Celtic Spirituality
through a Christian Filter

How each of us connects with the divine is what I, personally, call spirituality.

The Irish were converted to Christianity without benefit of an army. They retained within their spirituality many of their pre-Christian traditions: a respect for woman, a love of nature, and an appreciation for the interconnected web of all life. They believed that life was about choice, and the consequences of these choices.

The pre-Christian educated class among the Celts was the Druids. They were the lawyers, doctors, scholars, clergy, and bards of their time. Mention of them comes down to us in the stories and sagas of the people.

Celtic is pronounced "keltic", not "seltic." . The slide into Christianity was a short trip from an Old Religion that provided many faces to the same deity and a tradition of sacrifice by male leaders. The Celtic Christian spiritual path, with its emphasis on the Incarnation of Christ present in daily life, became the bedrock of all English Spirituality

While the Roman church has left us councils and definitions, the Irish church has left us prayers. The Carmina Gadelica, as collected by Alexander Carmichael, includes prayers collected around the British Isles that go back into Pagan times.

Celtic spirituality included seven elements:

  • 1. A love of nature and the physical environment.
  • 2. A love of learning.
  • 3. A yearning to explore the unknown and to travel.
  • 4. A love of silence and solitude.
  • 5. A deep understanding that past, present, future, and all times are connected.
  • 6. An appreciation of ordinary life.
  • 7. A valuing of kinship, confidant, or "soul friend" relationships in this time or between times.

Christianity had reached Ireland by 100 CE. Trade routes were busy. The spirituality of the Celtic path was very earth and nature centered. The Christianity they heard about closely resembled the ways of the Old Religion. There were multiple faces to the same God and a reverence for heroic sacrifice. It was not until the 400s that Saint Patrick entered upon the scene.

As Christianity spread, changes were few and slow. Druids slid over into the new religion as monks and clergy. The bards and storytellers split off from those with religious responsibilities.

It was also around 400 CE that St Augustine of Hippo (now part of northeastern Algeria) spread doctrines within the Roman world that downgraded women and the value of all of creation. Such teachings were opposed by a British contemporary, Pegalus, aka Morgan of Wales, a rather well educated monk, possibly with a Druid connection. He saw the role of choice in religion and shunned ideas like predestination. Pegalus was ruled by the Pope to be a heretic.

The Irish were spared enforcement of Augustine's teachings until the Synod of Whitby in 664. Before that time, women continued to be respected as the equals of men, and they held positions of high rank.

Philosophical differences continued. Around 850 CE, the Irish scholar Johannes Scottus Eriugena, aka John the Scot, caused quite a stir in orthodox Rome with his writings again questioning predestination as taught by Augustine.

The Norman invasion of 1066 CE thrust a French Celtic and Roman culture into English tradition. The legends of the Holy Grail can be seen as a merging of Anglo-Norman patriotic epics, French courtly romances and, Christian religious legends.  Joseph of Arimathia is said to have carried the chalice of the Last Supper to Glastonbury, England. Arthur and Merlin serve as a model the classic team of secular King and Druid advisor.

Remnants of the Druid ways were greatly weakened when Henry II (1154-1189) of England built up civil government in place of church courts. He took as his emblem the "sprig of broom" of the House of Anjou, which in the French of the day became "plant a genet", or Plantagenet. His roots were French, not English. Henry pushed the first colony into Ireland, assaulting the indigenous Celtic culture. During this same time, the strict-minded Cistercian monks began a reform of the monasteries, bringing discipline more in line with Rome and further from Druid values. Among Henry's sons were Richard the Lion-Hearted, who was championed by Robin Hood, and the Bad King John whose abuses brought about the Magna Charta.

There followed foreign wars in France by the English Kings. The new nobility got themselves killed off in such crusades.  The rise on the merchant class brought wealth and power to men without Norman heritage. When Henry VIII (1509-1547) broke the Church of England away from Rome, the split carried with it political and philosophical undercurrents rising from the opposing cultures.

In our times I see a revival of interest in Celtic Spirituality, by both those of Pagan of Christian leanings. I noted with interest in 2002 that the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was inducted into the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards. The Old Religion is to the New as a Woman is to a Man: She lies down beside him and, sooner or later, he must close his eyes.

An Irish blessing may be seen to include a call to the four quarters and an invocation of deity:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rain fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again,
May God hold you,
in the hollow of his hand.

                                 --An Irish Blessing

One can read through Christian Celtic resources for a glimpse into the older times. Look for the picture books on the coffee tables of your Episcopalian friends. For an enjoyable study in the contrast between Irish and Roman thinking, explore the Sister Fidelma mysteries. These are the adventures of a seventh century religious as she unravels tales of murder and intrigue.

    Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1995
  2. Mystery Fiction: The Sister Fidelma Mysteries by Peter Tremayne Absolution by Murder, Signet/Penguin 1997
    Shroud for the Archbishop, Signet/Penguin 1998
    Suffer Little Children, Signet/Penguin 1999
    The Subtle Serpent, Signet/Penguin 1999
    The Spider's Web, Signet/Penguin 2000
    Hemlock at Vespers, St. Martin's Minotaur, 2000
    The Monk Who Vanished, St. Martin's Minotaur, 2001

  3. EVERY EARTHLY BLESSING by Esther DeWaal Servant Publications, 1991.  
  4. THE CELTIC VISION edited by Esther de Waal, 1988
    Publisher: St. Bede's Publications, Petersham, Massachusetts
  5. THE EDGE OF GLORY: Prayer in the Celtic Tradition by David Adam
    Publisher: Morehouse-Barlow Triangle/SPCK England
  6. LIVING BETWEEN WORLDS - Place and Journey in Celtic Spirituality by Philip Sheldrake
    Publisher: Cowley Publications, 1995
  7. THE BOOK OF KELLS An Illustrated Introduction to the manuscript in Trinity College Dublin, Bernard Muhan, Studio Editions, Ltd., England 1995  
  8. LISTENING FOR THE HEARTBEAT OF GOD: A Celtic Spirituality by J. Philip Newell  
  9. THE DRUIDS by Peter Berresford Ellis  
  10. THE DRUIDS, Celtic Priests of Nature by Jean Markale  
  11. IN SEARCH OF THE INDO-EUROPEANS: Language, Archeology, and Myth by J.P. Mallory

Use google.com to find the many online Celtic resources and sites about Ireland in general. Take a look at Ireland's History in Maps and the Iona Community.

Google Irish and Scottish Festivals in Southeast Florida.