One of my favourite places in the world is the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. It seems so remote now, requiring a journey from Glasgow by train, ferry, bus and another ferry to get there. Once however, when most long distance travel was done by sea, it was a thriving centre of spirituality and education.
It was here in the 6th century, that the Celtic saint Columba settled after being exiled from Ireland. It was also here that the famous Book of Kells was probably written.
My husband Tom took me to Iona on our honeymoon 22 years ago, sharing with me, not just a place, but a Christian tradition that was very special to him. My imagination was ignited by this ancient faith perspective that offered so much of what I craved in my modern life. There was an intense sense of the presence of God, a spirituality that permeated every part of life and a love for creation as a reflection of the character of God.
Scottish theologian Professor John Macquarrie observed that ‘the Celt was very much a God-intoxicated person whose life was embraced on all sides by the divine Being.” I long for that same intoxication and intimacy with God.
Three aspects of this ancient Celtic approach to faith could add depth and value to the lives and mission of church planters, missional leaders and all Christ-followers today.
Celtic Christians and Community
Celtic Christianity thrived in the fifth to eleventh centuries. Its primary focus for worship, pastoral care and religious instruction was the monastery- not the parish church. This strongly monastic character produced a model of ministry that was communitarian rather than individualistic. “Ministry in all aspects, liturgical, pastoral, evangelistic, educational was not the solitary individualistic task it so often is today. It was rather undertaken by teams of men and women, ordained and lay, who lived together in community and operated from a common central base from which they went out among the people preaching, teaching, baptizing, administering the sacraments, caring for the sick and burying the dead.”
These monasteries were not just places for people to withdraw for prayer and contemplation. They were often at the crossroads of society, open to a constant stream of visitors, pilgrims and penitents. They were intimately involved in the affairs of the world and the lives of the people they served. The monks were not just concerned with the spiritual well-being of the communities they served, but also with their intellectual and physical well-being. They were also, in many ways, the keepers of culture and tradition, not just copying the Psalms and Gospels but also writing down stories, songs, and poems and preserving myths and legends for posterity.
In today’s increasingly disconnected world, imagine the depth that would come from churches again that were grounded in such a communitarian approach to faith and daily life.
Celtic Christians and God
The Celts approached God with awe, reverence and wonder but also saw God as an essentially human figure intimately involved in all creation and engaged in a dynamic relationship with it. This interweaving of intimacy and mystery embraced the Trinity as a family and each family unit be it family, clan or tribe was seen as an icon of the Trinity. The Trinity was a very real presence for Celtic Christians and an almost tangible comforter and protector who could ward off evil forces.
I love the Celtic belief that only a thin veil separates this world from the next. They took seriously Hebrews 12:1 “Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses” and had an almost physical sense of the great company of heaven which surrounded God, embracing not just saints and friends who had died but the whole host of angels and other heavenly powers.
The Celtic Christian at prayer consciously joined a great company that stretched from the persons of the Trinity through the powerful angelic throngs to the risen saints. They were regarded very much as friends and companions in this world and addressed almost as one would neighbours or family members.
Much of our knowledge of Celtic Christianity comes through their beautiful prayers, many of which were written over a thousand years ago, and then gathered in the Cadmina Gadelica. The most famous Celtic prayer is Patrick’s breastplate which I adapted a few years ago as a responsive liturgy. Patrick’s prayer is shot through with a deep sense of the presence of God and a confidence in God’s ability to protect from evil. It is one of my favourite Celtic prayers and expresses so much of what draws me to Celtic Christianity.
As these prayers express, the presence of Christ was almost physically woven through the lives of the Celts. He encircled, upheld and encompassed them, was a companion next to them, a guest in the house, a physical presence in their lives. I love the way that is expressed in yet another of my favourite Celtic prayers.
Christ as a light, illumine and guide us.
Christ as a shield, overshadow and cover us,
Christ be under us, Christ be over us,
Christ be before us, Christ be behind us,
Christ be within us, Christ be without us,
Christ as a light, illumine and guide us
This Celtic sense of God as both mysterious yet nearby could provide depth to today’s missional leaders personal faith and new words for explaining it to their friends and neighbors.
Celtic Christians and the Mundane
Celtic Christianity opened my eyes to the belief that creation is translucent, allowing us glimpses of the glory of God. The earth and its wonders provide the key not just to establishing the existence of God but also to learning about him. This is no pantheistic worship of the elements but rather a dynamic picture of God’s active presence in creation. God animates and charges all things with divine energy and they reflect and respond to God’s creative presence and sustaining love. God’s hands don’t simply encircle and protect the earth and all it contains, God also quickens, enlivens and inspires it so God’s existence can be confirmed through contemplation of the beauty and order of the natural world.
In this tradition, nothing is too trivial to be sanctified by prayer and blessing, whether it be dressing for the day’s work, milking the cow or damping down the fire at night. This sense of the importance of the little things parallels the Celts’ identification with the little people, the marginalized and the oppressed. My interest in sanctity of ordinary everyday tasks and the importance of finding God within them, which I talked about in my previous post on spiritual practice is one of the most important practical lessons I have learnt from the Celts.
Celtic spirituality continues to enrich my faith and I often write and use Celtic style prayers like this simple circling prayer, in my daily devotions.
Circle us Lord,
Let your love and peace fill us.
Circle us Lord,
Let your compassion and concerns stir us.
Circle us Lord,
Let your truth and justice guide us.
As missional leaders seeking to create communities based around spiritual practices, the celtic approach to day-to-day life is essential.
Bringing the Celtic Way into Today’s Missional Church
There is so much that we can learn from this ancient future tradition whose followers saw themselves as guests of the world, living lightly on this earth and not becoming attached to possessions or place. They believed all of life was a pilgrimage, a journey towards God in which every experience and every encounter provided opportunity to both represent and learn about God.
Recognizing ourselves as guests and pilgrims affects how we view everything that happens to us. Pilgrims do not take anything for granted. They express gratitude for comforts that those who never leave home take for granted. For a guest, each meal, especially a home cooked meal, is a gift of love from the host. Each bed provided for us to sleep in is a generous act of sharing and caring. Everything is now a gift of God.
We believe that all of Christians could benefit from an understanding of the uniquely Celtic approach to life, mission and spirituality. Church planters and missional leaders exploring how to create Christian Community in the 21st century could learn a lot from the tradition’s holistic combination of theology, spiritual practices and missional community.
For the Mustard Seed Associates team, Celtic spirituality has inspired more than our prayers, however. In 1989, my husband Tom Sine purchased 40 acres on Camano Island, an hour north of Seattle with a dream of developing a community that could become a monastic community deeply grounded in the Celtic tradition. This community, called the Mustard Seed Village, will create a highly sustainable way of life with everyone sharing in routines of nurture, harvest, processing and celebration. They will also create a more sustainable rhythm of life based around morning and evening prayers, spiritual direction, and service to those in the larger community. We envision this as a place where people can come to learn how to create more sustainable lifestyles and spiritual practices for life and ministry.
This dream has been slow in coming to fruition but in the last few years our first village building has taken shape. We have not waited for the completion of the village to establish our presence on the land, however. Each year we hold a Celtic retreat in August that explores the Celtic rhythms of prayer and provides a contemplative experience with worship and liturgy. Prayer trails, pot luck meals and afternoon prayer activities make this a rich experience for the whole family.
We hold an annual retreat on the land with a Celtic theme.This year’s focuses on Brigid and the Hospitality of God. We are looking for friends to join us in making this unique venture a reality and would love you to join us at the retreat. We want your ideas, your expertise and your prayers. We want to invite your participation as we grow this project forward. And if you want to read more about the Celtic tradition, check out this reading list.
As you go out into the world this week, think of what you could learn from this ancient tradition.
Look for God in the translucence of creation and in the faces of strangers. Think of yourself as a guest of the world and prepare yourself for the amazing gifts God wants to lavish on you today – gifts of friendship, food, fellowship, love and caring.
Let me know what new things open up for you as a result.
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