Celtic Christianity Revisited

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?

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6 Responses to Celtic Christianity Revisited

  1. Stephen says:

    Of course you are on to something, something deep and wonderful.
    http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/irishorthodoxchurch.aspx

  2. Stephen K says:

    For anyone with, say, Irish ancestry, the subject of Celtic Christianity is probably deeply intriguing and compelling. What was it? I find that I feel I should know more about it and get in touch with it, instinctively. Some years ago I watched a BBC documentary about a writer who took to the sea in his yacht or ketch to find his Celtic roots and one of the places he visited was Skellig Michael, off the south-west coast. The thought of the hermits there on their rocky islet was thrilling, in the strict sense. What inspired and maintained them? I have before me a book I found called “Anam Cara – Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World” by a John O’Donohue. He writes, in his preface, that anam cara means “soul friend”. A clue to the key of understanding Celtic Christian spirituality may lie in his words:

    “The Celtic mind was neither discursive nor systematic. Yet in their lyrical speculation, the Celts brought the sublime unity of life and experience to expression. The Celtic mind was not burdened by dualism. It did not separate what belongs together. The Celtic imagination articulated the inner friendship which embraces nature, divinity, underworld and human world as one. The dualism which separates the visible from the invisible, time from eternity, the human from the divine, was totally alien to them. Their sense of ontological friendship yielded a world of experience imbued with a rich texture of otherness, ambivalence, symbolism and imagination. For our sore and tormented separation, the possibility of this imaginative and unifying friendship is the Celtic gift”.

    Time and time again I find myself wrestling with the tension between accepting life, existence as mystery, holistically, so to speak, and embracing the structures we humans devise in order to get things done, piecemeal, categorically. In doing the latter we so quickly can begin to accept such structures as the deep reality, and I think this is the longstanding flaw in what we call “Western”, that is “Roman” and, further back, “Greek”, thought and society: we make technological advance because we pull things and concepts apart and re-assemble them; but we end up idolising parts not wholes, certainties not mysteries. This is how I would characterise the sorry history of religious division. Actually, I would venture to suggest that despite the way they talk about it, fundamentalist or dogmatic religionists of all stripes do not accept mystery at all. For them, nothing, not even God, is a mystery, because it has been defined to within an inch of its life by Scriptural or magisterial edict.

    In this little book I mention, O’Donohue writes:

    “The eternal is not elsewhere: it is not distant. The eternal world and the mortal world are not parallel, rather they are fused. The beautiful Gaelic phrase, fighte fuaighte,i.e.’woven into and through each other’, captures this………..our sense of familiarity often militates against our homecoming. When we are familiar with something, we lose the energy, edge and excitement of it. Hegel said ‘Das Bekannte uberhaupt ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt’, i.e. generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known………..Friendships and relationships suffer immense numbing through the mechanism of familiarisation. We reduce the wildness and mystery of person and landscape to the external familiar image……Familiarity enables us to tame, control and ultimately forget the mystery. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation.”

    Isn’t this true? We see something so often we cease to “see” it. That is why periodically, retailers change their shop layout around, to get around the problem of customers’ “store-blindness”, which prevents sales growth and experimentation. We can become blind or insensitive to people’s states of mind, their distress. We can even walk over the homeless. In religious terms, God and Church and grace and sin are so defined, all sense of sacred or mystery or transcendence and its counter-balance of immanence is dulled, however the definers might protest.

    Perhaps it is not so stark as all that. We need lots of different approaches to tackle lots of different questions confronting us, but there may be something to this instinct that the Celts and the early Irish and Welsh Christians had something we have lost, to our detriment.

  3. Stephen says:

    It is there…in hibernation perhaps…but able to be renewed in Christ through you…this is the Theosetic Potential of the Celtic Church, its re-incarnation through modern Celts…a great promise…but where can it best be realized? My sentiment is obvious…but to you it is an invitation. How I wish I could convey adequately the fullness of the table at this banquet.

    • Stephen K says:

      What does “Theosetic” mean, Stephen? What is its derivation? Clearly ‘theos’ forms the first element – does “eteos” (true, real) form the second? Are you referring to a potential to “represent” or “enact” true God-ness? Just interested in the words we use to describe various concepts.

      • I have found this word using Google in a few scientific and industrial contexts. For example:

        Cork is the outer bark of trees such as Quercus variabilis B., it is a kind of natural macromolecule material, with the property of abrasion proofing, waterproofing, anti-aging, good elasticity, low density, heat insulation, sound absorbing, aseismatic. The character of major structure and main chemical composition is the theosetic base of manufacturing, using, property modification, developing new product and secondary fine machining.

        I find no use of this word in a theological context.

        The use of the word θεος seems to come through in the words theology and theosophy, the latter being a system of thought that inspires the Liberal Catholic Church as in Wedgewood, Leadbeater, etc.

        From the context, this word theosetic seems to mean God-bearing and wrongly quoted. From that, I looked up theo-phor (Christopher meaning “bearer of Christ”) on Google, and found the word exists in English. Theophastic, meaning a form of prayer ministry I had never heard of. I wonder if this word and concept were intended.

        Words are funny things, and I find language fascinating.

      • Stephen says:

        So if theosis (the noun) is a goal – and indeed, THE goal – of our lives (theosis being synergy (or cooperation) between humans’ activities and God’s uncreated energies (or operations)), then the adjective would be- what? I came up with “theosetic”, and in the context of “theosetic potential”, to mean the possibility of those who would claim the mantle of celtic christianity to realize the charisms of celtic christians of yore fully in the 21st century.

        What are those charisms? The gentleness, elan, delight in ascetic endeavors which so confound the modern mind to be sure. But also linkage to living human beings in time and space, not some esoteric, isolated operation. That is why I want to emphasize you are not alone that your endeavors, that others exist now and have gone before you in the recent past who share your inclinations. I would also say that it is fortunate that such folk do not reflexively resist the linkage to the continuum from the past into the present, and thus into the future towards the paraousia. This linkage is to be found – if you want it. And, I would argue that for a renewed celtic christianity to flourish, that is a prerequisite.

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