Summary: Jesus invites us to come away for awhile alone with him.
Solitude and Silence
If Celtic Spirituality was born out of Patrick’s experience, then it was born out of solitude. Patrick spent 6 years from age 6-22 living the life of a monk as a slave-shepherd in the hills of Ireland. He used his solitude to pray, praying the psalms day and night for those 6 years.
We’re actually not sure how, but the Celtic church was greatly influenced by the desert fathers and mothers. These Christians were the beginning of the monastic movement. They ventured out into the Egyptian and Syrian deserts to spend a life of solitude and prayer. They didn’t go to escape the sins of the city, but to do battle with the devil – the desert was not a spiritually safe place in their minds.
The most famous of these Desert fathers would be Saint Anthony of Egypt – His biography was written by Athanasius and is likely available from the library. Amazingly, Antony appears carved into the top of many high crosses across Ireland!
The Celts held these hermits in high regard, as they did the martyrs of the church and they tried to emulate them. But since there is no desert in Ireland, and by the end of Patrick’s life there was no persecution or opportunity for martyrdom, they created what was called “Green Martyrdom.” In Green Martyrdom a person would go off into the Irish countryside and find a cave to sleep in, or they would sleep in the open, living a life of sacrifice and solitude.
But the Irish countryside is not the desert, and many of the Celtic solitaries found an abundance rather than a lack of provision in their hermitage. Here is a prayer that I have up in our little cabin in the woods:
I wish, O Son of the living God,
Eternal, ancient King,
For a secret hut in the wilderness
That it may be my dwelling
A very blue shallow well
To be beside it,
A clear pool for washing away sins
Through the grace of the Holy Ghost.
A beautiful wood close by
Around it on every side
For the nurture of many-voiced birds
To shelter and hide it.
Facing the south for warmth
A little stream across its ground,
A choice plot with abundant bounties
Which would be good for every plant…
This is the housekeeping I would get,
I would choose it without concealing,
Fragrant fresh leeks, hens,
Salmon, trout, bees.
My fill of clothing and food
From the King of good fame
And for me to be sitting for a time
Praying to God in every place.
- Esther De Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, p.100
Green Martyrdom was not the only way of Solitude – for many of the monks who put out into the sea in their little coracles, they were venturing into the “Desert Ocean.”
The Celts got their cues from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but they did not just copy them. If someone went out to be a hermit in the desert, It was likely he or she would remain there for the rest of their life. The Celts on the other hand might retire into solitude at some times in their lives, or at certain times of the year, and then later on re-emerge to join the community once again.
Great missionaries like St. Columbanus and Columba are reciorded as seeking out and solitary spots as part of the pattern of their public activities.