Community ~ most expressions of church today have more to do with consumerism than community. Many are looking for a model of church not shaped by either society or medieval models. The Celtic tradition draws heavily on Biblical and Desert Monastic models of community; community is not a mark of the Celtic church, but the mark. Communities are flexible and varied in size, often gathering around a common “Rule of Life”. I am a member of the Northumbria Community, and seek to live by its Rule of “Availability and Vulnerability”. All Rules seek to encourage community members to pray together daily, to live simply and to create unity, to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, to help seekers find Jesus and to grow in relationship with him.
Pilgrimage ~ Celtic thought sees life as a journey. On this journey certain places are significant, they are “thin places”, where God seems closer, places that invite prayer. Just as Jesus was drawn to the desert and the mountain top to spend time alone with God, many find that a journey to a special place becomes a landmark in life, a place of new beginning or of fresh resolve.
Soul Friends ~ if life is a journey, it can be a lonely one. We all need friends along the way. We all need a mature, experienced Christian, who will walk the road with us, modelling the life of Jesus. The Celts in Ireland referred to such a person as an anamchara, a soul friend. They may help us to develop a more Christ-like life and help us with the many choices life brings. Their aim is more general than mentoring or counselling; it is to help us to obtain wholeness of life. We all need such a person.
Contemplative lifestyle ~ most evangelical/charismatic prayer is of the intercessory type, spending time with God in order to ask for “stuff”. Contemplative prayer, on the other hand, is spending time with God for its own sake, allowing him to set the agenda. Developing a God-conscious life makes sense of Jesus command to “pray always”. Time spent in solitude gaining strength and insight flows into times of action in the “market place”; both are part of a contemplative lifestyle.
Rhythm ~ the first Christians and the Celtic believers lived much closer to nature than we do today. They were aware of the rhythm of the seasons, of rites of passage and of tradition. As the church became more urbanised, this link was lost. We need to rediscover the natural rhythms of prayer, work, rest and play. We need to rediscover the power of rites of passage events as ways to draw people closer to God. We need to recapture the great truths of the Celtic Christian tradition and reinterpret them for our own time. I use the Daily Office of the Northumbria Community both as a way of maintaining a rhythm of prayer in my urban environment and as a way of keeping solidarity with other members of my dispersed community.
There is little doubt that the life and times of the Celtic Church have been hopelessly romanticised in modern times, but it is still possible to piece together a picture of their beliefs, practices and priorities.
The picture that emerges is of a vibrant, outward-looking church, with much to teach us today.
It was a Charismatic church. The Holy Spirit was present and active in believers’ lives. Stories of miraculous happenings, perhaps embellished by over-enthusiastic writers in later times, bear ample witness to this. Healing, prophecy, hospitality and mercy seem to have been foremost among the spiritual gifts in operation.
It was a Bible-based church. The Celtic Church had a great love for the scriptures, especially the writings of John, and the Psalms. Much time was spent in copying, studying, memorising and teaching scripture. The Bible was their “memory book”, full of stories about God’s dealings with his people and his mighty acts.
It was a Mobile church. As a response to an awareness of life’s natural rhythms, Celtic Christianity had a sense of movement and flow. Times in the quietness of the monastery were times of preparation for times in the busy-ness of the market place. Go-with the-flow evangelism, pilgrimage and a sacrificial commitment to mission were qualities of its spirituality.
It was a Caring church. The Celtic Church encompassed a great care for all of creation. There was a particular concern for the poor, the sick and the oppressed. Gifts of hospitality and mercy were very much in evidence. They set about building communities of hope in a hostile world.
It was a Praying church. Much time was devoted to contemplative prayer and the development of personal holiness. Because Jesus was incarnate in the whole of life, no task, no situation was too small or unimportant for prayer. The hostile environment in which the church existed made the people aware of the reality of spiritual evil, and spiritual warfare was part of their prayer life.
Celts, Greeks and Romans
It would appear that, compared to other women in the ancient world, Celtic women were able to function within their society on a much more equal footing with men. The Irish Brehon law gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at that time or until recent times. Women had political equality, and could even lead the tribe. They could ascribe to any office or profession open to men. They had equal right to divorce and to a share of property in such matters. They were able to own and inherit property.
Greek women, on the other hand, had no political rights, were subject to arranged marriages and had no right of inheritance. Roman women became a possession of the husband at marriage, could not own anything and had few political rights.
Leaders, mothers and soul friends
Given the attitude towards women in Celtic society as a whole, it was inevitable that the “Celtic church” would also afford women a position of honour, which is in stark contrast to the negativity and misogyny shown by the Roman church, influenced as it was by the worst Augustinian attitudes towards human sexuality and women in particular. Certainly, the universal church custom to only ordain men was the practice in Britain and Ireland, but there was also no clergy/lay divide; women were therefore no more marginalised than a lay brother was.
Women like Brigid, Ebba and Hilda were leaders of mixed monasteries, where men and women lived and worked in co-operation; their counsel was welcomed and expected at the court of kings. They also exercised authority over ordained clergy who worked alongside them.
Women were also affirmed as mothers, givers of hospitality and in their domestic work. This was as much a holy calling, and to be honoured, as their leadership in the church.