Celtic Spirituality

An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality — by Diarmuid O’Laoghaire

We speak of the spirituality of the six Celtic lands before the coming of the Normans (or Anglo-Normans, as in the case of Ireland, who arrived there in 1169), namely, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man. Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man could be regarded as a unit, but we have very little knowledge of the Isle of Man. The other three Brythonic lands can likewise be regarded as a unit within the whole Celtic complex. Of all the countries Ireland is by far the best documented in itself and in its relations with Irish foundations in Scotland and Northumbria. However, in terms of spirituality, most of what we say of Ireland can be applied to all the other Celts. A symbol of that unity could be the Penitentials,1 where we have gathered matter from Ireland, Wales and Brittany. Sometimes, of course, that might mean just copying in Brittany of Irish matter, but that fact alone shows the unity, and in what deeply concerns the progress of the soul.

Ireland, unlike Britain, was never subject to Rome or Roman law. Her first full contact with Rome, then, was through the Christian faith. Saint Patrick, a Roman Briton, is the only known apostle of Ireland,2 although it seems he laboured mostly in the northern half of the country. There were Christians in Ireland before he came, but what evangelizers there were left us nothing in writing, whereas we have two authentic and most precious documents from the fifth-century Patrick. It is doubt ful if any evangelizer left such a lasting imprint on his spiritual children as did Patrick. As we will see, some of his outstanding traits were reproduced in the Irish. So, he speaks many times of being an exile till death for Christian Ireland; his writings abound with quotations and echoes from Scripture, notably from St Paul; in his Confession he speaks of his constantly repeated prayer out in the open, day and night, no matter how harsh the weather, when a slave in Ireland (Conf. 16).

It is a remarkable fact that in less than a hundred years after Patrick the Church in Ireland was not diocesan but monastic, and although obviously not lacking bishops, was governed by abbots of important monasteries — who might also be bishops. So it was also in other Celtic lands, with some variations where Roman influence was greater. Saint Patrick himself tells us how astonished he was at the numbers of the newly-baptised who chose to be monks and virgins of Christ. Presumably unorganised, they were the predecessors of thousands such in monasteries and convents throughout the land.

In these monasteries, prayer, study and manual labour were cultivated with great diligence; and study, above all, meant study of the Scriptures. The psalms were held in the greatest veneration and it is a commonplace in the lives of the saints to read that young children were sent to read their psalms with some holy man. The whole spirituality was deeply scriptural. To this day, we have visible proof of the honour and love lavished on the word of God. In Ireland we have the Book of Kells from the eighth or ninth century, an incomparable shrine of the four Gospels, and the high crosses on which are depicted the history of salvation, all summed up in the cross itself, from Adam and Eve to the death and resurrection of Christ and His second coming. Saint Illtud, the British saint, born perhaps in Brittany, in the fifth century, can be considered typical in his devotion to the Scriptures. We are told of him in the early seventh-century life of that other great saint Samson, who from his native Britain (or Wales) went a pilgrim to Brittany, there to labour with great success. Illtud, we are told, was the most learned of all the Britons in the knowledge of Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments. Another such was Saint Adamnan from the seventh century, successor of Saint Colm Cille (Columba) as abbot in Iona and his biographer. Of him Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People: “He was a good and wise man with an excellent knowledge of the Scriptures” (V.15). Bede, who so loved the Irish, is an important witness to the place Scripture held in Ireland. He tells us of the holy English priest, Egbert, who “had lived long in exile in Ireland for the sake of Christ and was most learned in the Scriptures…” (III.4), and of Agilbert, a Gaulish bishop, “who had spent a long time in Ireland for the purpose of studying the Scriptures” (III.7). Professor Bernhard Bischoff in our own time is showing us the remarkable extent of Irish scriptural studies on the Continent in the early Middle Ages.3

The height of asceticism among the Celts was considered to be exile and perpetual pilgrimage for the sake of Christ. We have just seen how Bede makes use of the phrase. We have no evidence that the Irish monks knowingly imitated Patrick in this. Their exemplar, as in so many things, came from the Scriptures — Abraham, commanded by God to leave his own land and people for the Promised Land. Exile could be imposed as a penalty under the law for crime, and perhaps the thought of penance for sin entered into this Christian exile, but the motive usually given is positive and personal — for the sake of Christ, for the eternal fatherland, etc. It has often been noted that the motive did not seem to be missionary, but ascetic. However, we note that Saint Aidan, as Bede tells us, came from Iona at King Oswald’s request to evangelise Northumbria in the early seventh century. Bede, once again, tells us of Saint Fursa that he came from Ireland to East Anglia

to live the life of a pilgrim for the Lord’s sake, whenever opportunity offered. When he came… he… followed his usual task of preaching the gospel. Thus he converted many both by the example of his virtues and the persuasiveness of his teaching, turning unbelievers to Christ and confirming believers in his faith and love (III.18).

Saint Columbanus himself, but in a letter written to his disciples in Luxeuil, when he had been expelled from there, says, “It was in my wish to visit the heathen and have the gospel preached to them” (Walker, Sancti Columbani Opera, pp. 30-1). Since the Irish monks at home were used to ministering to the people it would have come naturally to them to do so abroad, nor could they pretend to be pilgrims for Christ if they were to neglect those in need of Christ. Indeed we have a verse from the Rule attributed to Saint Ailbhe:

Their Father is noble God,
their mother is holy Church;
let it not be mouth-humility,
let everyone have pity on his fellow.

Saint Colm Cille was the first great exile for Christ (his biographer, Adamnan, gives us the motive) and is regarded as the exile par excellence. In the many poems attributed to him there is much nostalgia for his homeland. In the early sixteenth-century Life which contains much from Adamnan and much that is legend we have a passage that we may confidently take as representing the mind and heart of those exiles:

When Colm Cille was going into exile to Scotland, Mochonna, this holy child of whom we have spoken, said that he would go with him. “Don’t go,” said Colm Cille, “but remain with your father and mother in your own country.” “You are my father,” said Mochonna, “and the Church is my mother, and the place in which I can give most service to God is my country,” said he, “and since it is you, Colm Cille, who have bound me to Christ, I will follow you till you bring me to where He is.” And then he took the vow of pilgrimage.4

This ascetic desire, and love of God, took the Celts to all kinds of remote isles, even to the Faroes and Iceland, as well as to the nearer offshore islands of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 891 or 892 gives a completely typical example of three Irishmen whom it names, who in utter trust in God put to sea without oars and landed in Cornwall. Within their own lands also remote places were sought out. Hence the place-name “Díseart” in Ireland (where there are more than eighty such) and Scotland, and “Dyserth” in Wales for those desert-places. Of course, there were definite places of pilgrimage, notably Jerusalem and Rome. In fact, the Irish word “rómh” or “ruamh” (from “Roma”) became a common noun, meaning a holy burying-ground, and therefore a place of pilgrimage, and we are told of soil being brought from the graves of Peter and Paul and other saints to spread in Irish graveyards.

The faith had been planted in Ireland without martyrdom, although Patrick was ready for it and went daily in danger of his life (Conf. 35, 37, 55). However, we find the ideal of martyrdom expressed, in both Latin and Irish texts, in terms of white, blue and red martyrdom. White martyrdom was the daily living of the ascetic life for Christ’s sake; red, of course, meant the shedding of blood and death itself for Christ’s sake. Blue martyrdom, which seems to have been a particularly Irish development, stood for the way of the penitent in penance, in bewailing of sins and in labour. Clare Stancliffe recently has argued very well that lay penitents could qualify to rank with the martyrs and monks, leaving an open question whether their penitence was lifelong or for a fixed number of years.5

The principle contraria contrariis sanantur, contraries are cured by their contraries, popularised by John Cassian, was adopted wholeheartedly, first perhaps by the Welsh, and through them the Irish. In the Penitential of Finnian we have the oft-repeated counsel:

But, by contraries… let us make haste to cure contraries and to cleanse away these faults from our hearts and introduce heavenly virtues in their place; patience must arise for wrathfulness; kindliness, or the love of God and of one’s neighbour, for envy; for detraction, restraint of heart and tongue; for dejection, spiritual joy; for greed, liberality.6

These Penitentials were for the laity as well, and could be severe enough, and restrictive, for instance in such a thing as marital intercourse. We know that they had a great influence abroad, and if the Irish did not introduce private penance there, at least they greatly extended its use, and after Saint Columbanus it seems to have become the norm. No doubt the practice of anamchairdeas, spiritual direction, literally “soul-friendship”, excercised by the anamchara or “soul-friend” — also for lay people — was a great help towards fervour of life and the promotion of private penance and confession. “Colainn gan cheann duine gan anamchara” (a person without a soul-friend is a body without a head) was a very telling and common maxim. Here it is right to note the constant stress on purity of heart. A tonsured head, went an ancient verse, is not pleasing to God unless the heart, too, be tonsured. The Penitentials and the monastic Rules consistently deal with that issue, as we have just seen, for example, in Finnian’s words. So Gildas in the Preface on Penance attributed to him tells the repentant cleric to “at all times deplore his guilt from his inmost heart”.7

The practice of soul-friendship is of a piece with the general attitude towards the spiritual and monastic life. Allowance was always made for the individual. Even in the same monastery and under the same Rule the Holy Spirit must be allowed to lead as He wills. In the Rule of Mochuda we read: “Different is the condition of everyone, different the nature of the place, different the law by which food is diminished or increased”.8 The austere Columbanus himself stresses that principle. He speaks of the choir office: “Although the length of time standing or singing may be various, yet the identity of prayer in the heart and mental concentration that is unceasing with God’s help will be of a single excellence”.9 We are reminded of the famous ninth-century quatrain, composed perhaps by a disillusioned pilgrim: “Techt do Róim…”

To come to Rome:
much labour, little profit —
the King you seek here
you will not find him unless you bring him with you.

One rightly associates corporal austerity with Celtic spirituality. It is summed up in the rather muddled life of Saint (or Saints) Padarn, where we read that his father came to Ireland there to spend his life in watching and fasting, praying day and night with genuflexions [prostrations]. Bede, in a number of places in his History, speaks with admiration of the ascetic life led by the Irish monks, especially Aidan, in his own Northumbria. In addition to the ordinary season of Lent, the Lent of Jesus, as they called it, the Irish also observed the Lent of Elias in winter and that of Moses after Pentecost. We note again the love of Scripture and of the holy ones of the Old Testament, who were also celebrated liturgically. The body was made to offer its meed of praise to God. The crosfhigheall or cross-vigil, praying with outstretched arms for long periods, was very popular. When we read that a bird came and nested in the outstretched hands of a saint, we may perhaps conclude that such a mystical state was not unknown. As regards genuflexions [prostrations], to which we may add frequent signs of the cross, it was not uncommon to see such in our own time in churches and pilgrimages. Praying the psalms in ice-cold water is mentioned so often that, as Dr Bieler has said, it may well have been an ascetic practice. In all such austerities we find the motive to be the love of God, and we cannot exclude what is called the folly of the cross. The ancient penitential pilgrimage to Loch Dearg with its three-day fast is still very much alive, as well as the pilgrimage to Cruach Phádraig, the mountain of penance traditionally associated, as is Loch Dearg, with St Patrick. In the ancient tradition also were the penitential practices in our day of Father Willie Doyle and the holy layman, Matt Talbot.

We have a large body of prayer, both in Irish and Latin, and mostly in verse. There are quite a number of very heartfelt and prolix prayers of repentance in Latin, as well as prayers in Irish in disciplined verse. There are also litanies to which the Irish were very given. There was no objection to repetitious prayer. A feature of prayer in general is that so much of it is loosely litanic in form. The lorica or breastplate prayer, such as the well-known ninth-century Breastplate of St Patrick, was very popular. The lorica may well have been pagan in origin, as a charm against natural phenomena and evil spirits, but as a Christian prayer it has also the interior and Christian dimension. These prayers convey a sense of completeness, for example, in enumerating the members of the body, external circumstances, all the various groups of the heavenly and earthly Church, represented by the outstanding saints. Everything, external and internal, was to be under the sway of God. Here is one of the loricae, that of St Fursa, the language of which dates from about the ninth century:

May the yoke of the Law of God be upon this shoulder,
the coming of the Holy Spirit on this head,
the sign of Christ on this forehead,
the hearing of the Holy Spirit in these ears,
the smelling of the Holy Spirit in this nose,
the vision that the people of heaven have in these eyes,
the speech of the people of heaven in this mouth,
the work of the Church of God in these hands,
the good of God and of the neighbour in these feet.
May God dwell in this heart
and this person belong entirely to God the Father!

The Last Judgement is prominent in Celtic, and especially (there are more documents) in Irish spirituality, but I think some authors err when they speak of it, and of an avenging God, as being dominent features.10 The intimate and human side of that spirituality (which are still characteristic of it) must be stressed. About the mid-seventh century arose the reforming movement of the Céili Dé (Servants of God) which sought to revitalise the ancient asceticism. That movement, which fostered the eremetical life, and which might to some extent be called today “puritanical”, produced the most beautiful of lyrical and nature poetry and other works of religious art. Many of the lyrics are actually prayers. The purity of vision and language in that poetry is as if their great detachment from created things had helped the poets to share in the Creator’s own vision of His creation.

The poems of Blathmac (c. 750)11 in honour of our Lady and her Son show a great tenderness and humanity. The poet asks Mary to come to him that he might lament with her the death of her beautiful Son. He speaks of consoling her heart. The poet tells that when our Lord after His death returned to heaven and “when the household of heaven welcomed their true heart, Mary, your beautiful Son broke into tears in their presence”. Not till almost half a millennium later, when the humanity of the suffering Christ came to be stressed, do we come across such tender language in this part of Christendom. In another well-known poem (c. 800) God Himself is addressed as “mu chridecán”, my little heart.12 Again, there is the poem in which St Íde welcomes to her little hermitage “Ísucán”, the Infant Jesus (c. 900).13 The poem is full of diminutives such as a mother would use with her child, one of the verbs even being in a completely untranslatable diminutive form! (It would be pleasant, if we had space, to recount some of the whimsical stories that show so long before St Francis himself what intimate relations the saints had with the animals.)

So then, although we find many prayers to the Trinity and much stress on the majesty of God (cf. Columbanus, but also note how he speaks of Christ and also what we might term his warm, mystical passages), all that is well balanced by constant reference to the humanity of Christ. He is “Ri” (King), certainly, as is His Father, but in the Irish sense of the term, where the king in each of the hundred or so statelets (tuatha) was one of his people and in their midst, and closely related to not a few of them. In modern traditional prayers “Ri” is still the commonest of terms in addressing Christ or His Father. This aspect of Christ is completed, as it were, in the very corporate (which does not exclude the individual) Christianity of the old Irish. In particular, I suppose the institution of the tuath, with the great stress on kindred, was a help towards realising the Church as the Body of Christ (Christ himself has always been referred to as “Mac Mhuire”, the Son of Mary, or anciently in Welsh also, “Mab Mair”). Very significant is the word muintir, meaning “family” and derived from the Latin monasterium. The monastery fitted splendidly into the close-knit native society. The derived adjective, muinteartha, means “friendly, intimate, affectionate” — “familiar” (in the radical and best sense). Hence, when it came to hospitality and almsgiving, not to mention other ways of doing “the good of God and the neighbour”, it is not surprising to see the famous passage in Matthew 25 so often repeated.