Last Wednesday and last Sunday, I shared with my church a little of the story of St. Patrick. It’s a fascinating story; Patrick: kidnapped and sold as a slave in Ireland, learned Celtic language and culture, escaped, but was called by God to return and preach Christ among the Irish Celts. After Patrick’s death, a number of factors lead to Celtic Christianity developing largely independently from Christianity found in England or mainland Europe.
The Celtic brand of Christianity still exists among a few communities but their way of life and their expression of Christianity can teach us some lessons in having a more vibrant faith.
First, they made a conscious effort to integrate faith into every area of life. Celtic Christians wrote prayers for almost every aspect of life: beginning of the day, end of the day, cooking and working. They wrote prayers for marriage, children, blessing a new home, and for dying. These prayers are often called “contemplative,” and are “an ongoing, or very frequent, opening of the heart to the Triune God, often while engaging in each of the many experiences that fill a day” (Hunter, III).
Our lives tend to be segmented and compartmentalized. We have our spiritual life, sure, but we also have our work life, our home life, and our social life. Contemplative prayer helps us see that all of life is connected and all of life can be influenced and influence our spiritual life.
Second, and in a similar vein, was the formation of the monastic communities. Throughout Europe, monasteries were a common place for the ultra-religious to go to escape from the world. They were located outside of cities, on mountains, or off the beaten path. In Ireland, Christians built communities that were monastic (people living under a religious vow). They were little towns with monks, nuns and priests but also families, farmers, carpenters, herders and craftsman. Again it showed how they saw all of life integrated, with no “religious” and “secular” differentiation.
Third, Celtic Christians naturally saw God within nature. The clover, held by Patrick in many pictures, was used to explain the mysterious nature of the Trinity. As a culture centered around farming, herding and fishing it is understandable that the forces of nature would play a large role in their lives and when they learned of the God who created and controls the forces of nature, it was easy to see God’s hand in it. Again, not even nature is outside of our normal lives- although many of us have tried to eliminate hot, cold, rain and wind from our lives. We can see God in the sunshine and rain, we can hear God in the call of the birds and we can use what God has made to understand God better.
The constant theme of each of these Celtic Christian expressions of faith is the way that they integrate faith into everyday life. That is something we can all be reminded of in our lives. It’s been 1,585 years since Patrick took Christianity to Ireland but we can still learn from their example.
The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West Again. George G. Hunter, III. Abington Press, 2000.
Celtic Daily Prayer. Harper One, 2002.