t seems that Celtic (pronounced KELT-ic with a hard C) people love to ponder the imponderable, so I will begin a discussion of the Celtic Christians with an imponderable. Many books have been written about Celtic Christianity, yet who they really were and what they really believed is a mystery. It seems every writer creates Celtic Christianity in his or her own image.
- Roman Catholic writers seem to present the Celtic Church as Catholic with emphasis on bishops (especially Patrick), saints (especially Patrick and Columba), and masses and liturgies that resemble the Roman rite, but with some minor regional differences. (See also the Celtic Rite in Wikipedia.)
- Protestant writers present the early Celtic Church as being more like Protestantism with complete independence from Rome, more emphasis on Christ and missionary work and less emphasis on the saints. (See Celtic Christian Revivalism in Wikipedia.)
- Strangely, Celtic spirituality is also a topic of interest among people who are not Christian at all (See Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism), and some writers present a view of Celtic Christianity that is a blend of nature worship (Druidism/Paganism) and Christianity.
he Celts were a people or an ethnic group, and they seem to have been in central Europe as early as 800 B.C. (Sometimes called the Hallstatt Culture.) By 275 B.C. Celtic influence had spread to what is now England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France and Spain. The reason we associate Celts with Ireland and Scotland is that is where Celtic identity remained, and a Celtic revival of cultural identity has come and gone and come again in those countries.
efore Christian missionaries came to the Celts, the Celts were polytheistic (many gods) and animistic (belief of spirits in everything, people, plants, animals, trees, etc), which is the source of the idea that Druids (Celtic priests) worshiped trees. Christian missionaries came into Britain after Christianity was decreed a religio licita, a legal religion, and also the religion of the Roman Empire, with a peak of missionary activity in the fifth century.
atrick is the first person we think of when Celtic Christianity is mentioned, mostly because he has his own holiday. But Patrick is much more than an excuse to drink green beer (yuck!) and eat corned beef and cabbage (delicious, but unknown to Patrick and to most of the Irish). He is rightly called “the Apostle to the Irish.” He grew up as a Christian in Roman Britain, but as a teenager, he was not serious about his faith. At age 17 he was kidnapped by Irish pirates (who were more like our image of Vikings than Captain Jack Sparrow) and taken to Ireland as a slave, where he remained for six years. He escaped and returned home to western Britain, where he studied the Christian faith more seriously, and was ordained a priest. Legend says that he had a vision of a man urging him to return to Ireland to bring the gospel. There are accounts of Patrick baptizing thousands of people, ordaining priests and setting up Christian communities in Ireland. It seems that he worked with the culture, a hostile and barbaric culture, and transformed it into a Christian culture. Human sacrifices and the glory of battle was replaced with the sacrifice of Christ and the glory of rising above our broken nature by the power of Christ. Like Augustine, Patrick wrote his Confessions in which he described his early life and his return and growth in the Christian faith.
rom the time of Patrick until the Synod of Whitby in A. D. 664, the Celtic church was independent from the church of Rome, but did not see itself as separate from it.
- Monastacism was important in Celtic Christianity, but the lives of the monks were very active in scholarship (sacred and secular) and mission work. Some people credit Irish monks for preserving the Roman and Greek classics while the lands of the former fallen Roman Empire were overrun by barbarians. (See the book How the Irish Saved Civilization.) Irish monks also had a different kind of tonsure that was shaved from ear to ear rather than a circle shaved on the top of the head.
- The Irish Christians did venerate saints and pray to them for their intercession, but most of the Irish saints were deceased bishops or abbots. There seems to be no special veneration of Mary. Patrick never mentions the blessed virgin in his Confession and the pre-Whitby Antiphonary of Bangor is almost silent about her.
- Liturgically, the Irish church developed its rites independently of Rome, although some of the rites have similar structures to the Roman rites, the prayers are unique.
- The date of Easter was calculated as a fortnight after the vernal equinox, which would make it about two weeks after Easter calculated in the Roman manner.
After the Synod of Whitby, the Celtic churches in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and all their missions were ordered to calculate the date of Easter in the Roman manner and to adopt the Roman tonsure and other worship practices. So from that point, the Celtic church began to lose its distinctiveness from the church of Rome, although some remnants of earlier rites remained in use.
t. Patrick’s Breastplate is a poetic prayer that is attributed to Patrick. Like the winding lines in Celtic art, the content of the prayer seems to wind back and forth with its repetition. Here are some characteristics in the Breastplate that are common in many Celtic Christian prayers:
- The immanence or closeness of God. (“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, …) This may be a holdover from Celtic and Druid animism that believed spirits were in everything (a form of polytheism and pantheism). In his Confession, Patrick rejects any kind of animism, polytheism or panthiesm and confesses a biblical theology of God, very much like what is seen in the Nicene Creed. Yet he retains an emphasis of immanence or closeness to God, along with a sense of the presence of God in nature. God is not the same as his creation but he is in it and with it. (See Psalm 139.)
- An understanding of prayer as tapping into God’s supernatural power. (“I arise today through a mighty strength…”)
- A delight in the Trinity because the doctrine is imponderable. (“I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.”)
ther Celtic prayers:
- The Carmina Gadelica (Songs of the Gaels, see Wikipedia) is a collection of Scottish Gaelic hymns and prayers collected in the mid 1800s. Volumes I and III contain Celtic Christian prayers. Volume II contains Celtic animistic spells and incantations. The initial capitals on this page are illustrations from The Carmina Gadelica.
- The Antiphonary of Bangor (Wikipedia) is an Irish liturgical text containing prayers and antiphons for the liturgy of hours (the daily offices or services in the monasteries). It was written around A. D. 680, and seems to present pre-Whitby rites and practices.
- The Lorrha-Stowe Missal (Wikipedia) is a post-Whitby book with materials for the performance of the Mass, probably written after A. D. 792. Even though it is post-Whitby, there are some prayers and practices that may be remnants of pre-Whitby rites.
- Some scholars also see traces of the worship of early Celtic Christians in the Mozarabic Rite (Wikipedia) (2000 Years of Prayer, ed. Michael Counsell, p. 84).
- The Book of Cerne (Wikipedia) is an illuminated manuscript, similar in artistic style to the Book of Kells, containing the Gospels, prayers, hymns, and other liturgical materials. It is really an Anglo-Saxon book, but it also shows Celtic / Irish influence in its art and texts.
he Book of Kells (Wikipedia) is probably the greatest treasure of the Irish church and of Celtic Christianity. It is an illuminated hand-copied Gospel book. The initials had pictures, winding vine designs, a full spectrum of color and gilding. It wasn’t a prayer book, but no discussion of Celtic Christianity would be complete without mentioning the Book of Kells. The Celtic Christians also left many carved stone crosses like the Rock of Cashel Cross (top) and Muiredach’s High Cross (above)