The origins of Celtic Christianity are totally unclear, but its roots in Britain and Ireland go long before St Patrick. What grew in the British Isles was a unique church, which, while drawing on inspiration from Egypt and ancient Irish traditions, had its own unique character. It believed that God could be found in the beauty of nature and in sacred places. Celtic monks took up the Egyptian practice of establishing hermitages in remote places to find God in silence and beauty. While the Celtic church was smashed by Viking attacks, modern thinkers are finding that its ideas resonate in our ecologically conscious time.
In the steps of saints and druids:the way of the Celtic church
Celtic Christianity drew inspiration from Christ and ancient Celtic philosophy and in the modern eco-conscious world of today is inspiring people again.
The mystery at the beginning
One of the great historical mysteries concerns the beginnings of Celtic Christianity. Gildas, who is at his most reliable when he is not railing at Saxons, says that the island of Britain first received the word of God in the last years of Tiberius Caesar. This is quite a claim, as Tiberius died in 37, while Jesus died in 31 or 33, so if it is true, then there was some very early and unrecorded Christian presence in the British Isles. Eusebius, who wrote what was thought to be an authoritative church history, does not contradict the date, while Tertullian, writing in 199, lists many peoples to whom the word of Christ has come, including those parts of Britain inaccessible to Rome. This must mean Ireland or Scotland. But there are no records other than these brief references. The trouble is that we do not know how historically reliable the information is, and archaeological corroboration is is lacking. Gildas is not considered the most reliable source, but Tertullian has never been regarded as unreliable on history, even though his theology was dubious.
What seems to be certain is that there was some early contact between Ireland and the early Christian church. There was a Christian bishop sent to Ireland before St Patrick, by the name of Palladius, though nothing is known of his mission. Patrick was sent to the Britons who believe in Christ in the island of Ireland, so there must have been an early Christian presence. though some may have been slaves taken by the Irish, as Patrick had been. Furthermore, there are claims that St Kevin, who operated in Wicklow, was earler than Patrick. This may be signficant, as the Romans had a presence north of Dublin, in what was probably a fortified trading post. There were some of these outside the empire, even as far as Sri Lanka, so in comparison Ireland is no distance away. This site may have been the entry point into Ireland for Christian ideas .
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New and old ideas
Christian theology has never been able to do without a philosophical underpinning, for it has always been necessary to think out and express Christian ideas in philosophical terms, and the quest for a suitable philosophical language has always been at the heart of Christian theological thinking. In mainstream Christianity the philosophical support was provided by Greek concepts, and these were certainly part of the heritage which the Celtic church derived from the broader European cultural context in which the faith it received was nurtured. But it is also the case that Celtic Christian thought owed something to the heritage of the Celtic peoples in whom the faith grew up.
A strange claim was made by the Irish, that Ireland had never been without the faith. It seemed that they believed that there was something in druidical thought that was compatible with the Christian revelation. I believe this is an overstatement, on a par with the belief that Ireland was a little bit of the Garden of Eden that was somehow detached. But Patrick, when asked by the daughters of the Irish high king in Mayo about the God that he worshipped, declared that Christians worship the God of all men, who is in the light of sun, under and over all things,etc. This is interesting, for while Patrick did not identify the Christian God with any of the existing pagan pantheon, he seems to acknowledge that the Irish, at least the druids, honoured a deity above and beyond lower level deities, whom he could identify as the Christian God. This seems to chime in with Taliesin's comment that the Celtic peoples had never been without knowledge of the one God.
This explains the way in which Christianity took on relatively easily among the peoples of Ireland, as they could draw on ancient druidical thought to express their religious ideas. What we get in Ireland is Christianity with a "celtic" slant. I am aware that the term Celtic is now rightly considered dubious as a racial designation by archaeologists, but I am using it as a cultural designation.
The Celtic Cross
A key element in the creative fusion of the Christian salvation story with Irish thought is the Celtic cross. These crosses are found wherever Irish Christianity spread, through Scotland and Ireland, across Northern and Western England and Wales. They are a blend of Christian and pagan symbols.
The cross is a stone pillar shaped into a cross with a circle round the headpiece. The stone is significant, as the ancient peoples of the British Isles erected stones for religious reasons, so the fact that it is stone is a symbol of its religious significance drawn from pagan heritage. The circle round the head of the cross stands for the light of the sun. This draws deeply into the druidical tradition that light was a symbol of the divine presence in nature. It stands for the deity who is behind the Christ who died on the cross, the Father. Symbolically it links in with John's Gospel, whose prologue declares "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God." The Greek term for word was logos, which can denote word or reason/rationale. Some Greek philosophers, notably Stoics, believed that God's logos was injected into nature as the creative force and the source of order and reason in the world. Hence the logos can be represented as light, a concept that ties in with John's prologue John's Gospel, chapter 1], which says that Christ was the light of men.
The arms of the cross and its pillar are adorned with images drawn from Christian scripture. These were probably used by travelling monk preachers to tell stories. Such visual imagery was essential in a society where many people were illiterate, though the Irish druids and wise men were very literate indeed. The monk would stand before the cross and preach, pointing to pictures as he went along. These monks were tonsured, but not with the European tonsure, which leaves the top of the head bald, but with the druidical tonsure, which shaves only the front part of the head.
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Seeking the desert
Integral to Celtic monasticism was the need to seek the desert. The desert experience is fundamental to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Jesus himself spent forty days in the wilderness, and during the period of the early church Egyptian Christians developed the desert hermit tradition. Various Christians would disappear to remote spots in the desert and live lives of intense religious devotion. The rationale behind this was that in the desert there were no distractions from prayer, and in a time when Christians were liable to persecution, the desert offered the advantage of safety from the persecutors, who never seemed keen to enter the desert lands. Furthermore, the desert offered silence, which is at the heart of Christian prayer, as Christians seek the presence and influence of God in silence.
The connection between Ireland and Egypt has been inferred from the way in which the Irish followed the influence of the desert fathers mentioned above. There are places in the British Isles which include the name dysarth,which means desert. This denotes the site where a Celtic hermit had found a remote spot to be his personal desert. Patrick himself was said to have sought out a personal desert on top of the 2500 foot Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, a barren, rocky wilderness where he spent lent one year. At another time he was said to have spent time on an island in Lough Derg in South Donegal.
Irish monks often set sail to find their own personal desert on remote islands and in lonely places. Some reached the Faroes, and the Westman Islands in Iceland are named after the Westmen [Irishmen] who lived there before the Norse came. These were monks, and it is likely that they fled westwards towards America when they saw Norse ships. Sadly the volcano on the island erupted at a later date and all archaeological traces were obliterated.
The monks found a desert on the austere Skellig Michael, a jagged tooth of an island protruding from the sea south of Kerry, where their simple beehive huts still remain and can be visited when the weather is right, but it is a tricky passage to land on the island.
The love of Nature
The Celtic church seems to have been aware that the sacred is present in nature, but often this awareness expressed itself in the relationship between the monks and animals. The Irish are great story tellers, so there is no need to take literally many of the tales that were told of ancient Christian saints. But it is what they reveal of the thoughts, feelings and culture of the Celtic Christians that is significant. Take the tale of Saint Kevin and the blackbird. Kevin was said to have stood for so long in prayer with his arms outstretched [the Coptic, Egyptian way] that a blackbird made its nest in his hands, so he stayed in prayer long enough for its chicks to hatch, grow and flee the nest. A tale yes, but it shows us two points:the cultural connection between early Irish Christianity and Egypt, and the gentle way in which Irish saints harmonised with the living creature sof the natural world.
Saints apparently sometimes recognized the presence of God in animal sounds, though they could sometimes be ambiguous about them. Beuno, the introducer of monasticism to Wales, was once, so the story goes, tempted to use his spiritual power to silence the croaking of frogs so that they would not interfere with his hymn singing, until he realized that the croaking was the way in which the frogs gave praise to God. On the other hand, the monks of St Brendan, who dwelt in Kerry, feared that their hymns might disturb the seagulls, and thought that they should sing with less gusto,only for Saint Brendan to reply that the birds were joining in with their hymns, so monks and gulls sang together in their own ways.
Saints could even argue with angels, so the story goes. An angel told Kevin to cultivate the wild slopes of the Wicklow hills, but Kevin refused on grounds that he would disturb the creatures that lived there, so he found a spot further downhill where the wild creatures were not disturbed, and so began the foundation of the famous monastic site of Glendalough, the valley of two loughs, in Wicklow.
What is significant is that the Celtic saints could see the divine not only in the panorama but in the particular. It is easy to see the divine hand in the wide, peaceful view, but is it easy to see the divine in what gets in our way, for example the noise of birds singing? Sometimes we can, but others regard the dawn chorus as a nuisance. The Celtic Christians could see the presence and hand of God not only in what is distant and non-interactive, like the great view over the valleys, but in the life of the individual creature.
What killed off the Celtic church as a force was that it was caught between twin pincers, Rome and the Norsemen. Rome was not convinced by much that was taught in the Celtic church and promoted the Roman version of Christianity over the Celtic one, that had spread on the continent through the activities of Irish missionaries. But at least with Rome it was a battle of ideas. The Norse were different. The gently flowing Shannon with the great lakes on its route was an open door for the Norse longships to stab deep into the heart of Ireland, plundering the monasteries and rich lands along its banks. The great intellectual powerhouse that was Ireland was savagely disrupted, and to train in religious thought many young men went to Rome, where they did not learn Celtic ways.
Yet the Celtic path has not been forgotten. Slowly, but surely, the memory of the Celtic path has been recovered. As society begins to realize that humans and nature must live in harmony, the importance of relating to nature and finding the presence of the divine therein has grown in importance. Saint Francis, with his great love of nature, has become important for many people, and the Celtic saints are becoming of interest again, despite being played down for centuries in favour of continental spiritual heroes and models. Celtic thought can once again take its proper place in spirituality and theology.