin and end in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Worship often took place outdoors around a stone cross which might be 14 feet high. Sometimes carvings on the cross would illustrate Bible stories in the same way that later stained glass windows taught Scripture to people who could not read. The remainder of the cross might be carved with the energetic swirls and spirals of Celtic art, beautiful and rich in symbolism. The knots, with no visible beginning or end, represent eternity. The triquetra (trinity knot) is said to refer to Patrick’s use of the shamrock to illustrate the Trinity. A circle can be a reminder that God is complete or that God’s love is never-ending. We can extend this symbolism to pray a circle of love around people, or houses, villages, even cities that we pass as we travel, strangers we meet in the street, or suffering people on the other side of the world.
Like the Apostle Paul and many missionaries today, St. Patrick worked within the culture and practice of the people he evangelized. He acknowledged the power of common grace in the “good pagan” who lived in ways that were honourable and just. He recognized the learning and spiritual influence of Druids when he referred to Christ as “my Druid.” Services were in Latin but there were also prayers, songs and hymns in the vernacular. Women in the Irish culture were respected and had leadership roles. Patrick founded many monasteries ruled by women. Brigit, who ruled over a monastery of both men and women, was revered as a female counterpart of Patrick.
Ancient travel along trade routes brought Latin Scriptures to monasteries. They were highly prized and faithfully copied by monks who worked in monastic Scriptoriums day after day, in the heat of summer and the dark chill of winter, to make copies of the Word of life. Such writing was a fearsome and wonderful responsibility. Not only were the words written on parchment with great care, the text was made beautiful through a process of illumination, highly decorative lettering and illustration. This can be seen in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the oldest remaining English Scripture, and the Book of Kells. But treasuring Scripture is not just a thing of the past. Bible readings are integral to today’s Celtic communities, embedded in daily prayers, illustrated in art and thoughtfully lived.
Yeast in the loaf
Patrick not only ministered spiritually, he worked for social justice. By the time of his death in 461 AD, the slave trade in Ireland had ended. The church he left behind promoted peace, protected the vulnerable and fed and educated the poor. Contemporary Celtic communities minister to the whole person through the gift of hospitality.
Iona, the island where Columba established his monastery, not only provides programmes and hospitality for guests from many countries, it also serves as a motherhouse for a worldwide community. Members, who continue to be part of various denominations, make common vows such as living in simplicity, being accountable to each other for the use of time and material resources, chastity (living virtuously, whether single or married) and maintaining spiritual disciplines as a mark of obedience to God. Iona Community members are also required to engage with an issue of social justice.
John Bell of the Iona Community has done a great deal to make music from Africa and Asia accessible to western congregations. Perhaps the most useful for congregations are short, eight-bar songs which are easily harmonized and can be taught by rote during the service. The Grey Goose Resource Centre provides a great deal of international music as well as many books. The Northumbria Community and The Community of Aidan and Hilda also provide a variety of materials both on site and online.
The story of the Celtic church from the fifth to the twenty-first century is a side-bar in the great story that began with Pentecost. The Acts of the Apostles tells how the Spirit was given, the summons was obeyed, many came to Jesus and the world was different. The young church grew quickly from Palestine to Africa, Asia and Europe. One colourful strand was anchored in Ireland, spread to Scotland and England and, from there, around the world. For the Celts, as for others, the Spirit changed lives for the edification of all and to the glory of God.
Mary Fleeson is a Christian who is also a visual artist. Her shop, the Lindisfarne Scriptorium, is in the village on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Mary’s creative expressions show the influence of early manuscripts and ancient calligraphy; her exuberant, bright colours, strong lines and use of Scripture capture the energy and relevance of Celtic faith for our time. lindisfarne-scriptorium.co.uk/
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