Ireland is a land with one foot in the here-and-now and one strongly planted in its history. The country is a study in contrasts. Ireland is currently experiencing an economic boom thanks to the computer industry, but still relishes and celebrates its roots in simplicity. Every year, around five million people visit this country that is only 189 miles wide and 302 miles long but enjoys a history and appeal of much larger proportions.
So too is the case with Celtic spirituality. For even though it has its roots in the pagan beliefs of the ancient Celts, its basic tenets still resonate with Christians today. As a matter of fact, Celtic spirituality is experiencing a resurgence these days.
Last June, I had the opportunity to accompany 29 fellow pilgrims on a 12-day journey to discover the history and spirituality of Ireland. The pilgrimage, which was sponsored by the University of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio, was led by Sister John Miriam Jones, SC, academic dean of the college and author of With an Eagle’s Eye: A Seven-day Sojourn in Celtic Spirituality.
Who Were the Celts?
According to Sister John Miriam, the Celts were people whose faith permeated every aspect of their lives. They were originally from Central Europe, and inhabited Ireland—as well as England and Scotland and Brittany in northern France—around 500-150 B.C. after being driven to the west and north, mostly by the Romans.
Saint Patrick introduced Christianity to the Celts around 431 A.D. In his attempts to convert the Celts, Patrick highlighted the many similarities between their beliefs and those of the Christian faith, such as the existence of an afterlife. Seeing the parallels, the Celts were easily converted. Their conversion brought to Christianity a perspective unlike that of the Romans.
That unique spiritual perspective still finds appeal to this day. With that in mind, our group examined the historical sites of Ireland within the context of four major themes of Celtic spirituality: pilgrimage, the immanent presence of God, monasticism and community, and art and symbolism.
In Search of Holiness
As we embarked on our pilgrimage on a typically Irish “soft day,” complete with misty rain and moderate temperatures, we connected with the Celtic theme of pilgrimage. We too were pilgrims on a faith journey. Pilgrimage was a very important aspect of Celtic spirituality, notes Sister John Miriam, adding that “pilgrimage is still very much alive in Ireland.
“Pilgrimage is always a search for God and God’s goodness,” she says. “True pilgrimage has to do with a change of heart. The outward journey serves to frame an inner journey: a journey of repentance and rebirth; a journey which seeks a deeper faith, greater holiness; a journey in search of God.”
For the early Christian monks, the concept of pilgrimage was closely tied with the Christian notion of penance. Monks would often embark on pilgrimages as a way of seeking out a place which would reveal God to them.
Celtic men and women soon took up the practice of pilgrimage as a means of discovering their own path to God. Along their way, pilgrims would leave tangible signs of their journey such as pilgrims’ stones, which are rudely fashioned crosses, or small mounds of stones called cairns. The stones represented either a prayer or the completion of the pilgrimage.
Round towers, found throughout Ireland, also played a vital role in pilgrimages. The towers, which are believed to have served a number of purposes including serving as bell towers and as places of refuge during attacks, can be seen for miles. They would have provided pilgrims with direction and inspiration to complete their journey.
How does this Celtic notion of pilgrimage translate in 21st-century terms? Grace Szubski, a fellow pilgrimage member and lawyer from Brecksville, Ohio, notes that “the Celtic pilgrims were searching for a deeper faith and an inner peace with God. All these centuries later, we, too, are on that same quest. Retreats, religious shrines and World Youth Days are just some examples of our spiritual journey with God in the 21st century.”
Finding God in the ‘Thin Places’
Traveling through Ireland, as the ancient pilgrims would have, offers an excellent opportunity to experience one of the other major themes of Celtic spirituality: the immanent presence of God, which means that God is everywhere.
For Celtic Christians, God was a key part of all things natural and beautiful. Whereas the ancient Celts worshiped pagan gods for nearly every natural setting, Celtic Christians praised God’s design and creation of all things natural. “The hills, the sky, the sea, the forests were not God, but their spiritual qualities revealed God and were connected to God,” Sister John Miriam explains.
Places where people feel most strongly connected with God’s presence are referred to as “thin places.” It is in these places where the seen and unseen worlds are most closely connected and inhabitants of both worlds can momentarily touch the other. “For us, then, it is a place where it is possible to touch and be touched by God, as well as the angels, saints and those who have died,” according to Sister John Miriam.
The land of Ireland seems to have endless “thin places.” As author Steve Rabey says in his book, In the House of Memory: Ancient Celtic Wisdom for Everyday Life, thin places for the ancient Celts could be sacred natural landscapes or “holy places of human construction.”
For anyone looking around the Irish landscape, locating a thin place in nature seems rather simple. The abundance of beauty makes it easy to recognize God’s imprint and presence. The ruggedness of the Cliffs of Moher, waves of purple rhododendron, vast fields of green and forest-like settings throughout Ireland all seem to convey the idea that God is near at hand.
For Jean Kotzbauer, who was in Ireland for the first time, the beauty was almost overwhelming. “I’ve heard so much about Ireland and seen pictures of how beautiful it is, but to really see and experience it gives you a whole new understanding and appreciation,” she says.
One example of a human-constructed thin place is Newgrange, an ancient passage tomb located in the Boyne Valley. Knowth and Dowth, two smaller burial tombs, are also located in this area but are not open to visitors.
These burial tombs, which predate Stonehenge and the pyramids, were constructed so that every year on December 21—the shortest day of the year—light would enter a small opening above the entrance and illuminate the passageway and center room of the burial tomb for 17 minutes. The appearance of light in the chamber during the winter months would reaffirm for the Celts that summer would again come, just as there would be life after death. Today, there is a 10-year waiting list to witness on December 21 this spectacular feat of engineering and faith.
Experiencing God in Community
As our group explored and celebrated Celtic spirituality, we gained an appreciation for the Celtic Christians’ emphasis on community.
“The Celts seemed to have a natural disposition for community. The kinship they felt with the angels and saints was completed by their kinship with one another. Perhaps that is why life shared together in and around the monastery became the ordinary way in which Christian life was lived,” explains Sister John Miriam.
Solitary hermits developed many of these monastic communities. Others were then attracted to the communities by the monks’ holiness and the location of the monastic community, leading to the eventual growth of rather large monastic cities encompassing a variety of people seeking to express their faith through their own lives and work. From the sixth to the 12th century, these monastic cities flourished with religious and laity living and worshiping together.
During our pilgrimage we visited three of Ireland’s most famous monastic communities: Glendalough, Monasterboice and Clonmacnoise.
Monasterboice was founded in the sixth century by Saint Buite. The monastery is most recognized for its exquisite High Crosses, especially Mueirdach’s Cross, which is the tallest High Cross in Ireland.
Glendalough, which means “The Valley of the Two Lakes,” was founded in the sixth century by Saint Kevin. Following the establishment of the monastic city, Saint Kevin retreated to a cave—known as Saint Kevin’s Bed—by the upper lake where, according to legend, he lived to be 106. According to another legend, a woman appeared in Saint Kevin’s cave to seduce him; he flung her over the cliff and into the lake below.
Clonmacnoise was a major center of religion, learning, trade, craftsmanship and political influence. It was founded around 548 A.D. by Saint Ciarán and, because of its large lay population, actually resembled a town more than a monastery. It is also home to one of Ireland’s finest surviving High Crosses, the “Cross of the Scriptures.” The panels of the “Cross of the Scriptures” depict Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, with the center of the cross showing the risen Christ.
This theme of community came alive on the trip for Sister John Miriam, who was exploring Ireland with a large group for the first time. “People from many backgrounds seemed to coalesce well around our common Irish connections and the enjoyment of our common experience,” she says.
Artistic and Symbolic Expressions of Faith
Celtic design is rather easily identified. Its intricacies and symbolism are an important expression of the faith and beliefs of the Celtic Christians. These designs can be seen in a broad range throughout Ireland, from the highly intricate artwork in the ninth-century Book of Kells to the craftsmanship of the High Crosses. The characteristic interweaving patterns and designs commonly found in Celtic artwork represent that “all things relate” and “all things are holy.”
Perhaps the most recognizable symbols of Celtic spirituality are Ireland’s more than 100 High Crosses. These imposing crosses stand anywhere from 10 to 15 feet tall, with each element of the cross serving as a symbol. For instance, the circle within the crossbar that is so identifiable with Celtic crosses is often interpreted as representing God’s continuing connection with life and earth.
The crosses evolved over the years from being primarily design-oriented in the seventh and eighth centuries to being more scriptural later. These scriptural crosses, often referred to as “Sermons in Stone,” helped illustrate important Christian concepts for preliterate Celts.
Many of the High Crosses have been damaged over the years from exposure to the elements. Some of the crosses have been relocated indoors for preservation purposes. Even those that remain in their original locations, however worn they may be, continue to symbolize the multifaceted aspects of Celtic spirituality.
In addition to the expression of faith in stone, the Book of Kells, which is on display at Trinity College in Dublin, is considered to be the greatest Irish work of art to have survived from the Middle Ages. The book was produced around the beginning of the ninth century by the monks of a monastery at Iona, a small island off the west coast of Scotland. The book contains a Latin text of the four Gospels, as well as intricate Celtic designs to illustrate the text, like large initial capital letters and page designs of animals and flowers. It was sent to Dublin in 1653 for safekeeping.
Celtic music, dance and literature are also outward expressions of the Celts’ awareness of God’s immanent presence. The popularRiverdance is a modern-day celebration of Celtic music and dance. And authors such as James Joyce, Frank McCourt and poet Seamus Heaney capture the essence of Celtic life through their writings.
Celtic Spirituality for the 21st Century
Celtic spirituality can offer all of us—Irish or not—an important reminder not to abandon the past. Just as the Celtic Christians built upon the concepts of the ancient Celts, so too can we take this spirituality and make it our own.
Sister Marty Dermody, a photographer and videographer for the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati, Ohio, says the pilgrimage gave her a better understanding of Celtic spirituality. “It made the Celtic Christians come alive for me. I could very easily identify with their ideas of God at hand within their lives. I believe the Celts were a very spiritual people and I felt privileged to be able to have the time to experience their culture as we journeyed through the many places. I felt connected with them because of their recognition of God through nature. I felt touched by God in the misty, mystical places we toured, most especially at Glendalough.”
Saint Patrick himself offers a good summation of Celtic spirituality: “Christ, shield me this day: Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every person who thinks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me.”
Traveling to Ireland offered a firsthand experience of the history of Celtic spirituality. It is unique, yet universal. Perhaps pilgrims see that best. As Sister John Miriam reminds us, “The thing that distinguishes a pilgrimage is what’s in your heart and why you’re doing it.”
Saint Patrick: Pastoral but Passionate
“Ireland is unique in religious history for being the only land into which Christianity was introduced without bloodshed,” writes Thomas Cahill in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization. Saint Patrick deserves a great deal of credit for that honor. For while he was not the first to attempt conversion of the Celts to Christianity—a Christian bishop named Palladius holds that distinction—Patrick was successful at doing so.
And while Patrick is perhaps the best-known and -loved Irish saint, he actually was born about 389 A.D. in Roman Britain under the name Patricius. When he was a teenager, he was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland where he worked as a shepherd for six years before escaping and returning to his homeland.
Much of what we do know about Patrick comes from his writings. His Confession details his call to convert the Irish to Christianity. In “Letter to Coroticus” Patrick addresses an Irish warlord and his soldiers who had snatched some recent Christian converts to sell them into slavery, for which Patrick excommunicated them. Both provide us with insight into Patrick and his mission.
Exactly when he returned to Ireland is unknown, but when he did return, as they say, the rest is history. Patrick knew the Celtic people from his time of enslavement in Ireland. It is this knowledge that helped Patrick evangelize the Celts in a whole new way—unlike that of the Romans—and develop a unique type of Celtic Christianity. In his quest for conversion, Patrick was both pastoral and passionate, noting the similarities between the Celts’ pagan beliefs and the beliefs of Christianity, but at the same time firmly defending his Christian beliefs when he felt it necessary. Patrick died about 461.
As Steve Rabey says in In the House of Memory, “What Patrick gave the Irish was a faith that took the best of traditional pagan beliefs and redefined those in Christian terms. The Celtic Christians didn’t tear down and destroy the stone circles and monuments that had been around for ages, as some zealous preachers would do centuries later. Instead, they merely inscribed crosses on them alongside the pagan symbols.”
Practicing Celtic Spirituality In Our Lives
When thinking of Celtic spirituality, it is often difficult to imagine its application apart from the land of its origin. There are, however, numerous ways in which we can incorporate these practices into our own lives right at home. Here are a few suggestions:
Embark on a pilgrimage—physically or spiritually. Remember that as Sister John Miriam points out, “The thing that distinguishes a pilgrimage is what’s in your heart.” Her book, With An Eagle’s Eye: A Seven-day Sojourn in Celtic Spirituality (Ave Maria Press), offers readers an opportunity to embark on a pilgrimage without leaving home, or it can serve as a guideline for an actual pilgrimage.
Locate a “thin place” where you feel especially connected with God and feel God’s presence. Perhaps it is at a cemetery where a loved one is buried or a favorite spot in nature.
The Celtic Christians found solace in community living. Celebrate the communities of which you are a part, whether they be your faith community, family or friends.
Most of us cannot begin to express ourselves artistically in ways such as the High Crosses or the Book of Kells. We can, however, use our individual talents to express our faith: Draw a picture or write a poem about something that strikes you as particularly representative of God’s beauty.