The Celtic Revival: Afterglow (1)
Mael Dithruib of Terryglass asked Helair of Loch Cré whether, if the way of life of the folk of the old churches were not [devout] enough, he should accept of the church’s produce from them. Helair said that he should take it, “for it does not pollute you, provided that you have no share in ordaining them or disciplining them; for though they may be polluted themselves, they do not pollute the produce of the patron saint. For that belongs more properly to us than to them.”
- Anonymous, Stories of the Céili Dé (8thcentury)
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead…”’”
- Revelation 3.1
By the beginning of the 9thcentury, the Celtic Revival had run its course. Beset by internal disputes, the almost constant assaults by Norse pirates, and the stultifying effects of coming under the authority of Rome, churches and monasteries in Celtic lands were losing their fervor for Christ. In many cases, these erstwhile vibrant communities of faith were alive in name only. Politicized, vandalized, patronized, and ingrown, Celtic Christian institutions became polluted with unbelief and sin.
That, at least, was the opinion of the Céili Dé, a movement of reform-minded monks who sought to recover, retain, and recapture the vision and vibrancy of the earlier years of Irish Christianity. “Culdees” – or “servants of God” – began to appear in various places in Ireland, hoping not so much to reform the Irish Church as to carve out pockets of spiritual vigor within it.
Mael Dithruib was one of the leaders of the culdees, and stories about him and other Céili Dé leaders provide a wealth of insight to the afterglow that remained in the coals of the Celtic Revival. While the pollution of churches and monasteries was very real, the culdees made many sincere efforts to remind themselves and other believers of the glories of the recent past, and to mark out a path for recovering some of what had been lost.
The Céili Dé were a movement much like the hermits of the fourth century who fled to the desert to preserve enclaves of true spirituality against what they regarded as a Church captive to imperial politics and secular philosophy. These hermits – like Anthony and Paul – were admired for their efforts, but they exerted very little influence on the shape of the Christian movement. The same can be said for the Céili Dé.
As we shall see, the Céili Dé produced written materials and other resources that resonate well with the period of the Celtic Revival. They fostered a clear and compelling vision of Christ, committed themselves to rigorous spiritual disciplines, worked to enlist others for their movement, and provided an impetus for holy living.
But they had no vision for reaching the larger Church, which they regarded as polluted and beyond saving. It was all right to accept the support and other resources of the churches and monasteries, since these gifts and goods, after all, were the Lord’s to distribute as He saw fit. But the culdees counseled their followers not to participate in the mechanics of the Church – training and ordaining pastors, doing the work of disciple-making, and so forth – but to concentrate on their own holiness and that of their soul friends in the movement.
We can admire the Céili Dé for identifying a problem and offering an alternative to the spiritual torpidity which existed everywhere. Their movement left us a back glimpse to the period of the Celtic Revival, but they represent only an afterglow, and not a reviving of the flame of Patrick and the others.
We need people who are serious about the Lord and life in the Kingdom. But we also need people who will pray and work for revival in God’s people, renewal in His churches, and awakening in the world. The Celtic Revival fizzled out and was forgotten after the Céili Dé movement was swallowed up by the ecclesiastical status quo. Lacking a vision for anything other than their own movement, the culdees sustained an important afterglow of the Celtic Revival. But the rekindling of that flame remains for another generation of the followers of Christ.
Why not ours?
Psalm 38.1-8 (Leoni: The God of Abraham Praise)
O Lord, rebuke me not, nor chasten me in wrath!
Your arrows pierce my sinful heart and fill my path.
Your heavy hand weighs down;
My flesh and bones grow weak.
My sins oppress, confuse, confound – I cannot speak!
My sinful wounds grow foul, and fester painfully;
I bend and groan within my soul most mournfully!
Sin fills my every part;
Conviction stings my breast.
Lord, ease my numbed and burning heart and grant me rest!
Lord, send revival! Send it to me, Lord, every day, and use me to…
Would you see Jesus?
We encourage you to do so. Learn to meditate on Jesus, so that you can say with the Psalmist, “I have set the LORDalways before me” (Ps. 16.8). Download our free, 28-day meditation on Psalm 45, Glorious Vision, by clicking here. And when you’ve finished that, add another 28 days of meditating on Jesus by ordering a copy ofBe Thou My Vision from our online store (click here). And here is a brief videosummarizing the Celtic Christian understanding of Jesus. Is this your understanding as well?
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T. M. Moore, Principal
All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Carey, p. 248