Following the Celtic Saints into a Whole Life Faith

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by Tom Sine

I am deeply concerned by how the American church and the larger society has been seriously divided by America's culture wars. I am particularly concerned that so many American evangelicals have so uncritically embraced the politics of the religious and political right.

But what concerns me even more than American evangelicals being co-opted by the ideology of the right is the fact that huge numbers of evangelicals everywhere have settled for a compartmentalized religion that is largely disconnected from their real lives and the urgent issues in God's world. As we work with Christians in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, more and more sincere believers seem content to allow modernity and the global consumer culture to define the direction of their lives and the values on which their lives are based.

Consequently, people have less time for prayer, Scripture study, witness, and service. Too often following Christ is trivialized to little more than a devotional lubricant to keep our gears from gnashing as we try to get up all the mountains of modern culture: getting ahead in our careers, getting ahead in the suburbs, and getting our young off to the best schools. This growing marginalization of our faith not only threatens our spiritual vitality but also our authentic witness in an increasingly secular world.

In response to this marginalization, I challenge all of us to consider what we can learn from the whole-life faith of our Celtic Christian ancestors, which made a remarkable difference in their own lives and in God's world.  I still vividly remember my first trip to Iona, Scotland, in 1984. In the 6th century, Columba founded a monastery there that became one of the centers of the emergence of the Celtic Christian faith. As I got off the ferry I was immediately aware of why so many authors describe Iona as one of God's "thin places," a place where one is nearer to that other realm in which God dwells.

Seven years earlier, in a time of crisis, I had met with Richard Foster, who gave me the first three chapters of a book he was writing called THE CELEBRATION OF DISCIPLINE. That book, along with Richard's willingness to be a spiritual director during a very difficult time in my life, was a godsend. Coming from an evangelical pietistic background, I was delighted to discover a broad spectrum of Christian spiritual traditions that I had never before encountered. As a consequence of my time with Richard and his writings, I was open to what God would teach me during my four-day retreat in Iona.

The story of the Celtic movement begins in 430, when a 16-year-old Englishman named Patrick was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Ireland. Over the next six years of tending sheep, he learned a deep dependency on God and became a young man of devout prayer and spirituality.  In God's providence, Patrick escaped and made his way back to England where he was reconciled with his family. Patrick had only been home a few years when he heard God very clearly call him to return to Ireland as a missionary for the gospel of Christ. He gathered together a few friends and headed back to the land of his captivity. Incredibly, this small band shared the good news and saw much of Ireland Christianized in three decades.

I am convinced that this is the beginning of the believers' movement–centuries before the Protestant Reformation. Patrick and early Celtic saints were never a part of the Roman Catholic Church; instead they had a distant connection to the desert fathers in Egypt. In fact, as one travels around Ireland today, one still sees pictures of Anthanasius and Anthony carved on many of the ancient Celtic high crosses.

These Celtic Christians called people to a vital biblical faith that affected every part of life. They were involved in ministries of healing and deliverance, and there were even reports of the dead being raised. They loved the poor, cared for creation, and invited women to be actively involved in leadership. They sent out missionaries from Iona and Lindisfarne, re-evangelizing much of Europe during the 6th and 7th centuries. They had prayers for starting their fires in the morning in which they prayed for the coming of the Holy Spirit. They had prayers for milking the cows, planting the fields, and harvesting their crops. Farmers even routinely stopped in the fields during the day for times of prayer as the Celtic monks stopped to pray.

In this pre-modern faith all of life became a sacrament and every act a liturgy. One has only to read the rich prayers of the Celtic Christian tradition or listen to the towering grandeur of the Celtic hymn "Be Thou My Vision" to experience something of the depth of their spirituality.

We urge busy believers in our modern world to join with these saints and recover a sense of the sacred in all of life. We challenge you to free up time for your spiritual disciplines throughout the day, observe a weekly Sabbath, and take periodic prayer retreats.

In PRAYERS FOR THE FAST-PACED AND CYBER-SPACED by William John Fitzgerald (Forest of Peace, 2000), the author offers daily prayers for us to use as we go online, are held up in traffic, or stand in line at the store. We need to find imaginative ways to connect our entire lives with impulses of our faith instead of allowing them to be preoccupied with the addictions of our culture.

There is a growing hunger in the Western church for a more vital spirituality. Saint Thomas Anglican Church in Sheffield, England, has recently instituted a new lay order, much like the rule of life of Third Order Franciscans. It is called the Order of Mission. Growing numbers of younger Christians are adopting this rule and carving out much greater space in their lives for spirituality and mission (

Several months ago I attended a conference called "A New Monasticism," put on by a group of young Christians who are a part of experimental new Christian communities, such as Communality, the Simple Way, and Rutba House. These young people are keen to find a spirituality that not only nurtures their spirits but also equips them to work more effectively with the poor in their communities. For more information you can contact Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at

That first trip to Iona has had a lasting impact on my life and spirit. I have been back to Iona four times since then, and this Easter Christine and I will return for a five-day prayer retreat during Holy Week to join those who have gone before us in entering into the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In 1989 we mortgaged our house to purchase 40 acres on an island north of Seattle.  Our dream was to create a residential community designed in a way that reflects the early Celtic Christian tradition, and today we hope to use this place to expose young believers to a broad range of Christian spiritual traditions, including the Celtic, to help them design their own spiritual practices.  Together we hope to learn to live in community, with spiritual directors who offer two prayer offices a day. On the weekends we hope to use it as place for directed prayer retreats for Christians of all ages. We are always looking for fellow dreamers (email us at

We urge those interested in a more serious whole-life faith to begin by discovering a sense of God's call on your life through Scripture study, prayer, and community. We urge you to express that sense of call in a biblically shaped mission statement and then to use that statement to create a liturgy of life, family rituals, and celebrations that bring your faith into every part of your life, creating a richer, more festive way of life than anything modern culture and the global consumer mall can offer.

Tom Sine and his wife, Christine, share a regular column in PRISM Magazine.  This essay appeared in the Nov/Dec. 2004 issue.  Check out the Sines' website at 


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