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Saturday, 2 January 2016

Past Life - Present Mission (2)

Chapter 1: The principles and practices of Celtic Christianity

In his book Restoring the Woven Cord Michael Mitton identifies fourteen Biblical Themes that became the background frame of reference at St Edmund’s Tysley for our own ‘Woven Cord’ programme. Mitton’s choice of themes and their content seemed to me to be a populist set of material about Celtic Christianity and were, as a result, appropriate to urban priority area residents and their non-book culture.

Whilst not exhaustive, the principles and examples of practice within Mitton’s themes provide an overview of key aspects of how Christianity was practised in Celtic areas during the 4th-7th centuries AD. The result is a collection that synthesises this wide-ranging material into a set of principles and practice about Celtic Christianity as found in Celtic lands.

1. The Authenticity, Simplicity and Holiness of Celtic Christian Living

These characteristics were widely found in the lives of individual Christians and within the Monastic system. Celtic Christians practised humility and a gentle approach to people, encouraging them toward commitment to Christ, baptism and confirmation. Established Christians were nurtured and established in their faith and led into discipleship. Much of what we know is based on monastic living where monks and those not under vows accepted a disciplined cycle of daily prayer, creative activity and work.

Nora Chadwick summed up this Principle as reflected in the Sancti: “We see in their gentle way of life, their austere monastic settlements and their island retreats, the personalities of their saints, and the tradition of their poetry, which expresses the Christian ideal with a sanctity and a sweetness which have never been surpassed and perhaps only equalled by the ascetics of the eastern desert.”

Even Wilfred who spoke for the European Church of Rome at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, referred to Celtic Christians as people “who in their rude simplicity loved God with pious intent.”

2. The Centrality of the Bible in the life of the Celtic Church

Celtic Christians were deeply dependent on the Bible, accepting it directly and with much spiritual intuition. Their beliefs and way of living were moulded by Scripture. This is profoundly illustrated in Patrick’s ‘Confession’ and his lorica prayers.

Patrick saw himself as an Ambassador for Christ within a hostile and changing world (Ephesians 6.20). He witnessed the power of the resurrection to change and transform peoples’ lives. Patrick’s personal faith reflected his commitment to the Bible. Similarly, Aidan taught all his faith sharing teams to memorise scripture as they travelled.

Within the monastic system there was a deep immersion in the study of Scripture and its scribal writings. The Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the High Standing Crosses illustrate the Celts love of the Scriptures. This helped the growth of spirituality and an orthodox living out of the faith.

3. The Importance of Children within the Celtic Christian Family

This was particularly illustrated in the Lindisfarne monastic and mission approach under Aidan. He took children in his monastery for training and teaching in the faith including four Anglo-Saxon boys, Cedd, Cynebil, Caelin and Chad, who became influential as adults. This is the first recorded example of a school for boys.

The Lindisfarne mission base included a wide range of life experience that included: teaching and preparing children and adults for life as monks; memorising Scripture; a daily rhythm of prayer and worship; English and Latin was taught; helping on evangelistic missions; learning and living the life of faith; and an underlying expectation that children would encounter God in experiential ways.

Numbers of Celtic Saints first emerged as young people responding to a call from God. Columba was an example. As a teenager he asked God for three virtues: Chastity (i.e. Celibacy); Wisdom; Opportunity for Peregrinatio. Cuthbert was the subject of a prophetic forecast about his future whilst still a boy. Later as Prior of Melrose he used to take a young boy on pastoral and evangelistic visits to neighbouring villages.

4. The Embracing Nature of Christian Community within Monastic life

Iona, under the direction and control of Columba was an outstanding example. At one time over a thousand monks lived in its community. The monastic rules and cycle of worship involved everyone and great skills emerged in scribal writing of religious texts, liturgy and worship.

There was much involvement in missionary evangelism stemming from its strong community base. These characteristics were reflected in most Celtic monasteries. Bede suggested that “The Ionian community was characterised by their purity of life, love of God and loyalty to the monastic rules.”

5. The Sense of Unity within Creation

The Celtic Church had a creation affirming spirituality. Christians looked for and expected to see signs of God’s presence within creation and their daily lives. Celtic Churches were aware of the damage done to creation by sin. Their standing crosses were signs of God’s redeeming work in the heart of His wonderful but damaged creation. This prevented a dualism between nature and humanity emerging.

6. Creativity and Spiritual Gift within the Christian Community

The lives of such as Ninian, Patrick and Columba demonstrated the presence and acceptance of spiritual gift among Christian people. At the centre of this openness to God’s gift to His people, lay a Spirit of outstanding creativeness. Caedman, for example, was an uneducated lay monk who was given the gift of Christian songs. The gift of song writing for him was not merely a technical gift, but one that was of a spiritual nature that blessed and inspired others.

The music and poetry of the Celtic Church was transmitted orally, and was influenced by the sounds of the natural world of creation. There was a beauty of language, a freshness of imagery and a depth of piety within the creativeness that surrounded spiritual gifts among Celtic Christians. This was particularly illustrated in Patrick’s ‘Loricas’; Columba’s poems and Carmichael's documentary of ancient Hebridean songs and poems from oral sources that were lost in historical time.

7. The Ever Present Fact of Death and the Presence of the Dead

Many illnesses in Celtic times frequently led to death. The Plague could afflict whole communities, as could tribal warfare. The knowledge of redemption through Christ and belief in the resurrection were key teachings, together with the reality of Heaven and Hell. To many this represented the only hope they had. The sanctity of special places was significant and behind lay the belief in immortality. Death was seen as a connecting point between the world of Heaven and Earth.

Drythelm was a devout man who had a detailed, near death, visionary experience whilst in the grip of the Plague. He was returned “from the grasp of death.” Drythelm shared his experience with many others, of how he was led by an angel to see something both of Heaven and Hell. Drythelm became a monk at Melrose and his ministry led to many conversions. He is an example of a missionary monk committed to evangelism.

The place of burial was significant to the Celtic Christians. They saw it as a place where the prayers of the saints in Heaven had particular effect.

8. The Importance of Evangelistic Mission with the Good News of Christ

This was one of the central concerns of the monastic church in the Celtic lands, and its outpouring of trained monks to go on wandering pilgrimage. Patrick practised a wide-ranging peripatetic ministry involving much journeying to remote areas in Ireland. Patrick believed he was living in end times. To reach the Irish people “who lived on the edge of the world” was for him an urgent task. He witnessed to the power of the resurrection to change and transform people’s lives. He defended his ministry in his ‘Confession’:

“I, though ignorant, may in these last days attempt to approach this work, so pious and wonderful that I may imitate some of those the Lord long ago predicted should preach this gospel for a testimony to all nations (Matthew 24v14), before the end of the world.”

9. The Reality of Christian Healing and Miracles

The majority of Celtic Saints were deeply involved in this type of ministry. An example was John of Beverley who overflowed with the Presence of the Holy Spirit and whose ministry was noted for its miracles. Ninian prayed for healing of people together with the laying on of hands. Martin Wallace referred to Ninian as “someone who not only believed, but practised the power of prayer to protect, heal, pardon and release.”

We should nevertheless note that many Celtic Saints prayed for other New Testament gifts that are not fashionable today e.g. the gift of celibacy or poverty.

10. The Acceptance of the Ministry of Women

Some women were very influential within the Celtic Church. A primary example was that of Hilda, Abbess of Whitby. Both priests and bishops were under her authority. Brigid who founded a famous monastery in Ireland at Kildare and became its Abbess, was another example of influential ministry by a woman. Kildare was a centre where Christ was exalted, and the light of the gospel was taken out into the pagan community.

It is important to note with this Theme, that the women who became leaders in the Celtic world generally or within a Christian community were usually from aristocratic families. A woman at that social level could be elected as Chief of a Tribe, or be the leader of a warband, or an Abbess.

Certain monasteries such as Iona were for males only and were based on celibacy. Other monasteries were double monasteries where monks and nuns lived within the one community. Within such monasteries there was a general acceptance of women. In that respect, Celtic Christian attitudes towards women seemed softer than that of the European Church of Rome. One of the longer term consequences of the Synod of Whitby was that Celtic openness to a wider role for women within Christian living; was stifled by the establishment of the Roman Church approach after 664 AD and its Synod of Whitby.

11. The Place and Importance of Prayer in the life of Celtic Christians

Patrick was an influential example that illustrates the daily relationship between prayer and evangelism. His prayer life deepened his love for God. His faith was strengthened and his spirit stirred. Prayer was often linked to ascetic practices, particularly with monks who became hermits in remote areas. For them a disciplined prayer life also involved celibacy and fasting. Patrick wrote,

“I prayed frequently during the day. The love of God and the fear of Him increased more and more and faith became stronger and the Spirit was stirred, the Spirit was then fervent within me.”

Columba had the reputation he would not spend one hour without including study, prayer or writing.

12. The Place of Prophecy and Awareness of God’s Will

Fursey had a travelling ministry in Ireland, then a wandering pilgrimage to the east coast of Britain from 633 AD. He experienced extraordinary visions where he saw the fires of falsehood, covetousness, discord and cruelty. This gift strengthened the effectiveness of his ministry.

Patrick is another example as reflected through his eight major visions. His first vision, which was his call back to Ireland, is illustrative:

”And I saw, indeed in the bosom of the night, a man coming as it were from Ireland. Victorious by name, with innumerable letters, he gave me one ... And while I was reading aloud I heard a voice ‘we entreat thee, holy youth, that thou come and henceforth walk among us.’”

To the Celtic Christian, the material and immaterial, the visible and invisible, the physical and spiritual, were dimensions that inter-penetrated each other.

13. The Reality of the Powers of Evil and the Acceptance of Spiritual Battle

There was a strong awareness amongst Celtic Christians of this reality, and the significance of the need for spiritual protection. Examples include, Illtyd and Cuthbert. To Illtyd the Christian was involved in conflict with demons and the powers of darkness. Creation was good and benevolent; but equally it was a world marred by evil spirits. Cuthbert was another example with his deliverance ministry engaged in spiritual battle with demons on the Farne Islands. The Celtic Church took seriously the darkness found within their world. They developed prayerful ways of protecting themselves from its influence, but also delivering people and land from the power of evil. The Celtic Church had this ability to hold together an acceptance of the forces of the dark as well as the light. Ascetic practices often formed the backcloth for those involved in such conflict.

14. The Living Reality of the Holy Spirit

The ‘Confession’ of Patrick is filled with the involvement of the Holy Spirit. To Patrick, it was God who had initiated the process of his conversion and sanctification. The Holy Spirit also communicated with him through visions and dreams. Brendan, part of Columba’s group and one of the so called twelve Apostles of Ireland, was filled with the restless spirit of adventure and wandering pilgrimage. His “Voyage of Brendan” with fourteen monks reflected the openness to God’s Spirit reflected within their wandering pilgrimage. The story of their voyage integrates love for creation; a desire to bless others who they met on their journey with the faith; and a longing to reach the place of their own spiritual resurrection i.e. their place of spiritual rightness with God. This was the ultimate personal experience in their wandering pilgrimage. The reality of the Spiritual Presence of the Holy Spirit was central to that experience.


Caedmon's Call - We Delight.

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