Ireland is a beautiful country – green, lush, rolling hills and beautiful farms aplenty. One of our primary purposes in coming to Ireland and England was to get a sense of the nature of the Christian church in the region for the past 1,500 years. That took us into the countryside to experience, through archaeological sites, the commitment of Christian monks more than a thousand years ago.
I have often been concerned about American Protestants’ lack of understanding and identification with the historical Christian church. Our churches are constantly changing and adapting, always seeking the reconstruction of the true faith of Jesus Christ. While there is nothing wrong with that pursuit, per se, it leaves our younger disciples with a perception that Christianity is a fleeting movement, without foundation and history. This is obviously not the case.
This past week we had the opportunity to visit a number of Celtic sites, including several that were key in the history of Christianity in Ireland – the Hill of Tara, Monasterboice and Clonmacnoise.
One of the primary lessons we learned was that sacred sites were almost always appropriated by new cultures as they sought to build their influence in the established culture. The Hill of Tara was an important sacred site for ancient Irish kings, and it had been occupied continuously since Neolithic times. The site had important pagan spiritual significance, and it was at Tara that the kings ruled over at least parts of Ireland. When St. Patrick came to Ireland to share the Gospel of Christ with the native people, he proclaimed the Christian message, lighting the paschal fire from Tara to signal Christ’s presence on the island. He appropriated the sacred significance of Tara for a new purpose – the presentation of the gospel. The sacred place remained sacred, but it gained a new purpose.
Once the Christian faith was established in Ireland, monks representing a variety of orders created unique communities for the purpose of study and worship. Ireland was home to some of the most beautiful monastic sites in all of Europe and symbols and form were important to these Christians. Little remains of many of these ancient Christian sites, but visiting Monasterboice and Clonmacnoise gives visitors a sense of the difficult and dedicated spiritual work of the monks.
One of the interesting objects that remains are the unique high crosses local stone craftsmen developed to portray the gospel of Jesus and give glory to God (see photo of cross). They were intricately carved so that any person who attended a service or happened to come by could gain an understanding of the basic story of redemption and key stories of the Old and New Testaments. Since most of the population remained illiterate until modern times, it was symbolic objects like the High Cross and stained glass that enabled the average congregant (and many who were not average) to understand the gospel. They are beautiful works of art with a serious Kingdom purpose.
While Mark Weinert and I were leading our Juniors Abroad group from George Fox, we listened to another group led by a local tour guide. It reminded us both of how important it is to know the storyteller’s perspective. In contrast to our discussion of the crosses as objects of deep faith and commitment and the monastic communities as the most important sources of learning in medieval times, he portrayed the site as one of superstition. “These Christians were superstitious, ignorant people who in the absence of true explanations of reality relied on fairly tales that you see before you. In contrast, we live in the age of science that has rightly displaced religious faith as important in human life. Here we see before us, our ignorant past – beautiful at times, but hollow.”
His stories were simply wrong, and he did not even know it. The Medieval Church preserved learning and books for the West. It was the scholars of the Christian universities (and the Islamic universities to the south) that led to the development of what we know as modern science. These Christians were not ignorant at all but men of the highest intellectual capacity. They saw unity between their pursuit of God and their pursuit of learning. They saw a world of unity and purpose waiting to be discovered by the people God had created (as we do at George Fox University.)
Over the past week we immersed ourselves in a culture where the Christian church was the center of all activity. It provided great art, music and learning for its culture and it called for worship of the Most High God. There is much we can learn from our forebears – the pursuit of learning, the focus on worship and prayer, the beauty of worship and art, and the genuine respect for the sacred. Our progressive culture, much like the tour guide, sees faith as something to overcome; we see it as something that adds salt and light to a human condition that deeply could use its graceful presence.
As we finished our visit at Monasterboice, a local man came up to us and asked if he could speak. We of course said yes. “Please remember as beautiful as the places of old are, they called people to a relationship with Jesus. I hope all of you make sure that you know Jesus in a personal way.” Yes and Amen.