I am writing this traveling on the Rosslare to Fishguard ferry. It’s gentle rise and fall as it traverses the swell of the sea is strangely comforting. A week spent driving the west coast of Ireland in search of the Celtic saints and scholars. If there was ever a landscape to mentor one in the benefits I’d silence and solitude it is surely the coves and hills of Connemara and Dingle.
Standing amongst the ancient ruins of monasteries and solitary oratories it is easy to sense the passion and the rhythm of our Celtic forbears, to whom we extend a grateful shout of acclamation for the gospel message of which we have become the most recent beneficiaries.
Three things struck me as I reflected upon my history in situ. First, a common misconception is that these early monastics fled to the wilderness and devoted themselves to prayer, fasting and other extreme activities. However, at our first stop Clonmacnoise on the banks of the river Shannon, it was instructive that this early settlement lay at the conjunction of major routes used by those crossing Ireland north-south or east-west. Here was a community founded by Ciaran that was intentional about living the God-filled life at the heart of contemporary culture and business. This intention involved acting as a creative and noticeable influence for God, good and change! Whilst it enjoyed it’s own worship and prayer space for disciplined discipleship, at one and the same time it offered hospitality and hope as a busy world traded and tried to make sense of life with all it’s subtle complexities. It was a lifeboat afloat in the choppy waters of a competitive world offering succour to those who sought its safety.
Second, this God-filled life was a way of discipline. Today the word communicates all too often a life regimented by external and moribund regulations. The reformed, Protestant church has fallen victim to its own speculative interpretation of Jewish life at the time of Jesus. The nineteenth century German theological schools painted a picture of a Jewish community living a joyless existence burdened by living under the Law. The purpose for such a picture was to paint a mythical picture of a joyful Jesus creating a contrast to the weight of Jewish religious practice. However, I haven’t met an orthodox Jew who isn’t delighted to live according to the precepts of the Law! A regular rhythm is the means by which we get ourselves Kingdom fit. Asceticism is the same as athlete and who criticises Olympic hopefuls for their strict exercise and dietary regimes, or rules, as they prepare for competition?
As followers of Jesus we are encouraged to find a regular Rule or rhythm that equips us both to journey ever deeper not the heart of God and to live Kingdom life effortlessly and instinctively. These early monastics all practiced simple Rules, such as St. Columba’s commitment to eat only when hungry and reflect upon the sufficiency of God. At Gallarus on the Dingle Peninsula there is an Oratory, or prayer house, shaped as an upturned boat. Here individual monks would come to practice the discipline of prayer, alway reminded as they gazed seaward that they were redeemed to serve the world and that God placed them as navigators to sail through life at the bidding of the wind of God’s spirit; their lives and destiny were not their own but God’s.
Finally, these ruins have stood since the sixth century and speak of a sense of permanence. Ciaran in fact died two years after establishing Clonmacnoise, yet it’s purpose continued to flourish. This was not a single generation church expression. This was a nucleus of formation and mission, something many church expressions today have forgotten. Our witness and work is always to lay enduring foundations upon which the testimony of God’s grace can continue long after our glorious departure. Life is not about me and my exploits: it’s about God and the purpose of the Kingdom.
Next year I return to Ireland to lead a pilgrimage. Find details at www.christouraxiom.com. God bless.