What the Ancient Celtic Christians Teach Us About Christian Living

A friend of mine recommended a book by George Hunter called The Celtic Way of Evangelism. This not only went over the ministry of St. Patrick centuries ago, but also in their work and success in reaching varying cultures for the gospel. Below is an excerpt of ten lessons we could learn even now.

  1. Celtic Christian leaders would counsel today’s church leaders to relinquish the full responsibility for making Christians into better Christians. Church leaders cannot do it for people—through preaching harder, scheduling more prayer meetings and retreats, or making all other attempts to do it for people through more and better programming. As we have already learned in the field of adult education, delegate to the people the responsibility for their own development. There are limits to what any leaders or programs can achieve in the learning and lives of passive attendees; there are no known limits to what people can become through their own disciplines and (even more important) through nurturing one another’s development.
  2. They would counsel us to relinquish the illusion that Gutenberg’s printing press produced a panacea. From the first printing of Bibles, in the 1450s, Protestant leaders seem to have assumed that if every church member had his or her own copy of the canon we would produce a biblically literate, rooted, informed church. It has never happened in more than five centuries. There is no reason to be confident that it will happen tomorrow—no matter how many translations and paraphrases are published, marketed, and promoted. Celtic Christian leaders would remind us that, before Gutenberg, Christians memorized much of the Bible. In the monastic communities, they came to know all 150 psalms, and much of the rest of the Bible, more or less by heart. The Scripture that is in us informs much more of our ongoing internal conversation than Scripture that we merely read.
  3. They would counsel us to relinquish the illusion that a brief daily devotional each morning, in which (say) people read a snippet of Scripture, a brief reflection, and a short prayer—all on one page of The Upper Room devotional guide—will shape great souls. The people of Alcoholics Anonymous have learned to begin and end each day in devotional focus. The ancient Celtic practice scheduled three times per day, as modeled in Ray Simpson’s A Holy Island Prayer Book: Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer and in the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer.
  4. Not even three scheduled times for prayer each day make for powerful Christian spirituality. The most important practice, as the Celts recalled Paul’s words, is to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). That is, you pray into each of the day’s situations, events, responsibilities, and tasks, and you include the Holy Spirit in your ongoing internal conversation.
  5. Feel free, often, to pray with your eyes wide open. Often, you have to keep your eyes open when you pray while driving, speaking, attending a meeting, or conversing with someone. But praying with one’s eyes open is not a regretful necessity or a second-class approach. Closed is not necessarily better than open. The Celtic Christian saints often prayed with their eyes open, using something in the creation around them to fix on as a sign of God’s presence.
  6. Harness your imagination in your life of devotion to God. The saints imagined the Lord before them, behind them, above them, within them, or meeting them through a creature of the forest or a person in need. Imagination focuses and catalyzes prayer. (See Esther de Waal’s The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination.)
  7. They would recommend that every Christian have an anam cara—that is, a “soul friend.” One’s soul friend, as I understand it, is not a superior or even one’s spiritual director, but a peer with whom one can be open and vulnerable. (John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom takes the place of the single source that we never had before!)
  8. Meet weekly or biweekly in a small group in which you are in ministry with one another, rejoicing and weeping with one another, pulling for one another, interceding for one another, holding one another accountable, bringing out the best in one another, identifying one another’s gifts of the Spirit, and in which you learn to engage in ministry and to converse about the faith.
  9. In your spiritual life, do not engage in endless ongoing self-assessment and spiritual navel-gazing. Canon Bryan Green, a great Anglican evangelist in the Celtic tradition, once said that too many Christians remind him of the fellow who planted a small bush in a pot and watered it every day—and pulled it out of the soil every day to see if the roots were growing! (Of course, they were not.) The purpose of the spiritual life, after all, is not to reinforce the pride, self-preoccupation, and narcissism that are our original sin, but to become open enough to the Spirit to be pulled out of that selfcenteredness; to be reconciled to God, others, and creation; and to have the marvelous freedom of largely forgetting oneself for stretches of time—before regrouping in scheduled times of discipline.
  10. The main purpose in the life of Christian devotion is not so much to get blessed, get our needs met, become happier, or accomplish any of the other early goals that people usually have in mind when they begin praying. The main purpose is to become like Christ. As C. S. Lewis reminded us, the Holy Spirit wants to make us “little Christs.” Thomas á Kempis was right; it is about “the imitation of Christ.” In life’s ultimate paradox, as we become more like Christ—living by the will of God, reflecting the love of God—we become more like the people we were born to be and have really always wanted to be.
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