Celtic Christianity revisited

By Willard Roth
February 24, 2010

The second in a series of 2010 Lent blogs from Willard Roth focusing on places of particular spiritual intensity and interest across Britain and Ireland. The first piece was entitled 'Iona remembered and visited' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11296


I confess that I am a Celtic romantic without genealogical roots. I am not a critical student of the tradition. I simply know deep in my soul that spiritual thirst has oft been quenched as I drank at Celtic wells. That spiritual hunger has been fed as I ate at tables of hospitality prepared by Celtic disciples. I have discovered in Celtic Christian spirituality a way of following Jesus that links earth with heaven — a way that intentionally cultivates inner and outer life, stemming from the church tradition of 5th and 6th century saints in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

Ian Bradley, whom I know only through his writing, has explored Celtic Christianity both as a romantic and as an academic. “I remain convinced of one thing,” he underscores, “that pilgrimage is its single most important and distinctive theme…a perpetual moving on, venturing out into unknown territory and meeting new fellow-travellers along the way” (Colonies of Heaven: Celtic models for today’s church 2000, p197).

These practitioners of the Christian way describe the Christian life as a journey. Pilgrimage was both literal and symbolic. Monks criss-crossed sea and land on preaching and pastoral missions, yet destination was not paramount. In Stephen Lawhead’s novel Byzantium (1996, p19), monk Ruadh tells his soul friend leaving with the Book of Kells on a quest to find the holy Roman emperor, Remember Aidan. Never doubt, unless the pilgrim carry with him the thing he seeks, he will never find it when he arrives.

As we move from Iona to Northern Ireland for our second pilgrimage segment, we shift focus from Columba (521-597) to Patrick, raised a century earlier in a Roman family in England. John J. O’Riordain reminds us that by the time Patrick came to Ireland, the country had already enjoyed 700 or 800 years of uninterrupted Celtic culture. Greek and Roman commentators from the 7th century BC describe the Celts as people with a strong religious sense who believed in life after death, bonded well with the living and the dead, favoured simplicity of life, had a fine spirit of hospitality and aesthetic appreciation. They had many gods and goddesses and a priestly class known as druids (“A note on Celtic spirituality,” Irish Council of Churches 2005, p86).

Noel Dermot O’Donoghue, a Carmelite father, laid the foundation for my valuing Celtic ways. As my first face to face teacher during an Iona study week in 1989, he delighted me with his dry humour and insightful introduction to Celtic history, people and understandings. Noel made Patrick a human friend more than a legendary hero; he was a sensitive man who liked women.

My journal wrap-up of the week put it thus: O’Donoghue’s interpretation of St. Patrick’s confession, western Christianity’s oldest written text, and his opening of the Celtic literary reservoir of spiritual classics couched in the practical wisdom of everyday, urge me to integrate faith with life in fresh ways for the latter days of the second millennium. Why can’t a world of fairies and angels be incorporated with space missiles and computers? I am beginning to sense that indeed connections can be made.

As together we US Mennonites visit places in the Patrick story come June 2010** — such as his first church in Ireland at Saul, his purported grave in Downpatrick, his statue atop Slieve Patrick which a previous pilgrim described as “breathtaking views 360 degrees around” — I pray that all of us may make such connections. Deep in the tradition that nurtured Patrick is one of my favorite hymns: Be thou my vision, O Ruler of all. The vision of eternity is realised and appropriated day by day in the constant demands and uncertainties of ordinary life. Even in such times as these, Christian Celts dare renew hope and release vision.


(c) Willard E. Roth is a retired pastor in Mennonite Church USA, having held many posts for the Mennonite church nationally and world wide. He has also been involved with the Academy of Parish Clergy (ACP), and has a specialist interest in journalism and communications.

** Willard Roth is co-leading, with Marlene Kropf, a Celtic Pilgrimage on behalf of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkart, Indiana. It will take place from 11-28 June 2010. For details, visit http://www.ambs.edu/news-and-publications/events-and-news/celtic-pilgrimage The Pilgrimage, which will move across Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England, is now fully booked.

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