Faith & Reason: Time to rescue Iona from the weirdies

There is a crucial difference between Celtic spirituality and Celtic Christianity, argues Paul Vallely, who wants to bring St Columba back from the Hebridean fringe.
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The Independent Online
It has been a good week for what John Bell calls the weirdies and beardies. Of John Bell, more later. "Celtic spirituality" is the pursuit of these peculiar and hirsute individuals. Monday marked the 1400th anniversary of the death of St Columba, an important evangelist for the distinctive style of Christianity which had established a foothold on these isles centuries before the arrival from Rome of Augustine of Canterbury. We have therefore been besieged in the religious media by images and sounds of wild waves crashing on misty shores; skies of lowering turmoil have accompanied prayers about running waves and shining stars.

There is a touch of "Hullo Clouds, Hullo Sky" about all this. Andrew Brown pointed out in this column last week the dangers of such harking after a golden age. You can see what he means: life in the sixth century must have been bleak, cold and windswept and the diet of kelp and oatcakes fairly dreary. It is not hard to see why the Presbyterian consciousness objected to the pagan overtones of the prayers and invocations which those early Celts developed to get them through the daily grind - blessings on quotidian activities like rising and making the bed, fetching water from the spring, rekindling the fire, milking the cow, churning the butter, and so on. But it is easy to miss the point, so accustomed have we become to the thinking of Augustine which has supplanted that of his Celtic predecessor.

The first Archbishop of Canterbury brought with him the thinking of his namesake from Hippo, steeped in a division of body and spirit which eventually led religion to Luther's "two kingdoms" and secular thinking to the dualism of Descartes. Its profound effect on European thinking is evident still in the present pope's polarisation of our world into the "culture of life" and the "culture of death".

Columba's reading of Christianity was different. His emphasis was on the integration of body and soul, sacred and secular, worship and work, prayer and politics (it is significant that his successors in the abbey of Iona were Benedictines with their ethos that work is prayer, and prayer is work). His vision was one which enfolded humanity in creation; the search for places where the veil between heaven and earth is particularly thin is what touches a chord here for today's environmentalists.

His stress upon hospitality opened up that area where peace requires more than justice; the opposite of war is hospitality, it has been said, because by it we create space for another person, acknowledging their humanity and their needs, which is what conflict most acutely denies. His sense of the balance between the needs of the community and the individual - encouraging both personal eremetism and pilgrimage and yet communities which elected their leaders - chimes well with the modern sense of the Church as the people of God on a pilgrimage through life.

All of this perished in face of a Christianity which - having inherited the mindset and governance of imperial Rome - was organised, bureaucratic, hierarchical and ruthlessly single-minded. When unity was proclaimed a priority, leaders like Hilda, the Celtic Abbess of Whitby, and the Scots Queen Margaret, acquiesced. The very hospitality of the Celtic monks and priests ensured that they complied with the practices of the insistent newcomers from Rome.

Today we see an attempt to regain what was lost. But the mistake is to seek for it among the stones and shores, symbols and poetry, of the 6th- century Dalriada. For their daily grind is not ours. If God is to be found "in the every day" then we must look elsewhere, for how could our routine industrial post-modernist reality have much in common with that of insular medieval subsistence farmers?

Which is why the present day Iona Community - of which the aforementioned John Bell is one of the more prominent members - is a body of committed religious folk who reside not on the Hebridean fringes but in the nation's inner cities. Theirs is a dispersed community which returns to the island only once a year on retreat; instead they live among the unemployed, the sick, the addicted and the marginalised - this is Celtic Christianity not Celtic spirituality, they insist. Living physically apart but united by purpose and prayer, they reflect the fractured nature of our modern world. And that is a far cry from mere romanticism.

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