21 March 2008

Celtic spirituality

At various times I have come across and even got involved in discussions about Celtic spirituality and the Celtic Church, topics that seem to be very popular in certain circles.

One of the things that surprised me was the misinformation and disinformation circulating about the topic. People expressed interest in the Celtic Church, but when they came to give reasons for their interest, the reasons were often spurious, and their understanding of the Celtic Church was often completely a-historical.

Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace for giving a pointer to this article, which gives a good historical summary: Celtic Spirituality: Just what does it mean? [Thinking Faith - the online journal of the British Jesuits]
But what would St Patrick - arguably the most famous Celtic saint - make of the practices and beliefs called 'Celtic Spirituality' today? Liam Tracey OSM examines whether the Celtic church was really anything like the romantic picture often painted of it.

Tracey says of this phenomenon:
What is so attractive about these long forgotten figures and cultures? Why has there been such a remarkable renaissance in interest in what ultimately is a small windswept island on the Western fringes of Europe? It’s hard to know and one sometimes gets the impression in looking at the phenomenon that is called ‘Celtic Spirituality,’ that what you are encountering is a screen on which is projected many contemporary desires, anxieties and preoccupations, little to do with the past and more especially with the past of these islands. Of course, one of the major problems with many of these treatments of things ‘Celtic’ is the lack of historical awareness that groups all manner of practices and writings together, with little reference to the social, religious and political context of the past and a failure to note that the same thing, seen as ‘Celtic’ was happening right throughout Western Christianity.

Scottish Presbyterians, have, of course, long been interested in Celtic Christianity, and may have been partly responsible for the popularity of the topic, because it was Irish missionaries who first took Christianity to Scotland, and in fact the Scots were originally immigrants to Scotland from Ireland, displacing the native Picts. Calvinists are not usually given to naming churches after saints, but Celtic saints, like St Columba and St Mungo are exceptions, and one sometimes finds Presbyterian churches named for these saints.

Anglo-Catholics, too, have sometimes stressed the role of the Celtic Church in evangelising the heathen Anglo-Saxon invaders, to diminish the idea of the Church of England's dependence on Rome. The Roman mission to Kent, led by St Augustine of Canterbury, cannot be denied, but it was mostly Celtic missionaries who evangelised the northern English.

All this is interesting from the point of view of church history, especially if one lives in the British Isles, or is a member of a Christian denomination that had its origins there. It has even been made the subject of a popular historical novel, Credo by Melvyn Bragg.

But it is also interesting missiologically.

An interesting book to read is The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England by Henry Mayr-Harting (London, Batsford, 1991). ISBN: 0-7134-6589-1. It gives a good example of premodern mission methods, and the differences and similarities between the methods used by Celtic and Roman missionaries. They were far more similar to each other than either were to modern mission.

As with Kievan Rus some centuries later, mission began with royal courts. It was King Oswald, who had just united Deira and Bernicia into the kingdom of Northumbria who asked for a missionary. He had become a Christian before he had become king, while he was living among the Irish. The first missionary proved unsuitable, so Oswald chose another, Aidan, who established a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Though he was bishop of the Northumbrians, he appointed an abbot to rule the monastery to whom he himself, as a monk, was subject. This was a characteristic of Celtic Christianity that has often been distorted in modern telling.

Both the Irish and English societies, like that of Kievan Rus, were warrior and tribal societies, with economies based partly on trade, and partly on conquest and looting. In such a society a "royal mission" can seem almost a contradiction in terms. The kings in such a society were warlords whose authority in the eyes of their followers was based, at least in part, on their success in conquest. After a war raid, the warriors would return with their booty and have a feasts to celebrate. The generosity of kings in giving such feasts for their victorious followers was what cemented the bonds between leader and followers. Today we would call it "organised crime".

Christianity, with its ethic of love and meekness, hardly seemed calculated to appeal to such people. Yet it did appeal, and, once accepted, it transformed the societies into something else. Prince Vladimir of Rus, for example, abolished capital punishment, and though he still gave feasts and banquets, he invited the poor and weak, and not just the strong, the warriors.

The contrast between the royal courts and monasteries was perhaps significant in this. Many of the monks, including the abbots of important monasteries, refused to ride horses, but rode donkeys. Monasticism was thus a counterbalance to royal power. And several kings in that era retired to monasteries in their old age.

Monastic missionaries in the medieval period seemed to use similar methods, from the forests of northern Russia to the British Isles, and south into the mountains of Ethiopia. The monastic missionary was

  • the exorcist, delivering people from the power of evil spirits
  • the angel, living the angelic life, constant in prayer
  • the healer, taking no money
  • the lion tamer, protecting people from dangerous wild animals

And, unlike modern medical missionaries, they did not heal by building clinics; they healed through prayer, fasting, the sign of the cross, holy water, saliva and miracle-working ikons.

I've sometimes wondered what might have happened if the court of King Shaka in Zululand had he had a missionary like St Aidan in Oswald's court, rather than the post-Enlightenment missionaries with their many words and rationalising arguments.


Alex Tang said...

Hi Steve,

Thank you for an interesting post and pointing the way to Tracey's article and the journal website. Tracey is right. Most of our present day thinking about celtic spirituality are mostly wistful thinking.

I've sometimes wondered what might have happened if the court of King Shaka in Zululand had he had a missionary like St Aidan in Oswald's court, rather than the post-Enlightenment missionaries with their many words and rationalising arguments.

That is a fascinating thought. Africa may be very different with a different history.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steve Hayes said...


I deleted your very long and very rambling "comment". It didn't apperar to have anything to do with the post, so was not really a comment. If you want to say things like that, there's nothing to stop you starting your own blog and posting them there.

Matt Stone said...

Steve, I agree there is much romanticism. Interesting reflections.


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