Celtic
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The Early Celtic Church

Celtic Christianity is marked by a sense of the abiding presence of God, who infuses all things with divine beauty and spiritual meaning. This world provides an easy threshold to the otherworld; there are many “thin places” where God’s presence is felt in a powerful way: many wells and hills serve as meeting places with God. There is no need to escape from daily life into some spiritual realm, because the everyday is the setting for the Presence of God. Whether you are milking cows or banking a fire, fixing a meal or making the bed, God is present in the most menial of tasks, filling them with the glory of eternity. God is the music of what happens, the heartbeat of the universe who can be known in the most menial tasks.

Celtic lands show early traces of Christianity. Tradition holds that the faith was first planted by Joseph of Arimathea, reputedly a tin merchant who traveled the Mediterranean from east to west, specifically to Cornwall where archeologists have uncovered ancient tin mines. St. Irenaeus of Lyons was a famous bishop and theologian in Gaul in the 2nd Century. Roman soldiers who were Christian brought their faith with them in their backpacks; many remained after being cashiered from the army and married local women. The result was a certain stamp of peculiarity that we call Romano-British culture. 

Trade was well established between the British Isles and the Middle East for many centuries, and thus one sees the influence of the Desert Monastics in spirituality, art, and the formation of monastic life, was easily spread. The carpet pages of the Book of Kells of the Book of Durrow, for example, show similarities to Coptic art. Local places were often called by the term “desert,” especially if they had or developed spiritual prominence, and this was no accident.  The Celts knew the Desert as their own backdrop for developing Christian faith.   

In Ireland at Saint Olan’s well in the parish of Aghabulloge, County Cork, there is an inscription in Ancient Irish (Ogham) that reads, “Pray for Olan the Egyptian.” 

Celtic Christianity was always part of the orthodox catholic church, but with distinctive marks. Looked at individually, each of these marks show up in all Christianity, but it’s the peculiar configuration and special accents that characterize Christianity in Celtic realms.

By “Celtic Christianity” we mean the churches and teachers and monasteries that arose at the end of Empire, before and after the Celts had been pushed to the boundaries of the western world, to Wales and Scotland, Northumberland and Cornwall on the Great Isle of Britain, to Ireland, and to Brittany and Galicia on the Continent. Monasteries existed before the 5th Century, e.g., Whithorn in Scotland, founded by St. Ninian in 397. St. Patrick founded Armagh (“sweet hill”) as his principal church in 445. St. David, patron of Wales, founded a monastery in Pembrokeshire which is the setting for the cathedral that bears his name. 

The movement rebounded at the Ocean and returned to the Continent – except for St. Brendan the Navigator, whose sailings were legendary. Celtic missionaries, the most famous of whom was Columbanus (ca. 590), founded such great monasteries as Luxeuil in Gaul, Bobbio in Italy, and St. Gall in Switzerland. St. Columcille founded the monastic settlement at Iona around 557, and in 635 St. Aidan founded the community at Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of Great Britain, as an outreach to the Anglo-Saxons. 

The monastic tradition, so characteristic of early Celtic Christianity, proved to be a unique and attractive draw to the peoples of the British Isles. This tradition was modeled after the monastic desert fathers and mothers. In part this peculiar attraction was also due to the wide spread of small communities on both the big Island and Ireland. Early Irish monasticism took its lead from the villages that were built in a circle around a central hall. 

Three types of monastic life turn up in Celtic realms: red martyrdom, as well as white and blue (or green). Welsh for blue is glas, but it can also mean green in early manuscripts. These types are recounted in the Cambrai Homily, from the 7th – 8th Centuries. Red martyrdom means those who gave their lives for the faith. In fact, they were few because the Celts had concepts and spiritual ideas that were a match to what the Christian missionaries taught. It was, as far as we know, an easy transition to the Christian faith. Celtic missionaries lost their lives in other countries, but not as a rule in Celtic realms.

White martyrdom meant separation from loved places and things, and thus was characteristic of those who settled into monastic communities on a permanent basis. These are the people who gave up everything for Christ and for the love of God.

Blue martyrdom means those who, according to the Cambrai Homily, spent their lives in repentance. However, the blues also became the missionary outreach of the Celtic Church. They were willing to exercise their penitence toward the expansion of the church. Some traveled, while some spent their lives in remote places like Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland.

The Anmchara, or “soul friend,” is a great gift of Celtic Christianity. Soul friends grew out of native emphasis on friendship into spiritual direction and were the foundation for later development of individual confession. Difficult as it was for priests to visit remote communities of Christians, there grew up the practice of lay conversation and confession, to which the priest would grant absolution when visiting at some time in the year or month. 

Celtic Christianity, proceeding from its profound sense of the Presence of the Holy One, is stamped by a love for the Blessed Holy Trinity, for the Scriptures, for the sacraments, for sacred places, and for solitude to pray. Celtic Christianity is a sensibility (or phronema, to use an Orthodox term), that experiences and indwells God’s world in a peculiar way.

Fr. Gabriel Rochelle

Want to learn more? Check out these resources for Celtic Spirituality:

The Desert & Other Original Sources

Bede the Venerable. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Ed. D H Farmer. London: Penguin Classics, 1991.

Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica. Various printings.

Skinner, John, trans. The Confession of St. Patrick. New York: Doubleday Image, 1998.

Waddell, Helen. The Desert Fathers. New York: Random House Vintage Edition, 1998.

Ward, Sr Benedicta, SLG. The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers. Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1975.

The Celts

Chadwick, Nora. The Celts. London: Penguin, 1991.

Cunliffe, Barry. The Celtic World. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

History & Theology

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Moorhouse, Geoffrey. Sun Dancing: A Vision of Medieval Ireland. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997.

Spirituality

Allchin, A. M., God’s Presence makes the World: The Celtic Vision through the Centuries in Wales. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997.

Davies, Oliver, Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996.

Davies, Oliver, in collaboration with Thomas O’Loughlin. Celtic Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1999.  (THE definitive guide)

Newell, J. Philip. Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1997.

O Riordain, John J O. The Music of What Happens. Dublin: Columba Press, 1996.

Sheldrake, Philip. Living Between Worlds: Place and Journey in Celtic Spirituality. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1995.

Thomas, Patrick. Candle in the Darkness: Celtic Spirituality from Wales.  Llandysul, Dyfed, 1993.

Saints

Mitton, Michael. The Soul of Celtic Spirituality in the Lives of its Saints. Mystic, CT: Twenty-third Publications, 1996.

Rochelle, Gabriel C. A Staff to the Pilgrim: Meditations on the Way with Nine Celtic Saints. Emmaus PA: Golden Alley Press, 2018.

Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints. Notre Dame IN: Ave Maria Press, 1993.

Additional Resources

Background in the Desert

Brock, Sebastian P., and Susan Ashbrook Harvey. Holy Women of the Syrian Orient. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Chrysostomos, Archimandrite. The Ancient Fathers of the Desert. Brookline MA: Hellenic College Press, 1980.

Chryssavgis, John. In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Bloomington IN: World Wisdom, 2003.

Cowan, James. Desert Father: A Journey in the Wilderness with Saint Anthony. Boston: Shambhala Press, 2004.

Merton, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Desert. New York: New Dimension, 1960.

Swan, Laura. The Forgotten Desert Mothers. New York: Paulist Press, 2001.

Waddell, Helen. The Desert Fathers. New York: Random House Vintage  Edition, 1998.

Ward, Sr Benedicta, SLG. The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers. Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1975.

The Celts

Chadwick, Nora. Celtic Britain. New York: Praeger, 1963 (entire text online).

The Celts. London: Penguin, 1991.

Cunliffe, Barry. The Celtic World. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

Duffy, Kevin. Who Were the Celts? New York: Fall River Press, 1996.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Celtic Empire, The First Millennium of Celtic History 100 BC - 51 AD. Chapel Hill: Carolina Academic Press, 1960.

Raftery, Joseph, ed., The Celts. Cork: Mercier Press, 1967.

History & Theology

Bede the Venerable. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Ed. D H Farmer. London: Penguin Classics, 1991.

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization.  New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Duncan, Anthony. The Elements of Celtic Christianity. Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books, 1992.

Hunter, George G., III. The Celtic Way of Evangelism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

Joyce, Timothy. Celtic Christianity: A Sacred Tradition,  A Vision of HopeMaryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1998.

McNeill, John T. and Helen Gamer. The Medieval Penitentials. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938.

Moorhouse, Geoffrey. Sun Dancing: A Vision of Medieval Ireland. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997.

Newell, J. Philip. Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Van de Weyer, Robert. Celtic Gifts: Orders of Ministry in the Celtic Church. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1997.

Walsh, John R. and Thomas Bradley.  A History of the Irish Church 400-700 AD.  Dublin: The Columba Press, 1991.

Prayer Books

Adam, David. The Edge of Glory: Prayers in the Celtic Tradition. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1985.

The Open Gate: Celtic Prayers for Growing Spiritually. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1995.

The Rhythm of Life: Celtic Daily Prayer. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1996.

Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica. Various printings.

De Waal, Esther. Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1999.

God under My Roof: Celtic Songs and Blessings. Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 1997.

Newell, J. Philip. Celtic Prayers from Iona. New York: Paulist Press, 1997.

The Northumbria Community, introduction by Richard J. Foster. Celtic Daily Prayer. San Francisco: Harper, 2002.

Simpson, Ray. Celtic Blessings: Prayers for Everyday Life. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1999.

 Celtic Worship through the Year. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998.

Celtic Art

Backhouse, Janet. The Lindisfarne Gospels. London: The British Library, n.d.

Bain, George. Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction. New York: Dover Press, 1973.

Bain, Iain. Celtic Knotwork. New York: Sterling Publishing, 1997.

Cirker, Blanche, ed. The Book of Kells: Selected Plates. New York: Dover, 1982.

Meehan, Bernard. The Book of Durrow. Dublin: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1996.

Richardson, Hilary, and John Scarry. An Introduction to Irish High Crosses. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1990.

Spirituality

Allchin, A. M., God’s Presence makes the World: The Celtic Vision through the Centuries in Wales. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997.

Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition. Wilton CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1988.

Praise Above All: Discovering the Welsh Tradition. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991.

Buckley, Maria. Celtic Spirituality. Cork: Mercier Press, 2001.

Cartwright, Jane. Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008.

Davies, Oliver, Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996.

Davies, Oliver, in collaboration with Thomas O’Loughlin. Celtic Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1999. (THE definitive guide)

Jones, John Miriam, S. C., With An Eagle’s Eye: a Seven-Day Sojourn in Celtic Spirituality. Notre Dame IN: Ave Maria Press, 1998.

Newell, J. Philip. Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality.  New York: Paulist Press, 1997.

One Foot in Eden: A Celtic View of the Stages of Life. New York: Paulist Press, 1999.

The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1999.

O Riordain, John J O. Irish Catholic Spirituality: Celtic and Roman. Dublin: Columba Press, 1998.

The Music of What Happens. Dublin: Columba Press, 1996.

Sheldrake, Philip. Living Between Worlds: Place and Journey in Celtic SpiritualityLondon: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1995.

Thomas, Patrick. Candle in the Darkness: Celtic Spirituality from Wales. Llandysul, Dyfed, Wales, 1993.

Saints

Adam, David. The Cry of the Deer: Meditations on the Hymn of St Patrick. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1987.

A Desert in The Ocean: The Spiritual Journey according to St Brendan the Navigator. New York: Paulist Press, 2000.

Flame in My Heart: St Aidan for Today. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1998.

Bury, J. B., edited by Jon M. Sweeney. Ireland’s Saint: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick. Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2008.

Mitton, Michael. The Soul of Celtic Spirituality in the Lives of its Saints. Mystic CT: Twenty-third Publications, 1996.

Pennick, Nigel. The Celtic Saints. New York: Sterling Publishing, 1997.

Pitkin Guides. Celtic Saints. Hampshire: Jarrold Publishing, 2003.

Rochelle, Gabriel C, A Staff to the Pilgrim: Meditations on the Way with Nine Celtic Saints. Emmaus PA: Golden Alley Press, 2018.

Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints. Notre Dame IN: Ave Maria Press, 1993.

Stories of the Celtic Soul Friends: Their Meaning for Today. New York: Paulist Press, 2004.

Simms, George Otto. Brendan the Navigator. Dublin: O’Brien Press, 1989 (children’s book)

Skinner, John, trans. The Confession of St. Patrick. New York: Doubleday Image, 1998.

Whiteside, Lesley. The Spirituality of St. Patrick. Dublin: Columba Press, 1996.

Online Resources

BBC Series:  How the Celts Saved Britain, two parts – access through avi.com

BBC Series:  A History of Celtic Britain, four parts – access through avi.com

Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg.htm

Celtic and Old English Saints.  http://celticsaints.org/

Chadwick, Celtic Britain.  http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Great_Britain/_Periods/medieval/_Texts/CHACEB/home.html

Christian Classics Ethereal Library.  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/

(Impressive site with many full works of saints, historians, etc)

Early Christian Sites in Ireland (with thanks to John Corcoran)

http://www.earlychristianireland.org/

Faith and Worship: Prayers from the Carmina Gadelica  http://www.faithandworship.com/index.htm

Irish Saints:  http://brigid-undertheoak.blogspot.com/ (another link from John Corcoran)

Orthodox England  http://orthodoxengland.org.uk/hp.php

 

 

 

 

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