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Heavenly Fire:

Celtic Spirituality and Intimations of the Future

In this article Ed Sellner outlines seven characteristics of the early Celtic Spirituality and suggests how these can enrich and influence our present-day preceptions.

Edward Sellner  
  The great theologian, mystic, and spiritual leader of the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux, in a hagiography which he wrote on the life of the Irish saint, Malachy, tells the following story:

Once while Malachy was at Armagh with one of his auxiliary bishops he arose early and, praying, began to make the rounds of the saints' tombs, of which there are many in the cemetery of Saint Patrick. And lo, they saw one of the altars suddenly catch fire. Both of them saw this great vision and both were astonished. Now Malachy, sensing that this was a sign of the great merit of him or of those who rested beneath the altar, ran and plunged himself into the midst of the flames, embracing the holy altar with outstretched arms. What he did or what he felt there, no one knows except this: he came out of that fire more ablaze than usual with a heavenly fire.

Bernard's story of heavenly fire suggests a variety of meanings, not least, that shared visions have the power to change us, sometimes in quite significant and unexpected ways. Whether associated with Jesus and his vision of the Reign of God, or with the saints, such as Malachy's and his associate'sor with our own intuitive and creative powers of perceptionthey frequently can offer a glimpse into the future that, once united with our enthusiasm and, yes, our passions, can bring that future into reality.

Rosemary Haughton, with her own passionate insights and imaginative visions, has astonished and enriched the lives of many of us over the years. When I was still in graduate school and largely unaware of the richness of my own spiritual heritage, she wrote about early Celtic Christianity as "a kind of church-experience startlingly different from the Roman model to which we are accustomed," a type of ecclesial reality that lived on the "borderland of two worlds." This church, according to her, valued imagination and intuition, adventure and poetry, lay leadership and women's gifts. It was "a person-centred church," one that was "flexible, devoted, and produced saints and scholars as a meadow grows daisies." It was a church that reminds us, she said, of the need "to include not only all the conscious areas of human life, personal and communal, but all the dark, peculiar, unexplained areas that open out into the totally 'other' world in which even the mystics are merely temporary guests." By focusing on certain aspects of this rich Celtic past in her book, The Catholic Thing, Haughton was recommending that they be adapted and incorporated into the future.

In this short essay, I intend to follow the same methodology she used. By briefly delineating certain aspects of the early Celtic Church and its community of saints, we will find, I believe, intimations of the future, a type of ecclesiology and spirituality that can draw, as it is already, many Christians together, beyond their historical differences, dogmas, and theological views. Like the "thin places" of Celtic lands where people have experienced first-hand only a very thin "divide" between past and present and future times, where a person is somehow able, perhaps only for a moment, to encounter a more ancient reality within present time, or where possibly only in a glance he or she is somehow transported into the future, I want to take a quick look back in order to offer a glimpse of where that Celtic spiritual heritage may be leading us.

The Early Celtic Church and Its Spirituality

The Early Celtic Church was made up primarily of numerous small monastic communities in rural areas of what we now call Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, and the Isle of Man. It was one of Christianity's most ancient and creative churches. Although not at all cut off from nor in opposition to the churches developing on the continent of Europe which were more urban and centralized, this Early Celtic Church still existed quite independently of Rome from the fifth through the twelfth centuries. It was never united administratively, and some scholars, operating out of a largely hierarchical model of church, have denied its existence, presupposing, it seems, that only unless churches are united through administrative structures do they constitute an ecclesial entity. Others of us, however, including Haughton, believe that the Celtic Church's monastic emphasis, its common stories, heroic figures, art, music, and great appreciation of landscape, friendship, and kinship ties provided ecclesial unity in a fundamental way. That which definitely made the Celtic Church unique was its embracing of so many of the values and beliefs of the Celtic pagan culture which had preceded the arrival of Christianity. Celtic people are profoundly conservative; in the best sense of the word, they always seek to maintain connections with the past, recognizing as true what the twentieth-century writer, William Faulkner, once stated: "The past isn't over; it isn't even past." Honouring and integrating the two spiritual traditions of their ancestors, pagan and Christian, into a new synthesis, the Celts created a form of Christianity that came to be associated with particular qualities grounded in their awareness and celebration of the sacred, that is, in their spirituality.
The Celts, living so close to their bodies of water with their dream-like fogs and mists, also developed a respect for the mystical.

The first characteristic
of this spirituality that typified early Celtic Christians was their outright mystical connection with nature, seeing their daily lives and work united with the natural landscape and the changing seasons. The Celts themselves, before the coming of Christianity, believed that the divine pervaded every aspect of life, and that spirits were everywherein ancient trees and sacred groves, mountaintops and rock formations, rivers, streams, and holy wells. The earth was regarded as the source of all fertility, and the great forces of nature (moon, ocean, sun, and wind) were worshipped as manifestations of the divine. The Celts, living so close to bodies of water with their dream-like fogs and mists, also developed a respect for the mystical. They came to associate water itself with mystery and with personal and communal transformation. Goddesses and healing powers were identified with lakes, springs, and holy wells, and, later, the Celtic saints were portrayed in the hagiographies as praying, with their arms outstretched, in the frigid waters of lakes or oceans.

A second distinct characteristic of the Celts was their appreciation of women's leadership and gifts. Not that the pagan Celts were modern feminists in disguise, but, in a very real way, they were far ahead of other cultures which recognized few if any rights of women. In Ireland, for example, under the Brehon Laws, women had specific legal rights that allowed them to divorce their husbands as well as to protect, when necessary, their dowries. (Possible reasons for a divorce included a husband's being overweight or not satisfying his wife sexually!) Early Celtic sagas contain numerous references to the leadership of women as warriors and druidesses. Bards in Ireland described the land itself as female and identified the landscape with various parts of a woman's body. Ancient pagan stories, when written down for the first time by the Christian scribes in the Celtic monasteries, reveal this high regard for women, their beauty, and their leadership. This appreciation was not lost nor denigrated when Christianity took shape, for, as documents and hagiographies reveal, women continued to hold important ministerial positions in the Early Celtlc Church.
The Celts, both pegan and Christian, were certainly a people who valued marginal places within themselves: the imagination, intuition, second sight, dreams, visions, tears.

Some of the greatest and most well-known of spiritual leaders in the early church in Ireland were women, such as Brigit of Kildare, Ita of Killeedy, Samthann of Clonbroney, and Moninna (or Darerca) of Killeevy. In the Irish hagiographies which have survived, one finds Brigit actively engaged in preaching, Ita giving penances after hearing the confessions of laypeople, and Samthann in possession of a crozier, the symbol of a bishop, which worked miracles. One Life of Brigit has her ordained a bishop by another bishop who was inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so. Contrary to the prevailing dualistic tendencies found among the other churches on the continent, the early founders of the Celtic Church "did not reject," according to an early ninth-century manuscript, Catalogue of the Saints in Ireland, "the service and society of women."

A third quality of their ecclesiology and spirituality was the high degree of collaboration between female and male church leaders, as well as ordained people and lay. This, of course, is bound to happen when women are recognized in theory and, most importantly, in practice as full equals with men, made as they are from the beginning in God's image [cf. Gen.1:27], and baptized in the name of Jesus who treated all as equals and friends. Collaboration is referred to in the earliest life of St. Brigit, written by Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare, in the middle of the seventh century C.E., when he describes Brigit's pastoral concern for her people, and alludes to the "holy partnership" between herself and the bishop she herself chose, and the imagery of the fruitful vine:

Wishing to provide wisely and properly for the souls of her people, and anxious about the churches of the many provinces that had attached themselves to her, Brigit realized that she could not possibly do without a bishop to consecrate churches and supply them with various levels of ordained clergy. So she sent for a distinguished man, known for his virtues, through whom the Lord had worked many miracles, who was then leading a solitary life in the desert. Going herself to meet him, she brought him back into her company so that he might govern the church with her in his episcopal rank, and so that none of the ordained would be missing in her churches. Afterwards, he was anointed head and chief of all the bishops; she, the most blessed abbess of all the women. By their holy partnership and with the helping aid of all the virtues, she built her principal church at Kildare. Because of the talents of them both, her episcopal cathedral and monastery spreadlike a fruitful vine with branches growing in all directionsthroughout the entire island of Ireland.

In Cogitosus's description of the church which existed about a hundred years after Brigit, we find allusions to the double monastery of both women and men that Brigit originally built, and how the laity were intrinsic to monastic life, including the liturgy: From other descriptions of the early Celtic monasteries, we find that both celibate members within the monastic communities as well as lay people experienced the fruits of collaboration. Education, pastoral care, and liturgical leadership were provided by the monks or religious women; in turn, lay people and their families helped the monasteries grow their crops, manage their farms, fish, plant trees, and keep their bees. All benefited from this mutual sharing of gifts.

A fourth characteristic was the appreciation the Celts had for the marginalized, as well as for the marginalized places in their lives. Celtic Christianity, as Ian Bradley rightly points out, was a faith that emerged at the margins of Britain, continental Europe, and institutional Christianity. The Celts themselves, once the dominant race in Europe, were originally a nomadic people who experienced little stability and who possessed little wealth. Throughout much of their history, they lived close to nature, close to the elements, close to God, to homelessness, and poverty. Precisely because of this, their Christian spirituality, reflected in the stories of the early saints, reveals a sensitivity toward those whose lives, for whatever reason, were considered of less value, and a genuine outreach toward those whom others treated as outcasts. This is especially portrayed in the hagiographies of the Celtic women, and, not surprisingly, most pronounced in that of Brigit who, along with Patrick and Columcille, is considered one of the "holy trinity" of Irish saints. Many stories tell of Brigit's compassion and of her friendship with the most rejected in her society. She welcomes a young woman, made pregnant by a despicable man; lepers frequently visit her monastery where they are graciously received; wild boars, ducks, and a fox are taken under her wing.

The ancients considered eros to be, fundamentally, a spiritual power, and did not associate it, as we do today, only with sex. The Celts, both pagan and Christian, were certainly a people who valued marginal places within themselves: the imagination, intuition, second sight, dreams, visions, tears. Even their art expressed the sometimes "terrible beauty" of marginality, for the most beautiful images and extraordinary poetic passages are not in the main text of such illuminated gospels as the Book of Kells, but in the margins, on the boundaries, where, for them, the sacred and wisdom itself are found.

A fifth quality of their spirituality is related to their broad understanding and appreciation of beauty. Their ancient pagan stories, passed on for generations by druids, bards, and poets, are filled with vivid descriptions of handsome warriors, gorgeous women, translucent landscapes, and bright colours of red, blue, green, and gold. This love of beauty and passion for living were passed on to the Christian Celts, and found expression in the high crosses and illuminated manuscripts, mentioned above, as well as in the finely-designed chalices, croziers, and saints' reliquaries that can be seen today in the museums of Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, and France. Their love of beauty is also expressed in their early prayers, hymns, and poetry. In their spirituality, Celts recognized, as Plato did, that beauty, in all its manifestations, leads ultimately to the source and creator of all beauty, the holy one, God.

The sixth characteristic of the Celts is their valuing of eros, whether expressed genitally or sublimated in family relationships, friendships, daily work, creativity, art. The ancients considered eros to be, fundamentally, a spiritual power, and did not associate it, as we do today, only with sex. Rather, Greeks, Romans, and Celts understood eros to be a source of creativity and wholeness, a mysterious yearning and desire for connection, wisdom, the divine. The ancient Celtic world was immersed in eros, as are all those who share a Celtic soul. Celts were and are known for their tribal, familial, kinship ties, and their deep desire for intimacy. Among Christian Celts this trait was reflected in their monasteries made up of families, both "religious" and ordinary. Like many before Rome outlawed it, even ordained members in these Celtic monasteries were sometimes married and had children of their own. From the beginning, these Christian communities built numerous small churches rather than large basilicas, as can be seen in the ruins of the churches on the Aran Islands and at Glendalough. Celtic Christians wanted to minister and worship with those whom they recognized and who recognized them. They did not appreciate throngs of strangers. They fostered intimacy and relationships of honesty and depth.
Many of these aes dana were druids and druidesses, advisers to the kings and teachers of the tribes.

Eros was and is especially reflected in the Celts' appreciation of friendship itself, whether between women and men or between those of the same gender. In the ancient world where men were often isolated from women while being educated or training for warfare or relaxing at the gym, this eros of friendship frequently was expressed sexually. According to Greek and Roman historians, Celtic men seemed especially to have been appreciative of their own homoerotic side. Diodorus Siculus, for example, writing in the first century B.C.E., says that although Celtic women were physically attractive and courageous, the men were equally drawn to those of their own sex: "they lie around on animal skins and enjoy themselves, with a lover on each side. They offer themselves to other men without the least compunction. Furthermore this isn't looked down upon or regarded as in any way disgraceful." Other classical writers confirm this. Strabo in the first century C.E. wrote about "the young men in Gaul who are shamelessly generous with their boyish charms," and Atheneaus, two centuries later, refers to the Celts' male "bed-partners." This appreciation of male friendships, including those expressed genitally, is also alluded to in the works of the native Celts. The famous Irish heroic saga, The Cattle-Raid of Cooley, describes the friendship between CuChulain, the greatest of all Celtic warriors, and his friend and foster-brother, Fer Diad, whom he does not want to fight. "Not because I fear him," CuChulain says, "but because I love him so much." Attempting to warn Fer Diad away, CuChulain tells him: "You were my loved comrade, my kin and kindred. Never found I one dearer. We were loving friends. We were comrades in the wood. We were men who shared a bed. We would sleep a deep sleep after our weary fights in many strange lands."

This celebration of male love with its acceptance of homoerotic expression and its presupposition of the inherent fluidity of sexuality was common among ancient peoples as it still is in many cultures today.

In Christian times, the stories of the Celtic saints are filled with numerous examples of friendship relationships between men and women, men and men, and women and women. Perhaps the greatest legacy, in fact, that the Early Celtic Church passed on to the universal Church was its gift of the tradition of the soul friend: a person who acted as a teacher, confessor, counsellor, or spiritual guide. The Welsh called such a person a periglour or beriglour, and the Irish and Scots used the word anamchara, meaning "friend of the soul" or simply "soul friend." This type of ministry was eventually associated by the Western Church in the Middle Ages with the ordained male priest in the sacrament of confession and reconciliation, but in the earliest days of Celtic Christianity such relationships were open to lay people and ordained, women and men alike. Everyone, from bishop to priest and nun to lay person, was expected to have an anamchara, as a saying of the time suggests: "Anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head." With its one-to-one focus, Celtic soul-friend ministry contributed greatly to Western culture's emphasis on the integrity and worth of the individual person and upon his or her spiritual and psychological development. It was the predecessor of our modern disciplines of counselling, psychotherapy, and spiritual direction.

A seventh characteristic of the Celts, reflected in their ecclesiology and spirituality, was their profound appreciation of the spoken and written word; that is, of storytelling. They knew first hand that stories feed the soul the way food feeds the body. As a result, they had many types of storytellersfrom the seanchai, the humblest teller of tales around the hearth in the home, to the fili, the learned bard at the courts of the Irish kings, to the monastic scribe seated with his quill pen in a cold scriptorium transcribing on vellum the stories of the saints. The responsibility of all of these storytellers was to remember and narrate the great sagas of their tribal and spiritual ancestors whom they considered, even if long dead, intimate members of their families. The stories and legends they told were about both secular heroes and honoured saints, mortal and immortal beings who had strange visions, made voyages to other worlds, endured great hardships for tribe and gospel, and travelled in companies of friends. Whenever and wherever they were told, these stories about their heroes were perhaps the clearest expression of the Celts' religious beliefs, values, and spirituality.

Celtic spirituality, a spirituality which has a future, precisely because it has much to teach our contemporary world. In Ireland, where the purest forms of Celtic life survived, since the armies of Rome never conquered it, the social system consisted of three main classes: the landowning aristocracy who were the tribal kings and their retinues of warriors, families and relatives; the serfs, some of whom were free, while others were slaves taken in battle or, like the youthful St. Patrick, kidnapped from foreign shores; and, finally, but not least, the scholars and artists called the aes dana, Gaelic for "people of learning" or "of poetry." This latter group included poets, historians, experts in genealogy, lawyers, physicians, skilled craftsmen, and the story-tellers themselves, the bards. Many of these aes dana were druids and druidesses, advisers to the kings and teachers of the tribes. In fact, the highest position [ollam] of the druids was equal to that of the king, a position of spiritual authority that was eventually replaced by the monastic leader or Christian bishop when the pagan Celts had been baptized. All of these aes dana in Ireland were held in high esteem and had the privilege, as did the aristocracy, of travelling anywhere without permission. This respect and the freedom which went with it reveals how much Celtic society valued people of learning, of poetry, and of artistic skills, considering them as essential as any king or warrior to the well being of their society, culture, and spirituality.

The Future: Intimations from the Past

All of the above characteristics or qualities of the Celts are basic patterns of the Celtic soul. For all people of Celtic origins, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, these psychic patterns live on in our unconscious, in what the Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung, called "ancestral memories." But one does not have to be a Celt to appreciate the implications of these patterns for our churches and society today, and, in particular, for our own spirituality. They manifest, in fact, what many in our contemporary world are yearning to discover or have already learned is of utmost importance to their daily lives and work: the need to respect nature and to unite oneself with the natural rhythms of the seasons, and of day and night; the great need to truly value and encourage women's leadership in practice as well as in words; the need to collaborate with other individuals, groups, and churches in the belief that all benefit and more is accomplished by doing things together; the need to be attentive to those who have been marginalized, for whatever reason, and to our own marginal sides; the need to appreciate and celebrate beauty, and allow its many forms to enrich and inspire our creativity; the need to acknowledge the holy mystery of desire and to be respectful of eros in all its manifestations and orientations; the need to honour storytellers, beginning with a deep appreciation of our own stories and their profoundly sacred quality.

These patterns of the Celtic soul are reflected and expressed in Celtic spirituality, a spirituality which has a future, precisely because it has much to teach our contemporary world. Rather than proposing dualities and promoting dualism, this spirituality seeks to honour differences and integrate what might seem at first glance (or through long years of religious and cultural formation!) as opposites: mind and heart, body and soul, contemplation and action, solitude and community, male and female, people and nature, "straight" and "gay," "sacred" and "secular," human and divine. It shows that perceived differences are not necessarily antagonistic toward each other, with one of superior worth, but that all contribute to the richness of the whole. It is a spirituality that helps us recognize the significance of our families (however those families are composed), of our daily work, of the so-called "ordinary" as sacred ground for our own soul-making. It teaches those of us who call ourselves Christian about a model of church that is more like an inclusive circle than a hierarchical pyramid which, despite the inspiring words of papal encyclicals or a belief in the "priesthood of believers," still excludes the full participation of the laity. If we are Roman Catholic, it encourages us to build a church where small communities take the place of the increasingly huge, unmanageable parishes, and where ordained priesthood is no longer limited to celibate males; where allno matter what one's race, gender, or sexual orientationare truly welcomed, as Jesus welcomed and befriended so many in his own time. Sharing this Celtic spirituality, this fiery vision, as Malachy and his associate shared theirs, we can begin together to build a more just and compassionate society and church.
"We can make our lives so like still water that beings gather about us that they might see their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our serenity." How to begin this difficult, long-term process of transformation which is so intimately connected to our own call to holiness? We must, first, begin with ourselves. Whether we are Celtic or not, we can start to appreciate the landscape in which we live, and to ask ourselves how much our environment has affected and continues to influence our understanding of ourselvesand of God. Like the aes dana themselves, the ancient Celtic people of learning and poetry, we can start expressing our own creativity, as well as bring the creative arts into the mainstream of our society and churches. We can learn to recognize how much eros and our search for beauty have enriched our spiritual life, and begin to find ways to integrate passion into our daily lives and work. We can acknowledge the importance of friendship in our lives, and how our friends have mirrored the friendship of God. We can also learn from this tradition about naming and claiming our spiritual inheritance and our ancestors, familial and ecclesial, and making them more a part of our family history and prayer life.

This latter action is precisely what St. Malachy did in response to his vision of the fiery altar. Remember, according to St. Bernard, his biographer, Malachy experienced his vision in the midst of the saints' tombs in the cemetery of Armagh, and he interpreted the vision itself as "a sign of the great merit of him [i.e., St. Patrick or of those who rested beneath the altar". With that recognition, Malachy "ran and plunged himself into the midst of the flames." So, also ourselves. We too can, like Malachy, seek guidance and inspiration from the wisdom of the saintsa wisdom expressed in their stories, a wisdom, as the hagiographies show, that they themselves gained only at great price. This wisdom was and is rooted in compassion, an attitude and discipline that no longer lets us judge others and ourselves in the worst possible light, but places all in the loving, accepting hands of God. With that letting go, we can become mirrors ourselves. As the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, so wisely suggests in his Celtic Twilight, a book that became not so much an expression of that spirituality's demise, as a plea for its continued growth: We can make our lives so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our serenity.

In doing so, as Haughton herself suggests, the future and the future Christianity that we must build and live can become "a person-centred church, growing around heroes and heroines, saints and sages, rather than within the pre-planned jurisdiction of a man chosen for the job by a central authority.''

Edward Sellner, Ph.D., is professor of theology and spirituality at the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of numerous articles and books, including Mentoring: the Ministry of Spiritual Kinship (1990), Soul-Making: the Telling of a Spiritual Journey (1991), Wisdom of the Celtic Saints (1993), and Father and Son: Time Lost, Love Recovered (1995). He also scripted a cassette-tape, "Tales of the Celtic Saints," which was released in 1996 by Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame.

This article has been edited down in size. The full text is available from The AISLING Quarterly.
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