Celtic Tradition is more than St. Patrick
St Patrick’s Day has come and gone. I was in a store that day and heard someone say, “it’s a shame that St Patrick’s Day has come to mean mostly getting drunk.” St Patrick deserves more than that. And Celtic Christianity deserves more than its Irish expression.
Many traditions blend into Celtic Christianity. The Welsh commemorate St David on March 1st with leeks and welsh cakes. St Brigid is as important to the Irish as St Patrick, and don’t forget that the northwestern tip of France is called Brittany; there people speak a language related to Welsh, because travel and migration between these areas was quite extensive in earlier centuries. If you attend a pan-Celtic festival six flags will be flying, one each for Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall (the southwestern tip of England), the Isle of Man and Brittany. One section of northern Spain remains that was once heavily Celtic, called Galicia – and St Paul wrote to Celts when he wrote to the Galatians two millennia ago.
What are the attributes of the Celtic tradition beyond geography?
The Scriptures are central. They are to all Christian traditions but the Psalms in particular set a tone for Celtic Christianity, both by their melodic nature and by their poetic structures. Celtic prayers follow patterns set by the Psalms, as in the famous Caim (circling) prayers such as: “Christ before me, Christ behind, me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in my mind and in my heart.”
Prayer for others is characteristic, for your animals in the morning when you stoke up your fire and for your children at night when you go to bed. Neighbors and strangers alike are wrapped in a prayerful spirit of compassion.
Repentance undergirds the tradition. The Irish and Welsh penitential books that were used in early monasteries set a standard for austerity, but it’s only to more deeply appreciate the love and compassion of God who receives us beyond any ability we might have to be penitent.
This penitent spirit ought lead to a spiritual friendship. These friends are called in Irish anmchara, which derives from Latin and means “soul friend;” among the Welsh they were known as periglour, which means the same. The old maxim is “a person without a soul friend is like a body without a head.”
The Celtic traditions aim at wholeness. We are not apart from the creation, we are a part of it, and our spirituality demonstrates that. Heaven and earth are joined at the thin places so evident to those with eyes to see them. The line between death and life is very thin and we reach across it with prayer for those who have gone before.
Emphasis on community goes along with emphasis on spiritual friendship and wholeness. Immersion in the sacraments is part of the communal tradition. Much of Celtic Christianity – especially the dominant Welsh and Irish models – grew out of the monastic tradition. Bishops were less important than leaders of monasteries, both men and women, the latter indicated by the host of memorable women saints in the Tradition, all of whom were leaders of monasteries.
Lastly is the sense of place. Everywhere you go in historically Celtic bastions that remain in the west of the old Roman Empire, you find holy places – wells, mounds, churches, graveyards, roadside chapels. Some of these hark back to the pagan background that was gently incorporated into much of the Christian tradition. Many are newer, but all bear witness to the idea that we are tied intimately, in a spiritual way, to certain places.
St Patrick brings us a blessing, but so does the entire Celtic tradition.