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> Celts & christianity, Background on Celts Religion!
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Posted: 10-Jul-2002, 09:29 PM
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I ran across this article on the internet tonight. Not sure who the author is, but it can be found at the Celtic Times website.

THE CELTS AND CHRISTIANITY

Scattered across Ireland, Scotland and Wales -- an area sometimes refered to as "the Celtic fringe" -- are stone monuments which blend the central symbols of paganism and Christianity: intricately carved circles of stone embracing the quadrants of a cross. These stone crosses, built more than 12 centuries ago, are reminders of a people who found a God of heaven in the beauty of the earth, a sense of holiness in the human capacity for love, and the potential for sacredness in almost every aspect of their daily lives.
The Celtic Christians' simple cross and other icons still recall their influence. And their leaders still inspire: St. Patrick. St. Morgan the theologian. St. Columba the missionary, one of Scotland' s founders. And, of course, St. Brigid, who, legend says, was consecrated a bishop.

Celtic expressions of Christianity flourished from the 5th to the 12th centuries. Gradually the old Celtic church was forced to become Roman in its customs, which had developed from the fifth century on with its own characteristics - different from that of Rome. Like the Eastern Orthodox churches, they all had local customs and traditions that made them a little unique. The Celts seemed to have a much more unified vision, a sense of intimacy with God being present every day.

Early Celtic Christians used portable altars to reach the faithful across the countryside. They ordained women. The Celtic Church believed that women were equal to men, with similar legal rights. Women had positions of ecclesiastical authority and even assisted with Holy Communion. Today Celtic sites draw pilgrims from around the world, while Celtic churches and groups appeal to people from Anglican, Methodist, Catholic and other traditions.

Part of the appeal of Celtic spirituality is its life-affirming worldview. Protestant Reformers stressed human sinfulness at the risk of reviling the human body and creation. Such views influenced both Protestants and Catholics. It was stressed that the soul and the spirit are good, and the body is something we just put up with, including ... sexuality.

A synthesis of the earthy and the ethereal is found at the core of Celtic spirituality. In fact, the outpouring of creativity that can be found through the many centuries of Irish history springs in large part from the ancient Celtic belief that the imagination is a manifestation of the divine.

Nearness to the divine brought forth a spiritually enhanced urge to create, from the pagan Celts, who gave us some of the wildest and woolliest legends of ancient times, to the Celtic Christians who believed they had been made in the image of an all-powerful God.

Unlike Christian theology, Celtic paganism saw almost no barrier between the physical and spiritual worlds. To the Celts, the world and everything in it, including themselves, was sacred. Or as author Margot Adler put it: "The world is holy. Nature is holy. The body is holy. Sexuality is holy. The mind is holy. The imagination is holy. You are holy."

While some aspects of Celtic paganism may serve as good stepping stones for people seeking a more spiritual path, some of the practices of the pagan Celts were deeply troubling. There was a very definite pagan dark side. They believed in a divination that used human sacrifice to try to influence the future. They were a violent, war-like, tribal society. The Druid priesthood preceded Christianity in ancient Celtic culture, and because we know so little about the Druids priesthood, we can imagine whatever we like. There were many things about pagan Celtic spirituality that were pretty frightening. They did practice human sacrifice -- and that's not very pretty.

Though the bonds of love were unbreakable within Celtic clans, the conflicts among clans left a legacy of violence that haunts Irish life to this day. And then there is the matter of sex. The Celts embraced a bawdy sexuality that would raise eyebrows even in today's more permissive culture. They had a very positive affirmation of physical love, of relationships between men and women. Sexuality was an integral part of Celtic paganism, which worshipped above all else, the fertility of the land upon which the Celts depended for survival. This made for some wild religious festivals. Since it was believed that the earth and humans were spiritually linked, it made perfect sense for these regular fertility festivals to be marked by the liberal coupling of the communities' members. It was also common, well into the 19th century, for couples to make love in the fields surrounding a house where a corpse lay. According to author Andrew Greeley, the custom was a way for pre-Christian Celts to mock death by making love in its shadow -- literally. Despite its excesses, the exuberant earthiness of Celtic paganism provided the fertile soil for the seeds of Christianity -- seeds sown by St. Patrick and a handful of lesser-known Christian missionaries.

Patrick -- a Romanized Briton born in the year 390 -- came to Ireland first as a slave, after being captured during boyhood by an Irish war party raiding the British coast. Armed only with a message of God's love, Patrick transformed Celtic Ireland into a fervently Christian land in a matter of decades. The Celts, in turn, reinterpreted and spread Christianity in ways that may well have saved the faith during the dark ages after the fall of Rome. While barbarians were gleefully sacking monasteries and burning libraries across the continent of Europe, Irish monks were busily copying books that preserved the sacred and secular wisdom of Western civilization.

Christianity burned brightly among the Celts for several reasons. The natural mysticism of the Celts lacked a coherent theological framework. They worshipped a bewildering array of pantheistic gods who could be maddeningly unpredictable, bestowing bountiful harvests one year and famine the next. Christianity gave the Celts a single God of all creation, one whose relationship with mankind was both benevolent and predictable. The pagan gods were rough and mercurial, and the Celts never knew if they would bless them or curse them. It made life a bit unstable. Even with a Christian God there is no guarantee that life will be rosy. But at least God's character is stable and He desires to bless humanity.

The conversion of Ireland was a historical rarity -- a mass conversion that did not take place at the point of a sword or as a byproduct of empire building. Patrick had no ulterior motives, and with Roman Catholicism in disarray after the fall of the Roman Empire, he was free to take Christianity in a new direction in Ireland. He could not have found a better audience. Patrick's brand of evangelism had a great appeal. His was a faith so lovingly bestowed, so courageous and yet so tranquil, that the war-weary Celts found it irresistible.

If Christianity gave the Celts a more coherent conception of a God of heaven, the Celts helped Christianity bring God back to earth. The Celts affirmed and incorporated many valuable aspects of their pagan past into their new faith, and in so doing they enriched Christianity: They were a mirror in which some of the most beautiful aspects of Christianity could shine. The beauty of God's creation. The sacredness of family and relationships. The immanence of God as opposed to the remoteness of God. Like the Celtic cross, early Celtic Christians showed that humanity could embrace God directly and fully in almost every aspect of daily life. This was reflected in the rich prayer life of the Celts. They had prayers for sleeping and prayers for rising. Prayers for tidying the house and prayers for milking the cow. Prayers like:

Blessing of the Kindling


I will kindle my fire this morning/ In the presence of the holy angels of heaven/God kindle Thou in my heart within . . . .


And Celtic prayers remain popular today, such as:
Saint Patrick's Breastplate

"Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me ..."


In these prayers it is evident that the Celts were concerned with the viewing of every single act -- no matter how minute or seemingly mundane -- as a sacred opportunity to experience God's grace. The ordinary was holy.

Music plays a big role, both in and outside the Celtic church. Bold tap, stomp and sway mesmerized us in Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Celtic groups like The Chieftains, Clannad, The Cranberries, Counting Crows, Trio Noctruna, and Enya are popular on an international level and draw large crowds to their concerts. And Maire Brennan (a member of Clannad), whose voice haunted and lingered in The Last of the Mohicans, has released a Celtic Christian CD.

The Celts showed us many ways to open the door to God in our lives. It' s kind of like starting eternity now. Instead of waiting until heaven to enjoy perfect communion with God, the Celts did everything they could to enjoy that intimacy with God in the here and now. That's the real theme of Celtic spirituality.



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Wallace MacArthur
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