Saving Celtic Spirituality
My own experience has been that the truth lies (as usual) between these extremes of Celtophobia and Celtophilia. Great riches may be found in the Christian traditions of the people who inhabited the fringes of Britain in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire. But there is also much wishful thinking in the reconstruction of those traditions. As always, the standard should not be whether it is appealing, but whether it is biblical. Given that guide, there is good reason to become a pilgrim—literally or figuratively—to the holy places and people from that distant age. But to do so it is necessary to think carefully about their time—and our own.
QUEST FOR THE HISTORICAL CELTS
Who were the Celts? The name Celtic refers to an ancient European people who shared a family of languages now represented mainly by Gaelic, Irish, and Welsh. That these languages have survived (tenuously) around the Western fringe of the British Isles reveals something of the people's history, and their peculiar relationship to the Roman Empire and to Roman Christianity.In the centuries before Christ, the Celts inhabited a broad band across central Europe, extending into Spain and Turkey. Paul wrote the epistle of Galatians to a group of Celts in Asia Minor.The word Galatia only slightly conceals the word Celt, as does Gaul. They were a warlike people with a highly distinctive style of visual art and a rich mythology and oral culture.The Romans succeeded in conquering the Celtic peoples throughout Europe, and were established in Britain by the time Jesus was born. But the Romans never got as far as Ireland, or the Highlands and outer islands of Scotland, and the pagan Celtic cultures flourished there during the centuries that Romans were in Britain. Conveyed by Roman civilization, sometime during those centuries the gospel came to Britain—at least to the soldiers and the aristocracy. Exactly when is debatable; a durable but quite unsupported legend puts Joseph of Arimathea in Britain, along with the Holy Grail, shortly after the Resurrection.But there were certainly Christians in the south of Britain by the early third century. And, though Roman soldiers never made it to Ireland, the Christian message did. By the fourth century—a generation and more before Patrick—Christians were in pagan Ireland.Then Rome withdrew from Britain. The Romans had been there almost as long as Europeans have been in North America. But the legions were needed to protect the Roman heartland, and by the early fifth century the soldiers were no longer present to hold back the waves of Saxons and Angles who nearly eliminated the Roman (and Christian) culture of England.Although the flame of Christian culture was practically extinguished in what is now England, it burnt brighter and brighter in Ireland, fanned in the fifth century by the tireless preaching of Patrick. For a century and a half Ireland was isolated from the chaos of the collapsing Roman world. During those years it became the center—and the preserver—of much of European Christian culture. Thomas Cahill tells this story brilliantly in How the Irish Saved Civilization. The title may exaggerate a little—but not much. Rooted in these years of Celtic Christian culture's isolation is its uniqueness, its mystery, and its apparently endless appeal to citizens of another chaotic (and perhaps collapsing) civilization, a millennium and a half later.The uniqueness is this: nowhere in the history of Christianity is there so clear an instance of the Christian transformation of a pagan culture with so little influence by the culture that brought the Christian message. For as soon as the Roman culture had carried the gospel to Ireland, the carrier collapsed. Certainly the Celtic Christians were not ignorant of that distant world, and there is no evidence—contrary to some exaggerated claims—that they ever saw themselves as a separate church. (The terms Celtic church and even Celtic Christianity are almost certainly misleading.) Nevertheless, for several generations there was little influence from the rest of European Christianity, and the result was a unique Christian blossoming of a formerly pagan culture.Christian Ireland did not keep its light to itself. It not only welcomed scholars—and manuscripts—from all over Europe, but it sent out missionaries. Columbanus (d. 615), late in the sixth century, wandered across Europe as far as Austria, Switzerland, and Northern Italy, making converts and establishing monasteries as he went. As the consequence of his self-imposed exile from Ireland, Columba (or Colum Cille, c. 521-97) established a monastic community on Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Scotland. Iona became a major center for the Christianization of England and northern Europe. The King of Northumbria, ruler of some of the invaders who had eliminated Rome from Britain, sent to Iona saying he was tired of fighting and wanted to become a Christian. The result was Aidan's establishment of the monastery at Lindisfarne in 635. It is located on an island (a peninsula at low tide) off the northeast coast of England near the Scottish border. Iona and Lindisfarne continued as centers of learning and evangelism until Viking invaders shut them down late in the ninth century. Not surprisingly, much of the current interest in a Celtic perspective on Christian faith centers on these two ancient sites.By the end of the sixth century, the worst of the chaos in Europe was over and the church, under the Bishop of Rome, was establishing order throughout Western Christendom. In 597 Pope Gregory sent Augustine (not the great Augustine of North Africa, but a papal librarian) to England, and he began converting the southern residents of the island to Roman Christianity. The older and much less orderly Celtic Christians accepted, apparently without much resistance, the authority of the larger Roman Catholic world (from which they never seem to have felt fundamentally separated) at the Synod of Whitby in 664. Increasingly, Christianity in Britain became administratively unified as part of Catholic Christianity.