The Origins of Celtic Christianity.

During the “Dark Ages” of Europe, some remarkable men and women, fired by their own experience of Christianity, travelled from Ireland through Scotland and northern England, Wales and south-west Britain, sharing the light of Christ with all whom they met.

Celtic ‘saints’, revered by the Church for their holiness and wisdom, took Christianity and literacy south through Brittany and to southern Italy, east to the Ukraine, and north to the Faroes and Iceland.

Monasteries and churches were founded wherever these Christian men and women travelled, teaching those they met of the love of God. The Celtic Church of the 5th and 6th centuries was not an identifiable organization with a central leadership. Lead by monastic abbots rather than diocesan bishops, it was marked out by its ethos, a philosophy markedly different from the Church of Rome.

No other Christian community has lived so closely to Jewish Law. Each day and at every service passages of the Bible were read, the Psalms recited and the scriptures meditated upon.

Those showing particular promise were entrusted with the careful copying of the Bible. Against the austerity and simplicity of their way of life, the elaborate and rich illuminations of their manuscripts show the central place the scriptures held.

The Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, were condensed for ease of use, and found great popularity among those who sought to explain the Bible to the illiterate.

The roots of Celtic monasticism are found in the lives of the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers. During the 3rd century AD, Christians in Egypt fled the distractions and temptations of the cities to live solitary lives or prayer, meditation and fasting in the desert.

Legend about St. Anthony (251-356 AD), his duels with the forces of evil, and years of solitude in the most inhospitable areas of the desert became the heroic model for others.

However, some found the rigours of solitary life too hard, and chose to live in close proximity to their brethren, meeting on Saturdays and Sundays for services, but living apart through the week.

Celtic Christians called from the world to live as monks and nuns followed their forebears into their own ‘deserts’, desiring separate and radical lives of prayer.

The forerunner of the Celtic Church in the British Isles was Ninian. He was born of noble parents on the banks of Solway Firth in about 360 AD. As a young man he undertook a pilgrimage to Rome, where he was made a bishop by the Pope.

On his way home, he is said to have visited Martin of Tours, and was impressed by the monastic principle of monks setting themselves apart to pray.

Returning to Scotland, Ninian established a monastery and school at Whithorn in Galloway. Its fame spread rapidly, drawing people from all over the Celtic world; Patrick himself may have spent time in study there.

A catechism supposedly written by Ninian claimed that the fruit of study was “to perceive the eternal word of God reflected in every plant and insect, every bird and animal, and every man and woman”.