Visions and Voyages
This is a storyteller’s history of the Celtic Churches in the British Isles – the voyages they took, the monasteries they founded, stories of the remarkable Celtic saints.
It was not a uniform picture. Abbots and abbesses were free to make their own rule for their houses, though they were influenced by the traditions they had been schooled in. There is wide difference between the open-hearted generosity of Bridget, who would give away anything not nailed down, and the rigid rule of David, who kept applicants waiting outside his gates until he was sure they were genuine.
It was this freedom of expression that brought the Celtic Churches in conflict with the Roman Church, who sought world-wide uniformity. Eventually, this led to the show-down between the two at the Synod of Whitby in 664, and its profound effect on the history of the Church in Britain after that.
In 603 the Burgundian bishops summoned Columban to appear before them. He declined to come, but sent them a letter congratulating them on calling a council and advising them to do it more often.
Soon he was meeting trouble from a different quarter. His opponent now was Brunhilde, a fearsome dowager of the ruling Frankish dynasty. Her husband and son had died during bloody family feuds and she planned to rule through one of her young grandsons. She settled for the licentious Theodoric, who had inherited Burgundy. Columban berated him for his immorality and arranged a diplomatic marriage with a Visigoth princess. Brunhilde broke it up. Theodoric sent the princess back and returned to his mistresses. Brunhilde then produced two of Theodoric’s illegitimate sons and demanded that Columban bless them, to underline her power. Celtic saints were the conscience of the secular rulers, not their lackeys. Outraged, Columban castigated Brunhilde in front of the court for her family’s behaviour. She decided to silence him.
Why did I write this book?
I have a long love affair with the Celtic Churches. The plural is necessary, because this wasn’t a monolithic structure like the Roman Church. There was considerable local variation. Each leader brought their own vision to the Rule they left their followers.
While the Roman Church at this time feared nature, and saw its unbridled fertility as a metaphor for original sin, the Celtic saints gloried in it. Typic, an, an animal would lead the saint to the
place destined for their hermitage. Here, they lived simply, in tune with nature.
“A little hidden lowly hut, which owns the path-filled forest; will you go with me to see it?… A tree of apples of great bounty… Excellent fresh springs – a cup of water splendid to drink -they gush forth abundantly; yew berries, bird-cherries… tame swine lie down around it.”
Yet the quality of their lives drew many to flock to these hermitages.
It offered opportunities for women. It would be going too far to say that they were fully equal with men, but the principal role in the Celtic Churches was that of abbot. Many of these were women, and often had both men and women under them. In the Roman Church, the principal authority was that of bishop, and bishops were always men. At Whitby, Hild had bishops on her staff.
The structure of the Roman Church was modelled on that of the Roman Empire. Kings and queens would keep their chaplains at the court, and bishops sought to work through royal power. The Celtic saints saw their role as speaking truth to power, and preserved a certain distance from the court. Aidan set up his monastery on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, in sight of the king’s court at Bamburgh, but separate from it. King Oswald would cross the sands at low tide to seek his wisdom. And when Oswald’s successor Oswy killed a rival to enlarge his kingdom, Aidan encamped below the castle hill to fast in protest.
We lost a great deal at the Synod of Whitby, when the decision went against the Celtic Churches and for Rome.