AUTHENTIC VOICES FROM ANCIENT IRELAND
And there I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name
The early Irish church was, for several wonderful centuries, a gleaming emerald in the battlements of the city of God. And the most precious stone in its foundations was Patrick. Forging a Christianity that was as beautiful in its spirit as it was in its art, the Irish believers carried their Christ-centred message in tiny coracles to Britain, northern and southern Europe, and possibly as far as America. The Celtic church followed an ecclesiastically and theologically distinctive path that issued neither from Rome nor from Canterbury. In one of the ironies of Irish history, an English Pope, Adrian IV, finally brought the independent Irish church under the jurisdiction of Rome and England. But the Celtic emerald had by then already turned to lifeless and spiritless stone, full of impurities, fit only for an earthly, and not a heavenly, city.
It has been said that Ireland is burdened with a subversive memory. Perhaps the reverse is also true: it has been subverted by forgetfulness. For the attuned ear may still hear echoing around the 'bare ruined choirs' of Cashel and Clonmacnoise truly Christian voices from a time when neither Rome nor Canterbury held sway in Ireland. Those whose hearts are stirred by the great missionary adventure that is God's strategy in history will surely recognise in these ancient Irish voices the familiar sounds of Home.
It is perhaps understandable that both traditions in Ireland should view the early Irish Christians as being part of a centralised church with government at Rome. But the view is an anachronism, like the stamp designer's mitre, vestments and Latin blessing. (The mitre didn't appear in Ireland for 500 years after Patrick. The halos possibly await another day.) Ireland produced its own vital expression of Christianity, and though not without its flaws, arguably the most exciting of the early mediaeval period. Everyone on this island might benefit from the rediscovery of its treasures and the hearing again of its voices. Some of the jewels and gold in the New Jerusalem that is Christ's bride will have been fashioned in early Armagh or Kells, Inishmore or Glendalough, and some amongst those who praise God from every tribe and tongue will have spoken early Irish.
Our pilgrimage of discovery brings us first to an ancient manuscript in the great library at Trinity College Dublin.
'I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.' So begins Patrick's Confession in the Book of Armagh, one of two authentic texts from the hand of the Apostle of Ireland. Immediately we warm to him, not just because he is a sinner, but because he is so three-dimensional.
'I was taken captive before I knew what to pursue and what to avoid. Hence today I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education; for I am unable to tell my story to those versed in the art of concise writing -- in such a way, I mean, as my spirit and mind long to do, and so that the sense of my words expresses what I feel.'
One is reminded of Moses eloquently protesting his inarticulateness. Patrick knew however that he was 'a letter of Christ for salvation unto the utmost part of the earth, and though not an eloquent one, yet written in [our] hearts, not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God.' That Spirit had given him the power to testify of his conversion to Christ:
'I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland . . . and deservedly so, because [I] turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments . . . and there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God . . . hence I cannot be silent about the great benefits and the great grace which the Lord has designed to bestow upon me . . . I was like a stone lying in the deep mire; and He that is mighty came and in His mercy lifted me up and placed me on the top of the wall.'
THE THREE IN ONE
Some years ago on St Patrick's Day an Aer Lingus hostess was asked on a live San Francisco radio show what the shamrock symbolised. Hesitantly she replied: "Em . . . faith, hope and charity." Oh well. The story of Patrick's use of the shamrock as an illustration of the Trinity is just a legend, but the orthodoxy of the Celtic church's teaching on the Triune God is not in doubt. Patrick introduces his God to the Irish in these words:
'There is no other God, nor ever was, nor will be, than God the Father unbegotten, without beginning, from whom is all beginning, the Lord of the universe . . . and His son Jesus Christ, whom we declare to have always been with the Father. . . and by Him are made all things visible and invisible . . . every tongue shall confess to [the Father] that Jesus Christ is Lord and God . . . and He hath poured forth upon us abundantly the Holy Spirit . . .and Him do we confess and adore, one God in the Trinity of the Holy Name.'
ORTHODOXY IS NOT ENOUGH
'Orthodoxy is essential' said one modern writer, 'but it is not enough.' Patrick would have agreed. For he not only believed in the true God, but in the living God who acts with great power on behalf of those who call upon His Name. 'Let those who will, laugh and scorn; I shall not be silent. Nor shall I hide the signs and wonders which the Lord has shown me.'
The Confession records no less than eight visions or dreams in which Patrick was led by the Lord, including one occasion on which he found himself experiencing an unfamiliar form of prayer, which included words he did not understand.
'I saw Him praying in me, and I was as it were within my body, and I heard Him above me, that is, over the inward man, and there He prayed mightily with groanings. All the time I was astonished, and wondered, and thought with myself who it could be that prayed in me. But at the end of the prayer He spoke, saying it was the Spirit; and so I woke up, and remembered the Apostle saying: The Spirit helpeth the infirmities of our prayer. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit Himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings, which cannot be expressed in words.'
For Patrick the wonder-working power of God was supremely demonstrated in the Gospel. Declaring that he had been sent to preach this Gospel of the Kingdom to the Irish, he marvels at its impact.
'In Hosea He says:"I will call that which was not my people, my people; . . . and her that had not obtained mercy one that hath obtained mercy. And it shall be in the place where it was said: You are not my people. There they shall be called the sons of the living God." Hence, how did it come to pass in Ireland that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshipped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord, and are called sons of God?'
THE BLONDE AND THE REDHEAD
In the Book of Armagh Tirechan, a later bishop of Connacht, tells a lovely story (albeit of uncertain origin) of a chance encounter in the west of Ireland between Patrick and the daughters of King Laoghaire. Eithne is blonde, and Fidelma is redheaded. Eithne speaks first:
'Who is God? Where is he? Whose God is he? Where does he live? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is he alive and beautiful? Have many fostered his son, and are his daughters dear and beautiful? Is he in the sky or the earth, or in the water, in rivers, or mountains or valleys? How can he be seen and loved? Is he in youth or in old age?'
Patrick replied with great wisdom:
'Our God is the God of all, heaven and earth, sea and rivers, of the sun, moon and all the stars, high mountains, low valleys, above heaven, in heaven, under heaven. He breathes in all things, makes all things live . . . He has a Son, co-eternal with Him, the Son is not younger than the Father nor is the Father older than the Son, and the Holy Spirit breathes in them. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are not separate. I wish to join you to the heavenly King since you are daughters of an earthly King.'
Of early origin is the hymn known as St. Patrick's Breastplate. It is a great declaration of faith in the Trinity, and confidence in the power of God's Name against all other powers. It ends:
I bind unto myself the Name, The strong Name of the Trinity; By invocation of the same, The Three in One, and One in Three. Of whom all nature hath creation; Eternal Father, Spirit, Word: Praise to the Lord of my salvation, Salvation is of Christ the Lord.
The Irish church was unhindered by the more political concerns of its larger Continental counterpart. Hence, it expanded rapidly, and great centres of learning and mission sprang up everywhere, drawing students from all over Europe. The outward surge of Celtic Christianity had begun. And what radicals they were! For no earthly kingdom did Patrick say: 'I am prepared to give even my life without hesitation and most gladly for His name.'
Let's eavesdrop on Brendan's prayer as he prepared to be blown wherever the wind of God would take him:
'Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Christ's yoke? Shall I pour out my heart to him, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land? Shall I then suffer every kind of wound the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny coracle across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea? O Christ, will you help me on the wild waves?'
Although the love of Christ constrained the Irish believers to go to the ends of the earth, the love of Ireland and her 'no people' tugged at them to stay. Columba (or Colmcille), the Apostle of Scotland wrote:
'My coracle sings on the waves, yet my eyes are filled with tears. I know God blows me east, yet my heart still pulls me west. Though my body speeds to Alba (Scotland) my mind is fixed on Ireland. If all Alba were mine, from its centre out to its coast, I would gladly exchange it for a field in a valley of Durrow or Derry.'
Others missionaries set sail for the European mainland. Columbanus, perhaps the greatest missionary of the Celtic church, was educated at Bangor in County Down. He was acquainted with Latin and Greek classics, and promoted the development of spirituality amongst ordinary people. Columbanus was opposed by the Roman clergy, but established Christian centres in the Vosges, preached amongst the Alemanni, a German pagan tribe, and even founded the great monastery at Bobbio in Italy. Gall, one of Columbanus' disciples, established a monastery in Switzerland. Kilian was called the Apostle of Franconia; Fursa founded Peronne. Later these men were followed by Irish scholars and by artists of such great skill that we marvel at their works a millennium later. What hands and minds wrought the gold and silver filigree of the Ardagh or Derrynaflan chalices, or the witty intricacies of the four Latin gospels in the Book of Kells?
CONFRONTATION WITH ROME
Despite the wanderings of the early Irish Christians, they remained fiercely independent from Rome, whilst respecting her importance. One ninth-century Celtic poem discourages the pilgrim:
To go to Rome, great the effort, little the gain. You will not find there the King you seek, unless you bring Him with you.
Much earlier, in 597 -- the very year that Columba died -- an event took place in Britain that was to have far-reaching consequences for these islands. It was a confrontation between the Celtic and Roman churches. With the retreat of the Roman armies from Britain to defend their homeland, most remaining British Christians were part of the Celtic church.
The Celts differed in several important matters from Rome, and believed (contra Augustine of Hippo) that each individual was entirely responsible before God for his or her own choices. To Rome this seemed like the heresy of Pelagius, and Rome had vainly tried to bring the Celts under her authority. Now the Pope dispatched another Augustine to Britain, and without consulting the Celts, appointed him bishop of all Britain! Meetings were held between Augustine and the Celtic leaders, but in the face of Augustine's threat of eternal damnation if they didn't submit to the Pope, the Celts refused to recognise Augustine, and they withdrew in disgust. Augustine set out to impose the Roman diocesan system on Britain, but he met with fierce opposition from the Celtic Christians. In the mid-seventh century King Oswald of Northumbria accepted Catholic rather than Celtic Christianity, and England finally transferred its allegiance to Rome. The Celts now withdrew northwards and westwards.
THE CELTIC FLAME EXTINGUISHED
A new and terrifying threat appeared off the east coast of Ireland in 780 in the form of sixty Viking longboats. Scrambling to protect their lives and treasures the Celtic Christians built the round towers which still dot the Irish landscape. In refuges such as these they sang:
Be thou my breast-plate, my sword for the fight; Be thou my armour, and be thou my might; Thou my soul's shelter, and thou my high tower; Raise thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
Dublin was established as a Viking and Danish city. Kevin's monastery at Glendalough became part of Vikingalo (Wicklow). A visit to the museums on the west coast of Norway will reveal many Irish Christian artifacts from the period. In the strange ways of God, however, the Viking raids on Ireland and Britain led to the evangelisation of Scandinavia by those taken as captives. Although the flame was flickering in Ireland, the Kingdom of God had its victory in thousands of new 'Patricks' taken as slaves to the Viking lands. The Danes of Dublin themselves accepted Christianity, and in 1038 built Christ Church Cathedral. Then in 1171 Henry II arrived in Dublin with permission from Pope Adrian to bring the 'rebellious' Irish church into submission to Rome (and hence England).
At Cashel, a Synod decreed 'that all things relating to religion for the future in all parts of Ireland be regulated according to the [Catholic] church of England'. England's rule in Ireland had begun. For half a millennium no Irishman would ever be archbishop of Dublin. The Celtic flame was finally extinguished. The voices of Cashel now had a different intonation. The Popes regarded the English as 'beloved children', but the Irish as 'a wild, mountainous race', and banned with bell, book and candle anyone who would assist the Irish against the English! Ignoring an appeal from the Gaelic chieftains to the Pope a parliament was established in 1366 at Kilkenny. Its decress, signed by the Catholic archbishops of Dublin, Cashel and Tuam, stated,
'No Irishman of the nation of the Irish may be admitted to any cathedral or collegiate church, by provision, collation, or presentation of any person, nor to any benefice of Holy Church amongst the English of the land.'
The races were now worlds apart. As late as two years before the Reformation Pope Leo X issues a papal bull banning all Irishmen 'by nation, manners and blood' from entering St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. The irony can hardly escape our notice.
But the Irish people would fare no better under the Reformation. Indeed it might be argued that their situation deteriorated still further. Michael Davitt said that 'Ireland was crucified between the tyrannies of Rome and London.' In C.H. Crookshank's History of Methodism in Ireland he says that 'Ireland is the only country in which the Reformation produced nothing but evil.' Not everyone will agree with him, but perhaps the sense in which the Reformation was a restoration of 'the good news about Jesus' may not have been so easy to grasp in Ireland.
The Act of Supremacy once again transferred ecclesiastical jurisdiction to England. Some early Irish Protestants determined that it was futile to bring the Gospel to the native Irish since they were evidently not part of God's elect -- a 'no people' indeed. And the early Irish Baptists were officers in Cromwell's army.
Desmond Bowen has observed that the subsequent history of Ireland is the acting out of the religious and political campaigns of two European imperia -- Protestant Britain and Papal Rome. In another of Ireland's ironies, they are represented in two cathedrals, each dedicated to St. Patrick, which eye each other suspiciously from separate Armagh hills.
Are we at one of those crossroads of history when we hear the Lord's voice saying 'Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls' (Jeremiah 6:16)? Are there any remnants of the ancient Celtic emerald to be found today? Should we look for it and place it in a new setting, one more suited to the third millennium of the Christian adventure? What should we think of the present Celtic revival movement, especially as it concerns the Christian churches?
All churches are both shaped by the culture in which they exist and are called to shape that culture by the unchanging message about God's kingdom. The cultural setting is not only an unavoidable reality of human community, it constitutes the very stage upon which the Christian drama is acted out. This is not, or ought not to be, the same thing as syncretism, in which the Christian message is diluted or compromised by some cultural or ideological elements which are at variance with it.
There can never again be a literally New Testament period Christianity -- as though we today could re-experience the circumstances which led to the writing of, say, 1 Corinthians or the Letter to the Hebrews. The task of those who wish to be faithful to the New Testament is to apply its teachings and unchangeable principles in today's world. And neither can we recreate today the world within which early Celtic Christians communicated the unchanging Gospel. We can however, be enriched by and learn from their story and draw on it as a vital and exciting chapter of our heritage. For this Celtic heritage is indeed a rich treasury for bejewelling a vital and contemporary Irish Christianity; it need not be gimmickry or 'shamrockery'.
The Celts' emphasis on spirituality and the spiritual disciplines stands in contrast to our more impoverished and merely cerebral approach; it need not become mysticism. Their appreciation of the natural creation was entirely in keeping with the Hebrew, rather than the Greek, view of reality; it need not be pantheism or New Ageism. The Celtic faith in a God who acts in works of supernatural power is hardly an unbiblical one, and contrasts with our Enlightenment skepticism; it need not become magic. Patrick's delight that through the Gospel an idol-worshipping 'no people' in Ireland had become the children of the King, was arguably more in keeping with the Biblical teaching that God wants everyone to be saved than the determinism which silenced generations of Irish Protestants; it need not be Pelagianism. And the vitality of the Celtic missionary spirit might well now be recovered in Ireland if Patrick's emphasis on the centrality of Jesus and the preaching of the good news about the Kingdom of God were again embraced. Irish Christians must develop what Miroslav Volf, in Exclusion and Embrace, calls a 'catholic personality', that is, one set free from its own tribal and nationalistic idolatries to be enriched by otherness (including Celtic otherness) and hence more liberated in bringing blessing to everyone in Jesus' Name, and in judging that which is evil in every culture. That was the ancient path upon which we all set out; it leads, as Jesus intended, to the ends of the earth.
Scripture for the day