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Thursday, 7 January 2016

Past Life - Present Mission (3)

Chapter 2: The Celtic Saints: what can we know and how?

“Interest in and admiration for Celtic Christianity is booming. Books pour off the press telling the stories of 5th and 6th century British and Irish saints … offering a Celtic model of mission and church organisation … The appeal seems to extend across the theological and denominational spectrum, and well beyond the company of Christian believers, New Agers, post-modernists, liberals, feminists, environmentalists, evangelicals and charismatics identify with Celtic Christianity and call for a recovery of its key principles today.” The publishing fraternity has responded with “everything from weighty tomes on Celtic consciousness to some poor attempts at re-telling ancient Celtic myths and legends”. But these often create as much fog as light. How sure could we be sure then that Mitton’s fourteen themes accurately describe Celtic Christianity?


The romanticism and trendy nature of some contemporary literature on Celtic Christianity can obscure what the Celtic Christians actually believed while interpretations of the historical data can often be subjective reflections of established Church traditions. Patrick Thomas refers to a TV commentator’s comment during George Carey’s enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury that “the new Archbishop was the successor of St Augustine who brought Christianity to Britain in 597 AD”. Thomas comments, “it was the kind of statement calculated to make Welsh, Irish and Scottish hackles rise, as there were Christians in Britain long before St Augustine’s mission”.

Similarly, Basil Hume suggests that the deeper issue which lay behind the discussions about the date of Easter at the Synod of Whitby was this: “was the Christian Church in this Island going to be separate from the universal Church and develop along its own lines, or was it going to be part of the universal Church accepting the authority of the successor of Saint Peter?” The Synod of Whitby was actually the point at which the Celtic Church of the north and west was forced to bend the ecclesiastical knee to the Roman ‘Catholic’ (meaning universal) Church of the south. Hume’s historical perspective, therefore, is associated with a traditional belief system that claims dogmatic authority for the Roman Church and its claim of universal jurisdiction, which it certainly did not have in the 7th century AD. Instead, as F. E. Warren clearly asserted:

“[The Celtic Church was] orthodox (catholic), independent of Rome. Part of a vast communion existing in Britain and Ireland from which it expressed its mission to the Teutonic tribes of the continent. Its claims to Catholicity ignored or impugned by the European Church of Rome.”

Many writers insist that the heart of any in-depth understanding of Celtic Christianity and its spirituality is not merely intellectual or academic but is experiential. Esther De Waal suggests that:

“The Celtic way of seeing the world … cannot be understood only in cerebral terms. It speaks to the heart, is closer to poetry and like poetry, it must remain ultimately illusive.
You can come in,
You can come in a long way –
But you won’t be inside.”

However, this approach too can lead to total subjectivity. Mackey, for example, reveals that his assessment of the various papers for his book on Celtic Christianity was based on “whatever seems to reverberate within some depths of my own Celtic consciousness as that too has been formed by my learning and use from my earliest childhood of the Irish language that repository of a total and ancient culture”.

Elizabeth Culling berates Mackey for this specific inconsistency in historical objectivity saying: “If this kind of criterion is used to sift the evidence of history subjectivity takes over … A writer like Mackey is free to build up a picture of Celtic Christianity as characterised by a theology which excludes original sin and a natural world which is ‘altogether good and salvific’ for ‘the Celtic mentality’”.


The problem of source material is illustrated in considering the life and work of Ninian at Whithorn, as there is no documentary or source evidence until about 300 years after his death. Charles Thomas suggests the following approach to achieve a level of historical critique about the Celtic Saints:

· Establish the primary sources: The visible and tangible ones e.g. St Patrick’s written “Confession” and “Letter to Coroticus” or the inscribed Latinus Stone of Whithorn and the stones found at Kirkmadrine, which are equivalent to contemporary and authoritative documents.

· Secondary sources usually based on oral traditions: Such as Bede’s comments about Ninian and Whithorn 300 years later or the 8th century “Miracula” poem which refers to the Whithorn period.

· Tertiary sources: These include peripheral allusions to Whithorn in the Irish context, the Medieval life by Aelred, the lengthy ecclesiology of Whithorn, and the whole body of commentary most of which has occurred during the last forty years.

An informed and culturally sensitive understanding of Celtic history must therefore be a prerequisite to entering into an experiential awareness of these ancient ways of thinking and acting. A point illustrated by the example of Ian Bradley who acknowledges that his early book The Celtic Way reflected the romantic approach that he now rejects. Nevertheless he suggests:

“If Celtic Christianity, however reconstructed and re-shaped, can help us not just to dream but put our dream into reality by changing ourselves and our world and moving forward in imitation of Christ and toward the kingdom of God, then … it is its ultimate justification.”

This is a summary of the hopes and vision that lay behind our approach at St Edmunds based on the belief that “the distinctive voice of the early indigenous Christian Communities of the British Isles speaks to us through all the layers of distortion and fabrication with which it has been overlaid". Ninian is a good example of this occurring, as is the following material on Patrick, Columba, monasticism and peregrinatio.


According to the best estimates Patrick lived from 390 to 461 AD. Much literature about Patrick agrees that at age 16 he was captured by Irish (Scotti) raiders who returned with him to Ireland where he was enslaved, and used as a herdsman. Separated from his family, Patrick responded to the Christian faith becoming deeply committed to prolonged and intense prayer. Six years later he escaped from Ireland by ship to the Continent, but was eventually able to return to Britannia and his home. Whilst in his home environment, he had a dream that called him back to Ireland to preach Christ there and engage in mission.

The Annals of Ulster record Patrick’s arrival in Ireland as 432 AD. O’Laoghaire records the fact that less than 100 years after Patrick the structure of the Church in Ireland had become Celtic monastic, not Roman Diocesan. The subsequent wide scale emergence in Ireland of Celtic Monasticism linked to the rural, tribal system was based on Abbots who governed them. Bishops were often part of the monastery but rarely in control. This became the established model throughout Celtic Christian areas rather than the European Roman Diocesan model.

In his exploration of Patrick’s evangelistic method John Riordian analyses and evaluates Patrick’s handling of Christian belief as an evangelistic offer within the worldview of those who were living within Druid belief. Following Riordain’s argument, I suggest that we need to change the view that Patrick was a Romano-Briton who failed to convert Ireland to the Roman Diocesan approach, even though he subsequently became the Patron Saint of Ireland. Rather, he should be regarded as an outstanding Celtic Evangelist.

Riordain begins by pointing out that in Irish Druid culture “the Celtic understanding of reality, the gods and goddesses inhabited the hills, the mounds, the megalithic tombs, the lakes, the rivers and woods. The entire world was enveloped in a sort of nature faith. People were always in contact with the other world, the world of the supernatural. It was invisible but around one at all times and could certainly manifest itself at any moment.”

Riordain then discusses an episode outlined in the “Tripartite Life of Patrick”, which throws light on Patrick’s “missionary approach to a people surrounded by so many gods and goddesses”. Patrick meets two daughters of Laoghaire at the well of Clibach near Rathcrochan the Royal seat of Connacht. As they wash their hair in the well, Patrick and his clerics walked by in white robes. Not having seen them before, the Princesses think they are of the “Tuatha De Danann” (i.e. mythological Celtic gods and goddesses). Patrick starts to share his religion with them. When the eldest girl Eithane finds place to speak, she has a lot of questions for missionary Patrick:

“Who is God?
and Where is God?
Of whom is God?
And where is his dwelling?
Has he sons and daughters?
Gold and silver
This God of yours?
Is he ever living?
Is he Beautiful?
Was his son fostered by many?
Are his daughters dear and beautiful to the men of the world?
Is he in heaven
Or on earth
In the sea, in the rivers,
In the mountains
In the valleys?
Speak to us
Tidings of Him?
How will He be seen?
How is He loved?
How is He found?
Is it in youth
Or old age
He is found?”

Riordain suggests that in this series of questions Eithane is naturally thinking in terms of Druid religion, the Tuath De Danann faith. He notes that Patrick’s response does not contradict her. Indeed he endorses, while reforming and transcending her own assumptions. Patrick’s response is to present to Eithane and her companions a revised worldview:

“Our God is the God of all things,
The God of Heaven and Earth
The God of the sea and the streams
The God of the sun, moon and stars,
The God of the great high mountains and the deep glens.
The God above heaven, in heaven and under heaven,
And he has a household, heaven and earth,
and the sea and all that they contain.”

This is in contrast to the Druid impersonal concept of Nuirt. He unfolds the mystery of the God of all things, revealed in the person of Christ:

“The ancient religion far from being obliterated has in fact blossomed into its fullness. Having gone through the impersonal stages of ‘Nuirt’ and the semi-personal deification of nature, it reveals its full development in the incarnation. Nothing has been lost along the way and God is still as near as ever.”

Riordain suggests that “...if one is to understand Celtic religion and its spirituality … it is necessary to appreciate that continuity of thought”. Patrick’s basic approach to evangelism was not to argue or ‘put down’ the Druidic beliefs of the people, but to show them Christianity as a better way that brought fulfilment to their patterns of belief and world view.


Columba was born in Donegal, Ireland, of royal stock. As a young boy he was fostered by a priest who prepared him for the priesthood. Later, under St Finnian he studied at the Monastery of Molville (Leinster). After ordination he spent 15 years preaching and teaching in Ireland and founded a number of monasteries including ones at Derry and Durrow. He was skilled as a scribe at illumination of Biblical texts and it was alleged that he made a copy of the Psalms from the edition belonging to Finnian. Subsequently Finnian claimed the copy Columba had made as his own. This led to a massive and bloody battle at Cooldrevne (Cul Dreimne) in 561 AD.

Subsequently and on the advice of St Molaisse his Anmchara (spiritual director) Columba left Ireland on a wandering pilgrimage (peregrinatio). Molaisse condemned Columba to a permanent exile to undertake the conversion of as many Picts as were killed at the battle to Cul Dreimne, for which he held Columba responsible. This created for Columba a personal peregrinatio that was to involve both mission and evangelism.

Columba, aged 42 years, set out from the coast of Derry with twelve companions during 563. He was obliged, following his arrival in Iona, to journey to what is now Inverness to obtain permission from King Brude to establish a monastery at Iona. This was accomplished and Brude became impressed with the Christian faith through Columba’s influence and miracles.

The site where Columba chose to build the Iona monastery was a former Druid site. It was to become one of the great mission centres of the Celtic lands and an important seat of learning. During the early years of Columba’s ministry he developed a major emphasis on teaching and preparing monks for mission to the Irish Scotti. These were ethnically his own people, many of whom were responsive to Christianity. His Ionian approach was equally committed to evangelism amongst the pagan Picts and others in these islands and Europe. The late 6th century monastic approach Columba developed became widely adopted. Its rule of life required that the monks lived only for God, praying constantly, with regular study of the scriptures (the Psalms were held in deep veneration), owning no luxuries, eating only when hungry, sleeping only when tired. Novices studied in preparation for taking their monastic vows. The Venerable Bede in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” (completed in 731 AD) wrote that “the Iona community was characterised by their purity of life, love of God and loyalty to the monastic rules”.

When he died in 597 AD he left behind a well-organised network of monasteries (part of his family’s Paruchiae), all subordinate to Iona. This provided a stable structure for the survival of his monastic system, and subsequent Abbots came from his wider family. As a result Iona retained a long-term, central place within the Churches in Celtic lands, particularly in the Scottish Highlands and islands and later through Lindisfarne to Northumbria and wider to include European countries.


Monasteries often started in a small way with a group of monks, as did Iona. Others started as a lonely hermit’s prayer cell, which grew as other monks joined, until it became a monastery. Bradley describes the evolving monastic system within the Celtic areas as a “network of largely autonomous monasteries taking over many of the functions of schools run by Druid Filid or Bards”, and that this “fitted the scattered rural nature of the country much better than a highly centralised system of parishes and Dioceses which were designed for urban society.”

The Abbot was head in an authoritative as well as a spiritual sense. There was a mixed pattern in that some were celibate leaders (as in Columba’s Iona ‘Paruchiae’) but others included married people. Daily life revolved around the basic activities of prayer, study and work. There was usually a banked or walled enclosure within which would be built (depending on the size of the monastery) a church that was likely to have been constructed of wood; an Oratory; cells for the monks; storage buildings; a granary for food; cells for scribes; a teaching cell for adults and children. This was the context within which Christian faith in the Celtic era was mainly located.

Whilst Bishops continued to exercise their normal liturgical role, they were overshadowed as administrators and usually as spiritual leaders by powerful Abbots whose monasteries were linked to their own family (usually aristocratic) group known as a Paruchiae. The word refers to the family’s sphere of influence. Some Paruchiae were scattered over wide areas and yet formed an integrated unit of daughter monasteries.

The overriding importance of the Paruchiae monastic system was that it related to the central institution of tribal society namely: Kinship and local small Kingships known as Tuahs, with an over-lord as High King; and the Clan. Ian Bradley refers to Celtic society as “non-hierarchical and decentralised, being made up of a series of loosely organised and largely autonomous communities bound together by family ties much along the lines of the clan system in the Scottish Highlands.”

J. N. Hillgarth suggests that because of the fusion of the monastic system with tribal kinship and the kingship structure, particularly in Ireland, Christianity was able to triumph over Paganism. The 4th-7th centuries; the era of the Sancti, the Celtic Saints, was the critical period when Christianity became accepted, yet reflected its pagan background among the people. Pagan holy sites and even pagan gods had their association and attributes transferred to the incoming religion of Christianity.

The Celtic Saints during these centuries became the Christian equivalent of the pagan Celtic war-lord heroes. Hillgarth gives Columba as a classic example through his involvement in aristocratic feuds in Ireland, leading to the battle of Cul Dreimne. He is celebrated in praise psalms in old Irish, which catch key aspects of his life – the danger of sea voyages which he undertook with Irish monks when they “swept over the sea in boats…”. Adomnan, Columba’s biographer writing a century after his death, called Columba, ‘The Island Soldier’.

Nora Chadwick suggests that with the death of Columba in AD 597 and the widespread development and influence of the monastic system in Ireland and the British Isles during the 6th-7th century the era of the Sancti ended. The monastic system provided the main centres of Church life, deeply integrated into the tribal social structures of the Celtic rural world.


Peregrinatio originated in the 4th century, with a rapid development in the 5th to become a central principle widely practised within the Celtic Church by the 6th century. In order to identify the unique characteristics of this form of wandering pilgrimage, it is important to identify that it is not pilgrimage per se. The Biblical background to Peregrinatio was stated within the source material entitled, the Old Irish Life of Columba. It was regarded as a spiritual and practical challenge for Christians and its key characteristics were its wandering nature, pilgrimage with a personal and spiritual aim, and for many either mission or evangelism or both.


Joanne Hogg - I Am The Great Sun.

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