Celtic Spirituality: Can History Match Up to Our Wishes?

Guest post by Kenneth McIntosh

Celtic Spirituality continues to be a popular topic—and one close to my heart. Yet some have suggested that modern forms of ‘Celtic Spirituality’ are just wishful fabrication. As J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Celtic 'is a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come.”

Personally, I’m glad our modern practices of the Celtic way diverge somewhat from history. Do any of us wish to return to lashing as penitential practice? And I regret that some writers have indeed falsified their recounting of history. Yet authentic Celtic Christianity of the Early Middle Ages still offers treasures for our time.

The heart of this treasure is the inter-woven nature of Celtic spirituality. The saints of old created a tapestry of faith that embraced diverse fields of knowledge, global influences, and imagination. This can be likened to the knotwork that characterizes Celtic visual art blending colors, shapes, and symbols into a delightful artistic whole.

The ninth-century Irish treatise titled The Ever-new Tongue is one example of how Celts combined diverse fields of knowledge. It weaves together The Book of Genesis, Irish Bardic storytelling, a Gnostic text from Egypt, Latin geographies, a treatise on precious stones, a study of astronomy, and other sources. The result is a soaring, dazzling, creation. One line says, “Consider the sun and the other stars of heaven, and these are the glory and light that shines from the eyes of human beings.” Modern science affirms people are made of ‘star stuff.’

What we now call “Celtic Christianity” was in fact a knotwork of global influences. Irish monks of the Early Middle Ages journeyed to France, Switzerland, Italy, Rome, Palestine, and Iceland. A ninth century Swiss monk wrote, “Wandering is the unstoppable habit of the Irish race.” The Celtic saints experienced the rest of the world and took the best ideas from far kingdoms incorporating those into their practices. Connections with Egypt abound. the very shape of the Celtic circle cross is most likely borrowed from earlier Coptic Egyptian designs. Byzantine, Coptic, Irish, Mediterranean, Oriental, Pictish, Roman and Saxon influences are evident in The Lindisfarne Gospels.

And the Celts wove a lively sense of imagination into their expressions of faith. When people first encounter Celtic spirituality, it’s often the tales of the saints that hook our interest. Few of us believe that the historical Brigid actually hung her cloak on a sunbeam, or that Brendan’s sailors lit a bonfire on the back of a whale, yet we all love the clever wordplay and enticing images of the old tales. The imagination of ancient storytellers still calls to our imagination!

Celtic Christianity of the Early Middle ages may differ some from contemporary Celtic spiritual practices, and the past is sometimes misrepresented. Yet the interwoven glory of the authentic tradition continues to inspire those of us who wish to shine light in our world today.

Kenneth McIntosh is author of Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life, The Winged Man, and other books on Celtic Spirituality.