What are the gifts of Celtic Spirituality for our age?

Here is a blast from the past: a talk I gave at a Celtic spirituality conference at Southern Illinois University, way back on May 1, 1999. Public speaking was still really new to me at the time, and I was scared to death. Back then I only had one book published (Spirituality, which came out in 1997) and my (pre-blog) website was devoted to Celtic spirituality, which is why the organizers of this conference reached out to me. Recently I was going through some old files on my hard drive and found this document. I used Wordperfect at the time, and had to download a new app to convert the file to Microsoft Word. Figured it was worth saving and sharing with you here. Hope you enjoy it.

What are the gifts of Celtic Spirituality for our age?

Happy Beltaine! The first of May stands on the wheel of the year opposite of Samhain, the feast of the Dead, more commonly known as Halloween. As Samhain is the night when the dead walk the earth and the veil between the worlds is opened, so is Beltane, the day marking the triumph of spring and the coming of Summer, truly the Celtic feast of Life. In Christian liturgy, the energy and meaning of Beltaine is commemorated in Pentecost, that fiery day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the gathered Christians and ushered in a new era of community and spiritual fervor. For Celts, this day of Beltane is a day of fertility and frolicking, a day when the swelling belly of our pregnant mother earth is celebrated with dancing and joy.

My topic today is not the ancient Holidays, but rather a more up-to-date concern: that is, the gift Celtic spirituality offers to us today. I should mention up front that I understand Celtic spirituality in an inclusive and universal way. Hopefully what I am about to say applies equally well to Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Buddhists, New Agers and Neopagans. Although I draw primarily from the tradition of the Celtic Christian Saints, I believe their message of love and reverence for the earth, celebration of the nearness of the Divine Presence, and the importance of community and friendship, is an open-hearted message that can speak to all people, regardless of creed or ancestry. Indeed, the heart of the Celtic tradition is not just for Celts. It’s for everybody who desires to live close to God, close to nature, and close to one another.

The Celts loved the triad, that is, the power of the number three. It has been suggested that Patrick had an easy go of it preaching the Holy Trinity to the Celts, because the idea of a triune God made perfect sense to them. To the Celts, the natural world was divided into land, sea, and sky; their spiritual leaders were divided into Bards, Seers, and Druids. Celtic society was divided into three classes of warriors, artisans, and farmers. So in the spirit of the Celtic three, I’d like to briefly look at two sets of three gifts that we postmodern folks receive from the Celts. These are gifts that come to us from the ancient past, yet can be applied in a practical way to anyone’s spiritual journey, here and now. The first triad consists of ways in which the Celts understood spirituality to relate to the external world. Since the culture we live in today is such an externalized, outer-driven culture, let’s begin there.

The Outer Triad 

  1. The sanctity of nature, the goodness of the earth

I’ve already mentioned how the pre-Christian Celts saw the cosmos in three ways: consisting of the three realms of Land, Sea, and Sky. These were held together in ritual places by the Sacred Fire. So here you see the four elements: Earth, Air, Water, and Fire, all honored in the Celtic world. This is the basis of Celtic spirituality, both Pagan and Christian. This is a spiritual tradition that begins with a deep love and reverence for the land. We human beings are creatures of the land—creatures made of clay, who live immersed in the realm of air. So land and sky come together to create us; we are children of heaven and earth. We are truly the earth, made conscious. Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return, God warns Adam, but to the Celt this was not a warning but a celebration. We are children of Mother Earth. Our spirituality begins and ends with a reverent and balanced relationship to the land on which we live.

I don’t know that I need to say very much about how crucial and important this spiritual orientation is for our day and age. For all it’s majesty and mystical beauty, Christianity along with her sister religions of Judaism and Islam, are limited by the idea that God is “up there” in heaven. Now, while an orthodox Christian will point out that God is truly everywhere, the fact remains that Christians have operated under the mythological model of a heavenly father-god. This not only limits the role of the earth in our spiritual consciousness, but the role of the feminine as well. The Celts, with their nature-infused poetry, their simplicity, and their love for the beauty of creation, provide a sane and sensible corrective to our heaven-oriented religion. Celtic spirituality truly brings mysticism down to earth, and in an age where the future of our planet depends on us adopting a more balanced and loving relationship with the environment, this spiritual re-alignment is exactly what we need. For Pagan Celts, the earth herself is Divine; and while the Christian Celts may not have gone that far, they certainly saw the earth as our companion in the business of loving and praising the Divine. Either way, the earth shares in the Divine radiance. Celtic spirituality celebrates that radiance, and calls us to honor it by honoring our connection to the land.

  1. The primacy of friendship and community

Like many ancient mystics, some of the earliest Celtic Christians lived as hermits, shunning community involvement in favor of finding total, solitary life in God. However, for most Celts and certainly most of the Celtic Saints, spirituality was inextricably linked with community, making community the second gift the Celts offer us today.

To appreciate Celtic community, we need to consider two aspects of Celtic spiritual life: the monastic community, and the anamchara. First, the monastic community. Obviously centers like Kells in Ireland, Lindisfarne in England, or Iona in Scotland, were great centers of learning and culture. But first and foremost, they were places of community. Granted, monastic communities flourished throughout the ancient Christian world, but most monasteries were fashioned after the model of the Rule of St. Benedict or some similar document. Celtic monastic communities, however, were based on the idea of families living together in community—more like the base communities of Latin America, or the intentional communities movement here in the United States today. Such communities allowed people to live in total integrity with their spiritual values, but in an ordinary, humble way. For our society, where community is such a fragmented concept and often driven more by market trends than by human connection, all of us who claim to be on a spiritual quest need to take the question of community seriously, seeking how to establish, nurture, and sustain real community, based on shared values and a large and generous vision, in our lives today.

The anamchara was the subject of a talk this morning…to me, the important thing about the anamchara is that it reminds us how friendship is central to life. Not only friendship with one another, but friendship with the Divine as well. We rarely think of God in those terms, but if God loves us, doesn’t it make sense that God desires our friendship? I think so—although for most of us, this is a new idea that we need to grow into. Friendship, incidentally, has four key qualities: friends spend time together, enjoy one another, accept one another, and speak/listen to one another. We need to keep these qualities in mind, not only as we cultivate spiritual friendships with each other, but also as we seek to deepen our connection with the Divine.

  1. The way of pilgrimage

The Celts were a pilgrim people. We know the familiar stories. Patrick travels from Britain to Ireland. Columba travels from Ireland to Scotland. Brendan travels throughout the north Atlantic, perhaps the first European to discover the new world. Columcille travels in Europe, setting up Celtic style monasteries whereever he goes. For the Celtic saints, pilgrimage was a way of life.

In recent centuries, the Celts as an entire people have been a people of pilgrimage, and not always under the happiest of circumstances. The Scots were forced off their land, and left with no way to make a living, chose life as indentured servants in America and Australia. The Irish, their economy ruined by the great potato famine of the nineteenth century, also emigrated in huge numbers. But this Celtic diaspora is, at least in part, one of the reasons why we gather today. For like maple seeds spinning in the wind and traveling huge distances to plant a new tree, so did the Celtic people bring their fierce and optimistic spirit with them, now seeding the world over with the grace and poetry of their native vision.

Today, the history of Celtic pilgrimage reminds us that spirituality is not a static thing. To be a spiritual person is to be someone always on the move, always seeking after the promised land. Today, we recognized that part of a promised land is a land where nature and humanity live in balance and harmony. For us post-modern Celts, the promised land will be a place where real community flourishes, a place where each of us is free to plumb the beauty of our inner depths. The Celtic way, in harmony with all the great wisdom traditions of the world, offers us glimpses of this feast to come. But in the meantime, we need to persevere on the pilgrim’s way, and perhaps learn to enjoy the journey itself.

Obviously, the homelands of Ireland and Scotland beckon to us as pilgrim destinations, and we who follow the Celtic path in America long to stand on the wind-swept beaches of Iona or the desolate majesty of Skellig Michael. But we need to remember that, even if we cannot make the actual, physical pilgrimage, we are also called to make the inner pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the heart. And so now, let’s turn to the Inner Triad of gifts we receive from the Celtic tradition.

The Inner Triad

  1. Cultivation of the inner world

Irish poet, Scholar, and mystic John O’Donohue released a series of tapes last year called Wisdom from the Celtic World. The subtitles on these tapes were “The Inner Landscape,” “The Divine Imagination,” and “The Invisible World.” I believe O’Donohue is the most important voice in Celtic spirituality today, not as a relic of fifteen hundred years ago, but as a living, breathing, organic wisdom tradition available to us here and now. What Father O’Donohue points out is one of the most obvious features of the Celtic vision, a feature so obvious it might be easy to miss: that the Celts believed not in one world, but in two: the inner and outer landscapes. And just as in the natural beauty and earthy majesty of the external land the presence of God may be found, so also is the Divine imagination forever at work on the universe within. Now, we can take a scientific and psychological stance, and insist that the fairie tradition or the legends of myths of the Celtic people are strictly products of the interior landscape, and on a strictly rationalistic level that may be true enough. But for the Celt, exploring the inner landscape is not a matter of science, but of poetry. Within the rolling hills and rushing waters of the inner world, we find not only truth, but meaning; not only the shimmering closeness of God and of angels, but a doorway into relationship with the Divine presence. It is within us that our soul burns like the holy flame tended by the nuns of Kildare, originally sacred to the Goddess Brigid and then later on made sacred to Brigid the Christian saint. It is within the deep abundance of the inner landscape that the Pagan and Christian paths of the Celtic tradition need not be hostile to one another, but can truly join together in a single vision of love, community, and harmony on the land.

How does this inner landscape bring us gifts, today? First and foremost, we are invited to befriend our own inner wilderness. We are invited to breathe deeply, to slow down, and to slowly explore the contours of our deepest selves. We trust in the tradition of the Christian mystics, the Quakers, and yes, the Celts, all of who believed that at the deepest place within the soul, the presence of God may be found. And so we seek, and yearn, and trust; knowing that as surely as God resides within us, we are worthy of love and worthy of making a positive difference in the world.

  1. Poetry and story-telling: the aesthetic sensibility

So we explore deep within ourselves, and we come face to face with the dark and scary regions, but more importantly, with the regions filled with a shimmering light. And now we trust that we are truly God’s children, and truly empowered to make a difference in our world. But how do we go about doing this? What does the Celtic tradition have to say about bringing the riches and wealth of the inner landscape out into the external world?

Well, the Celts were not radicals or revolutionaries, certainly not by the time Christianity came to the British Isles. Although they were fierce in their devotion to their faith and fierce in defending their homeland, the Celts were not ones to use force as a way of converting the heathen. Instead, Celtic saints and missionaries won over followers through their example of humble love and service. And as they committed their spiritual vision to the written word, they did so not through learned theological works, although there were theologians and philosophers among them. But the primary tools the Celts used to communicate their mystical vision were poetry and storytelling. Their stories were rich with the natural world. Animals would come to pray with the saints, or comfort them while they were sick. One wonderful story tells of a monk who had a friend in a fly, who would land on a manuscript and walk along the words as the monk read. If the monk happened to doze off, the fly would patiently wait on the page, marking his spot so he could pick up where he left off once he awoke! Such stories are filled with whimsy and humor, qualities sometimes sorely lacking in the world of scholarship and academia. The Celtic folktales remind us that humility and simplicity are essential qualities for creating a beautiful and just world, maybe even more important than dogma or theological precision. As for poetry, the Welsh and the Irish both left us a treasure trove of literary works, including hymns, story-poems recounting the deeds of Brendan or Columba, and even the Zen-like Gnomic poems of Welsh tradition, in which unrelated images are joined together in a poetic form designed to snap us into greater awareness. Here is one example: “Quarrelsome are the geese in the farmyard, and fearsome their wings. A generous person feels richer than the miser.” and another; “Delightful are the tops of bracken; the leaves give protection to wild animals. Prayer for one who is not loved will have no effect.” So in poetry, the Celts gave voice to their inner wisdom, not by argument or polemic, but through a gentle use of language as a doorway to sing the praises of the Divine. For us today, whether or not we are theologians or philosophers, we each have stories to tell and songs in our heart. The Celtic tradition invites us to find the courage to share the words of our soul with others, trusting that in the sharing, glimpses and glimmers of God’s holy presence may be discerned.

  1. Holy Optimism: the spirituality of joy and confidence

The final gift I wish to consider today is the gift of Holy Optimism, or the seeming inextinguishable Celtic spirit of hope and faith. In classic Christian theology, faith and hope are two of the three theological virtues, the other one being love of course. Yet so many expressions of Christianity, frankly, don’t seem very hopeful or confident. Over the centuries, Christianity has been troubled by images of a wrathful, punishing God, sending the vast majority of his creation to a fiery hell of eternal punishment. It’s interesting how the poems and stories of the Celtic saints seem almost to ignore the punishing God, in favor of a vision of heaven and God that is loving, kind, and ever-present. To the Celts, God was not some far-away potentate who demanded our obedience or else, but rather a loving, caring, intimately present father, who relates to his creation out of care and compassion.

Once again, this feature of the Celtic path has an immediate relevance to our day. We live in a world where lack of self-love is an epidemic problem, resulting in depression, meaninglessness, drug addiction, and other problems that destroy the quality of life of millions of people and their loved ones. If we do not believe in a loving God, it becomes more difficult to love ourselves. Fortunately, the opposite is also true: a spirituality based on a loving, intimate God is a spirituality where we can feel confident and hopeful, and most of all, loving in return. This positive way of relating to the Divine forms the basis of all spiritual practice, from involvement in a community to efforts on behalf of fighting the environmental crisis.

The Celts never really talked about how positive and optimistic their view of God was. To them, it was just a given, not even controversial enough to comment on. For us, today, such a confidence in the face of the Divine presence can be a true beacon of hope and anticipation for a better future. There are many voices in our society predicting a gloomy future, and we who are influenced by the Celtic path are particularly susceptible to alarming environmental trends. But the way of the Celts is not a defeatist path. It is a path that keeps hope alive, and keeps the focus on doing what it takes to live faithfully, walking on the earth with awareness of the divine presence.

Conclusion

There is much about Celtic culture I have not even touched upon. The beautiful tendency to say short prayers at key points during the day—when getting up, when lighting the fire, milking the cow, and so forth. Such a rhythm of prayer gives the whole day a sacred quality. Then there’s the luminous beauty of Celtic art, with the endless knotwork twisting and turning, a metaphor for the continuity of the human spirit through the twists and turns of life. There is the wonderful mythology of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses, the heroes, and the fairy folk. We could go on and on. But I wanted to celebrate the basic characteristics of Celtic spirituality, characteristics that can apply to every person, no matter what his or her personal path or background might be. When we talk about Celtic spirituality, we run the risk of ethnic chauvinism—as if the Celts were somehow holier or closer to God than other people or other races. That, of course, is not true. Now that people of Celtic ancestry live all over the world, we can celebrate the way of the Celts as a truly global and universal contribution to the spirituality of humanity. It is in that spirit—the spirit of one united family of humankind—that I believe the best qualities of the Celtic way can be applied to our spiritual journey today.

Featured Photo: Iona from the ferry, July 2019. Photo by Carl McColman

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.