(Linda, the Cliffs of Moher)
Celtic Spirituality for Today: Traveling Deeper into My Roots
At long last, I am resuming my blog. Thank you to all of my readers who kept nudging me and patiently asking me when I would resume! As many of you know, my husband Ted and I just returned from vacation in Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland.
(Tintagel Castle, of King Arthur fame, England)
I made this journey partly to get in touch with my Celtic roots. My paternal grandmother, Nannie, was born in Belfast, and ethnically was Irish, English and Scottish. Her father, my great-grandfather, was a stone mason, who built many churches in the UK. As usual for a nerd like me, I researched the places we would visit, and steeped myself in Celtic literature before and during this trip. I read James Joyce’s Ulysses; poetry by W. B. Yeats, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, and, thanks to a recommendation by my friend Rod Rinell, am now delighting in Frank Delaney’s Ireland. In addition, for years I have been using the gorgeous, poetic, earth-centered daily prayer books by J. Philip Newell, of Iona (who also leads retreats at one of my favorite spiritual places, Casa del Sol, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico).
(High Cross, Iona)
During a time of prayer on the mystical Island of Iona, I had an epiphany: perhaps Celtic spirituality has always tugged deeply at my soul because it is from there that my roots begin. Cahill’s book, in fact, helped me to realize that some of my struggles with certain aspects of traditional Western Christianity, and juxtaposed to that, some of my deep attraction to Celtic spirituality, are because of the deep, core emphases of Celtic spirituality, which line up so perfectly with three things to which I am most passionately committed: 1. a spirituality which is life-affirming and which sees the earth, in fact the entire comes, as infused with God’s presence; linked with this, a spirituality which honors and embraces our physicality, our embodiment, rather than condemns or negates it; 2. a spirituality which embraces and celebrates the feminine aspect of life; and 3. a spirituality which is passionate about issues of social justice, and insists on the God-given equality of ALL.
(Dingle Peninsula, Ireland)
I will touch on each of these three briefly. I have always bristled against those teachings in traditional Western Christianity which, based NOT on the teachings of Jesus, but rather on Greek philosophy, consider the earth, the human body, and all physical matter as not good, as in fact somehow evil or sinful, whereas the mind (reason) and the spirit are considered good, pure, and holy. Saint Augustine (354-430) compounded this earth and body negating teaching when he created the doctrine of Original Sin, which has plagued us now for over 1500 years. I preached a sermon a few years ago, where I confessed that I do not believe in original sin. The bible does not even speak of it. I do believe in sin itself, but NOT original sin. In fact, the book of Genesis affirms that God created everything, including us human beings, and proclaimed: ”It is GOOD.” WE are GOOD. When you study Augustine and his own life, his sexual struggles, and his espousal of a very dualistic religion, Manichaeism, prior to his becoming Christian, you can understand where his idea of original sin came from. But, interestingly, Ireland’s version of Christianity, partly because of its physical location and isolation, was not really influenced by Augustine, but rather by Saint Patrick, (386-461), a contemporary of Augustine, so never even heard of original sin!
(Saint Patrick and I, Hill of Tara, Ireland)
The sad ramifications of the combined emphasis on Greek philosophy and original sin are that for over 1500 years much of Western Christianity has looked at the physical, embodied aspect of life, which includes the earth, the environment, our bodies and sexuality, as “evil, sinful, bad,” things from which we need to escape, or “rise above,” into some ethereal disembodied “spiritual dimension.” In contrast, Celtic spirituality, which before Christianity arrived was called “pagan,” or Druid, saw the entire cosmos, and all aspects of human life as infused with God’s presence.
Saint Patrick embraced this. His poem on his breastplate proclaims: “I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity: the virtues of the starlit heaven, the depths of the salty sea, the old, eternal rocks.” He even used something simple, from the earth, the shamrock, to teach the Celts about the Trinity.
(Tintagel Castle, Cliffs)
Sadly, in much of traditional Western Christianity, based on Greek philosophy and Saint Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, women, whose monthly cycles and miraculous life-giving capacities or “fertility,” have historically been connected with sin and evil. Early Church fathers said “Woman is the gateway to Satan,” (Tertullian), or “It is still Even the Temptress which we must be wary of in every woman,” (Augustine), and other lovely things like that. In contrast to this, Celtic spirituality embraces the feminine aspect of life: think Queen Maeve, and Deirdre; think Saint Brigid of Kildare and Saint Juliana of Norwich; think of every feisty Irish woman you have ever known, and how her strength, spirit, and feistiness is appreciated by men and women alike, and celebrated! I of course think of my wild and crazy Nannie.
(the entrance to Saint Juliana’s one room cell, Norwich, England)
(the exterior to Juliana’s one room hermitage, Norwich, England)
Finally, Cahill points out that Saint Patrick was the first saint to preach vehemently against slavery and human trafficking. Patrick himself was actually not Irish. He was a Romanized Brit, who at age 15-16 was kidnapped by the Irish, and forced into slavery. He served as a slave in County Antrim (my grandmother’s county) for six years, before escaping. When he returned to Ireland years later to share the Christian Gospel, it was a social justice Gospel that he shared. Indeed his own six years as a slave led him to be the first in Christian history to denounce slavery. When some young women whom he had baptized were kidnapped by British soldiers to be used as sex slaves, he vehemently denounced this.
(Linda atop an ancient burial mound with a feisty Irish girl of the next generation)
So, I share this brief introduction to Celtic spirituality with you because I think it profoundly and powerfully speaks to us today. Many contemporary seekers are critical of the way Christian theology has for so long dishonored the earth and environment, has condemned our physical bodies and sexuality, has not had full equality for women, and has not spoken out loudly enough for social justice. Perhaps it is time to reclaim the Celtic Christian spiritual tradition.
(Linda, Cliffs of Moher)
I know that it resonates deeply in my own soul. Perhaps it also speaks to you.
This day, may you see God in all you encounter,
and may you reflect God to all you encounter.
Copyright August 17, 2016
For a more in-depth discussion of these issues, please read Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization