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Celtic Spirituality

By Alun Brookfield.

Even the most casual observer of the religious landscape of Britain will have been aware that in recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in Celtic Christianity. Every month sees a new title on the subject reaching the bookshelves. Bands such as lona have taken the Christian music world by storm(their recent album "Journey into the mom" sold enough copies to register in the secular album charts). Organisers of seminars on the subject of Celtic spirituality have to manage their publicity carefully to avoid being snowed under with more people than they can cope with. Shops are full of Celtic-style jewellery. Our worship services are becoming infiltrated with Celtic prayers, Irish and Scottish music. There is no doubt that to be Celtic is "cool".

So what is going on here? Should we welcome or resist this movement? Is this the New Age under another name? Should we be warning our young people to avoid things Celtic? And what do we mean by "Celtic" anyway?

Let me try to answer the last question first. Specifically, this is a movement inspired by the Christian community which was indigenous to these islands in post-Roman and pre-Augustinian times, although these periods overlapped considerably. It is characterised by people such as Patrick of Ireland, Columba of Iona, Aidan and Cuthbert of Lindisfame, Hilda of Whit by, David and Illtyd ofWales, and many others.

Our knowledge of that period is at best sketchy. There are few written sources, and some of those, such as Bede, while being sympathetic to the holiness and effectiveness of the Celtic saints, are hostile to their theology .Inevitably there is plenty of room for romanticising and, sadly, a number of the books on the subject tend to lose their way as they peer through rose-tinted spectacles at the past.

Nevertheless, we can quickly dismiss the New Age accusation. That movement finds its inspiration in the pre-Christian Celts, whereas the ancient Celtic Christians, like the modern Celtic movement, found their inspiration in the Desert Fathers and in Scripture.

Three kinds of Celt

I think it is possible to identify three main groups of people showing interest in the Celtic church. First, there are those who, while not choosing to embrace the spirituality, the call to simplicity etc. (of which more later) of Celtic Christianity, have committed themselves to learning from their mission strategy. These people are asking the question: "Why were the Celtic saints so effective in evangelising Britain and can they teach us anything about evangelising a post-modem culture". -the answer they are coming up with is a clear "Yes" to the second half of the question. Again, more later.

Second, there are those who have chosen to embrace the lifestyle of the Celtic Christians, appropriately adapted and re-interpreted for our modem culture, but nevertheless are seeking to model a different way of being Christian in the world, based on the old ways. Many of these are travelling alone, but others have formed themselves into loose-knit communities, such as the Northumbria Community and the Community of Aidan and Hilda. These are people who embrace Celtic Christianity as a vocation. Perhaps it is fair to say that many of these people, the present writer included, did not set out to be Celtic, but found that the story of the Celtic saints helped to make sense of their own spiritual journey, and that discovery then led them to explore deeper.

Third, there are those who are fascinated by the Celtic culture, love the music, adore the jewellery , enjoy the liturgies, and try to build it into their existing Christianity .These are not interested in Celtic Christianity as a vocation, but they might be said to be on vacation in a Celtic theme-park, where they find many things which help them along the way, but, next year, they may well go elsewhere. 1 do not suggest that we should not take this third group seriously. Far from it. But the full commitment of community is not for everyone, any more than all Christians should be ordained as preachers (God forbid!).

Declaring an interest

For the remainder of this article, I want to concentrate on the second group, in which I humbly count myself. Perhaps now I should declare an interest! I am not writing as a dispassionate observer, but as someone whose spiritual journey has found fresh meaning within a Celtic community. That journey has been a varied one, trying to unite an evangelical theology, a charismatic experience, a passion for musical expression, a deep love of the natural world; an enjoyment of creative disciplines, a delight in liturgy and a love of symbolism. An encounter with Celtic spirituality six years ago seemed to bring all these things together.

My wife and I have now embraced the Rule of the Northumbria Community, and endeavour to live according to that Rule. We do not live in a monastery, but in an ordinary street in Swindon. We both have full-time jobs and attend a local church. Outwardly, we are no different from thousands of other people who live around us.

What difference does it make?

Yet our commitment to the Rule (Availability and Vulnerability) shapes our lives. And here I come to the characteristics of the Celtic Christians. What makes a Celtic Christian different from any other?

First, prayer shapes our day. I make no boast to great spirituality here. I am a doer, rather than a pray-er, so prayer is difficult for me. Yet I see in the lives of the Celtic saints a readiness to be available to God in the place of prayer. They were men and women who devoted their lives to prayer. Our lives, like theirs, are shaped by a habit of morning, midday and evening prayer. The rest of life is fitted around those Offices in which we draw aside from business to pray.

Second, solitude -the desert place, if you like -is something we value. The Celtic saints sought solitude, prized it, valued it, because there they knew that they would meet God in a way which was not possible in the hurly burly of everyday life. They went away to mountains and islands and desert places. Modem Celtic Christians spend time in solitude also. For some it is the poustinia (a Russian word meaning "desert"). For others, it is a mountain top, a lonely seaside. For me, it is usually my allotment, where, by choosing my time, 1 can pray uninterrupted as I quietly hoe away the weeds.

Third, the Celtic church lived simply, and modem Celts aim to follow that example. The clever word is "downshifting", but we do it for a different reason. It is not simply that we are fed up with the rat race (although we are!), nor is it only about living simply so that others may simply live (although it is), but that we know we cannot be available to God and others if we are totally preoccupied with our own little agendas. So, like our forebears, we reduce the complications of our lifestyles, so that we can serve others. This is nothing particularly spiritual. For us, it has meant laying down leadership roles in our church so that we can become more involved in the life of our local community .for example, 1 am now chairman of the allotment association, and spend most of my leisure time with non-Christians.

Fourth, the Celts sat loose to structures, hierarchies, power and order. Their bishops were not ruling bishops -that concept arrived with Augustine -but evangelists. They placed themselves willingly under the guidance of soul-friends, who were simply others who had been travelling longer and were honoured for their wisdom. Theirs was a culture which venerated age and experience, but not power. Likewise, modern-day Celts tend to resist the temptation to set up complex systems and structures. Other members of the Northumbria Community reading this would doubtless agree with me that the organisation of the Community is somewhat chaotic at times! That is not always easy to cope with when one is accustomed to living in strict order, but it reflects the Community's discomfort with power structures.

Fifth, they were unconcerned with reputation - or rather, they were concerned not to seek reputation. If a preacher began to develop a reputation for his oratorical skills, his soul-friend might require him to enter a period of reflection out of the public eye. Now would that not revolutionise our modem church, obsessed as we seem to be at times with getting "big name speakers" for our events? We too are much more concerned with relationship than reputation.

Sixth, they loved the arts, as do we, seeing in them a wide range of expression of divine grace and goodness. The careful artistry which went into creating the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels was an act of worship and devotion - a prayer exercise. When I play a musical instrument or sing, even in private, it is an expression of worship.

Seventh, they were tolerant of variety. Each monastery had its own liturgy, and there was no attempt to bring them all into line (nor was there any hierarchy to do so!). Each group lived slightly differently and within each group, there were different kinds of lifestyle, ranging from comfortable to profoundly uncomfortable. Some groups were single gender, while other monasteries were mixed. Some encouraged marriage, others discouraged it. And it appears not to have been a problem. Small wonder then, that the Celtic representatives at the Synod of Whit by found it difficult to win their argument for the date of Easter -if the Roman Christians wanted to celebrate on a different day, so what? Those early Celts were truly ecumenical.

Likewise modern Celts are tolerant of each other's theological and ecclesiological variety. Within the Northumbria Community, there are people of all major denominations. Within the small Partner Group we run in our town, there are Baptists, Anglicans, URC members and Roman Catholics. We do not ignore our differences, but nor do we fight over them. Rather we learn from each other and journey on together.

Eighth, the Celts knew how to admire and live in peace with the natural world, without ever being in danger of pantheism. They did not worship creation, but admired the creativity of God in it. They learned from the way God had made the earth how following Christ was a mixture of joy and hardship, glorious hope and uncertain adventuring. And they saw that God was a God of variety, not uniformity .They watched the seasons change and realised that Christian experience included winter, as well as summer, times of darkness as well as times of bright, warm light. As a keen gardener and nature lover, that rings deep bells in my understanding, and is doing so in many thousands of others who are responding to Christ through Celtic communities.

Ninth (and one can see various aspects of this analysis beginning to overlap), the Celtic church did not confme women to positions of relative servitude. Women travelled as evangelists, founded and led monasteries (as well as convents!), and were honoured by all, receiving a status equal to that of men. If a woman could do the job, she just got on and did it. This was not a particularly religious insight, for ancient Celtic laws provided this status for women. For example, that law permitted a woman to divorce her husband if she found him unsuitable in anyway! The church accepted this status for women and enjoyed the blessing of their special gifts as a result. Within the Celtic movement of today, women do not have to fight to be recognised for who they are and how God has gifted them.

Tenth (and I could go on much further than this, but let this be the last), the Celtic church loved Scripture. Their liturgies and prayers are shot through with it. The Bible was read, learned, meditated upon and used to establish doctrine, and it was this devotion to Scripture which kept them from losing their way as they accepted and Christianised the culture in which they lived and worked.

It is the same with those who seek the Celtic way in modern times. At each Office, Scripture is read (sometimes three readings), reflected upon and prayed over. There are no heavy, cerebral notes to ensure that we get our theology right -we believe that God the Holy Spirit is quite capable of keeping us from serious, damaging error.

As you have read the above analysis, you may feel, with some justification, that there is nothing very special here. Most Christian groups practise some or most of these things. Yet there seems to be within the Celtic communities a cohesiveness which brings all these things together without conflict. Without the hierarchy, there is freedom to explore, question, search for God as he directs. With the love of nature, there is the joy of worshipping in the open air.

Obedience to the Rule of the Community gives discipleship a focus which we have never found in any local church to which we have belonged. Worshipping a creative God enables us to hold together the sacred and secular as a continuum. Following Jesus in this way has led us into closer contact with the people among whom we live as we try to represent Christ to them. Wasn't it St Francis who said: "Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words"?

Finally, is this just another kind of Christian escapism? How is all this relevant to today?

Others have shown how the world in which the Celts lived and served was strikingly similar to our own. It was a dangerous, uncertain world, full of competing ideologies, ambitions, kingdoms. The old gods held strong. It was a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Britain was being invaded by other peoples from all sides, bringing their strange customs with them. Government was localised, temporary and often ineffective. It was a time when the Christian faith was competing for its place among many other religions. It was a culture that was falling apart.

The parallels are obvious. Our world is one of competition for our hearts and souls, many religions and pseudo-religions demand our allegiance. Government is weak as we lose faith in the corruption of politicians. Our party system leads to a see-saw motion of governing ideology. The gods of materialism, sexuality, family, addictions, communication -are all still strong. Other nations bring their customs and threaten our own, driving the insecure deeper into their ghettos. It is a culture that is falling apart.

Into such a world the Celtic church has a voice, with lessons for us all. We can learn from their simplicity, zeal, prayer, love of Scripture, relationships, community life and unified worldview, to enable us to live Christianly in this modem world, and thus begin to touch it afresh with the good news of Jesus Christ.

On the back cover of Michael Mitton's excellent book, Restoring the Woven Cord (DL T, 1995), the editor has written: "The Celtic Church challenges us to rediscover the strands of our faith and to find ways of weaving them together in our own lives and in the lives of our Churches."

Inside the book, Michael Mitton sums up: "This is none other than a discovery of a new way of being church. It is not to do with abandoning the old and starting a new Celtic denomination - God forbid! The Celtic way was not to abolish but to change and transform. Rather, our quest is to see the strands of our Christian faith once again woven into a strong cord so that the church at every level might be renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit in order that it may share Christ boldly and lovingly to a very needy world, to the glory of God the Father".

To which I add only -Amen!

Selected Bibliography

Restoring the woven cord- Michael Mitton (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1995),ISBN 0232 521018

Celtic Saints -A Pitkin Guide (Pitkin, 1995), ISBN 0 85372 741 4

A History of the English Church and People -Bede (Penguin) ISBN 0 14044 042 9

Celtic Daily Prayer -Andy Raine/John Skinner (Marshall Pickering, 1994 ),ISBN 0551028459

Celtic Night Prayer -Northumbria Community (Marshall Pickering, 1996),ISBN 0551 029749

Celtic Worship through the Year -Ray Simpson (Hodder and Stoughton, 1997),ISBN 0340 686677

Exploring Celtic Spirituality -Ray Simpson (no other details available)

Also the books of Celtic prayers and liturgies by David Adam, Vicar of Holy Island. All books published by Triangle:

Power Lines, ISBN 0281 046158

The Open Gate, ISBN 0281 047677

Tides and Seasons, ISBN 0281 044082

The Edge of Glory, ISBN 0281041970

The Rhythm of Life, ISBN 0281 048932

The Cry of the Deer, (1987)

Border Lands, (1991)

The Eye of the Eagle, (1990)

Alun Brookfield

Editor of Ministry Today

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You are reading Celtic Spirituality by Alun Brookfield, part of Issue 12 of Ministry Today, published in February 1998.

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