In the month of August, I’m writing a few posts on Ireland. Tonight, I’d like to talk about the spiritual legacy of Ireland, the Celtic Christians, and how I deeply resonate with this certain strain of Christianity.
Be Thou My Vision
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
Words: Dallan Forgail (8th Century)
We used to sing this hymn many mornings before school started for the day. My mom liked it because it was “an Irish hymn.” Indeed, the origins of the lyrics are from an ancient Irish hymn in Gaelic. It was always one of my favorite hymns. The melody is both mystical and beautiful, the lyrics resolute and meaningful. This song is still sung in churches across the world today, telling of its impact over centuries.
This hymn is a fitting example of Celtic Christianity–a type of Christianity that spanned centuries and influenced Christianity in deep and profound ways. It started with St. Patrick in the 5th century (A.D.), who at 16 was captured by Irish pirates and brought to the Isle against his will. Having escaped, he returned, feeling called to share Christ with the Celts that dwelt in Ireland.
Ireland embraced Christianity. They became known for their monasticism, scholarship, and artistry. In the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries (A.D.), Ireland was known as “The Isle of Saints and Scholars” by the rest of Europe. During the Dark Ages, Irish monks traveled to other parts of Europe and helped keep alive the dying culture of the West. They were hugely influential in keeping the flame of art, learning, and service alive in a time of upheaval and uncertainty.
(In fact, it has been argued that the Irish saved Western civilization. I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t know). :)
The Irish monks traveled in small boats over the ocean, they reached out into a great wide world, and they explored God. They had deep imaginations and a thirst for adventure. Some have even said that Irish monks made it to America — long before Christopher Columbus. We don’t know for certain, but we do know they ventured out where few would go on their quest to find God and unknown lands.
God was a mystery worth exploring. He was a mystery worth following. A mystery worth devoting their whole lives to.
Even now, visiting Ireland, you can sense there’s something deeply spiritual about the land.
There’s just something about Ireland.
From the moment you see the misty clouds moving across the craggy mountains, to the moment when a beam of sunlight hits the emerald green of a field, you can sense there’s a magical, spiritual quality to Ireland that is hard to find other places.
No wonder the ancient Celts embraced Christianity so readily. It was meant to be. It’s a thin place where God met a country and used it to influence and shape the rest of the world in profound ways.
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
-excerpt from “St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer”
Ireland speaks of God. Old Celtic crosses made of stone rise up out of the land almost as much as the ruins of castles. It’s a soulful country, as I wrote before. Amidst so much beauty, how can one not believe in something deep, something supernatural, something beyond?
As the hand is made for holding and the eye for seeing,
You have fashioned me for joy.
Share with me the vision that finds that joy everywhere.
In the wild violet’s beauty;
In the lark’s melody;
In the face of a steadfast man;
In a child’s smile;
In a mother’s love;
In the purity of Jesus.
This was a healing aspect for me, when I went to Ireland.
You see, I’ve never really felt like I fit in with most of the Evangelical American Christians I’ve grown up around.
The Celtic Christians truly valued scholarship, beauty, art, and mysticism. They truly embraced the mysteries and beauty of God. You can tell when you see the old books they made–like the famous Book of Kells. They believed that beauty was important, that artistry and knowledge both intertwined to bring God glory. They believed God was the Creator of all things, and that all things point to Him and are intricately related to Him. The land itself shouts God’s praises, and we join in through the ways we take care of the earth, take care of our fellow human beings, and learn and grow and create. They understood that a mysterious, wild element of a Creator God beyond our control was essential and beautiful to theology.
God wasn’t understood, but He was loved. They explored for Him, they journeyed out, they served others.
A lot of that mentality is lost nowadays in American Christianity. We want things easily explained. We want things solved. We want things to fit in rigid theological boxes. We want rules and regulations. We don’t like things outside of our control (and let’s face it–we all want to control God). We’re self-absorbed and fearful. We certainly don’t want to sacrificially love our fellow mankind, or truly believe that God might be calling us to live a life of meaning, beauty, knowledge, and art. Such an existence seems hardly fathomable in our rules-driven, legalistic, judgmental, self-righteous, finger-pointing re-telling of the gospel. We shout and rant and rave and generally behave like lunatics.
(And guess who’s stopped listening? Everyone.)
The world listened to the Celtic Christians. The world was forever changed by them. The world still yearns for the creativity, adventure, depth, and knowledge that the Celtic Christians brought with them. The world yearns for love and genuineness and service.
I’m an artist. I love learning. I always have. I believe God can’t be explained away in the theological boxes we like to put Him in. I get that God is great, is beyond, is beautiful–and I can create things and explore things and serve people and live a full life to glorify Him. I believe I’m here to fight for people and to serve others and to lose my life in the great calling of God. My imagination sings praises to a God who is beyond all imaginings. A God of creation who is both deep and mysterious, yet who loves His creation and called it “good” when He breathed life into us.
This magnificent God as wild as the ocean is indeed worthy of my life. He is worth my journeying out into the unknown. He is worth my creating and writing and artwork. He is worth serving–with my art, with my knowledge, with my deep craving for adventure, exploration, beauty, and mystery…
I think I’m a Celtic Christian.
Circle me, Lord.
Keep peace within, keep harm without.
Circle me, Lord.
Keep love within, keep hate without.
-Celtic “Circling” Prayer