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Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams
Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams
Ian Bradley
Edinburgh University Press, 1999
288 pp., 43.95

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T. M. Moore

Patrick Redux-Again

The Western Church's continuing romance with Celtic Christianity

In the year of our Lord 603, perhaps in the early spring, Augustine, the first Bishop of Canterbury, prepared for the encounter that may have precipitated his mission to Britain in the first place. He was about to receive a contingent from the British, or Celtic, Church.

Augustine had come as a missionary to Britain under special appointment by Pope Gregory the Great in 597. As one story has it, the pope was moved to evangelize the British after learning the provenance of fair-haired youths he had glimpsed in a Roman market. Or, he may have been seeking to learn more about a segment of the Church, a representative of which, Columbanus, had begun sending Gregory what he must have regarded as impertinent letters of complaint and advice. In a series of bold missives from the south of France, the Irish missionary argued the superiority of certain Celtic Christian traditions over those being insisted upon by what he described as rather undisciplined bishops of the Roman Church in his vicinity. (Columbanus would later flatly refuse an invitation by those same bishops to attend a synod where they hoped to set him straight on certain matters of ecclesiastical order and practice.) Gregory's sending of Augustine to the British was perhaps motivated as much by curiosity concerning these Celtic Christians and their nonconforming ways as by compassion for blue-eyed pagans.

The meeting for which Augustine now waited in his episcopal chair was actually his second with the "Britons." The first had been a less-than-successful introduction between the two parties. Doubtless he hoped this larger meeting would go better. The Venerable Bede, writing one century after the event, picks up the story:

Those summoned to his council first visited a wise and prudent hermit, and enquired of him whether they should abandon their own traditions at Augustine's demand. He answered, "If he is a man of God, follow him." "But how can we be sure of this?" they asked. "Our Lord says, Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart," he replied. "Therefore if Augustine is meek and lowly in heart, it shows that he bears the yoke of Christ himself, and offers it to you. But if he is haughty and unbending, then he is not of God, and we should not listen to him." Then they asked, "But how can we know even this?" "Arrange that he and his followers arrive first at the place appointed for the conference," answered the hermit. "If he rises courteously as you approach, rest assured that he is the servant of Christ and do as he asks. But if he ignores you and does not rise, then, since you are in the majority, do not comply with his demands." The British bishops carried out his suggestion, and it happened that Augustine remained seated in his chair. Seeing this, they became angry, accusing him of pride and taking pains to contradict all that he said.1

Thus began the romance of Western Christianity with that of the Celtic tradition, an ambivalent relationship that has endured for nearly 1500 years.

From the time of this failed face-to-face encounter with Celtic Christians, the Church in the West has not quite known what to make of this strain of our common tradition and faith. In his Celtic Christianity, Ian Bradley provides a concise overview of the period of Celtic Christianity's flourishing—roughly the middle of the 5th century to the end of the 8th—together with a well-documented history of the Western Church's centuries-long romance with the people of this period. He nicely summarizes the achievement of Patrick and his spiritual heirs—without the myth and hyperbole that often accompanies such accounts—and traces the history since then of Catholic and Protestant scholarship and other involvement with Celtic Christians.

As Bradley shows, the Roman Catholic Church, beginning with Gregory, worked to subsume Celtic Christianity, achieving a high degree of success, especially following the Synod of Whitby in 673. Thereafter the distinctive aspects of Celtic Christianity that Columbanus argued for were gradually replaced by more traditional Roman modes of ecclesiastical life; and Celtic Christian theologians and hagiographers gradually introduced more traditional Roman themes and devices into their literary works.

Following the Reformation, Protestants, particularly in Britain, first sought to eradicate all trace of Celtic Christianity, for example, by destroying abbeys and churches associated with the tradition. I write these words on St. Traduna's Day, whose Lothian (Scotland) shrine, renowned as a source of healing for those with weak eyes, was so popular that Scots Presbyterians insisted, as Shirley Toulson reports, that "the kirk at Restalrig, a monument of idolatory (sic), be raysit and utterlie cast down and destroyed."2 On subsequent occasions, when it suited their purposes, Protestants tried by various means to co-opt the rich heritage and undoubted heroes of Celtic Christianity in an effort to shore up their claims to a more ancient heritage than that of their Catholic opponents, who were just as eager to retain copyright privileges to the heritage of Patrick and his spiritual descendants.

Of late, as Bradley shows, Christians of all stripes and traditions in the West have taken up the romance with the Celtic tradition according to a variety of interests and needs. Pop composers borrow Celtic motifs and instrumentation, and resurrect ancient Celtic lyrics and tunes. Religious orders and communities have sprung up involving Catholics and Protestants alike under various forms of Celtic rule and discipline. Elements of Celtic spirituality have become popular with worship leaders and spiritual directors from a variety of communions. Popular books by writers such as Thomas Cahill and Esther De Waal have helped to fuel this most recent revival of interest in things Celtic, as have video documentaries on the Celts (BBC) and St. Patrick himself (Hallmark). Popular anthologies of Celtic Christian literature are also increasingly common, such as those edited by Christopher Bamford and William Parker Marsh, John Carey, Oliver Davies, Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, and Robert Van de Meyer. And a growing number of books seeking to adapt Celtic practices to contemporary church life suggest more practical ways of benefiting from this ancient tradition.3

This fascination with things Celtic—this romance—is not new; as Bradley shows, it has gone on for centuries. For most Christians today, however, the Celtic Christian tradition remains a largely unexplored treasury of spiritual teaching and practice, contained in a growing body of newly translated source material and carefully researched secondary literature. Happily, a movement of scholars has emerged in our generation whose purpose is to keep alive the work of serious study in the Celtic tradition with an eye both to better understanding and more realistic expectations. In studies focused on determining the roots of Celtic Christianity, deciphering Celtic hagiography, discerning Celtic theology, and discovering the secrets of Celtic Christianity's discipline and power, scholars in Great Britain and America are shedding new and helpful light on this fascinating and promising epoch of the Christian tradition.

The Celtic Christian period began with Patrick, the 5th-century British missionary-bishop who, for 60 years, evangelized and started communities of believers among the Irish, and inaugurated the first major advance of the faith in Celtic lands. The past decade or so has yielded a bumper crop of books about the patron saint of Ireland. The most thorough and original however is E. A. Thompson's Who Was St. Patrick?, published in 1985.4 Thompson provides an excellent, carefully-considered overall account of Patrick's life and work in the light of available sources. Liam De Paor's St. Patrick's World employs a documentary approach—including the only two writings from Patrick's own hand—to paint out the rich historical background of Patrick's ministry.5 Philip Freeman's biography, St. Patrick of Ireland, represents a happy blend of Thompson and De Paor in a highly readable and frankly admiring account. Freeman gives detailed background information and interacts with historical and hagiographical sources, but keeps his account close to Patrick's own words, as recorded in the saint's Confession and the Letter Against the Soldiers of Coroticus. These and many other books on the first great Celtic saint celebrate his courage, tenacity, humility, and achievement and lay a solid foundation for the ongoing study of this period.

Patrick's success in evangelizing the Irish was followed in the second generation after him by a far-ranging missions effort that resulted in Irish and other Celtic monasteries being established in many places throughout the British Isles and Europe. Beginning in the sixth century, from places like Bangor in Ireland and Iona and Lindisfarne in Scotland, Celtic missionaries by the thousands launched ventures into the heart of pagan Europe to establish or re-establish the faith of Christ, founding monasteries as schools and missionary-training centers wherever they went.6 While most Celtic missionaries deployed to mainland Europe, some took to the sea, sailing north and west from Ireland with a variety of mission purposes in mind.7

Celtic monasteries were centers of vibrant community life, conservative scholarship, and a flourishing tradition in the arts.8 Celtic monks conserved ancient Biblical and patristic manuscripts, taught literacy and crafts to the people who assembled around their communities, prepared teams of missionaries, and sponsored a movement in the arts with continuing allure. Celtic Christian artists, most famous for their carved crosses and illuminated manuscripts, also preserved their craft in a variety of everyday and liturgical implements.9 Monographs, anthologies, and popular works about these and other aspects of the Celtic Christian tradition are appearing with increasing regularity. These are of varying quality and value, and must be sought out among a plethora of "knock-off" volumes offering advice on everything from ecology to worship, from spirituality to communal living à la those who followed in the footsteps of Patrick, Columba, Brendan, Columbanus, Aidan, and Cuthbert. These "Celtish" studies are sometimes arresting, yet they can be highly speculative and even frivolous; they are not of much value in understanding the heart of Celtic Christianity and how we might benefit from it today.

Those interested in plunging into the study of Celtic Christianity would do well to seek out one reliable introductory volume and perhaps one volume on a specific subject of interest. For the former I recommend the very helpful volume edited by Mark Atherton, Celts and Christians: New Approaches to the Religious Traditions of Britain and Ireland. Here the reader will find a sampling both of the wide scope of contemporary Celtic studies and of the quality of scholarly work currently being undertaken in this field. The book is divided into two sections. Part 1, entitled, "Identities," looks at what is meant by the term "Celtic Christianity," its origins and cultural roots, as well as distinguishing aspects of the people of this period as expressed in select representatives. Jonathan Wooding's essay in this section, explaining the cultural, social, and religious roots of Celtic Christianity, is particularly helpful in discovering the ethnic and historical foundations of the people who came to Christianity beginning in the fifth century. Part 2, "Theologies," undertakes a brief tour of historic Christian beliefs—the resurrection, conversion, incarnation, and the revelation of God in creation—as these were expressed in a variety of Celtic literary sources, ancient and contemporary. The Celtic Christian view of Christ, which in itself ought to encourage further investigation into this period, is neatly summarized by A. M. Allchin in his essay on creation and resurrection:

In thinking of creation and resurrection together in this way, we shall find ourselves thinking in terms of a cosmic Christology, a way of understanding both creation and redemption which centres on the person and work of Christ, and focuses particularly on his death and resurrection. Christ the Word by whom all things are made in the beginning, in whom all things hold together, is Christ the crucified who descends into the place of death and there destroys the power of death, not only for humanity but for all creation.

My particular interest at present in the field of Celtic Christian studies is in the role of penance in the everyday life of Celtic Christians, a subject introduced by Thomas O'Loughlin in his Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writings10 but fully explored by Hugh Connolly in his thorough study of Irish medieval literature on this subject, The Irish Penitentials and Their Significance for the Sacrament of Penance Today. The practice of penance in Celtic Christian lands seems to have been more of a spiritual discipline than a formal sacrament. The objective of penance was the correction of behavior deemed potentially destructive both to the individual and to the community of Christ. Administered in a context of contrition, counsel, encouragement, and spiritual oversight, penance served as a means of correcting contrary behavior by prescribing activities and practices designed to replace bad ways and habits with good ones. The goal of the effort was sanctification, holiness, and conformity to the image of Christ: the healing of the soul and the wholeness of life in community through the practice of spiritual discipline with accountability. In the discussion of the Celtic practice of penance we are also introduced to terms and institutions that many find intriguing and helpful today: the threefold Celtic idea of martyrdom, the soul-friend, and spiritual direction. Connolly summarizes the literature of this period:

The penitential literature reflects the efforts of the early Irish Church to evaluate and guide the moral behaviour of all the faithful. In common with all moral codes it recognised and valued certain qualities of mind and character which were deemed to correspond to the ideal behaviour of a true follower of Christ; it also saw a need to identify those actions and dispositions, the espousal of which would be detrimental to the fundamental tenets of the Christian life. The penitentials situated themselves within this latter enterprise. They were handbooks for confessors or physicians of souls who were to use them in order to steer the faithful away from behaviour which was spiritually harmful, to heal them from the effects of sin, to instruct them in the virtues which were to be sought after and to indicate a means by which this virtuous state might be achieved.

The body of literature exploring the vast literary and artistic heritage of the Celtic Christian period will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. Look for fresh translations of source material, new scholarly investigations into hagiographical, liturgical, and artistic elements of Celtic Christian life, and more popular anthologies and books, particularly in the areas of spirituality and community life. The best of these works will not only benefit anyone seeking to gain a better understanding of this rich period of Christian history but also deepen the reader's own faith here and now.

T. M. Moore is pastor of teaching ministries and director of the Center for Christian Studies at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. A fellow of the Wilberforce Forum, his latest book is Consider the Lilies: A Plea for Creational Theology (P & R, 2005). He and his wife, Susie, live in Concord, Tenn. His book on St. Patrick, Celtic Flame: The Burden of Patrick, was published by XLibris, 2000. He may be reached at nacurragh@aol.com.

1. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (London: Penguin, 1990), pp. 105–06.

2. Shirley Toulson, The Celtic Year: A Month-by-Month Celebration of Celtic Festivals and Sites (Shaftesbury: Element, 1993), p. 235.

3. See for example Jerry C. Doherty, A Celtic Model of Ministry: The Reawakening of Community Spirituality (Liturgical Press, 2003); Ian Bradley, Celtic Christian Communities: Colonies of Heaven (Kelowna: Northstone, 2000); Brendan O'Malley, A Celtic Primer: The Complete Celtic Worship Resource and Collection (Morehouse, 2002); and Richard J. Woods, The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints (Orbis, 2000).

4. E. A. Thompson, Who Was St. Patrick? (St. Martin's, 1985).

5. Liam De Paor, St. Patrick's World (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

6. The main features of this story are related with careful scholarship by Douglas Dales, Light to the Isles: Missionary Theology in Celtic and Anglo Saxon Britain (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1997); and Lisa M. Bitel, Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland (Cornell Univ. Press, 1990).

7. A more detailed study of this aspect of Celtic Christian missions, and of the hagiographical literature that relates these accounts, can be found in Jonathan M. Wooding, ed., The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature: An Anthology of Criticism (Dublin: Four Courts, 2000).

8. Among the many studies in Celtic Christian art that have appeared over the last ten years, one of the most careful and helpful is Catherine E. Karkov, Michael Ryan, and Robert T. Farrel, eds., The Insular Tradition (suny Press, 1997).

9. For a beautiful presentation on dvd of one aspect of Celtic Christian art, see Bill Simpson, ed., The Book of Kells (Dublin: Trinity College Library, 2000).

10. Thomas O'Loughlin, Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writings (Continuum, 2000).

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