Celtic Trail – Day 6 – Pilgrimage Day and Meeting with John Bell at Iona Abbey

Rev. John Bell

This was a highlight experience for me. We meet at Iona Abby with Reverend John Bell. John L. Bell (born 1949, Kilmarnock, Ayrshire) is a hymn-writer. A Church of Scotland minister, he is a member of the Iona Community, a broadcaster, and former student activist. He works throughout the world, often lecturing in theological colleges in the UK, Canada and the United States, but is primarily concerned with the renewal of congregational worship at the grass roots level.

Reverend Bell began our time together with a little history on the Celts. Before he got started he mentioned that they are planning a facility in Glasgow relating to the church in the city. He said, “we have a vocabulary for the countryside, nature, etc., now we need a place to develop the vocabulary for the city”.

The Celtic tradition began as the “Keltoids” in central Germany – a culture that predates Christianity. Galatia was a Celtic nation with a common culture. (See Thomas Cahill’s work, “How the Irish Saved Christianity”.)  It is curious why the Irish exported monks to Europe. Reason? It was the grace of God that was rooted in how evangelized people saw their faith as a loving relationship with others. One of the basics for Celtic Christianity was that it was intensely relational. It wasn’t a romantic experience but a tough life. It involved the exploits and brutality of the Vikings, crop failures, bitter cold winters and much more – not an easy life.

Incarnation was vital – as Christ came and experienced our world because of love alone – it gave the Celts the impetus to live incarnational lives as well. However, in our western world we have divorced the rawness of incarnation and make Jesus early life a quick childhood in Victorian fashion – seen but not heard. Incarnation is so important to understanding the Celts. Incarnation is an active God, not a passive one – one that experienced cold and pain where one in four women died in childbirth and one in three children died (1st century). The Gospel of John was great for the Celts. God became one of us. Everything was spoken for the Celts (Gaelic), not written down. The Celts knew the Psalms by heart; they had a discipline to stand for 30 minutes in the cold ocean up to their waist and recite from memory 50 chapters of Psalms at a time. This is why the Druids were able to finally acquiesce – they were the same kind of people only without Christ. The Word of God was inside of them – oral tradition. Our takeaway today it to remember and learn the importance of the Word of God being inside of us too!

We know that Jesus knew of other faiths, other religions and was okay with their being a part of spirituality. As to women, we know more about the women of the Bible than we do of many of the Apostles. Yet another interesting fact, The Book of Kells that was taken to Dublin for safety had the color purple, which could have only come from Afghanistan. Meaning they had interacted with other locations and cultures. Celts wanted to make clear other cultures and people whose insights and faith were important touched them. This global interest was a basis for all people to receive social justice.

The Celts also knew the importance of nature and respect for the earth and its beauty. Just as Job teaches that nature has a raw side to it where good people suffer (it was created first before mankind). Donald Mcleod, a Presbyterian theologian, said the function of nature is to reveal the Glory of God and offers praise to God. Thus we are to be stewards of the land and cannot separate things above from things below. God and his creation are inseparable. That is why architecture is important because buildings speak. In conclusion, Rev John Bell reminded all of us that Celtic prayer did not have a dualistic quality – the Celts saw life as a whole.


In this and in the following posts, the text in BLACK is by Michael Carlisle, one of our colleagues on the Celtic Trail, and the text in BLUE contains my comments.


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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