Celtic Spirituality - Let's be discerning!
by The Rev. Steve Allen, Vicar of St.John's Great Horton, Bradford. England.

"Throughout the Dark Ages, the Celtic church, though imperfect, kept alive the testimony to Jesus. Its commitment to Christ was total. Its scribes lovingly and faithfully handed on the Scriptures. It was thoroughly Trinitarian and Christ-centred."

The current fascination with Celtic spirituality continues unabated. Celtic books, music, art and jewellery continue to flood the market. Some Christians see this as a welcome rediscovery of our roots while others are alarmed, fearing associations with New Age religion.

There are at least three reasons for the popularity of Celtic spirituality. First, there is a revival interest in all things Celtic, including, it should be noted, pre-Christian, pagan beliefs. Second, when we look at the Celtic church we appear to see a small, indigenous, charismatic church being steam-rollered by the huge imperial, bureaucratic Church of Rome. It may not have been quite so simple as that but the story of the oppression of the Celtic church fits in well with the current mood of anti-establishment.

Third, early Celtic Christians, it is claimed, had a positive attitude to certain things which are very much live issues today. They were, so we are told, champions of sexual equality, they had a simple lifestyle yet a deep spirituality, and they had a respect for the environment. These issues resonate with people today.

Like all expressions of the Christian faith, Celtic spirituality has its strengths and weaknesses. It should be noted that not all of the several strengths were unique to the Celts. The weaknesses are potentially serious and much discernment is called for.

Through creation

Much is made of the fact that Celtic Christians lived close to nature and reverenced God through creation. Arguably the greatest artefact to come down from Celtic times is the Book of Kells where the gospel text is sumptuously illustrated with pictures of peacocks, lizards, moths, hares, doves and fish. In the corner of one page two mice are to be seen playfully nibbling a piece of communion bread. St Columbanus (not to be confused with St.Columba) said, 'Understand created things, if you want to understand the Creator.'

Legends abound of hermits living in harmony with the animal kingdom: not only did they talk to the animals but reputedly, the animals sometimes talked to them. Such legends are not historically reliable but they reveal something important. They illustrate the desire of the Celtic people to live at one with the natural world, anticipating the day 'when the lion shall lay down with the lamb' (ls 11.6)

However, we ought not to exaggerate this aspect of Celtic spirituality. Not only did all ancient people live closer to nature than we do today but not all the Celts particularly emphasised this. Ian Bradley, a leading author on Celtic Christianity, has pointed out that the theme of praising God through nature is noticeably absent from virtually all the writings of St. Columba, the founder of lona. We must beware of sentimentality when dealing with the Celts. On the contrary, we can imagine that a hermit living in a damp, cold, wooden cell, on meagre rations and at the mercy of the British, climate might not feel at one with nature all the time. Life was harsh in those days and other texts; show that the Celts often saw themselves in a battle against the destructive forces of nature - flood, famine and pestilence. Nevertheless their basic, starting point was that creation was the good gift of a bounteous God.

Salvation theme

Some advocates of Celtic spirituality tend to exaggerate the differences between the Celtic and Roman churches. It is true that the former was basically 'world-affirming' while the latter was dominated by the 'world-denying' philosophy of St.Augustine of Hippo, for whom sin , predestination and Hell were constant themes. Augustine's thought has been described by one writer as a 'pessimism package' and it was instrumental in establishing throughout most of Western Christendom a dour, negative Christianity, quite alien to Celtic culture and philosophy. However, it would be wrong to assume that the Celts were unconcerned about salvation. They had a very realistic view of human nature and doctrines of sin and forgiveness were central to their thinking. The sacrament of Holy Communion was at the heart of the monastic life. The penitential rules that developed in Celtic monasteries were very severe, evidence that sin was taken seriously. Most striking of all are the remaining high Celtic crosses of Ireland, many of which have as their central themes the Crucifixion and Last Judgement.

Celtic spirituality is to be welcomed in so far as it seeks to restore a balance between affirming both the essential goodness of Creation and mankind's need for forgiveness. But discernment is needed, for not all contemporary advocates of Celtic spirituality keep that balance.

No one coming to Celtic spirituality for the first time can fail to be amazed at the harsh asceticism that Celtic monks imposed upon themselves. Fasting, silence and abstinence from sleep were regularly practised to extreme. Often they forced themselves to perform quite unnecessary work on deliberately meagre diets. Sometimes they would pray in an uncomfortable position for many hours or genuflect literally hundreds of times in a day. Bede records that Cuthbert prayed all night waist deep in the North Sea.

These practices can be traced back to the desert fathers, early Egyptian herrnits whose self-mortification was legendary. Anthony of Egypt was a major role model for the Celts, aithough he seems to have had a less than rounded personality. He was reputed to be very shy as a young man and even before taking up the eremetical life he shunned most human company. After the death of his parents he withdrew to ithe desert to pray and in his cell he would sometimes starve himself near to death, becoming delirious or hallucinatory.

We find such behaviour difficult to understand but the desert fathers represented a protest movement. As persecution eased, so the Christian church rapidly grew worldly and the growth of asceticism was one interpretation of what it meant to be 'a living sacrifice'. However, it may also be the case that behind asceticism lay the heretical influence of Gnosticism, against which the early church fought many long battles.

Gnosticism was a form of spirituality that taught that the physical body was of no value whatsoever. Only the spirit, imprisoned in the body, was important. For the spirit to be released one had to be initiated into secret knowledge (GK gnosis = knowledge). Paradoxically, gnosticism led to two quite opposite lifestyles, Some concluded that since their bodies were of no importance, and since they now possessed the secret of eternal life, they could indulge their bodies without restraint. Gluttony and sexual licence were the order of the day for some Gnostics. Others however saw the body as the enemy of the spirit and endeavoured to subdue their desires. Some New Testament letters were partly written to counter Gnosticism, for example, Colossians and 1 John.

Gnostic cults existed throughout the Roman Empire and almost every part of the Christian Church Game into contact with gnosticism at some time or another. Gradually, orthodoxy was established and gnosticism defeated. But by then, the Romans had withdrawn from Britain, leaving the church here isolated and still influenced by gnostic thought. This influence can be seen both in the extreme asceticism and the bizarre legends of the saints. Another sign of gnostic influence on the Celts is their particular love for the Gospel of John, the most mystical book in the New Testament.

Mission approach

Those who first brought the gospel to the Celts had to face the issue that confronts all missionaries: how to relate to an existing religion. Should they attempt to sweep it away?. Or should they try to re-direct misplaced devotion towards Christ?

Many missiologists favour the latter approach despite the fact there is the inherent danger that the old religion lives on side by side with the new. This was generally the way that the Celic missionaries chose to operate. We see the early church grappling with this same issue in the Acts of the Apostles - how to relate to Judaism on the one hand (Ac 15) and paganism on the other (Ac 17).

There can be no doubt that some pagan ways, continued to exist within Celtic Christianity alhough it would be hasty to conclude that it was thereby hopelessly compromised. The echoes of paganism in Celtic spirituality have become fertile ground for New Age religionists who are in danger of making it their own. Yet there is too much that is good in the Celtic tradition to abandon it to others.

Throughout the Dark Ages, the Celtic church, though imperfect, kept alive the testimony to Jesus. Its commitment to Christ was total. Its scribes lovingly and faithfully handed on the Scriptures. It was thoroughly Trinitarian and Christ-centred. Its missionaries travelled throughout Europe, even reaching Italy where their radical lifestyle dearly embarrassed the Roman Church. In Britain, many Celtic Christians were martyred by the Vikings. If as many fear , Britain is entering a new 'dark age' of paganism, we can emulate our Celtic Christian forbears who confronted and overcame a similar situation.

Source: International Revival Network: archive.openheaven.com
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