There is a small Scottish island off the coast of Mull called Inch Kenneth. It was the monastic centre and missions base of St Kenneth (in Gaelic it is Cainnech) who lived 515-600AD. He is called one of the twelve apostles of Ireland who had all studied under St Finian at Clonard Abbey. He was considered a man of virtue, great eloquence and learning. 1 Much of what we know about Kenneth comes from the writing of Adomnon, the ninth bishop of Iona (died 704AD) who wrote about him in his Life of Columba.
Kenneth went to be with Columba on Iona in Scotland in 565AD. These men of God believed in an apostolic tradition, choosing to pass it on and continue the faith that was deeply influenced by the Desert Mothers and Fathers. When Christianity was institutionalised by Emperor Constantine and became a career option and a means of influence and wealth, an army of men and women moved to the deserts of Syria and Egypt seeking an alternative spirituality. I suspect there is a growing dis-ease today at institutional religion and many people are seeking a more radical spirituality which is leading them to learn from the Celtic saints.
This Way of Life was imported from the deserts to the extremities of the Roman Empire in the western Celtic fringes like Ireland and Scotland. It was a retreat into wilderness just like Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to emerge in the power of the Spirit. According to Carl Colman "the most commonly portrayed scene outside of Biblical events on Celtic high crosses is the meeting of Antony of Egypt and Paul of Thebes" 2 both of whom were monastic pioneers in the deserts of the Middle East. Both Anthony and Paul were famously ascetic living in caves, wrestling with demons, praying for days, fasting and giving out incredible Spirit led wisdom to many who came to visit them. 3
Kenneth was inspired by the lives of these desert saints and sought out a remote location to live and train others to do the same. He was an active missionary across the Pictish lands and the western isles particularly Mull and Uist. Like Columba he was a complicated character with a colourful history as part of one of the ruling families in Ulster. He wrestled with his own inner demons and sought redemption by trying to live life as a hermit. Yet like the Desert Fathers, his lifestyle, holiness and wisdom drew others to seek him out and sit at his feet to learn a life in the Spirit. This is a similar story to St Cuthbert who likewise gave up his bishopric to live as a hermit on the Farne Islands. These men of God sought silence, isolation and contemplation.
Why is this important in terms of mission and evangelism? It seems to me that God chooses unusual and often complicated people to do his work. This kind of person is often aware of their shortcomings and their failures. Their self awareness and humility created a humble spirit. They had no interest in success or status and at the same time God used them powerfully. Kenneth was a highly active and effective disciple maker, missionary and planter of monastic communities. He went with Columba to visit King Brude Mac Maelchon in Inverness who was converted after witnessing many miracles (much to the disgust of the druids who had called up foul weather to halt their journey along the lochs and rivers).
In later life Kenneth was allowed more time to write and consider the gospels. He wrote a series of commentaries called the Chain of Cainnech which became a well read commentary in the Middle Ages, a source of inspiration for many.
The wonder of this story is that a life well lived has different times and seasons. Kenneth was a missionary evangelist, he won over large parts of the Pictish people to Christianity, he trained and released others to carry on the work. He also spent time on his own, lived as a hermit for some of his life, wrote treatise on the gospels that tapped into this deep well of contemplation which explains why his commentaries were so widely read.
God is not looking for sorted people to join in His mission, he is looking for submitted people. God often chooses the broken and the humble. Kenneth was a complicated man with inner turmoils and a troubled past. This is liberating, especially if you and I don't feel qualified to be an effective missionary. Being disqualified is why God chooses us, it makes us more dependent on the Spirit who is the source of power who leads people to Christ.
Don't listen to the whispers of disqualification but wear them as a badge of acceptance and calling, remind the whisperer that they are the reason God will use us impact our communities with the good news of Jesus.
3 The Life of Paul of Thebes was written by Saint Jerome (famous for making a great Latin translation of the Bible).