23 November 2009

An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality

Glendalough ... the monastic “Valley of the Two Lakes” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

Opening Hymn:

Be thou my vision (Church Hymnal, No 643).


A few weeks ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon in Glendalough, looking for what I thought would be the remains of a great Celtic monastery.

Imagine my surprise when I found that the most prominent Celtic High Cross I was taking photographs of – one that stands beneath the Great Round Tower of Glendalough – was a gravestone erected in the late 19th century.

A few more Celtic myths were shattered that afternoon: the Great Round Tower was capped in the late 19th century too, so as we see it today is not as it once stood; even Saint Kevin’s Church is an 18th century church, built according to plans derived from an earlier sketch by a French or Swiss artist.

Our images of Celtic spirituality are often shaped either by Victorian romanticism. Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, as we know it, is based on a manuscript from the late 11th century now in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. It was first published in 1897 by JH Bernard, later Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin.

The hymn Be Thou My Vision (Church HYmnal 643) refers to Christ as “my high tower” ... the Round Tower at Glendalough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Or our images of Celtic Spirituality are intricately linked with the nation-state-building myths created by an Irish nationalism that was often narrow in its vision. Be thou my vision, Hymn 643 in the Church Hymnal, was versified by a member of the Church of Ireland, Dr Eleanor Henrietta Hull, using another translation of an earlier poem or prayer.

But often the vision of the nation myth-makers was of an Ireland in which the concept of anything “Celtic” was wrapped up with a narrow, exclusive concept of what it was to be green, Gaelic, Catholic, nationalist and Irish.

The popular images of Saint Patrick at that time in stained-glass windows, road-side statues and popular postcards show him standing on a bed of shamrocks decked out in the robes and mitre of a truly Tridentine bishop. Of course, I would point out that green is the wrong liturgical colour both for Lent and for a saint’s day. But why was he never seen in those popular portrayals in convocation robes or in a simple alb and stole? Because the message was clear: Celtic Christianity was for Roman Catholics only, and at that for a particular type of Catholicism.

And yet we did something similar in the Church of Ireland in the 19th century. Antiquarians posing as historians claimed Patrick and every other Celtic saint they could dig up, for the Protestant strand of Christianity, positing it in opposition to Roman Christianity … as if Christianity in Ireland before the 12th or 13th century was pure from heresy, undefiled by superstition and out of touch with the Continental European Church. Far from it.

Nor was Celtic Christianity the only formative influence on the Church in Ireland as it moved from the mediaeval period towards the Reformations. The Preamble and Declaration of 1870 describe the Church of Ireland as “the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland” – what a title. But that ancient and catholic church is not just Celtic; it was influenced and shaped by other cultural forces too, including Vikings, Anglo-Normans, and many others. Hopefully this will continue in generations to come with the Romanians, Nigerians, Chinese, and others who come to our shores.

It may be that the economic woes of the past year or two have made us despise the Celtic Tiger. But Celtic Spirituality is still a fashionable commodity when you look at the shops around Christ Church Cathedral or go shopping for small presents in Dublin Airport before a flight.

Much of what passes as “Celtic” and as “Celtic Spirituality” is tatty and second-rate. But there are compelling reasons to have a sound grasp of Celtic spirituality in the context of ministry in Ireland.

The Cathedral ... The largest and most imposing of the buildings at Glendalough, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Firstly, many of the cathedrals and churches of the Church of Ireland stand on ancient Celtic monastic sites. If you have ever wondered why so many Church of Ireland cathedrals – Achonry, Ardagh, Clogher, Clonfert, Elphin, Emly, Ferns, Kilfenora, Kilmacduagh, Kilmore, Leighlin, Raphoe, Rosscarbery – are in small villages or remote locations, why it took so long to build cathedrals in Belfast, Enniskillen, or Sligo, or why still we have no cathedral in Galway, then you begin to realise the lasting influences of the Celtic monasteries.

You may be ordained in one of these cathedrals, or be a curate or rector at some stage in a church with the tongue-twisting name of an otherwise-forgotten Celtic saint. So we should know its place and part in the story of our church.

Secondly, Celtic Christianity is popular and marketable – it’s a lifestyle choice. [The Revd Patrick] Paddy [McGlinchey] told us a few weeks ago how many books on Buddhism are on sale even in ordinary bookshops. In fact, the three most popular categories of books on religion or on “Mind and Body” shelves of Irish bookshops are on Buddhism, new age-type books on angels, and new age-style books on “Celtic Spirituality.”

It is important to know the minds of people, to know what engages them spiritually, what passes as religion for many people, if we are going to be incarnational in ministry and mission in Ireland today.

Much of the writing about Celtic spirituality today is superficial, amateur, new age material, making spurious claims for the writers and against Christianity. For example: “Perhaps it is this mixture of pagan and Christian that makes Celtic Spirituality so interesting and so accessible today ... It is easier to find spiritual truth in a sacred grove than a dusty half empty church hall.”

Or what do you make of this claim: “Celtic Spirituality … is not a religion, it is a series of beliefs and practices to help you become aware of the spiritual world around you and your place in it. Whether you find it suitable to work with Jesus, his apostles and the Celtic Saints, or Brigid, Mannán Mac Lir and the Celtic gods, it matters little. What matters is that your life is enriched; you are at peace with your inner-being and that you become aware of the magic and incredible world that surrounds us all.”

Patrick Wormald describes this as “... ‘new-age’ paganism,” based on notions of some sort of “Celtic spirituality” allegedly distinguished by a unique “closeness to nature.”

And thirdly, modern spirituality has in a dynamic way drawn on and been enriched by many resources associated with Celtic spirituality, enriching the life of the Church of Ireland at every level.

There are at least 20 hymns from the Irish language in the Church Hymnal, and many more tunes with a Celtic air to them. We have all been enriched by the prayers of the Iona Community, the hymns of John Bell, Graham Maule and the Wild Goose Worship Group, the active and engaged spirituality of the Corrymeela community, or the resouces of the Northumbria Community near Lindisfarne in northern England.

The global reception of the hymns of John Bell and Graham Maule show how today there is a fresh and new interest in Celtic Spirituality that is not confined to Ireland.

At an academic level, this interest has been stimulated by scholars such as James Mackey, Ian Bradley in the Church of Scotland, the Jesuit Diarmud Ó Laoghaire, the Carmelite Peter O’Dwyer and the Redemptorist John Ó Ríordáin, and writers such as the late John O’Donohue, poet and author of Anam Cara (1997) who died early last year.

The Celts: who were they?

If we are going to talk about Celtic spirituality, I should begin with a word of caution: it is difficult to say if there is such a group of people as Celts. The name for Celts comes from terms used by the Greeks and Romans to describe the people who lived in Gaul (France). But scholars differ when they answer the question: Who were the Celts?

Did they originate in southern Europe, or in what is now southern Germany and Austria? Or did they come from the Pontic-Caspian region? Strabo suggests that the Celtic heartland was in southern France. Pliny the Elder says the Celts originated in southern Portugal and Spain. And how did they reach the remote Atlantic coasts and islands of Western Europe we now know as the “Celtic fringe”?

But Celt is a modern English word. There are few written records of ancient Celtic languages and most of the evidence for personal names and place names is found in Greek and Roman authors. The different names used by Greek writers (Κελτοί or Γαλᾶται) and Latin writers (Galli) refer to speakers of similar languages, not a people. The one group of Biblical Celts is the Galatians, and Saint Jerome (AD 342-419), in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, notes the language of the Anatolian Galatians at his time.

Romantic antiquarian interest from the 17th century on led to the use of the term “Celt” being extended. The rise of nationalism brought Celtic revivals from the 19th century on in areas where the use of Celtic languages had continued. “Celtic” is now used to identify the languages and cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany. But the term “Celtic” also applies to Continental European regions with a Celtic heritage but no Celtic language, such as northern Iberia, and to a lesser degree France.

“Celticity” refers to the shared cultural indicators of a group of peoples, such as language, myths, artefacts and social organisation. But recent theories emphasise their shared culture and language rather than seeking any common ethnicity.

There is little archaeological evidence in Ireland for large intrusive groups of Celtic immigrants. European Celtic influences and language may have been absorbed gradually. But did the Celts arrive in Ireland by invasion? Or did their culture and language spread gradually to other peoples already here? As one writer in The Irish Times argued, just because we all eat pasta and pizza, drink Chianti, holiday in Tuscany and are familiar with Versace and Gucci, doesn’t make us Italian, even in culture. Nor does it indicate there was ever an Italian invasion of Ireland. Were the Celtic languages and culture adopted as some sort of early fashion statement?

Can we talk about a Celtic Christianity?

Saint Kevin’s Church ... named after the founder of the monastic settlement, has a steep roof supported internally by a semi-circular vault (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Can we talk about a “Celtic Christianity” with distinguishing, unique traditions, especially in spirituality, liturgies and rituals that mark it out from other traditions in the Church in the neighbouring sub-Roman world?

“Celtic Christianity” broadly refers to early mediaeval Christian practice that developed around the Irish Sea in the 5th and 6th centuries, among many people on these islands. By extension, the term can refer to the monastic networks founded from Scotland and Ireland on Continental Europe, especially in Gaul (France).

The term “Celtic Christianity” is sometimes extended beyond the 7th century to describe later Christian practice in these areas. But the history of Irish, Welsh, Scots, Breton, Cornish, and Manx churches diverges significantly after the 8th century, with great differences developing between even rival Irish traditions.

It is easy to exaggerate the cohesiveness of the Celtic Christian communities, and the term “Celtic Church” is inappropriate to describe Christianity among Celtic-speaking peoples. Celtic-speaking areas were part of Latin or Western Christendom as a whole. But we can talk about certain traditions in Celtic-speaking lands, and the development and spread of these traditions, especially in the 6th and 7th centuries.

The flowering of Celtic Christianity

Britain was the most remote province in the Roman Empire. Christianity reached England in the first few centuries AD, and the first recorded martyr in England was Saint Alban, during the reign of Diocletian.

The Roman legions were withdrawn from England in 407 to defend Italy during the attacks by the Visigoths. Rome was sacked in 410, the legions did not return to England, and Roman influence came to an end. In the aftermath, these islands developed distinctively from the rest of Western Europe, and the Irish Sea acted as a centre from which a new culture developed among the “Celtic” peoples.

Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire. But Christianity came here from the former Roman outposts, and a unique Church organisation emerged, focussed on the monasteries, rather than on episcopal sees, with their own traditions and practices.

Saint Patrick’s Window in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Important figures in this process included Saint Ninian, Palladius, and Saint Patrick, the “Apostle of Ireland.” Ireland was converted through the work of missionaries from Britain such as Patrick.

Celtic missions

Early Celtic saints and founding figures of the Church included Saint Martin in France, Saint Ninian in Scotland, Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid in Ireland, Saint Samson and Saint David in Wales and Brittany.

In the 6th and 7th centuries, monks from Ireland established monastic settlements in parts of Scotland. They included Saint Columba or Saint Colmcille, who settled on Iona. Ireland became “a land of saints and scholars” and missionaries from Ireland became a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Saxon parts of Britain and central Europe.

As the Anglo-Saxons colonised what is now England, Celtic missionaries from Scotland and Ireland set out to evangelise them. In the year 631, Saint Aidan was sent from Iona to evangelise them from the island of Lindisfarne, on England’s north-east coast. Celtic practice heavily influenced northern England, and the missionaries from Lindisfarne reached as far south as London.

Irish monks were also settling in Continental Europe, particularly in Gaul (France), including Saint Columbanus, exerting a profound influence greater than that of many Continental centres with more ancient traditions.

Meanwhile, in 597, Pope Gregory had sent a mission to the English, led by Augustine. These renewed links with the greater Latin West brought the Celtic-speaking peoples into close contact with other expressions of Christianity.

Distinctive traditions

Some of the customs and traditions that had developed in Celtic Christianity were distinctive or gave rise to disputes with the rest of the Western Church. These included the monastic tradition, fixing the date of Easter, differences on the use of tonsure, and penitential rites.

1, The monastic tradition

The achievements of Christianity in the Celtic-speaking world are significant. Irish society had no pre-Christian history of literacy. Yet within a few generations of the arrival of Christianity, the monks and priests had become fully integrated with Latin culture. Apart from their Latin texts, these Irish monks also developed a written form of Old Irish.

A late Celtic high cross at Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrrick Comerford

Some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition were during this period, such as the Book of Kells, and intricately carved high crosses.

The episcopal structures were adapted to an environment wholly different from the one prevailing in the sub-Roman world. Apart from parts of Wales, Devon, and Cornwall, the Celtic world was without developed cities, and so different ecclesiastical structures were needed, especially in Ireland. This ecclesiastical structure developed around monastic communities and their abbots.

2, Calculating the date of Easter

Celtic Christianity was often marked by its conservatism, even archaism. One example is the method used to calculate Easter, using a calculation similar to one approved by Saint Jerome.

Eventually, most groups, including the southern Irish, accepted the new methods for calculating Easter, but not the monastery of Iona and the houses linked to it.

At the Synod of Whitby in 664, the rules of the Roman mission were accepted by the Church in England, and were extended later throughout Britain and Ireland. But the decrees of Whitby did not immediately change the face of Christianity on these islands. There were pockets of resistance to the Roman mission, especially in Devon, Cornwall and Scotland, and the monks of Iona did not accept the decisions reached at Whitby until 716.

3, Monastic tonsure

Irish monks kept a distinct tonsure, or method of cutting their hair, to distinguish their identity as monks. The “Celtic” tonsure involved cutting away the hair above one’s forehead. This differed from the prevailing custom, which was to shave the top of the head, leaving a halo of hair – in imitation of Christ’s crown of thorns.

4, Penitentials

In Ireland, a distinctive form of penance developed, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and where penance was given privately and performed privately as well. Handbooks, called “penitentials,” were designed as a guide for confessors and to regularise the penance given for each particular sin.

In the past, penance had been a public ritual. But the Irish penitential practice spread throughout continental Europe, where the form of public penance had fallen into disuse. Saint Columbanus is said to have introduced the “medicines of penance” to Gaul at a time when they had come to be neglected.

By 1215, the Celtic practice had become the European norm, with the Fourth Lateran Council issuing a canonical requirment for confession at least once per year.

Renewed interest in ‘Celtic Spirituality’

A replica high cross from the 19th century beneath the Round Tower of Glendalough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in Celtic spirituality in these islands, with renewed interest in the poetry, customs or household prayers of the western Celtic fringes.

In Scotland, many of the poems and prayers were gathered in a collection edited by Alexander Carmichael as the Carmina Gadelica (1900) and in Ireland by Douglas Hyde in the Religious Songs of Connacht (1906).

In 1938, George McCleod, a Church of Scotland minister, rebuilt Iona’s ancient Abbey, and founded the modern Iona Community.

Since the 1980s, Celtic-style books of prayers by the Revd David Adam, Vicar of Lindisfarne, have became widely popular, as have a wave of books about Celtic Christianity, study courses, and Celtic interest networks.

Themes in Celtic Spirituality

For centuries, the riches of Celtic spirituality were transmitted orally. These included prayers sung or chanted at the rising and setting of the sun, in the midst of daily work and routine, at a child’s birth, or a loved one’s deathbed. There were prayers of daily life celebrating God as Life within all life, with creation as his dwelling place. God was always overwhelmingly present all around.

1, Creation:

David Adam says: “Celtic Christians saw a universe ablaze with God’s glory, suffused with a presence that calls, nods and beckons – a creation personally united with its Creator in every atom and fibre.”

There’s no plant in the ground
But is full of his blessing.
There’s no thing in the sea
But is full of his life...
There is nought in the sky
But proclaims his goodness.
Jesu! O Jesu! it’s good to praise thee!
– (Carmina Gadelica)

Saint Patrick called Jesus the True Sun. Ray Simpson writes in Celtic Blessings: “A good way to experience Jesus is to use what I call the Sun Bathing Exercise. Imagine Jesus as the smiling sunshine of God pouring rays of light upon you. Just soak these up, relax and feel better! Celtic Christians see Jesus as the divine light that permeates all creation. So by spending time in nature we can also be spending time with Jesus.”

2, Humanity

O Son of God … dear child of Mary, you are the refined molten metal of our forge. – Tadhg Óg Ó Huiginn

Christ is the supreme example of a complete human life. By being united to him, we can learn how to be fully human by finding a body-mind-intuition balance, and by growing in wisdom and, above all, love.

3,Worship and community

Early Celtic Christians shared their food, money, work, play and worship in little communities which were always open to the people who lived around them. Wherever they lived they saw Christ in their neighbour and made community with them.

Celtic writers talked about worshipping God with the “five-stringed harp” ... the North Cross in Castledermot, Co Kildare, depicts King David with his harp – one of the few images on a Celtic high cross from this time of an Irish harp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Celtic writers talked about worshipping God with the “five-stringed harp” – meaning all five senses. The Celtic churches punctuated each day and night with periods of prayer.

4, The Trinity

Celtic Christians had a strong emphasis on the Holy Trinity. They followed the one God who embraces the world with his two arms of love: the right arm is Christ, the left arm is the Spirit.

I lie down this night with God
And God will lie down with me
I lie down this night with Christ
And Christ will lie down with me
I lie down this night with the Spirit
And the Spirit will lie down with me
. – (Carmina Gadelica)

5, Everyday prayers

The Celts prayed about anything and everything in a natural way. Prayers for frequent activities were learned by heart and handed down by word of mouth or later in writing.

Some of the Celtic prayers are blessings:

Bless to me, O God
Each thing my eye sees,
Each sound my ear hears,
Each person I meet.

Some Celtic prayers were “circling prayers”:

Circle me, Lord.
Keep peace within, keep harm without.
Circle me, Lord.
Keep love within, keep hate without.

6, Prayer and imagination

Celtic prayer is also marked by the use of imagination, for example, by imagining that Jesus, his mother or friends were in the kitchen, in the house, in the workplace, or even in the bedroom. Here are some examples:

I will do my household chores as would Mary, mother of Jesus.

I will travel to my next place in the presence of the angels of protection.

Who is that near me when I am sad and alone?
It is Jesus, the King of the sun

7, Armour (“Breastplate”) prayers

The most famous of the armour or breastplate prayers for protection is known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. This invites God’s force-field to strengthen us for life’s struggles.

The armour consists of:

1. God – the three in one
2. Human valour as lived by Christ
3. Angels and great souls
4. Powers of creation
5. Spiritual gifts

The praying person then confronts negative forces one by one, invites Christ into each situation, and repeats the opening invocation.

In the prayer we call Saint Patrick’s Breastplate (see Hymns 322 and 611 in the Church Hymnal) the writer imagines that he is Patrick, putting on the different items of God’s armour: God, good spirits, saints, powers of creation, spiritual gifts – just like a suit of armour. The eighth verse of this prayer (Hymn 322) has these words:

Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger

8, Blessing prayers

The Celtic way blessed everything in life (except evil), however earthy or everyday, all around the clock. Animals, food, gifts, jobs, lovemaking, meals, travel. Here are examples of an anniversary and a sleep blessing:

On this your anniversary
God give you the best of memories,
Christ give you pardon for failings,
Spirit give you the fruits of friendship.

Sleep in peace,
Sleep soundly,
Sleep in love.
Weaver of dreams
Weave well in you as you sleep
. – Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings.

9, Miracles and Celtic saints

In Celtic Christianity, saints were regarded as holy spiritual overlords who were close to God, provided assistance in times of need, had special influence in the court of heaven, and were able to plead with God for favours.

Many miracles were associated with them, including visions, healings, favours granted, mystical appearances and more. Places where miracles had been performed became pilgrimage sites.

10, The Anamchara

Celtic Christians recognised the importance of shared spiritual journeys, and their Anamchara or Soul Friend, was their spiritual director. Anamchara were sought out as men and women of wisdom, great spirituality and insight, who were willing to share their understanding of the faith with others. Saint Brigid said that “the person without an Anamchara is like a body without a head.”

Some Celtic saints:

Apart from Saint Patrick, we ought to be familiar with some other Celtic and Irish saints from this period and tradition.

1, Saint Brigid of Kildare

Saint Brigid is second only to Saint Patrick as the patron of Ireland. She is also known as Mary of the Gael. A passage in the Book of Lismore testifies to her importance: “It is she who helpeth everyone who is in danger; it is she that abateth the pestilences; it is she that quelleth the rage and the storm of the sea. She is the prophetess of Christ; she is the Queen of the South; she is the Mary of the Gael.”

Saint Brigid is said to offer protection to poets, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, dairymaids, midwives, newborn babies and fugitives. The numerous stories of miracles performed by her even in childhood convey the impression that she was really a person of compassion, charity and strength. To fetch well water which tasted more like ale for a sick servant or to pick up rushes from the floor to twist into a cross to explain the message of salvation to a dying man show her practicality and resourcefulness. Her generosity was legendary and frequently necessitated resort to prayer to make good the deficit.

Her father Dubtach was a pagan nobleman in Leinster, and her mother his Christian bondwoman, Brotseach, whom he sold to a Druid who lived at Faughart near Dundalk. There the child was born in the mid-5th century, ca 451 or 453, and given Christian baptism with the name of Brid or Brigid. It is said that as a child she was taken to hear Saint Patrick preach, and as she listened to him she fell into an ecstasy.

At marriageable age, perhaps 14, she decided to enter the religious life. She left home with seven other young girls and travelled to Co Meath where Saint Macaille was bishop.

Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. She went to Ardagh to make their final vows before Saint Mel, a nephew of Saint Patrick. Here Brigid founded another convent and she remained there for 12 years.

Later, a unique community of monks and nuns developed at Kildare, with Brigid as Abbess of the nuns and Conleth, the first Bishop of Kildare, as Abbot of the monks, but with the reins of authority firmly in Brigid’s hands. Kildare became a centre for spirituality and learning, healing, faith-sharing and evangelism.

Brigid died on 1 February ca 521-528. She is depicted in art as an abbess holding a lamp or candle, often with a cow in the background, and sometimes even wearing a mitre. This poem is ascribed to her:

I long for a great lake of ale
I long for the meats of belief and pure piety
I long for the flails of penance at my house
I long for them to have barrels full of peace
I long to give away jars full of love
I long for them to have cellars full of mercy
I long for cheerfulness to be in their drinking
I long for Jesus too to be there among them

For a sermon on the occasion of Saint Brigid’s Day, 1 February 2008, visit: http://revpatrickcomerford.blogspot.com/2008/02/thoughts-on-saint-brigids-day.html

2, Saint Columba

Saint Columba is intimately associated with Iona, a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland - and is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. But he was born in Ireland and lived here until his 40s, and is linked to a number of Irish monastic foundations, including Kells and Derry.

He was born in Co Donegal in December 520 into a wealthy royal family and was given the name Colum (“the dove”). He became a priest at a monastery founded by Saint Finian and spent many years in his home region establishing literally hundreds of churches and monasteries.

It is said that during a visit to see Saint Finnian, Columba secretly copied a beautifully inscribed Psalter that Finnian had brought back from Rome, and in doing this devalued the original book. Columba refused to give back the copy and Finnian challenged him in court. The king ruled in favour of Finnian, saying famously: “To every cow belongs her calf; to every book belongs its copy.”

However, when Columba still refused to give back his copy a clan war broke out between the king’s followers and Columba’s supporters. Many people were killed in the fighting, and Columba was ashamed. He decided to make restitution by bringing to Christ, as many people in another land as had lost their life in his own land in the war. He had chosen the way of “white martyrdom” – exiling himself from his homeland as a penance.

In 563, at the age of 42, Columba and 12 companion monks sailed in a currach to the island of Iona, where he settled in Iona and founded a monastery.

The monks on Iona lived in separate cells and spent many hours in worship and contemplation, and in producing beautiful copies of the Gospels. They worked hard on the land to support themselves and to provide hospitality to visitors. Iona became the largest Christian centre in northern Britain, attracting thousands of monks.

Iona later became a centre for missionary outreach. Much of the highlands of Scotland were evangelised from Iona.

It is said that Saint Columba raised from the dead a child of one of the Pictish kings in Inverness, who was then converted to Christianity and encouraged his subjects also to convert. Columba wrote many poems and songs.

In 597, at the age of 76, a week before he died, Columba climbed the hill overlooking the monastery in Iona, blessed the monks, and said: “In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, Instead of monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle, But ere the world come to an end Iona shall be as it was.” During his last days he dictated a prayer to his monks:

See that you are at peace among yourselves,
my children, and love one another.
Take the example of the good men of ancient
times and God will comfort and aid you,
both in this world and in the world to come.

His feast day is 9 June.

Iona continued to be an important Christian centre after Columba’s death, and there was a Benedictine monastery and convent there from the Middle Ages. The monasteries and convent on Iona were closed by the Scottish reformers in the 1560s. They fell into ruin and the island returned to a grazing place.

Iona Abbey, and the Iona Community founded in the 1930s by George Macleod, continue to inspire Christians today throughout the world.

Saint Cuthbert (636-687)

Saint Cuthbert was born in the Scottish border country near Melrose. Later, he worked there a shepherd. One night, by the River Leader, he had a vision of a great light, stretching from earth to heaven. The light faded and Cuthbert was left to wonder about the meaning of the vision. He learned later that on that same night, 31 August 651, Saint Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died. To the young shepherd, the vision seemed to be a challenge and a call to serve God. He entered the Monastery of Old Melrose – one of the parent seats of the Church in Scotland and founded by Aidan – and there he spent 13 years as a monk.

Eata, Abbot of Melrose, took Cuthbert with him to Ripon where they entered the monastery together. Cuthbert later returned to Melrose as Prior in 661. As prior, he took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664, when accepted the synod decisions on the date of Easter and the tonsure.

Cuthbert returned to Lindisfarne as Prior but then travelled the length and breadth of Northumbria, from the River Tees to the Firth of Forth. He preached in Galloway, giving his name to the largest county, Kirk-Cuthbert, now known as Kirkcudbright. He was a missionary as well as a monk and won many for Christ through his conversations rather than by preaching.

Cuthbert was reputed to have the gift of healing and so, wherever he went, people would flock to him in scenes reminiscent of the ministry of Christ. Bede says that no one took home with them the burden that they came with.

Tradition has it that, on his journeys, Cuthbert stopped by the shores of the Nor’ Loch just below Edinburgh Castle and built a little hut there on the site of the present Saint Cuthbert’s Church.

In search of a solitary life, Cuthbert and some of his monks built a round cell and chapel of stones and turf six miles south of Lindisfarne. He lived there for eight years, devoting his time to prayer.

In York on Easter Day, 26 March 685, he was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne, following in Aidan's footsteps. He died in 687.

Saint Cuthbert was known for his miracles during his life, and also after his death. During the Danish raids in Northumbria in 698, Cuthbert’s followers moved his body and carried it from place to place for safety. In 883, he was buried in Chester-le-Street and in 996 he was reburied in Durham Cathedral, where his shrine remains to this day.

Some key centres for Celtic spirituality:


Glencolubkille and Garton, Co Donegal: Garton is the birthplace of Saint Columba, and he described Glencolumbkille as “Glen of the psalms and the prayers, glen of Heaven.”

Glendalough, Co Wicklow: Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, 25 miles from Dublin, is the best preserved “monastic city” in Ireland, with its round tower, seven churches and visitor centre, which tells the story of its founder, Saint Kevin.

Skerries: a monastery associated with Saint Patrick was first located on the islands off the shoire, before moving to the site of the present Church of Ireland Parish Church, Holmpatrick.


Iona: Saint Columba established his monastery on Iona in the 6th century. The modern Iona Community was founded in 1938 as an ecumenical community committed to seeking new ways of living the Christian faith in today’s world.

Whithorn: Saint Ninian founded the first large Christian community here in the 5th century. The Whithorn Dig is excavating the site, and provides a focus for visitors. Half a mile away on the shore hundreds of pilgrims have inscribed prayers on the rocks at Saint Ninian’s Cave.


Saint David’s and Saint Non’s: Saint David’s Cathedral is near the site of the great monastic community founded by the patron saint of Wales. At nearby Saint Non’s, a well and retreat house mark the traditional site where David’s mother, Non, gave birth, and is the start of a coastal pilgrim trail.


Lindisfarne, Northumberland: Lindisfarne has sometimes been described as the “cradle of English Christianity.” Alcuin, adviser to the Emperor Charlemagne, described Lindisfarne as “the holiest place in England.” It was from Lindisfarne that Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert spread the Christian faith north and south.

Whitby, Yorkshire: The ruins of Saint Hilda’s Abbey and the magnificent Caedmon Cross in the churchyard opposite stand out like sentinels on this cliff top site. This was once the largest English monastic community for men and women. Today, the Order of The Holy Paraclete offers retreat accommodation at Saint Hilda’s Priory.

Durham: The shrine of Saint Cuthbert is at Durham Cathedral

The Lichfield Gospels show clearly the combination of Irish and Saxon culture in the eighth century ... Saint Chad was trained in an Irish monastery

Lichfield: The shrine of Saint Chad, who was educated at an Irish monastery and established the church in Mercia, the pre-Norman Kingdom of the English Midlands.

Bradwell, Essex: The 9th century chapel in Bradwell was founded by Saint Cedd of Lindisfarne.

For contemplation:

In the time we have for meditation and contemplation, I suggest you take the Church Hymnal and meditate on the words of Hymn 611 (Christ be beside me) or Hymn 322 (I bind unto myself), both adapted from The Breastplate of Saint Patrick.

Concluding prayer:

The hymn Christ be beside me (611) speaks of Christ as King of my heart, while Be thou my vision (643) refers twice to the High King of heaven. Yesterday, the Sunday before Advent, is also the Sunday on which we mark the Kingship of Christ. And so we conclude with the Collect of the Day and the Lord’s Prayer:

Eternal Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
Keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Our Father ...

Resources and links:

Web resources:

The Centre for the Study of Religion in Celtic Societies at the University of Wales has an e-library: click here
The Iona Community: http://www.iona.org.uk/
The Island of Lindisfarne: http://www.lindisfarne.org.uk/
Saint Hilda’s Priory, the Order of the Holy Paraclete, Whitby: http://www.ohpwhitby.org/index.htm
Wild Goose Resource Group: http://www.iona.org.uk/wgrg_home.php


David Adam, Border Lands (Sheed & Ward). The Best of David Adam’s Celtic vision. This is a compilation of four of his most popular books and includes prayers, meditations and Celtic art.

David Adam, The Eye of the Eagle (Triangle). The Celtic hymn, Be Thou My Vision, is still popular after 12 centuries. David Adam takes the reader through this hymn, seeking to discover the spiritual riches that are hidden in all our lives.

Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1993). Ian Bradley is a Presbyterian minister from the Church of Scotland and lectured in the Department of Theology in the University of Aberdeen. This is a good, sound introduction to Celtic spirituality.

Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community (London: Harper Collins, 2000). An introduction to daily prayer drawing on resources from the “Celtic Church” throughout these islands, with good notes and introductions to further resources.

Elizabeth Culling, What is Celtic Christianity? (Nottingham: Grove Books, Grove Series No 45).

The Iona Community Worship Book (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 1994 ed).

Mary Keaney, Celtic Heritage Saints (Dublin: Veritas, 1998) … introduces us to scholars, adventurous sailors, saints who get their heads chopped off, friends and enemies of kings. Good for using in schools, Sunday schools, and with confirmation classes.

Diana Leatham, They Built on Rock (Hodder & Stoughton). This book tells the stories of the Celtic saints who maintained their faith during the Dark Ages. The people profiled include Saint Cuthbert, Saint Ninian, Saint David and Saint Columba.

James P. Mackey, An introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh T&T Clark, 1995 ed). A well-edited collection of essays by 14 of the best experts on Celtic Christianity, including mission, liturgy, prayers, hymns and the arts.

Caitlín Matthews, Celtic Devotional: daily prayers and blessings (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996/2004).

Patrick Murray, The Deer’s Cry (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1986). A useful anthology of poetry and verse.

Peter O’Dwyer, Céilí Dé: Spiritual reform in Ireland 750-900 (Dublin: Editions Tailliura, 1981). The story of the movement within Celtic monasticism that gave us Saint Maelruain’s Monastery in Tallaght and the Derrynaflann Chalice.

Pat Robson, The Celtic Heart (London: Fount, 1998). A collection of Celtic writings celebrating the seasons of life by an Anglican priest living in Cornwall. It includes short biographies of saints and influential figures.

Michael Rodgers and Marcus Losack, Glendalough: A Celtic Pilgrimage (Dublin: Columba Press, 1996). A useful guidebook to our nearest Celtic monastic foundation.

GO Simms, Commemorating Saints & Others of the Irish Church (Dublin: Columba Press, 1999) … biographical notes and suggestions for intercessions

Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings (Loyola Press). How many of us have whispered an impromptu prayer to our computer, begging it not to crash? Celtic Blessings reveals that such actions are part of an ancient and sacred ritual.

Ray Simpson, The Celtic Prayer Book (Kevin Mayhew). The Celtic Prayer Book is published in four volumes: 1, Prayer Rhythms: fourfold patterns for each day; 2, Saints of the Isles: a year of feasts; 3, Healing the Land: natural seasons, sacraments and special service; 4, Greater Celtic Christians: alternative worship.

Ray Simpson, Exploring Celtic Spirituality (Hodder & Stoughton). The chapters of this book feature different aspects of Celtic spirituality, including cherishing the earth, contemplative prayer and the healing of society. There are prayers and responses at the end of each chapter.

Martin Wallace, The Celtic Resource Book (London: Church House Publishing). The whole breadth of Celtic Christianity is spanned here – from liturgies and prayers and the stories of Celtic saints, through to Celtic art. The book includes liturgies for different times of the day, for use at home or in larger groups.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar on Celtic Spirituality with B.Th. and M.Th. students on 23 November 2009.


Jane G Meyer said...

An absolutely amazing post--charged with so much information in just one place. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and hard efforts with us--I will return back to your blog often--for I'm a fan of Sts. Patrick, Brigid and Cuthbert, and eager to know more of the others you've mentioned and read more deeply your thoughts about the spiritual health and adventures of Christians in Great Britain.

Christ is risen

Unknown said...

Thank you. This is one of the few blogs I read where every posting is worth taking the time to read in full. Thank you.

Virtual Methodist said...

Thanks Patrick, a comprehensive corrective to some of the romanticised, new age tosh that is published on the subject... Where do you get the time for such extensive posts?

Andy Rogers said...

Patrick, thanks for taking the time to do the research on this - very helpful.

I'm bookmarking this for future reference