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  Visions and Voyages          

(Lion Hudson: 0745952356)

New, illustrated edition, with woodcuts by Hannah Firmin, showing the Celtic saints in action.

A lively and informative hisstory of the how the Celtic Church developed in the British Isles and its enduring legacy.

  Read an extract: 



Young Brigid comes across as a spirited lass. To begin with, she was clearly a favourite with her natural father, and returned as a teenager to his house. But she had no sense of personal property. Throughout her life, she gave away anything that could be eaten, worn or bartered.

  At last her father could stand it no longer. He dumped her in his chariot and drove her to the king's court, intending to sell her. While he went off to explain his business, a leper approached the chariot, begging. Brigid was just telling him she had nothing to give him when she noticed her father's sword. Impulsively she handed it over to him. When her enraged father found that she had given away his most precious possession, he dragged her in front of the king. Brigid stuck to her principles. She told the king, 'If I had all your power, and all your wealth, and this country itself, I'd give the whole lot away to the Lord of creation.'

  An offer of marriage was made to her by a highly honoured poet. Brigid refused. She said she wanted to start a community of celibate women. Whether she could actually have heard Patrick preach is doubtful, but she was clearly influenced by the ideal of ascetic life he had inspired in his disciples. As usual, she got what she wanted. She was given land for an abbey at Kildare, 'the Church of the Oak'. Her nuns ranged from princesses to slaves.

  Brigid decided she needed men to do the heaviest work in a self-sufficient community, and also to celebrate the sacraments. She found Conlaed, who was heading a group of hermits nearby, and employed him as her resident bishop. The men became part of her community, with Brigid as abbess over both men and women. It was the beginning of a move which was to transform the balance of authority in the Celtic churches. Under the Roman model there was a hierarchical structure of metropolitan, bishop, priest, deacon, and other minor clergy. There was no place for women. In Britain, the earliest abbots might also have been diocesan bishops - Ninian, for example, was possibly both. At Kildare, Brigid took precedence over her bishop, Conlaed, calling on his particular skills as required - just as she needed her blacksmith, her dairywoman, her cook.

  This would not have seemed revolutionary to the fifth-century Irish, who had little experience of the Christian Church. In Celtic society, girls attended schools and qualified as druids. Women fought in Celtic war-hosts until the seventh century. Women could become tribal rulers, like the fearsome Queen Maeve of Connaught. They took part in councils and were listened to with respect. It would be overstating the case that they were equal with men, but Celtic women enjoyed far greater freedom than the women in Roman society.

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  Why I wrote . . .                                

  Visions and Voyages


Celtic Christianity has become hugely popular in recent years. Do we need   another book on it? Why this one?

   I found that people I talked to knew all sorts of isolated stories about Celtic saints: Patrick, Columba, Bridget, David. They knew that the Roman Church had scored a notable victory over Celtic Christianity at the Synod of Whitby in 664. But what they didn't know was how all these separate stories weave together as threads in a much bigger story.

   I wanted them not only to marvel at the detail, but also to see the colourful whole, like a carpet page in a Celtic Gospel book.

   There is a tiresome amount of sentimentality about Celtic Christianity. Many people are searching for a golden age which never existed. I wanted to show them something as close to the reality as I could get. The Celtic saints were often hot-tempered and wrong-headed, but at their best gloriously in love with God and utterly careless of their own welfare. This book expresses my enthusiasm for them, but also shows they could be pretty uncomfortable to live with. Yet they have insights of real and lasting value to offer us, truths which for centuries were suppressed. Today their values resonate with people outside as well as inside the Church.

   What people often don't realise is that there wasn't one definitive Celtic Church across the British Isles and down the centuries. It was evolving all the time to meet new situations. It had a different character in Ireland from the face it showed in Wales. It could look startlingly different from one abbey to another.

   This glorious variety and complexity was what made the book such fun to write. And it was impossible to avoid falling in love with some of its characters.

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Why a new edition?

When the book was originally published by SPCK in 1998, I had hoped for a illustrated edition with mouthwatering photographs of evocative Celtic sites. But such books require an international co-edition to share the production costs. The economics of publishing, with the subject matter of particular interest to the British Isles, meant I had to settle for a text-only edition - though it did include a very good map.

  When the chance came for a new edition, the question of illustrations was at the forefront of my mind. Lion Hudson offered a solution - not photographs, but woodcuts from the talented artist Hannah Firmin. She is able to show what an early Celtic monastery looked like - a far cry from the massive stone fortresses of later medieval abbeys. We see the saints at work and prayer, King Oswald leading his army in prayer before battle, St Brendan voyaging across the Atlantic and the irrespressible Brigid giving away her father's sword.

 The history of the Celtic churches is a good story, anyway. But I hope this new edition will prove even more attractive.

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There are lots of books out on this subject, but this is one of the best. Sampson is an excellent, engaging writer. Into the midst of profound ideas, she injects the entertaining, fascinating stories of the Celtic saints and those associated with them. What emerges is a tale of great beauty and deep meaning – a new light on a worldwide faith. What sets her book apart from others is her refusal to pit a Celtic Church against a Roman or Continental Church… She keeps us firmly based in reality… Great book, great read, great contribution! Amazon website.

Most such books are a mish-mash of ill-understood information. Fay Sampson's book is different and enjoyable. The Friend.

Absorbing, useful, unsentimental. Church Times.

An imaginative mixture of history, legend and story-telling… a celebration of the pilgrim spirit of the Celtic Christians. The War Cry.

A whistle-stop tour through a history of the Celtic movement. Never a dull moment as the greater names and lesser saints are brought to life. Her style is engaging and humorous… Though not a sentimental essay, this book is an easy read. Church of England Reader, Autumn 1999.

Fay Sampson has a good feel for the Celts and has written a very readable story which clearly manifests a good, sound grasp of the complex scholarly appreciation of the subject… The list of those who would like to misappropriate the Celts to their own purpose seems not yet to be exhausted… Fay Sampson, on page after page, brings us back from all this to the facts, the reality, the Celts as known in history, not the Celts as wished for.

But she also writes: ‘Yet they stir our imagination powerfully. They hold a part of our sacred tradition that we must not lose.’ ‘Visions’ in her title is evocative of that very typical trait of the Celts, their powerful imagination. The Messenger of the Catholic League.

I found this book by Fay Sampson both fascinating and instructive. It deals with Celtic myth, autobiographical hyperbole and reliable fact in an informed and lucid fashion... It gives the reader a more reliable platform to view Celtic influence on Christianity today. CLC Book Reviews. No 5.

Fay shows the delight of discovery, using her interest in Celtic history to weave the threads of all the Celtic saints, monasteries, abbeys and religion into a most readable book... Visions and Voyages expresses her enthusiasm for the Celtic saints, who were often hot-tempered and wrong-headed but at their best gloriously in love with God and utterly careless of their own welfare. She says they have insights of real and lasting value to offer us, truths which were suppressed for centuries. Today their values resonate with people outside as well as inside the Church... This glorious variety and complexity comes over all the way through, the wonders of the people, each page leading to discoveries and delight. A truly lovely book and one worth reading even for those not overly interested in Celtic saints, it explains much about the character of the British people. Crediton Country Courier.

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