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Claiming Celtic Christianity

First, there is prayer.

God, kindle Thou in my heart within

A flame of love to my neighbor,

To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,

To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall,

O Son of the loveliest Mary,

From the lowliest thing that liveth,

To the Name that is highest of all.

O Son of the loveliest Mary,

From the lowliest thing that liveth,

To the Name that is highest of all.

Because Celtic Christianity begins with prayer, the terms “Celtic Christianity” and “Celtic Spirituality” seem to be interchangeable in a way that, say, Celtic Church is not.

Because Celtic Christianity begins with prayer, it offers a recovery of the religious imagination, and thus, has attracted much attention in the last ten years, influencing people of many traditions who see reflections of their own tradition and thus claim Celtic Christianity as part of their spiritual heritage. Others, seeing it thus diffused dismiss it with labels such as “New Age.” To do so is to miss out on rich blessings.

Because Celtic Christianity begins with prayers learned from monasteries, it makes no separation between praying and living. “Praying and working flow into each other, so that life is to be punctuated by prayer, become prayer,” writes Esther De Waal in The Celtic Way of Prayer, one of my favorite books. Celtic spirituality, one learns, is about practicing the presence of God:

God here and now, with me, close at hand, a God present in life and in work, immediate and accessible. It is not merely that I learn this as some sort of abstract theory, something that I can repeat as a statement of faith—it is given to me in terms that are practical, usable, in a whole treasury of poems and prayers and blessings that I can take over and use in my daily life, from the opening of the day until I fall asleep at night (p. 69).

The Celtic people of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries in Ireland, Scotland and Britain who shaped Celtic Christianity were verbal, clannish people. They had an imaginative, non-linear way of apprehending time and space. Place was significant. Time was not. With their great respect for heroes and warriors, poets and mystics, they spoke often of angels, celebrated saints. Paradox was a feature of their spirituality. Theirs was never a black-and-white attitude, but more a both-and embracing of opposites. They exuded a love of creation and the goodness of God.

Once the written word reached them, books became their treasures. Their monasteries were the scriptoriums where monks copied the Bible and other pieces of classical literature. Their illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, were the great works of art in a period known as the Dark Ages. Thomas Cahill’s popular 1995 treatise How the Irish Saved Civilization helped to prompt the current interest in all things Celtic.

With their tendency to wander, explore and tell voyage stories, they were missionaries of the highest order, evangelizing Europe and leaving their very distinctive footprint on the continent. They believed in the prophetic role of the Christian.

Because they lived on the fringes of the then known world, the early Celts were not dominated by the Roman church. They were not hierarchical— they were much more communitarian and relational. There was freedom of expression. Women, in the early years, had positions of authority and leadership and enjoyed equal rights. In fact, the monastic movement that defined the period was pioneered by women such as St. Bridget, whose monastery in Kildare included both men and women. Bridget was also the one who spoke of the importance of soul friends, people with whom one shares thoughts and concerns about spiritual life.

The Celts were not influenced by Augustine the way that the Roman Church was. In other words, they did not believe in a dual view of reality. This mindset never entered the Celtic Christian Church. The belief in the goodness of creation and all material being was too strong for this.

Theirs was an open church, open to people and evangelistic in its approach to the society. There was a belief in social justice. The church was open to study and the intellectual pursuit of learning, believing that the mind is a gift to be nourished and developed.

This description of the Celtic people is based on Timothy J. Joyce’s excellent book Celtic Christianity: A Sacred Tradition, A Vision of Hope, He tells us that Celtic spirituality will not let us go it alone. It shows us a way of being Christian together:

I believe it is very natural to look back at the faith we had as children and consider it as normative, ‘what ought to be.’ . . . Some feel they have lost their faith because they no longer feel that way. But what is missed here is the opportunity to grow in faith. Real faith development means change, conversion, transformation. . . This can be found only by going forward, sometimes through darkness, always in faith and prayer. . . The spiritual journey requires work and commitment. The Celtic way has shown how this might be done, (p. 159).

This brings us back to prayer–a major component of how spiritual growth “might be done.” The Psalms are the heart of Celtic prayer, Joyce says:

We need to pray with the whole of ourselves, my full person in harmony with all creation, not just with words but going beyond words, using heart, images, and body. . . . If we can do this, we will find our prayer is our life and our life is our prayer,” (p. 157, 158).

And so I have to come to think that claiming a life of prayer is one way of claiming Celtic Christianity.

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