How saints saved a crumbling civilisation

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any new Christmas movies airing right now; in truth, I tried a couple, but couldn’t get very far with either. There was a whiff of the Hallmark Channel about both of them: too much formula and too little substance. One could do worse, but one could also read a book.

Then I came upon Celtic Pilgrimage, a 2018 film about “how Celtic nations received the Gospel of Christ during the Dark Ages” producing a partial revival in Europe. Nothing about Christmas there, but the religious and historical elements were intriguing.

Producer and narrator Rebecca Friedlander provides the necessary caveat at the start, that she’s not a historian, that her pilgrimage to find the roots of Celtic Christianity is very personal, but that she hopes her efforts will prove rewarding for viewers.

For the most part, they are. Celtic Pilgrimage ranges from 400 to 665 AD, recounting (necessarily) a mix of fact and legend, history “full of holes”, as Pastor Kevin Sambrook says. Yet certain realities cannot be denied. Sketchy as the history may be, it paints a picture of dedicated men and women who, once they experienced the joy of the Gospel, gave their lives as fully as humans can to evangelisation even as Roman civilisation crumbled.

The names are familiar. St Patrick, after a vision and 20 years’ preparation, took Christ to Ireland and eventually, Sambrook reports, converted 40 of the 150 Irish tribes. Following St Patrick’s lead, St Comgall established a monastery at Bangor, where hundreds of new Christians studied the Scriptures, the trivium and quadrivium.

The abbey established there became a place of literally constant (as the film states, 24/7) prayer for approximately 150 years.

Missionaries set out from Bangor to Europe, a movement that made Celtic Christianity known beyond Ireland’s shores. St Columba carried the Gospel to Scotland, a land of fierce warriors with faces (according to legend) painted blue. Here too the missionary’s zeal for God yielded a conquest the Romans were unable to achieve militarily, eventually establishing the great monastic centre at Iona.

The famous St Brendan (the “Navigator”), as legends tell, set sail with a number of disciples in a small ship without a rudder, with one intention: that God alone should set their course. St Aidan came from Iona into re-barbarised England and formed the renowned community at Lindisfarne, and, at his call, St Hilda founded the monastery at Whitby.

Celtic Pilgrimage isn’t perfect, and it’s not a Christmas movie, but Christmas is a wonderful time for it. God became man that we should be His followers, salt and light. One will look hard to find men and women who took that as seriously as these Celtic saints.

Dr Carl C Curtis III is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia