“The early Christians of Ireland developed an expression of the faith characterized by deep devotion and fascinating stories,” Newman said. “It offers rich insights for modern issues such as promoting a caring society, relating to the natural world and welcoming strangers.”
Writers often use the metaphor of journey or pilgrimage to describe the Christian life. What distinguishes this book and its development of that theme is its invitation to readers to experience their personal faith journeys through Celtic lenses. Pilgrimage is part of the DNA of Celtic Christians. The faith spread and flourished in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Northern England between the 5th and 11th centuries because saints like Patrick, Brigid, and Columba traveled extensively, preaching, teaching, and founding monasteries. Soon small groups of Christians began to go out from these locations and begin new Christian communities.
By connecting historical information with their current lives and concerns, readers will be encouraged to consider the many ways pilgrimage has shaped their personal faith. They will discover the value and contributions of fellow travelers on the faith journey and how they assist and shape that journey. By recalling how Celtic Christians celebrated and marked significant moments in their lives of faith, readers will discover ways they can develop this practice. They will affirm the importance of both offering and receiving hospitality on the faith journey, a discipline that was critical to the Celts. They will also have opportunities to deal with difficult life journeys such as transitions and opportunities for forgiveness, and the importance of blessing one another in a world that values polarization over cooperation and competition over community.
With an introduction that sets the tone and introduces the theme and six chapters related to distinctives of Celtic Christianity, this book is ideal for small groups whose members want to grow together in their spiritual understandings and commitments.
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Journeys with Celtic Christians
By Rodney Newman
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Rodney Newman
All rights reserved.
Embarking on the Journey
Embarking on a journey always arouses a degree of anxiety. Even if you can't wait for the adventures ahead, leaving the familiar to enter the unfamiliar raises questions: "What did we forget to pack?" "How will I react if something goes wrong?" "What have we not anticipated?"
These questions become more pressing when traveling with small children. That's what my wife, Ann, and I experienced, anyway, as we went over checklists and buckled everyone into the van for our annual trip to Lake Okoboji in northwestern Iowa. A midway point between our home in Oklahoma and her brother's family in North Dakota, this location provided a beautiful setting for our families to enjoy a fun time reconnecting across the miles.
One of my favorite photographs from those reunions is one of me sitting in a chair overlooking the lake with my daughter, Rachel, two years old at the time, sitting in my lap. We're both very relaxed, with her resting after an active day and me reading a copy of The Celtic Way, by Ian Bradley.
At first glance, the photo captures a moment of affection and bonding between father and daughter. What is not evident is the ray of hope shining into my heart in the midst of a time of spiritual turmoil that had been troubling my soul.
For much of my life, I had experienced God as one of guilt and shame, always watching, not so much to care for me but to wait for me to make a mistake. Following the rules, affirming certain beliefs, observing particular practices was what constituted the life of faith. I knew there had to be more. I wanted to love God, not just prevent God from rejecting me. I wanted to experience God, not just claim a correct, if distant, relationship.
Some of my friends had similar yearnings, so we embarked on a journey of discovery. We read theologians outside our particular tradition. We plumbed the stories of faithful Christians in church history who had similar struggles. We challenged one another to dare to listen closely and honestly to our spiritual questions.
One afternoon, my friend Mike and I were sharing our frustrations. No matter how much we tried, all our spiritual efforts never seemed to be enough to please God. It felt as if God always wanted more. At one point in the conversation, seemingly very casually, Mike said, "Maybe we've got this backwards. Everything we've read in the Bible and seen in the witness of other people says that faith starts with God, not us. God's love comes first, before we can do anything to earn it or to reject it. We do good works not in order to earn God's love but in response to God's love." It was as if a lightning bolt went through me, almost physically knocking me to the floor. The beauty of that truth brought me into the presence of a God I had only dreamed to be true and now was surging through my very being.
Soon I continued exploring the depths of this experience through studies at seminary. The teaching of gifted professors, casual conversations with patient colleagues, and a welcoming environment that allowed me to ask any question were truly medicine for my soul.
Working as an associate pastor enabled me to share with others this wonderful liberation I had found. I loved teaching the Bible, sharing with persons in times of transition and grief, and building a community of service to others. But after a few years, residual echoes of those old struggles started to haunt the edges of my spirit and, increasingly, began moving inside to linger as unwelcome guests. Some of the joy was fading, and questions of faith persisted.
As unlikely as it sounds, Christians from ancient Ireland are the ones who provided the inspiration to restore my faith and who continue to inspire me. I'm not alone. Recent years have seen a revival of interest in Celtic Christianity. The emphasis these Christians placed on community, simplicity of living, and appreciating the presence of God in the natural world speaks to the heart of many persons of faith today. This influence can be seen in liturgies and prayers that reflect a strong devotion to Christ and the awareness of God in the ordinary aspects of life. The great Celtic hymn "Be Thou My Vision" is one of the most popular songs in worship services of various styles. Renewed interest in sensory experiences in worship and personal devotions has inspired more and more individuals to revisit the practices of the early church, such as fixed-hour prayer. The Celtic Christians provide many good models of these practices.
As the church today struggles with connecting to a world that is becoming increasingly secular and socially fragmented, the distinctive characteristics of how Christianity developed among these tribal peoples offer promising lessons on how to reenergize the church.
Who Were the Celts?
A quick Google search of the term Celt will confirm what many people today imagine when they hear the word. Medieval warriors with flowing red hair, clad in distinctive tartans, jump off the screen. Maps proudly display the location of ancestral homes in Ireland and Scotland. One usually finds websites advertising pubs or local celebrations of Celtic music and festivals. Soon one runs across New Age symbols and even pagan rituals claiming direct connection to these ancient people.
Those choosing to look beyond popular notions will soon see these for the stereotypes they are, caricatures of a truth of much greater depth. The Celts were a tribal people, preferring to live in villages of around three hundred persons rather than to form any kind of broader kingdom or empire. The men were expected to stay fit, as skirmishes over land and cattle were common. They could be fierce in battle, but most of the time they channeled their energy into caring for their farms with occasional grand celebrations.
Many people are surprised to learn that Celtic tribes actually originated in the area of modern-day Switzerland. Like many ancient people, environmental and political factors pushed them to look for more hospitable locations to set up their homes. Some ventured east where they encountered the Greeks, who called them Keltoi, from which we get the term Celt (pronounced with a hard c). When a large contingent moved into central Turkey, they received another name by which they were identified — Gauls. This region became known as Galatia, or the home of the Gauls. Some say that the Galatians addressed in the letter by the apostle Paul in the New Testament were early Celtic people.
The largest movement, however, was to the west. Waves of settlers established so many villages throughout modern-day France that the territory became known as Gaul. They lived happily there for decades until the Romans, led by Julius Caesar, forced them further west onto the British mainland. When the Romans followed them there, the Celts moved to the less desirable rugged Scottish highlands and across the narrow sea to Ireland. While the Romans traded with Irish merchants, they had no interest in conquering the island. The Celts finally found a home — at the edge of the world!
Celtic Christian Distinctives
The first Christians in Ireland were most likely slaves and merchants, primarily in the south where ships for the European continent set sail. Few would have been surprised if Christianity on the island remained confined to small bands of believers for centuries to come. Ireland was a most unlikely mission field. It was so far away from the center of Christendom. The native religion, based around the agricultural cycles with well-established rituals and stories, went back generations and appeared as if it would continue indefinitely.
But by the fifth century, Christianity was making major inroads into the existing culture, defying expectations and established patterns of behavior. What makes the story so fascinating is that the faith would take shape here in a way distinctive from anywhere else in the world. Among the reasons for this, two stand out as key.
First, Ireland was a completely rural island. People lived in small settlements loosely connected to local rulers but for the most part very independent. The first cities would not be established until the ninth century with the coming of the Vikings.
This fact is significant because for the first three hundred years, Christianity was primarily an urban religion. Since we are accustomed to religion being more pronounced in rural areas today, this fact takes many by surprise.
We can see this development in the pages of the New Testament itself. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus focuses his ministry in the population centers. When we turn the page to the companion volume known as the Book of Acts, we find that the earliest church spread the message in cities. The first Christians were empowered for service on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, and they seemed to be content to stay there until persecutions and the nudging of the Holy Spirit drove them out. When Paul began his missionary journeys, he very deliberately targeted urban areas, especially port cities, sometimes staying as long as two years in one place. One could argue that Paul was seeking the locations where he could make the biggest impact. He could reach more people with the message of the gospel who would then take the good news back to their homes scattered across the known world.
A factor of even greater importance is that people in port cities were more open to hearing different views and more likely to convert should they be so inclined. Think about it. You're living in a little village that generations of your ancestors have called home. You sit down to dinner one evening and announce that you have converted to another religion. After the blank stares, the response might be, "That's fine. Where do you plan to sleep tonight? Where do you plan to live, because you can't stay here." These small social units necessitated conformity in order to survive. Life was too hard, and it took the whole community working in harmony for things to function. They were by nature very conservative places in the sense of maintaining the status quo. The word pagan literally means "one from the countryside." Change was frowned upon, at best, if not outright forbidden.
So how does an urban religion evangelize a completely rural society? We will explore this question in more detail in later chapters. For now, suffice it to say that the early missionaries understood that they would have to watch and listen closely to these people, to discover who they were, in order to find a way to communicate the gospel in terms that spoke to their culture.
The second major factor that influenced the shape of Christianity in Celtic lands was that the faith did not come as part of Roman occupation. Up until this point in Western Europe, Christianity came along with, or closely behind, the Roman army. But the Romans didn't conquer Ireland. The faith was not imposed by edict of a king who had converted — there was no imperial monarch in Ireland. You didn't have to become Christian in order to gain promotion in society or success in business. In other words, Christianity didn't come at the point of a sword but through conversation and mutual understanding. As a result, more of the pre-Christian beliefs of the native people continued to influence which aspects of Christianity were emphasized. For example, we find among the Celtic Christians an appreciation for the natural world and the interconnectedness of all creation; an emphasis on blessing other people, even our enemies; the awareness of finding God in the ordinary aspects of life; and the value of relying upon intimate soul friends for the development of the Christian life.
This particular expression of Christianity flourished in the Celtic lands from the fifth through the ninth centuries, then slowly conformed to a style more in line with the majority practices and teachings in Rome.
I don't want to give the impression that there was a "Celtic church." The Christians in Ireland and Scotland worshiped and read the Bible in Latin and understood themselves to be in union with the larger church. Because of the great distance from Rome and their independent spirit, they saw no disparity in promoting theological views and spiritual practices that were a little different from the Roman way. When I speak of "Celtic Christianity," I'm referring to the specific way that the faith developed and was lived in the Celtic lands.
While the Celts were not a nomadic people, many exhibited a sense of wanderlust — a restlessness in their makeup — that caused them to strike out on periodic adventures. This is reflected in stories of courageous heroes embarking on excursions where the emphasis was more on the discoveries and challenges of the journey than the destination. Examples include the legendary Bran, who encountered bizarre people and creatures on land and sea, and the great hero Cuchulain, whose supernatural abilities enabled him to defend Ulster against the armies of Connacht.
These stories were cherished, in part, because they described adventures almost unthinkable to the ordinary villager. The gentle rhythms of daily life, familiar voices of loved ones, and stories of beloved ancestors shaped their very identity. The characters in these stories were larger than life, not just in their bravery and skills but in their willingness to risk the loss of their tribal connection, regardless of what fame might be achieved.
Most Celts also had a spiritual connection to the land; it provided food and shelter along with a sense of home, history, and stability. To leave, especially voluntarily, meant letting go of what you held most dear, a decision not to be taken lightly. The hostile landscape and ruffians looking for easy prey made traveling alone unthinkable — it was just too dangerous. A solitary traveler was assumed to be running from something or someone. It was so serious, in fact, that criminals who refused attempts at rehabilitation were punished by being cast adrift on the water with only a day's worth of food, consigned to certain exile and possible death — the worst fate imaginable. Such a person was a peregrinus, an alien outside the structure that determined a person's place in society, without rights or protection, an outcast. Separation from home was so painful the Celts even had a word for it, hiraeth, meaning "an intense longing or homesickness."
When Christianity arrived, this somewhat latent urge to travel in the Celtic psyche became an increasingly common practice, so much so that many scholars consider the pilgrimage to be the most distinctive feature of Celtic Christianity.
This was the Celtic manifestation of a common theme among the people of God as embodied in the original pilgrims, Abraham and Sarah. The couple was apparently content with their comfortable lives in Haran. They were established in the community with strong connections and extended family. Their daily routine was set, and their pension plan was in place; in fact, at their age they were already enjoying it. Now there was a rustling to leave. Why? People are often motivated to leave home for wealth, power, or adventure, but Abraham and Sarah appeared to have those things already. The restlessness came from a simple call from God: "Go ... to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1).
So they went, trekking over the dusty desert that mirrored their own lives — old, barren, landless. When they got to where God was leading them, it appeared that there had been a terrible mistake. Other people were already living in this inhospitable terrain. And it only got worse: They spent the rest of their lives living in tents, with no permanent address. They never got to unpack the china or hang pictures or even feel "at home."
Abraham and Sarah set the template for the people of God. Their saying yes to this incredible call from God to be perpetual pilgrims is what defined them and made them the ancestors of the faithful. They learned things about God and themselves that they would never have discovered staying in their easy chairs in Haran watching TV. In fact, Haran means "crossroads," the place of choice.
The Celts immediately saw the story of Abraham and Sarah as their own. As they continued reading, they must have felt that the Hebrew authors were telling their story when they spoke of the Exodus and Exile. The Celts also lived in border regions — between pagan and Christian, male and female, the old gods and festivals and the ones centered on Jesus. They were well aware that they were situated geographically, literally, at the edge of the world. Instead of seeing these liminal, or in-between, places as fraught with danger, they embraced them as times ripe for change and growth.
What better way to give oneself fully to the God they came to know in Jesus than to leave one's native land, to become voluntary peregrini pro Christe, pilgrims for Christ? At first, their eagerness caused them to follow in the spirit of Abraham and Sarah and just strike out for a place they trusted God to show them. Small groups would climb into currachs, boats made of leather wrapped around a wooden frame, and cast themselves from shore, allowing the wind to take them to where they believed God was sending them. It was an act of total faith. They turned up on unknown beaches and wandered the countryside at the mercy of the local inhabitants, living as hospites mundi, guests of the world. Some left home never expecting to see it again. Others left for brief periods and would return should the need arise to attend to local or family affairs.
After a while, the purpose of their pilgrimages became more intentional and their motivations more varied. A desire to share the gospel with those who had not heard the message and to establish new churches caused some to travel elsewhere. The Celts were not inclined to build political empires nor villages with large populations. They naturally thought that congregations were meant to be small in number. Once a church got too big for their small building to accommodate for worship, a group would move on to establish a new congregation. Indeed, this was central to the way the Celts evangelized Scotland and northern England and even onto the European continent.
Excerpted from Journeys with Celtic Christians by Rodney Newman. Copyright © 2015 Rodney Newman. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Embarking on the Journey,
Chapter 2: Friends on the Journey,
Chapter 3: Markers on the Journey,
Chapter 4: Hospitality on the Journey,
Chapter 5: Reluctant Journeys,
Chapter 6: Blessings on the Journey,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When I first discovered the Celtic faith, I was a little wary. That is until I discovered about their journey in conversion to Christianity. This book, Journeys with Celtic Christians, talks about the similarities between the original Celtic faith and how it changed through the introduction of Christianity. They discuss the spread of faith throughout the areas of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and parts of England up to the 11th century. The author was able to compare the Celtic Christians with the faith that many of us know and the similarities are amazing. My daughter and I traveled the UK ten years ago so she could do research on the Celts. Being a history buff myself, I was amazed at how little I knew about this group of people. After she whetted my curiosity I have done extensive research of my own on this people and their faith. The author's viewpoint is right on and I truly enjoyed reading this book and will be referring to it for years to come. I was given this book by NetGalley and Abingdon Press in exchange for my honest review.