“Be Thou My Vision” is a well-known hymn written hundreds of years ago. The melody is both mystical and beautiful, the lyrics resolute and meaningful. Yet few know that the origins of the lyrics of “Be Thou My Vision” are from an ancient Irish hymn in Gaelic. This hymn is a fitting example of Celtic Christianity—a type of Christianity that spanned centuries and influenced early Christianity in deep and profound ways. A type of Christianity that, if embraced, can impact many more lives today.
Celtic Christianity started with St. Patrick in the fifth century (A.D.), who at 16 was captured by Irish pirates and brought to the Emerald Isle against his will. Having escaped, he returned, feeling called to share Christ with the Celts that dwelt in Ireland. There is little truly known about his life in Ireland, although legends abound. What is known is that St. Patrick had a profound impact on the Celtic pagans on Ireland’s shores. Ireland embraced Christianity, as did other Celtic countries like Scotland and Wales.
Celtic Christianity became known for their monasticism, scholarship and artistry. In the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries (A.D.), Ireland itself was known as “The Isle of Saints and Scholars” by the rest of Europe. The Celtic Christians truly valued scholarship, service and art. They embraced the mysteries and beauty of God. You can tell when you see the old books they made—like the famous Book of Kells, an exquisite artistic rendering of the four gospels. They believed that beauty was important, that artistry and knowledge both intertwined to bring God glory.
During the Dark Ages, Irish monks traveled to other parts of Europe and helped keep alive the dying culture of the West. They were hugely influential in keeping the flame of art, learning and service alive in a time of upheaval and uncertainty. In fact, it has been argued by at least one historian that the Irish saved Western civilization. (Being Irish, I’m pretty proud of this fact.)
God was both known and unknown. The Celtic monks cherished the theology of the Trinity, seeing the Godhead in deeply relational terms. They believed that prayer was connected to every aspect of daily living, and they passed down many prayers orally that spoke of their great love and belief in a Truine God who was with them always. They believed God was the Creator of all things, and that all things point to Him and are intricately related to Him. The land itself shouts God’s praises, and we join in through the ways we take care of the earth and our fellow humans beings.
Yet, they also understood that a mysterious, wild element of a Creator God beyond our control was essential to a robust theology. The Triune God was a mystery worth following. A mystery worth devoting their whole lives to. The Celtic monks traveled in small boats over the ocean, they reached out into a great wide world, and in doing so, they explored God. They called these expeditions peregrinatio, a term found nowhere else in Christianity. These peregrinatio were times to find God in unknown places and unknown lands. There was no set goal or holy site to travel toward. These were a kind of pilgrimage to face oneself and grow deeper in one’s walk with God. Because of these peregrinatio, legend has it that Celtic monks made it to America long before Christopher Columbus. We don’t know for certain, but we do know they ventured out where few would go on their quest to find God, themselves and unknown lands.