Why Be Interested in Celtic Christianity?

July 1, 2016 • Posted in Celtic by

A simple web search brings you tons of material on Celtic Christianity.

You’ll find resources on the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish traditions. The Celts were once dominant from Germany west to the Atlantic Ocean. After ignominious defeats at the hands of the Romans, they were pushed to the western edges of the Roman Empire. These Celtic areas include Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany. You know this from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a history written most definitely from the perspective of the winners.

The Christian tradition of this area fused a wondrous marriage between nature and grace. That is to say, God was so evident in the ordinary and the everyday that people rejoiced simply in being alive. Alexander Carmichael, a civil servant of the British Empire in the 19th Century, gathered up the magnificent prayer life of the outer islands in his Carmina Gadelica, or “Gaelic Songs.” In this collection we see the dense common spiritual life characteristic of Celtic folks of his time. God was thanked for virtually everything from the milk of the cow to the fire of the peat to the red cheeks of the newborn children. This note of joyous thanksgiving is so clear that one is tempted to call it the central note of Celtic spirituality. The Celts praised God for the music of what happens daily.

In an age when people feel entitled to all that they get, what would be wrong with a counterbalance, by instilling a little humility, a little gratitude, and a little thanksgiving into our ordinary lives? Here is nothing special, just an appreciation of the ordinary stuff over which we have forgotten to be grateful. This is a hallmark of the Celtic Christianity I love and embrace.

Maybe it is the rugged terrain that characterizes so much of those areas, but in these places life does not come cheap, and people have accepted that. They gave thanks for everything they were able to hew out of rock and sand, as if it were a gift from God. Unlike us, perhaps, they knew that it was.

I’m no doubt a pagan at heart, like many of my Celtic forbears and even contemporaries, so the blending of local tradition with Christian story never has been a bother to me. If God indeed became human in Christ, a pattern was established to embrace the human aspects of our lives as spiritually fulfilling. There’s a splendor in being human. The Celts knew and embraced this truth, because they suspected it already in their own traditions. They embraced the human in music as well as prayer, in whiskey as well as dance. Make no mistake; this is a robust spiritual strain that does not eschew the physical side of life but rejoices in it, revels in it, from cradle to grave. If you’ve ever been to an Irish wake you know this.

Dylan Thomas – a Welsh Celt – wrote: “Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Take hold of life and shake it for all it’s worth. Do not give up until you are absolutely finished and cannot do anything else. This is not simple hedonism; it’s a way to embrace life that recognizes the divine majesty as well as the heartbreak in the brevity of it all.

There was never a Celtic Church distinct from other churches; there was no Celtic Christianity distinct from the common Christian faith of the early centuries; what characterized the Celtic region was an attitude, a way of seeing the world, a perception that God was alive and magic was afoot in ordinary life.

Learn more about nine Celtic saints:

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