The Story of Celtic Spirituality

Celtic Spirituality

This is an important historical witness, but it is certainly not a “great” book.   It does a valuable job highlighting primarily the praxis of the Celtic[i] church from roughly 350 A.D. to roughly 700 A.D. (these dates are very rough and arbitrary).  The purpose of this review is to place the Celtic praxis within the praxis of the undivided, pre-schism Church of East and West, and to show on the other hand, contra some of the wackiness of New Age proponents today, the Celts did not have this super-magical Christian spirituality that trumps the institutional church.  Indeed, if judged on aesthetic merits alone, the Celts do not stand anywhere close to the Eastern or Western Romans.  This is not to diminish their valuable artistic and scholarly endeavors.[ii] Probably contrary to the editors’ intentions, the book does show that the “Celtic” saints had a praxis that was very close in structure and semblance to the Byzantine Church, allowing for differences in language, culture, and custom.

The book is divided along hagiographical, monastic, liturgical, and homiletical lines.  The hagiography deals with the standard narratives of St. Patrick, Brennan, and a few others.   It is the most valuable section of the book for it clearly details, with indisputable references to primary sources, that the Celtics venerated relics (Davies 100), assumed primacy of Rome (90, 100), and routinely invoked the Saints (94-95).  To the degree that the philosopher John Scotus Eriugena represents their theology, they did not hold to the Filioque.[iii] I’ll let the readers draw their own ecclesiastical conclusions.

The monastic texts are quite interesting.   There is a very interesting section on monastic rules.  Many Protestants are bothered by monastic rules–and I was certainly the case for a while.   Given the presuppositions of sola scriptura, the reality of some Roman Catholic abuses 500 years ago, and the fact that many of the rules seem so…arbitrary, monasticism is usually a hard sale to Protestants.

And while some of the rules probably are “arbitrary,” I am seeing something else at play.   While I can’t speak for Orthodox monasticism elsewhere in the world, and I certainly doubt this collection of texts is exhaustive, the surprising thing is that the rules are quite lax.   More importantly, the rules are given with an eye for “healing” and restoration.  I remember in my Southern Baptist days–and I am sure this is quite true of human nature and psychology in general–whenever I would sin I would feel guilty/let down/betraying myself…etc (and this is probably true of anybody).   I would confess this to my brothers in the youth group (who were likely struggling with many of the same things) and they would say, quite rightly, “Jesus loves you and forgives you.”

I suspect the monks knew that, too.   I also suspect they devised these rules to prevent a lot of the lapses.  Just telling someone, “You’re forgiven.  Just don’t do it again” is true but it doesn’t help restore them (particularly in the more heinous situations).  Abstract guides for repentance are often damaging.  Think about it.    Someone is truly hurting, broken, and quite likely an intellectual and emotional wreck.   Telling that person “don’t worry about.   Be good and it’ll be okay” will likely throw him or her off the deep end.  On the other hand, when both parties (the confessor and the lapsed) acknowledge there is a problem that needs to be concretely addressed, providing a framework for restoration is the epitome of common sense.  So what if scripture alone doesn’t tell one what to do?  This is where sola scriptura mentality is damaging.   Scripture gives very little advice on concrete repentance (just think of the wide array of human potentialities for sin).   Scripture is a healthy guide but it is not the ultimate database from which all answers may be derived.

True, many of the rules seem…odd.   In fact, many of the sins seem odd (how does one willingly have a nocturnal emission?   On another front, how do people lose the Host?).

The section on poetry is interesting, and Macaan’s poem provides a recapitulational economy and ontology that is almost taken directly from St. Irenaeus!  The section on the liturgical texts could have been avoided.   The point of liturgy is that it forms a cohesive whole and tells a rather complex story that is to be enacted.  Simply giving “snippets” of different liturgies destroys the very point of liturgy!   The “theology” section was disappointing because it was misleading.  They don’t truly represent what Pelagius did and did not say.  Knowing Pelagius is called the arch-heretic of the church, wouldn’t it make more sense to give the sections of his theology that landed him in heresy?  Yet, the editors choose a sermon of his that is neutral and could have been preached by anyone in church history.  This is problematic because people who aren’t informed about what Pelagius did and did not believe (which includes 99% of people interested in “Celtic Spirituality” and many Calvinists) will draw the wrong conclusion about Pelagius’ vision.


This book has many uses but also many limitations.   The reader should rightly place the Celts as continuing the Byzantine tradition in Western lands and through Western structures.   One should not overly praise them.  One will find heroic saints among the Celts—saints who should be venerated—but one will not find a theologian on the same level as St Gregory of Nazianzus.   Therefore, and this is the danger that postmoderns will face when they begin reading the Celts, one should not make Celtic practices—especially unique Celtic practices—the standard by which the whole church is to be judged.  If one does, one will soon lose sight of what the Celts did believe (e.g., unity with the whole, institutional church) and begin seeking roots of what made the Celts unique.  At this point, the jump to Druidic paganism is not a far one.  And there are examples of this nonsense.[iv]

The Exciting Part

American Masonic paganism notwithstanding (see above), the Celts do offer a challenge for us today.  Did not Orthodoxy incarnate itself among the Slavs?   Wasn’t the missional superiority of Orthodoxy over Latinism obvious when the Orthodox sought to bring not only the Gospel to the Slavs, but the Gospel (and liturgy) to the Slavs in the Slavs’ language?   Isn’t Orthodoxy an incarnate faith?   Isn’t one implication of the Incarnation that it takes root and the Gospel manifests itself in a culture, thus changing that culture while still retaining the obvious identity of that culture?

The American South and East is heavily Celtic and was founded by Celts, of a sort.  Protestantism is self-destructing by anyone’s observation.  Latin Catholicism will remain taboo for many southern American Protestants.    I’ll let the reader make his or her own conclusions.

[i] Defining this word is essentially impossible, as the editors rightly suspect.   One suspects the word is being used for what it “connotes,” rather than “denotes.”

[ii] Indeed, while Thomas Cahill’s work often receives far more scholarly praise than necessary, he does demonstrate that the Irish did indeed save Western European civilization.

[iii] Erigena, De Divisione Naturae, PL 122, 613

[iv] “Sinister Sites: St. John the Divine Cathedral” Vigilant Citizen. accessed 22 May 2011.