Friday, June 23, 2006

The Ancient Spirituality of the British Isles

A couple days ago, a group of NeoPagans and others looking for either natural beauty or revelry joined at Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice. The Associated Press report about it has been picked up by CNN, Forbes, and the LA Times. BBC News also reported it. Photos of the event are available on the Festival Eye and BBC websites.

For centuries, in ancient times, spiritual darkness covered the British Isles, but the Creator sent His servants into pagan lands to dispel the darkness, enlighten the people with the light of the Holy Gospel, and bring them back to Him.

Patricus, son of Calpornius, was born in Roman Britain. At the young age of sixteen he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland as a slave. Years after his escape and return home to Britain, God sent him back to take the Truth to his former captors. He is today known as St. Patrick, Enlightener of Ireland.

St. Patrick tells his life story in his Confessions. He begins his story with these words:

I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for a father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

St. Columba of Iona, a Celtic native of Ireland, took the Faith to Scotland and established a monastery on the island of Iona, off the Scottish coast. St. Columba declared, "My Druid is Christ, the Son of God, Christ, Son of Mary, the Great Abbot, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

You can read about St. Patrick and St. Columba of Iona on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia websites. Father Lester Michael Bundy has written a paper entitled St. Columba: Fact and Fiction. The complete Confession of St. Patrick is available in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. OrthodoxWiki contains good entries on St. Patrick, St. Hilda of Whitby, St Aidan of Lindisfarne, St. Bede the Venerable, and St. Edward the Martyr, King of England.

Jesus Christ only founded one Church, His Church. All of the beloved Saints mentioned here lived in the British Isles when all Christians in both the East and West belonged to the Orthodox Christian Church. The Patriarch (Bishop) of Rome, who shared a brotherly equality with the other Orthodox Christian Patriarchs throughout the Eastern world (including Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople), was responsible for the spiritual care of the Christians in the West.

In about AD 1054, the Roman Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, claiming to be superior to the other Patriarchs and allowing the Faith handed down since the Apostles to be compromised, separated his Patriarchate from the Orthodox Church and formed what is known today as the Roman Catholic Church, taking the Western lands under its care with him. While some writings refer to the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church during the early periods of Christianity in the British Isles, Roman Catholicism didn't even exist in those days. Many Orthodox Christian Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Saints, such as Patrick of Ireland, Columba of Iona, David of Wales, Jarlath of Tuam, Aidan of Lindisfarne, Winefride of Holywell, Augustine of Canterbury, Hilda of Whitby, and Kevin of Glendalough, lived centuries before the break between East and West that led to the formation of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church. The famous Book of Kells was created within the Orthodox Church by the hands of her Celtic monks long before the Celtic Christians were separated from their native Church.

Although AD 1054 is often considered the date of the Great Schism, the split between East and West, Orthodox Christianity actually continued in England a few more years until the Norman Invasion by William the Conqueror (a.k.a. William the Bastard) in AD 1066. William's conquest of England placed the country under the authority of the Roman Catholic Papacy. King Edward II (the Confessor), the next-to-last English king to reign prior to the Norman Invasion, is counted among the Saints of the Orthodox Church.*

The Church of England (or Anglican Church) began about 500 years later when King Henry VIII asserted his authority over the English churches in defiance of the Pope of Rome. In 1534, according to the king's wish, Parliament officially declared Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, completing the break with the Roman Catholic Church.

In the past few years several priests and laity within the Anglican Church have been returning to the Orthodox Christian Church, reconnecting with their spiritual roots. One such person is Timothy Ware, who was born in England, reared Anglican, studied at Oxford University as a student and also served as a professor at Oxford until his retirement. He is now a bishop in the Orthodox Church with the name Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia. As the articles in The Guardian and on the Orthodox England website seem to indicate, His Royal Highness, Charles, Prince of Wales may also be on his way to the spiritual home of the English people, the Orthodox Christian Church. Thank God. May they keep coming home and may God grant those who have returned many years!

*Read the manuscript of a lecture given by Bishop Kallistos at Westminster Abbey about St. Edward the Confessor.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The photos are in the public domain. They include Stonehenge, St. Columba's Bay, where St. Columba is said to have landed at Iona, and Whitby Abbey, founded by St. Hilda. The original public domain photos are from Wikipedia and/or OrthodoxWiki.)