Celtic Christianty's Greatest Era Lies Ahead


Celtic Christianity’s Greatest Era Lies Ahead

 Dozens of excellent new titles have been added to our Celtic Christianity Library on Holy Island.  It is being more used than ever.  Our librarian, Judith Line, has completed cataloguing all the three thousand plus volumes. A new computer enables library users to search for any book under author, title or subject. Here is information about the three most recent additions.

1) Blood of the Celts: The New Ancestral Story by James Manc (Thames and Hudson) 2015. This reveals that earlier attempts to trace historical and pre-historical movements using only modern DNA from living people have been proved to be dramatically wrong by findings from DNA on ancient skeletal remains. In the 20th century Anglo-phone archeologists argued that the word Celtic should not be used about inhabitants of Britain, but recent DNA advances make this questionable; as also the assertion that Anglo-Saxon England can not be included among the ‘Celtic peoples’.

2) Cuthbert of Farne by Katherine Tiernan (Sacristy Press). Katherine launched her new historical novel on Holy Island, and spoke about it at Berwick Literary Festival. One of her key insights is that Cuthbert and Wilfred (the alpha-plus prelate) were of the same age and kingdom. Bede, who took the Roman position of Wilfred, was too embarrassed to point out the contrast between him and Cuthbert, whom he greatly admired. But in this novel Katherine does draw out this contrast. Wilfred advances the church through prestige and power politics. Cuthbert, instead of being in constant conflict with Wilfred, resigns from his post as Prior of Lindisfarne and becomes an island hermit. In the tradition of the Desert Fathers, he models God’s kingdom of simplicity and prayer away from the mainland rat race. Wilfred gets too big for his boots, and meets his match in King Ecgfric who out-plays Wilfred’s power politics. He imprisons and then exiles Wilfred. It is at that point that the people elect Cuthbert to be the senior bishop of the English, and the king goes by boat to Farne Isle to plead with Cuthbert to accept.  Cuthbert’s shrine becomes England’s most influential pilgrimage centre. A moral we may draw is that new monasticism, in the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers, although it eschews church politics, might in fact be the carrier of God’s future for the church.

3) The Naked Hermit: A journey to the heart of Celtic Britain by Nick Mayhew-Smith (SPCK). This readable book lays bare the ignorance of recent writers who claim that Celtic Christianity is not creation-friendly. The author, a former financier who became a researcher into sacred landscapes, is an Anglican lay minister. This book is based on his PhD at the University of Roehampton, and his travels to hermits caves and naked prayer immersions in sacred seas and rivers. 

He describes how trees were sacred to Christian apostles to Celtic lands, in contrast to apostles on the continent who cut them down; and how churches met under trees.

The Life of Cuthbert by an anonymous monk of Lindisfarne, then Bede’s Life and then the hermit Guthlac’s hagiographer Felix all tell of hermits who enjoyed a special relationship with the elements, birds and animals. The author [i] suggests it was this relationship with nature that led Bede to write his theological formula about our ‘lost dominion’ over creation.

Mayhew-Smith draws out from the lives of saints such as Columba and Cuthbert how their actions frequently ended up having a participatory effect on the environment. After Cuthbert prayed all night in the sea at Coldingham creation is so moved that it sends two otters to warm his feet. On Epiphany, while evangelizing among the Picts, St. Cuthbert’s party is stranded upon the shore by a storm but the sea casts up provisions in the form of dolphin meat that tastes like honey. In the Teviot hills Cuthbert prophecies to a boy his is mentoring that an eagle they see flying overhead will bring their meal. It duly deposits a fish, but Cuthbert tells his companion to give some of the fish to the bird, because he interprets the bird’s behavior as ‘fasting’.

Felix added two of his own reasons why nature rituals were important: because a true Christian is united with every other creature in communion with God and because this is a way to meet with the angels. His exact words are ‘Have you not read that if a man is joined to God in purity of spirit, all things are united to him in God? He who refuses to be acknowledged by men seeks the recognition of wild beasts … he who receives frequent visits from men can not often be visited by angels.’ Felix traces this quotation to a naked hermit of Mount Sinai. Sulpicius Severus, who wrote the Life of Martin of Tours, writes about him and other Egyptian hermits in the first volume of his Dialogues.

Nick Mayhew-Smith argues persuasively that the vision of the early Celtic church was to restore communion with creation which they often picture as restoring Eden. The mythical voyages in the Brendan genre were often to discover an Eden or paradise where the original blessed creation could be re-instituted.  

Athanasius taught that when Christ immersed himself in the river Jordan, he was inaugurating a new creation by re-uniting it as well as all humanity with God. Mayhew-Smith links the Celtic practice of open-air baptisms and regular prayer while submerged in water as a spiritual practice that helped to restore this communion of our bodies and souls with God in creation. This concept was taught by Saint John Chrysostom: he rejects the idea that baptism is merely about the remission of a person’s sins, rather, it is a bodily recreation, akin to the making of Adam out of earth. Mayhew-Smith links the story of Germanus calming the seas by sprinkling oil on them, Columba’s calming of Lough Ness and its monster and Aidan telling the future queen’s escort to sprinkle blessed oil on the troubled waters with a redeeming of creation. He quotes a poem In Praise of Columcille which says ‘It was not on soft beds he undertook elaborate prayers, he crucified – it was not for crimes – his body on the green waves. 

Mayhew-Smith  considers Celtic Christianity to be a prophetic voice from the margins. Religion is so often an expression of local or national concerns, but today’s environmental crisis requires a truly fundamental orientation towards the environment that transcends all those boundaries. He believes Celtic Christianity did that and remains able to do that.

Celtic Christianity is universal and its greatest era lies ahead.




Posted at 11:50am on 3rd November 2019
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