Entertaining Angels
The Celtic tradition of Welcome

Dr Ian Bradley
Lecturer, Department of Divinity, Aberdeen University

'Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.' (Hebrews 13.2)

Thanks to two significant anniversaries, 1997 is a year to celebrate, reflect on and draw contemporary lessons from the Christian faith and practice of our Celtic ancestors. It is exactly 1400 years since Columba dies on Iona and perhaps 1600 (although honesty compels me to say that this dating is more doubtful) since Ninian founded his monastery at Whithorn, the earliest known Christian church in Scotland. Up and down the land the achievement and legacy of these two great founding fathers of Scottish Christianity, and of their contemporaries and successors are being commemorated and explored through special pilgrimages, services, retreats and conferences.

The principle that lies behind 'Scotland's Churches Scheme' provides a very tangible contemporary expression of the central themes which underlay Celtic Christianity. Opening the doors of our churches and making them more welcoming to visitors continues the tradition of hospitality practised by Ninian and Columba and their followers. It also brings together three other prominent strands in the native Christian life of the British Isles in the centuries between the departure of the Romans and the coming of the Normans - the ministry of presence, the sacredness of place and the importance of pilgrimage.

The strong tradition of welcome which developed within Celtic Christianity owed much to its monastic roots. For those living in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Northern England between the sixth and eleventh centuries the dominant Christian institution was neither the parish church nor the cathedral but rather the monastery, which from its origins as a solitary hermit's cell grew to become a combination of commune, school, arts centre, hospital, hotel, retreat house, mission station and citizens' advice bureau, as well as place of worship. The monasteries founded and presided over by Columba and Ninian were not closed institutions cut off from the outside world by high brick walls. Rather they resembled small townships. At their heart were simple churches usually made of wood - Ninian's Candida Casa at Whithorn was exceptional in being stone-built. Around them were clustered the communal huts where monks and visitors ate, slept and worked and, on the periphery, the wattle and daub cells of those who had opted for the solitary life.

No walls separated these monastic settlements from the communities which they served. At most, a simple ditch marked the boundary and kept animals from straying. Far from being rarefied havens of detachment and retreat from the world, the monasteries were places of constant coming and going. Monks were continually going out armed with their simple tools of gospel book, psalter, bell and portable altar to preach and evangelise. To the monasteries, even the most remote, came a stream of visitors in the shape of penitents and pilgrims, often seeking spiritual guidance to assuage deep-seated feelings of guilt and brokenness.

The lives of the Celtic Saints are filled with accounts of their ministry of hospitality. Columba supposedly wrote two of the hymns which are commonly attributed to him while grinding oats to make bread for visitors expected on Iona. The monastery which he founded at Derry is said to have provided meals for a thousand hungry people each day. Accounts of the early Irish saint, Brigid, speak of her constantly baking bread and making butter for those visiting the mixed monastery over which she presided at Kildare. Tradition has it that when churning butter she always made thirteen portions - twelve in honour of the apostles and an extra one in honour of Christ which was reserved for guests and the poor. The monks at David's monastery in Pembrokeshire fed off bread and water themselves but cooked sumptuous meals for their guests. Bede's life of Cuthbert tells of how the saint from Melrose, newly installed as guest-master of a new monastery at Ripon in the depths of winter, found a young man sitting in the guest house. He 'got water to wash his hands, washed his feet himself, dried them, put them in his bosom, and humbly chafed them in his hands'. Later Cuthbert brought a meal to the youth only to find that he had gone, although there were no footprints in the snow. When Cuthbert returned to the kitchen he found three newly and apparently miraculously baked loaves lying on the table. He was convinced that God had sent an angel to encourage the ministry of hospitality in the newly founded monastery.

This sense that in hosting strangers, they might well be entertaining angels, or even Christ himself, extended to the Celtic Saints' dealings with non-human visitors. Columba taught the monks on Iona to show hospitality to the birds which came to Iona. Once he called one of the brothers and told him to watch out for a crane flying over from Ireland. The bird was to be carried up from the shore, taken to a home and fed and looked after for three days. The crane duly arrived and the brother did as he had been bidden. Columba commended him 'God bless you, my son, because you have tended well our pilgrim guest'. Another story recounts how Kevin of Glendalough was once engaged in a vigil with his arms outstretched in the manner of the cross of St Andrew when a blackbird came and laid a clutch of eggs in the palm of his outstretched hand. Not wishing to disturb the bird, he maintained his uncomfortable position for several weeks until her babies had hatched.

As well as having their physical needs cared for, visitors to monasteries were also given pastoral care and spiritual counselling. This was provided partly through that distinctive feature of Celtic spirituality about which we know tantalisingly little, the anamchara or soul friend. Combining the roles of spiritual counsellor, father confessor and good mate, soul friends seem to have been drawn as much, if not more, from the ranks of the laity as from the ordained clergy and to have been constantly available for support, guidance and providing a shoulder to weep on.

Availability was, indeed, one of the hallmarks of the Celtic Christian practice of hospitality and welcome. It was part and parcel of a broader ministry of presence in which the church's role was conceived as much in terms of simply being there in the midst of the community as of dashing around doing things. In many ways, I think, the notion of presence much more accurately characterises the outlook of the Celtic Church than that somewhat overloaded word, mission. It is very doubtful, for example, if Columba really saw himself as a missionary in the usual sense of that term. He spent relatively little time travelling through mainland Scotland proselytising and preaching. Rather he chose to stay on Iona, guiding the monks and receiving, blessing and counselling visitors. This ministry of hospitality did not just involve feeding guests and washing their feet. It also meant a good deal of listening and quiet and patient healing of broken souls.

This notion of a ministry of presence may offer a helpful model for churches struggling to find a new role and identity today. We have become obsessed with the model of mission with churches forever being encouraged to undertake mission audits, produce mission action plans and train congregations as missionary cells. Much of this is mere managerial jargon - witness how every business now seems to need a mission statement - which does not address the real spiritual needs of our society. Do we not need witnesses rather than missionaries, people who will simply be around, as Jesus was, to listen and pray with people, to stand alongside them in their brokenness and help them to wholeness? This unspectacular if very demanding and draining ministry of presence is perhaps one of the most important ways in which the churches can serve God and his people today.

Buildings are a vital part of this ministry. Often the very physical presence of a church in a community speaks in an eloquent if silent way about faith and points to deeper values beyond the immediate here and now. Our Celtic Christian ancestors left us very few buildings. Unlike the later Normans, they did not see the need to erect permanent stone structures for their worship but preferred to gather together either in the open air or in essentially temporary and provisional structures of wattle and daub which could easily be enlarged or vacated as changing circumstances required. If they were not thirled to buildings, however, they knew the value of sermons in stone and had a profound sense of the importance of the visual in worship. The high standing crosses which are among their most impressive and tangible legacies to us were designed quite literally to stop people in their tracks and put them in mind of things eternal.

Celtic Christianity also had a great sense of the sacredness of place. In part, this reflected pre-Christian mythology where rivers, springs, woods and hills were seen as the dwelling places of divinities. Christianity baptised and incorporated this understanding of the natural world. Rivers and springs became associated with individual saints and their waters were seen to have healing properties. Hills became places for encounters with God and the angels and woods and trees took on a special significance in the light of Christ's death upon the cross. The Celtic Saints felt called to certain places, often in wild and remote locations, because of their associations and atmosphere. Many sought out their own 'place of resurrection' where they could find God through solitude, prayer and self-denial.

At the heart of the life of the Celtic Saints was a sense of balance and rhythm. They alternated between periods of intense activity and involvement in administrative affairs with lengthy spells of quiet reflection and months spent alone in a cell on a remote island or rocky promontory. In this, they were following the example of their Lord and Saviour, one moment surrounded by crowds and engaged in preaching, teaching and healing, and the next walking alone by the lakeside or engaged in quiet prayer in the mountains. Columba's life exemplified this balance rhythm. At times he was busily engaged in founding monasteries, treating with kings, attending counsels, going on missionary journeys and ruling his ever-expanding monastic federation. Yet his biographers also portray him spending long periods praying or copying the Scriptures in his cell and he frequently took himself to the tiny unidentified island of Hinba for solitary retreats.

Once again, there is perhaps a message here for us to pick up today. We too, both as individuals and communities, need to develop a rhythm to our lives. There is a time to engage fully in the world and its affairs and a time to withdraw and be alone with God. The same is true of the church. There is a time for business, activity and corporate worship. There is also a time for stillness and silence and calm. We need to make our buildings available for those who wish simply to sit alone and pray as well as for those who wish to sing and celebrate together. In this way we can help people in what is often a crowded and alienating environment to find and create their own holy space.

We can also help people to become pilgrims. The desire for pilgrimage, or peregrinatio, as they called it, was one of the great motifs in Celtic Christianity. It was probably what took Ninian to Whithorn and Columba to Iona. Pilgrimage did not just mean going to a particularly holy shrine,. It involved a whole approach to life and faith which stressed the themes of journeying, travelling and moving on. It meant sitting lightly to the things of the world and understanding that here we have no abiding city. It led people to join up with others as they walked the great highway of faith.

The borderline between tourism and pilgrimage is very narrow. Many of the thousands who annually visit our churches come not just as tourists but as seekers after truth and experience. Not a few come, as so many came to Whithorn and Iona one and a half millennia ago, as pilgrims and penitents, burdened by doubts, anxieties, guilt and fear. In making them welcome to our churches we are continuing in that tradition of hospitality practised by Ninian and Columba. Like them we may also be entertaining angels.


Dr Ian Bradley's many books include The Celtic Way (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1993, £8.95) and Columba - Pilgrim and Penitent (Wild Goose Publications, 1996, £6.99).

Printed in 'Churches to Visit in Scotland', 1997.