Couple Brief Thoughts on Celtic Spirituality

I cleverly managed to delete my post on the Daily Office in Holy Week… That’ll be coming once I get the time to reconstruct it.

I’ve been taking part in a Lenten program that bills itself as Celtic Spirituality. I was interested in seeing what was being said. It’s pretty much what I figured it would be, contemporary Liberal Protestant with a lot of feeling and a thin veneer that occasionally references some historical materials, some of which are “Celtic” (and some aren’t—unless the Victorines are Celtic and no one bothered to inform me…).

I took the chance recently to reacquaint myself with the Celtic Spirituality volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality series. It’s hard to screw up primary sources, however how you contextualize them and how you select them is open to a certain amount of fiddling. I found the introduction interesting as it I finally “got” the agenda here; they’re looking for a non-Roman Christianity, one that hasn’t been “spoiled” by the Church Fathers and classical culture. Here are a few significant quotes:

It has perhaps been the fate of Celts and the Celtic more than any other ethnic category to engage the imaginations of other cultures and to be taken up into agendas and narratives quite removed from the social realities of the insular world during the early Middle Ages. (pg. 8 )

(Hmm. You don’t say…)

Indeed, the early Welsh were keen to stress their historical links with the old Roman civilization and with the religion that it had introduced, and it is worth noting that the very term Welsh is an early English word that means “Romanized Celt.” (pg. 21)

This is news. In the Old English that I know wealh, wealas has two interconnected meanings: foreigner and slave. Did you mean Romanized or Romanticized?

Where things start getting hard and heavy is the final section of the introduction  entitled “Toward a Celtic Spirituality.”

The reconstruction of the spirituality of medieval Christians is not an easy task. In the first place, it requires an understanding of a cultural world that was very different from our own. But it is precisely the “otherness” of early medieval Celtic Christianity that makes it attractive to us, for it seems to contain perspectives that must have originated in the religious disposition of tribal peoples virtually untouched by the classical tradition.

. . .

It may be that an ancient form of Christianity survived much longer on the western margins of Europe, where there was, for instance, a relative absence of urban centers, than it did elsewhere.

. . .

Whatever the strengths of the classical Christian perspective that became the norm in most parts of western Christendom, many in the world today have become generally skeptical of a number of its key presuppositions. [summarizing here: primacy of males, reason over imagination, absence of nature, alienation from the body] A number of the Christian texts included in the present volume offer—albeit tentatively in some instances—the outline of alternative paradigms. (pgs. 23-24)

Ok—I see in here a Rousseauean “noble savage” conceit nurtured by latent nationalism and an appeal to the primitive church over-and-against “classical” (read “Roman [Catholic]”) developments. Interesting indeed…

I was also amused by this section that introduced the saints’ lives in the volume:

This latter point [that hagiography is about depicting sanctity to a culture] is of considerable importance, since there is a marked tendency among Celtic hagiographers to signal Christian sanctity by the use of motifs that appear to belong to the iconography of an earlier and pre-Christian age or, alternatively, to that of a surviving paganism. These are magical in kind and stress the Christian saint’s access to power. The Lives of Celtic saints are notoriously amoral in that the power of the saint can often be manifest in destructive ways that sit uneasily with the ethical values of the Christian gospel. (pg. 27)

So this is a uniquely Celtic trait? So you haven’t read either the Life of Martin or the Dialogues of Sulpicius Severus? Or the monastic Lives of Jerome? Or the Lives of the Desert Fathers? Because the same exact things happen there. Or, perhaps, would you rather have us believe that we’re getting in touch with a way more cool Pre-Christian and possible pagan element than to suggest that they were borrowing stock topoi that were an expected part of the genre that they were copying from the broader Church…

Of course, perhaps Jerome was Celtic and I just hadn’t picked up on that before now.

Ok—I am being a little harsh here, I admit it. There are some helpful and important things that are drawn out in the introduction but I feel that they only mumble that which I would shout from the rooftops:

To some extent what we will find in these texts is a type of Christianity that was characteristic of the patristic period, prior to the rise of Benedictine monasticism on the Continent and the centralizing, regulating, influence of the papacy, and which survived in the Celtic margins. (pg. 12)

. . .

The Irish monks who from the sixth century traveled across the continent of Europe were following in the footsteps of ancient Irish traders, and the great monastic foundations of Southern Gaul, such as Marmoutier and Lerins, were seedbeds of monasticism that undoubtedly left their mark on the early Irish Church. (pg. 17)

. . .

The spiritual inspiration for the early Welsh Church seems to have come in the main from the monks of the Middle East through their counterparts in Southern Gaul. The Lives of the early Welsh saints are full of references and allusions to the monasticism of the desert, and the Eastern monastic ascetic ideal evidently proved a powerful role model in Wales, as it did in other Celtic lands. (pg. 22).

There we go—that’s what I’m talking about.

This ht me hardest when reading through the Welsh poem “Praise to the Trinity” which contains this epithet, “The God of Paul and Anthony.” The Paul and Anthony are Paul of Thebes and Anthony the Great and right there any notion of pristine, primitive, non-classically influenced Christianity is blown out of the water by a clear off-hand reference to the writings of Jerome and Athanasius…

Here’s the bottom line for me. If all you know about patristic Christianity is the treatises of St Augustine and all you know about medieval Christianity is Thomas’s Summa, then yes, “Celtic spirituality” can look like quite the refreshing surprise. And, given what gets taught in seminaries these days, some (many?) clergy are in this position, let alone lay people.

My perspective, though, is entirely different. I see these documents in the context of the Monastic Pipeline West which flows from Jerome and John Cassian to Sulpicius Severus and Caesarius of Arles and through Gaul to the Insular world. These Celtic writings are not discontinuous from “established Christianity” but represent a development of a particular strand of it as the West sought to assimilate and inculturate the ideals of the monastic movement. For me, they’re part and parcel of early medieval monasticism. Yes, Celtic hymns and poems are quite beautiful and astounding—especially if you’ve never heard of Paulinus of Nola or Venantius Fortunatus and have no clue about the hymnwriters and poets working contemporaneously.

Is that to say that there’s nothing distinctive about the particularly “Celtic” instantiation of early medieval monasticism? No—but what it is is more difficult to isolate and define than what it’s made out to be.

9 Replies to “Couple Brief Thoughts on Celtic Spirituality”

  1. My impression of early Celtic Christianity (and it’s important to note that, though “Celtic” is a convenient category, it’s a modern one) is its predominently monastic character. Patrick arrives as bishop, seemingly promoting an episcopal/parochial model, but in a century or two Bede’s never heard of him, and we have in place more a system of monasteries and convents and abbatial authority more in evidence than episcopal. It is not unorthodox, but it seems to put little emphasis on a Christian laity.

    This, I should add, is an impression from some unsystematic reading, and, if it is a wrong impression, I am happy to be corrected.

  2. My initial exposure to Celtic spirituality came from Marie McLaughlin, my mother. She was a good person, but religiously she was the Roman Catholic version of the Church Lady. You do the math.

    I like the way you connect Celtic monasticism with its Mediterranean roots, which are at least as important as shamrocks and “thin space”.

  3. What a breath of fresh air! You know, when one reaches the late 70’s in age, one begins to perceive the almost predictable emergence and evaporation of theological and ecclesiological fads. And the current Celtic Craze is such a perfect example!

    When they get talking about these mystical “thin’ places in Celtic theology, I find myself wanting to shout, “And you know where those so-called ‘thin’ places were that you like to tout so loudly? They were out there in rough, unheated, hand-built, stone beehive hermitages perched on tiny scattered solid stone sea islands where there was almost nothing to eat.”

    I sometimes wonder if there is ANYTHING in human history which is finally immune to romanticizing.

  4. I once read something about Celtic monastic penitential manuals, which were quite detailed and covered just about all the bases, especially sexual ones. One act of atonement consisted of standing up to one’s neck in the ocean at nighttime while reciting the whole of Psalm 119 from memory. Thin space indeed.

  5. Wait a minute. Celtic Christianity without the Fathers? Do these folks not see the huge relationship with Eastern Church thinking and practices in particular? Do not the Celtic saints themselves count within the over all tradition? The monastic connections? And I might add to what you note, far removed though I may be from my Welsh roots, that Celtic Christianity is alive and well in its rich and complex forms through Welsh poetry, among other places. Allchin has done incredible work in this area these last years and is a real inspiration to my learning Welsh forms if not yet the language. But real Celtic Christianity, which Anglicanism and Methodism can right claim to have connections with, isn’t all feel good and high. It’s in daily work, struggles in the mines, loss of factory jobs, and sometimes brutality, as much as in a real sense of wonder for God’s creation.

  6. I suggest “Celtic Theology” by Thomas O’Loughlin. It is an excellent and more realistic assessment of Celtic theology than most modern books on the subject. It draws heavily on the primary sources.

  7. Ian Bradley, whose 1993 “The Celtic Way” helped to spark the current wave of Celtophilia, has written “Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams,” which chronicles the history of our love, and projections about, the Celtic tradition from Bede onward.

    Much of what is branded as Celtic is quite shallow and has nothing to do with the ancient Irish, Scottish or Welsh churches; more of moonlight and mist than any attempt to reclaim and ancient tradition. But much the same could be said for some of the early high church folks, who were as much influenced by novels about the Middle Ages as they were by any true grasp of tradition.

    Given time, and the winnowing which that produces we mat well wind up with a viable and more authentic Celtic spirituality (The Hermit’s Handbook by Percy O’Dearmer[?}), but I suspect that we’ll have wandered through many other spiritualities before that ever happens.

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