These talks given in An Diseart by Fr. Jim Sheehy, give an introduction to Celtic Spirituality as understood through the Early Christian Church
The Early Christian Church in Britain and Ireland and the beginning of the Irish Mission to Northumbria
As an introduction to this series of talks I feel it is important to place the Irish or “Celtic” Church in Northumbria within the wider context of the Early Christian Church in Britain and Ireland. Although St Augustine of Canterbury, sent in 596AD by Pope Gregory, to preach the Gospel to the English people, is regarded as the apostle of England; many would say that St Aidan was its true apostle. Augustine’s mission began in the south with Canterbury as its main centre while Aidan’s mission began in the north arriving some forty years later than Augustine but enjoying far greater success in his missionary endeavours. Of course, these two men were not the first missionaries in England. It is accepted without question and documented by St. Bede and others that the Christian faith came to Britain during the Roman occupation, however, the exact date of its arrival is unknown. The first documentary evidence comes from the Church Father Tertulian, who writing in about 208 A.D. claimed that: parts of Britain inaccessible to the Romans were indeed conquered by Christ.
The Celtic Church in Northumbria – Lindisfarne to Whitby
Lindisfarne Monastic Community After building his monastery to accommodate himself and fellow missionaries Aidan would, without delay, have built a school to form, in the Christian faith and train in the discipline of learning, English boys and young men as priests, missionaries and teachers.(1) St Bede tells us that the first group to be formed and trained were 12 young slaves that he had paid money to purchase their freedom. Many of these in Aidan’s short span of 16 years as bishop of Lindisfarne, became priests, evangelists and the great missionaries of the next generation; a fascinating story in itself. Among them were four brothers Cedd, who became bishop of Essex, His brother Chad became abbot and bishop of Mercia, which covered the midlands and Birmingham area; then there were Cynebil and Caelin both priests who, according to Bede worked tirelessly for the Lord in preaching the Gospel and establishing the Christian Church beyond the borders of Northumbria. Also among the twelve was Eata who was abbot of Melrose on the Scottish Borders and later became the abbot of Lindisfarne. Bede referring to the rapid flourishing of the mission of Aidan from Lindisfarne has this to say: Churches were built in various places and people flocked together with joy to hear the Word. Lands and properties were given by royal bounty to establish monasteries, and English children and their elders, were instructed by Irish teachers in advanced studies and in the observance of the discipline of a Rule.(2)
St Patrick – the Confession
The Myth Writing about St Patrick in his book Celtic Theology(1) Tom O’Loughlin suggests that: Patrick has been so buried by Hagiographers, so shamrock laden by the cultural politics of defining Irish identity that for many he has become an almost mythical figure. So, if we are to get to the truth of St. Patrick, in so far as it is capable for anyone to do so, we have got to clear from our minds and imaginations much, if not all, of what we presume that we already, know about him. At least that is how I felt when I first read Patrick’s writings some years ago, and ever since I have been revising the images I had grown up by contrasting them with those of his Confessions in my search for an authentic profile of the man Patrick. Growing up I had a very clear image of a strong and powerful, larger than life, personality, a hero who represented all that was good, true and pure in the Irish character. For me he was a model of Christian living and holiness of life, but, also, he symbolized all that was truly Irish, he was both saint and national hero, the archetypical Irishman.
The Saints and Sites of Northumbria
Aidan of Lindisfarne – Oswald of Northumbria In spite of what I have already said regarding the Synod of Whitby, I think it would be wrong and misleading to compare the Irish “Celtic” Church and the Roman “Anglo Saxon” Church as if they were two separate and distinct entities; and it certainly would be wrong to set one up against the other. The uniqueness of the early Church in Northumbria, in my view, arose out of the special relationship between Aidan and Oswald and the subsequent partnership of Church and State in this great missionary enterprise. As we have already heard Aidan’s mission from Iona was in response to Oswald’s invitation, and Bede tells us that Oswald didn’t just leave Church and Spiritual matters to Aidan so that he, himself, could get on with his civic duties. He shared in Aidan’s mission supporting and encouraging him and, as a Gaelic speaker, often joining him on his missionary journeys as an interpreter, which must have been an important factor in the rapid spread of the Church in the North East of England. As Bede puts it: On arrival, the King appointed the Island of Lindisfarne to be his see as requested; the King always listened humbly and readily to Aidan’s advice, while the bishop who was not yet fluent in the English language, preached the Gospel, it was most delightful to see the King himself interpreting the word of God to his thanes and leaders; for he himself had obtained perfect command of the Scottish [Irish] tongue during his long exile. Churches were built in several places, and people flocked gladly to hear the word of God, while the king of his bounty gave lands and endowments to establish monasteries, and the English, both noble and simple, were instructed by their Scots teachers to observe a monastic life (1).
Why do people go on Pilgrimage? Why is it that the idea of pilgrimage features in all religions indeed in the folklore and stories of all cultures and civilizations? Where has the idea and practice of Pilgrimage originated from? Has it originated in the inquisitiveness of the human mind the need for adventure, the need to discover? Has it arisen simply out of human curiosity, or has the practice evolved as part of some form of inner searching or spiritual quest; in other words is the outer journey always symbolic of a need to journey inwards in the quest for meaning, for happiness, for self-knowledge and self mastery? These questions are part of the mix that we will need to recognise, if not sift through, in seeking to answer the question that I have posed for the title of this talk. As I begin I am reminded of a little verse that is believed to have come down to us from the early Irish Church exploring, within its Christian context, the question: why pilgrimage? It reads as follows:
Who to Rome goes, Much labour, little profit knows. For God, on earth though long you sought him. You’ll miss in Rome unless you brought him.
In posing the question it offers a challenge to would be pilgrims. It sees the quest for God as being central to the exercise of pilgrimage; yet it makes it very clear that people, who think they can find God by travelling to some holy place or sacred site while failing to find God within themselves, or while lacking in faith, are deluding themselves.