To understand Celtic spirituality, it is first imperative to understand the history of the Celtic people. Along with that, we must delve Christianity and Pagan religions in Ireland in the past, and its transformation to now. There is a long history of Celtic Spirituality, which starts with the mythology of the early Celts, and then moves towards the introduction of Christianity. Through this evolution, we then see how Celtic Spirituality is viewed today.
Celtic Spirituality and Celtic Christianity
Celtic Spirituality and Celtic Christianity are intertwined. As a result, this article focuses majorly on how Christianity came about in Celtic culture. Christianity influenced Celtic culture, however (as explained later in the article), there were many differences between the Christianity of the Celts and Christianity which was spread through the Roman Empire.
Celtic Christianity appears to have been conceived at different times, and there have been many modern historians who have written on that. One prominent feature of Celtic Christianity, as explained by Corning (2006) was that it distanced itself, and was apparently also opposed to the Catholic Church. Corning also states that Celtic Christianity did not ascribe and actually denied the authority of the pope. It was also more friendly to women, very connected with nature (as seen later). Another idea she brings up sees the early polytheistic beliefs of Celtic culture and how Celtic Christianity was open and comfortable in dealing with this polytheism. It is important to note this. As this article moves forward, we see how Celtic culture evolved to Celtic Christianity, and its relevance in today’s day and age.
We first need to ask – Who were the Celts?
Based on what Sister John Miriam had said, the Celts were people whose faith outlined about every single aspect of their lives. While originally from Central Europe, a large majority of the Celts lived in Ireland, other parts of Great Britain and some areas in the north of France such as Brittany. Around the years between 500 and 150 B.C. they were driven to those areas as the Roman Empire continued to expand. (Hines-Brigger, 2017)
While the history of Celtic Spirituality came in the form of Pagan religions, one of the most famous (arguably spiritual) Saints – Saint Patrick, in the year 431 A.D. had introduced Christianity to the Celts (Hines-Brigger, 2017). He did this by expressing the parallels which existed between the faith of the Celts and Christianity – as the Celts dove deeper into these similarities, they agreed to convert. However, as they carried their own beliefs along into Christianity, this had a perspective very different from the rampant Roman Catholicism which existed in those times. Examples of this can still be seen today very strongly in Ireland “a land with one foot in the here-and-now and one strongly planted in its history”(ibid.). While there are several themes explored within Celtic Spirituality, the major four of them appear to be the following:
- The immanent presence of God
- Monasticism and community
- Art and symbolism.
In exploring these different aspects, we first need to understand the different arguments which exist to the idea of Celtic Spirituality. When we come to the idea of spirituality, it is a very subjective term which has different annotations for different people. As a result, Celtic Spirituality delves into those same notions. In Liam Tracey OSM’s article “Celtic Spirituality: Just what does it mean?”(2008), he tries to make sense of these new ideas of Celtic spirituality. This is especially in the present where there seems to be a newfound interest among many people in the history of spirituality and religion in Ireland.
OSM explains that using the words “Celtic” and “Spirituality” is somewhat problematic because “In any consideration of ‘Celtic spirituality’, you are immediately confronted by issues of terminology. In this case, what is meant by the world ‘Celtic’ and the word ‘spirituality’. The lack of agreement on what these words mean and signify is part of the wider confusion.”(OSM, 2008).
OSM explains the history of the Celtic people in Ireland as well as the Christianisation of Ireland and Great Britain. He exclaims that not much was really known of the Roman colonizers before Saint Patrick’s arrival. However, it is certain that many historians accept the 6th century to be a radical turning point. This is due to a new religion being introduced as well as the institution of a Church, which did not exist here before. Some historians also feel that what provided fuel for this change. Also, along with the Christianisation of the land was new technologies which were introduced as well as new methods of farming.
What OSM points out though is that many seemed to misunderstand the relationship between the rest of the Christian world and the Irish Church. Historians believe that because Ireland was isolated from the rest of the Roman Empire when Christianity was spreading, the Irish Church may have actually developed a more pure form of Christianity. This may be more accurate in understanding the early origins of the Church.
Themes of Celtic Spirituality
Coming back to the modern ideas of Celtic Spirituality, we will first delve into the idea of pilgrimage. For the early monks in the Celtic regions, pilgrimage as a concept was very closely linked to the idea of penance in Christianity.
Initially, it meant that these monks would seek out a place in which God would be revealed to them, and they would embark on these journeys. It was meant to be seen as a way to discover someone’s own path to god. Along the way, they would leave signs of their journey, the most common being a pilgrim stone. The pilgrim stone came in many forms – a coarsely carved cross being an example.
Another sign of pilgrimage are the round towers which you can see across Ireland. These towers served many purposes – some common uses were as places of refuge during attacks or bell towers. However, they were also extremely vital in providing pilgrims with direction and inspiration as they moved along in their journeys of actualisation. Moving to the idea of pilgrimages in this day and age we turn to Eric Berger’s article titled “Celtic spirituality draws pagans and Christians alike”. In this piece of writing, we see the appeal of Celtic Spirituality in both Pagans as well as Christians. This is through the idea of spiritual fulfillment spent from extracting peace from your surroundings.
He even states that there is “[a] simple Celtic discipline of listening for the divine in one’s environment. Early Celtic Christians esteemed the biblical figure John the Beloved, who was said to have been still enough to hear the heartbeat of Jesus”(Berger et al., 2018). As a result, the environment houses the divine and causes this to be a very integral part of Celtic Spirituality.
Connection to the Environment
The ideas which stem from the pilgrimage is that people searching for god turn to their environment and guiding themselves through it to find the divine. However, while this acts as a journey, Celtic spirituality poses such an emphasis on the environment due to the idea that there is an immanent presence of God. To put that shortly, it essentially means that God is all around us. In Duncan’s article, he points out a few major points about Celtic Christianity and its relation to the environment. These are the “love of God’s creation and care for the environment” (Duncan, 2015) and the “closeness between the natural and supernatural (immanence and/or transcendence)”(ibid.). This expresses how closely god and the environment are connected because they are both constantly around us and it is our duty to take care of it.
Community and Monasticism
After looking at the environment which surrounds us, the next logical theme of Celtic Spirituality is community. In Hines-Brigger’s article, she states how the Celts seemed to have a disposition for forming communities, living together and amongst each other. They felt a natural connect towards saints and angels. As a result, this complemented the kinship they felt for one another. Due to this, when they shared their lives together in communities and monasteries, it seemed a natural and ordinary way to live a Christian life. It’s worth noting that a lot of Celtic Mythology comes from their folklore and the attachment they felt with any living thing around them. It only seems logical that this would transcend into the spiritual paths which they choose to take.
Design and Symbols
Lastly, we look at the major symbols which signify Celtic Spirituality. We see their design and aesthetics – the symbols which signify their beliefs. Across Ireland, many designs can be seen. This is the artwork in the ninth-century Book of Kells and of course, there is the craftsmanship of the high crosses. The High Crosses of Ireland are extremely famous and each element on a cross acts as a symbol. The crosses again are symbolic of how God has a constant and continuous connection to life and the earth. Also, Celtic folklore, art, and dance which have survived through the ages are celebrated continuously across Ireland as an expression of the Celts’ understanding of god’s presence.
There is so much to learn from Celtic Spirituality. While it was rooted in Christianity for many years, the history within this Spirituality continues to live among us all and by paying attention to the world around us. In taking care of it, we are able to understand how best to express ourselves. Celtic mythology is vast and beautiful. Should you choose to embrace it, you must be able to pay attention to all these themes around us and truly find the meaning of god that you are looking for.