Celtic crosses and round towers … images of Celtic Spirituality reinforced in the monastic site in Glendalough, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,
12 March 2016.
11.15 a.m.: Celtic Spirituality, is there something there?
Some years ago, I spent an autumn’s 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 – 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 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. But it was only published in 1897 by John Henry Bernard (1860-1927), later Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin (1915-1919) and Provost of Trinity College Dublin (1919-1927).
The hymn Be Thou My Vision (Church Hymnal 643) refers to Christ as “my high tower” ... the Round Tower at Glendalough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Sometimes, 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. Yet, Be thou my vision (Hymn 643, 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 anything they regarded as “Celtic” was wrapped up with a narrow, exclusive concept of being green, Gaelic, Catholic, nationalist and Irish.
Saint Patrick’s Window in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
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 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 find, for Protestant Christianity, as opposed to Roman Christianity … as if Christianity in Ireland before the 12th or 13th centuries was pure from heresy, undefiled by superstition and out of touch with the Continental European Church.
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 too by other cultural forces, including the Vikings, Anglo-Normans, and many others. Hopefully this will continue in the future, with the Romanians, Nigerians, Chinese, or others.
It may be that the economic woes of the past decade or so 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 today.
The Cathedral ... The largest and most imposing of the buildings at Glendalough, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
1, 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, or 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.
2, Secondly, Celtic Christianity is popular and marketable – it’s a lifestyle choice. The three most popular categories of books on religion or on “Mind, Body and Spirit” shelves in 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 if we are going to be incarnational in our ministry and mission.
But 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.”
3, And thirdly, modern spirituality, in a dynamic way, has drawn on and has 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 resources of the Northumbria Community near Lindisfarne.
The global reception of the hymns of John Bell and Graham Maule show how 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 Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire (1915-2001), 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 about six years ago [4 January 2008].
The Celts: who were they?
‘As the deer pants for the water’ … the base of the ‘Market Cross’ in Kells, Co Meath, has two friezes, including a deer hunt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
If we are going to talk about Celtic spirituality, I should begin with caution: it is difficult to say if there was 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. But how did they reach the remote Atlantic coasts and islands of Western Europe we now know as the “Celtic fringe”?
“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 names used by Greek (Κελτοί, Γαλᾶται) and Latin writers (Galli) refer to speakers of similar languages, but not to a people. The one group of Biblical Celts are named in two New Testament letters: the Letter to the Galatians, and also I Peter (see I Peter 1: 1). 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 popularised the term “Celt,” but only from the 17th century on. Because of the rise of nationalism and Celtic revivals from the 19th century on, the term “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 shared cultural indicators, such as language, myths, artefacts and social organisation. But does that shared culture and family of language imply a shared ethnicity?
There is little archaeological evidence in Ireland for large inward Celtic migration. 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 decked out by Versace and Gucci, does not make us Italian, even culturally. Nor does it indicate there was ever an Italian invasion of Ireland. Were the Celtic languages and cultures adopted as some sort of early fashion statement?
Can we talk about a Celtic Christianity?
Saint Kevin’s Church, Glendalough ... named after the founder of the monastic settlement, has a steep roof supported internally by a semi-circular vault (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Can we talk about a “Celtic Christianity” with distinguishing, unique traditions, 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 practices 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 the churches on these islands diverges significantly after the 8th century, with great differences even between rival Irish traditions.
It is easy to exaggerate the cohesiveness of the Celtic Christian communities. 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
A late Celtic high cross at Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford … Saint Edan was once claimed as pre-Patrician bishop in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
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, perhaps between 283 and 304, certainly long before Saint Patrick’s time in Ireland.
The Roman legions were withdrawn from England in 407, 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 was never 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. Key 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 and others.
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, and 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 worked among 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, and exerting a profound influence greater than that of many Continental centres with more ancient traditions.
Meanwhile, in 597, Pope Gregory sent a mission to the English, led by Saint Augustine. These renewed links with the greater Latin West brought the Celtic-speaking peoples into close contact with other expressions of Christianity.
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 ‘Market Cross’ in front of Kells Heritage Centre once stood within the monastery grounds in Kells, Co Meath, associated with Saint Columba and the ‘Book of Kells’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
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.
Some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition were during this period, such as the Book of Kells, and intricately carved high crosses.
Episcopal structures were adapted to an environment wholly different from that 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.
In Ireland, a distinctive form of penance developed, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and 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 had fallen into disuse. But the Irish penitential practice spread throughout continental Europe, and Saint Columbanus is said to have introduced the “medicines of penance” to Gaul.
By 1215, the Celtic practice had become the European norm, with the Fourth Lateran Council issuing a canonical requirement 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)
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. It coincided with a similar revival in political and artistic circles.
Hymns mentioning high towers were written in the same decades in the late 19th century as the Round Tower was restored and capped in Glendalough, a Round Tower was erected at the grave of Daniel O’Connell in Glasnevin Cemetery, and, as part of the Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement, my great-grandfather decorated the top storey of the Irish House, a pub that stood beneath Christ Church Cathedral, with a series of rising round towers.
The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884, the Gaelic League by Douglas Hyde, a rector’s son, in 1893. Our most popular English-language version of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, Frances Alexander’s I bind unto myself today (Church Hymnal, 322) was first sung and published as late as 1889. The English-language version of Be thou my vision by Mary Byrne and Eleanor Hull (Church Hymnal, No 643), which refers to God as “my high tower,” was only translated and versified in 1905, and was first published in a hymnal in 1915.
The pediment of the Irish House, on the corner of Wood Quay and Winetavern Street, was decorated by James Comerford in 1870 with a series of Celtic motifs, topped by a collection of rising round towers
In Scotland, many ‘Celtic’ poems and prayers were collected and edited by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica (1900) and in Ireland by Douglas Hyde in the Religious Songs of Connacht (1906).
In 1938, George MacLeod, 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 become widely popular, as has 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 at a loved one’s death. There were prayers of daily life celebrating God as Life within all life, with creation as his dwelling place.
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)
Long before Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Patrick called Christ 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.”
Christ enthroned ... the Book of Kells
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)
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 placed 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 Christ, 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, the Church Hymnal), the writer imagines that he is Saint 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) says:
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 every-day, all around the clock, including 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 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 ... one of the three patrons of Ireland
Saint Brigid (1 February) is second only to Saint Patrick (17 March) 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, new-born 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. Her practicality and resourcefulness were shown by fetching well water that tasted more like ale for a sick servant, or picking up rushes from the floor to twist into a cross to explain the message of salvation to a dying man. Her generosity frequently relied on 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 baptised Bríd or Brigid. It is said that as a child she was taken to hear Saint Patrick preaching, and as she listened to him she fell into an ecstasy.
At about the age of 14, instead of accepting marriage, she opted for the religious life. She left home with seven other young girls and travelled to Co Meath where Saint Macaille was bishop.
The chancel of Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. She went to Ardagh to make her final vows before Saint Mel, a nephew of Saint Patrick, and he is said to have mistakenly ordained here.
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. 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 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.
2, Saint Columba
The Round Tower in Kells, Co Meath ... a monastic site dating from the ninth, or even the sixth century, is associated with Saint Columba and his followers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Saint Columba (9 June) is intimately associated with Iona, off the west coast of Scotland – and is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. But he is also linked to a number of Irish monastic foundations, including Kells, Co Meath, and Derry.
He was born in Co Donegal in 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 hundreds of churches and monasteries.
It is said that during a visit to Saint Finian, Columba secretly copied a beautiful Psalter that Finian brought back from Rome. In doing this, he devalued the original book. Columba refused to return his the copy and Saint Finian challenged him in court. The king ruled in favour of Saint Finian, saying famously: “To every cow belongs her calf; to every book belongs its copy.”
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 a shamed Columba accepted “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 Iona, where they settled and founded a monastery.
Iona became the largest Christian centre in northern Britain, attracting thousands of monks, and later became a centre for missionary outreach to the highlands of Scotland.
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.
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):
Pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels are projected onto Durham Cathederal in Durham. Artist Ross Ashton collaborated with Robert Ziegler and John del Nero to create a 12-minute Son et Lumiere, projecting pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels across the Durham Cathedral, as part of Durham Lumiere in 2011
Saint Cuthbert was born in the Scottish border country near Melrose. One night, he had a vision of a great light, stretching from earth to heaven. 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 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 he accepted the synod decisions on the date of Easter and the tonsure.
Cuthbert returned to Lindisfarne as Prior but then travelled throughout Northumbria. In search of a solitary life, he built a round cell and chapel south of Lindisfarne, and he lived there for eight years, devoting his time to prayer. Following in Saint Aidan’s footsteps, he was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne in York on Easter Day, 26 March 685. He died in 687.
During the Viking raids in Northumbria in 875, Saint 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 Saint Kevin.
The monastery of Holmpatrick stood on the mound in the graveyard behind the present parish church in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Skerries: a monastery associated with Saint Patrick was first located on the islands off the shore, before moving to the site of the present Church of Ireland Parish Church, Holmpatrick, where the ruined tower behind the church stands on the height of the monastic site.
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.
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 Saint David’s mother, Saint 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.” From Lindisfarne, Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert spread the Christian faith north and south.
Whitby, Yorkshire: The ruins of Saint Hilda’s Abbey and the Caedmon Cross in the churchyard opposite stand out on the 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.
Lichfield: Saint Chad, who was educated at an Irish monastery ca 651-664, established the church in Mercia, the pre-Norman Kingdom of the English Midlands, and died in 672.The Book of Chad, now one of the great treasures of Lichfield Cathedral, predates the Book of Kells by about 80 years.
Earlier this month, I was in Lichfield Cathedral for the patronal festival of Saint Chad [2 March 2016], who is described on the cathedral website as an Irish-born saint. Certainly, he seems to have been trained in an Irish monastery.
Over the last few years, I visited on a number of occasions exhibitions in Lichfield Cathedral of recent finds in a large Anglo-Saxon horde near Lichfield. This discovery points to an interesting interaction between the Saxons of Mercia and the Celtic church in Northumbria and perhaps even Ireland before the arrival of Saint Chad.
Bradwell, Essex: The 9th century chapel in Bradwell was founded by Saint Cedd of Lindisfarne.
As we prepare for Saint Patrick’s Day next month, my concluding prayer is the Collect of the Day for 17 March, which corrects our priorities, if they have been parades, pints and fun fairs:
in your providence you chose your servant Patrick
to be the apostle of the Irish people,
to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error
to the true light and knowledge of your Word:
Grant that walking in that light
we may come at last to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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 reader is taken through the hymn, Be Thou My Vision, in a search for the spiritual riches that are hidden in all our lives.
Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1993) ... the Revd Ian Bradley, a Presbyterian minister in the Church of Scotland, has 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).
Lemuel J. Hopkins-James, The Celtic Gospels, their story and their text (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934/2001) … Hopkins-James transcribed the Book of Chad in 1934.
Marian 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 (London: 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 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.
George Otto 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 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.
(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This is the third address at a Diocesan Readers’ Lenten retreat on 11-12 March 2016.
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