An Excerpt from "The Celtic Way of Evangelism" by G. Hunter, III

A New Kind of Community - Chapter 4

Irish Christianity spread even more in the generations following the death of Patrick than it had in Patrick's own lifetime. Since we have no written records from that period, our knowledge of how the Irish Church grew in its first century is spotty, but two facts are paramount. First, the available evidence suggests that Patrick's movement blanketed the island: "In Ireland alone, there are more than 6,000 place names containing the element Cill-the old Gaelic word for church."1 Second, Irish Christianity was geographically beyond the reach of Rome's ability to shape and control, so a distinctively Celtic approach to "doing church" and living the Christian life emerged.

What would a visitor from Rome have noticed about Celtic Christianity that was "different"? The visitor would have observed more of a movement than an institution, with small provisional buildings of wood and mud, a movement featuring laity in ministry more than clergy. This movement, compared to the Roman wing of the One Church was more imaginative and less cerebral, closer to nature and its creatures, and emphasized the "immanence" and "providence" of the Triune God more than his "transcendence."

Most of all, the Roman visitor would notice that Patrick's "remarkable achievement was to found a new kind of church, one which broke the Roman imperial mould and was both catholic and barbarian."2

That "new kind of church" gradually displaced the Parish church as Irish Christianity's dominant form of Christian community. I call this new kind of church the "monastic community." Patrick's leadership had "indigenized" Christianity to Irish cultural soil more than anyone else was attempting anywhere. Since Patrick refers to "monks" and "virgins for Christ" in his writings, we presume that he and his people started monastic communities in his lifetime. Some writers believe he started monastic communities somewhat like he had observed in Gaul.3 Patrick emphasized, however, the planting of traditional parish churches, each with a priest, with groups of churches administered by a bishop, which followed the established Roman way of "doing church."

However, the parish church model did not really fit ancient Irish life. The Roman model presupposed an organized town or village, with a parish church at the town's center. It also presupposed a network of towns, connected by roads, within a geographic political unit (like a county) that could double as a bishop's diocese. Celtic Ireland had no established towns however, only temporary settlements of tribal groups. Ireland had no official political units or boundaries. Furthermore, Ireland had few if any roads more useful than a Class B cow trail!4 Much of the "traffic" was confined to sea lanes. A modern visitor who stepped back into fourth century Ireland would observe random, shifting, "rural sprawl" in every direction.

Patrick's successors adopted his principle of indigenous Christianity and extended it. They learned about "monasteries" from Eastern Christianity, perhaps through visits to Paul and the Eastern Church, and certainly through reading the best selling Life of St. Anthony by Athanasius. Then they radically adapted the idea of the monastery to Ireland. he resulting community was so different from many of the eastern monasteries that we need a distinct term such as "monastic communities."

What was the difference between Eastern monasteries and Celtic monastic communities? Briefly, the Eastern monasteries organized to protest and escape from the materialism of the Roman world and the corruption of the Church; the Celtic monasteries organized to penetrate the pagan world and to extend the Church. The eastern monks often withdrew from the world into monasteries to save and cultivate their own souls; Celtic leaders often organized monastic communities to save other people's souls. The leaders of the Eastern monasteries located their monasteries in isolated locations, off the beaten track; the Celtic Christians built their monastic communities in locations accessible to the traffic of the time, like proximity to settlements, or on hilltops, or on islands near the established sea lanes.5

Celtic monastic communities did include some monks and/or nuns who lived disciplined ascetic lives; such monks and nuns often founded monastic communities, but Celtic communities were much more diverse than eastern monasteries. They were also populated by priests, teachers, scholars, craftsmen, artists, farmers, families, and children, as well as monks and/or nuns-all under the leadership of a lay abbot or a lay abbess.6 They had little use for more than a handful of ordained priests, or for people seeking ordination; they were essentially lay movements. Some monastic communities contained more than one thousand people; a few, such as Bangor and Clonfert, may have been as large as three thousand people.

Within the threefold division of the day into worship, study, and work, monastic communities were beehives of a wide range of activities. John Finney observes that "there would have been little of the monastic peace that pervades modern communities and [the] monks went outside the enclosure when they wanted peace and quiet."7 With some variation from one community to another, children went to school, young men and women prepared for Christian vocations, and Christian scholarship was fostered.8 Some inhabitants copied decaying books onto new parchments/ others "illuminated" the scriptures, and others practiced other arts and crafts.9 Other people herded cows; or sheared sheep; or made cloth; or cultivated crops; or cooked for the community; or cared for sick people, or sick animals, or guests. The community worshiped together, perhaps twice daily; they learned much of the scriptures together-by heart, especially the psalms. They nourished each other in a life of "contemplative prayer," and many monastic communities also functioned as "mission stations," preparing people for mission to unreached populations.10

Some of the ways in which a Celtic community differed from an Eastern cloistered monastery would have been obvious to any sojourner. The visitor would first pass beyond a circular outer wall and through a gate that signified one was entering hallowed ground. The wall did not signify an enclosure to keep out the world; the area signified the "alternative" way of life, free of aggression and violence and devoted to God's purposes that the community modeled for the world. Philip Sheldrake tells us that

This enclosure, or termon, was to be a place free from all aggression. Violence was legally and absolutely excluded by this precinct.... Monastic settlements [were] anticipations of paradise in which the forces of division, violence and evil were excluded. Wild beasts were tamed and nature was regulated. The privileges of Adam and Eve in Eden, received from God but lost by the Fall, were reclaimed. The living out of this vision of an alternative world involved all the people who were brought within the enclosed space.11

Once past the enclosure, the visitor would notice (say, as at Glendalough) a porter's dwelling, a cathedral, several chapels, a round tower, one or more tall stone Celtic crosses, a cemetery, a well, the abbot's house, a guest house, many small cells for one or two people, larger dwellings for families, a kitchen, a refectory, a scriptorium, a library, workshops, farm land, grazing land, etc. The visitor would especially notice the guest house. Sheldrake informs us that guests ... were accorded a kind of semi-spiritual status and housed within the sacred enclosure.

Often the guest house was given the choicest site within the settlement and yet was always set apart, sometimes within its own enclosure. The hospitium, therefore, was within the sacred space (isolated from the outside world) yet separated from the monastic living quarters. The guest quarters was itself, therefore, a kind of "boundary place" between two worlds.12 The geography and architecture of the monastic community would appear quite planned and organized-in two or more concentric circles. The perceptive visitor would appreciate that the Celtic Christian movement had created community in the midst of rural sprawl!

There are two ways (at least) in which these unusual communities produced an unusual approach to the living out of Christianity, compared to the Roman form. First, the monastic communities produced a less individualistic and more community-oriented approach to the Christian life. This affected the way in which-in parish churches, communities, tribes, and families-the people supported each other, pulled together, prayed for each other, worked out their salvation together, and lived out the Christian life together. Every person had multiple role models for living as a Christian and, in a more profound and pervasive sense than on the continent, Irish Christians knew what it meant to be a Christian family or tribe. (Chapter 4 expands upon the Celtic movement's communal approach to Christianity.)

Second, Celtic Christianity addressed a "zone" of human concern that Western Christianity, and other world religions, have generally ignored. Paul Heibert, in a classic article called "The Flaw of the Excluded Middle," shows how the earth's peoples explain life, live life, and face the future at three levels.13 The bottom level deals with the factors in life that our senses can apprehend; this is the "empirical" world that the "sciences" deal with. At this level, people learn to plant a crop, to clean a fish, to fix a water pump, to build a house, and a thousand other things. The top level deals with the ultimate issues in life that are beyond what our senses can perceive; this is a "transcendent" or "sacred" realm that Christianity and the other world religions define, and then address. Heibert reports that "religion as a system of explanation deals with the ultimate questions of the origin, purpose, and destiny of an individual, a society, and the universe."14 Western society and the Western churches, especially since the Enlightenment, have tended to exclude from their view of reality a middle level that is nevertheless quite real to people in most societies (and increasingly real to postmodern people in the West).

What are the "middle-level" issues of life? Here one finds the questions of the uncertainty of the near future, the crises of present life, and the unknowns of the past. Despite knowledge of facts such as that seeds once planted will grow and bear fruit, or that travel down this river on a boat will bring one to the neighboring village, the future is not totally predictable. Accidents, misfortunes, the intervention of other persons, and other unknown events can frustrate human planning.15

For many peoples, Heibert adds, this middle realm is inhabited by "mechanical" forces such as mana, spells, omens, evil eye, or luck, and/or by more "organic" presences like spirits, ghosts, ancestors, angels, demons, lesser gods, etc. In their traditional folk religions people turn to, say, the local shaman (who can influence these middle-level forces) for a fruitful marriage, or safety during travel, or for protection from evil eye or bad luck.16

The problem is that Western Christianity usually ignores this middle level that drives most people's lives most of the time, as do the other world religions. Western Christian leaders usually focus on the "ultimate" issues, as they define them, to the exclusion of the lesser issues; indeed, they often consider middle issues "beneath" them! When Christianity ignores, or does not help people cope with, these middle issues, we often observe "Split-Level Christianity" in which people go to church so they can go to heaven, but they also visit, say, the shaman or the astrologer for help with the pressing problems that dominate their daily lives.

Celtic Christians had no need to seek out a shaman. Their Christian faith and community addressed life as a whole and may have addressed the middle level more specifically, comprehensively, and powerfully than any other Christian movement ever has. A folk Christianity of, by, and for the people developed. It helped common people to live and cope as Christians day by day in the face of poverty, enemies, evil forces, nature's uncertainties, and frequent threats from many quarters. This folk Christianity can be seen today in the people's prayers and blessings that were passed on orally for many generations. In the nineteenth century, Douglas Hyde interviewed many keepers of the Christian folk tradition in Ireland, and Alexander Carmichael collected such lore in the Hebrides Islands. Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica was originally published in five volumes.17 Reading through the Carmina Gadelica gives one a deeper appreciation of the "contemplative prayer" that characterized Celtic Christian piety.

Ray Simpson, in Exploring Celtic Spirituality, explains that contemplative prayer contrasts with the more usual approach of praying at a specific time or meeting, and it contrasts with the more usual petitionary approach that "requests God to do specific things." Indeed, it is "the opposite of controlling prayer." Contemplative prayer is the way we fulfill St. Paul's counsel to "pray without ceasing."18 ^ ls an ""going, or very frequent, opening of the heart to the Triune God, often while engaging in each of the many experiences that fill a day.

The Carmina Gadelica tradition gave people brief daily rituals, which they learned by heart, with suggested affirmations or prayers for directing their hearts, moment by moment, setting by setting. The Celtic Christians learned prayers to accompany getting up in the morning, for dressing, for starting the morning fire, for bathing or washing clothes or dishes, for "smooring" the fire at days end, and for going to bed at night. One for starting the morning fire begins I will kindle my fire this morning In presence of the holy angles of heaven, God, kindle Thou in my heart within A flame of love to my neighbor, To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all, To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall... .19

The Carmina Gadelica taught people how to pray for sowing seed and for harvesting crops; for herding cows or milking cows or churning butter; for before a meal and after; for a sprain or a toothache; for a new baby or a new baby chick. Celtic Christians prayed while weaving, hunting, fishing, cooking, or traveling. They knew prayers for the healing of many conditions including blindness, warts, bruises, swollen breasts, and chest seizure.

The Carmina Gadelica taught Celtic parents lullabies to sing to their children at night. It gave people affirmations to prepare themselves for prayer, such as

I am bending my knee In the eye of the Father who created me, In the eye of the Son who purchased me, In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me, In friendship and affection.20

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