A highlight of a Lindisfarne Gospel
and a Mayan tonsure (image from Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”)
similar to the aspect of the Celtic tonsure and eye shading.
Aidan was an inspirational figure among a great wave of apostolic workers from the 400s AD to the 600sAD flowing from Ireland to Britain, carrying the Gospel with them. Arriving in Northumbria in 635AD, Aidan obtained from the local crown the lease of an island, Lindisfarne. Linisfarne was joined by a causeway to the mainland, separate therefore, but accessible to the metropolitan centre of the region. Aidan followed the classic Celtic pattern of monastic mission, gathering 12 young men to build simple stone shelters and farm the land together.
Aidan taught his young band to read and write through daily immersion in the Scriptures – particularly the Psalms and the Gospels. The illuminated Gospels these brothers produced are, to this day arresting and exquisite expressions of Christian devotion.
After twelve months each mentee then recruited one friend each to share their shelter, pass on their learning and to journey together in ministry-visits to the mainland. Aidan taught his disciples to give their surplus to the needy and to travel on foot in order to mix with their neighbours and take hold of every opportunity to befriend people and talk about the Gospel. Their friendships spanned the social spectrum – a fact which gained the attention of the people among whom they lived.
Hild of Streonsalh (aka Hilda of Whitby)
exemplified the female strand in this missionary movement
The Celtic Christians’ vision integrated their engagement with the Kingdom of God with every aspect of daily life. Their approach did not see God as separate from this physical life and the Holy Spirit was perceived as immanent and able to be encountered through the realm of our senses. In a reference to the place of the five senses in prayer and attention to God, disciplines of prayer and silence were sometimes referred to as “tuning the five stringed lyre”. Their way of life folded together the contemplative life, simplicity, the way of love and soul friendship. The keywords in their ecclesial vocabulary were the words for hearth, household, brotherhood, sisterhood and family.
Before the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 at the hands of the king’s armies, the celtic monasteries had evolved into multi-layered communities, comprising celibate monks and nuns, married couples, families, tenants, workers, postulants, guests, associate members and enquirers. Not the specialist, enclosed, celibate communities we often imagine. But their beginnings were very small and simple, each principally comprising twelve young recruits.
Such was the life-changing impact of this way of life on Aidan’s first teenage recruits that one and a half millennia later we can name six of them – so great was their social impact in turn. These were they ways that transformed the spiritual landscape of Britain within a generation – from the murder capital of Europe to its missionary centre – a transformation that was ultimately to change world-history.
Listen below to Paul speak on “Journeying with the Celts” (from a seminar given in at Holy Covenant Church, Jamison, Canberra.)