Submitted by Rev. Dr. Don Longbottom, Conference Minister
I confess to an enduring fascination with Celtic Christianity and sailing the storm, which seems to me to be an apt metaphor for Celtic Christianity. The Hebrew term for spirit is “ruah,” which can mean “wind” and sometimes even “storm.” Continuing the metaphor, I see the church as a small boat with a make-shift sail, sailing upon the stormy waters of the Atlantic. Several thoughts come to mind.
The great sea voyages of the ancient world were inherently risky. One could lose one’s way. One could founder on the rocks. One could be swamped in a storm or a thousand other possible calamities. The same is, of course, true of a mystical engagement with God’s spirit. We think here not of the zoo God that we can control but of the wild God who transforms all that is touched. Truly being Christian means embracing risk and sailing the storm.
Robert Van De Weyer has written a book entitled Celtic Fire, The Passionate Religious Vision of Ancient Britain and Ireland. Van De Weyer notes that the earliest evidence of Christianity in the British Isles dates around 180 AD. So we know that Christianity was in Britain at a fairly early date. But the interesting thing is that the Christian faith never took root in the areas controlled by Rome. The Celtic tribesmen saw Christianity as the religion of oppression. In the 5th century the Roman Empire fell and Christianity virtually disappeared from Britain with only a few Christians escaping into the hills of Wales and Ireland where they practiced their faith in secret.
After the barbarians had conquered Rome while destroying much of western civilization some held out in distant and rocky places. As the dark ages passed this remnant began re-seeding the world with faith and learning. Brendan was the Abbot of Clonfert, a large Celtic monastery in central Ireland. He and fourteen other monks built small boats known as coracles out of oxhides tanned with oak bark. They smeared the seams with grease and erected a mast. Others set out in tiny coracles without even sails or oars. They believed God’s will would be made manifest through wind, tide, and current and thus trusted themselves to the Atlantic. Here is a truly radical approach to trusting oneself to the mystical direction of the Spirit. But soon, in all the areas which had never fallen to Rome, led by barefoot monks there was an astonishing awakening. Celtic Christianity spread across the land. Monasteries led the way and in everyone was kept an eternal flame to symbolize God’s presence. At Kildare, the site of Brigid’s great convent the fire was sustained continuously for over a 1000 years.
I believe that Celtic Christianity was touched by the original and primitive Christian vision but unlike the church of the Roman world, it was able to escape the stilted and bureaucratizing pressures of the Constantian state church. Hence, Celtic Christianity offers us a more accurate and relevant picture of the early church than we typically encounter.
How was the Celtic church different?
In the Celtic church women frequently ruled great churches and monasteries. Both women and men were ordained to the office of “bard” and spread the gospel in the form of ballad and song.
The Celtic vision of the Christian faith reduced the distance between humanity and nature. The natural world is treated with awe, respect and a sense of the sacred. The modern treatment of nature as a commodity rather than sacred is likely to be the death of all.
The British heretic Pelagius, himself a Celt, deeply influenced Celtic Christianity with his heretical teachings. He argued against original sin maintaining we are not helpless sinners but that Jesus challenges each to choose between good and evil. But he also urged people to see Jesus, not as some remote divine figure, but as an intimate friend. I find both aspects of this theology inviting, even compelling, and am convinced that the truth lies somewhere in between Pelagianism and original sin.
Above all the Celts experienced the presence of God through the agency of the Spirit. They were at their best intimate with their God. Turning again to the metaphor of sailing and the Spirit I recognize the following.
Sailing requires the elemental wind “ruah,” the ship or boat, and humanity. The elements represent God’s intimate presence. Perhaps the ship is the church. As Disciples, we are called to be partners working with God to bring the ship to the appointed destination. But ultimately we must always remember that the ship is dead without the great rushing wind, the storm of God.
Sailing is elemental and irreducibly requires a oneness with nature. No wind and you have a dead ship. No “ruah” means no life in the sails. These ships were built for the wind and dare I say Spirit. It gave them life. We too are built for the wind. It is by the breath of God that we were created and it is by the breath of God that we live and have our being.
As we lean towards the season of Lent, let us be open to the Spirit in new and novel ways.