High Crosses - The Celtic Christianity Study Tour

By Dahlia Fraser

I am standing on Iona, a tiny island in the inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. It is sunny, windy and blissfully quiet. Before me is the Iona Abbey with the imposing stone high cross at the entrance.

With my 20 fellow travelers I am here to learn about the influence of this ‘cradle of Christianity.’ Iona, we learn, was the base from which Irish Celtic Christians reintroduced Christianity to Great Britain in the Middle Ages. The original abbey was founded in 563 by St. Columba who came to Iona from Ireland. It grew quickly and became one of the largest religious centres in Western Europe. After a devastating attack by Vikings in the 8th century, the abbey was eventually rebuilt by the Benedictines in 1203. The most recent restoration was undertaken in 1938 by the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian movement committed to living the gospel in today’s world.

The visit to Iona came half way through the Celtic Christianity study tour led from May 26 to June 7, 2008 by Dr. David Sherbino, Professor of Spirituality and Pastoral Ministry. Covering sites in Ireland, Scotland and England, the tour would take us far back into the history of Celtic spirituality. It also allowed us to explore its contemporary expressions.

The tour began in Ireland where we visited sites associated with St. Patrick, including: the hill of Tara where according to tradition he challenged the pagan priests; the city of Armagh where Patrick built his church in 445 and served as Bishop and also Downpatrick where his tomb is situated. At Glendalough, site of a 5th century monastic community, the surviving stone buildings and imposing high tower seemed to put us within shouting distance of the people who followed St. Kevin to this remote and idyllic spot 17 centuries ago. Glendalough (valley of two lakes) is one of the most visited sites in Ireland, both because of its extraordinary beauty and the fact that, though in ruins, it still impacts the visitor as a holy place. The Christian witness of centuries lingers here in the peaceful hush and the evidence everywhere of the community’s devotion. Though there has not been a church here for some time, there are fresh graves in the graveyard among the centuries-old ones. This is still seen as a place of nearness to God.

St. Patrick and his spiritual descendants would approve. The nearness of God is a central theme in Celtic spirituality. The created world is seen as a sign of that nearness. Christians in this tradition anticipate and celebrate the presence of God in the ordinary events and tasks of daily life. Other prominent themes in Celtic spirituality are: the Trinity, community, soul-friendship and evangelism.

At St. Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals in Dublin we traced the long line of bishops who led the Church in Ireland from St. Patrick to the present day. We gained a sense of the impact on the Church of Britain’s turbulent history.

Also in Dublin we visited Trinity College, Ireland’s oldest and most prestigious university, founded in 1592. During this time we saw the famous Book of Kells — a lavishly decorated copy, in Latin, of the four Gospels, handwritten and illustrated by monks at Iona in the 6th century. The Book of Kells is, perhaps, the most famous of the illuminated Biblical manuscripts in existence.

From Dublin we left Ireland behind and headed to Scotland and Iona. Here we switched our attention to St. Columba and his monks. Their evangelistic endeavours would take the Gospel throughout Britain and beyond. Seated in a garden overlooking the abbey and the sea we listened to Dr. Sherbino’s lectures on St. Columba and Celtic monasticism.

After the quiet of Iona, came bustling Edinburgh, beautiful and historic. We had time only for a wee visit to spots such as John Knox’s house, Edinburgh castle and St. Giles Cathedral. Then it was on to the other great historic centre of Celtic spirituality, Lindisfarne.

It was the missionary monk St. Aidan from Iona who came to this coastal region in north east England in the 7th century. He founded a community which became the spiritual centre of the region of Northumbria. The Lindisfarne Gospels, another illuminated manuscript was produced here. Today the Holy Island of Lindisfarne continues as a centre of Celtic spirituality and we met Ray Simpson, Guardian of Holy Island and leader of the Community of Aidan and Hilda.

Members of this ecumenical community live in various parts of the world and are joined together by their commitment to a particular rule of life based on the Celtic tradition. We were privileged to have Simpson give us two lectures on contemporary Celtic spirituality, focusing on the themes of nature and evangelism.

Lindisfarne was our last stop. We returned home with hundreds of pictures of monasteries, cathedrals, high crosses, castles, lochs, seascapes and landscapes, inspired by examples of people who sought and followed God and by the rich history of this branch of the Christian Church.