When we walked among the distant echo of the Celtic Christians, we saw in passing that there was an oral tradition for poetry and prayer. They were handed down, spoken and sung; repeated and learned. Not many were literate and so the oral tradition enabled not just the spread of those words but of The Word itself.

We paused at some Tall Crosses, and saw the biblical scenes carved into them. These were useful both as encouragement for passers-by and also as a community focus; a framework for a sermon to those gathered at that cross to worship.

At Christmas, we read through our own Celtic Christian Advent. Poems and prayers passed down orally and, finally, written and published as the Carmina Gadelica.

Celtic Christians had a particular expression of their love of God, reverence of the Holy Spirit and delight in Jesus. The oft-repeated (usually sung) words were embedded in the memories of the individual and the community. They prepared themselves for worship using the natural rhythms of God’s creation all around them (the ebb and flow of the waves, the rise and fall of a light breeze, the percussion of a river dashing over rocks), alongside which they might repeat:

I am bending my knee
In the eye of the Father who created me,
In the eye of the Son who purchased me,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
In friendship and affection. (Carmina Gadelica Vol 1)

But that oral tradition was not the only medium for Celtic Christians. As we saw, those in holy orders (both men and women) were usually able to read and write and would study Scripture by writing it out as they contemplated its meaning and beauty. This was a factor in vast religious settlements such as Iona, under Columba, and Whitby, led by Hilda. Monks, nuns, farmers, herdsmen, weavers, bakers … an entire community built around God’s Word and copying out that Word to share it and evangelise.

The ground was fertile: crops to feed the body. The culture was fertile: the arts to nurture soul and spirit. Hymns, poems and epic tales all pointed to God’s glory. Expressing faith was not just preaching a sermon but connecting in different ways.

We saw, for example, how Cædmon was a herdsman at Whitby who hid whenever it was his turn to sing as part of the evening entertainment. Hilda encouraged him, especially after he had a dream that he would sing and play for the person in his dream. He came to know God and used his songs and poems to evangelise all around the area – all in praise of the person in his dream; all in praise of Jesus.

So for the next three articles, we will look at some examples of Celtic Christian literature. We will look at a hymn, a poem and an epic. The Celtic Christians learned from the Scriptures, and so can we:

… be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord … (Ephesians 5: 18-19)

[from Timothy Pitt]

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