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Where the saints have trod

by
20 June 2014

In April, Andrea Campanale and a band of fellow pilgrims who are being trained for pioneer ministry travelled to Ireland for inspiration from the Celtic saints. Photos by Jonny Baker

JONNY BAKER

The unreachable St Sennach's Island

The unreachable St Sennach's Island

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 July.

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 London.

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 Pakistan.

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 Celtic spirituality.

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 heartfelt plea.

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 imagined.

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 water.

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 new.

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 lived.

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 me.

www.pioneer-cms.org.uk.

 

SACRED IMPRINT 

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
gather
wonder
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.

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