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.

Robin Hood: Orthodox Martyr


(JA:  I rarely copy and paste whole articles from other sites, since I normally despise it when others do so.   It requires no synthesizing whatsoever and is generally lazy thinking.   Some articles, though, are perfect and can only be replicated.  The following one by Protopresbyter John Romanides is such an example.  HT:  Cyberdesert


The most famous of the Saxon revolutionary leaders against the Normans was Robin Hood. He had become ill and was taken by Little John to a nunnery where someone recognized him. The Norman nun who was curing him by bloodletting converted this cure into an assassination by letting him bleed to death. Little John and his men escaped to Ireland to continue their war against the Normans.

So many Saxons made their way to Constantinople New Rome after the Norman conquest to join the Roman Emperor’s Varangian army that they displaced the Scandinavians as the majority. One of the great generals of this Varangian army had been King Harald III Hadrada of Norway (1015-1066). This means that Norway was still Orthodox. He had become the head of the Varangian army under Emperor Zoe (1042-1056). General Harald led his Varangians “to frequent victory in Italy, Sicily and North Africa, also penetrating to Jerusalem. In Italy and Sicily he was fighting Franks and Normans at the time they were getting ready to rid themselves of the facade of Tusculan Roman Popes (1014-1056) in favor of real Franco-Latin Popes. It is very probable that his attention had been turned for some time to the beginnings of the penetration of the Carolingian heresy into Scandinavia which may explain his frequent attempts to subjugate Denmark. In 1064 he gave up this attempt and made peace with Denmark. His invasion of England in 1066 at Eburacum was evidently an attempt to defeat the Pro-Franco-Norman party which was trying to get the upper hand among the Saxons. Evidently it was not only at the instigation of the Pro-Roman Orthodox Saxon Earl of Tostig that he undertook the invasion of England since he also had Orthodox Scots, Irish and Ebor (Yorkshire in Norman) allies who supported his invasion of England.

There can be no doubt that the Orthodox Christians of England knew very well that their Roman Papacy had been struggling against a Frankish takeover in 983-984, in 996-999, in 999-1003 and finally in 1009-1046 when turncoat Tusculanum Romans were forced upon the Papacy by the German Emperors until it became finally Franco-Latin by 1046. It is within this context that the Norman invasion of England took place with the blessings of the Lombard Pope Alexander II (1061-1073).

In any case the Saxon King Harold of West Essex met the Norwegian army at Eburacum (the Norman York) and in the ensuing battle the King of Norway was killed. However, while celebrating his victory Saxon King Harold learned that an Norman army had just landed. Without waiting for his observers to get a good look at this Norman foe, King Harold rushed with his army, fresh from his victory over the Norwegians, to meet the Normans only to be confronted with the new type of heavily armored horse and men. A phenomenon which they had yet not heard of nor could imagine.

William landed on the shores of Britain carrying the papal banner at the head of what was essentially the army of the first Crusade. Francophile Harold was quite stunned when he learned that the Lombard Pope Alexander II had given his papal blessing to William’s invasion. He took very little and very poor defensive action in the field at Hastings that day and he and his men were completely crushed.

Surely Norwegian Harald was never aware that he was fighting for a so-called “Greek” or “Byzantine” emperor. He had been living and working for the Roman Empire and its Roman Emperor Zoe knowing that she and her people were Romans. With the battle of Hastings it was the turn of the Saxon, Welsh, Irish and Scot Romans to become the slaves of the Franco-Latin noblemen who were now plundering their land. All these real “Roman Catholic” Christians of England had still been praying in their Churches for the Imperium Romanum whose Roman Emperor and capital were in Constantinople-New Rome which was also the headquarters of the Varangian Army in which their boys were serving.

The name “Greek” for the Eastern part of the Roman empire was inaugurated by Charlemagne in 794, as already noted. But the term “Byzantine” was established by Great Britain, France and Russia as part of their plans to break up and divide up the Ottoman Empire among them. The first plan was evidently drawn up during the meeting between Emperors Napoleon I and Alexander I floating on a raft in the river at Tilsit, Germany in 1806. The core of Napoleon’s plan was the liberation of the ancient Hellenes, now called Romans, from both their Roman conquerors and from their Turkish conquerors with one cannon shot. In other words the Neo-Hellenes will end up being slaves from the time they were conquered by the Romans and liberated by the Turks. The very same plan would be multiplied to convert all Balkan peoples who called themselves Romans.

Part of this same plan was to convince Orthodox peasants that the ancient Romans did not speak Greek, like the Romans of Patriarchate of Constantinople, but Latin. Therefore the Church of New Rome cannot be Roman. So it is in reality a Greek Church and nation just like Great Father Charlemagne always said.

In this way the agents of Russia, Britain and France swarmed over the European part of the Ottoman Empire, called the “Land of the Romans” (the Balkans), telling all who for centuries have been calling themselves Romans and getting their education in Greek, that their ethnic enemies are those from the Phanar who also call themselves Romans, but are in reality a bunch of Greeks.
Source: Romanity

Western Rite as the awkward elephant

This is the final summary of the debate I had with the Reformed Constitutionalist.   One of the things he pointed out, aside from ridiculing the idea that the Celts were Orthodox, is that the Western church in the early middle ages meditated on the Fathers, too.  They maintained the faith, too.  It wasn’t just the Eastern guys that had a monopoly on the Fathers.   The West had it, too, so that means that the West is just as good as the East, right?

My original answer (which is in email, which I will not divulge here) was less-than-adequate, now that I reflect up on it. I had originally asked him to prove such sources, aside from a vague reference from the well-written, but admittedly non-scholarly How the Irish Saved Civilization.   None was forthcoming.

That being said, I realized this week that the best refutation of his argument was simply to agree with his premise! As I mentioned earlier, there was yet no schism in Europe concerning the Faith.   In fact, we shouldn’t even speak of “East” and “West,” for all was Orthodox (of varying flavors, it should be admitted).  From a strictly legal point of view, which even Roman Catholics will admit, both East and West were one church, for the patriarchates were all in communion with each other (including Rome).

In fact, the Western Rite liturgy is Orthodox.  Secondly, following this point and in contradiction to many overly-zealous Eastern Orthodox apologists, the Western middle ages knew no hard and fast division between the liturgy of the Western world and the Eastern world.  Different appearances at times, but the essence was the same.  St Olga of Russia sought after German liturgists.  St Tikhon of Russia even updated and corrected the Anglican Book of Church Order (which I am not endorsing, but simply noting).















Both Eastern and Western liturgies had the epiclesis, the nunc dimitis, the te deums, etc.   There are notable differences, to be sure, but they are of degree, not kind.

So the final answer:  I agree with my interlocutor, but I also know that there was no division, whether spiritually or legally.