t seems that Celtic 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 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. They calculated the date of Easter in a different way than the Roman Church, and also had some rites and practices not common in the rest of the Christian world. (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. 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. Like Augustine, Patrick wrote his Confessions in which he described his early life and his return and growth in the Christian faith.
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). Along with immanence or closeness to God, there seems to be 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…” The phrase is repeated several times.)
- 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. It was written in Latin, but can be considered Celtic because of it’s origin in ninth century Ireland.
- Some scholars also see some traces of the worship of early Celtic Christians in the Mozarabic Rite (Wikipedia) (2000 Years of Prayer, ed. Michael Counsell, p. 84). As mentioned before, there were Celtic people in Spain shortly before the birth of Christ.
he Book of Kells 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)