Celtic Christian Spirituality
In the Beginning
Christianity first came to the Celts in the 2nd century, during the Roman occupation, possibly through Christians in the army. But it was not until late in the 4th century that the distinct characteristics of Celtic Christianity began to emerge. Following the Roman withdrawal from Britain at the beginning of the 5th century, there were nearly 200 years of separation between the Celtic and Roman churches, when the Celtic church developed its unique style and outlook.
The Celtic church celebrated grace and nature as good gifts from God and recognised the sacredness of all creation. It had a love of mysticism and poetry, a deep respect for the feminine, included women in its leadership and allowed clerical marriages. The Celtic understanding of church leadership was rooted in its rural and agricultural communal culture, and the great Celtic monasteries emerged from this tribal system. Although the abbots were generally not ordained, the leadership and power in the Celtic church, lay with the abbots of the monasteries.
The roots of Celtic Christianity reach deep into the mysticism of St John the evangelist in the New Testament, and the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. According to Celtic tradition, when St John leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper, he heard the heartbeat of God. Therefore, St John became a symbol of listening for the life of God in ourselves, and in all creation.
5th and 6th Centuries
Because of the clear Biblical mandate to go into all the world and make disciples, missionary outreach was seen by Celtic Christians as a vital element in their search for the Holy. So, the 5th and 6th centuries were marked by large-scale conversions in Ireland and Britain, as Celtic converts who were usually monks spread Christianity. Martyrdom for the Christian faith was almost unknown because the Celtic approach to evangelism was peaceful and without bloodshed. By the beginning of the 6th century, Celtic Christianity was wholly monastic in its structure. But, because there was no central organising force, there was considerable variation in liturgical practises and monastic rules.
Synod of Whitby - 664 A.D.
The Roman and Celtic churches did not meet again until the Roman mission to Britain in 597, when there was considerable disagreement between them. This eventually led to the Synod of Whitby in 664, where the Celtic church argued from the authority of St John, and the Roman church appealed to the authority of St Peter.
After the Synod of Whitby
Because of the judgement against the Celtic church, the way of St John began to be lost from the spirituality of the British Church. Celtic monastic communities were replaced by Benedictine ones, and strict uniformity to Rome was enforced. Gradually, the "holy" place came to be identified with the indoor Roman church sanctuary, rather than the outdoor Celtic sanctuary of earth, sea and sky.
The decree of Whitby did not immediately change the face of British Christianity however, and for hundreds of years, there were pockets of resistance to the Roman mission, especially in Devon, Cornwall and Scotland. Some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition were during this period, such as the Book of Kells, and intricately carved high standing crosses. However, throughout Britain and Ireland, the picture generally was of gradual conformity to the Roman way.
Nevertheless, for centuries the riches of Celtic spirituality were guarded in an oral tradition. One generation taught the next prayers that originated from the early centuries of Celtic Christianity. These prayers were sung or chanted at the rising and setting of the sun, in the midst of daily work and routine, at a child's birth, or a loved one's deathbed. These were the prayers of daily life celebrating God as Life within all life, with creation as His dwelling place. The Celtic understanding of God, was that He was always overwhelmingly present all around them.
The Reformation - 16th Century
The Celtic tradition met more resistance after the 16th century Reformation in Britain, when these prayers were banned for being pagan. In Scotland, a combination of religious persecution and the 19th century Highland clearances, caused the Celtic culture to fragment and the oral tradition began to be lost. Written copies of some prayers were preserved in Scotland by Alexander Carmichael in the "Carmina Gadelica" (1900) and in Ireland by Douglas Hyde in the "Religious Songs of Connacht" (1906), but by then their living use had virtually disappeared.
The 20th century however saw a growing interest in the Celtic tradition, and an increasing appreciation for its spiritual riches, and their contemporary relevance. The Iona community, founded in the Hebrides in 1938 by George MacLeod, (one time Minister of St. Cuthbert's,) was strongly influenced by Celtic spirituality. He represented in his spirituality a combination of Celtic mystical perspective and a deep personal commitment to the Scottish church. This led him towards a type of creation mysticism, ecological concern, identification of Christ with the poor and a commitment to working for justice and non-violence in the cities of Scotland.
The Iona community's commitment to action for justice and peace, working for social and political change, and ecumenism, is built on a foundation of integrated spirituality, which is a very Celtic view of life.
Miracles and Celtic Saints
In Celtic Christianity, Saints were regarded as holy spiritual overlords who were close to God, provided assistance in times of need, had special influence in the court of heaven, and were able to plead with God for favours. Many miracles were associated with them, including visions, healings, favours granted, mystical appearances and more. Places where miracles had been performed became pilgrimage sites. St Cuthbert was known for his miracles during his life, and also after his death.
More information about St Cuthbert can be found HERE
The Anam Chara
Celtic Christians recognised the importance of shared spiritual journeys, and their Anam Chara or Soul Friend, was their spiritual director. Anamchara were sought out as men and women of wisdom, great spirituality and insight, who were willing to share their understanding of the faith with others. St Brigid said that "the person without an Anamchara is like a body without a head".
More information about St Brigid can be found HERE
There were three types of martyrdom recognised by the Celtic church. These were red, green and white. Red martyrdom meant dying for the Christian faith. White meant leaving home and country through love of Christ. Green meant staying at home and living ones life in total subjection to Christ. Since most people did not die for Christ, and not everyone could travel to faraway places, many opted to subdue the body and love a life that was self controlled, upright and godly. Saint Columba, was a white martyr for Christianity.
More information about St Columba can be found HERE
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