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Celtic Corner

There are some tantalising pointers to there being a pre-Conquest worship site in Filey. If so, and given that our Patron is St Oswald, our attention is surely drawn towards the Celtic roots of Christianity in our region.

 

"Celtic Corner" is here to bring the heritage of Celtic Spirituality to the modern generation.

Candlemas 2023

Sermon preached at St Oswald’s on 5th February 2023,  by The Reverend Paul Burkitt.

On 2nd February each year, Christian people world-wide focus on that famous scene depicted for us by St Luke. It tells how, according to Hebrew tradition the Jewish mother would present herself at the Temple for the ritual of purification 40 days after giving birth. Reminiscent of those days of, ‘The Churching of Women’ in our own culture!

 

At the same time the child is likewise presented. In the Christian narrative it is the child Jesus who is presented to God in the Temple for the first time. He is received by the holy man, the prophet, Simeon who in turn discerned that he was holding the long awaited Messiah in his arms. He found peace within himself as he held the promise of salvation for the Jews and destined to be the the light for all who lived in darkness.

 

Two major traditions of the church find their origins in this event; one is the inclusion of Simeon’s hymn of praise and thanksgiving in what we know as the ‘Nunc Dimittis’, in our prayers at the ending of the day, and indeed in life’s end in our funeral service.

Nunc Dimittis’ are the first words, in the Latin translation of the Bible, of his prayer. (How’s your Latin?)

 

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum, in pace’.

‘Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised’.

The old order now is melting into the new; in this event the Old Testament meets the New.

The other tradition that has emerged in the Church from this event, is the lighting of Candles generally, and specifically on this day the blessing of all church candles, hence Candlemas.

Unlikely as it may seem, I can quote to you what Henry VIII, that English Catholic King, had to say on the matter:

On Candlemas Day, it shall be declared that the bearing of candles is done to the memory of Christ, the spiritual light, whom Simeon did prophesy, as it is read in the church that day.’

Much earlier, we have in the still Roman Catholic 11th Century St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, of who declared that the whole candle was to be blessed: for the wax, from the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick which is within is his soul and the flame atop is his divinity.

This feast though can so easily be overlooked, and by so doing we deprive ourselves and both our local and global neighbours. It is a way marker on our Christian journey, coming at a time when we might easily find ourselves getting lost, it comes at the midway point between Christmas and Easter.

It marks the point when we start to turn away now from the crib and set our faces towards the cross. It helps us celebrates the mystery of the Incarnation, from crib to cross, the whole life span of God in mortal form. Each time we bless and light our candles we enter into the mystery of God made Man, the whole candle.

We light our candles against the darkness, whatever that darkness may be, whether it be deeply personal or a darkness which overshadows all humanity.  In that silent and deliberate act of lighting, we let the candle take over; we let Christ take over. The lighted candle has a language of its own. We let the candle speak for us, for so often when we are in darkness or another is in darkness, we have no words or even thoughts of our own. The candle prays, as Christ prays for us or for the other for whom we light it.

This is a day we must not overlook. Those who live in darkness can tell you why. You may have heard of the author Sir Terry Pratchett; he was one such spokesperson, for he lived in the in the darkest of worlds, a world some of you may have knowledge of, the world of Alzheimer’s disease. He campaigned tirelessly, when he was able, to aid research and awareness of that world; he wrote,

Light thinks it travels faster than anything, but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first and is waiting for it’.

It is as if darkness hold the default position; it was indeed dark before God said, ‘Let there be light’. Somehow light and dark exist together, each in a way explaining and defining the other; we only know what light is when darkness surrounds it, yet we know, as St John tells us in the prologue of his Gospel, that the darkness will  never overcome the Light of Christ. It comes as no surprise that Luke tells how the joyful light of Christ for Simeon, comes with the hovering dark forecast of Mary’s pierced soul. Light and dark overlap.

Nature even reflects this creaturely relationship, as our Pagan friends in their festival of Imbolc express; we see the light of the snowdrops, (Christianised as Mary’s tapers), emerging defiantly out of the winter dark decay.

So, this is a day not to be overlooked, rather it is a day about lighting a candle against all forms of darkness, not least against the darkness of our own complacency, lest it creeps back. It is a day of our renewing, a day of keeping going in the right direction between crib and cross, despite all the shadows, for you and I are called, candle-like, both to burn and to melt, shining in Godly service.

An old and simple blessing for all our candles;

O Lord Jesus Christ, who art the true light that lightest every one that cometh into the world; we beseech thee to bless + these thy waxen creatures and to sanctify + them to our use and for our protection. May we draw near and be enkindled with the holy flame of Christ.’ Amen.

St. Patrick

Sermon preached at St John’s: St Patrick’s Day, 17th March 2023 by Reverend Paul Burkitt

Isaiah 61. 1-3a: Matthew 28.16-end.

‘I am not worthy to fasten his sandle-strap’, is just one translation of how John the Baptist spoke of Jesus, and in many ways, I feel that it is with the same level of humility, that we should approach the figure of Patrick. He indeed was known for his own humility, despite all the great things others might say of him, this is what he said of himself,

I am Patrick, a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers, utterly worthless in the eyes of many

 

As with any saint, we look at what they say of themselves, what others say and consider their legacy. Today I’d rather stay with what Patrick said of himself rather than dwell on what the legends and customs have been built up around him say, colourful as the snakes and shamrock may be! Although, there is an endearing line from a later Irish ballad which goes,

St Patrick was a gentleman, he came of decent people; He built a church in Dublin town, and on it put a steeple’!

Despite his living in the middle to late 400’s he had been educated enough to write late on, of his life and faith in his ‘Confession’. This was his declaration of his faith and, through all his struggles, of his utter dependence on the grace of Three Personed God. 

Patrick was not Irish! He called himself both British and Roman, being born somewhere in the west of our mainland Briton with his father working for the Romans. His first great crisis befell him when he was 16, kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold as a slave and to live in extreme conditions of hardship and poverty as a shepherd.

It was here though, that Patrick became a person for the ‘now’, the present moment, the immediate, for the slave has no future. ‘Today’ was all he had, his life was ‘existential’, in the true sense of he word, it was life or death for this young Patrick. But it was in this very desolation in his fight to exist, that God made his way into Patrick’s way of being.

This is the God, (and we ourselves might recognize the same God), that truly frees us from the places where we are stuck: Patrick put it like this,

Just like a stone lying in the deep mud, the Lord heaved me up and placed me on top of a wall’.

He escaped, and journeyed home as best he could, aged 22.  In a dream however, he tells us that he heard, ‘The Voice of the Irish’ calling him to return and walk amongst them once more. So it was; he did his priestly studies in a French monastery and at the age of 43 became a bishop.

His missionary work was colossal. In typical Patrick style he tells us what he got up to; here there is no ego, no Patrick self, only the Christ-Self. With familiar echoes of St Paul, and indeed our Lord’s Great Commission which we heard in the Gospel reading, this is what Patrick tells us that,

he, ‘baptised thousands’, ‘ordained clerics everywhere’, ‘gave presents to kings’, ‘was put in irons’, lived in daily expectation of murder, treachery or captivity’, ‘journeyed everywhere in many dangers, even to the farthest regions beyond which no man dwells, and rejoiced to see ‘the flock of the Lord in Ireland growing splendidly with the greatest care and the sons and daughters of kings becoming monks and virgins for Christ’.

Through all of this Patrick had the deep sense of the Holy Spirit of God living within him, the very thought of what God had done for him moved him to spontaneous prayer, and thanksgiving, and whatever he had been given he passed on.

He tells us too he had this great sense of God, the Holy Trinity praying within him, supporting him, guiding and guarding him. He had absolute trust in God’s loving care for him, and in return was full of love for God, full of joy and gratitude for his vocation, and so great was his prayerfulness that, talking to or of God, was as natural as breathing the air or absorbing the warmth and light of the sun.

Patrick’s humility and joyful determination are legacy enough but his relationship with God still inspires us, a relationship with,

God the Father with us; God the Son alongside us; God the Holy Spirit within us’.

We have his prayers still, the most famous being the one we know as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’-‘I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity’. This was no academic expression of the possibility of God! No, it was the complete and utter and immediate surrender and unity to and with God.

Patrick gives us prayer in action.

From the very early Book of Armagh, we are told that Patrick wished the Irish to have two phrases always on their lips, Kyrie Eleison and Deo Gratias; Lord have Mercy and Thanks be to God.

It is as if Patrick lived his saintly life between these two prayers, and they also remain a legacy for us, to trust in the One who loves and forgives us much and to be eternally grateful for everything and everyone. Amen.

Oswald Tide 2023
Oswald.png

Sermon preached at St John’s on 4th August 2023 by Reverend Paul Burkitt

1 Peter 4 v 12-19 & John 16 v 29-33.

From St John’s Gospel,

I have told you these things, so that you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world’.

Most certainly Jesus and his disciples had troubles in Jerusalem, later on, Matthew continued to have troubles in Galilee, Mark had his troubles in Italy, Luke had his in Greece and John came up against it in Asia Minor.

Each of those gospel writers encouraged their communities to follow in the way of their Lord, to fear not, and to take heart, be brave, in knowing that he had overcome the world. Heart was needed to go through these troubles, and overcoming them, as we know, was through the way of their Lord, through that supreme demonstration of self-giving, of self-sacrificing love. 

Oswald had his troubles, six centuries later in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia which were continually at war with each other. Oswald was born in troubled times, lived through troubled times and died in troubled times.

How on this earth was he to promote the overcoming self-giving love of Christ in such turbulent times? Was his chosen path to peace on earth and good will to all people the right one?

Was Oswald a Holy warrior King or an unholy Abbot?

That is a question still debated today. Other saints of the church like Martin, Ignatius and Francis had all been soldiers and renounced war in their conversion to way of Christ-like self-sacrifice, but it seems that Oswald, being a king and protector of his people, had to embrace warfare, believing that peace can only exist on the other side of war.

Of royal descent, Oswald had been driven into exile through war to the island of Iona and became part of that early monastic Christian community there. He learned the ways of Christ in his 17 years there, but when his father was killed in battle Oswald had to return to Northumbria.

Immediately he was engaged in a battle at a place still called ‘Heavenfield’. He won this battle and became King. He had learned the ways of an abbot, the head of a monastery, on Iona, but now he had to learn the ways of a king, a king in the midst of troubles.

He knew that he had to follow the way of the prophets, the path to justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. He also knew of the apostle’s advice to gird himself with the belt of truth, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, being persistent in prayer for God’s people.

In Oswald’s case he had a real helmet and breastplate and a double-edged sword.

Oswald had the policy of an abbot which had to implemented by a king.

His aim was to Christianise his kingdom. In the words of a modern scholar,

..he sent for a bishop from Iona to preach the gospel in Northumbria. First a severe was sent who met with no success among people whom he considered barbarous and obstinate. He was soon replaced by the kindly Aidan whose sermons Oswald interpreted and to whom he gave the island of Lindisfarne for a monastery and bishop’s seat, close to the royal residence of Bamburgh. Aidan met with great success; numerous Northumbrians became Christians and Christianity was established.’

After only 8 years as king, Oswald was killed in battle by the king of Mercia in 641/2. He was martyred as he placed his wooded cross on the battle-field. This was at ‘Oswald’s Tree’- today’s Oswestry.

In gruesome fashion, so the story goes, his body was dismembered and his body parts hung up on stakes. His followers quickly recovered them and they became holy relics to be venerated by the faithful.

His head went to Lindisfarne, arms to Bamburgh then stolen ending up in Ely. Many parts found their way to Germany and central Europe. In England, in the end, 62 churches were dedicated to his name.

Reverence for Oswald extended to Scotland, Ireland, Portugal, Bohemia, Holland, Germany and Switzerland, and he became acclaimed as one of England’s national heroes; somehow, he mingled his bravery and military skill with his generosity and piety, quoting that scholar again,

..together with an early death for his country and his faith Oswald combined the attributes of Anglo-Saxon hero and Christian saint’.

Here though there has to be a note of caution. Can we invoke God into our human conflicts, can we justify our wars in his name? Today we have a Vladimir and a Vlodimir in conflict, both having a wing of the Orthodox Church behind them. Could either of them be saintly?

As a sixties person, I have to go along with Bob Dylan, ‘If God is on our side, he’ll stop the next war’.

Today, we ask ourselves what we might inherit from and revere in this saintly king? We have an altar at St Oswald’s, designed to house a relic. It has never been opened; we could surmise there is a part of Oswald in it? Or rather can we be inspired by what can live on; by his vision, his courage, commitment, his practical translation of the gospel language, his dedication to the end of his life to both his people and his God. There is no doubt that Oswald wanted his people to prosper in peace.

In all of his troubles, Oswald held firm to his pledge to interpret and to proclaim the good news of Christ, ever to seek justice, show mercy and walk humbly with his God.

Oswald was a man of prayer, so let us pray,

Lord our God, when you Son Jesus had to pass through trials, He knew that you were with him and he committed Himself into your hands. In this way he brought peace to people. As we are people baptized into his name, let your Holy Spirit help us to be brave when sufferings and difficulties come our way, that like your Son and with him, we may overcome evil in ourselves and in the world. May our pains give birth to love and peace and hope for others. We ask you this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Aidan
Hands that have fed us
Strong shoulders that have carried us,
Wait like the shadows
With warmth ever with us…

So goes a reflection on the saints that have gone before us and, so it is, that we take this brief time, in our all too busy lives, to think on St Aidan who, whilst in Bamburgh and after a short illness, died yesterday in the year 651.

We think on his life and legacy, his signature, his significance: we think on what he promoted above all, which was a no-nonsense faith that is to be lived in the day to day-ness of things, the minute by minute-ness of living.

What he had learned he passed on and without his link in the chain of spreading the faith, we would not be here today doing what we are doing now.

The faith he brought into Northumbria had come from the community of Iona in the west, which had come from Ireland, which had come via France from the communities in the middle-east, notably the desert monasteries of Egypt and Syria, which had come from Jerusalem. This might sound just like history, well it is, but it is a history of the transferring of a faith, of an essential and eternal way of being, as relevant then in the day to day-ness of things, as it is now. Aidan is one of our direct benefactors.

It was our good King Oswald who sent to Iona for a monk to come to these parts. The first monk to come was one Corman. He came and went back complaining that the people were stubborn and unteachable.

What Aidan said to Corman was recorded,

You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ’.

It was his gentleness and discretion, according to the Abbot, that qualified Aidan as the next missionary. Already we perceive something of Aidan’s legacy in terms of our own ideas of mission, in how we do it.

He was well greeted by Oswald, who put Lindisfarne Island at his disposal for his monastery base camp, and in the early days it was Oswald who interpreted Aidan’s sermons and writings.

In one of the earliest chronicles, we are told that Aidan, ‘travelled ceaselessly…spreading the gospel both to the Anglo-Saxon nobility and to the poorest.’

Again, we see a ‘modern’ Aidan, an inclusive Aidan, one who addressed every level of society, richest to poorest and we are told that he, ‘patiently talked to people at their own level’. This isn’t to patronize, talk-down, but to meet people where they are, discerning their needs with non-judgemental kindness, with love, respect and care.

Whereas Corman came and went, Aidan patiently stayed, and with great humility, came alongside folk, and like our Lord himself, touched the untouchables, gave hope to the hopeless and sought out the lost.

Again a legacy for us, in our ideas of ministry, in how we might do it?

Aidan, as with any leader, could only work the way he did, because he had a strong base to work from. He had his community of brothers, a community almost literally dedicated to the daily, ‘tidal way of life’. Their day to dayness was a reflection of the daily rhythms of the sea, that surrounded them; there was inward flow of prayer, of study, balanced by the outward flow welcome and compassion. The Holy Island, was and still is, dependent on the tides.

Another legacy is that Aidan was both a man of prayer and of direct action. His spiritual wealth of prayer and love of God meant for him that any material wealth that might be given to him, or his community, was immediately given away to the poor or used to free slaves, whom he then went on to educate.

No fine palace, nor chauffeured car for this bishop, Aidan walked everywhere, for with his feet on the ground, and his eyes meeting theirs, the more people he could speak with, the more he could convert. We are told that he baptized many on his journeys, many joined him as monks for his missions, here and throughout Europe.

Aidan’s legacy, of course, as with all of our Celtic Saints, became legendary. Here is just one legend.

It was said that Aidan was often invited to Bambrough Castle to various feasts, with King Oswald. The king was generously giving Aidan a platform, before the nobility to be himself, the kind and humble self. On these occasions he normally ate in silence and quickly returned to his prayers.

At one Easter feast, so the story goes, Aidan was able to observe just how his influence, his very presence, had a powerful effect.

Just as the silver platter of rich foods was placed on the great table, the servant told the king that there was a vast crowd begging for alms at the gates. Before Aidan could speak, Oswald ordered that all the food should be given out to them along with silverware! Immediately, so the story goes, Aidan, seeing such generosity to the poor, grasped the king’s right hand and blessed him saying, ‘May this hand never decay’-and it never did!

Bede recorded that when Oswald’s body was dismembered after his final battle, the arm never corrupted, for it was enshrined and became a source of many miracles.

Aidan’s monastery only survived another 200 years after his death. In the year 875, the monks fled from the ferocious marauding Vikings, taking the remains of Aidan’s successor, Cuthbert, with them.

His legacy, of course did not die with these events, because his was an example of faithfulness which moved beyond time and place. Empires come and go! Churches rise and fall, and dare I say it, Vicars go and come!

Aidan was an exemplar of the Christian way of being in his own time and remains one for ours. He remains an example of how we do and be Christian in the day to day-ness of living. Feet firmly in this world but, being a citizen of God’s kingdom, Aidan, like Our Lord himself, belonged nowhere and everywhere, carrying the Gospel which is always new and fresh and full of hope.

Sermon preached by The Reverend Paul Burkitt: 1st September 2023 at St John’s.

Celtic Spirituality
What is Celtic Spirituality?

This is one of those frequently asked questions which Revd. Paul Burkitt began to answer in recent editions of The Parish Link.

 

The current Parish Link - Filey Parish monthly newsletter - can be found on the Parish Link (Newsletter) page.

 

Come back to this page as over the next few months they will be reproduced here.

1. The Origins and Spread of Celtic Christianity in our isles.

2. The Beliefs and Practices, including Holy Wells.

3. The Monasteries and the Soul Friend.

4. The Saints.

5. Contemporary Celtica.

1. The origins and spread of Celtic Christianity in our isles

The Celts, in the mists of antiquity, were a wandering and warlike mixed peoples in Central Asia. Their wanderings took them south to Italy and then west, becoming known as ‘the people of the West. By the time of Christ, the remnants had ended their wanderings where there was no further west to go, ending up in present day Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Scotland, and Brittany in France.

 

Along the way they picked up the message of Jesus Christ notably in the deserts of Syria and Egypt. Here they were exposed to the 4th century desert fathers and their system of monasteries. They learned penance, austerity, simplicity, and wisdom in the spiritual life, along with the sense of wonder of the God of the Wilderness and the natural order. The wild, wet and windy western extremes of our islands suited them well. Over time, the spirituality of the deserts came to flourish in the Irish Bogs!

 

For our purposes, ‘spirituality’ is given a Christian interpretation, namely denoting the living out of one’s belief about and experience of God, as known through Jesus Christ. The early Celtic church as it emerged, retained the earliest of orthodox beliefs honed by the desert fathers and mothers, within an experience of God which was insular, elemental and ruggedly received. (Part2).

 

From as early as the 5th C., signs of Christian worship appeared on the Irish landscape, in the form of stone burial crosses. By the 7th C. monasteries had been established throughout the island and were flourishing. (Part 3). Overseeing these communities, and encouraging more missionary wanderings, the great figures of the Celtic Church emerged and the ‘Age of the Saints’ was born. (Part 4).

Celtic Corner 1 Image 1.png

Patrick, Brigid, Brendan, Columbanus, Ita, and Kevin are well known, as is St Columba (Colummcille) who, in the year 565 took his wanderings to the western isles of Pictland and came to found his community on the Island of Iona. Columba’s wandering monks landed on mainland Britain and the Christian Gospel was lived out and taught in this new desert.

King Oswald of Northumbria was pivotal in the spread of the new faith into the North East. From his castle stronghold of Bamburgh, he wandered and conquered as far south as the Welsh borders, but notably it was he who invited Aidan to come from Iona to the Holy Island, Lindisfarne, to set up his own monastery. Cuthbert, both hermit and bishop, followed on, whilst Hild headed up her mixed community at Whitby.

 

The cults of Oswald and Cuthbert were very popular and the two became associated with Durham, both their remains now lie in the Cathedral there. We too pay tribute, with Aidan, Cuthbert and Oswald adorning our Parish Church in stained glass.

 

In many ways the great Synod of Whitby (663/4) slowed down the Celtic church when concessions were made to the advancing Roman church under Pope Gregory and Augustine of Canterbury but, largely through 8th C. writings of saints’ lives and the rules of monastic ways of living, the traditions survived, even flourished to this day, albeit oft times underground.

Part 1
2. The beliefs and practices, including holy wells

We might think that an early Celtic Church meant a disordered, unsophisticated sort of church, but that is far from the truth. The teachings that had been transferred from the eastern desert fathers and mothers were pure and stark, thoroughly orthodox, and well suited to the barren landscapes of our Western Isles.

 

The early luminaries were completely immersed in the Scriptures. The monastic evangelical community centres were places of worship, study and hospitality. In worship, scriptures were read and psalms chanted seven times a day. Scriptures were studied and debated. Some monks had the particular prayerful vocation as ‘Copyists’ and illustrators of the word of God and we witness this today when we catch sight of The Book of Kells or, closer to home, the treasured illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels. Such works are indeed evidence of deep piety and devotion to the Word of God, and expressive of their deep and living belief in the Incarnation, the Word become flesh. Such belief informed their evangelism and on their many wanderings, the monks carried with them a ‘pocket’ New Testament.

 

Although Christ was the prime motivator for the early saints, in all that they did, they also had a profound understanding of The Trinity. They knew of, ‘God the Father with us; God the Son alongside us and God the Holy Spirit within us’. In the wilds of the natural life they knew of the all mighty, all powerful Creator but they knew also how God, in The Holy Spirit, was as close as breath. Baptisms were performed with, ‘A little drop of the Three’, ‘sips of the Three’, were taken for healing at the Holy Well, and blessings were given ‘In the Name of the Three’. We also read St Patrick in his ‘Breastplate’ prayer; ‘I arise today, through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity.’

The Celts rejoiced in Creation, worshipping, ‘The God of heaven and earth, of sea and river, of sun and moon and stars, of lofty mountain and lowly valley, the God above heaven, the God in heaven, the God under heaven’ (St Patrick). They also fully integrated the biblical teaching of fallen humanity and the need for Redemption. An early song of the monk combines these beliefs:

Learned in music sings the lark/I leave my cell to listen; His open beak spills music, hark|/Where Heaven’s bright cloudlets glisten. And so I’ll sing my morning psalm/That God bright Heaven may give me, and keep me in eternal calm/And from all sin relieve me’.

The Celts lived the ordinary life in the deep awareness of eternity, the material world led them along the spiritual path towards God ‘in Creation and in the heart of each of us’. Again, an early prayer, ‘I will kindle my fire this morning/In the presence of the holy angels of heaven.’

Much of what we learn of the early beliefs come from the world of story and legend, where there are references to the supernatural. In the process of converting the people from pagan ways, stories of the saints as miracle workers abounded. They were supposed to be healers, be able to control nature especially in times of flood or drought. They caused springs to flow, birds and animals served them and they prophesied, saw visions and battled with Evil.

Prayer then, was a combination of reverent praise and thanksgiving for Creation, with petitions for forgiveness, protection, and healing. Here the ‘circle me’ prayers are distinctive; ‘Circle me Lord/Keep peace within/Keep evil out’.

The monasteries provided the focal points of a Christian presence and leadership, but ordinary folk would gather along tribal lines and perhaps build a small church over a previous pagan/Druid place of worship. This was their way of sanctifying the land, covering it with prayer. The sacred water springs and wells of the Druid world were also rededicated to the saints, especially Mary, Brigid and Colmcille in Ireland and St Oswald also has one at ‘Oswald’s Tree’, Oswestry. Locally, there is a holy well to St Cedd at Lastingham. The pagan circles were squared by the Cross.

Prayer it was that permeated every aspect of life. As Aidan taught his monks to mediate on the Scriptures and learn the Psalms as they walked the pilgrim paths of northern England; they prayed as they walked. Prayer to protect from the power of the pagan religion and to sustain the missionary-monks in all their wayside preaching and almsgiving.

Part 2
3. The monasteries and the soul friend

The earliest monasteries in Ireland (500-1000 AD), were not the originals of the now roofless ruins which adorn our ecclesiastical landscape of today. They did not consist of one single building, (those came much later), rather they were small village like communities.

The monks lived in their separate huts or cells, but there were also dwellings and workshops for lay people and families who lived and worked the rhythms of the religious life. A central walled space housed a church, a tower, a refectory, a school and a manuscript building. The Abbot or Abbess took the lead in all day to day matters but, essentially, s/he was the guide in things spiritual. Such a person was elected by the community, (interesting for our present Vacancy process). Such a system, with Egyptian and French origins, was well understood and accepted by the surrounding tribal and druidic society.

Each monastery was unique, it was local: there were similarities but there was no organised system of control or standardisation. ‘Love God and do as you like’, as St Augustine was later to say.

The monastic community was the church and presented a way of life which was able to infuse a new Christian perspective into things previously pagan. A disciplined life of confession, penance and constant prayer was the vow of each monk, as well as the vow to perpetual pilgrimage for Christ, embracing exile from their homeland to pray as hermits, evangelise and to establish new monasteries and schools in England and mainland Europe.

The key notes of the monastic way of life were; the love of the created order, the love of learning, the love of wandering about through all aspects of life, the love of silence and solitude, the love of the narrative of the ordinary day to day and the joy that emanated from a profound sense of God, the all mighty one being as close as breath. That closeness was expressed, in part, by a deep reverence for kith and kin and in particular the Soul Friend, (Old Irish, anamchara).

An early belief was that the soul resided in the head, hence St Brigid bizarrely once said, ‘A person without a soul friend is like a body without a head’, so saying expressing how vital it was to have a soul friend alongside on the Christian journey. The practice of having a soul friend arose from the desert monasteries’ notion of mentoring and developed through the act of making one’s confession and making appropriate penance. The practice was easily translated from the People of the Oak, the Druids, as their prophets and prophetesses acted as personal guides as part of their spiritual discipline. Sometimes, the traditions became entwined, such as when St Columba addressed Christ in his prayers as, ‘my Druid’!

For the early Christian, having a such a friend was part of the preparation for death, part of that life long process of ‘soul making’, wandering to the place of resurrection. Dying well meant living well, day by day, with your soul friend to guide you and who would be there to preside at your funeral rite. Throughout, the anamchara was not only confessor but healer and friend where a true sense of mutuality emerged, compassionate and non-judgmental. One scholar has written, ‘The Celtic Christians knew from firsthand experience that the soul, to know itself, must gaze into another soul, must speak from the heart to be heard by another heart’. (Edward Sellner, The Celtic Soul Friend, p.181).

As we move on next time to consider some of the early Celtic Saints, let me end this section with a quotation from the Venerable Bede on St Cuthbert as soul friend,

They confessed their sins to St Cuthbert, confided in him about their temptations, and laid open to him the common troubles of humanity they were labouring under, all in the hope of gaining consolation from a holy man. They were not disappointed. No one left unconsoled; no one had to carry back the burdens he came with.

Now, in the eye of the Father who created us, in the eye of the Son who purchased us, in the eye of the Spirit who cleansed us, like those early wandering Christians, we drift on.

Part 3
4. The saints

The whole notion of a Celtic Christianity is bound up with what has been called, ‘a golden age of saints’. The period from the mid-fifth to mid-seventh centuries witnessed the lives and works of celebrated Irish and British ‘holy-ones’. Patrick, whose arrival in Ireland around AD 432 could be said to have begun the age, Brigit, Ninian, David, Columba, Columbanus followed on, with Aidan, whose death was in AD 651, marking the end. With Aidan of course, at the invitation of Oswald, the Celtic roots of Christianity were extended into Northumbria, (north of the Humber).

We know of these luminaries from their own pen, like Patrick in his ‘Confessio’ and prayers and Columanus in his ‘Penitentials’. We learn more of them from the pen of others, mostly centuries later, as they undertook the recording of the ‘Lives’ of various saints. These later ‘Lives’ often became scandalously embellished, creating legends about the saints which spoke more about the writers’ agenda than the realities of the saint. It suited their purposes for the saint to be a ‘miracle worker’, one who could outbid the pagan gods of old.

Nevertheless, these later writings cemented the saints into our early Christian consciousness, honouring the lives and works of the saints as missionaries, monastery founders and creators of spiritual and pastoral communities. Looking at the real and legendary lives of the saints in their own age can indeed be an inspiration to us in ours. Of the hundreds to study, here’s a snapshot of just three: Brigit, Brendan and Columba: life, legend and legacy.

There is more legend than real life, (AD 455-525), about Brigid. Known as the ‘Irish Virgin Mary’, she is venerated throughout Europe as patroness and protectress of travellers and pilgrims. Brigit was experienced as a holy woman and founder of one of the oldest monasteries at Kildare, from where she tirelessly served ‘God’s poorest’. She travelled in her two-horse chariot, spreading the Gospel, healing the sick and tending her sheep on ‘Brigit’s pasture’.

Brigit figured highly in the conversion of the land as one who crossed the borders of belief in folklore. In popular culture, she transformed the Pagan goddess into the Christian saint, evidenced by the rededication of the healing wells of the Druids to the holy places of Brigit. The earth was still mother and fertile but she was now Christian!

St Brendan became known as the ‘Navigator’, as he spent much of his life on missionary journeys, at home and overseas, being mentored by an old sailor-monk named Barind. Notably he is remembered because of the later medieval saga, ‘The Voyage of St Brendan’, a voyage taking him to North America. It reads wonderfully as a nautical pilgrim’s progress and poetically as the way of the monk, along the island hopping, stepping stone ‘map-less journey’.

His life spanned over 90 years from AD 484 and early on Brendan was fostered out to receive a classic education as a priest in various monastic schools. Although always wanting to be a perpetual pilgrim for Christ, Brendan founded several monasteries along the way, the most famous and his, ‘place of resurrection’ as he called it, was the community at Clonfert, Galway, known ever since as ‘the plain of wonders’.

Columba, (b. AD 521), whose name means ‘dove’, famously left us a great legacy after he made the ‘holy flight’ from Ireland to the British western isle of Iona. Like Brigid, Columba (Colmcille), as a native Irish, knew the pagan world and was able to integrate the old ways into the new world of Christianity in which he became a priest. As an abbot, and community builder, Columba was known as a holy man, a scholar, a poet, a politician, an influential person of vision and enthusiasm. 

Various legends expand on his personality, at times headstrong and fiery and at others gentle and spiritual. It was the warrior in him that conflicted with his desire to be the dove of peace and pilgrim for Christ, that led to his self-imposed exile and his relocation on the tiny island of Iona. With his twelve companions he established the scholastic school and missionary base. Monks travelled widely across Scotland and Northern England and gave birth to a new generation of saints and communities; Oswald, Aidan, Cedd, Chadd, Hilda, Cuthbert are just some that we know and cherish still.

The Abbey on Iona thrived and evolved and, as we know, remains today as a centre of a Celtic style Christianity, still a seat of wisdom, a place for pilgrims, a place for prayer, a place of compassion, a ‘thin place’ between heaven and earth.

Part 4
Part5
5. A Spirituality for Today.

Any notion of a ‘celtic spirituality’ today, as we have already seen, is deeply rooted in history. The last five decades, especially, have indeed brought a revived interest in what our ancestors believed and practiced as Christians.

Perhaps, more than anything, the quest has been to find a Christian way of living in our rapidly changing world, and to find ways of being Church, rather than just going to church.

In considering the heritage of the early Celtic church, there is the temptation to ‘cherry pick’ and dismiss some of the more challenging facets of what ‘being church’ meant in those early middle-ages.

One such facet was just how prominent the practice of penance was. Indeed the ‘Penitentials’ of St. Columbanus are a real eye opener. Transgressions against another person, or against nature, demanded confession and repentance as the beginning of conversion to amendment. One penance, for a serious transgression, dispensed by the abbot or abbess, was being set adrift in a small boat, (coracle), with neither sail nor oar, so letting God determine the outcome! Confession remains the first step of any conversion.

Prayer for us, as for the Celts, must be grounded in our daily lives. As Dr. Liz Culling tells us, (Grove Booklet No.45), ’If they prayed as they squeezed the milk by hand from the cow’s udder, we may pray as we press the keys of our computers, ride a bus through the traffic, struggle with bureaucracy, and so on’. The early believers, like St Paul, sought to pray without ceasing, such that their lives, (as may ours), vibrated with the God who surrounds us, with the Christ who is with us, and with the Spirit within us.

 We can find help with our prayers in Celtic style from David Adam, (Cry of the Deer), and his ‘5p exercise’: Pause, (stop, relax, make space); Presence., (knowing God is with me); Picture, (what does this Presence mean for me today); Ponder, (stay with the picture): Promise, (to recall his presence throughout the day).

Going on pilgrimage is a very real way of connecting with our Celtic ancestors. For them, pilgrimage, as a penance or as a missionary venture, was an integral part of being church. In our part of the world, we can follow Cuthbert’s Way, St Oswald’s Way or St Ninian’s Way, make a visit to Iona or Lindisfarne. Pilgrimage is ‘church on the move’, sharing the journey, arriving at a holy place, learning, and rededicating ourselves to God. We can learn to live life as constant pilgrimage.

The Community of Iona, founded in 1938 by Revd. Dr George MacLeod, widens our vision beyond our own personal spirituality. He wrote about the vision for the community as being, ‘a sign of the rebuilding of the common life, and to break down the barriers between church and people, between prayer and politics, between the sacred and the secular’. This is the Celtic vision; a world made whole, restored, undivided and full of the glory of God.

We journey on, following the example of ancestors, in penance, prayer and perpetual pilgrimage with our soul friend at our side.

‘Let me not undertake this journey begrudgingly,

but instead with love and thankfulness, saying, as Columba said,

I thank you for this, my God.

I am a traveller

and a stranger in the world,

like so many of your people,

before me.’

(Celtic Daily Prayer, Northumbria Community).

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