Perhaps no other group of people in history have been responsible for such major contributions to the Christian story while receiving so little credit as the medieval Celtic Christians. Many Christians are somewhat wary of anything that ties spirituality to Celtic influence because of its modern secularization. This is a grave mistake.
The most renowned book of Celtic spirituality is the Book of Kells, a Latin translation of the four Gospels along with unique commentary, filigreed calligraphy, and kaleidoscopic illustrations. (You can find more about the Book of Kells, including a picture, at the bottom of this post.)
Historically, the authorship of the Book of Kells has been attributed to St. Columba (AD 521-597). Whether or not he actually wrote the book, his influence on its compilation is clear. Aside from St. Patrick himself, Columba is likely the most influential Celtic Christian to have ever lived. His two greatest accomplishments would have to be his role in the Book of Kells and the unique brand of monastery and church he helped to establish – especially the Abbey at Iona, a small, yet highly influential Island off the west coast of Scotland, near the larger island of Mull.
He evangelized both Celts and Picts, whose bent towards triunity and finding the spiritual in the natural made them quite amenable to Christianity. The Celts and Picts were enamored with the God they encountered in nature. Columba taught the Celts and the Picts about the Triune God of the Bible who was the Lord of the land, sky, and sea. God was in the forest, aboard the ship, surrounding the sunset, and inside the cave.
The blessing below, which is attributed to Columba, is a beautiful demonstration of the Celtic practice of “the love of creation . . . that naturally spilled over into their Christian worship” (Calvin Miller, The Path of Celtic Prayer).
May God be a bright flame before you,
be a guiding star above you,
be a smooth path below you,
be a kindly shepherd behind you,
today, tomorrow and for ever.
The most detailed biography of Columba was written by Adamnán, who lived a century later than Columba. Adamnán’s stories of Columba are both helpful and confusing at the same time. The accounts of Columba’s personal, spiritual, and professional life are mixed with what seem to be myths, tall-tales, or at least exaggerations. But are they?
Throughout Adamnán’s account, Columba is seen healing the sick, calming the seas, casting out demons, and raising the dead. One of my favorite stories involves a demon in the bottom of a milk pail. The young man who drew the milk did not take care to bless the milk and cast out the demon at the time it was drawn, thus requiring Columba to cast out the demon and spill the milk in the process. Fortunately for the young man, Columba invoked the power of God to miraculously refill the milk pail.
The most enjoyable story for me, however, is Columba facing down the Loch Ness Monster. The first legends regarding Nessie began right here, in Adamnán’s story about Columba.
This story has become legendary when recounting the tales of Columba. Many people have heard about it, but few have read the account. Here is the story from Adamnán’s biography, which can be accessed in full by clicking HERE:
CHAPTER XXVIII. How an Aquatic Monster was driven off by virtue of the blessed man’s prayer.
On another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat.
The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank. And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream.
Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.
Did this really happen? Well, I suppose the answer to such a question begins with whether or not one believes in the Loch Ness monster. Either way, the story can teach us a profound message about the Celtic belief in the power of God’s Spirit working through His called people.
As our friend Calvin Miller says, in his book The Path of Celtic Prayer: “What is being celebrated here is the power of the cross over the demonic dragons in all of life. We shouldn’t let Nessie’s reality, or nonreality, distract us from the real message of the peregrini [Irish wandering monks and preachers like Columba]. They were on a journey of prayer through strange seas and lands. They were praying pilgrims, journeying through trust to serve the living God.”
MORE ABOUT ST. COLUMBA
Columba, who was so-called because the name means “dove,” was actually born under the name Crimthann. Though he was born in Gartan (Donegal), Ireland, Columba is best known to Christians for his missionary activity in Scotland. He founded churches and monasteries in Ireland and Scotland, with the most famous being the Abbey at Iona. Columba ended up in Scotland after a battle with members of his family that resulted in his temporary excommunication from the Irish church. His more favorable biographers like Adamnán, however, argue that he “chose to God on a pilgrimage for Christ.”
It is hard to discern between truth and legend in the stories of Columba. As Philip Schaff’s history of the church says, most of these stories are “panegyric,” or a eulogy that is intended only to show the person in a very favorable light. His influence on the monasticism of his day and beyond is unmistakeable; as are his contributions to Christian literature that might have been lost to Europe during the near millennium of the Middle Ages if not for the Celts.
When he died on June 9, 597, he was said to be beside the altar in the church and engaged in his midnight devotions.
For more info, see: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1998/issue60/60h027.html
EXAMPLE FROM THE BOOK OF KELLS
The picture to the right is a plate from the Book of Kells which depicts its illustrations for the four gospel writers. According to Ben Mackwork-Praed’s 2008 version of the book (Ebury), “The man (top left) is for St. Matthew, in recognition of his emphasis on the human side of the Saviour. The Lion (top right) represents St. Mark, who stressed Christ’s power and royalty. The ox or calf (bottom left) stands for St. Luke, a sacrificial victim in token of his emphasis on Christ’s priesthood. The Eagle is for St. John, the Evangelist who soars to heaven, as St. Augustine puts it, and gazes on the light of immutable truth with keen and undazzled eyes.
MORE ABOUT THE IONA ABBEY TODAY
The Iona Community is a modern-day, ecumenical, and highly secularized community on the Scottish island of Iona. They list their purposes as work and worship, prayer and politics, sacred and secular. The community was founded in 1938 by George F. MacLeod (MacLeod of Fuinary). The community meets in a refurbished Benedictine monastery that has its roots in 6th century Celtic Christianity. Iona has very few permanent residents but remains an oft-visited destination for tourists and pilgrims. As a result, the Iona Community has developed a wide base throughout Scotland and Europe.
The Iona Community is mission-oriented, especially throughout increasingly urbanized parts of Scottish lands and among the poor. Iona’s worship format and community output is highly liturgical. They are also involved in mission and student movements in Glasgow and other places on mainland Scotland. From a theological standpoint, the community reflects a blend of both Roman Catholic and Protestant teachings. They focus on “themes” for two-year periods which may include things like peace, justice, or creation-care. They are heavily involved in social and political issues and their website includes a statement on sexuality which mentions “About 10% of our membership and staff are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. They are fully and openly part of our common life, part of our body.”
As of 2010, the Iona Community reported 281 Full members, 1566 Associate members, and 1395 Friends worldwide (Coracle).
For more information, visit www.iona.org.uk.
See also Neil Paynter, This is the Day: Readings and Meditations from the Iona Community (2007).
UPDATE ON THE LOCH NESS MONSTER
Enjoy this record of the latest Loch Ness Monster siting from June 2011, found at http://www.nessie.co.uk/
Wednesday 15th June 2011
Foyers shop and cafe owner Jan Hargreaves and her husband Simon believe they caught a glimpse of “Nessie”. It was while taking a break on the store’s front decking, looking out to the loch, when Mrs Hargreaves and kitchen worker Graham Baine spotted an unusual figure cutting a strange shape on the loch. “We were standing looking out and saw something that looked bizarre,” said Mrs Hargreaves. “I said to my husband to come and have a look. “We stand here all the time and look out and see boats and kayaks but it didn’t look like anything we have seen here before.” Despite the unidentified creature being quite a distance from their vantage point, Mrs Hargreaves said it had a long neck which was too long to be that of a seal and it was black in appearance. “It went under the water and disappeared for probably 30 to 40 seconds and then came back up again,” said Mrs Hargreaves. “It was around for a good four to five minutes. It was just so strange.” Keen to stress she is not seeking publicity, Mrs Hargreaves does firmly believe what she saw was the Loch Ness Monster. “It was so exciting,” she said.
Nessie hunter Steve Feltham said he heard about the possible sighting when he popped into the store and believes because it was from residents rather than tourists, it is more credible. “I’m excited by the fact it was locals who had seen it,” said Mr Feltham. “It’s quite a distance from the shop to the water and they watch everything that goes on there.” What particularly excited Mr Feltham was that it was from the exact same vantage point where Tim Dinsdale shot the best footage of the legendary creature back in 1960. “I’ll put the sighting with the other sightings,” said Mr Feltham. “I will also continue to carry out surface observations.” The sighting was recorded between 2.30pm and 3pm.