Asceticism In Christian Living*

Asceticism In Christian Living*

Traditional Christian spirituality put great emphasis on asceticism and ascetical practices. People were constantly reminded of the need for penance and mortification; their importance was stressed, their practice was recommended and laws were enacted by church authorities making certain penitential exercises obligatory. The severe and to us sometimes rather bizarre forms of penance undertaken by some of the Desert Fathers and some early Irish Christians illustrate this point quite well. In later times and down to quite recently, though the forms of penance adopted were more moderate, the importance attached to ascetical practices remained more or less the same. To such an extent was this the case in fact that the impression was at times given that the Christian life was basically an ascetical or penitential one and for many what was intended to be good news and a life of joy and peace appeared to be and was in danger of becoming an endurance test and a joyless journey to the kingdom of a strict and demanding God. 

Today all this is changing in the lives of Christians, in the thought of theologians and in the teaching of the church. It is generally felt today that the understanding and role of asceticism in the Christian life had got somewhat out of focus. In the light of this we want to examine that understanding and that role a little more closely in the hope of arriving at a better appreciation of the ascetical or penitential dimension of our Christian lives. 


There are many words in the vocabulary of Christian spirituality that describe the reality we are considering here, e.g., mortification, renunciation, penance, self-denial, asceticism, etc. Though each of them has its own particular shade of meaning, they all have the same basic meaning and hence are generally used interchangeably. I think, however, that the best word to describe the reality in question here is asceticism. This word, fundamentally, means training or exercise in preparation for some task or endeavour, for example, a sports contest. It was introduced into Christianity by St Paul, who transferred it from an athletic context to that of the Christian life, in order to emphasise the self-sacrifice, discipline and self-control involved in living as a dedicated and singleminded Christian (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:7-16; also Hebrews 12:1 ff.) The same basic idea is to be found in Jesus’ reference to the necessity of taking up one’s cross and losing one’s life in order to save it (cf. Mark 8:34 f.).

In this article we will, first of all, discuss asceticism in this broad or extended sense which is to be found in the New Testament. Later, we will consider it in its narrower sense of ascetical exercises or practices. To set the whole discussion in its proper context, however, it is necessary to begin with a brief reflection on the essence of the Christian life. 


To describe the essence of the Christian life, it suffices to point to the words of Jesus that one should love God and one’s neighbour as fully as one is able. In other words, the Christian life is one of love, so that to be a true follower of Christ, one is called to love others and God with all one’s heart. Now, since living as a Christian is to live a life of love, it is and ought to be a joyful way of life, bringing fulfilment, happiness and peace to the one who lives it here on earth, and, ultimately, eternal life with God in the fulness of love, joy and peace. To be called to live such a life and to share such a destiny is truly ‘good news’ and ‘tidings of great joy for all the people’. 

Clearly, it would not be adequate or accurate to characterise this as simply an ascetical or penitential way of life. It is much more and much fuller than that. Yet experience, the New Testament and Christian tradition all tell us that asceticism has its place in Christian living. The question then is, what is that place? Where does asceticism come into our Christian lives? We will now move on to discuss this. 


The basic thesis being put forward here may be stated briefly as follows: The Christian life is not simply or primarily an ascetical one; rather it is a life of love that of necessity involves and implies an asceticism (using the word in its broad sense), which I call the asceticism of daily living. What follows in this section is an effort to explain this fundamental contention.

Experience tells us that if we are to live the Christian life well by loving God and our neighbours as wholeheartedly as we are able, then inevitably and necessarily we will be involved in a great deal of struggle, self-sacrifice and renunciation. Loving others always contains important elements of self-denial, effort and discipline, though of course it is much more than just these. It will be helpful to spell this out a little more here. To respond wholeheartedly to the many demands of our relationships, our work and our spiritual life will require us to forego not merely evil and selfish pursuits but also many good and wholesome things which we might otherwise be able to have or engage in. It will demand too a great deal of effort, dedication, self-sacrifice and self-control to do well and consistently all we are called to do. In addition, we will have to face difficulties and obstacles from others, from our circumstances, from our limitations and selfish tendencies and from the nature and structure of the human condition itself, as we try to live as Christians should. In other words, there is an asceticism or an ascetical dimension built into the very heart of the Christian life which cannot be avoided as one endeavours to live it. Hence, while the Christian life is more than asceticism, it is still true that asceticism is intrinsic and essential to it. One could perhaps say that the ascetical dimension of life is the reverse side of the coin of Christian love. 

Specific examples may help us to understand this better. A married woman with a husband and family, for example, is called to live a life that is basically one of love, joy and peace. But she soon finds that doing so makes many demands on her, e.g., in time and energy, in care and attention; it places many limitations on her and involves her in many sacrifices like staying at home to attend the family’s needs, giving up her job perhaps, using the money available for family purposes rather than personal enjoyment or attractive luxuries, etc. To take a second example, a priest, as he lives his life of love of his neighbours and of God, has the same basic experience of demands, sacrifices and limitations, even if they are often quite different from those of the married person. Similarly with the single person and the man or woman in religious life. 

We may further illustrate our basic point by taking a brief look at some of the activities that Christians are called upon to do. Prayer, for example, is not an ascetical or penitential exercise. It is, or at least ought to be, a joyful conversation with one’s loving Father, which, however, is a basic necessity for the Christian and demands effort, self-discipline and perseverance. Loving one’s marriage partner is another activity that is not ascetical. On the contrary, it is, ideally at least, a freely chosen and joyful commitment, made in love, joy and peace. But once again, it too inevitably involves detachment, renunciation and self-control and hence has an ascetical aspect. To take a final example, helping a troubled person is a work of love and usually a very gratifying and enriching experience, but it also requires one to practise the disciplines of concentration, listening, understanding and patience as well as the sacrifice of one’s time and convenience. 

More light may be thrown on this whole matter if we turn briefly from considering the Christian way of life to look at the Christian person living that life. A Christian person ought to be, above all else, a loving person, doing his best to care for, share with and bear the burdens of those people who enter his life. This is how he imitates Christ most perfectly. Now, if he is to do this and to keep on doing it, he will of necessity have to make a significant effort, sacrifice his own convenience, wishes and time, deny himself many legitimate and potentially enriching activities and experiences, as he concentrates his whole being on the good of others, his own moral and religious growth and the glory of God. In other words, he will inevitably have to practise a demanding asceticism every day, not one taken on now and again at will but one built into the very heart of his daily existence and hence much more demanding, if at times less attended to and less appreciated. 

There can be no doubt, then, that the Christian must be an ascetical or penitential person, but, more importantly and more basically, he must be a loving person. If he is, then it follows that he is practising the asceticism of daily living that is necessarily involved in living a life of love. 

Perhaps one could put the main point we have been making in another way and say that being a Christian in any state of life is both a gift and a task, or, more accurately, a gift involving a task. It is a gift or opportunity offered to one by the church and by God to be accepted, appreciated and lived joyfully in love and peace; it is a task or challenge to be undertaken and carried through with single-mindedness, courage and readiness to give of oneself without counting the cost. In biblical terms we might say that the following of Christ is a call to live a life of love, but this by its very nature, requires one to take up his cross daily. 

One sometimes hears it said approvingly that X is a very ascetical person, meaning usually that he is very detached from material things and rather sparing in his use of them in his own life. No one would wish to detract from the merit of such a person but, in the light of what has been said earlier, one might wonder whether such a Christian had really got his priorities and emphases fully right and whether it would not be a better and a more Christian thing if he were to try to focus on being a more loving, i.e. a more understanding, concerned, compassionate and wholehearted, person. Such lovingness necessarily involves the asceticism of daily living already discussed and is more fully in line with what Jesus was and what we as his followers should be. Of course being loving and being ascetical are by no means opposed; on the contrary as we have made clear, being loving implies being ascetical. At the same time, however, they are not identical and Christianity clearly gives priority to love. 

What we have been describing is the primary and indispensable form of asceticism for the Christian and it is rightly called the asceticism of daily living. However, to speak of a primary form of asceticism implies that there is another form and in what follows we will turn our attention to that. 


Here we are using the word asceticism in its narrow sense and hence are referring to ascetical practices or exercises which people engage in from time to time, particularly in Lent, e.g. fasting, giving up cigarettes, alcohol, sweets, etc., or taking on something difficult like getting up earlier, saying more prayers, doing more work, etc. These are voluntary mortifications or penances and are a quite familiar element in our Christian lives. 

If we ask the precise purpose of these ascetical practices, we may answer as follows. In the first place, they can help a person in some degree to gain self-control and to be truly disciplined. This result does not follow automatically from their use but depends on the proper approach to and use of the penitential exercise in question. Secondly, these exercises can remind one of the need for moderation in the pursuit and use of material things and can help one to achieve that moderation. In other words, they can be a help in inculcating temperance. Thirdly, they can serve as a warning against over-valuing material realities, impressing on the person the relative unimportance of these things e.g. money, property, food and drink, success, power, etc., and that they are only of value in so far as they serve and promote the welfare of human persons. Finally ascetical practices can serve the more positive purpose of promoting growth in virtue by increasing one’s commitment to important Christian values e.g. prayer, work, service of others. The value of these ascetical practices is, then, significant but it must be remembered that, since the purposes they can achieve can be attained by other means, that value is relative, less than essential and dependent on the preferences, needs and circumstances of the individual person. 

If we inquire about the place and importance of these ascetical practices in Christian living, it must be answered, firstly, that they are very secondary in comparison to the asceticism of daily living and can in no way be a substitute for it. Rather, their only value is to supplement and promote that more basic asceticism and only in so far as they do that are they to be practised and made use of. Secondly, they are voluntary and undertaken by the free choice of the individual person. Hence it must be said that no single one of them or no combination of them can be classed as necessary or essential for true Christian living in ordinary circumstances. Thirdly, however, they can be helpful to a particular person as he tries to live his Christian life. How helpful they will be will vary from person to person, and to be valuable they will need to be suited to the individual’s temperament, needs and situation in life. Otherwise, they may do more harm than good. In the light of this it is clear that one should choose his ascetical or penitential practices carefully and that the idea of imposing some of the them by general law is open to question. If it is done, it should only be by way of exception and in special cases. 

It is important in this context to remember that an ascetical practice is not necessarily good or better than another one just because it is difficult or more uncongenial. What is in view in undertaking these practices is not the passing of an endurance test but the deepening of one’s ability to love through growth in self-control and the proper attitudes to material things. The ascetical practice that assists one most in this task is the one that is best for the person concerned. 


Asceticism is an important and necessary element in our Christian living. In its primary and broader sense it is an inevitable accompaniment of following the Christian way of life, what we have called the reverse side of the coin of loving one’s neighbour and God. A subsidiary, optional but sometimes helpful form of asceticism is that of freely chosen penitential practices. These can be of assistance in one’s efforts to grow in Christian love and become a more loving and Christian person. 


Daly, G, ‘Prayer & Asceticism’. The Furrow Vol. 29, No. 4 (Apr., 1978), pp. 219-224

 Macquarrie, J., (Ed.) A Dictionary of Christian Ethics, p. 20 f. Palazzini, P. (Ed.) ‘Asceticism’, Dictionary of Moral Theology, p. 94 f.

Rahner, K., Theological Investigations, 3, ch. 5; 7, p. 19 ff. Tanquerey, A., The Spiritual Life, Part 2, Bk 1, ch. 3. Wulf, F., ‘Asceticism’, Sacramentum Mundi, 1, p. 110 ff. 

Continue reading “Asceticism In Christian Living*”
Christianity and Early Irish Society

Christianity and Early Irish Society

n spite of the economic decline of the third century, Egypt and Syria still boasted splendid cities, fine palaces and luxurious villas, gymnasia and baths, all in sharp contrast to the hill cities and small enclosures of the Celtic peoples. Imperial trade was repressively controlled by the reforms of Diocletian, but industries were still carried on (though now the factories often executed orders for the state), and trade routes remained open. It would hardly be possible to imagine a sharper contrast to the insular society of the Celtic world Continue reading Christianity and Early Irish Society

Early Irish Monasticism and their Astronomers

Early Irish Monasticism and their Astronomers

The Irish friars were distinctly different from the monks, especially Benedictines, who lived in Italian, Spanish or French abbeys and monasteries, but also in Northumbria, in the centre of Great Britain. These characters, half friars and half druids, had a considerable interest in astronomy, due not only to the druidic substratum, but also to the fact that the Roman Church had established some very specific canons, based on the moon phases, for the calendar liturgical, for the date of Easter and for other religious occasions. Continue reading Early Irish Monasticism and their Astronomers

Who were the Desert Fathers, and why are they still important today?

Who were the Desert Fathers, and why are they still important today?

Their influence is still present in the Church today and also in popular culture.

In the third century, thousands of Desert Fathers abandoned the cities on the Nile to seek out the paneremos – or inner desert.

At the end of the third century, a Christian named Paul the First Hermit (ca. 226 – ca. † 341), who lived in the city of Thebes, Egypt, was forced to flee into the desert (around AD 250) during the persecution of the Roman emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius (ca. 201 – † June 251) he was 24 years old. He remained and lived in a desert cave near a clear spring and a palm tree awaiting for an end to Decius’ persecution.

In the intervening period, Paul the First Hermit found that he actually enjoyed the solitude and freedom to fast and pray. He embraced this form of life in the desert and lived in that cave for many more decades as a hermit, dedicated to the worship of God.

Near the end of Saint Paul’s life, another man in Egypt, Antony (251 – † 356), received inspiration from the Gospel to renounce his possessions and serve God alone.

A radical change

His experience is recounted in the famous book Life of Antony, written by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.

Anthony was born in Coma in Lower Egypt to wealthy landowner parents. When he was about 20 years old, his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. During a Mass service the pastor had read Matthew 19:21 which ingrained itself in his mind. Shortly thereafter, he decided to follow Matthew’s gospel exhortation “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Anthony gave away some of his family’s lands to his neighbours, sold the remaining property, and donated the funds to the poor.

Antony believed that the words were addressed directly to him, so immediately after Mass, he sold all of his possessions and tried to do God’s will.

Around this time, Antony heard about Paul the first hermit and went to visit him at his retreat in the mountains. Antony was deeply inspired by Paul’s way of life and was convinced that God was also calling him to become a hermit in the desert.

Antony dedicated the rest of his life to fasting and praying, to live a life of poverty for the glory of God.

His holiness became famous, and during Diocletian’s persecution, Christians were drawn to the desert as a way to escape the world and live a private Christian life.

“Contagious” lifestyle

Antony’s life and wisdom has inspired thousands of men and women for the last 50 generations to renounce their earthly ambitions and live in solitude, worshiping God alone.

Monasteries eventually developed over time and spread throughout Egypt. A pattern of life was established and other holy men and women heard the call to enter the desert.

Names that have impacted history

Among the first saints who developed this way of life and are considered part of the Desert Fathers are Saint Pachomius († 348), Saint Menas of Egypt († ca. 309), Saint Basil of Caesarea († 379), Saint Macarius of Egypt († 391) and Saint Moses the Ethiopian († 405).

Among those who were notably influenced by this early asceticism are Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint John Chrysostom († 407), Saint Hilarion († 371), and Saint John Cassian († 435).

On AD 516, Saint Benedict of Nursia developed his own monastic rule based on the writings of these ancient Desert Fathers. As a result, modern religious orders can trace their spiritual ancestry all the way back to the first hermits in Egypt.

Saint John Cassian was one of those responsible for bringing the wisdom of the Desert Fathers to Europe and it was then that their influence reached the Celtic Christians in Ireland.

It was in the mid V century that an Irish version of desert asceticism began to develop, based essentially on the writings of Cassian and the example of Saint Antony the Great.

It was this same desert asceticism that influenced the VI century monks to sail to the remote Isle of Sceilg Mhichíl—Skellig Michael, establishing a monastery of ‘hive huts’ which came to life again in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

A timeless wisdom

Although most Christians may not be familiar with the writings of the Desert Fathers, their influence can be felt throughout the world. They call us to a radical way of living Christianity that includes fasting, penance and silence. (Download a free copy of the “anonymous sayings of the Desert Fathers” by John Wortley).

In a world full of worldly temptations and full of noise, the Desert Fathers are the guiding light which calls us to live differently.

Although our vocation is not to renounce all of our possessions and live in the desert, the Desert Fathers challenge us to make our own daily sacrifices, to live more simply, and to spend time each day in prayer and silence.

Pray for our fathers and our brethren who are traveling, or those who intend to travel anywhere, that God may straighten all their ways, whether by sea, rivers, lakes, roads, air, or those who are traveling by any other means, that Christ our God may bring them back to their own homes in peace, and forgive us our sins.

And those who intend to travel anywhere, straighten all their ways, whether by sea, rivers, lakes, roads, air, or those who are traveling by any other means, everyone anywhere. Lead them into a haven of calm, a haven of safety. Graciously accompany them in their departure and be their companion in their travel. Bring them back to their own, rejoicing with joy and safe in security. In work, be a partner with Your servants in every good deed. As for us, O Lord, keep our sojourn in this life without harm, without storm, and undisturbed to the end. Amen.

The Litany for the Travelers — أوشية المسافرين

5 sayings of the Desert Fathers to grow spiritually

Desert Fathers

These IV century monks can still teach us a lot today

Although the Desert Fathers lived in the IV century, their lives and writings remain an inspiration even to today’s world.

Many of his sayings (or apothegms or sentences) were compiled in a work entitled The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (The Apophthegmata Patrum), although the title may vary according to the edition. This work, from the V century, represents a small sample of the Desert Fathers and Mothers profound spiritual wisdom. It presents an immense treasure of small phrases with enormous spiritual power.

Here are five examples of these apothegms to help you maintain a good spirit.

Abba Poemen said: “A man who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drink to everyone, but is not able to purify itself.” (SDF Poemen 25)

Said abba Antony: “I saw all the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning ‘what can get through such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me ‘humility.’ (SDF Antony 7)

Abba Poemen said: “If someone shuts a snake and a scorpion up in a bottle, in time they will completely destroyed. So it is with evil thoughts: they are suggested by the demons; they disappear through patience.” (SDF Poemen 21)

Abba Amoún from Nitria visited abba Antony and said to him: “Since my rule is stricter than yours how is it that your name is better known amongst men than mine is?” Abba Antony answered: “it is because I love God more than you.” (SDF Amoun of Nitria 1)

Saint Epiphanius Bishop of Cyprus said: “The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.” (SDF Epiphanius 8)

Continue reading “Who were the Desert Fathers, and why are they still important today?”


The ancient Celts practised a marvelous form of prayer which called God into every part of daily life. This intentional reminder that God is ever present can be called incarnational prayer: revealing the connection of the divine with everyday life.

I arise today through the strength of heaven: Light of sun, Radiance of moon, Splendour of fire, Speed of lightning, Swiftness of wind, Depth of sea, Stability of earth, Firmness of rock. [1]

Incarnation means literally to put flesh on, or to be given bodily form. As Christians we celebrate the incarnation in Jesus Christ, God made human. Jesus himself used incarnational language. He spoke of God being like the woman who lost a coin, or a shepherd who followed the lost sheep. He compared the kingdom to a mustard seed. Kathleen Norris says, “Incarnational language might be defined as ordinary words that resonate with the senses as they aim for the stars.” [2]

Walker of the Night Stars, Guardian of the Hearth, Keeper of the Deep Places, May I sleep in you this night. [3]

The God of the Celts is not found in a statement of faith but in “… this vivid sense of a God who knows, loves, supports, is close at hand, and actually present in their lives.” [4] Celtic prayer invites God into the personal life, whatever shape that takes, and encourages the connection of the divine within and without. Ancient Celtic tradition meant that, from the lighting of the fire in the early morning until the settling of the house at night, prayers were said for all activities:

Mothers of our mother, Foremothers strong, Guide our hands in yours, Remind us how to kindle the hearth, to keep it bright, to preserve the flame, Your hands upon ours, Our hand within yours, to kindle the light both day and night. [1]

Celtic prayer originally came out of a culture immersed in its relationship to the divine. We, of course, live in different times not so open to constant prayer. We believe “facts” are truth. Yet we can begin to know the truth of God who is ever present through recognizing our own experience as holy. Following Celtic tradition, nothing is seen as outside the blessing of God. Can we find the prayer to bless our computers, our mini-vans, our containers of microwave food, our designer jeans?

Even as I clothe my body with wool, cover Thou my soul with the shadow of Thy wing. [4]

The miracle of this kind of attentiveness to God is the tremendous sense of thankfulness which seeps through every part of Celtic life. Our culture teaches us that owning things leads to happiness. The Celtic practice of incarnational prayer leads to a deep and truly fulfilling relationship to the Source of life.

Bless to me, O God, Each thing mine eye sees;
Bless to me, O God, Each sound mine ear hears;
Bless to me, O God, Each odour that goes to my nostrils; Bless to me, O God, Each taste that goes to my lips; Each note that goes to my song, Each ray that guides my way, Each thing I pursue, Each lure that tempts my will,
The zeal that seeks my living soul, 

The Three that seek my heart, the zeal that seeks my living soul, The Three that seek my heart. [4] 

Continue reading “CLOSER TO GOD: A CELTIC WAY”
The History of that Holy Disciple Joseph of Arimathea

The History of that Holy Disciple Joseph of Arimathea

by: Anonymous  (Author) from: The History of That Holy Disciple Joseph of Arimathea  [ca. 1770]

Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of Albion by William Blake

The History of that Holy Disciple Joseph of Arimathea. Wherein is contained, The true Account of his Birth, his Parents, his Country, his Education, his Piety; and how he begged of Pontius Pilate the Body of Our Blessed Saviour, after his Crucifixion, which he buried in a new Sepulchre of his own. Also the Occasion of his Coming to England, and he walked on England’s mountains green where he first preached the Gospel at Glastonbury in the County of Somerset; and where is still growing that noted White-Thorn, which buds every Christmas-Day in the Morning, blossoms at Noon, and fades at Nights, on the Place where he pitched his Staff in the Ground. With a full Relation of his Death and Burial. Printed and Sold in Bow Church-Yard. London.

The person we are going to speak of, named Joseph, was a just, holy, pious, and devout man, born at Arimathea, otherwise called Rameth, and afterwards Ramula. It was a city formerly allotted for the Levites, and situated near Sophim on mount Ephraim, near the confines of the tribes of Benjamin and Dan; and is also noted for being the birth place of Samuel the prophet, who here lived and died, and was buried.

Here Joseph was born, and from hence was called Joseph of Arimathea; he was the son of one Matthias, who was considerable for his extraction, but more for his justice and authority in Jerusalem, which was the metropolis of that country; his bringing up, during his tender years, was with one Jonathan, who was his brother by the same father and mother, with whom he profited in all kind of sciences, having a good memory, and quick apprehension; so that being yet a child of fifteen years of age, he was praised by all men, in regard of the good affection he had to learning, that the priests and noblest citizens vouchsafed to all his opinion of things that concerned their laws and ordinances.

According to legend Joseph of Arimathaea came to Glastonbury, Somerset with twelve companions and disembarked onto Wearyall Hill. As he struck his staff into the ground it took root and grew into the Glastonbury Thorn Tree. Traditionally a sprig of this sacred thorn has been cut and sent to the reigning monarch at Christmas.

He was born about eight years before the nativity of our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and about the age of seventeen years, his desire being to search and have an insight, into the laws and customs of the three sects of the Jewish nation, the Pharisees, which is the chiefest, the second the Saducees, and the third the Esseans; to the end he might chuse the better of the three, when he understood them all. He declined the two latter, and adhered to the former, addicting himself to such great austerities and labours, that hearing of one Malachi an holy man, who lived in a desart, cloathed himself with nothing but what the trees brought forth, fed on no other kind of meat but what they freely yielded, and washed himself oftentimes by day and night in cold water; to keep himself chaste, he went and lived with him, and imitated his course of life, for the space of four years, at which time he returned to Jerusalem again, at the age of one and twenty years.

But now, though Joseph of Arimathea had entirely devoted himself to the sect of the Pharisees, yet was he not addicted to the vices which too evidently appeared among them, especially hypocrisy; for he was really just in all his dealings, pious without ostentation, and very charitable in private: insomuch that he obtained the praise of the rich, and the benediction of the poor, where-ever he went, and gloried more to be a good man than a great senator, to which dignity his incomparable merits had justly preferred him.

However, when Jesus Christ began to take upon him the great work of the ministry of the Gospel, and by his holy life, pure doctrine, and supernatural miracles, had procured many Jews to embrace what he taught them, among the rest of his followers this Joseph of Arimathea became a great admirer of our Saviour’s preaching, insomuch that declining the Levitical laws, as then taught in the Jewish church, he became a sincere convert, and followed Christ in all the journeys which he took throughout the land of Judea and Galilee, for the promulgation of the Gospel.

But when Jesus was betrayed by Judas, who sold the precious blood of our lord and master, for the value of thirty pence, after the condemnation was passed upon him by Pontius Pilate, the Roman president of Syria, and he was crucified on the cross, for the sins of the whole world.–As soon as he was dead, this Joseph of Arimathea, who was a rich man, went, as the evangelist St. Matthew tells us, chap. xvii, 58, 60, to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered; and when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in the rock, and he rolled a great Stone to the door of the sepulchre and departed.

Now, as for the manner of the sepulchre wherein our Saviour was laid, take the description thereof, as given by Adricomius, in his relation of the Holy Land, and which is as follows: The glorious sepulchre of our Lord, says he, was a new monument, situated about one hundred and eight feet from mount Calvary, and distant one thousand paces from mount Sion. Here it was that Joseph of Arimathea, a noble senator, cut out of a rock that was in his garden, a place of interment, in which he, together with Nicodemus, the blessed Mary, and other women, buried form the cross by consent of Pilate, the body of Jesus, which they had wrapped up in fine linen, perfumed with myrrh and aloes; his head was placed towards the West, from whence it has been the custom ever since, among the Christians, to bury the dead, in many of their church-yards, with the feet towards the East; and those attending his sacred funeral, having rolled a great stone to the door of the monument, they returned to their several habitations.

In the mean time, the priests, scribes, and pharisees, endeavouring to hinder the resurrexion of Christ, they set a guard of soldiers to watch the sepulchre, the mouth whereof they closely shut up, and set their seals on the door, that they might not be deceived thro’ any frauds, either of his disciples or their own keepers; but this diligence of the Jews, who would have obstructed his rising, did rather increase the miracle, and confirm the faith of our Saviour’s resurrection; for, on the third day after his crucifixion, receiving life again, he came to Mary Magdalen, first in the likeness of a gardiner, according to these words of the evangelist, Jesus saith unto her, woman, why weepest thou? she, supposing him to be the gardiner, saith unto him, If thou hast borne him hence, tell me: here thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. John xx. 15.

After the death of our Saviour, Joseph of Arimathea led a solitary life, about six months, in commemoration of our Saviour’s crucifixion for his salvation, as well as the whole race of mankind; but this time of penitence being compleated, he came again among the apostles, and by St. Peter was adopted one of the seventy-two disciples.–So to make good that great charge which he had took upon him, understanding from Felix, who then governed Jerusalem, that certain noble Christians, men of much honour, and more virtue, were, for preaching the Christian faith, sent to Rome by his commandment, to answer what was objected against them in Cæsar’s presence; being desirous of the service, and having special intelligence, that ⱡ the torments wherewith they were martyr’d, lessened not their piety, but that they lived contentedly on figs and nuts. He, for this cause, departed presently for Rome, and was encountered with many and grievous hazards by sea; for the ship wherein he sailed was wreck’d in the midst of the Adriatick sea, and about six hundred of them were forced to swim all night long, and at day-break, by God’s providence, a Cyrenian ship came in sight, and he, and about fourscore others, who out-swam the rest, were taken up, and saved.

After he had in this sort escaped, he went to Diarchia, which the Italians call at this day Puteoli, and grew acquainted with Baliturnus, a Jew born, who was a comedian, and in good reputation with Tiberius; by whose means, insinuating himself into the empress Poppeia’s knowledge, he determined to beseech her to procure the liberty of those Christians in bondage; and being gratified likewise by her with many gifts, he returned again into his own country.

The Glastonbury Thorn in a photograph taken in November 2010. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Being now returned home, and having given a full account to the twelve apostles, of what special service he had done for the vindication of the Christian liberty at Rome, he was appointed and ordained to go and preach the Gospel in England; and according as the mission commanded him, he took shipping at Joppa, and sailing with a great deal of difficulty, and meeting many dangerous storms, through the Mediterranean sea, he at length landed at Barrow-bay in Somersetshire, and then proceeding onwards of his journey eleven miles that day; came to Glastenbury in the same county; where, fixing his pilgrim’s staff in the ground, it was no sooner set in the earth, but just like Aaron’s rod (which blossomed flowers when there was a contest betwixt him and other learned Jews for the priesthood) it was presently turned into a blossoming thorn, which supernatural miracle made the numerous spectators, who came to see this wonder, be very attentive to hear his preaching the Gospel, which was concerning Christ crucified for the redemption of mankind.

Possible journey taken by Joseph to England

He arrived at Glastenbury about three years after the death of our blessed Redeemer, being then in the forty-fourth year of his age, doing there such wonderful miracles, that he presently brought to the conversion of Christ above one thousand souls. Besides, as Eusebius, Sozomenes, and Ruffinus, three most faithful ecclesiastical writers, relate, he baptized at the city of Wells, which is within four miles of Glastenbury, eighteen thousand persons one day; so devout, zealous, and holy, was the life of Joseph of Arimathea, that although he found the inhabitants of this island very barbarous and superstitious, yet, by wholesome admonitions, in learnedly as well as strenuously exhorting them to change their erroneous opinions, representing before their eyes, the heinousness of their damnable folly and blindness, he piously persuaded them not to hazard the salvation of their souls, and their posterity, by embracing downright idolatry, in worshipping the sun, moon, and stars, as well as living creatures, both on the earth, as well as in the sea.

Thus Joseph of Arimathea, by his godly life and good behaviour, having obtained the good-will of one Ethelbertus, a king then reigning in the western parts of England, and many other nobles, whom he converted to the Christian faith, he founded a most famous abbey at Glastonbury; which was the first Christian church in the world, and by the large endowments settled upon it afterwards by the Christian princes, it became one of the richest monasteries in Christendom.

In the antient town of Glastenbury the holy Joseph of Arimathea continued till the day of his death, being forty-two years, so that he was eighty-six at his death; and so venerable was his person then held, that six kings of those parts honoured his corpse by carrying him on royal shoulders to the grave; which was made in the chancel of Glastonbury-abbey, and had a most stately tomb erected over him, with the following inscription: Here lies the body of that most noble disciple, recorded in scripture by the name of Joseph of arimathea, and noted by the four evangelists, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, for his begging the body of our blessed saviour when crucified to redeem lost men from eternal destruction, and burying it in a tomb of his own making. he died a.d. 45, aged 86.        

King Arthur’s interrment at Glastonbury

The church-yard of Glastonbury, formerly called Avolonia, is also noted for the burial-place of king Arthur, whose sepulchre was searched for by King Henry II. and found under a stone, with an inscription on it, declaring whose ashes it covered.

And in veneration for Joseph of Arimathea, a lady living at Glastonbury, a little after the death of this holy man, obtained of her husband as much pasture-ground for the good of the inhabitants, as she was able to walk about barefoot in a whole day.

But what is more remarkable is the White-Thorn, otherwise called the Holy-Thorn, which to this very time is noted thro’ all Europe, for its budding on Christmas-day in the morning, blossoms at noon, and fades at night; and the reason is as abovesaid; for that it was the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, which he fixing in the grouad, it instantly took root where this famous thorn grows, and thereby proclaimed that spot a resting place for its master. And though the time of superstitious popery is in this kingdom abolished, yet do thousands of people, of different opinions, go annually to see this curiosity, which appearing supernatural, and contrary to the course of nature, makes us cry out with Psalmist, O Lord! how marvellous are thy ways!


ⱡ The original reads thst.

Continue reading “The History of that Holy Disciple Joseph of Arimathea”
12 Celtic spiritual practices to celebrate God

12 Celtic spiritual practices to celebrate God

Renew your spiritual life and community worship with these adaptations of ancient Christian practices.

Celtic Christian spirituality refers to a set of practices and beliefs in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales that developed in the early fifth century during the development of the monastic tradition. Many of these practices have roots in desert spirituality; Celtic monks considered the teachings of the desert mothers and fathers essential wisdom.

Tara Broach

Celtic pre-Christian culture, dating back to 500 BC, permeated the land, and these beliefs also strongly influenced Celtic spiritual practices. As a result, much of Celtic Christianity can be characterised by a strongly incarnational theology: The natural world, in particular, reveals the sacramentality of all creation. Matter is infused with the divine presence and offers glimpses of the world behind the surface of things. This spirituality celebrates the human imagination, cultivating creativity through various art forms such as manuscript illumination and vibrant metalwork.

There has been a recent strong revival of interest into Celtic Christianity as a way to renew our spiritual lives and community worship. What follows is an exploration of 12 Celtic Christian practices for modern Catholics’ daily spiritual lives, along with scripture passages for meditation.

1. Thresholds

Thresholds are the spaces between when we move from one time to another, as in the threshold of dawn to day or dusk to dark; from one space to another, as in times of pilgrimage or in moving from a secular to a sacred space; and from one awareness to another, as in times when old structures start to fall away and we begin to envision something new.

The Celtic peoples had a love of fringe and outer limit places, most likely as the result of living on an island, but they also held a keen sense of the Otherworld as a place just behind the veil of this one.

Celtic Christian monks were also drawn to fringe places, inspired by those who fled to the desert. They found their own threshold places, such as Skellig Michael, a jagged stone island jutting out into the Atlantic on which the ruins of a monastic community are still perched on top.

In daily life

Become aware each time you cross a threshold. This might be across a doorway, in moving from one activity to another, or the thresholds of the day, especially at dawn and dusk. Pause at each of these and offer a short prayer of gratitude.

Scripture meditation

These are the words of the Lord of hosts: Stand at the crossroads and look round; ask for the ancient paths. When you are shown where the good way lies, walk along it and your souls will find rest. — Jeremiah 6:16

2. Dreams

In ancient times dreams were respected as signs from God. Dreams play a significant role in scripture, with guidance and direction often arriving in these night visions.

Joseph of the Hebrew Bible, Jacob’s dream of a staircase from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending, Daniel’s dream of the four beasts, and Joseph the father of Jesus’ four separate dreams are all notable examples from scripture.

Many Irish saints had meaningful dreams as well. Legend says St. Patrick had a dream in which he was visited by an angel who encouraged him to flee captivity and helped arrange a miraculous escape. He later had another dream in which he heard the Irish people calling out to him to return to the land of his enslavement and help Christianity flourish.

In daily life

One of the best ways to remember your dreams is to place a journal and pen by your bed at night and then ask God for a dream before sleep. Even if you awaken with only a fragment or a feeling, record that upon waking.

Scripture meditation

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and aid, “Arise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt. Remain there until I tell you.”Matthew 2:13

3. Peregrinatio pro Christo

In the Celtic monastic tradition, wandering was a powerful practice inspired by the biblical story of Abraham. There is a unique term for this wandering: peregrinatio pro Christo, or the call to wander for the love of Christ. It differs from pilgrimage and is a phrase without a precise English definition.

The wandering saints set forth without destination, often getting into a small boat with no oars or rudder, called a coracle, and trusting themselves to the currents of divine love.

They surrendered themselves completely to the wind and ocean and let themselves be carried to what they called the place of their resurrection, the place where they would live and work, die and be buried, and where their remains would await their resurrection on the Last Day.

In daily life

Each evening reflecting upon the previous day and notice the signs of the divine presence. Where have you felt nudges to move forward? How have you been invited to surrender into trust? Where have you turned away from these? In what ways did you resist or ignore the holy impulses?

Scripture meditation

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty. Walk before me and be blameless. I will establish my covenant between me and you and I will multiply you greatly.”Genesis 17:1–2

4. Blessing each moment

In the Celtic tradition, one of the practices that aids in loving attention to daily life is blessing. Blessings are prayers celebrating the ordinary tasks of the day. There is a beautiful book of Scottish blessings called the Carmina Gadelica, collected by Andrew Carmichael in the XIX century in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It is filled with blessings of the day’s unfolding.

Blessing is an act of acknowledging the gifts and graces already present and offering gratitude to God for them. All the mundane activities of the day are opportunities to witness grace at work.

In daily life

We can begin to see the everyday things of our lives as openings into the depths of the world. The steam rising from my coffee, the bird singing from a tree branch outside my window, the doorbell announcing a friend’s arrival, the meal that nourishes my body for service all bring me closer to God’s grace. Consider writing a blessing of gratitude for each of the ordinary things that sustain you during the day.

Scripture meditation

God said, “This will be a sign of the covenant that I establish between me and you and every living creature for all generations. I will place my rainbow in the clouds and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” — Genesis 9:12–13

5. Soul friendshipAnam Cara

Another key practice for the Celtic saints was having a soul friend, inspired by earlier desert traditions. St. Brigid is often quoted as saying, “Go forth and eat nothing until you get a soul friend, for anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head; is like the water of a polluted lake, neither good for drinking nor for washing.”

Everyone, whether lay or clergy, man or woman, was expected to have a spiritual mentor and companion on the soul’s journey. This was a person in whom they could confide all of their inner struggles, someone who would help them find their path and who could midwife them in discernment. There was a sense of genuine warmth and intimacy in this relationship and deep respect for the other’s wisdom as a source of blessing. Age or gender differences did not matter.

In daily life 

I invite you to spend some time seeking out a soul friend. You may already have one in your life: a spiritual director, a wise guide, someone you can turn to when things feel challenging and to whom you entrust the secret desires of your heart.

Scripture meditation

Please do not insist on my leaving you or forsaking you. Wherever you go I will go, and wherever you live I will live. Your people will be my people and your God will be my GodRuth 1:16

6. Encircling

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left, Christ in the fort, Christ in the chariot-seat, Christ in the mighty stern. I bind to myself to-day, The strong power of an invocation of the Trinity, The faith of the Trinity in Unity The Creator of the Elements.

Lorica Sancti Patricii, (St. Patrick’s Brestplate)

In the Celtic monastic tradition, a lorica is a type of prayer seeking protection, invoking the power of God to safeguard against darker forces. You are probably familiar with the lorica prayer above, attributed to St. Patrick. The biblical inspiration may come from Ephesians 6:14, which refers to the breastplate of righteousness clothing you.

This practice is rooted in the precarious sense people often have of our own existence. Traveler’s especially faced dangers at night from thieves or wild animals with only fire and prayer as protection.

In daily life

These breastplate prayers name the presence of Christ in all directions as a shield against harm and a reminder of God’s loving presence. You can extend this circle beyond yourself to include your family, your community, your country, and the earth.

Scripture meditation

You who abide in the shelter of the Most High, who rest in the shadow of the almighty, say to the Lord, “You are my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I place my trust.Psalm 91:1–2

7. Walking the rounds

A central Celtic practice at sacred sites, such as churches, graves, crosses, and holy wells, is known as “walking the rounds.”

In daily life

This involves walking sun-wise (or clockwise) in a mindful way around various markers or monuments. The number of rounds varies but is often three to reflect the sacredness of that number in the Celtic imagination. There are pattern days associated with different holy places and a set number of rounds to walk in specific places along with certain prayers.

Walking helps to arrive to a place and slow down. Walking in a circular manner helps to move us out of linear ways of thinking and to open our hearts to receive God’s grace.

Find a holy place to walk around. It might be a sun-wise journey around a favourite tree, your church, or around the edges of a labyrinth. While walking the rounds, you might say traditional prayers like the Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer, but any prayers of the heart are welcome.

Scripture meditation

When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses.” He answered, “Here I am.” He continued, “Do not approach. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” — Exodus 3:4–5

8. Learning by heart

While the Irish monks are known for their illuminated sacred texts, books were rare and valuable, so they would have had to learn many scripture passages by heart to be able to pray with them. This was a continuation of the older Druidic tradition, which was primarily an oral culture that prized memorisation rather than writing.

The Irish monks sang psalms throughout each day as a central part of their prayer. They were immersed in this poetry and ancient call to see God active in the whole world. They likely would have memorised all 150 psalms, as their days were intertwined with their imagery.

In daily life

Begin by finding just two lines of a scriptural text or poem that are meaningful to you. It could even be one of the suggested texts in this article. Spend time each morning with these lines, repeating them gently to yourself until you have learned them by heart and then recall them throughout the day.

Scripture meditation

I will establish my law in their minds and inscribe it in their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. — Jeremiah 31:33

9. Solitude and silence

The desert tradition profoundly influenced the Celtic monks; while many monks were unable to go to the literal desert, they sought out the wild edges and solitary places of wilderness.

There are many sacred places in Ireland and Wales with the word díseart or dysert meaning ‘hermitage’ in the name. This is the Irish word for desert and refers to a place of solitude and silence, a retreat for those who long for a more intimate encounter with God and where attention can be cultivated with few distractions.

There are many stories of Irish monks who lived as hermits for a time, including Sts. Colman and Kevin, who both lived in caves and had animals as their companions.

In daily life 

Begin by making a commitment to spending 5–15 minutes each day in silence. Turn off  your phone, computer and tablet and ask others near you or in your house not to disturb you. Then extend this by finding a whole morning or afternoon to go to a nearby retreat centre or monastery and listen deeply to the sacred stirrings within.

Scripture meditation

God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods instead of me.” — Exodus 20:1–3

10. Seasonal cycles

The unfolding of the seasons was an overarching template for the Celtic imagination. In the pre-Christian tradition there are significant feast days aligned with the equinoxes and solstices. And then there are the cross-quarter days, which are the midway points between them and part of the harvest cycle.

The Christian calendar incorporates many of these rhythms, with Christmas falling near the winter solstice, the feast of John the Baptist at the summer solstice, and Easter after the spring equinox. The monastic prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours also respects these sacred rhythms of nature’s rise and fall, birth and death.

In daily life 

Make time for contemplative walks outside in your neighbourhood. Instead of trying to get somewhere specific, simply pay attention to the world around you and how God might be speaking to you. Pay particular attention to the signs of the season—what flowers might be in bloom, whether the trees have their leaves, and the height of the sun in the sky. Ask yourself what season your own soul is in right now.

Scripture meditation

For everything there is a season, and a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted. — Ecclesiastes 3:1–2

11. Landscape as theophany

The Celtic imagination considers sacred places to be “thin,” or places where the veil between the worlds, meaning heaven and earth, seem especially near to each other.

Ninth-century Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena taught that there are two books of revelation: the book of the scriptures and the book of creation. Both are required to know the fullness of the divine presence.

Just as God can speak through the words of the scriptures, so can we hear the voice of the divine in the elements and in creatures. The landscape can become a theophany, or place of divine manifestation. The Celtic monks sought out places in the wilderness to receive this gift of revelation.

In daily life

Make a commitment in the coming days to spend time in nature and be present to it as a place of revelation. Bring the prayers of your heart and ask God for signs and symbols to guide you on the way. Consider making a pilgrimage to a landscape that feels especially sacred to you, whether desert, mountain, sea, river, or plains.

Scripture meditation

Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord will pass by.” There was a powerful, strong wind that tore the mountain apart and shattered rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a tiny whisper.” — 1 Kings 19:11–12

12. Three essential things

Three is a sacred number in the Celtic tradition, and often the saints expressed their own desires or commitments in terms of the number three.

St. Columba of Iona asked God for three things: virginity, wisdom, and pilgrimage. St. Íte of Killeedy (Íte ingen Chinn Fhalad) focused on faith, simplicity, and generosity. Each is a variation on wisdom for the three essential things one must do in life.

None of the monks say the same three things, which open us up to the possibility that what is essential to one person will be different to another. Similarly in different seasons of life, what is essential for us might change.

In daily life

Reflect on the three things in your own life you count as most essential. Hold them as principles or touchstones for your life right now as you continue your spiritual journey. One way to do this is to imagine you are at the end of your life looking back. For what do you want to be remembered?

Scripture meditation

The Lord has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? Only this: to do what is right, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with your God Micah 6:8

Even if this magnificent verse were the only memorable passage in the Book of Micah, the Book would be worth reading and rereading; the verse is one of the richest summations of prophetic preaching (Isa 19:19; Hos 6:6; Am 5:21-22).

Continue reading “12 Celtic spiritual practices to celebrate God”