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Intersection of Worlds

History on a wink and a prayer.

One time when Coemgen was reciting his hours, he dropped his psalter into the lake, and great grief and vexation seized him. And the angel said to him: “Do not grieve,” said he. Afterwards an otter came to Coemgen bringing the psalter with him from the bottom of the lake, and not a line or letter was blotted. The angel told Coemgen to go to teach and preach the word of God to the peoples, and not to hide himself any longer.

  - Anonymous, Life of Coemgen, Irish, 16th century from an earlier ms.

Then I took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. But when I had eaten it, my stomach became bitter. And he said to me, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings.”

  - Revelation 10.10, 11

Those who wrote the first histories of the Celtic Revival (ca 430-800 AD) were the pioneers in what is today referred to as creative nonfiction. The literary genre they employed is known as hagiography, or, lives of the saints.

Pre-Christian Celts were story-tellers. They passed their histories down orally, usually in the form of poetry, fable, or song, chock full of hero tales and wonders, designed to impress hearers with the importance of the central figures of their accounts.

When the hagiographers who wrote about Coemgen and others took up their pens, they embraced that story-telling tradition, mixed in enough Scripture to establish a link to the orthodox faith, and told stories about true historical personages, using the literary tropes and genre of the day. Their works were intended both to delight and amuse hearers, as well as to stimulate them to greater spiritual exertions.

History on a wink and a prayer, so to speak.

What really happened, in that first generation after Patrick, early in the 6th century, to get Coemgen to forsake his life of solitude and take up the work of preaching?

We don’t know; however, the hagiographer who wrote his story wanted us to understand that Coemgen’s call was clear and undeniable. Whatever convinced him, however he came to be persuaded, it was dramatic and life-changing.

So how did the writer seek to impress this on us? He created continuity – or at least, identity – with John’s call to preach (a message from an angel). He centered Coemgen’s call around the Word of God (Coemgen’s psalter, like John’s “scroll”). He involved some aspect of the creation in the event (an otter as opposed to honey, each of which is God’s servant, Ps. 119.89-91). And he salted in a little miracle (the unblotted word, like eating a scroll?), just so the story would impress.

Was he lying? Not at all. He was relating a historical incident – Coemgen’s call to ministry – in a form familiar to every Irish child or king: Tell me a story, a story of heroes and wonders.

The important point was not in the details of the account, but the fact that God called Coemgen, the founder of the monastic community at Glendalough, to a work which had immense spiritual, social, and cultural impact on the Irish people.

And as God called Coemgen to such a work, so He has called you and me. Each of us has a Personal Mission Field, like Coemgen’s, in which we are called to live and speak for Jesus and His Kingdom.

Celtic Christians lived consciously and openly in the intersection of worlds: the world of men and culture; creation and the unseen realm of saints and angels; reality and wonder; history and humor; ourselves and those who have gone before. They occupied all these worlds at once, where everything intersects in faith with mystery, wonder, truth, and daily life.

Today’s Christians are mostly aware of one world – the world of things, people, time, and getting-and-spending. We have almost no vision of the unseen realm (although half our faith depends on this, Heb. 11.1), and we pay little attention to the world of creation and culture, and what it can teach us about the Lord.

Our sense of the past is not very lively, either. So if our Christian lives don’t seem as interesting or as fruitful as Patrick’s or Coemgen’s, maybe that has something to do with how we view the world, which has something to do with how we understand our Lord Jesus and the salvation He has granted us by grace through faith.

People and angels, creation and culture, truth and mystery, story and fact, calling and everyday life: We inhabit all these intersecting worlds at once. Keep focused on Jesus, exalted in glory, and He will lead you into fullness of life in them all.

For reflection
1. Can you see any similarities between God’s calling on your life and His calling of Coemgen?

2. Why should we think of hagiography as “history on a wink and a prayer”?

Psalm 148.1, 2, 7 (Take My Life and Let It Be)
Praise the Lord, from heaven praise! To the heights His goodness raise!
Angels, all you heav’nly hosts, let of Him be all your boasts,
let of Him be all your boasts!

Let all creatures, ev’rything, God’s great praises loudly sing!
His Name only brims with worth, far above both heav’n and earth,
far above both heav’n and earth!

Lord, help me to live in all the intersecting worlds where You make known Your Presence, glory, pleasure, and will so that I…

The Disciplined Life

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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.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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