Tag: celtic christianity

A boat without oars or sail

St Brendan the Navigator In his delightful book Sun Dancing, Geoffrey Moorhouse tells the story of the three men who set out in a tiny boat without oars or sails — for they wanted to be on pilgrimage for the “love of God.” This pilgrimage, called peregrinatio, was a pilgrimage of the heart expressed in a real journey. Peregrinatio was the desert in the ocean, as one author describes it. It was the journey without direction or guidance, except from the Spirit of God.

If you had asked me almost four years ago, before I came to Chatham — Where will you take the church? I would have had an answer for you. Now, however, I see things differently. Planning can certainly be helpful, don’t get me wrong. But, some things cannot be planned. They unfold. They appear on the horizon. They arise out of nothing but the presence of God, and offer themselves as divine serendipities to those with eyes to see.

We are adrift in our church right now, but we are not aimlessly adrift. We are seeking to find the “current of God” where the Spirit of God is flowing. We want to be there when the swelling tide of which hymn writers spoke carries us to the next place with God. So, like the ancient Celtic Christian pilgrims, we are on a journey for the love of God. We do not know the destination, nor do we seek to discern it as we pass landmarks on the way. We only know that we are seeking to travel with the same God who led Israel with a cloud by day and fire by night. The journey and the destination are one, for we are traveling with God. Isn’t that the goal of our lives after all?

In the church as abbey: Why rituals are important

celtic-crosses.jpg In the Celtic Christian abbey, the compound was open to all who needed food, lodging, or care. As the monks’ pagan neighbors entered the abbey, they were greeted with many familiar sights — monks or nuns preparing meals in the kitchen, stacking wood for the fire, copying manuscripts, or working in the fields. But, they also encountered the unfamiliar — strange rituals like making the sign of the cross, breaking bread and sharing a common cup, kneeling, bowing, and prostrating oneself.

Learning How to Be A Christian

These were the rituals of Christianity, practiced by monks and nuns in the abbey, and taught to their pagan neighbors who wished to become Christians. Pagans literally learned how Christians acted by seeing, practicing, and repeating these strange behaviors. These behaviors became so ingrained in the life of the convert that they became part of his or her daily routine.

When an Irish convert needed courage, instead of an incantation from their druid past, they prayed a prayer to Christ. The famous breastplate of St. Patrick is the most outstanding example of this type of praying. The Carmina Gaedelica is a collection of everyday prayers from Celtic life — prayers for starting the fire, washing one’s face, sweeping the house, and working at the loom.

Other rituals, such as making the sign of the cross, became automatic responses to the happenstances of primitive life. Celtic Christians learned through words, patterns, and symbols what made them distinct from their pagan Druid kinsmen in actions and belief.

Loss of Rituals in the 20th Century Church

Fast-forward to the 20th century. New church models suggested that people came to Christ most easily if we removed “religious” symbols. This strategy worked well to attract new people to these churches without symbol, but unlike the Celtic abbeys, some of these churches never introduced new Christians to the actions, behaviors and symbols that signify the Christian faith.

Many church buildings were constructed without baptistries or baptismal fonts because baptism was practiced in swimming pools and lakeshores. Communion was not observed in the largest worship services of many churches, or it was relegated to a special service outside the regular pattern of worship. All of this was done because it was thought that symbols and rituals obscure the gospel message. But just the opposite is true.

The Importance of Ritual

Rituals, practices, and symbols are important because they give us external behaviors to express internal commitments. We learn how to “act like a Christian” by doing the things Christians do. So, new converts participate in baptism, receive communion, and are catechized as part of learning how we act in this strange new community called the church.

Without ritual, patterns, and symbols our practice of the Christian faith is stripped of actions that cause us to remember and draw strength from our interior faith. Rituals give us behaviors, individually and corporately, that reinforce our common beliefs. The missional congregation particularly seeks to be distinctly Christian in its behaviors, symbols, and practices — whether ancient or contemporary — because that is part of what makes us a contrast society.

I have adapted this post from the original, which I posted at Amicus Dei last year.  

The church as abbey

Iona_abbey Last year, several of us in the Fuller DMin Missional Leadership program had dinner with Alan Roxburgh one evening.  Alan is one of the DMin adjunct professors, and author of The Sky Is Falling, co-author of The Missional Leader, and contributor to Missional Church, edited by Darrell Guder, the book that started this whole missional conversation.Since reading about the early Celtic Christians, I have had the idea that a local church could function like the old Celtic abbey.  So, I asked Alan about this concept of church as abbey at dinner.

Alan mentions in his book, The Missional Leader, that we need a new concept of church leadership in a reimagining of the eccleisal role of abbott or abbess.  My thinking fits Alan’s at this point — to have an abbott or abbess, you must also have an abbey which would be the local church.  Alan has visited the Northumbria Community, an early Celtic Christian region, now home to a modern-day neomonastic movement.Roots In Celtic Christian Communities

In Celtic Christian life, the monastic group established their community near a town or well-traveled crossroads.  Unlike later monastic communities, the Celtic Christian communities were not cloistered — they were open to passers-by, neighbors, and townspeople.  When disputes arose, the village knew that refuge and peace could be found inside the walls of the Celtic Christian compound.  As these communities of Christ grew, they became the centers of the community.

The abbeys were resources for worship, commerce, craft and trade, advice, hospitality, evangelism, catechesis, healing, care, and a host of other needs and ministries.  The surrounding pagan community learned that the abbey was a place where they could go for help, food, shelter, and guidance.  The concept, according to George Hunter’s Celtic Way of Evangelism, was that “belonging comes before believing.”  The monks were quick to welcome the stranger, inquirer, refugee, and others into their midst.

The Church-As-Abbey Reimagined For Today

The modern day church-as-abbey would function much the same way.  Worship, prayers, instruction, meals, and hospitality would be practiced there.  But also the church would be the “hub” in the “wheel of ministry.”  Spokes in the wheel could be house churches, small groups, ministry and social action groups, alternative worship experiences, off-campus locations, and off-site ministries.  All of these would relate to the church-as-abbey as the central resource for coordination, planning, prayer, and support.

Small groups would be connected to the abbey through the use of in-house instructional materials available by video and podcast.  Small group leaders would be facilitators using the resources from the abbey thereby preserving the clarity and consistency in teaching.

Small groups of all functions would worship at the church-as-abbey at least monthly, reporting to the abbey on a regular basis.  Small group leaders would be held accountable for ministry design, content, and outcomes.

Small churches could act as abbeys, too, without buying additional land, building additional buildings, or hiring additional staff.  The key would be creating groups external to the abbey, but related to the abbey to maintain the practice of the community.

The abbey would adopt a “rule of life” — a set of practices which its members followed, thus identifying them with the abbey’s particular philosophy and calling.  This rule, patterned after the Rule of St. Benedict, would at a minimum include regular prayer, Bible reading, worship, and service to others.  Specifics would be developed by each abbey in conversation with leaders and members of the community.

The church-as-abbey solves many of the problems of engaging the area surrounding a church.  Most ministry happens outside the church, with the church as resource.  Individuals are not first invited to “church,” but are invited, for example, to join a social action group that feeds the homeless each Tuesday night.  Churches need to get past the idea that only our church members can be involved in ministry projects.  Participants relate to the church as abbey — as resource — to their ministry long before they feel any need to join the abbey.

Only as the church moves out into the world to do the work of Christ in the way of Jesus, will we again find the vitality which the Christian community has lost to institutionalism.  The church as abbey has great potential for each church, regardless of size, to engage and befriend its ministry area — its geographical “parish.”  More work needs to be done on this concept, but I am convinced it holds great promise for the future of the church

A simple life

edenspathhhouse2.jpg Eden’s Path – detail of our house from a painting by Debbie.

Debbie and I created a new blog to record our journey toward a simpler life. Eden’s Path features the practical things we are doing to spend less, enjoy life more, and live in the rhythm of God’s grace.

The name, Eden’s Path, comes from an old Celtic Christian saying that life on this earth is like living with “one foot in Eden.” We believe that God’s creation is good, that we live with the earth, not just on it. We’re also trying to consume less, despite the encouragement of our government for us to spend more. Evermore growth will not solve our spiritual, social, or economic problems. Being better stewards of God’s gifts to us will, we believe.

So, if you have time, stop over. We mostly are telling the stories about what we’re doing to find the simple life of faith, hope, and dreams. I’m not sure if it will take us to Eden, but at least we’ll be on the path.

Art for homeless kids in Toronto

The ancient Celtic Christian abbeys producedSketch logo beautiful illuminated manuscripts, the most notable being The Book of Kells.  In his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill credits Irish monasteries with rescuing ancient texts, recopying them, and then taking them back to Europe to replace the texts burned during the barbarian invasion. 

But churches and Christians today are finding new ways to use the arts to “save civilization” or at least individuals in it.  Our church was featured in Outreach magazine in December 2006 for helping sponsor Soundcheck, a teen open mic night in our community.  You can read about Soundcheck and other arts programs we have in the Our Church tab at the top of this blog. 

Leadership’s latest newsletter spotlighted an arts program that is saving 600-at-risk kids, and helping them give expression to their creativity.  Sketch is an arts program in Toronto with sponsor partners made up of Christian churches, individuals, and other organizations. 

This is part of the church-as-abbey concept springing up all over North America.  Based on the ancient Celtic Christian abbey, churches are becoming modern-day abbeys in their own communities.  The great thing is that size doesn’t matter — small churches particularly can become abbey churches and impact their communities in new ways.