Some Irish saints

Happy St Patrick’s Day! I commemorated the feast of the Apostle to Ireland with a post about the man himself a while back. Another year, I posted about his missionary predecessor, Palladius. This year, I’d like to commemorate St Patrick by mentioning some of those people who are his spiritual descendants, men and women who trod the ancient path of Jesus as a result of the conversion of Ireland.

St Brigid seems to be the only one here who didn’t leave Ireland …

St Columba (521-597) — One of the important missionaries to Scotland, St Columba operated in the north of that country. He founded the monastery of Iona as a monastic mission centre for Britain. I’ve posted about him here and here. I also posted about the Life of St Columba by Adomnan and about St Columba’s poetry.

St Aidan  of Lindisfarne (d. 651) — An important missionary to England, St Aidan was a monk from Iona and was instrumental in the conversion of Northumbria. I’ve posted about him here.

St Brigid of Kildare (c. 451 – c. 523) — St Brigid has occasionally been accused of not existing; recent scholarship says she did. She was an abbess and foundress of abbeys in Ireland. She also wrote some grand poetry.

St Brendan the Navigator (c. 484 – c. 577) — One tradition that arose in early mediaeval Irish Christianity was wandering as a spiritual exercise — similar to pilgrimage, but not with Jerusalem or any such place as a destination. St Brendan decided to sail West, and he met various wonders along the way, including sea monsters and an icy gateway to Hell. You can read the medieval account of his voyage here. He also founded abbeys and suchlike in Ireland.

St Columbanus (540-615) — St Columbanus was a monastic missionary to the Continent where his mission was more about founding monasteries and bringing renewal to the church than converting the heathen. He founded some very important monasteries in Italy and Gaul, and his Rule was used throughout the seventh century and into the eighth. I have discovered his SermonsLetters, and Rule online as well as his very interesting Boat Song. He was an important part of the Insular contact with the Continent, coming from Ireland and founding monasteries at Luxueil and Bobbio, both of which were important in the Merovingian and Carolingian age. You can read a seventh-century account of his life online as well, written by Jonas, who became a monk at Bobbio three years after Columbanus’ death.

John Scotus Eriugena (815-877) — Eriugena was a notable theologian and philosopher in the ninth century who helped establish the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the western tradition. Some have found commonalities between him and Maximus the Confessor, others between him and Buddhist texts. Eriugena is not a canonised saint. You can read about him at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

So, since you probably can’t get out to the pub tonight, stay in with a Guinness or a whiskey, and read about an Irish saint or two!

Celtic Spirituality — Ad fontes! (leis na foinsí?)

Celtic Cross on Iona, img from Trip Advisor

I don’t know Irish, so that Irish in parentheses in the title is possibly wrong. Anyway, this blog is many things, as you know. One of those things is not only to be a source of meditations upon the Great Tradition of Christianity — ancient, mediaeval, modern — but also to draw you to the sources — texts, art, practices — of the Great Tradition. To that end, I put together some bibliographies a while ago (basic, not-so-basic, on the Trinity, the Church Fathers online as well as ‘where to begin‘); there’s a chance I should tweak these, but every time I try, I don’t know what to add/remove!

To these bibliographies I have now added ‘Sources for “Celtic” Christianity.’ I think there is much wisdom amongst Christianity as it was practised in the British Isles from the Late Roman period to the Early Middle Ages (and beyond, frankly — two words: St Anselm). A lot of other people have, over the years, found something fresh and new in these Insular expressions of the Christian faith, such as we find in poems like this one attributed to St Brigid of Kildare (451-525):

I would like to have the men of Heaven
in my own house;
with vats of good cheer
laid out for them.

I would like to have the three Marys,
their fame is so great.
I would like people
from every corner of Heaven.

I would like them to be cheerful
in their drinking.
I would like to have Jesus, too,
here amongst them.

I would like a great lake of beer
for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family
drinking it through all eternity. (Source: Celtic Literature Collective)

Irish, Scottish, and Anglo-Saxon saints live in a world that, to modern(ist/ised) eyes seems liminal in many ways. They wrestle with demons. They encounter Christ and the saints in dreams. They feel a oneness in God’s good creation. They make friends with birds. These men and women from the edge of the mediaeval world draw us in.

Much ink has been spilled over the centuries praising the early saints of Ireland and Scotland, and in the past several decades there has arisen a movement of ‘Celtic’ spirituality amongst Protestant Christians that has both ‘liberal’ and ‘evangelical’/’charismatic’ strands. Some of the material from this Celtic spiritual movement is fairly accurate in its portrayal of Insular Christianity. Other material is not — although some of that other material may still be helpful to modern readers!

Thinking about ‘Celtic’ — Insular — Christianity, I wish to strip away much of this modern romanticism. Yes, there is much good amongst these particular Christians. If they can enliven your spiritual life, set you on fire for Christ, and draw you nearer to him — good! But they are not perfect, and Christianity on the Continent was not hopelessly lost and warped, either. In order, therefore, to clarify the water, we need to come to grips with the actual writings and sources and art and liturgy of these communities.

What were the actual spiritual practices of Christians in Ireland and the British Isles?

What was their relationship with the Continent?

What were their theological teachings?

The best place to start is the writings themselves. So I put together a bibliography of primary sources. I’ve not read them all, but hopefully they will be helpful. If there are texts within my temporal bounds (up to 793) that I should include, let me know!