The Light in the West:Celtic Christianity

by frankbeswick

Celtic Christianity was the Christian faith as understood in Irish, Scots and Welsh cultures.

It would be an error to think that there was a Celtic church distinct from European Christianity, for the Celtic church subscribed to the main doctrines of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but in Ireland where it was at its strongest it was in a land that was never ruled by Rome and thus it was able to develop a distinctly individual style that was sometimes at odds with continental Christianity. But it was a vigorous and learned church that spread the Christian faith widely across northern and western Europe, and our continent has much for which it can be thankful to the Celtic churchmen,particularly to the incredibly vigorous Irish.

Image courtesy of Gamopy

The Celtic Cross

On a lonely moorland stands a Celtic cross, a mute,  treasured and now weathering memorial to an ancient Christian tradition. Note that it combines a cross and a disc, a union of Celtic and Christian symbolism. The cross speaks for itself as a symbol of Christ, but the disc stands for the sun and its light, which for  the cultures loosely known as Celtic  was the expression of the divine presence in the world. Christianity has ever drawn upon philosophy to reflect on its traditions, and while the church as  a whole drew upon Hellenistic thought derived from Greece, Celtic Christians drew also upon older druidical traditions that saw light as the manifestation of divine presence.

This unique melding of Christian faith and Celtic culture is shown in the artistry of the cross.Each cross is different, but the common element to all is that scriptural stories are told through their carvings. The Catholic Church, with which the Celtic Church was in communion, has ever believed that religious truth can be expressed not only in word, but in pictures and ritual actions. But alongside the Christian art the Celtic church took aboard the artistic conventions of Celtic culture, and so we see the elaborate knotwork designs seen in Celtic artefacts across Europe all being replicated on the stonework of the cross.  

The cross is linked with  another aspect of Celtic Christianity,the elevated status that it gave to monks. The contrast with Roman Christianity is evident. While the Roman and Orthodox churches are ruled by bishops, each of whom is based in a specific town, the Irish dwelt in a land where towns were small and and few, and so the dominant characters were monks based in the abbeys that flourished in Celtic lands. Bishops were chosen from monks, but were subject to the abbot's rule. It was the monks who used the Celtic crosses, for they would gather worshipers around the cross and use the  pictures as a resource to support preaching. 

A major  influence upon Irish monasticism was Egyptian Christianity, which seems to have reached Ireland before St Patrick did, as Patrick was sent to the Britons who believe in Christ in the island of Ireland, implying that Christians were there already. Scholars believe that St Kevin, founder of Glendalough Abbey in Wicklow, antedates Patrick. Evidence of an Egyptian influence is that Kevin is said to have prayed in the Egyptian way, standing with arms stretched wide.

Another sign of Egyptian influence upon Irish Christianity is that Irish monks often copied the example of the Egyptian desert fathers,  hermits who sought God in the desert. Many Irish monks became hermits, seeking their own personal desert in remote places, such as islands, where they would place their cell. We can still find their traces in place names, for many locations in Ireland have names beginning with kil [for kella, cell] and in Wales there is a place called Dyserth, meaning desert,  after an anonymous hermit who found his desert there. 

The Mind of the Celtic Church

In the first millennium something special went on in Irish Christianity. While on the continent paganism withered as a belief system devoid of intellectual and spiritual strength, in Ireland there was a druid class that was composed of learned men who took an interest in philosophical matters and were ready to study the new religion. Ireland's intellectual class became Christian, but brought some of their  philosophy with them, to the benefit of the Christian faith.

One druidical idea that came to the fore in Irish,  Celtic Christianity, was a positive appreciation of nature. Celtic Christianity was deeply sensitive to the natural world.  There are many legends told about the relationship between Celtic saints and animals, and even though many are not historically true, their prevalence indicates that something was happening. It is said that Saint Kevin.praying with extended arms, prayed so long that a bird nested on his hand, clearly a legend, but indicative. Yet another Irish saint, Beuno, based in Wales, considered the load chorusing of frogs as praise for God as worthy as monastic hymn singing. When Kevin was founding Glendalough he was said to have told an angel that he wished none of God's creatures to be moved for him, so he built his settlement on lush meadows where he did as little damage to the Earth as possible. Kevin might well be the first exponent of a green lifestyle.The Irish may have stumbled upon an important spiritual truth, that holiness manifests itself in a positive relationship with the natural world, and that the world is blessed by good people's presence.

Yet scholarship thrived among the Celtic monks, to the extent that Ireland was known as a land of saints and scholars. The Irish church preserved a scholarly knowledge of Greek, when during the first millennium Greek scholarship in Europe was at a minimum. And they spread both faith and scholarship, sending missionaries across the continent to evangelize non-believing peoples. Much of Northern Europe was evangelized by Celtic monks. Irish monks spread the gospel across Northern England and Scotland.  

The Celtic church preserved the traditions of Pelagius, condemned as heretical because of the influence of Saint Augustine. Augustine believed that original sin,our innate weakness, was derived from the sin of Adam, which totally corrupted human nature, but Pelagius, a scholarly Irish monk operating in the Roman empire, believed that human nature was fundamentally uncorrupt and that weakness was due to social transmission by bad example. Augustine, the Roman aristocrat with the emperor's ear, pulled rank against the scholar that he could not defeat by argument  and through political  pressure Pelagius was condemned under the false accusation that he believed that humans could be good without God's grace. But the Irish, who owed no loyalty to an emperor who was not their ruler, ignored the condemnation for centuries, many of them adhering to some of Pelagius' ideas  

The Decline of the Celtic Church

Much of the decline was due not  to the English, but to the Vikings, murderous thugs who ravaged the civilized lands of Europe, slaving, stealing,killing and raping. Ireland was vulnerable through the gently flowing Shannon. The Shannon flows through lakes that slow its flow, and the Viking longships were thus easily able to cruise up it, robbing the many monasteries on its banks. Much was lost,including books. The beautifully illustrated Book of Kells was taken away from Ireland to the relative safety of England. 

As Irish monasteries were rendered unsafe, many young Irish monks went to study on the continent, where they were introduced to Roman Theology and ways of doing things. During this period the Roman church was spreading its influence on the continent, absorbing churches run on Celtic lines. In later years the popes were to rule that all monasteries were to come under the gentle rule  of Saint Benedict rather than the ancient Irish rule of Columbanus. Irish monasticism lingered on until the twelfth century in the Western isles of Scotland, with a strict group of hermits known as Culdees, but eventually disappeared. 

In England the clash came at the Synod of Whitby. It happened thus. Southern England had been converted by Augustine of Canterbury, sent from Rome [not to be confused with Augustine of Hippo] who clashed with Pelagius. Northern England had been converted by the Irish. As England unified into a Christian country, there was a clash because the Northern areas were celebrating Easter according to Irish tradition, whereas the South celebrated in Roman sacred time, The king was wed to a wife who celebrated in the Roman way, while he celebrated the Irish festival, and she was not changing her stance! So they had to hold a conference to decide the issue, which went the Roman way. Thus Irish influence in Northern England was minimized and shriveled. 

The Legacy of the Celtic Church

The Celtic  church as a distinct movement is defunct, but it has left a legacy. There are sacred sites, such as the sacred isle of Iona in the Hebrides and Glendalough in Wicklow [the valley of two lakes] which attract pilgrims and tourists, and none can fail to be awed by Skellig Michael,the stark fang of rock protruding from the Atlantic off Kerry, where a fiercely ascetic monastic community lived until the thirteenth century, finding God in  near solitude amidst the beauties of nature.

There are the Celtic saints. We remember Columba [Columcille] of Iona, who worked to convert Scotland  and whose monks spread across northern England,, founding great abbeys such as Lindisfarne. There is St Brigid, Mary of the Gael  as she is known, the only woman  ever to have been consecrated as a bishop [until recent years.]Brigid was born a slave but transcended her social status to become a spiritual leader among her people. St Aidan spread the Christian faith across Northern England.  

But the Irish church's concern for nature has struck a chord in our time. Many nowadays look to the Celtic Christians for inspiration in our modern age, that is being forced to come to terms  with nature. Rather than being a remnant of a simplistic past, the ideas of the  Celtic church encourage religious folk to rethink their relationship with nature and  to live more simply in harmony with God, nature and each other. 

Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael
Updated: 05/02/2023, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
frankbeswick on 01/06/2017

I don't know about the endless patience bit!

Veronica on 01/06/2017

Frank is a wonderful teacher and has endless patience. He has taught special education and has a great way of explaining things.

frankbeswick on 11/13/2016


MBC on 11/13/2016

Very interesting article.

frankbeswick on 11/07/2016

Quite correct, for many cultures revered the sun, even the Romans did, for the empire was put under the patronage of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. Christ's use of imagery of light therefore tied in with the old pagan imagery. We must not think that every pagan idea was wrong, for some ideas are compatible with Christianity. The use of light as an image was widespread in the East, as it came from the Zoroastrian faith, the ideas off which contributed to Jewish culture during the exile.

blackspanielgallery on 11/06/2016

I was surprised by the value placed on light, since Christ referred to himself as the way, the truth, and the light. Could He have meant a connection? And it is not unique that the sun was revered, since other cultures have also done so.

frankbeswick on 11/06/2016

I need to amend a typographical error. The queen celebrated the Roman way and Oswy the Irish.

frankbeswick on 11/06/2016

The king was Oswiu [Oswy, spelled sometimes Oswig] 642-670; his queen was Eanfled [sometimes spelled Eanfledda]

blackspanielgallery on 11/06/2016

Interesting account of early Irish, Scotch, and Welch religion. I am curious as to which king and queen celebrated Easter on different days. There is a move today which impacts this area of fixing Easter, which would fix the beginning of Lent and consequently Mardi Gras, so people could more easily plan to come for it.

You might also like

Who was Jesus

To understand Jesus you must realize that he was a mystery that theology trie...

Ministry in the church:women bishops

The long awaited decision to have women bishops is major progress.

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...