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The Celtic Way of Mission - 10 - celebrating foster mothers and soul friends - learning from St Ita

One of the greatest explorers and adventurers in mission in the Celtic Church was St Brendan who is often called Brendan the Navigator or Voyager. According to tradition, Brendan set out across the Atlantic Ocean on a seven year journey and it is possible he was the first European to reach the North Americas (there is debate where he landed, some think it was Greenland). Brendan is called one of the twelve apostles of Ireland and went on to complete many bold adventures. He is described as having apostolic zeal and is responsible for planting new monasteries in Ireland and Scotland. What foundations did he have to make him so bold? Where did he gain this confidence? I am sure there are many reasons but I am confident that a central motivation for his apostolic boldness was that for five years Brendan was educated and mentored by Ita of Killeedy. The place name Killeedy comes from Cill Ide, the cell or church of Ita, where she founded a convent and school. She was the daughter of the chieftain Confhaola and of Necta who claimed royal descent from the King of Tara. She was born in 480AD in County Waterford, Ireland, and died in January 15th, 570AD, and laid to rest in Killeedy having been an enormous influence on many godly men and women.

The name "Ita" meaning thirst for holiness was given because of her godly character. Brendan would visit her between his voyages and always deferred to her counsel. Brendan is believed to have asked her what three things God loved best. Her response was "True faith in God and a pure heart, a simple life with a religious spirit and open-handedness inspired by charity."

Ita lived according to a Way of Life as a contemplative and an activist. She spent much time in solitude, praying and fasting, and the rest of the time counselling those who sought out her wisdom.

According to Ray Simpson "children of land owners and bards in pre-Christian Ireland were sent to foster mothers to learn life skills. In 6th century Ireland increasing numbers of children went to be mentored by a spiritual foster mother. These were sometimes a monastic amma or abba (an affectionate name for a spiritual mum or dad) who combined holy learning with holistic living, in a community which gave room to affections as well as devotions. Saint Ita was known as the foster mother of the saints of Ireland." 1

This tradition of spiritual foster mothers was first inspired by Brigid of Kildare (c. 451 – 525) who is called "the midwife who brought to birth Christian Ireland." Brigid had a reputation as an expert dairywoman and brewer, so these foster mothers were highly practical as well as spiritual. Ita followed in this tradition, working the land around her convent (she was given four acres by the local landowner) but also cultivating prophetic gifts. She was famous for her discernment and said to have a gift for guiding people in holiness. She was much sought after as a spiritual director.

Why is this important for mission and evangelism? It is all about good foundations and ongoing spiritual growth. Ita raised a number of spiritual sons and daughters who continued to seek her wisdom as they themselves became leaders and people of influence. She was a foster mother to apostles and evangelists.

As a soul friend to others, I often hear stories of leaders (including apostles and evangelists) who are worn out and needing spiritual refreshment. They often lack mentors and soul friends. In Ita's case she began the process of soul friendship to someone like Brendan at an early age.

So here's my question, who is your soul friend? Or could you be a soul friend to others? Like Ita, could we build into our culture an intentional process to recruit, raise and release gifted individuals within the context of community.

Imagine believing in someone like Brendan as a child who went on to bold adventures as an adult, travelling the world and setting up new monastic centres of mission.

Foster mothers in particular seem to be a powerful strategy in the kingdom of God, and yet in modern western church culture it is often lacking. Why is this and can we change that?

Here are some steps I encourage.

Let's celebrate foster mothers, lets recognise how important they are to the church and how important they are in terms of spiritual formation and ongoing spiritual health to the body of Christ.

Let's decide to foster soul friendship, and perhaps we need to begin from scratch. I have recently run some online courses on soul friendship with the Community of Aidan and Hilda and will do more next year. Perhaps you could join one?

  1. Notes taken from the Durham Summer School of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, 2019.

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