what can an examination of the early blossoming of Christianity in the
fringes of Britain and Ireland bring to our spiritual lives today?
As Christians we have firstly to realise that it is not just we who look to the past and to a heritage handed down from our Celtic ancestors. In this post-modern world Celtic legend is the strongest single source in the current revival of interest in paganism. However, in the same way that followers of paganism find it difficult to acknowledge the flowering of Celtic culture that took place within Celtic Christianity, so admirers of the early Celtic Church can be troubled by collections of Celtic prayers and blessings containing charms and curses.
So it is, I feel, that we need to rid ourselves of some of the romanticism that has been handed down concerning the early Christian saints, and whilst acknowledging the influence that they undoubtedly had on the early Christian communities, concentrate on those elements of their faith, doctrine and lifestyle that can bring illumination and spiritual growth into our own.
We are not seeking to live in the past, or drift toward paganism but take what is valuable from our Christian heritage and bring it into a contemporary setting, where Christianity struggles not against invasions of Angles, Jutes and Saxons, but against the enemies of indifference, denominationalism and rejection.
In an age where time is money, and lack of time a serious problem for so many; where the stresses and strains of daily living take their toll both physically and spiritually it is not difficult to see the attraction of a way of faith that finds time to be alone with God; that is God-centred rather than self or work-centred and which brings both beauty, truth and wholeness into lives that are, if not empty certainly not as fulfilled as they might be.
If we sift the wheat from the chaff and look at elements that the early monastic Church brings to us then we see the following general features:
· A genuine love of nature and a passion for God’s creation, coupled with a sense of closeness between the natural and supernatural.
· A love of art and poetry, seen within surviving illuminated Gospels and other works.
· Although they seem to have been theologically orthodox, there was a distinct emphasis on the Trinity, respect for Mary the Mother of Christ, the Incarnation and the use within worship of early forms of liturgy.
· Within their religious life we see an emphasis on solitude, pilgrimage and mission, sacred locations and tough penitential acts.
· There were few boundaries between the sacred and the secular
· We see an emphasis on family and kinship ties.
· There seems to have been greater equality for women than we see generally in the Church today.
· A generous hospitality was an important part of everyday life.
If we look at these characteristics we can perhaps see influences from both pagan and Christian beliefs. We might disagree with some, disregard others, but there are elements here which challenge our faith, call us to examine that which we have become comfortable with, and look again at how we might learn to part the curtain that has separated us from our Christian heritage and take from the past that which can enable us to grow spiritually today.
We might also find that in doing so we can begin to connect with a culture that cannot connect with the denominational jigsaw that is the Church to which we belong, but is seeking to follow a spiritual path which until now has often only been catered for by other faith systems or new age philosophies.
It matters not whether we can claim Celtic roots or not, it is within the scope of all of us to look at the landscape with spiritual as well as physical eyes, and begin to appreciate it for what it is and for the way that it influences our understanding both of ourselves and our Creator. A growing passion for the beauty of the world in which we work can lead to a renewal in our attitudes to the mundane tasks that we face day be day.
We can acknowledge the importance of friendship in our lives, and appreciate how the love of our friends mirrors the love and companionship of God, and as our faith begins to show forth new growth our journey can begin to take us from the familiar into more challenging circumstances – into mission. If you want inspiration then consider Brendan the Navigator whose voyage was immortalized by Bede. In the sixth century legend has it that Brendon took to the sea, travelling without oars and without sails, navigating the storms of life, and trusting in faith to carry him through. He may, or may not have landed in North America.
I quote from the Iona Community:
‘The past is all around us. We are the inheritors of the Celtic tradition, with its deep sense of Jesus as the head of all, and of God's glory in all of creation. So we use prayers from the Celtic Church for welcome, for work, and in expressing the needs of the world. We are the inheritors of the Benedictine tradition, with its conviction that 'to work is to pray', its commitment to hospitality, and its sense of order, all reflected in our services and our lifestyle...’ The Iona Community Worship Book, Wild Goose Publications, Glasgow, 1991