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By Ed Sellner As an Ecclesial Entity
Although there was certainly much diversity in this Early Celtic Churchit maintained its identity and fundamental unity through its story-telling, music, art, liturgical and private prayersempha-sizing the spiritual bonds of tribe, family, and soul friends.

The Early Celtic Church, located in such places as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man was made up of churches that were not linked through administrative structures nor dependent upon a hierarchical "chain of command." Rather, theirs was a spiritual community united through a communion of friendships and alliances between spiritual leaders and their monasteries. Numerous stories in the hagiographies which portray the monastic founders studying, working, traveling together, and frequently mentoring each other reflect how their hagiographers desired to show that these churches were spiritually connected. Perhaps the most telling example of this is the site of the church dedicated to St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise located right next to St. Kevin's own church at Glendalough. It testifies not only to the possibly original soul friendship between the two leaders, but also to the spiritual link between the two monasteries long after the deaths of their founders. This is, in effect, what made the Celtic churches one church: the spiritual kinship of the Christian Celts who shared a common history, common heroes, and a common love of poetry and stories. As Mary Low says about these Celtic Christians, "they had heroes and heroines of their own, and tended to express themselves differently: both in terms of church organization and in their enthusiastic use of poetry and story for religious purposes."

These Celtic churches were not cut off from the more Romanized churches on the Continent nor the bishop of Rome (although certain Irish leaders, St. Columbanus in particular, were not averse to arguing directly with the Pope). They did, however, have a preference for the monastic and hermit life. "The history of the Celtic Church," says Welsh scholar G.H. Doble, "is largely a history of monks and monasteries." Although there was certainly much diversity in this Early Celtic Church if one considers the different countries in which it grew and the differences that developed over the centuries, it maintained its identity and fundamental unity through its storytelling, music, art, liturgical and private prayers, all of which were expressions of its spirituality, a spirituality which was highly corporate in nature, emphasizing, as it did, the spiritual bonds of tribe, family, and soul friends.

This Celtic Christian spirituality was a unique synthesis of ancient pagan and Christian beliefs. Some of its primary characteristics include a dedication to simplicity and small communities, a great devotion to learning, an inclusivity regarding women's leadership, a collaborative and non-dualistic stance, an appreciation of the marginalized, a deep respect for the reality of sin, and a spiritual kinship with nature that is linked with a love of beauty. These traits of spirituality reflect what Nora Chadwick identifies as the Celtic Church's "lasting beauty,'' a beauty that can be found, she says, in its gentle way of life, austere monastic settlements and island retreats, and the personalities of the saints. Although I would question the Celtic Church's gentleness and what she ca11s their "sweetness" (if one considers the conflicts and violence of its later history), I agree that this church expresses the Christian ideal with a holiness that has "never been surpassed...."

The Christian monasteries of the Early Celtic Church made up what Irish scholar Liam de Paor has described as a "common ecclesiastical culture". This culture was distinctive in the way it integrated so many of the values and beliefs of the Christian Celts' pagan ancestors, especially regarding kinship relationships with nature, family, and tribe, as well as the ideals of the early desert Christians who valued simplicity of life, discipline, and the need for spiritual guidance in one's life. The Celts' common landscape also significantly affected their theology and their perception of the sacred. This, in turn, shaped the emerging Celtic Christian spirituality that bound individual Celtic churches together, and became the "ground" or "spiritual soil" out of which soul friendships grew. In the union of Celtic monasteries and churches the spiritual community called the Celtic Church was born.

Some recent writers seem to believe that the designation, "Celtic Church," should no longer be used, preferring instead "Celtic Christianity." They find the term misleading, as if there was a specifically Celtic ecclesial institution that was cut off or in opposition to other churches and the leadership in Rome in early medieval times. While correctly reacting against nineteenth and early twentieth-century writers, mainly Protestant, who equated the Celtic Church with their own history and aspirations against the Roman Catholicism of their times, some of those who criticize the use of "Celtic Church" today seem to ignore post-Vatican II ecclesial understandings that acknowledge the significant influence of culture upon the development of church entities. Some also seem to believe that recognition of this diversity in ecclesial, liturgical, and theological expressions may be contrary to the supposed early "unity" of the universal Church. As the great ecumenist theologian, Yves Congar, however, posits: "That pluralism existed in the ancient church and that it exists in the church today is a fact on which there is no point in dwelling: there were rites and cultic expressions, theologies, schools of spirituality, traditions and customs, organizations peculiar to a country or socio-cultural area." This would surely apply to the ecclesial reality that emerged in Celtic lands, influenced as it was by the Celtic culture with its Christian monastic emphasis.

Certain critics of the term also seem to recognize solely a largely hierarchical model of church which presupposes that if churches are not united through administrative structures, they do not exist at all. Avery Dulles, in his book on ecclesiology, Models of the Churc, offers a contrasting view. He argues for a variety of church expressions, each with its own gifts and limitations. One primary model he describes is that of "the church as mystical communion." This model, Dulles says, is expressed in the writings of various theologians throughout the centuries. In Augustine's theology, for example, is found "the image of the body of Christ with particular stress on the mystical and invisible communion that binds together all those who are enlivened by the grace of Christ." This mystical communion presumes that church membership is made up not only of "the earthly" but of "the heavenly" as well. Protestant theologians also provide insights into aspects of this model. Emil Brunner states that the Church in the biblical sense is not an institution, but "a pure communion of persons," and Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of the Church as an "interpersonal community"which he called "the communion of saints." For Roman Catholics, the documents of Vatican II, Dulles suggests, also have an affinity with this model, emphasizing, as they do, community and an image of the church as "the People of God," united through "bonds of creed, worship, and ecclesiastical fellowship." Besides Dulles, Irish theologian, Diarmuid O'Laoghaire, in his own writings on spirituality, describes how one of the earliest themes among Celtic Christians, found in seventh or eighth-century Irish glosses, was that of the church as "the Mystical Body," united in "the fellowship of Jesus Christ:" "So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members of one another." Overall, then, the Celtic Church as a "mystical communion" is an historically valid concept and a genuinely authentic theology of the Church. Certainly the Celts' own emphasis on spiritual kinship, love of ancestors, and belief in the communion of saints resonates with this theological understanding. Granted, the early Celtic churches were never united administratively as John T. McNeill rightly points out in his classic, The Celtic Churches. Granted too, there was much diversity throughout the centuries among those places where the Celtic Church flourished and within each geographical area where it lived. Still, I would affirm the reality of the Celtic Church as an ecclesial entity in history, and I would also agree with what John J. O'Riordan says about the Celts: that they always had a "lack of interest in establishing or maintaining bureaucracy," a lack that "must always be seen over against the Celtic preference for friendly person-to-person communication.'' This was, indeed, its basic strength, and a preference visibly affirmed in their reliance upon soul friends.

Edward Sellner, Ph.D., is professor of pastoral theology and spirituality at the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of numerous articles and books, including Soul-Making: the Telling of a Spiritual Journey and Wisdom of the Celtic Saints.

From Edward Sellner's The Celtic Soul Friend, to be published by Ave Maria Press of Notre Dame in 2002. Published with permission.

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