Prayer - Patrick from Restoring the Woven Cord

Prayer - Patrick from Restoring the Woven Cord

St Patrick

Patrick was a British Celt born around the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries, and his home was somewhere on the western coast of Britain. He was one of the few early Celtic Christians whose written works has survived. He wrote his Confession and also a letter to a British king called Coroticus. We therefore know a fair bit about the key events of his life, as well as fascinating insights into his
personality and spirituality.

At the time, slavery was sadly part of the fabric of society, and Patrick became a victim of this fearful trade when, at the age of 16, he was captured by Irish slave traders and taken over to Ireland, where for six years he came into the possession of a chieftain named Miliucc. He was put to work herding cattle and experienced great hardships, particularly of cold and hunger. But in this most unpromising place, he tells us in his Confession, rather like the prodigal son, he ‘returned with a whole heart to the Lord my God’. As he also records, he experienced an extraordinary surge of prayer:

But after I had come to Ireland I daily used to feed cattle, and I prayed frequently during the day; the love of God and the fear of Him increased more and more, and faith became stronger, and the spirit was stirred; so that one day I said about a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same; so that I used even to remain in the woods and in the mountains; before daylight I used to rise to prayer, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm; nor was there any slothfulness in me, as I now perceive, because the spirit was then fervent within me.

Patrick tells us that one night, during this intense period of prayer, he had a dream that he would return home. He duly escaped and journeyed 200 miles to the south-east coast of Ireland, where he managed to board a ship heading home. The following years are a little unclear, but they included a visit to France and, at some point, he was ordained.

It was while he was in the safety of his home, he had a most surprising call through another of his several prophetic dreams. In this dream, he saw a man coming from Ireland who gave a letter to Patrick entitled ‘The voice of the Irish’. As he read this, he heard the voice of many Irish people beckoning him to come and walk among them. The call was to the very land that had caused him so much suffering. Undaunted, however, he obeyed the call and, following his consecration as bishop, he arrived back in Ireland in AD435, this time not as a slave, but as a missionary.

Throughout the next three decades, he engaged in the most vigorous and effective evangelistic work, and by the time he died in 461 he left behind him thousands of baptised Christians and many communities of faith that were blossoming into life. He had also effectively eradicated slavery from Ireland. With the collapse of the Roman empire, Patrick’s Ireland was rising as a new centre for civilisation, and a dynamic base for Christian mission.

The prayer life of the early Celtic church is worthy of the admiration of Christians of every tradition. In this church we find hermits leading austere lives of fasting and contemplative prayer. We also find Pentecostal-style enthusiastic prayer. Perhaps the Celtic church, more than any other, was true to Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to ‘pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests’ (Ephesians 6:18, NIV).

The hermit and ascetic life

Possibly the clearest witness to the vital role of prayer was in the life and ministry of the hermit. It is no surprise that a church so closely connected with the Desert Fathers should see such a flourishing of eremetical life. St Anthony, the first and most renowned Desert Father, who lived to be over 100 years old despite his austere life in the Egyptian desert, was greatly loved and admired by the Celtic church. The ancient high crosses of Monasterboice in Ireland are carved with the images of two saints – Anthony and Paul of Thebes both Desert Fathers. The Celtic church found such people a great inspiration and, although the climate of northern Europe was very different from the hot deserts of Egypt, the principles of desert spirituality could be applied. Martin Palmer writes:

In many parts of Ireland, Wales and Scotland you can find tiny chapels of the remains of hermitages in the most remote and desolate places. Quite often these places will bear names such as Dysart, Disserth or the like. These words are all corruptions of the word desert. And they were so called because in the Celtic monastic tradition, to go to a remote place for spiritual retreat was to go into the desert. The idea of going to the
desert is a direct link back to the Coptic monks.

Some would seek these deserts for short periods of time. For example, it seems to have been the custom of Celtic bishops to go to a ‘desert’ during Lent in fasting and prayer. Thus Cuthbert and his successor on Lindisfarne, Eadbert, would go to the island now called ‘Cuddy’s Isle’, a little tidal island a few metres from Lindisfarne. Here they, and many after them, would spend short or longer periods of time in prayer and quietness. For Cuthbert, it was the precursor to a more prolonged solitary life, as he eventually felt called to go to an island further out to sea, Farne Island, which Aidan had used as a place of retreat. Cuthbert lived on this island for almost ten years before he was persuaded to return to the mainland and become a bishop. Bede tells us that Cuthbert went to Farne Island for ‘solitary contemplation and silence’. He was not alone all the time; it seems that he had regular visits from the Lindisfarne community. Members of the community would go over to help him build his dwelling and his chapel, and to prepare the land so that he could grow his own food. It seems that Cuthbert actually became more and more remote on Farne Island, eventually building a high-walled, open-roofed dwelling for himself, and even blocking up the window so that when monks came to visit him he could not see their faces. All he saw was the sky, as he kept his gaze towards heaven.

Such asceticism was common in the Celtic church, though we do not have many records of some of the most bizarre forms of ascetic behaviour that took place in the east. The ascetic life, lived out in some remote and, frankly, fairly hostile places encouraged a sense of doing battle in the wilderness, following the example of the Lord, but the close proximity to the forces of nature also had the effect of quickening the spirit in prayer. Patrick’s early experience of praying in the bleakness of winter is an example of this. His contact with the cold frosts made him more sharply aware of the cold hearts of his captors and, by contrast, the compassionate and warm heart of God. Cuthbert’s hours spent praying in the cold sea may seem absurd to those who are accustomed to saying their prayers in the comfort of a fireside armchair, but there is no doubt that the experience fuelled a fire within him which quite probably literally warmed him up. This kind of asceticism is a form of fasting. Not everyone in the Celtic communities lived ascetic lives but all would regularly fast.

Asceticism widened the arena of fasting to include celibacy and the withdrawal of human comforts. Fasting has the effect of making the spirit more alert to God, and there is no doubt that Cuthbert and others were spiritually highly sensitive.

When he eventually left Farne Island, Cuthbert’s place was taken by Ethelwald. Such places were sanctified by holy people and they became like spiritual watchtowers. If one hermit left, another would come and take his or her place, standing guard in prayer.

In our utilitarian age it is hard to understand the purpose of the hermit life. We think of Cuthbert, a gifted evangelist and teacher, cutting himself off from his fellow creatures, denying himself all the good things of this world. And yet the Celtic church, with all its love for creation and life, had no difficulty in accepting this ministry. I think the only way of understanding it is to see the ministry as representative.

The Celtic church knew that prayer and devotion to God had to be at the heart of its life if it was to witness to God effectively. The hermit was, to some degree, living out this life for the sake of the community and, indeed, for the sake of the wider community. The hermit provided a kind of anchor for a church which could easily have become overbusy, and which was no doubt tempted by materialism in much the same ways that the church is today. It is interesting to read about Fursey (see chapter 9), who became immensely popular when he preached in Ireland. Bede tells us that ‘he could no longer endure the crowds that thronged him’, so he abandoned all he possessed, including his ministry, left Ireland and went to East Anglia. Here he built a monastery, but once again, in the face of rising success, he withdrew and lived the rest of his life as a hermit.

The church today would do well to consider this vital aspect of the life of the Celtic church. We all too easily give in to the seduction of busyness, measuring our value by our usefulness rather than our being. During the 1990s I used to visit the late Brother Ramon, a Franciscan monk who had once travelled extensively around the land, preaching and teaching, but latterly felt called to the hermit life. I visited him in his small hut just beyond the kitchen garden at Glasshampton Monastery in Worcestershire. At the time I knew him, I was travelling a fair bit in the UK and overseas, and there was something immensely reassuring to know that Ramon was there, a human fixed point of prayer and devotion on the lookout in his spiritual watchtower. Ramon, and other hermits like him, are a kind of countercultural movement, offering an alternative way of living to the relentless busyness of so much of our church life. Why do we consider it to be of greater value to have our bishops and clergy attending committees and meetings throughout Lent rather than spending six weeks in contemplative prayer? The Celtic attitude, illustrated so aptly by the life of the hermit, deeply challenges our values.

All kinds of praying

The Celtic hermit would have engaged in praying of all kinds. There were times of aggressive (and probably noisy) battle prayer when the hermits engaged forces of darkness in their praying (as we shall see in chapter 3). But they also knew the prayer of silence and stillness, which was the foundation of the contemplative life, so treasured by the Celtic church.

The hermit was never an isolated figure. He or she was part of the monastic community. Cuthbert, therefore, when he was on Farne Island, was still seen to be very much part of the community. In the monastic communities, there was a regular rhythm of prayer and worship. Early on, Aidan set up a pattern of prayer and worship on Lindisfarne that became an easy-to follow example for all. Bede writes, ‘Many devout men and women of that day were inspired to follow his example, and adopted the practice of fasting until None on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, except during the fifty days after Easter.’ They clearly saw themselves as having an intercessory responsibility for the nation. After a victory against the ever-threatening  Penda, King Oswy gave twelve grants of land where, as expressed by Bede, ‘heavenly warfare was to take the place of earthly’. This land became the home of a monastic community whose job it was to make constant intercession for the peace of the nation. To turn a battle site into a place of prayer was typical of the Celtic desire to heal the land, turning darkness to light.

The Celtic church seems to have been at ease with formal prayer, and they kept the offices in their communities, but we have many reports of more spontaneous charismatic prayer. One Epiphany, Cuthbert found himself with two brothers on an island off the coast of Scotland. The weather turned bad and they could not get off the island. With no food or water, they realised that the situation was serious. Bede relates Cuthbert’s wonderful response to the crisis:

‘Why do we remain listless and unresourceful?’ he asked. ‘We ought to be thinking over every possible way of saving ourselves. The land is bleak with snow, clouds lour in the sky, there is a gale raging and the sea is a fury of waves, we are dying of hunger and there is no chance of human aid. Then let us storm Heaven with our prayers, asking that the same Lord who parted the Red Sea and fed His people in the desert take pity on us in our peril.’

The storms that caused the waves to pound on the rocks caused Cuthbert to stir to prayer. I can imagine him standing in the waves and crying out his prayers, with his great voice being carried on the gales to heaven. This wind-inspired storming of heaven is truly charismatic prayer! Needless to say, it was not long before they found food, and then the storm settled and they made for home. Patrick’s fervent prayers, too, must have had a lot of energy behind them. Prayer was often quite physical. People would pray as they walked. Crossing yourself was a regular part of prayer, as was the drawing of an imaginary circle around you in one of the encircling prayers. Some prayer seems to have been very energetic.

Much of the prayer of the Celtic church would have been spontaneous but, in time, certain prayers became part of church and community rituals, and it is these that were passed down the generations to be gathered in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (see chapter 13 for more on this collection). Even a brief study of these prayers reveals a great respect for words that challenges the wordiness of some church prayers today, both written and extempore. Many of the Celtic prayers are beautifully and poetically written and are designed to stir the soul and touch the heart. With the Celtic love for creation, many connect with the seasons and with all the various aspects of life in God’s created order. Celtic Christians found it as natural to pray while milking a cow as they did to pray in church. In fact, it was vital to feel at ease in praying while doing such mundane things as milking your cow, because, if you could not, your spiritual and earthly worlds were becoming far too separate. Thus there are prayers for getting up in the morning, for washing and dressing, for working, for resting, for meeting friends, for eating, for tidying the house, for undressing, for going to bed. In this way the Celtic church was returning to our Jewish roots, for in Jewish spirituality there has always been a strong earthiness in prayer. David Adam’s book Power Lines5 is an excellent example of prayers that connect with modern-day work.

Some evangelicals will find the references to the saints difficult in Celtic prayers, but we need to remember how very important the sense of community was to the Celt. As in Jewish tradition, the community always included those loved ones who had died and for whom life had not ended but simply changed. Mary, Brigid and the archangel Michael are particularly popular in prayers. They all have heavenly tasks to assist our work on earth.

Celtic prayer is always deeply trinitarian. A prayer will often involve all three members of the Trinity (see the prayer at the end of this chapter as an example). Coming into the presence of God in prayer meant coming into the presence of all the members of the Trinity, and the reference to the Three in prayer was deeply reassuring, as the person praying would be made to think of the harmony and unity of the Trinity.

It is sad that, down the ages, different ways of praying have become identified with different churchmanships and denominations. It is my conviction that God is wanting now to break into all of this, so that we can be a united church again, enjoying the fullness of prayer with ‘all kinds of praying’.

Bible reading

Mark 1:32–39: Jesus sets the pattern of finding a desert place for
prayer in the face of many demands on his time.


1 How do you feel about contemplative, silent prayer? Is it your natural way of praying? Think about those times when Jesus went to a desert place for peace and quiet. Try spending some time today in stillness.

2 What has been your experience of charismatic prayer? Have you engaged in ‘heaven-storming’ prayer? Next time it is a windy day, why not go out for a walk and pray as the wind stirs you. Feel the moving of the Spirit in you as you pray.

3 You might like to investigate some other Celtic forms of prayer that make use of symbols – try shells, stones, paintings and so on.


Before a time of intercession:

Father, in heaven, Jesus came to you at the dawning of the day in a desert place to be still;

Send stillness to my heart now. Jesus, you intercede for me at the right hand of the Father;
Help me now to open my heart, mind, body and spirit to you.

Spirit, you are the wind from heaven, that shook the upper room;
Come to me now, come as gentle breath, come as mighty wind.

Blessed Three,
I come in humility
I come by grace
I come with confidence
I pray in your name
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Other Celtic Spirituality titles from BRF Ministries 



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