Celts and Orthodoxy

The ancient Celtic Church had intimate ties with the same Desert Fathers of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine who fostered the ascetic literature and monasticism of the Byzantine and Slavic Orthodox Churches. This article attempts to elucidate Celtic Christian spirituality and monasticism in the light of Orthodox Christian monastic and ascetic tradition. These flourishings of monastic sanctity, separated by great distances in space and time, manifest a deep internal kinship and harmony.

The ancient Celtic Church had intimate ties with the same Desert Fathers of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine who fostered the ascetic literature and monasticism of the Byzantine and Slavic Orthodox Churches. This article attempts to elucidate Celtic Christian spirituality and monasticism in the light of Orthodox Christian monastic and ascetic tradition. Specific points are illustrated with salient examples drawn from the Celtic Saints, the ancient Christian East and, for a perspective closer to our own times, from nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox monasticism, along with commentary from contemporary Orthodox writers. These flourishings of monastic sanctity, separated by great distances in space and time, manifest a deep internal kinship and harmony.

Introductory Remarks

At the present time, there is an increasing interest in Celtic Christianity in Western Europe and North America. Various problems of the present age naturally compel thoughtful and sensitive individuals to ponder what wrongs have been committed throughout history and why Western civilisation faces such problems, be they practical or spiritual in nature. There appears to be a nostalgia for a unified perspective, a renewed vision and approach to both the spiritual and the material world. Perhaps, without being fully understood, this nostalgia, as such, finds a refreshing spring of pure water in Celtic Christianity, in the saintly personalities and poetry of its monks. Here, the searching soul comes upon a new perspective and unified vision of reality. But this pleasing discovery is not always accompanied by the realisation that Celtic Christians found this same renewed perspective only through a long, arduous, and often painful spiritual struggle-one which opens the way for Divine Grace to effect the interior changes that enable a person to see reality in such a wholesome way.

Ireland and the other regions inhabited by Celts abounded in churches and monasteries during the first millennium of the Christian era. Celtic Bishops and Priests led their flocks to spiritual perfection, to holiness. Of course, not everyone attained such heights, but there were surprisingly many who did; it was not without reason that Ireland was called Insula Sanctorum (the Island of Saints). The Celtic spiritual Fathers (anamcharas and periglours) helped to heal the interior wounds of their spiritual children; they gave them strength and courage for further spiritual struggles. On the ancient Celtic holy sites in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and elsewhere rested the glow of that cæleste Lumen (heavenly light), shining from the faces of the Celtic monks who had advanced in spiritual life and attained theosis (deification).

Celtic clergy helped to spread the Christian Faith in a peaceful and blessed way. Some time toward the end of the sixth century, there began an exodus from Ireland of the Scotti peregrini, among whom was St Columbanus from the monastery of Bangor. They contributed greatly to a spiritual and cultural renaissance on the European continent. It is possible that their missionary efforts reached as far as the territory of the present Czech Republic. One might say that all of this was too beautiful to last for ever. The Holy Spirit, at work in the local Celtic Churches, produced this wonderful blossoming, which gave form to the very best and most beautifully distinctive qualities and gifts of the Celtic peoples. Yet, one of the greatest tragedies of Church history is the withering of this very special blossom of Celtic Christianity on the stalk of the Church.

As I became more deeply acquainted with Celtic Christianity, through reading the ancient lives of Celtic Saints and visiting the holy sites in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England, I became convinced of a deep inner spiritual unity between Celtic Christianity, which has almost vanished, and Orthodox Christianity. This deep inner unity is not surprising; spirituality is living dogmatic theology, dogmatic theology reified in life. The confession of the Orthodox Faith formed the same spirituality in the Celtic peoples that it did in other peoples and cultures that confess Orthodox Christianity. Thus, Celtic Christianity has not perished completely. Its holy places retain their unique spiritual atmosphere and a pilgrimage to them can enrich anyone who is appropriately motivated and spiritually sensitive. The Celtic lands produced numerous Saints who are alive in God and who are helping those who turn to them with faith in their prayers.

The Origins of Monasticism in the West

An historian of Celtic Christianity has written that ‘the most characteristic feature of the Celtic Church was its preference for the monastic and eremitic life,’ and that ‘the history of the Celtic Church is largely a history of monks and monasteries’ (G.H. Doble, Lives of the Welsh Saints, Cardiff: 1971), p. 45).

Monasticism, like Christianity, has its origin in the East and quickly spread through Palestine, Egypt, and Syria to the West. In the fourth century, monasticism reached Gaul, through the efforts of St Martin of Tours (ca. 315-397). St Martin lived as a hermit on an island off the Ligurian coast. In 360, he became a member of the clergy surrounding St Hilary at Poitiers. In Ligugé, not far from Poitiers, he founded a semi-eremitical community, the first monastery in Gaul. In 370 or 371, he was consecrated Bishop of Tours. He lived in a solitary place nearby, where another monastery was soon founded, Marmoutier. His example led to the establishment of other monastic communities elsewhere.

The influence of another monk, St John Cassian, was also very important in Gaul. St John spent a number of years as a monk in Bethlehem and Egypt, and was thus familiar with the life and teachings of the Desert Fathers. About the year 415, he established a monastery and a convent at Marseilles. In his Institutes, he related the traditions of monastic life and also analysed the eight cardinal passions. In the Conferences he recorded his talks with the Egyptian spiritual Fathers. His writings on monastic life were studied by the Celtic monks on the British Isles. A contemporary of St John Cassian, St Honoratus (ca. 350-429), founded a monastery on one of the islands of Lérins (now St. Honorat) off Cannes in the south of France, where he settled after a pilgrimage to Greece and Rome around the year 410. St. Lupus of Troyes also became a monk here, and later accompanied St Germanus of Auxerre to Britain in 429. It is possible that St Patrick, the Apostle of the Irish, lived for a time on Lérins.

St Athanasios of Alexandria, the defender of Orthodoxy at the First Oecumenical Synod in Nicaea, in 325, had a profound knowledge of monastic life. In 336-337, he was exiled to the West, to Trèves (Trier). It was probably at the request of the monks in the West, to whom he dedicated this work, that he wrote his famous Life of St Anthony, during his third exile in Upper Egypt between 356 and 362. The Life of St Anthony was translated into Latin around 380 and profoundly influenced and contributed to the development of monastic life in the West. This work was read on Iona, and St Anthony and St Paul of Thebes are depicted on several Irish high Crosses.

A disciple of St. Martin of Tours, St. Victricius, Bishop of Rouen, visited Britain in about 396. In Rouen, there was a monastery of men and a chorus virginum at the end of the fourth century. According to his biographer, St. Victricius may have borrowed his monastic Rule from Trèves. It is quite likely that Saints Ninian and Patrick, both Roman Britons, were influenced by the monastic movement in Gaul, which also influenced St Germanus of Auxerre, whose two missions to Britain not only strengthened the British Church in Orthodoxy, but also contributed to the development of monasticism in Britain. The British Church maintained close contact with the Church on the Continent. This contact was later impaired, but not entirely broken, by the Anglo-Saxon incursions. In the days of St Jerome, Britons travelled to the holy sites of Palestine and some visited the Desert Fathers in Egypt. We learn from the Historia Religiosa of Theodoretos of Cyrrhus (fifth century) that many Britons also flocked to the pillar of St. Symeon the Stylite. The old Irish litany of Saints mentions seven Egyptian monks who were buried in Dysert Ulaidh in Ireland.

Thus, the monastic ideal and practice of spiritual life reached the British Isles through the Gallican Church, through pilgrims who traveled to the East, through spiritual literature (e.g., the Life of St Anthony and the writings of St John Cassian), and perhaps also through pilgrims who travelled from the East to the West, such as the seven Egyptian monks buried in Ireland.

The Significance of Monastic Spirituality

Even in the Old Testament times, the members of the Old Testament Church, that is the people of Old Israel, were called to holiness, as it is written in the Book of Leviticus (19.1-2): ‘And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the congregation of the children of Israel, and thou shalt say unto them, Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.’ In the New Testament, members of the Church are called to spiritual perfection, as we read in the Gospel according to St Matthew (5.48): ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.’ This Commandment indicates the path which all true Christians are to follow, without expecting it to ‘end’ at any point. This is the path of spiritual perfection. Those who persevere through the trials of this life will continue to travel this path in the future life beyond the grave.

All true Christians, without exception, are called to this ideal. There are not two ideals, one for the laity and another for monks. St. John Chrysostom gives the following instructions to a Christian parent: ‘You are very mistaken if you think that one thing is expected of lay people and something else from a monastic. The difference between them is that one enters into marriage and the other does not; in everything else they have the same responsibilities’ (Third Discourse, ‘To the Believing Father’). A saintly Bishop in Russia during the nineteenth century, Ignatius (Brianchaninov), wrote that what is important is Christianity and not monasticism; monasticism is important only insofar as it brings the monk to perfect Christianity.

Yet from the beginning of the life of the early Christian Church, there were those who longed for spiritual perfection, for total commitment to their Lord, and for undivided service and consecration to God. While all Christians are called to spiritual perfection, whether they are married or not, poverty (non-attachment to material things), outward solitude and quiet, a life apart from the world, and living in a community of like-minded Christians became effective means for attaining spiritual perfection in this life, with the help of God. Gradually, some deserts and uninhabited regions were settled by spiritual warriors. Some lived in small groups, others in larger communities (coenobitic monasteries). Others, whose spiritual state corresponded to such a way of life, lived completely alone as anchorites. Various rules regulating the monastic life were soon developed and ascetic literature began to be recorded and circulated. Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov) notes that monasticism was thus established in the early Church by the Holy Spirit.

Man’s Vocation to Theosis

In the book of Genesis we read: ‘And God said, Let us make man according to our image and likeness’ (Gen 1.26). The Church Fathers, since ancient times (e.g., St Irenæus of Lyons), have distinguished between the Divine image and likeness. Man was created in the image of God, but he had yet to attain His likeness, to become like God, to achieve full theosis. However, man fell. The first man, Adam, prior to his fall, possessed an internal unity through God’s Grace (charis, gratia). He was turned Godward in love. But when he sinned, he lost this special Grace which had protected and united him. The good order of his soul was corrupted, and an unnatural and sinful man came into existence. The passions that overcame man were not outside forces which entered from without and which must be uprooted. Rather, they are energies of the soul which have been distorted and need to be transformed. In the human soul, there are three faculties: the intelligent (logistikon), appetitive (epithymetikon), and the incensive (thymikon). These three faculties must be directed toward God. When they turn away from Him, they become sinful passions. A sinful passion is therefore a movement of the soul contrary to nature.

The first man did not carry out the task which lay before him, ‘to cultivate and to keep’ (Gen 2.15), to strengthen himself in goodness and co-operate with Divine Grace to attain full deification and become ‘god’ by Grace. Because of the fall, the Divine economy for man had to be adapted; however, the goal for which man was created did not change. St. Athanasios of Alexandria states that God became man so that man might become god (‘On the Incarnation’). This teaching about theosis is to be found in the writings of the Church Fathers from the earliest times; it has Biblical origins.

The idea of personal and organic union between God and man – God dwelling in us and we in Him – is set forth in the Gospel according to St John and the Epistles of St Paul. The latter sees the Christian life mainly as a life in Christ. The same idea is expressed also in the Second Epistle of St Peter: ‘According as His Divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness… that by these ye might be partakers of the Divine Nature’ (II Pet 1.3-4). In Orthodox theology, man’s salvation and redemption mean his deification. This teaching must always be understood in the light of the distinction between God’s Essence and His Energies. Union with God means union with the Divine Energies, not with the Divine Essence.

An early witness to this teaching about the distinction between the Divine Essence and Energies is provided by St. Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century. In Letter 234, he writes: ‘We know our God from His Energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to His Essence. For His Energies come down to us, but His Essence remains unapproachable.’ This teaching was later developed by one of the greatest theologians of the Orthodox Church, St. Gregory Palamas. The union between God and man is a true union, in which man retains his full personal integrity and personal characteristics without ceasing to be human.

Deification involves the body also. ‘Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,’ wrote the Apostle Paul (I Cor 6.19). At the Resurrection, the bodies of the Saints will be transfigured by Divine Light, as the body of the Lord was transfigured on Mount Tabor. Even in this present life, some Saints have experienced the beginning of this visible and bodily glorification. In the Apophthegmata Patrum, a collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers, we read of Abba Pambo: ‘Just as Moses received the image of the glory of Adam, when his face was glorified, so the face of Abba Pambo shone like lightning, and he was as a king seated on his throne.’ The body is sanctified and transfigured together with the soul. The Divine Grace present in the Saints’ bodies during their lifetime on earth remains active in their Relics after their death, which is the reason behind the veneration of holy Relics in the Church.

By His Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Founding of the Church, the Lord opened for His most precious creature, man, the path to his true goal, to theosis. In the Mysteries of Baptism and Chrismation, a person receives the fullness of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. But he must still make this Grace ‘his own’; he must go through the process of acquiring the Holy Spirit. St. Mark the Ascetic says that Christ as Perfect God gave to the Baptised the perfect Grace of the Holy Spirit, which is revealed and manifested insofar as a person lives the Divine commandments (‘Instructions for Hesychasts’).

The call to sanctity and spiritual perfection is directed to all Christians and therefore all true Christians do everything that is in their power to acquire the Holy Spirit and to achieve inner unification and the healing of the passions. They discover that there are various steps of spiritual ascent to purification of the heart and illumination, when the intellect (nous) is united with the heart, in ceaseless prayer, to achieve theosis.

The process of spiritual advancement is not something mechanical or magical, however, as if by certain actions we can ‘force’ Divine Grace to effect our internal transformation. Divine Grace brings about this internal change when the time is ripe. But it can also be said that it works in correspondence with a person’s own struggle and efforts in repentance and humility. ‘If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?’ (Lk 11.13). The co-operation (synergy) of Divine Grace with a person’s own free will is thus required.

Martyrdom and Militia Christi

Great effort is necessary to enable a believer to traverse the path of spiritual perfection. A degree and form of spiritual combat (askesis) is required of all Christians. The path to theosis is difficult. It is truly the way of the Cross, a narrow path leading to life everlasting. In fact, St Athanasios the Great compares the ascetic or eremitic life of St Anthony the Great to a daily martyrdom.

A homily in archaic Irish, probably dating from the last quarter of the seventh century, also speaks of martyrdom: ‘Now there are three kinds of martyrdom, which are accounted as a cross to a man, to wit: white martyrdom, green (glas) and red martyrdom. White martyrdom consists in a man’s abandoning everything he loves for God’s sake, though he suffer fasting or labor thereat. Green martyrdom consists in this, that by means of fasting and labour he frees himself from his evil desires, or suffers toil in penance and repentance. Red martyrdom consists in the endurance of a cross or death for Christ’s sake, as happened to the Apostles in the persecution of the wicked and in teaching the law of God’ (John Ryan, Irish Monasticism, Dublin: 1992, pp. 197-198).

This division of bloodless martyrdom into ‘white’ and ‘green’ is peculiar to Irish monasticism, yet the comparison of monasticism with martyrdom is very apt and is related to the concept of spiritual life as combat: the struggle with one’s self and with the fallen spirits who assail true Christians who labour for spiritual perfection. For this reason the Celtic tradition regarded monasticism as the Army of Christ (Militia Christi) and the monk as a soldier of Christ (miles Christi). Young men, in their effort to emulate the heroism of their ancestors, entered monasteries. Instead of fighting in the Fianna (the Celtic army), they joined the Militia Christi to wage war against the evil spirits and sin.

Spiritual Guidance

Spiritual life in the Orthodox tradition is very practical and sober. It can bring its adepts to great heights of spiritual perfection. But the path is very arduous and demanding. Orthodox monasticism has been called the ‘science of sciences’ and ‘art of arts.’ This science and art must be learned from a master who is thoroughly conversant in it, if indeed one can find such a genuine teacher or Elder. Here is the rôle of the institution of Eldership: True Eldership is a special gift (charisma) of the Holy Spirit. A true Elder knows God’s will, insofar as it is revealed to him, and is thus able to guide the person who entrusts himself to his spiritual guidance to spiritual perfection in God without hindrance.

People often suffer because they do not know how to make decisions, what they should do, and which path they should follow. A spiritual guide can protect his disciple from making wrong decisions and taking a wrong step, if the disciple consults and heeds his guide in the spirit of humble and loving submission. A three-way relationship can be established: the Elder is enlightened by Divine Grace, the disciple is strengthened by the Grace of God, and the Holy Spirit thus works in both.

There have been, and continue to be, many situations where believers cannot reap benefit from a God-bearing spiritual guide. Yet this does not mean that the path to spiritual perfection is closed. In these cases, the Christian struggling for perfection must then turn to studying the Holy Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers – especially that which corresponds to his situation and spiritual condition – and also seek out the advice of like-minded persons with more experience in spiritual life. But even such advice should also be checked with the teachings of the Holy Fathers.

Such a path is naturally more arduous and fraught with greater dangers. But if a person conducts his spiritual life aright, in repentance and humility, and fights the spiritual battle lawfully (cf. II Tim 2.5), he gradually comes to understand himself and to become aware of the extent of his corruption and sinfulness. This confirms him in the basic principles of true humility and ever-deepening repentance. He wages a prolonged and persistent struggle against his passions, bad habits, and weaknesses. Each day he takes account of his weaknesses and failures, learning inner prayer, confessing his sins to the Priest whom God provides for him, and partaking of the Holy Mysteries.

The Apostle Paul regarded himself as the chief among sinners, and any person who is living a proper spiritual life reaches the same conclusion about himself. Such a person begins to taste of humility and the deep state of repentance known as joy-creating lamentation, the first steps in the purification of one’s conscience and the attainment of inner peace and that living faith which opens the way to spiritual joy and freedom from the tyranny of the passions. The Kingdom of God begins to rule within such a person. Because of serious failings and faults, Divine Grace often hides its operation, in part for didactic reasons, that is, to demonstrate one’s total dependence on God’s help and to effect a direct experience of the truth of the Saviour’s words: ‘Without Me ye can do nothing’ (Jn 15.5). This experience leads a person to cry out with all of his heart, entreating the Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on him.

In the Christian monastic tradition, the institution of spiritual Fathers and Elders existed from the earliest times. There were a number of God-bearing Elders among the Egyptian Desert Fathers, and such holy spiritual Elders can be found throughout the history of the Orthodox Church down to the present day.

Celtic monasticism was also adorned by such holy spiritual guides, such as St Columcille of Iona. In the Celtic Church there existed the very important institution of spiritual Fathers, who in Ireland were called anamchara (‘soul-friends,’ from the Latin animae carus); in Welsh, periglour. Each monk had his spiritual guide, anamchara, to whom he was to open his heart, confess his thoughts, and reveal his conscience (manifestatio conscientiae). An ancient Irish saying comments that a person without a soul-friend is like a body without a head.

Through his writings, St John Cassian was a teacher of spiritual life in the British Isles. He also instructs his readers concerning the benefits of revealing one’s thoughts to the Fathers, though not indiscriminately. (One should, he says, consult spiritual Elders who have spiritual discernment, diakrisis.) In the Life of St David of Wales we find additional evidence of the practice of the confession of thoughts, for it is recorded that the monks in St David’s monastery revealed their thoughts to the spiritual Father. The efficacy of this practice is captured in a Celtic proverb: ‘As the floor is swept every day, so is the soul cleansed every day by confession.’

The Celtic spiritual Fathers helped and counselled not only monks, but also the lay people who had recourse to them. The soul friend was to be a guide who helped in all the trials and difficulties of spiritual life. The purpose of this revelation of conscience was to heal the wounds inflicted by sin and enable one to continue his path to unification with God. A truly wise soul-friend was one who had learned humility. Everyone was recommended to choose a humble and experienced soul-friend.

External Asceticism

Celtic Christians took the spiritual life very seriously, and to attain their spiritual goal they employed various forms of external asceticism, such as standing in cold water, ‘cross vigils’ (the ascetic practice of praying all night long with arms outstretched in the form of a Cross) and prostrations (slectain), that is, kneeling down and touching one’s forehead to the ground. ‘There was an anchorite in Clonard, a man of great asceticism. He made two hundred prostrations at Morning Prayer, a hundred at each hour of prayer, and a hundred at vigils. In all, he made seven hundred each day’ (The Rule of Tallacht). In a Culdee text from around the eighth century we learn that monks were normally not to perform more than two hundred prostrations daily. Such prostrations continue to be a part of the liturgical life and prayer rule of both monks and lay people in the Orthodox Church.

In addition, regulations concerning fasting have always been an important part of the external asceticism of monastics. Abstaining from meat and discretion in drinking wine were monastic traditions from the earliest times in the Christian East, and in the Rule of Cormac Mac Ciolionain (ca. 900) it is stated that a monk should renounce meat and wine.

Prayer: Praxis and Theoria

The heart of monastic life was prayer: private prayer and participation in the communal Divine services in Church. Although we do not find in Irish sources a description of the method of interior prayer, the fruits of the spiritual struggles of the Celtic monks indicate that noetic prayer was learned from the same sources that have been preserved and elaborated upon in the Orthodox East. This ascetic tradition distinguishes between two aspects of the spiritual life: praxis and theoria.

Praxis consists in the purification of the heart from passions, with the help of prayer, obedience, fasting, vigil, silence, the chanting of Psalms, and patience in tribulations. This corresponds to the process of purification, the first degree of the spiritual life. Theoria is the illumination of the intellect (nous) and the vision of the uncreated glory of God. (Note: ‘Nous is a word used in various ways by the Church Fathers. It indicates either the soul or the heart or also an energy of the soul. Nous is primarily the eye of the soul, the purest part of the soul. Nous is not identified with reason; in English translations of Orthodox ascetic works it is often rendered by the word intellect.’ Metropolitan Hierotheos, A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain, pp. 189-190.)

According to St. Gregory the Theologian, praxis is the way to theoria. Theoria is identified with the vision of uncreated Light, uncreated Divine energy, the union of man with God, theosis. Thus, theoria, vision, and theosis are closely related. There are various degrees of theoria: illumination, Divine vision, or a prolonged vision which may last for hours, days, weeks, or even months. Noetic prayer is the first stage of theoria. A person is granted theoria through praxis, and when this state of theoria ceases, he resumes praxis anew.

The biographer of St Samson of Dol says that the Saint never ceased to pray either during the day or during the night (cf. I Th 5.17). Like some Desert Fathers, St Samson sometimes appeared transfigured. Once, when certain persons went to call him to a council, they saw his face shining like that of an Angel. The same is recorded about the Egyptian Desert Fathers Abbas Or and Theonas.

According to St. Gregory Palamas, Adam, before his fall into sin, was originally clothed in the garment of glory, of Divine Light and splendour. He participated in the Divine Light. The light at the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor manifested to the Apostles not only the future glory of the Kingdom of God, but also this lost state of the beatitude of Adam in Paradise before the fall. Before the fall, the natural elements did not harm man. Animals looked to man as to their King and rendered him service. In the Saints, those who attained the illumination and deification lost by Adam, the same phenomenon is observed: wild animals are not afraid of them, do not harm them, and serve them faithfully. They recognise their King in the Saints, as it was in the beginning. Many such accounts are found in the lives of Celtic Saints.

Theosis: Uncreated Divine Light

Some Celtic Saints reached a very high degree of spiritual life. Revelations of the uncreated Divine Light (cæleste lumen, divina lux) accompanied St. Columcille of Iona, as recorded in the Saint’s Life written by St. Adomnan. Here are two such instances.

‘At another time when the holy man was living in the island of Hinba, the Grace of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon him abundantly and in an incomparable manner, and continued marvellously for the space of three days, so that for three days and as many nights, remaining within a house barred, and filled with heavenly light, he allowed no one to go to him, and he neither ate nor drank. From that house streams of immeasurable brightness were visible in the night, escaping through chinks of the door leaves, and through the key-holes. And spiritual songs, unheard before, were heard being sung by him. Moreover, as he afterwards admitted in the presence of a very few men, he saw, openly revealed, many of the secret things that have been hidden since before the world began. Also everything that in the Sacred Scriptures is dark and most difficult became plain, and was shown more clearly than the day to the eyes of his purest heart. And he lamented that his foster-son Baithene was not there, who if he had chanced to be present during those three days, would have written down from the mouth of the blessed man very many mysteries, both of past ages and of ages still to come, mysteries unknown to other men, and also a number of interpretations of the sacred books.’

In a second narrative, St. Adomnan speaks about a disciple of the Saint named Berchan, who, contrary to the Saint’s prohibition, came at night to his cell and saw through the key-hole that his lodging was filled with the glory of heavenly brightness (cælestis splendore claritudinis).

The Life of St Basil the Great contains a similar account of persons to whom it was granted to behold the Saint at prayer in his cell totally illuminated in the uncreated Light of God, the Light of Divine Grace. The same manifestation of spiritual life occurred in sixth century Ireland and in fourth-century Asia Minor; one can find numerous examples in the monastic Saints of the Orthodox Church throughout the centuries up to present times. This phenomenon is explained by Metropolitan Hierotheos in his book on St Gregory Palamas. When man attains to the vision of the uncreated Light, he is deified. Deification is man’s union with God. This union offers Divine knowledge, which surpasses human knowledge. There are many degrees of vision of the Divine Light, but there is no end to perfection. The degree of vision depends on the person’s spiritual condition and on God’s gift (St Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite, p. 351).

St Columcille passed through the first stage of spiritual ascent, purification of the heart; he was released from all evil thoughts. He attained a higher level, the illumination of the intellect (nous), which is related to the acquisition of unceasing, noetic prayer, wherein a person is delivered from ignorance and forgetfulness and is therefore constantly aware of God, and finally attained vision of God. Thus, the words of the Gospel were fulfilled in him: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Mt 5.8).

The few examples cited here demonstrate that spirituality is a living dogmatic theology. Because, in the first millennium for the Christian age, the Celtic Churches confessed the same Orthodox Faith as the Orthodox Church, it is not surprising to find a deep inner unity between Celtic Christian spirituality and traditional Orthodox spirituality.

Father Gorazd (Vorpatrny), a graduate of Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, New York, completed his M.A. and doctoral degrees in theology at the Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, where he is Senior Lecturer in Orthodox Studies at the Hussite Faculty of Theology.