ON 7 APRIL, I set out, with nine other pilgrims, to follow in
the footsteps of some of the great Celtic saints of Ireland. We
wanted to get to know them, and not just hear what they did.
We were keen to discover what motivated and inspired them; how
the landscape and historical context shaped their missionary
adventuring; and what kind of Christians they hoped to to be.
In our own way, we were also missionary pioneers, but operating
in very different environments. I am a mission partner with the
Church Mission Society (CMS), involved in outreach to spiritual
seekers at body-mind-spirit-type events, and I will be the first to
graduate from CMS's pioneer-mission leadership training course in
Other pilgrims included some of my fellow students: Berni
Excell, who makes connections with those who gather on the streets
in Penge, South London; Anne Underwood, who brings the arts and
young people together in Bushey, near Watford; and Andrée Lee, who
manages a network of church-run homeless shelters in west
Also travelling with us were our course director, Jonny Baker;
Beth and Ben Honey, who are pioneer ministers working on an estate
in Derby; and Nigel Hallett, a CMS mission associate in
We were led by two Anglican priests: Russ Parker, who formerly
worked with the Acorn Christian Healing Foundation, and now helps
to heal wounded churches; and Michael Mitton, who is a Fresh
Expressions adviser for the diocese of Derby.
OUR pilgrimage began with a drive from Dublin through the sparse
and exposed terrain of County Wicklow to Glendalough, the site of
the monastic city of St Kevin. Undeterred by rain, we had communion
together, before we each left separately to explore the ruins,
lake, and waterfalls.
For me, it provided a moment to remember the people I had left
behind, and make space for God over the coming days. It also
impressed on us all, from the outset, how important nature is to
St Kevin sought this isolated place to remove himself from
temptations of the flesh, and to see the glory and mystery of God
in his surroundings. It is a beautiful, but harsh and unpredictable
landscape. We walked through swamps and on a path of what looked
like green stone. There was pouring rain, a perfect rainbow, and
then unexpected sunshine.
The next day, we drove west to Clonfert Cathedral, where St
Brendan is buried. These two great saints, Brendan and Kevin, both
actively sought discomfort in order to know greater holiness and
intimacy with God. It was this hardship that seemed to propel them
into self-imposed exile.
Close to Brendan's grave is a tree that has become a shrine for
those seeking healing. We were moved by the trinkets and mementoes.
They could easily be mistaken for rubbish, but each item was a
The impressive church near by was closed, and we lamented the
disconnection between the building that was locked, and the prayer
tree which was evidence that people are actively looking for a
touch from the divine. Like the Celtic missionaries, I want to use
signs and practices in culture creatively, in order to reveal the
hope of Christ to those who are searching.
The next day, we went by river ferry to Clonmacnoise. St Ciaran
established a small monastic community there, in just seven months,
before dying of yellow fever. His vision so inspired his companions
that it grew into a holy city. At this once busy crossing point, we
prayed that each of us would find renewed vision.
Seeing the huge array of beautifully illustrated manuscripts and
carefully worked artefacts, we were struck by how significant
Celtic communities were as centres of art and craftsmanship, as
well as prayer and hospitality.
Anne, in particular, was impressed by the Celtic art, including
pictorial representations of gospel stories engraved on imposing
stone crosses. She saw a connection with her own pioneering: "They
were an encouraging example for me, as I explore the arts in
mission . . . communicating without the written word." We then
drove towards the west coast of Ireland, to catch a flight to the
island of Inishmore.
THE next morning, we visited the site of the seven churches on
Inishmore, where there had been a monastic community, founded by St
Breacan. Our guide, Dara O'Maoildhia, explained that there were
probably not seven churches in reality, but that this number
represented completion. He created so many because, once a church
congregation reached 12, anyone else who wanted to join was told to
start something new in another field.
This led Jonny to reflect on ideas of scale. "Some of this may
have been about architecture," he said. "But it also seemed to be
due to having a vision for smallish communities, living a life of
faith, and making an impact by locating on the trade routes,
showing hospitality to passers-by.
"It is a complete contrast with the obsession with size and
numbers that exists in some parts of Church, where growth is a
measure of success. I wondered what church would be like today if
all the buildings were restricted to 20 people. The current wave of
interest in missional communities seems to have a kindred spirit
with the Irish approach."
On our last day on Inishmore, we went in search of St Enda. He
and Breacan had been rivals; so his monastic community was situated
on a different part of the island. We spent some time praying for
healing in the ruins of Enda's grey stone chapel, before heading
back to Connemara Airport.
Once on the mainland, we began the long drive south-west to the
Dingle peninsula, on the trail of Brendan again. We learned that he
did not start his missionary journeys - including, tradition has
it, a voyage across the Atlantic - until he was 60 years old.
When we stopped at Fahan, with its smattering of stone "beehive"
houses, I was particularly struck by the intensity of the internal
struggles that beset Brendan, as I heard these words of his prayer:
"Christ of the mysteries, I trust you to be stronger than each
storm within me. I will trust in the darkness, and know that my
times, even now, are in your hand."
As people who were embarking on new ventures, we recognised how
debilitating it can be to wrestle with your own doubts and
insecurities. But we also knew that Christ finds us, and
strengthens us, in our weakness.
ON OUR last full day of pilgrimage, we boarded a boat from the
Dingle peninsula to St Sennach's Island. Unfortunately, the weather
was against us. We set off, and reached the island, but the skipper
decided that it was not safe to go ashore.
Afterwards, Bernie said: "By setting out on a trip that took a
very different turn, we kept eyes and ears open to every chance
encounter." He reflected that, in this way, God could reveal things
that otherwise "could so easily be missed".
As we ventured out into the waves, the sea's wildness and
unpredictability made the risks these saints undertook in order to
share the gospel more real. All romanticism was dispelled, and the
holy men and women who had been pioneers before revealed themselves
to be altogether more rugged and determined than I had previously
Life was tough in this magnificent landscape. They were exposed
to the elements, yet embraced and found God in the harshness and
physical demands of monastic life. As our boat was buffeted by
waves, and spray lashed our faces, we saw dolphins leap from the
It was a useful reminder that, despite whatever internal and
external hardships it takes to fulfil our vocation, there is a
reward. When we least expect it, God's grace comes to us.
OUR pilgrimage ended, as it had begun, with communion. This
time, we were at the place where boats set off to provision the
hardy monks on St Sennach's island. It helped me acknowledge the
degree to which pioneers like us, who are working on the fringes of
the Church, rely on both the financial support and encouragement of
the wider church community.
Meeting on the morning of our final day, Ben summed it up
perfectly: "What we think of as new ways, are in fact picking up
the strands of the old ways." This is very much what we are doing
on the CMS pioneer course. Like the owner of the storehouse in St
Matthew's Gospel, we are bringing out old treasures as well as
Jonny was also inspired by the many Irish communities that were
centres for learning and scholarship. "As well as being hubs for
learning, these communities produced all sorts of art, craft, and
beauty," he said. "The blend is inspiring, and both are needed
today. The Church could do with such soulful mission education
again. In theological education today, I fear the emphasis is
nearly all on the scholarly."
For me, the pilgrimage reinforced the importance of context in
mission. These saints could not be isolated from their environment.
Faith and evangelism was a product of where, and how, they
In a post-modern, Western culture, I also want my pioneer
ministry to be a true reflection of who I am, and where God sends
These once hallowed halls
embattled bastions of stone-tombed saints
now echo plaintive with forgotten melodies
of yesteryear's sanctity
Ashen traces of burning hearts
long for remembrance
stir the inner clarion to once again
and embrace by thin faith
another season of possibilities.
From a poem written by a fellow pilgrim, Andrée Lee, after
visits to Glendalough, Clonfert, and St Brigid's.