The Mission to the Celts


The interpretation of what happened at the 664 AD Synod at Whitby in Britain is critical for the understanding of the mission to the Celts in Ireland.    Are there two different approaches to mission caught up in this Synod?  Nearly all of the resources that are available for appreciating what happened were written after that date, well after the mission to the Celts which had its early beginnings in 431, over two hundred years beforehand.  The records of the Synod address two issues.   The Celtic Church had been celebrating Easter in the northern half of Britain on a different date to the Roman Church in southern Britain, Rome and the rest of Europe.    And the style of tonsure worn by the monks of the Celtic Church was different from that of the rest of the Church.    The Synod decided that practices should be uniform, and in both cases decided in favour of the Roman way of doing things.

Whitby was followed by the 670 AD Synod at Autun in France which “ruled that the Celtic monastic communities across Europe had to adopt the (Roman) Benedictine rule”.[1]  The Roman view was that the “milder and more human rule of St Benedict replaced the Columban”.[2]  It was made obligatory for at least part of France, and in the century that followed was extended to all of Europe.

Were these decisions a means of the Roman Church controlling a rapidly growing Celtic Church as it spread from Ireland to Scotland, Britain and Europe?   Or were they an opportunity for the church to resolve important matters of difference in regional customs and approaches as the Celtic Church continued to expand beyond Britain?  Underlying these issues it may well have been that the Roman Church and the Celtic Church had quite different ways of approaching mission.

For a long time it has been seen as the way the wider Roman church regained control over this rapidly growing mission church on the edge of the known world. What is remarkable is the vitality of the Celtic Church.   It had its beginnings at the time the Roman Empire was in its final throes and was then expanding into the remnants of the Empire in which the Roman Church provided a vital network still connecting Europe after the collapse.  Even the Venerable Bede (673-735) who wrote the history of the church in England from a Roman perspective notes the achievement of Columba and his people “in establishing Iona, multiplying monasteries, and reaching the Picts of Scotland.”[3]

The Christian mission to Pagan Ireland happened at a critical time in the life of the wider Church.   A look at the wider Roman context can help shed further light on what was at issue in the Synod, and provide a further window into the nature of the mission to the Celts.

  1. From an Underground Movement to a Legalised Religion

One of the major changes in the history of the Church came when the early church moved from an underground subversive movement to become allied with the ruling elites of the Roman Empire.  The process began when Constantine (272-337AD) in 312 AD seized the position of Emperor fighting under a flag bearing the cross, the cross that he had dreamt of days before the final showdown.  By 325 AD, the underground church was a legalized religion of the Empire.    Constantine as a Christian Emporer called together the Council of Nicaea which was instrumental in the determination of the Nicene Creed.   The Creed brought uniformity to the confession of the faith to the Church in the many and varied regions of the Empire, but also provided the basis for the Emperor and Church leaders to determine who was a true believer or a heretic in terms of how the Faith was confessed.    The Church was given enormous political power.

It would help if it were possible to get some sense of the shape of the early church before this fundamental change occurred so that it can be compared with the shape of the church after this time.   As we look back from the present it is clear that the impact of the Church in Christendom shapes the way we now think about the church, society and the mission of the church.

It is wise to realize that what we are attempting to do is not easy.   We will have to contend with inadequate evidence and the awareness that conclusions will have to be somewhat tentative.   But that should not deter us for there are important issues here.

  1. Mission Before Christendom

Alan Kreider in his book The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom[4], looks at the history of conversion in the light of three categories, behavior, belonging and belief, and the way the relationship between these three changed in the first four centuries of the church’s life, before and after Christendom.  In the time of Tertullian ( 160-225AD), only baptized members of the church could attend worship and the eucharist.  The church was an underground movement seen to be subversive by the Roman authorities.  The Church had to be careful that a person wanting to be a Christian was not an imperial spy.  The sponsor of a new member (called a catechist) looked first for a change in the behavior of the prospective member(called a catechumen).   There was a long period of preparation for the catechumen, normally more than two years, before a person could belong to a worshiping community.

By example and instruction, the catechists were intentionally re-forming the candidate’s conduct, and the extent to which this re-formation was successful would determine whether the candidate could proceed further in their journey of conversion.[5]

Only when the catechists could “report that the candidates had indeed been living according to the values and priorities of the Christian community”[6] did they enter the next stage of the process, which moved from individual instruction to more consistent and structured occasions to learn about the beliefs of the church.

The church was initially an urban movement meeting in homes and hidden places like catacombs with a clear ordered process by which a person became a member of a Christian congregation.    Only when a person’s long term behavior was Christlike over a period of one or two years were they then taught what to believe about Jesus.  All this was a prerequisite before careful preparation for baptism could take place after which the catechist was able to become a regular worshiping member of the congregation.    The sequence is clear – behavior, belief and then belonging.  And what a powerful means of discipling new members this is, for by the time a person belongs their behavior is Christian and have a common understanding of Christian belief.    The Church was living different values to the rest of the Empire.  It is estimated that 10% of the imperial population belonged to the church by 312.

Despite disincentives, despite the scorn of the powerful, despite persecutions, the early Christian movement was growing.  Something was deeply attractive about it.[7]

  1. The Transition to Christendom

Constantine changed dramatically the role and place of the Church in the Empire on becoming Emporer when he declared the illegal Church a legal religion of the empire.    In two centuries, gradually at first, but then more rapidly, the Church radcially changed the way new members were recruited.

In this new setting the changes happened slowly.  The Church was now a public organization, able to meet in buildings Sunday by Sunday in the centre of most urban communities.    The Church did not have to protect itself from the Empire.   Augustine (354-430AD) was the first great systematic thinker of the church, and the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa.   By the time of Augustine’s public leadership from 396 on, the Christian Church had established itself as the imperial religion.

  1. Membership In Augustine’s time

After nearly a century of public life pagans were not allowed to participate in worship until they had become catechumens.  It did not take long to become a catechumen.  For Augustine the first task of the catechist was to  “present the truth, the belief which makes us Christians, in such a way that the inquirer would want to continue the journey by becoming a catechumen.”[8]  After a short ceremony they became catechumens, able to attend worship, but not yet baptized, a sort of in between Christian.  In one hundred years the initial phase of behavior and belief had been drastically shortened to a presentation of the Christian belief.   Each year the catechumens were Augustine’s primary mission target, as he urged them to stop procrastinating (which many did for years) and present themselves for baptism.  Once they had made that decision, they with their sponsors had an intensive time of preparation in belief and behavior.  Two weeks before the Easter baptism they learnt the creed and one week beforehand the Lord’s Prayer.  Augustine disagreed with many who claimed that it was not realistic to expect the necessary change of behavior before baptism rather than after.

What better time is there to teach him how to live a good Christian life than when he is all anxious and eager to receive the most salutary sacrament [baptism]?”    Further, the church had always required behavioral change to precede baptism.  As in the Apostolic Tradition, people in forbidden professions – “prostitutes, actors, or any disreputable person” – must abandon their job if they were to be admitted.  (Augustine, unlike the Apostolic Tradition, did not proscribe soldiers that kill or governors who wear purple.)[9]

But while Christian behavior was called for, there was little practical help in the task of modifying behavior other than the exorcisms that were part of the preparation for baptism.

Yet once catechumens were baptized members of the church, the issue of behavior still remained.  As thousands came into the life of the church Augustine lamented that in terms of behavior that the ‘church is lame’.  A major change had occurred.

Augustine knew of a few Christians who sought to follow Christ seriously praying for their enemies, distributing their good to the needy.   But to them, behaving in ways that would have seemed normal to Justin or Cyprian, the response of other Christians was the attribution of madness that conventional people make to those who for religious reasons repudiate society’s deepest norms:[10]

This change in the process of making disciples had a massive change on the nature of the church itself.

Augustine was confident in stating: “What the soul is in the body, that the Holy Spirit is in the Body of Christ, the Church” (Sermon 267.4).    One wonders whether he knew a similar text from the second-century Epistle to Diognetus (6.1):  “What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.”   For Augustine, a distinctively living Christian church had disappeared, as had the world.  For him, a pioneer of Christendom, the church and the world were becoming so intermingled that they were indistinguishable.[11]

For Augustine nearly all catechumens were adults.  Within another century great numbers were children.

Augustine initiated a “baptismal revolution” that unleashed pastoral and theological forces that fundamentally altered the primitive Christian pattern.  Henceforth in the West in would become increasingly difficult not to baptize a newborn immediately; parents became fearful of the spiritual risks of deferring baptism until the paschal season.[12]

Now the sponsors spoke for the children who were baptized at times other than Easter.  And for the sponsors and adults the time of preparation for baptism was radically shortened to a week or a few days.  And after that day, the bishop and the leaders found themselves in the role of calling the parents and the catechumens to honor the pact which they had made at their baptism.  Behavior and belief became matters of exhortation.  Belonging was given, but the distinctiveness of the people of God from the surrounding culture was in terms of what they believe and how they acted which was as much controlled by the culture as the gospel.  More and more it was up to the leaders to discipline the converted.  The discipling of people became dependent upon top-down processes

  1. Membership in Caesariust time

The writings of Caesarius (a bishop in Gaul from 502-542) indicate the radical abbreviation of the stages involved in membership.  More and more infant baptism was the normal path toward membership, with baptisms occurring during the year at times other than Easter.   There is less of an emphasis on the need for Christian behavior.   There is not only less required for what is seen to be appropriate behavior, but a greater resistance to it from the church members.  For Caesarius the call to be a peacemaker was a command of our Lord.

“In the Gospel …. our Lord did not gives us a counsel, but a command, to love our enemies… [Those who love only their friends are] like the pagans and the animals” (Sermon 37. 4,7).   To this Caesarius’s hearers objected.  Jesus could love his enemies, but he was God, and they were Gauls![13]

In citing Augustine and Caesarius the focus is on particular places, but these changes are representative of what was happening on a much wider scale.   What is clear is that over two hundred years there was a gradual inculturation of the church into the wider culture of the Empire.  And even from the present, some 1500 hundred years later, these elements are still recognisable.

Caesarius spoke of the need to convert the Christians!   Most of the evangelical campaigns and missions held by the church now are attempts to convert those who sit in the pews.    Now as then, belonging came to be a given, belief reflected much of the wider culture, and behavior was adapted by to the practices of society.  In the long run this led to a radical separation of what was expected in belief and behavior for the lay person and what was required for the clergy.  Even then for Caesarius no one could be ordained without having been converted at least a year and whose life displayed evidence of Christian belief and behavior.

Those serious about faith sought either to be ordained, or to join a religious society when there was a lessening in faithfulness and appropriate behavior expected of members of the Church.   First, some turned to the deserts to live alone a faithful life before God.  By 500 there had been a veritable explosion in the number of monks and then monasteries, especially in Egypt.   In the monasteries the behavior belief and belonging of the pre-Christendom church were given a new expression in a restricted community.   The monks and nuns sought a life apart from the world in the midst of the world.

For the monks and nuns, conversion did not have to do with a change of belief; the religious, as good Catholic Christians, believed the orthodox teaching of the church.    But for the religious the term continued to have strong connotations of change in belonging and behavior.   For them conversion entailed entry into a religious community that replace their families as their primary social unit.    In this they belonged, lived, and died.[14]

This only underlines the importance of belief behavior and belonging in the process of becoming fully Christian.

  1. An Enculturated Church in Transition

This overview shows that as the Church gradually absorbed more of the values of the empire, there was a move towards emphasizing the primacy of belief rather than behavior or belonging.    Augustine’s own raising within the Greek intellectual world of the empire with its Platonic influences led to a stress on the importance of reason and the exploring of individual faith as an experience within the self.   The intensely individual and private experience of the moment when one ‘sees’ in a ‘aha’ moment, the beauty of God, or of Christ, focuses attention away from the world to the inner self as the locus in which God is known.      The resulting understanding of faith and grace as profoundly inward experiences, have had long term consequences for the Church.

The Great Church Councils brought uniformity to the Church, but by their very nature focus on what is truth, rather than the more local issues of behavior and belonging.    The Council of Carthage in 418AD decreed any one a heretic if they questioned the need of the washing of infant baptism to remove original sin and also branded Pelagius (354-420/40) a heretic for his understanding of free will.

These decisions were to bring a revolution in the practice of baptism within a hundred years.

And while there is more than one reason for the rapid development of monasteries was in large part a protest at the loss of the elements of belief behavior and belonging in the local congregation. As the power of the culture impacted on the life of the ordinary churchgoer, and the stress on behavior and belief lessened, both ordination and the monasteries provided a pathway for those who wanted to take following Christ seriously.    They provided a way of withdrawing from the cultural Christianity that was emerging more markedly in Christendom generation by generation.   First as individuals and then as communities the monasteries provided support and refuge for the dedicated.

1.The Mission to Ireland.

This overview of what was happening in the period 250 – 520 provides an important backdrop to look more closely at the accounts of what happened in the very different Celtic world in a similar period.   The categories of belief, behavior and belonging may provide us with insights into the mission of the Celtic Christians as they wrestled with the way to relate to a more rural Druid controlled society and bring the good news of the gospel to it.

For Europe, Ireland was the ‘farthest land’, the land at the edge of the known world.  With the arrival of the Iron Age the empire of the Greeks came, followed by the Romans.    Peoples were displaced from Gaul and England and pushed further West into Ireland.   In the mists of pre-history it seems small groups of Celts moved into Ireland, first in 300BC and then in larger numbers in 100BC.  By 400 AD a series of Celtic kingdoms had emerged, each with a rich culture comprising an upper class of aristocratic warriors and learned people including Druids.  Rome had never conquered Ireland.  The Roman Empire was torn apart by the Germanic tribes in Augustine’s lifetime,  finally ending in 476 AD.  The Roman Catholic Church with its network of leaders, churches and monasteries was left to provide a religious and a political framework that maintained some elements of the previous order in place of the Empire.

The beginnings of the Christian mission to Ireland are veiled in conjecture and traditions recorded many years after the events.

In 431 AD, the year he pronounced Nestorian a Heretic, Pope Celestine 1 sent envoys to England to root out Pelagian influences.  One of these envoys “Palladius was sent to Ireland by the Pope in 431 as “first Bishop to the Irish believing in Christ”, which demonstrates that there were already Christians living in Ireland. Palladius seems to have worked purely as Bishop to Irish Christians in the Leinster and Meath kingdoms, while Patrick — who may have arrived as late as 461 — worked first and foremost as a missionary to the Pagan Irish, converting in the more remote kingdoms located in Ulster and Connacht.”[15] The dates for Patrick are hazy. (Born from 371-387, Died from 461 -493).  Some have him beginning his mission in 432 AD while others put forward other dates up until 461AD.

  1. St Patrick

Hanson[16] notes the four sources for the traditional picture of St Patrick, the most significant of the early missionaries.  First the shadowy background re Palladius, second, a confession and a letter written by Patrick, third the accounts of those who follow after him, and finally the annals available from the monasteries that were founded.    In the last decade a more careful assessment of these sources has tempered much that has been written beforehand.   O’Loughlin in his book Celtic Theology, also focuses on St Patrick’s two documents.[17]   He does not believe that the Synod of Whitby was a clash in mission or of systems of government, but reflected more regional variations within the overall tradition of the church.

A British Christian Roman, the son of a respected clerical family who could write Latin, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders when he was sixteen and spent six years in Ireland as a slave, in one of what seems to have been a number of such slave groups in Ireland.     The suffering led to him crying out to God, as he “changed from being someone ‘ignorant of God’ to someone who prayed incessantly in all weathers and night and day for God’s help.”[18] He interpreted this as God’s punishment for abandoning his commandments and ignoring God’s salvation, but also the means by which he discovered the love and goodness of God.    In his ‘Confessio’, he tells how God led him to escape from captivity at least twice and with many adventures find his way back to his family who insisted he not leave.  There comes the critical night,

there, in a vision of the night, I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as if from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish’, and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’ And I was stung intensely in my heart so that I could read no more, and thus I awoke. Thanks be to God, because after so many ears the Lord bestowed on them according to their cry.[19]

So he went, sent it seems by the British Church and subsequently made a bishop.

I might imitate one of those whom, once, long ago, the Lord already pre-ordained to be heralds of his Gospel to witness to all peoples to the ends of the earth. So are we seeing, and so it is fulfilled; behold, we are witnesses because the Gospel has been preached as far as the places beyond which no man lives.[20]

He had the sense he was ‘at the very ends of the earth’, at the very edge of the known world, beyond the Roman Empire.  He was called by God to preach to the pagan world of Ireland to complete the charge given to the disciples in Acts 1:8.   “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  He had with the Church the urgency of  “the one who is preaching to the very last nation to hear the message.”[21] and with it the awareness that God’s mission was entering its last days.

So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God; the sons of the Irish [Scotti] and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ.[22]

He speaks of many trials and tribulations, as he ministered to the ‘Barbarians’, emphasizing the many prayers and miracles that kept him alive.    His was not an introspective thinking faith, but an active preaching to friend and foe in the strong name of the Trinity.  That it continued to be dangerous is shown by  comments in his later years, “for daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises.”[23]

By the time of St Patrick’s death the first monasteries had been formed in Ireland. These were associated with Saint Brigid (475-525) whose father may well have been converted by St Patrick.  They were the first monasteries formed beyond the Roman World that in the next centuries were as a movement to have a huge influence on Europe.  What is important to note is that they were formed in a very different setting.

In the Roman world the monasteries were formed for those who wanted to take the Christian faith seriously. The dramatic increase in the number of monasteries in Patrick’s later years had become an explosion by the time of Columba

St Columba

The life of St Columba (531-597) is better documented than that of Brigid or Patrick.   His life is actively involved with the monasteries of the Celtic world.   He enables the contrast to be drawn more sharply between monasteries in the Roman World and monasteries in the Celtic World.  In Ireland the monasteries were formed in the first and second generation of the mission to a series of Irish kingdoms.

Columba was born of royal blood in the Ulster region in Northern Ireland, baptized and was a pupil at the monastic school of Clonard Abbey which was a major school with more than a thousand scholars.   Columba was one of the ‘Twelve Apostles of Ireland” who studied under St Finian, the founder of the monastery.  He became a monk, then a priest and it is said that he founded a number of monasteries.   When he was about 40 a quarrel with Saint Finian over the ownership of a psalter led to a battle in which people were killed.   In a Synod called to investigate the dispute, Columba offered to work as a missionary in Scotland rather than be ex-communicated.

There, when granted land on Iona, he set up a monastery as the centre of an evangelizing mission to the Picts and to the Irish Gaels who had migrated North for a century or so before his arrival.  He was known as a holy man, a diplomat, a miracle worker, a writer of hymns and a transcriber of books.   This warrior saint is credited as one of those who brought a revitalization of Celtic monasticism that impacted powerfully on the revival of Christianity in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.  He died at the monastery on Iona in 597

  1. The Monastery in Ireland

The Celtic leaders discovered the importance of the monastery as an effective way of spreading the Christian story in a pagan setting.  Their approach led to the collapse of the power of the traditional religious authority of the Druids.

Patrick’s method of carrying the new faith to the Gaelic Celts was to meet them on the familiar ground of their own culture, the sacred groves, wells, and mounds, and make those places centers of worship for the new faith.    He used the same rural holy places designated by the Druids to establish his Christian churches and holy places.

It was a rural, dispersed population with up to a hundred small tribal kingdoms (some more powerful than the others), but each with many ringforts as the larger centres of community.    It was the preaching that led to the conversion of local tribal authorities and more regional dynastic leaders.    Within fifty years grants of land were being given for the establishment of abbeys .    The abbeys then became centers of learning as well as churches, teaching the essentials of reading and writing Greek and Latin, laying the foundation of Irish scholasticism that would make the Church in Ireland a repository of learning during the Dark Ages that were to come.   It meant that the monasteries were deeply connected with the local culture through tribal and royal authorities.  St Finian started Clonard Abbey in central Ireland in 520.  Within twenty years it was a major centre for learning teaching three thousand students a year.

In Ireland, monasteries were used as a way of spreading the gospel.   What the might of the Roman Empire was not able to do, namely conquer the Picts and Celts, the likes of St Patrick, St Brigid, and St Columba were able to accomplish in the name of the gospel.

  1. The Monastery as a Means of Mission

The monastery was not a way of withdrawing from a sinful world as in the Roman world, but a way of providing a disciplined, learned community base in the heart of pagan life.    Patrick faced the Druids head on, on their own turf. In a society with family dynasties and a limited aristocracy, it only took a few very significant recruits to the Christian gospel to have a large impact on the culture. As well, Patrick and others travelled widely in the rural areas and visited the ring forts, seeking those who were willing to follow Christ  (This mission strategy was also used widely in England from 500AD on as an effective way of bringing the gospel to the peoples.)  The life of these monasteries provided a powerful way of entrenching new behaviors and beliefs in the wider population.

Built at the sacred sites, the declaration of belief was important as is evident from St Patrick’s writing.   But so is the demonstration of Christian behavior. His expectations as to behavior are made plain in his letter to Coroticus, a Christian slave trader.   He holds to the ‘whole law’ of the New Testament in his condemnation of Coroticus’s killing and enslaving of new Christians to sell to the Picts.

It would be tedious … to gather from the whole Law testimonies against such greed. Avarice is a deadly sin. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’ s goods.” “Thou shalt not kill.” A murderer cannot be with Christ. “Whosoever hates his brother is accounted a murderer.” Or, “he that loves not his brother abides in death. How much more guilty is he that has stained his hands with blood of the sons of God whom He has of late purchased in the utmost part of the earth through the call of our littleness!”[24]

This is a traditional view of Christian behavior that needs to be continued to be taught and inculcated.    The development of monastery chools provided a way for a rising generation in the early 500’s to know and live the Christian faith.

The monastery was ‘a light upon the hill’, a demonstration of what was involved in being a Christian in terms of belief, behavior and community. Confident in the power of the gospel, the monastery offered a culture of hospitality to the stranger in addition to learning and trustworthy action.   It planted in the midst of the traditional Druidic Irish society an alternative vision of how to live.   The monastery provided a rich world of belief, behavior and belonging for the church and the society in which it had been placed.

And as well, the respect for learning provided an avenue for the Irish student to learn from and be part of the wider Roman World. It was a bridge between the local and Irish at the end of the world to the centre of the world in Europe and Rome.

The monastery at its best in the Celtic world was, in mission language, a team of disciples who lived as part of an alien society but in a disciplined, open, loving and hospitable way.    This is a rugged creatively confrontational yet hospitable form of witness to the tribes of Ireland in the name of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

  1. The Experience of God

Patrick, in his Confessio, is clear that his life depends upon the powerful presence of God.

To Patrick the presence of God was immediate and ubiquitous , not as a theological postulate but in the sense that God is constantly affecting his will in this or that situation.   At every point in his life Patrick sees the will of God becoming manifest to him: God is not just another actor in the human drama of suffering, joy, damnation and salvation, but the supreme actor whose power is unlimited, and constantly active.[25]

Patrick and Columba witness to a strong traditional view of a Trinitarian God who through judgement and grace brings people to know the wonder of God’s presence.   God is the God of winds and waves as well as the God at work in friend and enemy.

O’Loughlin has difficulties with those who are attracted to what he calls “the closeness of God”.    He states,

Many today find the ‘closeness of God to the Celtic saints’ or their sense of the ‘presence of God around them’ as attractive, as it seems such a contrast to the modern experience of the ‘absence of  God’.    But we should remember that their sense of God was very often that of a mighty power hovering over every situation.   The closeness is the overpowering closeness of the stern, all seeing master.   Prayer that begins ‘All powerful, everlasting God’ were said with awe and trembling, for his manifestations expressing his justice were at times all too close.[26]

There is a critical issue here in the way O’Loughlin reads the Confessio.    He cautions that while Patrick’s experience of God is close it is ‘the overpowering closeness of the stern, all seeing master.’   His concern is the way this ‘closeness of God’ is experienced by Patrick.     In doing so he brings a twentyfirst century point of view that inadvertently makes Patrick’s experience the reference point.

It is true that in the Confessio as a slave St Patrick’s first discoveries of God are of the powerful judging God who exiles those who do not believe in Him.   But listen;

And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance.  And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity.   For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.[27]

For St Patrick God has become the reference point and not himself.   The Twenty first century perspective of the subjective self as the centre is alien to his perspective.   It is not a question as to whether God is close or absent, it is the recognition that God is God that is all important.   What is plain from the Confessio is that St Patrick’s life is placed within the perspective of the God who has called him.  He sees himself in relation to the biblical world-view.    He sees ‘signs and wonders’; he is given prophetic awareness of what is to come as an essential part of his power; he is part, even if he is only an imitator, of the apostolic commission to go to the uttermost parts of the earth.

So that whatever befalls me, be it good or bad, I should accept it equally, and give thanks always to God who revealed to me that I might trust him, implicitly and forever, and who will encourage me so that, ignorant, and in the last days, I may dare to undertake so devout and so wonderful a work; so that I might imitate one of those whom, once, long ago, the Lord already pre-ordained to be heralds of his Gospel to witness to all peoples to the ends of the earth.  So are we seeing, and so it is fulfilled; behold we are witnesses because the Gospel has been preached as far as the places beyond which no man lives.[28]

He describes his life in terms of God’s scriptural mission.   His life is lived in God’s presence whatever happens.   So God is the reference point and with God is the creation, the mission to the unbelievers in Ireland, the baptism of thousands and the building of the Church.   He does not so much as seek to socially construct his world as people instinctively do today, but receives his whole world from God and his own place within it.    And it is because he lives before the Redeeming Creator God, that the distinctive witness to the very physicality of creation, as well as the reality of the social setting, are all involved in the experience of God.


  1. The Physicality of Faith

In a time when the church has realized that faith has been limited to the personal and societal but not the environment, the runes and poetry ascribed to the Irish Saints witness a very different faith that is set within the creation.

It is quite remarkable to read carefully the rune attributed to St Patrick.     This is traditional Trinitarian theology with emphases that are quite strange to the modern Protestant ear.

St Patrick in his Breast Plate prayer prays,

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through a belief in the Threeness,

Through confession of the Oneness

Of the Creator of creation.

I arise today

Through the strength of Christ’s birth and His baptism,

Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,

Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,

Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today

Through the strength of the love of cherubim,

In obedience of angels,

In service of archangels,

In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In the prayers of patriarchs,

In preachings of the apostles,

In faiths of confessors,

In innocence of virgins,

In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven;

Light of the sun,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of the wind,

Depth of the sea,

Stability of the earth,

Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
From snares of the devil,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who desires me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and evil,

Against every cruel merciless power that opposes my body and soul,

Against incantations of false prophets,

Against black laws of pagandom,

Against false laws of heretics,

Against craft of idolatry,

Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,

Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ shield me today

Against poison, against burning,

Against drowning, against wounding,

So that reward may come to me in abundance.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through a belief in the Threeness,

Through a confession of the Oneness

Of the Creator of creation.[29]

The sheer physicality of this vision is breathtaking to the present age for which so much of church is about values and motivation and prayer, anchored subjectively ‘within’ the person, ‘within’ the soul.   In this prayer, the prayer is not the reference point.  The prayer is addressed to the God who is near, the God who is with him, in the place where he is, seeking protection from the dangerous situations that he faces, close to him, ever closer.   The person praying is not only deeply aware of the creation and all that is in it, but that this all is ‘in God’ , the Triune God in whose presence he lives.  The God of the scriptures and the faith of the Church is the ultimate and practical environment for life.

This different way of seeing the world, with God near at hand, was a vital element in the Celtic theology taught in these monasteries on the edge of the known world.   This is a world in which God is encountered in the midst of life, a celebration of the sheer presence of the world lived in God.  It raises the question for the present day reader.   Must this be dismissed as a pre-scientific naivity no longer available to us because of a scientific view of the world?  Or is it that our perception is so dominated by the subjective ‘I’ that we are blind to other possibilities inherent in the gospel vision?  When the ego is the centre of our culture and our perception what is it that we cannot see?

Certainly St Patrick’s experience of God holds together Christian behavior, belief and belonging in a remarkable way.   While not the same, it is similar to that of the church before Christendom.

Two Bishops and Saints with a Different Mission in a Similar Age

Augustine, living perhaps fifty years or more before Patrick, was the brilliant intellectual trying to find the truth for the Church while the destruction of the Roman Empire was underway.   He attempted to bring reasoned clarity to the mission of the Church riven by divisive movements and attacked by those who blamed the Church for the Empire’s demise.   The insights of experience and doctrine were carefully presented in a way that were pervasive to the Church of his time and provided a basis for uniformity of belief throughout the Christian world.   His presentation of conversion, description of original sin and predestination profoundly influenced the Western Church in his own lifetime and even more so in succeeding centuries.   The Monasteries which were formed at this time soon become centres of theological thought and subtlety, as places where the faithful withdrew from the world, and withstood the threats from without.    It was the time Councils of the Church were defining central  doctrines of the Church.

St Patrick had no known formal education, wrote Latin poorly, and did not appreciate theological subtleties.  “His command of Latin was too weak for him to write rhetorically  ….  He has no acquaintance with any book, so far as we can ascertain, except the Latin (pre- Vulgate) Bible.  But that book he knows very well and uses constantly, even when biblical quotations are not called for.”[30]  Yet it cannot be doubted that he has “firmly grasped the very marrow of Christianity.”[31]   He held to the Triune God, and the faith and convictions of the Church.    Faithful to his call, he baptized thousands upon thousands that led to the conversion of the Irish and the Scottish within a few generations.  The mission to the Celts that he led developed (within a generation) monasteries that were planted in the midst of the life of the Pagan Irish.   They fulfilled the gospel description, “You are the light of the world.   A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matthew 5:14).    While involved directly with the indigenous culture they were clear that in terms of belief, behavior and belonging they provided an alternative view to the Irish kingdoms in which they were located.


What was happening at the Synod of Whitby?  The mission of the Celtic monasteries was moving relentlessly East from its origins in the farthest West beyond the bounds of the former Roman Empire.    Yet the issues at Whitby, led slowly from 750 AD on to later Councils of the Church ruling that the Benedictine Monastery was the obligatory form of the monastery in Europe.   To the Roman Church, the Celtic Monasteries were seen to be less human, less learned, reflecting a different theology and a different attitude toward their culture.

Yet St Patrick and those that followed him had carried through “a civilizing mission to the Irish,”[32] convinced converts had been rescued from worshiping “idols and filthy things.”[33]  It is this willingness to be in the midst of Irish life, demonstrating fully the Christian life that the Celtic Monastery makes evident.    With both St Patrick and St Columba there is a particular awareness of the God who is immediately present, fulfilling the great story that the Bible unfolds, that is so distinctive.   Still the decisions made at Whitby contained and circumscribed this missionary explosion from beyond the edge of the Empire.

A key issue underlying all the reasons for the decisions at Whitby could well be the particular experience of God that was at the heart of the mission to the Celts.   Certainly after Whitby the medieval church took a different direction, focusing on reason, doctrine and the Christian life within, rather than the vital experience of the Redeeming Creator God that St Patrick gave the Celtic Church.   Augustine’s intellectual view of the Christian faith won out over the more direct experience of God for the Celts.   Belief triumphed over behavior, and belonging was always in danger of being reduced to attending worship in Christendom, rather than the call to a fuller participation in the mission of the Church in society.

This study of the wider context of belief, behavior and belonging in the mission of the Church strongly suggests that something precious was lost when the Celtic monasteries were circumscribed first at the Synod of Whitby and later at subsequent Synods.    Decisions which emphasized uniformity and control in the Church were in the end deemed to be more important than the vitality of the experience of God which made the mission to the Celts so effective.


The author of this paper, “Mission to the Celts” (a chapter of the book Celtic Christianity and Modern Church, edited and compiled by Sang Taek Lee) gives permission for Rev Ted Curnow to place this on his website.

Curtesy and appreciation expressed here to Rev Professor Dean Drayton, School of Theology, Charles Sturt University, PaCT Research Scholar.  January, 2012.

[1] Hunter III, George G. The Celtic Way of Evangelism. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2000. p. 40.

[2] Deanesly, Margaret. A history of the medieval church, 590-1500. Routledged, London. 1969. p. 40.

[3] Hunter III, George G. p.66.

[4] Kreider, Alan, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom. Trinity Press, Pennsylvania. 1999.

[5] Kreider. p. 24.

[6] Kreider. p. 24.

[7] Kreider, p 10.

[8] Kreider, p. 57.

[9] Kreider, p. 61.

[10] Krieder, p. 64.

[11] Kreider, p. 65.

[12] Kreider,, p. 75.

[13] Kreider, p. 78.

[14] Kreider, p. 82.

[15] Wikipedia:  History of Early Ireland (400-800)

[16] editor Mackey, James P. An Introduction to Celtic Christianity. T&T Edinburgh, 1989. First Article,  Hanson. R.P.C. “The Mission of Saint Patrick”. Pps 22-24.  This article provides a good overview of the sources and an excellent assessment of what can be deduced from St Patricks’ two letters

[17] O’Loughlin, Thomas, Celtic Theology: humanity, world , and God in early Irish writings.  Continuum, New York. 2000. p, 26.

[18] O’Loughlin, Thomas, p. 31.

[19] St Patrick, Confessio, Section No. 23

[20] St Patrick, Confessio, Section No. 34.

[21] O’Loughlin, Thomas, p. 39.

[22] St Patrick, Confessio, Section No 41.

[23] St Patrick, Confessio, Section No. 55.

[24] St Patrick, Letter to Coroticus, section 9.

[25] O’Loughlin, Thomas, p. 33.

[26] O’Loughlin, Thomas. p. 34.

[27] St Patrick, Confessio, sections 2 & 3.

[28] St Patrick, Confessio, section 34.


[30] Hanson R.P.C. “The Mission of St Patrick”. p. 40.

[31] Hanson R.P.C. “The Mission of St Patrick”. p. 40.

[32] Hanson R.P.C.  “The Mission of St Patrick”. p. 37.

[33] Hanson, p. 37.


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