These words of St. Patrick are the epitome of the Celtic Christian’s holy embrace of nature. They speak of their sense of ecology. Everywhere one goes, even today, ones finds throughout the Celtic lands, on rocky promontories and lonely hillsides, in hermitages and monasteries, in homes, fields and businesses, a holy intimacy between human, nature and the divine.
The Celtic peoples believed that the world was brought into being so that through the study of it, the character of the Creator may become known. Thus, creation was viewed as a gift to be revered and managed, not subdued and controlled. As a gift, creation was for all: The animals of the field, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, as well as for humankind. It was to be shared not exploited.
Underlying all was the deep sense that the world is the transfigured image of God, charged at every point with His glory. This is not pantheism — the things of nature are not God — but in themselves show forth the glory of God. Such a theology permeates all of Celtic Christian spirituality. It shows itself in the character and quality of relationships, in the theology of redemption, in the understanding of prayer, the secular and sacred, and of work, and even in the knowledge of God. All of these in ways that are, many times, contrary to that of modern Western Christianity. The English theologian, H. J. Massingham, speculates that if the Celtic Church had survived, “it is possible that the fissure between Christianity and nature, widening through the centuries, would not have cracked the unity of western man’s attitude toward the universe.”2
Lord George MacLeod, who dedicated himself to the rebuilding of St. Columba’s abby on Iona, puts it this way: “Everyone today keeps asking, ‘What is the matter?’ and the short answer is MATTER is the matter. He goes on to say, that “it is our view of matter, the extent to which the Church has spiritualized the faith and set it apart from the material world, that has brought us where we are today. If only,” he adds, “we were to stop and take hold once again of the Celtic understanding of the world and creation would we find such an attitude challenged and corrected. The world is God’s world and He is known in and through it.”3
To understand how a Christian spirituality so divergent from much of modern Western Christianity came about we need to look at the history of the early Celtic, or British, Church. In the sixth century the Welsh bard Talieson claimed: “Christ, the Word from the beginning, was from the beginning our Teacher, and we never lost His teaching. Christianity was in Asia a new thing; but there never was a time when the Druids of Britain held not to its doctrines.” Herein lies a quandary, we do not know when Christianity first came to Britain, as there is no actual documentation of the fact. What we do know for certain is that when the first official missionaries arrived in about 100 AD, Christianity was already there, and the emphasis that set Celtic Christianity apart were already established. We can speculate how Christianity came to the British isles, as there are similarities to the Christianity of the Gauls of what is now Turkey, who incidentally were also Celtic peoples, and to that of Egypt. But it might be more profitable, however, is to look at the legends, for it is these legends that tie Christianity closely to the so-called pre-Christian Celtic understanding of Creation.
In addition to the words of Talieson, which claim that from time immoral Christianity existed in Britain, we have the legends that tell us that Irish saints attended the events on Golgotha “in the spirit” and felt by some supernatural means the “groans and travails of creation cease.” On this latter point, pre-Christian legend and myth is full of stories of those, from Druids to commoners, who experienced the “groans and travails” of nature. W. B. Yeats, notes a similar story in which on the day of the Crucifixion we find King Conchubar asking the Leinster Druid Bucrach what the unusual changes of creation and the eclipse of the sun and the moon portend. Bucrach replies, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who now is being crucified by the Jews.”4 There is the myth that tells how when St. Bridgid or Bride was a little girl and could neither walk nor talk she was set adrift in a coracle and coming to land at the island of Iona, she began to walk and talk and sing:
The story goes on to tell us the Bridgid was raised by the Druids and taught to revere nature and look for the Lord of the Elements to reveal himself. One day Bridgid was led by a white dove through a grove of sacred rowans to a parched desert land, where, there in a stable, she assisted as a mid-wife at the birth of Christ, and upon whose brow she placed three drops of holy water to unite him with the earth. She even sang a lullaby so that the cows who were without milk because of a drought, might provide milk for the Holy Child. Another legend tells us that some Druids also saw the star in heaven, and knowing its meaning set out to find the Christ-child, only, they became lost and did not arrive until the Crucifixion. While the story of Bridgid is undoubtedly that of a remake of the story of the Celtic goddess Brigantia or Brisghe, the goddess of knowledge and life, mother of poets, and the latter an attempt to place Druids at the Crucifixion, they do point out that Celtic tradition experienced a continuity in cosmic process that extended from creation to deification.
For the Celt, Christianity was never seen as an end in itself, but rather experienced as a divine means to the True End.
God’s purpose from which he never deviated through humanity and creation what that he, God, should be“ all in all.” Marsh and Bamford write, “Christ’s death and resurrection were seen as a healing meditation, a balm, that made possible once again the original dream of paradise, the reconciliation of humanity and nature in God.”5 It is in this sense that Christianity has always existed, not only in Ireland, but throughout the world. In this we find similarities with the Judaic concept of a God who offers to all of his creation, friendship, as well as validation in the teachings of St. Paul and other early Christians.
Another legend, which echoes the Coptic (Egyptian) Christian idea of Paradise, tells us that when Lucifer tempted our ancestors in Paradise, the earth was already in existence, awaiting as it were, the exile. But in this earth, the legend tells us, Ireland was different, not merely a part of earth, but rather that part of earth that before the fall Paradise had made its own. In other words, Ireland was created as an image of Paradise before Lucifer ever entered into it. No wonder then that Paradise, or First Nature, is said to be more easily discerned in Ireland than anywhere else.
Apart from the legends what do we know? The monk Gildas wrote in the sixth century: “These islands received the beams of light ... in the latter part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, in whose time this religion was propagated without impediment or death.”6 Tiberius dies in AD 37. Neither does Eusebius contradict this date, although experts have difficulties explaining it. In AD 199 Tertullian, listing those places where Christianity had come, includes the “places of the Britons, which are inaccessible to the Romans.” The Gauls already had a bishop, Orenaeus of Lyons, in the line of St. John, and one may assume of much intercourse between Britain and Gaul. There are many more historical references which point to the early conversion of the British Isles, all of which give credence to a time around AD 37 of Gildas. Joseph of Arimathea’s name appears quite often in tradition, in a wide variety of different places. From these traditions we can track him through Provence, Aquitaine, Brittany and into Cornwall. According to legend, at none of these places did he stop, until he reached Glastonbury, on the Isle of Avalon, where according to tradition, he and twelve followers bearing the Holy Grail, built a church. The route that St. Joseph of Arimathea took from Marseilles, along the Rhone to Limiges and on to Brittany and Cornwall, is precisely that of the tin trade. Legend, in fact, has made, St. Joseph a tin merchant, going so far as to say that during the “lost years of Christ”, Joseph brought the boy Christ with him to Cornwall in his travels. Whatever the truth of these stories, Glastonbury is the pausible first sight of Christianity in the British Isles. Glastonbury provided easy access ro the Bristol Channel, yet was suffucuently inland to deter sea raiders. What is, perhaps, even more significant, is that at Glastonbury the Druids had established a school devoted to the study of nature. Thus for the Celts, with their emphasis on the healing of creation, it is fitting that Celtic Christianity, with its strong emphasis on this very point, should begin at Glastonbury.
The scene could be anywhere and any time, even this morning, in the Celtic lands of the British Isles. A woman kneels on the floor and lights the fire with this prayer:7
And so goes her day, from the making of her bed, to the milking of the cow, to the preparation of the evening meal, until at last she ends her day with:
For the men, women and children of the Celtic lands, one day flows into another, each begun with an invocation to the Trinity, and each ended with a benediction to the Trinity. The whole of life is lived with a constant awareness of the presence of God. Life is lived under the shadow of God’s outstretched arm, his protection was constantly sought. The Celts are people who realize the importance of God in their daily living. They knew that they could trust the God of Creation to look after them, and protect them from the evils that lurked nearby, for after all he was the Creator of Nature. Even today you will find the shepherd of the Outer Isles saying a blessing over his sheep. It might, perhaps, go...
The Celts were, and to some extent, even today, are, people who live by the elements of nature. Thus tradition and ritual were/are important, sometimes incorporating earlier traditions with Christianity. Many Celtic farmer still follow the old traditions. Seed-corn has to be prepared for three days before being sown. The farmer will walk around it in the direction of the sun, sprinkling it three times with clear cool water, in the name of the Trinity: Father, son and Holy Spirit. When the corn is harvested, the whole family dresses in their best and goes to the field. The father takes the sickle, faces the sun, cuts a handful of corn stalks which he waves three times, sunwise, around his head, with the family reciting the ancient blessing:
As the changing rhythm of each day move throughout the year, with the cycles of birth and death, and the changing of the seasons, invocations and benedictions are said. Living and praying are inseparable. The prayer were of a rhythmical nature that flowed not only from the rhythm of work , but nature itself. These are the songs of the bards and poets. They draw us back to that which we, in our modern hustle, have almost lost — all but forgotten — the close connection between work, religion and nature. Each have their heart-rhythm. To move with these rhythms is to be in tune, literally, with one’s self and world.
We started with the “Creed of St. Patrick”, a creed that St. Patrick tells us in his Confessions came out of his wrestling with the elements as he, in the outdoors, met God in prayer. Tradition tells us the St. Patrick was questioned by the pagan daughters of the high king of Loaghaire. “Who is God? Of whom is God? Where is his dwelling?” they asked. The dialogue which followed, according to tradition, became the basis of St. Patrick’s creation oriented credo. When one reads the creed, he is struck with how very different it is from the Nicene and other western creeds with their redemption focus.
In this creed St. Patrick sounds not unlike King David in the Psalms, as he uses imagery that speaks, not only to his pagan hearers, but to us today. Creation is good and to be loved. The earth is holy, and matter sacred. It is created by God, and thus reflects his image. Thus, it is in the created world that the divine and the natural meet. The polemic of the so-called “anti-pagan” sixth century Church councils of Gaul and Spain were nothing less than the destruction of the relationship between man and nature, and ultimately, as history is now showing us, the beginning of the destruction of the relationship between man and God.
Blathmac, a monk who lived in the mid-eighth century, wrote an epic poem in which he retold the story of creation and redemption. In his epic poem he placed every creature, man and woman, animal and angel — the world in its totality — in its relation to its Creator God. The God who is the King of the heavens, his is the sun and the moon:
His is the earth to his will; it is he who moves the sea: both has he endowed,
the one with plants and the other with sea-creatures.
He is the most generous that exists; he is a hospitaller in possessions;
his is every flock that he sees, his the wild beasts and the tame.9
An epic poem of early Ireland, Saltair na Rann, or “Psalter of the Verses”, divided like the Psalter into one hundred and fifty verses or psalms, opens with the story of Creation. In its magnificent verse we see God as the King who actively and physically functions as the maker of this, his world: Forming, fashioning, shaping and hewing it as would a carpenter or an artist.10
In these epics, as well as in many other Celtic poems, we find this reoccurring theme: The world is the teacher, given by God, to show forth and preach God. John Howard Griffin, who lived for a while in Thomas Merton hermitage in Kentucky after his death wrote following this experience: The very nature of your solitude involves you in union with the prayers of the wind in the trees, the movement of the stars, the feeding of the birds in the fields, the building of the anthills. you are the creator and attend to him in all of his creation. This is not for one moment pantheism. You do not ‘worship’ the things, but the creator of the thing. The thing facilitates precisely because it raises your attention through its beauty or interest above itself to the creator.11 This is what the Celtic Christians knew all along.
John Scotus Eriguena (810-877), the greatest thinker that the Celtic Church produced, presents in hisD e Naturae Divisione a theological basis for this spirituality that emphasizes the immanence of God. In his theology he tells us that God is in all things and is said to be the true essence of all things. This is theophany, Eriguena’s favorite word, for in creation God is present with his creation. Things, according to Eriguena, are not external to God, for with God “making” is the same as “being.” For the Celt there is no difference between the natural and religious, or as we would put it, the secular and the sacred. The Celtic experience was a religious experience. He lives in a religious universe that is not static nor dead, but dynamic and living, reflecting a power which comes ultimately from God. In the Celtic view, men, women and children establish a relationship with the universe — seeking to create a harmony with it — for they are at its center. God has created this world and the things of this world in an orderly fashion. Upon this created world he has imposed an order which holds it together. Men, women and children, as does all of creation, have their place in this order. Their place is that of the Genesis mandate: To manage as stewards the creation in which God has lovingly placed them.
The early Celtic peoples understood this. Myths and legends abound, recounting how many a Celtic saint communed with the creatures of nature and nature itself. Today we live in a world that is exploited and polluted. A world that has lost is vision for the sacredness of creation and with it has lost its commitment to the dignity of human life. Nature, and life itself has become a commodity to be exploited and bargained with. We live in a world that has lost its sense of well being, lost its connectedness to the Creator. We live in a world that desperately needs to hear and heed the Celtic message of spiritual connectedness.
It has been said that we live in an age of individualism: An age when every man exists solely for himself and all things — all creation — exist solely to gratify the self. Celtic Christian spirituality knows nothing of this. For the Celt, all of creation was held in trust by the whole for the good of the whole. The Celtic man or woman knew the need to be an integral part of the whole in order to be whole themselves. All, even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, were part of a common creation. And what the Celtic peoples discovered was that in relating to those that are part of the common creation we find that we are able to relate to ourselves. And paradoxically, the better we are able to relate to ourselves, the better we are to relate to all.
Out of this awareness of the totality of the whole came the awareness of the gifts of nature — of creation — given to humankind by the Creator. Again, gifts not to be exploited, but wisely used and managed for the benefit of all. Alexander Carmicheal records these words from the Outer Hebrides: “Great is the virtue that is in the plants of the ground and in the fruits of the sea, were we but to hold them in esteem and turn them to good use — O King, great indeed! The Being of life never set a thing in the creation of the universe, but He set some good with it — He never did; O King, many a good is in the soil of the earth and in the depth of the sea did we know how to make use of them.”12 Not only is creation a gift, to be shared with humankind; so is our very life. We were not created, according to Celtic Christianity (and Scripture), and then given the gift of life, rather it was our very creation that is the gift. We are gifts, as is all of Creation, to be shared with the whole.
For the Celtic peoples their well-being and healing were intrinsically connected with nature through the creative work of God. If nature was managed wisely and learned from, much good could be gained. But to exploit nature would cause nature herself to withdraw its bounty. This was the way the Creator had ordered it as he created.
When we speak of the creative work of God, we usually speak in the past tense, as if God is through with his creation. Such a thought is alien to Celtic Christian spirituality in two ways: God is actively at work making his world whole, and we, as his creatures, are involved with him in this work. Underlying all of Celtic Christian spirituality is the inter-relationship and inter-connectiveness of all things. Everything comes under the irresistible draw of the Creator-God. A God whose all-inclusive loving Grace allows everything the freedom to be itself, and yet brings it all together into one whole. God’s creative work is moving toward a world made whole — even that which hinders his work. This is a world in which all that divides is broken down. A world that is integrated and whole, but also a world that integrates and heals. In the Celtic mind this was the purpose of Paradise in the first place. In the theology of St. Paul this is the world, now waiting in groanings and travails, its re-creation. This is the New Heaven and Earth of St. John, re-created Paradise.
A world made whole, even potentially, is a world were the divides go down and barriers crossed. The barriers between this world and the nest simply cease to exist. For the Celt this was not a matter for speculation or philosophical and theological discussion, but something to be lived out in every day life. This is why they were able to commune with nature and the creatures of nature, why they were able to converse with angels as well as ancient saints. For the twelfth century Welsh poet Gwenalt there were no barriers between the world s for the Church:
For the Celtic Christian the restoration of all things begins with the mystery of the Eucharist. Here was the blood and body of Christ. Here was redemption. Yet the bread is nothing more than common bread and the wine nothing more than cellar wine. But this is God’s natural order, that the common things of nature might be used to speak of the profound things of God’s redemption. For it is God’s redemption of nature that makes the common things of nature profound.
It is here in the mystery of the Eucharist that time loses its finitness. In the Eucharist, the whole universe becomes one whole, in which past and present, heaven and earth, are embraced in entirety. There is no temporal and infinite, no natural and supernatural, no secular and sacred. One becomes mutually embraced in the other. The Celtic Christian does not live with one foot in heaven and one foot on earth. The Celtic Christian lives with both feet in heaven while living with both feet on earth. This is the paradox of Celtic Christianity, but is not this also the paradox of Christianity itself? St. Paul writes that we are ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven in a foreign land. Yet, while St. Paul, not wrongly, saw this foreign land as the abode of evil, the Celtic Christian, not wrongly either, sees it in the view of how God created it, good, as well as in the potential goodness, yet to come. That to which the Eucharist in its mystery speaks.
1. From The Confession of St. Patrick
2. Massingham, H. J. The Tree of Life, (London: Chapman & Hsll, 1943.)
3. From a conversation with Ester DeWall related in her book, Every Earthly Blessing(Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1991.)
4. Yeats William Burler, Collected Poems, published in the Gramercy edition as A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend and Folklore, (New York: Gramercy Books, 1986.)
5 .Marsh, William Parker & Bamford, Christopher, Celtic Christianity: Ecology & Holiness, (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1982.) p. 12,13.
6. Taylor, John W., Coming of the Saints. p. 176.
7. This quotes and those that follow are taken from the Carmina Gadelica. Ester DeWall gives several examples of such blessings in her book, Every Earthly Blessing, ibid.
8. Patrick,Confessions. From The Legacy of St. Patrick. Trans. Martin Harney, (Boston: St. Paul. 1972.)
9. Blathmac, The Poems of Blathmac, Son of Cu Brettan. James Carney, ed. (Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1996.)
10. Oengus the Culdee, trans. E. Hull, The Poem Book of Gael
11. Griffin, John Howard, The Hermitage Journals. Conger Beasley, Jr. ed., (Image Books, 1983.)
12. Carmina Gadelica, IV
13. Gwenalt, Eples, (Gomer Press, 1951.)
14. Bowen, Euros, Detholion Yr Academi Cymraeg, 1984. Trans. Rev. James Coutts.
Category: Celtic Christianity
© Frank A. Mills, 1995