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Celtic Christianity

In the 5th and 6th centuries (and even beyond!) the Celtic church was one of the most spiritually vibrant churches in the world.

The Irish Christians were all spiritual children and grandchildren of Patrick, the man who brought Christianity to the Irish. If he had not come to Ireland, they would all still be lost in their idol worship. The Irish have never forgotten him. Sixteen hundred years after his death, he is still their national hero.

However, the rest of the world had already forgotten Patrick by the time he died. In fact, outside of Ireland, few people had ever even heard of him. Those who had heard of him probably heard mainly negative things. If someone had told them that someday Patrick would be the most famous person of their age, they would have laughed derisively. Today, their names have all been forgotten, but his name lives on. The reason he is so well remembered is that he built his work out of "gold, silver, and precious stones" (1 Cor. 3:12). His name endured because his work endured. The church he left behind was a vibrant church eager to spread the Gospel throughout the whole world, regardless of the cost.

One of the more notable spiritual "grandsons" of Patrick was Columba (known in Ireland by his Celtic name, Colum Cille). He was born in Donegal, northern Ireland, about sixty years after Patrick's death. A descendant of Irish kings, he apparently belonged to the same clan as Milchu, Patrick's former master. Nevertheless, he chose to renounce rank, power, and wealth to live in poverty as a eunuch for Christ. He toiled among his fellow Irishmen for nineteen years, preaching the Gospel and founding numerous religious communities. In fact, for several years, he served as the head of one of the spiritual communities founded by Patrick.

In 563, when Columba was forty-two, he and twelve other men set out in a small, hide-covered currach to bring the Gospel to Scotland. Leaving Ireland was a difficult sacrifice for Columba, as he deeply loved his homeland. How he would miss the emerald green valleys, the velvety hills dotted with sheep, the spongy peat bogs, and the eery beauty of the Burren. Nevertheless, all of Ireland had now been thoroughly evangelized. The Gospel needed to be taken to unreached lands.

Scotland was the obvious choice as a mission field for several reasons. To begin with, it was the closest pagan country to Ireland. Secondly, Columba could speak the language of the Scots, for they were emigrants from Ireland. The term "Scot" was originally the name the Romans had given to the Irish. However, in the fifth century, a number of clans from northern Ireland migrated to what is today known as Scotland. In Patrick's day, this country was known as Caledonia. But after the Scots from Ireland had settled there, the country eventually came to be known as Scotland.

During Columba's lifetime, Scotland was inhabited both by the pagan Scots from Ireland and the idol-worshipping Picts. Back in the fifth century, a British missionary named Ninian had converted many of the Picts. However, most of his churches had eventually apostatized, and the people returned to their pagan idols. Columba realized that it would be quite a challenge to bring the Gospel to these two warlike races. However, with a faith similar to Patrick's, Columba knew that all things were possible with God.

As his mission base, Columba chose the savagely wild and mystic island of Iona, off of the west coast of Scotland. He couldn't have chosen a more bleak and barren spot than this treeless strip of sand and rocks. The island was uninhabited, as even the rugged Scots and Picts had had no desire to settle in this lonely place attacked by wind and waves. Yet, it proved to be a strategic site for a mission center.

Of course, Columba's first task was to establish a base there before the onset of the fierce Atlantic storms of winter. Although of royal blood, Columba set the example in putting his strong back to the heavy manual labor required to build a community on Iona. He and the other men built crude individual beehive huts of driftwood and peat turf to give them protection from the fierce wind. They also constructed a larger wooden building for communal worship. The sandy soil was so poor that they had to mix decaying seaweed with it in order to grow any crops at all.

Life at Iona was arduous, primitive, and austere. The men survived by fishing the waters and laboring in their meager gardens. Remembering the example of Patrick, they spent hours every day in individual and group prayer. They well knew that Scotland could only be won by prayer. When they weren't praying or working outside, the men read the Scriptures and copied Bible manuscripts. Once their community was well established, they began travelling to the nearby Hebrides islands, to bring the Gospel to the Scottish inhabitants there. God blessed Columba's preaching, just as He had Patrick's, and these island residents eagerly received the Gospel. Some of these new converts joined the community at Iona. Others formed new communities on some of the Hebrides, under Columba's direction.

After winning these islands for Christ, Columba and his men set out to win mainland Scotland for Christ. Actually, the mainland Scots had been watching the community on Iona for some time with great interest. They could scarcely imagine why anyone would choose to live in such a harsh placeŚlet alone someone of royal blood. What quest would move men to make such a sacrifice? When the Scots learned that Columba and his men endured the life they did out of their love for the Scots, they opened their hearts to the Gospel. For over thirty years, Columba travelled on foot through the heather-clad mountains of Scotland, founding over fifty churches and religious communities.

Columba's courage, sanctity, and missionary zeal impressed everyone he met. At his preaching, thousands of Scots destroyed their idols and abandoned their pagan lives. Despite the considerable risk to his own life, Columba even journeyed to Inverness in northern Scotland to witness to King Brude of the savage Picts. God opened Brude's heart, and soon the Gospel spread throughout the nation of the Picts. When Columba's legs could no longer carry him to preach the Gospel, he retired to the community at Iona, which by now was known to the Scots as the "Holy Island."He spent his last days there praying and counseling the other missionaries. When he sensed that death was close, he had the men carry him to the church, where he broke the bread of communion with them. Too weak to move any further, he finally lay down on the cold, damp floor of the church to welcome death. As his brothers crowded around him, he tried to lift his right hand to bless them, but his strength was gone. So one of the brothers raised Columba's hand for him, and with great effort, Columba blessed the other men. He then closed his eyes and joined Patrick in Paradise.

Another notable spiritual "grandson"of Patrick was the Irish missionary, Columbanus. A large warm man with flaming hair and freckles, he was a younger contemporary of Columba. For years, he had labored hard in Ireland, founding various religious communities and preaching an uncompromising Gospel. At that time, Christians from all over the Roman Empire were visiting Ireland because of its reputation for sanctity. These visitors told Columbanus about the pagan Germanic tribes of Europe that had not yet heard the Gospel. Although he was now in his forties, Columbanus prayed at length about these lost people. Sensing God's leading, he and twelve other men resolved to bring Christianity to them.

To begin their mission, they first made themselves a simple boat in which to sail to Europe. They made the frame and ribs of the boat with oak, and then covered them with tanned ox-hide, stretched over oak bark. Finally, they sealed all of the seams with fat to make the boat waterproof. Loading it with sufficient supplies, they set off in faith for continental Europe, knowing they would probably never return to their beloved homeland. Once they reached mainland Europe, Columbanus and his fellow Irish missionaries first settled in Burgundy, in what is now eastern France.

These eager Irish missionaries treaded on foot throughout Burgundy for several years, preaching Christ to everyone they met. Going out on faith, sometimes they lived for weeks at a time on nothing but wild herbs and berries. God blessed them for their fortitude and faith. Eventually Columbanus and his men brought thousands of pagans to a living faith in Christ. They also founded several religious communities in Burgundy, which became centers of evangelism and Christian education. Like Patrick, Columbanus refused to mix Christianity with paganism. He required his converts to burn their wooden idols before he would baptize them. As was typical of Irish Christianity of that day, hundreds of Columbanus' converts took up the ascetic-missionary life themselves, spreading the Gospel even further.

However, for several reasons, Columbanus and his missionaries were opposed by the Roman Catholic clergy in Gaul. First, they refused to subject themselves to the Catholic bishops. Secondly, they insisted on maintaining the customs of the Irish church, instead of those of Rome. Finally, they often rebuked the Roman Catholic clergy for their spiritual laxity. Because of these things, the Roman Catholic clergy eventually summoned Columbanus to a synod to answer for his "errors."He refused to attend, but instead defended himself eloquently in a courageous letter he sent to the clergy. In it, he quoted Scriptures profusely and reproved the clergy for their sins.

Unfortunately, it wasn't just the clergy who were upset with Columbanus and his monks. The rulers of Burgundy were equally incensed. That's because, like Patrick, Columbanus didn't hesitate to severely reprove rulers who professed to be Christians, yet still lived in ungodliness. Eventually, Queen Brunhild and her son Theodoric arrested Columbanus and threw him into a dark, filthy dungeon. Although the queen and her son did eventually release Columbanus from prison, they then forcibly expelled him and his men from Burgundy. Thankfully, the great work Columbanus and his men accomplished during their twenty years in Burgundy was not lost. Their Germanic converts stayed on to continue the work.

Now in his sixties, Columbanus had every right to return to Ireland to spend out his remaining years. I'm sure that's what I would have done if I had been in his situation. But not Columbanus. He and his men would find a new mission field! Leaving Burgundy, they travelled east through the rugged Alps to the lake of Zurich, in modern day Switzerland. Here, these hardy Irish missionaries set up a new missions base and began preaching the Gospel anew to the peoples of Switzerland. Once again, God blessed their work, as they preached throughout this beautiful Alpine country of majestic snow-capped mountains and lovely valleys. Multitudes of their hearers eagerly received the Gospel, many of them becoming monks or missionaries themselves. Born from the vigorous rootstock of Irish Christianity, it's no wonder that centuries later Swiss Christians like Ulrich Zwingli and Conrad Grebel gave birth to the Reformed and Anabaptist movements.

Now in his seventies, the white-haired Columbanus expected to complete his life's work in Switzerland. However, Burgundian power eventually spread to Switzerland, and the Burgundian rulers expelled Columbanus and his men once again. These tireless Irish evangelists were all advanced in years, yet they trekked through the rugged mountain terrain to Lombardy in present-day northern Italy. The trip was arduous, and many of the men died on the way. However, through God's grace, Columbanus and a handful of his men reached northern Italy and began preaching to the pagan Lombards who had settled there.

Despite his age, the energetic Columbanus personally helped in the physical construction of a new monastery at a place called Bobbio. This monastery soon became a celebrated center of spirituality and Christian scholarship. Like Patrick, Columbanus was primarily a man of action, not a man of books. Nevertheless, unlike Patrick, he was very learned for his day. He not only could write Latin prose with considerable eloquence, but he also knew some Greek and Hebrew. Although criticized by the Roman Catholic clergy, Columbanus and his men didn't let up in their preaching. In fact, the aged Columbanus even sent a letter of rebuke to the Pope!
Through Irish missionaries like Columba and Columbanus, the message of Christ reached tens of thousands of people in distant lands. Long after Patrick was laid to rest in his grave, his work continued to bear marvelous fruit.


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