It was about eight months ago that I wrote the posting Celtic Christianity. I gave a brief historical sketch about this branch of Christianity which is largely lost in the mists of time. Like Eastern Orthodoxy, the Celtic Church was more monastic-based and less established than the Roman Church.
As last time I discussed this topic, most of the comments centred on criticism of efforts to restore Celtic Christianity more or less along archaeological or “new age” lines. There are some churches and communities of Christians calling themselves Celtic, and there are Anglican communities that also strive to live to this ideal.
Quite apart from the notion of some kind of “authentic” historical reconstruction or a euphemism for baby-boomer religion, there seem to be some spiritual themes. These themes would be completely distinct from any kind of “ecclesiastical entrepreneurism” or the work of less scrupulous individuals. I would even be tempted to discuss the case of a certain blogger who has had his arms tattooed with representations from the Book of Kells!!! We can all do what we like: live in our houses, drive our cars, do our jobs and listen to the kind of music we like. That doesn’t concern me – it’s a free world. But, my discussion of today is something that concerns us all in the depths of our being, not externals or red herrings.
What I would like to do in this posting is to wrest some spiritual themes away from the stereotypes and terminology, and perhaps to enable some of the more wholesome aspects to influence and inspire us in our present ecclesial affiliations or absence of them. Many mistakes have been committed by romanticising Celtic Christianity and trying to recreate it from historical fragments. As an institution, it is gone and a thing of the past, rather like any kind of Christianity that the Roman Church colonised out of existence.
So all that is left are ideas and themes.
One aspect I have seen about reading about Celtic Christianity is the ability of the community to adapt to local culture rather than impose a centralised ideology and cultural expression. Celtic Christianity seems to have been characteristic of remote people, island dwellers, in short those who were off the beaten track – and nowadays, out of the box. This is an element I find highly appealing. One way to discover this aspect is to spend time in remote places, on islands, at sea or in other wild places. It is not a way for city dwellers. The old Celtic monks appear to have lived lives of extreme austerity, but brought their faith and charisma to the world through illuminated books and their ability to move around. The vocation of St Francis of Assisi, though he was not a Celt, picks up this theme.
The Roman Church took on the form of Constantine’s Empire, and has modelled itself on the ruling class of every society where it flourished. The Celts were small groups of monks, priests and lay folk. I read in one site something that particularly struck home – availability and vulnerability. Christian mission isn’t marketing and beating people over the head with a big stick, but simply being there like Blessed Charles de Foucault who spent years in the Algerian desert and didn’t win over a single Muslim. Celtic Christianity probably foundered because it didn’t seek to be rich or use political power – so it got absorbed into the Empire and got forgotten.
The Celts had a notion of soul friendship, which rather reminds me of St Aelred of Rievaulx’s De spirituali amicitia – a book based on Cicero’s ideas that describes human friendship in a Cistercian monastic setting. This notion of friendship is extremely important to me, as it applies just as much to living in marriage as with brethren in a community or those we count as our friends. Roman Catholicism has emphasised the notion of spiritual direction, usually entrusted to priests and coupled with the role of confessor. We will find this emphasised in the Counter-Reformation tradition, especially among the Jesuits and Oratorians. Spiritual direction to me implies a notion of master and disciple, where spiritual friendship emphasises equality and sharing. In my experience as a Roman Catholic seminarian, spiritual direction was the element I most dreaded – submitting my intimate life to a system of criteria by which I am typified and compared with others. We open ourselves better to friends and spouses than with strangers whose faces are hidden by a piece of metal mesh and wooden panels! You get nowhere with someone who doesn’t know you!
But, such a degree of spiritual friendship and symbosis are difficult to find and maintain. That is the drama of assuming our human freedom! Another element is contemplative prayer, not asking God for this and that, but just being there. That is the quality of prayer one will find at least a league from the coast with the sloop in a good broad reach and after at least several hours at sea. This prayer in solitude gives us strength and ability to withstand adversity.
I return to the remoteness theme. If we live close to nature, the notion of liturgy and rites of passage begin to make sense. When you live in a city, this relevance of the liturgy is lost, and can be of appeal only when it is assimilated to entertainment. We need to rediscover the natural rhythms of everything in life, between prayer and work, rest and play.
Another theme I have always emphasised is my disgust at the “marketing” type of evangelism and proselytism. Some try to sell a product to a customer who doesn’t want it. I often get telephone calls from a firm saying that they are officially approved by the French electricity producer EDF and want to do a survey of houses in my village to see whether they are well insulated and have modern energy-efficient heating devices, the type of product they are seeking to sell at twice the price of what is offered at the local hardware shop. The first time, I will thank them and inform them that my house is properly insulated and has a number of heating devices running on different energy sources. Then they call again. “Have I not told you before that I am not interested?” “Have you still not taken me off your prospects list?” Finally, the only thing to do is to cut off the call, or put the phone near my stereo loudspeakers and play them nice music. And so it is with the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Catholic “one true church” apologists on the blog comment boxes.
Of course, if we are Christians, we find that God has given us a treasure we find it good to share with others. In the Gospel, Jesus would find out what people were looking for, symbolised by physical illnesses like blindness or inability to walk. Jesus encouraged people to Come and see. We are invited to set sail and make discoveries. There seem to be a number of rules. The first would be to have a fundamentally optimistic attitude about people and a respect for their freedom and beliefs. Another would be to eschew the temptation to use politics and coercion to get people in, but rather to rely on prayer and the intrinsic truth of Christ. Friendship, getting to know people and letting others get to know you are paramount. I am personally repelled by churches who are unconcerned with my person, but yet would like my money!
It seems that women had a better life in Celtic culture than any other part of Christianity. Women were not the possessions of men but had equal civil rights. Their prophetic instinct was respected. Obviously, women were not ordained in the Celtic Church, otherwise we would know about it, but they had positions of honour. Women could be soul friends to men without coming under suspicion of impropriety. In Orthodoxy to this day, the practice of going to a woman for ghostly counsel is accepted – of course one goes to a priest for confession.
We have no way of knowing whether these “themes” were really a part of historical Celtic Christianity, but they are certainly appealing as an out-of-the-box alternative to intégriste Roman Catholicism and Protestant fundamentalism in their disdain of the human person.
Celtic monasticism seems to have much in common with the common-or-garden Benedictine way, Byzantine or Coptic asceticism or the Franciscans in their heyday in the thirteenth century. You live in community to a written rule and obey the Abbot. An option is the life of a hermit for those who are really made for that kind of life. But, to what extent are ordinary parish priests and lay folk influenced by these ideals? That is a question we need to ask. Is there a contemplative church and a political church? Or are the two strands part of one Church of Christ?
As a guide to commenting, I would not appreciate scoffing at people or groups using the word Celtic to describe themselves. What I am interested in is developing ideas to contribute to a new and fresh way of living the Gospel, setting sail from a rotten and hopeless ecclesial world to new horizons and discoveries. Without hope, then it would seem that the atheists have won.
I will not give up. Will you?