It was C S Lewis who said "You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first." When we consider the Celtic Way of Mission it is good to ask what were their priorities? What can we learn from the foundations they established? Let's consider the person who is recognised as the first missionary in the region, we know him as St Ninian. The Daily Record, a Scottish tabloid called him "the man who brought faith to Scotland." 1
Ninian arrived in Galloway in the south west of Scotland around 397AD and was a highly effective evangelist among the Pictish people. He set up a monastic centre calling it Candida Casa, Latin for White House. It was a house of prayer, and the name of the community became Whithorn (which means shining house - it was both outstanding as a white building made of stone, and a place of the presence of God). Prayer and presence were priorities in Ninian's missional strategy.
Ninian had been trained in Rome (although he was a Briton, probably born in Rheged, modern day Cumbria) and commissioned by Pope Siricius to reach out to northern Britain. Ninian was deeply influenced by Martin of Tours, and had visited him on his way from Rome to Scotland. Martin was a passionate reformer and pioneer, and famous for his healing gifts. Ninian dedicated his new community to Martin and followed his example of living out the gospel in community and praying for the sick. This was another priority, caring for the sick both medically and supernaturally.
The connection between Martin in Tours and Ninian in Whithorn was strong. It is said that masons from St. Martin's Monastery in Tours helped with the construction of this first mission centre in Whithorn. Stone buildings were unusual, and the name White House came from the practice of white washing their buildings.
So three priorities emerge, prayer, presence and healing. This is what we would call in theological terms, incarnational mission. Being among the people bringing the presence and power of God into their midst, living out the gospel.
The people at this time were led by tribal leaders who had druids as their wise men and advisors. The druids were pagan in their worldview and believed that the connection between the spirit and natural world was present at all times. It was a form of shamanism with an emphasis on placating the spirits, and using herbal drugs for both hallucination and healing. For Ninian to be taken seriously he also had to have spiritual power to overcome evil spirits and to heal the sick (which is a healthy biblical view of the ministry of Jesus - Matthew 10:8). This could be called contextual mission. Ninian had to connect and convince the people through the images and practices of their own culture. He took their respect for holy men, healing and a spiritual hierarchy and placed Christ in the midst as the Holy One, the Healer and Highest of All.
There are many recorded stories of the Celtic saints being healers. Bede the historian describes Ninian as someone renowned for his holy life and healing miracles. His reputation as a healer was so powerful that even after his death pilgrims would travel to Whithorn to seek healing and pray at the shrine there. This tradition continued for centuries with Richard III an English king in the fifteenth century visiting St Ninians tomb seeking healing of scoliosis.
One particular story of Ninian summarises so many qualities of his life. Ninian would visit the shepherds and herdsman who cared for the sheep and cattle that were attached to the monastery. His practice was to pray a circle of protection around the men and animals because they were vulnerable to cattle thieves. One night, a group of would be thieves entered the compound with the intention of stealing the livestock. A bull charged the leader of this group and gored him to death. When Ninian heard of this, he came out, prayed and restored the man to life, forgave them their sin, and sent them on their way, repentant and ready to change their lives. 3
Let's consider the elements in this story and what it tells us about Ninian.
First of all, he lived among and cared about the local, ordinary people and made a priority of praying for them. His prayers used the language that the druids would be familiar with, of circling protection, and of care for creation. Livestock were valuable and important to the local economy so Ninian connected with the people at a level which was everyday and met their needs.
Second, it was normal to pray for the miraculous including raising the dead to life.
Third, the message of the gospel was integrated into community, personal care, creation, spiritual battle, miracles, forgiveness and repentance. It is a holistic gospel.
I genuinely believe if we could learn to live out these first principles, prayer, community and healing, we would see the gospel being received far more effectively than many of our current evangelistic practices. We have good biblical and historical evidence to back that up.
2 Edmonds, F., Whithorn’s renown in the early medieval period: Whithorn, Futerna and Magnum Monasterium, The Whithorn Trust, 2009.
3 Celtic Daily Prayer, Book Two, Northumbria Community, p1552