Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Celtic Rule of Life

The community of Aidan and Hilda is a dispersed, ecumenical body of Christians who seek to cradle a Christian spirituality for today that renews the church and heals the land. It welcomes people of all backgrounds and countries who wish to be wholly available to the Holy Trinity, and to the way of Jesus as revealed to us in the Bible. In the earthing of that commitment, members draw inspiration from Celtic saints such as Aidan and Hilda. Members follow a Way of Life, with a soul friend, based on a rhythm of prayer and study, simplicity, care for creation and mission; and they seek to weave together the separated strans of Christianity. The work of the Community is the work of each member. There is no ready-made community on one's doorstep. Co-unity with other members is rooted in the knowledge that they follow the Community's Way and that this reflects their deepest calling.
                     Introducing The Community of Aidan and Hilda

So opens the Rule of the Community of Aidan and Hilda. I have been rereading and reflecting over the Rule for the past few days. In my opinion, this document is one that every Celtic Christian should read, refer to regularly throughout the year, and attempt to one's best to put into practice. For these reasons, I have created a link to this Community on the front page of this blog and also here.

Rules of life are not a new thing, especially with the history of the Church. And in the long history of the church there have been dozens, and some are more famous than others. As I write this entry, I recall several famous Rules of life including the Benedictine (the most famous Rule of all), as well as the Franciscan, Domincan, and Augustinian. The Celts, true to form, developed a Rule of life themselves, and the most famous Celtic Monastic Rule was that of St. Columbanus (c. 550-615) who wrote the Regula Monachorum and Regula coenobialis. You can read translations of these in Celtic Spirituality (1999) from the Classics of Western Spirituality series, or through the links on the front page. These are worthwhile from a historical and theological perspective, however they seem very extreme for today's world.  That is not to say that a Rule of life is invaluable. On the contrary, a Rule is valuable because it helps keeps one focused in one's Christian experience. A rule helps to keep one "centered" on what is really important as the secular world and culture in which we live, seek to distract, and in truth, entertain. A Rule provides "rules" in the best sense of that term, and helps remind us of "first things", and of what is really important in life. I have experienced this truth in another setting. As a substance abuse counselor, I have noted how those who genuinely follow "the program" and seek to apply its principles, are those who typically remain sober. What to have a positive spiritual experience? Begin practicing one of the great Christian Rules of life!

Let me recommend the Rule of the Community of Aidan and Hilda. What else would you expect from a Celtic blog?  First, let me provide a brief overview of the Rule, which includes ten elements. These themes include; study and application of the Celtic Christian Way; the Anamchara or "Soul Friend"; a daily rhythm of prayer, work, and rest; intercessory Prayer; simplicity of Lifestyle; care for and affirmation of Creation; wholeness not fagmentation; opnness to the Wind of the Spirit; unty and Community; and mission.

The danger to any religious practice is to become overfocused on one element or persepctive. A Rule is a gentle reminder that spirituality is multi-demensional and affects every aspect of life's experience. A Rule helps to keep us whole, as well as holy. And perhaps most importantly in our culture of instant gratification, we are reminded that the "good things" in life such as true love or spiritual depth neither happen overnight or quickly. Rather, as one of my spiritual directors used to remind me, "the mill of God grinds exceedingly slow, but they grind exceedingly fine". True spirituality does not take place overnight. Rather, it is something which requires practice and experimentation, and is a goal, a destination which takes all of one's life. What else would you expect from a relationship with God?

We live in a time of spiritual fads and counterfits, replete with all kinds of false promises.One of the helpful things of the Celtic spiritual experience, is it's time tested ways. People have been practicing it's Rule of life for centuries, and with successful results. Today too, we need a Rule of life, which helps give shape and wholeness to our Christian experience, preventing us from being one dimensional Christians. Each of us would do well to begin following the Rule from Aidan and Hilda.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Importance of Rituals

This past week I had the priviledge of attending a change of command ceremony at Camp Smith here in Hawaii. I had heard of these before, but never had been to one. "WOW" is all I can say! What a spectacle! The event was tremendously moving, full of dignity, pagentry and fascinating ritual. As a civilian, and citizen, the ceremony made me proud of our country, and gave me "chicken skin" as we say in Hawaii. Honored guests included the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the outcoming and incoming Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command. The Governor and also the Mayor of Hawaii also attended. The event also included a twenty one gun salute, and music by one of the military bands. Jim Nabors (aka Gomer Pyle) sang the national anthem.  I was priviledged to be the guest of Alan Kellogg, Sgt. Major (Ret) and also Medal of Honor recipient. Here's a picture of  those two famous Marines, Alan and Jim Nabors, and check out Alan's Wikipedia article which is linked here. 

The ceremony reminded me of just how important rituals and symbols are in our lives. The symbols of our flag, or military uniform, or military  music, connect us with something important of the past. These symbols remind us of our nation's history, and of our past sacrifices and struggles. And as the ceremony took place, I thought back on the history which surrounded Camp Smith, and of all that had gone before. And, I also thought of what person would be in the exact spot where I was sitting, two years from now when another change of command takes place.

The symbols and rituals of our Christian faith are important as well. And from a laymen's perspective, I would say they remind us of God's ever presence, love, and commitment to us. The symbols surrounding the Mass, or Eucharist, and Baptism, take us back, help us "remember" the great love demonstrated to us in Christ. And this is a message we need to hear and see both in spoken word, and in the great symbols of the Church. In addition, our Celtic tradition, full of pagentry help us to recall the lives and sacrifies of its many saints, who can continue to inspire us today, and to live lives of passion and self-sacrifice. These saints, as do the high Celtic crosses, and primitive structure of Gallarus Oratory, remind us that the past can still speak powerfully to us today.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pictures from St. Aidan's Mission Church

Here are some photos from a typical Sunday at St. Aidan's Mission Church. We are blessed to be centrally located in downtown Honolulu, Hawaii. We have a traditional worship service at 1pm in Parke Chapel, which is part of St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral, a ministry by the way, which has been taking place for over twenty years. After the service, there is also a feeding ministry, which attracts anywhere from 200-300 people each Sunday.  St. Aidan's has a diverse population, including the homeless, and mentally ill. St. Aidan's also reaches out to some of Hawaii's newest arrivals, Micronesians from Chuuk, who love to sing, and whose joy and energy make a vital contriubution to our ministry. We have over one hundred active volunteers from local churches and groups,  regularly come to assist us in our work.

You are most welcome to come, participate, serve, and join our ministry of God's presence and reconciliation.

Blessed Damien

You can't go far in Hawaii without seeing some mention of Fr. Damien these days. In fact, not far from St. Aidan's Mission Chruch, a life size statue of Damien stands in front of the Hawaii Capital, gazing on all passerbys. Hawaii’s patron saint, and perhaps most famous resident, has been in the news due to the Vatican’s decision to elevate his status to that of "saint". Such a rare and beautiful occasion warrants a brief discussion of Damien’s life, and the meaning of "saint".

Damien came from a large Catholic family from Belgium. He and another sibling both decided to enter the priesthood. While in seminary, he fervently prayed before a picture of St. Francis Xavier (the patron saint of mission) that he would become a missionary. Three years later, Damien's prayers were answered. His religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, had a presence in Hawaii and Damien went forward in faith and arrived in Honolulu harbor in 1864. Shortly after, he was ordained priest at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace.

Damien originally began work on the Big Island, but when a series of diseases broke out, including leprosy (Hansen’s disease), and the lepers were sent to the Island of Molokai, he volunteered to join the community. He arrived in 1873, and joined the community of 819 lepers, and on his first night, slept outside under a Pandanus tree. Seventeen years later, he was buried at the same spot, and under the same tree. At Kalaupapa, Damien’s pastoral and administrative gifts flourished. His first act was to build St. Philomina’s parish church, and which still exists today. I have often looked down on it, far above on a nearby wind swept hill. Damien also built up the community, improving the homes where people lived, built schools, and developed the land. Each of these tasks was difficult, and life was not easy there. In addition, Damien tended to his people’s wounds, and often built the coffins his parishioners were later buried in. Few positions other than priest, could have placed him closer to people. Sixteen years into his work, Damien finally succumbed to leprosy and died. He had written earlier to his brother:

"I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ".

Because of Damien's tireless love, and self giving, he is surely one of the great models of holiness and service in today's world.

Just a few words on the term "saints". Clearly, there are certain people in the spiritual life who are able to open themselves in fuller ways than others. And Damien, as well as many of the Celtic saints, were people such as these. We are fortunate to have Damien and others who can guide us along the way. One pitfall, however, is to place these "holy" persons on a pedestal and then project many of our spiritual deficiencies upon them. This need not be so. We need to remember that they were human beings like us as well. We can and should use these people as our guides and to inspire us to greater holiness and acts of charity. And, in learning about their lives, we may learn a principle or holy habit which can also enhance our spiritual lives. For instance in Damien, we can learn the importance of persistence in one’s prayers. And not vague prayers, but specific prayers. In so doing, we are reminded that we are all "saints" in God’s eyes. Blessed Damien. Blessed you. Blessed me. Blessed be.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Celtic Daily Prayer

The essence of Celtic Spirituality is a heart wide open to God in every person, in all the world. It is to do with crossing frontiers, not erecting barriers,. It goes so deep that, without losing what is distinctive, it becomes universal.
Ray Simpson, Guardian of the Community of Aidan and Hilda

A main theme of this blog is how one stays spiritually alive, empowered, and connected. This is not easy in a world which stresses the material and is at its heart secular. And specifically, how does the Celtic connection help in this task? In one sense, learning from the experience of others can be useful. And here, the lives and writings of those who have gone before us can help. We can learn something from their struggles and the themes of many of the Celtic writers; that is part of their charm and attraction. One way to discover the beauty of Celtic Spirituality is to acquaint oneself with its many writers and saints. As they say, the proof is in the pudding! An easy way to do this on a daily basis, is to purchase one of the many Celtic devotionals. There are many books in this category, and here I will review two popular devotional books.

Celtic Daily Prayer, which Richard Foster called one "of the best contemporary prayer books available" contains readings and prayers from the Northumbria Community. The Northumbria Community is located in Northern England and seeks to practice Celtic Chrisitianity in the modern world. (A link to the Northumbria Community is found on the opening page of the blog.) The Community has many useful resources and the serious Celtic Christian will find it worthwhile to learn more about the Community and its practices. Celtic Daily Prayer can be used in multiple ways. There is a daily office, useful liturgies such as holy communion liturgy and family shabbat. Then follows a list of saints' days and festivals. This is followed by a list of daily readings and meditations. It's a book that constantly surprizes, and I have often used sections and readings in worship with good feedback. It's a little pricey, but it's easy to pick up a used copy on Amazon or Abebooks.

Another excellent devotional resource, and more focused book, is Ray Simpson's Celtic Daily Light. Ray is the Guardian of the Community of Aidan and Hilda (also linked on the front page of the blog). And again, this is a Community which also has many useful Celtic resources and links. The book contains daily readings on Celtic Spirituality, taken from many Celtic saints, and others who are soulfriends in spirit. For example today's reading is on the theme of dependency. Simpson writes;

"Celtic Christianity spawned close fellowships and delighful friendships, but it did not spawn dependency. If someone wanted to enter a monastery (and sometimes these became the only safe and decent places around) they had to wait outside for days. They had to show that they could take responsibility for their food, sleep and time, that they could make their own decisions and that they could work hard".

There are useful insights and lessons on each page. The readings always provide something useful to both question and ponder. I ordered my copy from Lindisfarne, but I am happy to see that copies are also available at Amazon. Both books have much to offer the person interested in Celtic Spirituality. I'm sure there are many other books where one could start. Nevertheless, this is a great place to start, and the money on these books is well spent. I commonly zig zag back and forth between them, and almost always find something new and interesting. Both books offer a wonderful way to stay focused and spiritual during the day. More importantly, they remind us of the depth, beauty, and inspiration found in Celtic Christianity.

Continuing Education

I don't know about your job, but at mine, I'm required to take part in "continuing education". In fact, several of my clinical certifications require 40-50 hours per year, so it's pretty much a given- it has to get done. One of the factors I appreciate most about Celtic Spirituality, was the monks love for learning. Learning for them was life long, and ongoing. They were not "one and done" folks; rather they were steeped in the classics. No wonder that many of the monks were sought out as teachers. St. Thomas was able to mine the gold of Aristotle because he had a Celtic monk who taught him Greek. The monastic communities at Iona and Lindisfarne were great places of learning, where the writings of the Greeks and Romans, as well as Christian and Church Fathers were all studied, argued and appreciated.

In our busy world today, how can one continue to learn? One cost effective and efficient way is through the products of The Learning Company. The Learning Company offer courses in both CD or DVD's on the Old and New Testament, Christian Theology, the Church Fathers, Biblical Studies and Mysticism, and many other subjects. Courses are taught by recognized scholars (for instance several Biblical Studies courses are taught by New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson) and include lecture notes and bibliography. Depending on which media you buy, you can either listen to lectures on your way to work, or watch them at home. Either way, you use your time wisely, and learn to boot! There are dozens of courses offered, and each month several of the courses go on sale. I have several of the theology and history courses and have enjoyed them all. There is a total of 56 different courses.
Here are some titles which may interest you:

The Catholic Church: A History
Popes and the Papacy: A History
The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon
Old Testament: Beginnings of Judiasm
The Story of the Bible
Jesus and the Gospels
Great World Religions
Lost Christianities: Christian Scripture and the Battles over Authentication
From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity
After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers
Augustine: Philosoper and Saint
St. Augustine's Confessions
The Lives of Great Christians (which includes St. Patrick, The Desert Fathers and Mothers)
The History of Christian Theology
Biblical Wisdom Literature
Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, Islam
Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine
The Apostle Paul
Francis of Assisi
Philosophy and Religion in the West
Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages
History of Christianity in the Reformation Era
Luther: Gospel, Law and Reform
Life and Writings of C.S. Lewis
Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century.

Perhaps in the future there will be a course on Celtic Spirituality. In the meantime, you can soak up courses in Theology, Philosophy, and History and a link to The Teaching Company website is provided here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Finding the Monk Within

"By studying the history of monasticism and its great heroes we come to realize that, for the Christian, much of what we call "monastic" is purely and simply what being a follower of Christ is all about, and that being a monk, whether inside monastic enclosures or outside "in the world" is simply becoming the sort of person everyone ought to be, a person which unites action and contemplation in the care of souls."
                                                                           Ed Sellner

Ed Sellner is one of my favorite writers on Celtic Christianity. Then again, I'm biased as he is also a personal friend. Even so, if you want to understand something of the magic and attraction of Celtic Christianity and spirituality, Ed's books are a great place to start. Each is thoroughly researched, a joy to read, and wonderfully presented. I was first introduced to Ed's books, when I had to read The Wisdom of the Celtic Saints as part of my seminary training. Then, I knew little of Celtic Christianity, but I remember a "heart strangely warm" kind of experience as I began reading the book. The opening chapter is one of the clearest and succient introductions to Celtic Christianity that I have ever read. I'll write a seperate post on The Wisdom of the Celtic Saints and some of Ed's other books later, so stay tuned.

Finding the Monk Within, was published in 2008. And like Ed's other books, it does not disappoint. Finding the Monk Within demonstrates the enduring value of monasticism. The chapters discuss how "monastic values", specificially certain tastes and values, have helped shape many of the great church figures, movements in the history of the church, and can do so again today.

Sellner argues as other have, that we live in a culture which works against silence, relfection, and inner wisdom. The endless cultural stress on shopping and commercials, mask a deep loneliness and emptiness. Monasticism, and specifically many of the practices of monasticism, can help one develop an inner life and point a positive way forward. One does not have to join a monastery to learn these principles. We can learn by looking to the past where certain monastic figures had a different approach to life, a different perspective, and a different set of values than the mainstream culture. They are important models for us today.

It's an impressive list of personalities that Sellner writes about, and frankly I learned something new about each of the figures presented. Athanasius taught the values of sharing stories, and that one does not have to be a monk to live monastic values. Antony of Egypt emphasised the value of silence and solitude, and how these can foster discernment. Hilary of Portiers and Martin of Tours reminds us of the value of faith, and its communal dimension. Augustine and Monica remind us of the importance of friendship, and that God can reveal Himself in our passions. From Jerome, Paula, and Eustochium, we learn of the need for qualified spiritual mentors and guides. And from John Cassian and the Desert Elders, we learn the importance of confession and sharing our secrets. Briget of Kildare teaches us to have compassion in our ministries. Gregory the Great, Benedict and Scholastica, remind of us of integrating contemplation in our daily lives. Bernard of Clairvaux recommends that we reflect on our personal experiences, using the book of our lives, and book of our hearts.

Finding the Monk Within is a book that deserves to be read by many for both its timely message and simply practicality. Want to learn how others have tried to develop a deep spirituality? Then this book is for you. In addition, Celtic readers will enjoy reading the section on Bridgit of Kildare, and her efforts to bring about double monasteries for both sexes. The book offers a hopeful message which challenges the monk is us all to work on our inner life, and also to develop an asceticm of loving. Such a commitment involves self knowledge, self discipline, and a healthy love of self. Some may be called to enter the cloister, but most will be called to live out their lives in the world.

Any Given Sunday

Every Sunday, for the past twenty years, there has been a vital, vibrant ministry for homeless people at Parke Chapel, St. Andrews Cathedral, in downtown Honolulu, Hawaii. The eucharist service, and feeding ministry, is sponsored by St. Aidan's Mission Church.

The secret to it's success is that many are involved. There are over one hundred volunteers from different churches and faith based groups. Different agencies, such as The Hawaiian Hilton, and Aloha Harvest, donate food. The Episcopal Church of Hawaii has graciously allowed St. Aidan's, Celtic Catholic Church, to use its chapel and kitchen. Members include some of the State's most vulnerable; the homeless, mentally ill, and a growing number of islands newest residents, the Micronesians. The Celtic Mass includes music, Celtic readings, Scriptures readings, some even in Chuukese, and sermon.

The feeding program following the service, cares for two to three hundred people each Sunday, and the numbers are growing with the worsening economic climate. Each Sunday, new faces appear, but no one is ever turned away.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Voyage of St. Brendan

One of the most appealing aspects of Celtic Christianity, are the lives of its many, and I mean "many" saints. This in itself says something positive in the way it transformed all kinds of people. Reading hagiography (holy biographies) does not come naturally for someone with a Protestant background. Then again, they are not much different than the genre of Foxe's Book of Martyrs. And I feel better for reading these accounts of Celtic holy men and women. Their stories and adventures have stuck with me through the years.

I fell in love with the story of Brendan, when I first read The Voyage of St. Brendan seven years ago. The Navigatio Sancti Brendani, I love that Latin title, was one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages. And with good reason. The book is an adventure tale, as Brendan was regarded as one of the world's great travelers. It's both fun and entertaining to read, and borders on fantasy literature. The story describes Brendan's journey in search of the "Promised Land of the Saints". The book details several of Brendan's voyages, which take him far past the comfortable environs of Ireland. Sections describe volcanoes, icebergs and encounters with great sea monsters. One tale includes an Easter spent on the back of a whale. Jonah would be jealous. So would Sinbad. Some even suggest Brendan got as far as the New World in his tiny coracle. Think of it, instead of Columbus Day (which is coming up this Monday) it could have been St. Brendan's Day.

Like many of the Celts, wanderlust was in Brendan's viens. Ironically, Brendan had been inspired on his voyages by the Desert Fathers, yet he sought "a desert in the ocean". He wanted to travel for God, and from an early age desired to travel far from his home, a practice common to the Celts known as "white marytrdom". In leaving what was familiar and going wherever the Spirit dictated, Brendan found God anew, over and over agan. Brendan should be the parton saint of adventure. He knew, long before us moderns, that the most important part of the journey is not the destination, but the journey itself.

"Is not the Lord our captain and helmsman?
Then leave it to Him to direct us where He wills."
St. Brendan

God's Waiting Room

A few days ago, I was asked to speak to a group of seniors about Celtic Christianity. It was at a local retirement home, and as I got out of my car, I was struck how beautiful a place it really was. A large, well kept, high story building, surrounded by beautiful tropical plants and gardens. Serenity! Retirement homes are one of the few places I can go to and still feel like a youngster at fifty some years of age. Even so, I was impressed with the youthful spirit I encountered in several of the residents. One woman sang some familiar hymns and another resident remarked with a twinkle in his eye, he felt he was in "God’s waiting room".

We sat in a circle, and I provided a simple outline of some the major themes in Celtic Christianity; some of the history, the emphasis on desert spirituality, the importance of nature, a passion for mysticism, the tendency to live on the fringes and edges of culture. Folks wanted to speak about their connection with nature. Again and again I heard persons say in different ways how Nature was important to them, and as real as the person sitting next to you. As the microphone was passed around, one woman remarked how moved she is when she sees the beauty of the Hawaiian ocean and coral. Another person spoke of the magnificent sunrises and sunsets she sees from her window. Another felt a connection to the birds around her apartment, and as she spoke, I pictured her rising up early each morning to feed her favorites birds, her "companions". I was moved by these simple stories, and impressed by the deep and simple joy which came from the sun, the ocean, the birds and flowers. After the presentation, one of the attendees invited me to see the chapel, the St. Francis chapel, which was filled with plants, small fountain, and small statue of the monk himself. Perhaps this was "God's waiting room".

As I was leaving the complex, I realized what a vivid contrast this presented to our world of gadgets, tech toys, Facebook and Twitter! I recalled a couplet I learned as a young undergraduate in one of my English classes:

"What a pity, in a life full of care.
That no one has time, to stand and to stare"

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Synod of Whitby: Culture Clash

A pivotal moment for Celtic Christianity took place in 644 at the Synod of Whitby, a small coastal town in Northern England. At this time, a Synod gathered and heard the claims of both Celtic and Roman followers. The Roman camp came out on top, and the Celtic perspective ever so gradually faded away-at least in structure. (But as evidenced in any contemporary bookstore, the spirituality has carried on). On a deeper level, the Celtic-Roman conflict was a culture clash; one culture deeply rooted in nature, mysticism, and small rural communities or clans; the other, urban centered, driven by a powerful institutional church, and rational based theology.

How did Celtic and Roman Christianity differ? For one, Celtic Christianity was somewhat unstructured, and comfortable being so. Celtic independence, sometimes bordering on the eccentric, was demonstrated with an inclination to wander from place to place. Celtic monks basically wandered through Europe, creating learning centers, and teaching. Celtic Christianity was also different in that it was built around the monastery and abbey, and not the Cathedral, or Bishop. In Celtic communities, the Abbot reigned supreme. In the Celtic view, a Bishops role was evangelical rather than administrative. To the Roman, Latin based Christian, the Celtic way, seemed of a different time and age, perhaps a passing age, a rural way, full of small clans, small stone beehive shaped chapels, and people who both loved and lived off the land. Put another way, it was a barn based vs. a building based Christianity.

Two key areas of disagreement-which seem insignificant now in our age of ecumenism-were of tonsure and the date of Easter. The Celts accepted a form of tonsure which they had adopted from the Druids. They shaved the front part of their heads from ear to ear, allowing the hair to grow on the back. By contrast, the Roman tonsure, like that of Friar Tuck, was a shaved circle on the head surrounded by some hair. The Celts, pointed out rightly I think, that the Roman tonsure was a sign of the aristocracy, whereas the Celtic tonsure was the sign of a slave. A more real concern, was over the correct date to celebrate Easter. The Council of Nicea in 325, had determined the proper way to date Easter, but practices still were not uniform throughout Christendom. This is understandable as we are talking about huge distances between countries, as well as diverse people, and languages. The Celts had adopted many local customs. The Celtic celebration came from a grafting of Easter onto the pagan spring feast of Beltaine, which was held around May 2. The Roman branch wanted the Celts to get "with the program" of the rest of Christendom.

It’s a shame that at Whitby, as many other points in church history, that compromise could have prevailed. The Roman Church, perhaps more proactive, and more politically astute, sought to create a wider base of authority. It was for this reason Augustine (not to be confused with the African Augustine) was sent to Kent in 597 to spread the arms and ears of Rome throughout the country. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before both Celtic and Roman missions crossed paths.
When the sides first meet, there was opportunity to work together. According to the historian the Venerable Bede, the Celts originally opened their arms to their Christian brothers and were open to dialog. Bede tells a wonderful story in The Ecclesiastical History of the Celtic Churches readying to welcome Augustine. The Celtic delegation consulted a Druid hermit on how they should proceed. He told them that should Augustine stand and welcome them, they would know that he would be open to them and accept them as equals. If he stayed seated, beware. As it turned out, Augustine remained seated, and the Celts were naturally suspicious.

In almost fairy tale like fashion, matters came to a head when King Oswyld of Northumbria sought to be married to Queen Eanfred. Oswyld had spent some time at Iona and had been deeply moved by life in that monastic community. Queen Eanfred, originally was from Kent, held a Roman perspective. So while the king was feasting and keeping Easter, his wife was fasting and keeping Palm Sunday. For the peace of his kingdom, and the more immediate goals of saving his marriage, Oswyld called for a Synod to be held at Whitby in 644, where both sides could present their arguments.

The Synod was not really a synod in the normal use of the word, as it was not officially called by Rome. It was a "Witan", a council called by a king, and a political gathering of nobility and advisers at which the king would arrive at a decision and pass judgement. The spokesperson for the Celts was Coleman, Bishop of Lindisfarne. In turn, he was supported by the Abbess Hilda, and Cuthbert, who was prior of Melrose. The Roman cause was upheld by Wilifred, abbot of Ripon. An interesting side note, is that Wilifred had once been a student at Lindisfarne, but had parted with Celtic ways, and gone onto Rome for further training and education.

What accounts we have of the Synod, also come down to us through Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History. According to Bede, Coleman was allowed to present the Celtic case first. He stated the "customs I observe were taught me by my superiors, who sent me here as a Bishop, and all our forefathers, men beloved of God, are known to have observed these customs". Coleman went onto add that the date of Easter came from John’s gospel. Winifred responded "Our customs are those that we have seen universally observed in Rome, and by men of different nations and languages...the only people who stupidly contend against the whole world are those Scots and their partners in obstinacy, the Picts and Britons".

Not the kindest of words, but it was game, set, match! To no one’s surprise, King Oswyld decided in favor of the Romans. Colman, we are told, returned to Ireland bitter and defeated. Yet not all Celts disagreed with the outcome, and many viewed the result as inevitable. Cummian, an Irish abbot, remarked, "What thing more perverse can be felt of our church that if we say, "Rome is wrong, Jerusalem is wrong, Antioch is wrong, the whole world is wrong: only the Irish and the Britons know what is right, these peoples who are almost at the ends of the earth, and you might say, a pimple on the chin of the world".

What lessons, if any can we learn from a Synod which took place almost 1500 years ago? I would say that what was destructive about the Synod was that a particular "perspective" or "brand" was lost. Celtic Christianity no doubt thrived and almost single handedly contributed to the Renaissance of Europe rescuing it from the Dark Ages. What was sad, is that it was essentially attacked in the name of uniformity. Perhaps another lesson, is that the church needs to be more respectful of local native cultures and traditions. The need to adopt and adapt is important and healthy. This is something I have keenly observed in Hawaii, with the customs of Polynesians and Micronesians. Churches should feel free to introduce local worship customs including the hula, and natives languages as a way of enhancing worship.

Celtic Christianity "officially" ended at the Synod of Whitby. However, almost fifteen centuries later, Celtic Christianity and spirituality remain wildly popular and alive, appreciated by both Protestant and Catholic alike, all over the world. It is a spirituality which takes into account the heart, and imagination, as well as the world. These converging trends play to the strength of Celtic Christianity, which at its heart is ascetic, mystical, and visionary.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

How the Irish Saved Civilization

A natural starting point to begin learning about Celtic Christianity is Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995). Let's begin our discussion of the book, by citing two quotations:

"Without the mission of the Irish monks...the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one-a world without books".

"It is hard to believe" wrote Kenneth Clark, "that for quite a long time-almost a hundred years-western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea".

One of the great ironies of human history, is how a group of "uncivilized" monks, were able to keep the great literature of the world alive, revive Christianity, spread learning, and help awaken Europe from the Dark Ages. Seems to make no sense, so how could this happen? They were difficult times. The Roman Empire was in spiritual and moral decline. There was also the external pressure from thousands of invading Barbarians. These internal and external stressors ushered in a decline in social, moral, and civic responsibilities. A top heavy, and rigid bureaucracy sought survival instead of service. Even the military, once the pride of all Romans, was now despised. Sounds very familiar dosen't it?

As often with spiritual things, glimpses of light and change came where least expected-on the fringes. St. Patrick, the first missionary apostle, demonstrated that spirit, when he courageously went beyond the "safe" civilized Greco-Roman world to Ireland of all places. Talk about downward mobility! Patrick, however, knew what he was doing. As a pastor at heart, he cared for the spiritual and physical welfare of the land. But in addition to that, Patrick went the extra mile and learned the Irish language and culture so to speak in their language, and use their terms. No wonder Ireland loved Patrick so much. No doubt Partick was a courageous person too. He also spoke out against controversial subjects such as war, and may have been the first human being to speak out against slavery.

Patrick’s greatest gift was his personality and ability to assimilate new ideas. "Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming the Irish imagination-making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish". Patrick was a innovative person, not simply assimilating new ideas, but going in new directions with them. He was able to transform the pagan ideas of loyalty, courage, and generosity, into the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Cahill writes, Patrick’s unique gift was his "Christianity-the first de-Romanized Christianity in human history, a Christianity without the sociopolitical baggage of the Greco-Roman world, a Christianity that completely inculturated itself in the Irish scene". This different way of viewing the faith and the world created a more open humanistic atmosphere. This opened the door to a more practical theology, things which actually worked for people. Patrick met people on their own terms, and in their own language and thought forms. The spirituality was simple, sensual, democratic, and one the population could easily relate to. The Irish experience had been filled with suffering and Patrick’s simple brand of spirituality was one they could understand.

Patrick, as many in Celtic lands would do, brought the spirituality of Egypt to Ireland. This created a different form of Christianity than the Roman kind. A monastic based Christianity fostered the development of monasteries, which became population centers, small city states, and hubs of learning. Abbots, and in some cases, abbesses, ruled instead of bishops. Learning and education were stressed and these institutions became the first real Universities, where all the world's books and ideas were discussed. It was something like a great books club where everyone was welcome to attend-even those who lived outside the cloister. It was a unique environment, culture and "experiment". Here, people learned to read the gospels, learn about the live of the saints, the mystics, the fathers of the Church, as well as Greek and Latin literature. Lets call it the original Open University.

This in itself, was a remarkable achievement, a beautiful model of what is possible with the church in the world. Learning and books again regained their rightful place in the life of the mind and culture. And though the life of the monk may have been somewhat "book centered", the scribes enjoyed their work and produced manuscripts of unsurpassed beauty such as The Book of Kells. The world Cahill describes, is one incredibly advanced in its views of religion, learning, education, the sexes, and of sexuality. It is a bold and welcome contrast to a Roman Christianity, which seemed to be headed in a different direction.

The Monastic Option

"By A.D. 700, writes the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, "European learning had fled to the bogs of Ireland. While Europe was sacked by the Goths, Arabs, and Vikings, a few scholars such as the Venerable Bede (circa 673-735; lived at the Jarrow monastery in Northumbria) preserved a knowledge of the classics, carrying the seeds of Western life "through the grim winter of the Dark Ages." In the seventh century alone, two hundred new monasteries were founded in Gaul...Irish monasteries "produced a series of remarkable men who exerted a profound influence on thought and letters in Western Europe... Monasteries such as those founded by the Irish monk Columba at Derry and Iona became important study centers".
                                                                        Morris Berman

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Morris Berman's The Twilight of American Culture (2001) which is quoted above. This disturbing but powerful book describes the decline of American society, the corruption of politics, failed education system, widening gaps between rich and poor, and the "Rambification" of entertainment and culture. Not a hopeful or pretty picture by any stretch. What is most surprizing, is where Berman finds a model of hope. It comes from the early medievel world in the form of the Celtic Church. To quote, David Knowles's "Christian Monasticism", the monasteries "became centres of light and life in a simple, static, semi-barbarian world, perserving and later diffusing what remained of ancient culture and spirituality". "Or as the eminent historian Charles Homer Haskins said of them: "Set like islands in a sea of ignorance and barbarism, they had saved learning from extinction in Western Europe at a time when no other forces moved toward that end".

Berman's illuminating work, I think, sets perfectly, the agenda for this blog, and explains partially why Celtic Christianity, has something of deep significance and beauty to offer the world. We live in an identical time, where the Church, and specifically the Celtic Church, can provide light in a time of darkness.
Hello, and thanks for visiting this blog. Here you will have the chance to explore, learn, and discuss one of the most ancient forms of the Christian faith, Celtic Christianity. Though long extinct in an organizational sense, it's spirituality remains as popular as ever.

The blog seeks to provide useful discussions, provoke fresh thinking, as well as providing references to important books, articles, personalities, other resources and related topics. Should be as fascinating as the Celtic knot!

I invite you to be part of this discussion. Also, as a priest, I also seek to describe what Celtic Christianity is like in practice and to share what shape it takes on Main Street. Come join me in our discussion!