Something about the island and its history connected with a deep longing within me, and brought together many different strands of my own faith...I discovered a burning and evangelical love for the Bible; a radical commitment to the poor and to God’s creation; and I discovered the most attractive expression of charismatic life that I had yet encountered. Not only this, but I felt connected with my roots for the first time.
So goes the introduction of Michael Mitton’s little book, The Soul of Celtic Spirituality: In the Lives of Its Saints. I could have written those words. Heck, I did write them. Not exactly, of course. But I have stated on more than one occasion how Celtic Christianity was the last link that connected all of my faith together. What I thought was a mis-match of unrelated ‘stuff’ in my own walk, was found within early Celtic Christianity. I was so moved by this book that I even highlighted parts of the introduction! A great treasure is found in this quote:
It is my deep conviction that the Celtic Church challenges us to rediscover the strands of our faith and find ways of weaving them together in our personal lives and the life of the church. We need a strong cord with many strands, and we need the weaving to take place in our own lives.
It is that challenge that I found resonating within my life and reverberating off my view of calling. It reminds me of the dream I had about challenging tradition from within and without, whether it be my personal theology or the Western Christian tradition in my own community. I have found an ally in Mitton.
At another part in the introduction, he wrote, ‘The Christianity that came from the Roman legions seems to have had little effect on the local population’ (pg. 3). This is a relevant commentary of our own communities. The Christianity that ‘won’ at Whitby seems to have little effect in the 21st century. So many of the people I know see that way of being Christian as, well, ‘problematic’, to put it nicely. For me, Celtic Christianity speaks directly to the problems of our day in a very refreshing, Christ-centered way.
Mitton offers glimpses into early Celtic Christianity by giving stories about a number of it’s Saints – Aidan, Cuthbert, David, Brenden, etc. – that relate to the topic of the chapter. While focusing mainly on the saints that evangelized Britain, he does mention Patrick and Columba and others. Since there is so much from which to glean, I could possibly write a book lengthier than his just for my reflection! However, I won’t bore you with that. I will just select some pieces that spoke deeper than others (though, honestly, that is a hard decision to make).
The first piece I want to share is that of community. To me, the established church today is missing a lot of what the first century was trying to accomplish (although, there have been movements in the late 20th century that address this). Specifically, I don’t feel that Jesus, nor the early followers, set out to craft a new religious experience. Clearly, they were of the mind to usher in the Realm of God within the Realm of humanity. They saw themselves as the fulfillment of most of the promises of God. The Celtic Saints seemed to have taken that same Spirit and made it their own. In chapter four, Mitton describes three things that were the foundation of the Celtic Church’s commitment to community life. The first was it’s pre-Christian society. The second was it’s major influence from the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The third influence was the Trinity. Each one of these seems to be a layer built upon the other. Or perhaps this is just the influence I get from the way Mitton wrote it. Either way, I think it speaks directly to our world today. Perhaps, world is too great a term; maybe the US is better suited. It seems to me that we in the US are more ‘at home’ with staunch individualism than we are in community. From what I have gathered, a lot of the rest of the world is more about community. It knows that it takes all of the people working together to accomplish something. A lot of people in the US seem more focused upon themselves than others. The Celtic Church spoke directly to this with it’s monasteries. While Mitton focused chapter four on community, it really breathed throughout the whole book. It seems in every chapter he described some Saint going off and starting a new monastery. What he described as a Celtic spirit of adventure (more or less), I see as more of a planting of God’s Realm in creation, of healing creation in those places that were most hurt and in need of the ‘Balm of Gilead’. Where can we do that in our world today? I’m certain that our minds probably think first of places of war and extreme poverty. But what about our own communities? I remember Jesus telling his followers that they would start where they lived and then, slowly, expand their influence to the rest of the world. Too often, the Church seems to be focused more on the rest of the world and (almost) turns a blind eye to the hurts in it’s own backyard.
But what if we took the example of the Celtic Church as our model? What kind of ways could we influence our local communities? Not in some domineering way; but in a spirit of humility that reflects the importance and (dare I say it) value of community. Over and again Mitton brings up Aidan, the ‘evangelist of England’. He wrote that what set Aidan (and the whole Celtic Church, actually) apart from those of the Roman mission, was the ability to live among the people in the different – to be in their world, but not a part of it. It reminds me a lot of St Paul, ‘I become all things to all people, that I may save some of them by whatever means are possible.’ (1Cor 9.22, GNT). Aidan was never seen as a ‘pushy’ type of person. He listened to the people in the communities. He heard deeply. That is, he heard past the surface of what they were saying to what they were meaning and turned that into a lesson about what they were needing. An opposing example of this in the US is the way government is seen as the entity to take care of the outcast and ‘sinners’. But my Bible tells me that this is the vocation of the body of Christ in the realm of humanity. Mitton, quoting Ian Bradley, wrote,
The dominant institution of Celtic Christianity was...the monastery, which...often grew to become a combination of commune, retreat house, mission station, hotel, hospital, school, university, arts center, and power-house for the local community – a source not just of spiritual energy but also of hospitality, learning, and cultural enlightenment.
I think that the world today needs this type of ‘church’, this type of Christianity. Too often the established Church lives in a dualism where its chief focus is the spirit or soul of people. Society is supposed to be concerned with the external things like housing, food, health care, etc. I’m thinking of a local food and shelter establishment here as an example. Certainly, from time to time, local churches help out at these establishments; but my question is why wasn’t the church the first one to address these needs within the community and search for ways to help instead of supporting other organizations? Too often we seem to let someone else do the work. At least, this is my experience and the experience of a lot of the people with whom I meet. But what if we took the model of Celtic Christianity and acted prophetically and reorganized ‘church’ to see all of life as sacred? There seems to be a lot here that can change the way humanity thinks of ‘church’. The Celtic Church silently screams this type of ‘community-ism’ to our culture today.
Next, and tied closely to the previous point, is the idea of being missional. When the Celtic Saints moved into a community and established a monastery, they didn’t condone everything and neither did they condemn everything. But one thing was certain, they knew that the people needed Christ. In some sectors of the Church today one thing that seems to be growing is the idea that God can be found in other faith traditions. That they are just as valid as Christianity. I agree with this in part. However, we would not be here today if it weren’t for the efforts of the apostles (the first century ones and the Irish ones) and the millions of other people who went around the world preaching the Gospel. If I’m to understand the story correctly, Jesus told his followers, ‘I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father-Mother, the Child, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28.18-20, GNT; adapted). This really wouldn’t have worked if all faiths are good and valid. The book of Acts wouldn’t have been written and the rest of the letters of the New Testament wouldn’t have been collected. I’m not stating that others faiths aren’t valid and good. I’m stating that there is something unique about Christianity. Unique enough for untold millions to give their lives over to Christ. While I will admit that the Church has gone too far one direction, it seems to me that lately it is going too far in the opposite direction. The waters are dangerous here and we need to make sure we are being guided by the Wild Goose. Mitton’s book is chock full of stories about the realities of evil in the world and other traditions (granted, they are also found in Christianity). Ireland would not have been changed and civilization would not have been saved if the pagan religions were seen just as valid as Christianity.
Mitton tells a story of how Christianity came to his part of the world. He wrote,
When [the Celtic Church] began to evangelize my home county of Derbyshire, for example, they discovered the custom in a village of worshiping water divinities at the rivers and wells. Various divinities were honored at these water places. When the Christians came they did not attack these customs. They did not do dazzling exorcisms and engage in glorious victories over the enemy, as would happen in some charismatic circles today where any whiff of the demonic is attacked with great gusto. Such battles can often be due to our own needs for power, rather than to the presence of spiritual conflict, and the Celtic communities were deeply suspicious of Christian power games. Rather, they would listen carefully to the community’s deep need to give thanks for the gift of water; and so they would bless their need to give thanks and honor the gift of water, while at the same time, proclaiming the cross of Christ over the place and making clear the need for redemption. I am sure in some cases, where they discerned the site had been spoiled in some way by dark powers, this would have involved some kind of exorcistic ministry with fasting and prayer. ~ pp. 79-80
This is exactly the type of evangelism that we need – not to hold that all wisdom traditions are good, but to look and listen deeply for the good within them and ‘baptize’ them with the Gospel. We need to listen deeply to the other persons faith and show how it points to Christ (if it does). But we also need to have the strength to state when things are false – within and without of the Christian tradition. I don’t like the idea any more than the next person, but part of our way of living is to show where areas are broken in the lives and communities around us.
It’s like the old saying, ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’. To me, that’s the way the Church has been in the past. But, on the other side, we don’t want to say that all water’s good just because it’s water. It may be contaminated with all kinds of stuff that will make one sick or worse. Sometimes, the water needs to be ‘cleaned’ in order for one to drink it. This is how I am seeing wisdom traditions – my own included. I just want to make certain that I am listening to the Spirit. I don’t want to label something as harmful just because I feel threatened by it. I want to be guided by the Spirit and discern where things need to be ‘cleaned’.
Lastly, another point that effected me deeply was in the area of the ‘gifts of the Spirit’. As I have stated previously, I attend a few of the Word of Faith churches back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. While we had some good experiences, it was in those places that we felt the most hurt. But from Mitton’s book I can see where those places were broken. He wrote about how the church down through the ages has ‘discovered’ different threads within the Celtic Church and incorporated them without the rest of the cord. This reminds me of what Jesus said, ‘No one patches up an old coat with a piece of new cloth, for the new patch will shrink and make an even bigger hole in the coat’ (Matthew 9.16 GNT). What Mitton shows is that it is not necessarily the individual threads that are important, but the whole tapestry – or, to use Jesus’ metaphor, the WoF church focuses on the new cloth without realizing that it needs to get a new coat.
I have to be honest here. I have reservations with the whole ‘gifts of the Spirit’ thing. Mostly because the abuse of power was so prevalent. Granted, I have never been part of a community that was structured around the monastic life where the gifts of the Spirit were encouraged, so the experience may be better (I certainly hope so!). However, there were a couple of time in chapters 9 and 12 that I wrote things like, ‘Lord let this be me!’ and ‘Amen!’ Not so I could make some name for myself but so that more people would come to know God in Christ. I have often thought that the world needs this type of ‘energy’ in it’s midst. I know that my community needs it. Not in isolation like the local prisons we call church (the imagery here is that we can only find and experience God in the church building), but in the ‘wild’, out in the homes, restaurants, libraries, bookstores, pubs, offices, etc. God is to be found in those places where creation is in pain. That is where the gifts of the Spirit need to be. ‘Lord let it be through me.’
As I took my place with the monks on my left, I felt the tension rise. I could here the shouts from the other side and, quite frankly, they frightened me more than a little. The abbot of the monastery, Columcille, approached me and spoke softly to me. His words, though few, penetrated the fear and spoke deeply to me, easing my spirit. At once, scales from eyes began to fall and I could see creation entombed in the darkness. ‘Speak,’ whispered Columcille. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth. ‘Open your eyes’, he whispered. I opened them. The words I spoke shot from my mouth like a beam of light, shattering the darkness like glass. All around me, I could see the rest of the monks where encased in light. It emanating from every part of them. As I looked, I could see pockets of light shooting upward all over creation. Deep in the darkness, I could see the amber glow of Light, churning eagerly for release.
In the Grace of the Three in One,