In the last few years putting the word “Celtic” on anything seemed to make it immediately chic. And the result of that trend was a strong pushback from people who decided anything labeled Celtic was vapid new age marketing. I am in neither camp. I don’t think Celtic spirituality is the be all end all, nor do I think it should be ignored.
The Celts were an ethnic group about which we know a great deal, and while we have lost much of what we once knew about their spirituality and religious practice we have not lost it all. Celtic spirituality isn’t just marketing. And our spiritual ancestors still have a lot to offer modern people. No hype, no marketing, just a gift from the ancient Celts to modern seekers: the gift of Celtic spirituality.
Prayer at rising
Bless to me, O God,
Each thing mine eye sees;
Bless to me, O God,
Each sound mine ear hears;
Bless to me, O God,
Each odour that goes to my nostrils;
Bless to me, O God,
Each taste that goes to my lips;
Each note that goes to my song;
Each ray that guides my way,
Each thing that I pursue,
Each lure that tempts my will,
The zeal that seeks my living soul,
the Three that seek my hear,
The zeel that seeks my living soul,
The Three that seek my heart.
– “Carmina Gadelica” Alexander Carmichael
What we know about the Celts
Most people thinks “Celts” and they think Great Britain. However, the Celts covered a great deal of Europe at one time and were a far more diverse group in culture, language, and religion than we suppose. (For more information on who the Celts were and where they lived Wikipedia has a great article.)
We think of Celts in relation to the British Isles because that is where Celtic culture and language survived longest (mostly due to the isolation and protection islands provide). Irish, and Scottish Gaelic are the most common languages associated with Celtic peoples that remain in use today. We have very little in the way of real information about the religious practices of Celtic peoples before the arrival of Christianity, but something unique happened in the British Isles that didn’t happen in other places where the Roman Empire imported Christianity.
In Ireland, Scotland, and Wales especially those who converted to Christianity kept much of their previous belief system. Their deities became holy women and men (Brigid became St. Brigid for example), and their festivals entwined with Christian feasts. In many places Christianity completely erased the previous religious practices; in the British isles something far more organic took place.
Women, Songs, and Revelation
In brief, the Roman Empire never fully claimed much of the British Isles. And because of that quirk of politics the early Christian church in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales was mostly free of the influence of the church in Rome. Their calendars were different, their clergy and monks followed different rules of life (marriage and children within a monastic context was normal for example). The way people prayed, celebrated the seasons of the year, and the movement of their everyday lives differed from Christianity on continental Europe.
In 664 the Synod of Whitby supposedly standardized Christian practice (choosing the Roman way) across the British Isles. But anyone who knows the Celts will know that’s not entirely true. The unique practices of Celtic Christianity continued, often in homes and folk songs and stories, if not in churches. And in that way women especially kept alive ways that dated back long before Christian times.
Hail to thee, thou sun of the seasons,
As thou traversest the skies aloft;
Thy steps are strong on the wing of the heavens,
Thou art the glorious mother of the stars.
Thou liest down in the destructive ocean
Without impairment and without fear;
Thou risest up on the peaceful wave-crest
Like a queenly maiden in bloom.
– “Carmina Gadelica” – Alexander Carmichael
Why Celtic Spirituality Matters
I have a theory. That theory goes something like this: In the last 100 years or so the dominant religious traditions in the West stripped any and all mysticism and mystery from their practice. (Evangelical Christians chucked out everything that wasn’t certainty and intellectual assent to a list of absolute statements of belief.) And while a lot of modern Christianity relies heavily on feelings (personal relationships with Jesus/God included) still the center of religious practice is our very small finite selves and a list of beliefs.
For white modern Western Christians the Celts represent mystery, they represent a tradition filled with awe and connected to creation. That tradition stands in stark contrast to the religious options we have been raised with. The choice between a modern pole barn church with folding chairs and no questions allowed, or a circle of standing stones where the wind sings, the ravens guard, and the ground beneath your feet seems to be alive? I know what I’d choose!
Because we just don’t know so much about the faiths of our ancestors they hold an appeal. They call out to our deep human need for mystery, for something bigger than ourselves, for the world to not be quite so cut and dried. And those instincts are good and right. Because the world is bigger than a list of rules. The world we inhabit is mysterious, awe inspiring and interconnected in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.
And we can either create God in own own small image, or stand in awe of a God far too big to fit into our neat boxes, or our limiting beliefs.
So What Is Celtic Spirituality Today?
We could probably claim that just about anything with a scrollwork knot on it was Celtic, and many people have made a lot of money doing just that. But our ancestors left us clues to their ancient practices and beliefs. And there is no reason that modern humans interested in the Celtic ways of life, especially their emphasis on the goodness of creation and God’s revelation in nature, cannot reclaim those clues and build on that foundation.
It turns out the single best source for Celtic theology, spirituality, and practice comes from women. (Who else isn’t surprised?) In the 19th century Alexander Carmichael traveled to the most remote Scottish islands and highland communities collecting stories, prayers, and poetry. The fragments he preserved (many of which dated back hundreds or over a thousand years) were overwhelmingly kept alive by the women of those communities, passed down from mother to daughter, even when the church frowned on their content and practice.
In them we find the close Celtic ties to creation, and an emphasis on goodness, joy, and the seasons. We also find an egalitarian spirit that had been nearly destroyed outside of these ancient places. There Alexander found songs for childbirth that blessed the baby and mother with words the rest of the world would have reserved for a priest. (For example.) The songs and prayers he recorded are rooted in everyday life, everyday people.
When modern seekers are drawn to liturgies and practices that reconnect them with the natural world, they are drawing on the tradition of the Celts. When they move away from complex hierarchies and rules around who can bless, and perform other religious functions; they are drawing on the tradition of the Celts.
We can never recapture the past, but we can plant our own new seeds and tend them carefully for a better future.
Memory, misery, and hope
In the last few centuries (for a host of good and bad reasons) Celtic Christianity, and Celtic Spirituality more broadly have enjoyed a revival. And while some religious scholars mock, and dismiss this movement as simple romanticism (after all, records are scarce and we are not our ancestors), I believe that the Celtic Spiritual movement grew from a seed of misery that we cannot ignore.
For hundreds of years the dominant form of religion in the West has been a Christianity that has lived nearly entirely in our heads. “Belief” as an intellectual ascension to a set of reality statements and rules has become the barometer against which our spiritual life is measured. The heart rarely features, and the body is down right suspect, being the source (so we were taught) of lust, gluttony, and a host of other sins. The natural world has been totally ignored, and often ravaged, by this tradition.
Is it any wonder that people tired of saying “yes” to things that made no sense, to hating their bodies, and to being cut off from the natural world would find hope in a tradition rooted in the goodness of the created order? That is in the goodness of our bodies and the natural world.
Resources & Inspiration
There is no way to go back in time and recreate what once was, and the truth is we don’t need to. The spirituality that served our Celtic ancestors would not speak to us in the way we hope, because we are not they. However, that doesn’t mean we cannot take inspiration and guidance from what we know of the Celtic saints, teachers, and everyday people and their spiritual lives.
There are people, rooted in the tradition and shared history of Celtic peoples already doing that work in our own day.
It might seem surprising, hundreds of years after Celtic religious practice was supposedly subsumed by the Roman church, that there are in fact still communities whose life and practice can be traced all the way back to early Celtic Christian practice or even before. And yet that is exactly what you will find if you spend time with the Iona community.
Iona’s roots go deep, back to the earliest glimmerings of Christianity if the British Isles. And the current community is broad and inclusive. Their liturgies are woven through with the revelation of the Divine found in the natural world (not surprising given the community’s location). And their mission is one of broad, ecumenical, and interreligious understanding and justice.
And they aren’t alone. The list of Celtic Christian communities are growing. You will also find the spirit of the Celts in the community of Northumbria, and the (dispersed) community of St. Aidan and Hilda.
Carmina Gadelica: A collection of songs, poems, prayers and other fragments of oral tradition recorded by Alexander Carmichael. The single best resource for those wishing to explore what remained of Celtic Christian/Pagan practices in the remote islands of the 19th century. (There are many, many translations available. This is the copy that sits on my bookshelf and from which the excerpts above were taken.)
Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality – An excellent introduction to the history, flavor, and practice of Celtic spirituality.
The Celtic Way of Prayer: A thoroughly well researched and beautiful resource for those wishing to infuse their own prayer practice with Celtic spirituality. Examines preChristian practice as well as diverse early Christian practices.
Celtic Daily Prayer: A handy (small but thick) tome of daily prayer that follows the rhythm of a monastic community in a way that is easily accessible for busy people in regular lives.
To Bless the Space Between Us: The most profound, and important, modern Celtic prophet, poet, and mystic was John O’Donohue. His poetry and his prose are infused with the soil on which he walked, the air he breathed, and the Divine he encountered in the natural world. Any of his books will be a gift to the seeker.
Celtic Prayers from Iona: A great resource of prayers for everyday life drawn from the Iona community.
I welcome your own favorite online communities for seekers in the Celtic tradition. The singular best (and only one I recommend) is in my eyes the Abbey of the Arts. The Abbey is an online (dispersed) gathering of spiritual seekers, artists, and modern day mystics. It’s founder (Christine Valters Paintner) offers retreats, books, and other resources rooted in the goodness of the natural world and the love of the Divine.
Practicing Celtic Spirituality
Now here is the kicker. Reading about spirituality doesn’t do anyone any good if the next step is never taken. To really experience the spirituality of the Celts you must practice. And there’s the rub. We are all busy people, our lives are filled with obligations, worries, and activities. And often spirituality is tacked on as some sort of afterthought. Nice when we can manage it, but the first thing to go when the calendar begins to blossom.
Don’t do that.
If there is one lesson I have taken away from all my reading, research, and experience with the Celtic path it is this: the spirituality of our Celtic ancestors was rooted in, and integrated into, their everyday lives. Spirituality wasn’t for church, or the yoga studio, it was for waking up, baking bread, doing work, traveling, meeting friends, and rest. It infused the everyday moments of their days; because the spirituality of the Celts was founded on the radical notion that the Divine was present in and loved every bit of creation.
The trees felled for furniture? God’s good creation. The grain that became bread: holy because God made it for us. I have written before about the spirituality of everyday ordinary things; and how we can integrate our spiritual practice into our busy lives.
Start something today, even if it just one thing, even if it is a tiny thing. There is no day like today, it is precious and perfect in its own time. Your life is sacred and precious, and the Divine is waiting in every moment of it.