Celtic Christianity, a Personal Journey
Sue Staropoli, April, 2022
I. Finding My Indigenous Roots
Although I was born and raised in a Catholic Christian tradition, I have found myself drawn more recently to the earth-based spirituality of indigenous peoples. In 2012, I took a trip sponsored by the Pachamama Alliance to visit the home in Ecuador of the Achuar people, the Amazonian partners of the Alliance. Since then, I have been inspired by their worldview, traditions, and ceremonies, as well as those of Native Peoples of North America, and perspectives offered through the book, Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites Us into the Sacred by Victoria Loorz.
Along the way, wise teachers advised me to watch out for cultural appropriation, taking something that doesn't belong to you or your culture. They invited and challenged me to search out my own indigenous roots as a descendant of European ancestors. I was assured that everyone ultimately has such a heritage, if they go back far enough in time.
Then, only months ago, as I was embarking on an annual period of retreat as my husband and I have done for many years, I received an invitation to a webinar entitled “Sacred Earth, Sacred Souls” sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Mysticism. I didn’t know what it would be about exactly, but the title was alluring, and the interviewer, Patricia Pearce, was someone I respected for her insight and inspiration on past occasions. It turned out that she was interviewing John Philip Newell, a Scottish scholar of Celtic spirituality, about his most recent book, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul.
In that webinar, I learned that until the 6th century, most of Europe, going all the way to Turkey, was Celtic in culture and religion. That fact meant that my ancestors – Irish, Scottish, English, German – would have been grounded in this way of living and being in the world. Newell outlined the core tenets of Celtic spirituality: sacredness of the earth, sacredness of each human being, and belief in the “thin veil” between the world of our senses and the unseen world. He described what had happened within Celtic culture when Christianity came to that part of the world. The Celts initially accepted Christianity because they found it in harmony with their foundational beliefs, and they understood Jesus as coming to awaken people to the sacred essence of all life. But as Christianity was taken up by the Roman Empire, and as imperial armies advanced over the continent, the Church imposed a different worldview, intended to uproot and replace the allegiance of indigenous people to their own ways. For the Celts, to separate spirit and matter was to desacralize the earth. The doctrine of original sin was incompatible with the understanding of humans as divine in their essence.
This is where the division began, with the Celts maintaining their worldview of interconnectedness and earth-centered traditions considered “pagan” by the Church. As the Church became increasingly integrated with the values and power of the Empire, the Romans justified taking the land of the Celtic clans and suppressing their traditions, often using violent means (for example, burning all ceremonial flutes and harps). Yet the central beliefs of Celtic culture were never completely wiped out. In certain regions the Celts evolved a form of Christianity in harmony with their worldview, expressed in the writings and legacies of saints and spiritual leaders of those places. The British Isles, being farthest from the center of the Roman empire, escaped some of its most heavy-handed suppression.
Newell’s book reignited my curiosity to delve into my Christian cultural lineage and seek out its roots in earth-centered spirituality. It was as if I had discovered new relatives – my kin – in the great figures of Celtic heritage and, through them, a link to the family of all beings. And as Newell says, the messages of the Celtic prophets are urgently needed now, and with him I feel called to apply their wisdom to the situation that faces humankind today. They spoke forcefully of the human capacity to listen to the sacredness of one's inner authority and defy the oppressive authority of Church and government.
At moments, I feel a great sadness in confronting the suppression over centuries of what was a living, earth-connected tradition. The oppression of the Celts by the Roman Church reflects a pattern still playing out in Western culture, where fear, domination, competition, individualism, consumption, and scarcity have overtaken the values of love, mutual aid, collaboration, community, reciprocity, and abundance, values still upheld in many indigenous societies. Yet I also feel gratitude for a resurgence in the Celtic way of seeing, that all life – all people, land, and species – is interconnected and sacred. For me, this must have been the original worldview of Jesus.
It has given me hope to discover the threads of this worldview within the Roman Church, starting with the openness of Vatican II in 1965. Since then, modern writers in the Catholic Church (Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, Matthew Fox, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and many others) have spoken of nondualism in Chrisianity, the idea that God is in all things. Even Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, speaks of the sacredness of the earth and writes, “a spark of divine light is within each of us.” Such messages build bridges between the traditional Roman Christian perspective and the ancient Celtic vision.
So I wish that each of us, wherever we are from, may reclaim our indigenous roots and the vision of interconnectedness, that we may all find our links to the family of all beings.
For those who are interested, I have summarized below the information I found most enlightening in my reading of Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul.
II. Celtic Christianity vs Roman Christianity
based on John Philip Newell's book, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul
Sacredness of the earth/nature Creation out of nothing –
denial of earth/the physical
(Honor earth & human body) (Separation of earth and heaven.
Goal: transcend earth)
Divine in every human/all life Separation of divine and human
(Our essence is of God) (Our essence is corrupted – original sin)
Interrelationship of all things – Separation of humans, earth, and other species
(All life sacred – not just humanity) (Human species above others)
Sacredness in all things/the ordinary The sacred separate from the ordinary
(Sacred – essence of all being) (Sacred – only certain places and people)
Incarnation – Light in all things Incarnation – Jesus in the flesh
Sacrifice – off self in service of Love Sacrifice – expiation for forgiveness of sins
The Feminine as sacred Patriarchy – the Feminine subordinated
(God = union of Masculine & Feminine) (God = Masculine)
(Male and female leadership) (Male leadership, dominance)
Divine – Immanent and Feminine Divine – Transcendent and Masculine
Structure – loose federation Hierarchy
Worship in forests/mountains Worship in temples
Listen to what soul knows, inner Listen to doctrines and beliefs
Wisdom – beyond Christianity's bounds Wisdom – in Christian teachings alone
(in every culture, religion, people) (“pagan”, conversion, doctrine of discovery)
Goal – care for world/creating heaven Goal – care for individual soul/getting to heaven
Christ – reawaken sacred essence of Christ – came to save humanity from itself
Refused to worship Emperor Religion of the empire (4th c.), aligned w/imperial
Integrated/honored pre-Christian Anything pre-Christian to be abandoned/eradicated
(Fire ritual – light not overcome by (Fire extinguished)
Grace given to reconnect Grace – given to save us from our nature
w/our divine nature
What matters – being LIKE Jesus What matters – what you believe about Jesus
All life to be equitable shared Inequities of empire
(People & earth to be reverenced) (People and earth to be controlled and used)
Celibacy – vocation but not holier Celibacy holier, required of priests
Sexuality – part of sacred nature Sexuality – only for procreation, no pleasure
Monastic life – men & women Monastic life – male, celibate
Easter: night of full moon after Easter: Sunday after 1st full moon after spring equinox (keeping connection equinox (focus on liturgical calendar -
with earth-based ritual) keeping it on a Sunday)
Clerical tonsure – Druidic continuity Roman tonsure
III. Expressions of Celtic tradition in Christian teachers, saints, and prophets as described by John Phillip Newell in Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul
In the following I have distilled, borrowing liberally from Newell's book, the stories and teachings of persons in the Celtic Christian tradition, from earliest records up to the present. In them, I find a clear lineage, with common themes and metaphors, creating a language that offers guidance both for the inner spiritual journey and for action on behalf of earth and my fellow human beings.
Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 140-202) – 2nd century. Irenaeus was a follower of Polycarp, whose teacher was the disciple John. Irenaeus was grounded in the vision of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the word ….” Everything has come into being through the word and is essentially an utterance of the Divine. His central teaching was that Christ came to reawaken humanity to what it had forgotten.
The message of Christ spread from Celtic Gaul to Celtic Britain and Ireland (by the end of the 2nd century) in oral form, and thus with a fluidity that allowed a confluence with pre-Christian wisdom. Britain was on the fringe of the empire so it was relatively free from the heavy hand of the empire.
Pelagius (ca. 360 – 430) – 4th century. Pelagius, a monk from Wales, was the first writer and teacher in Celtic Britain. His writings celebrated the sacredness of every person (including especially women), integrated pre-Christian tradition, and opposed the doctrine of original sin. He taught the sacredness of the human soul, sacredness of nature, sacredness of spiritual practice, sacredness of wisdom, sacredness of compassion. For this he was misrepresented as a heretic by his theological opponent, St. Augustine of Hippo. He was banished from the Empire, and his teachings continued to be banned even 200 years later, in 640.
St. Brigid of Kildare (ca. 451-523) – 6th century. Many legends and myths are associated with Brigid. She was possibly the leader of the Druidic community in Leinster in Ireland. She has been known as Mary of the Gaels (Mother of Christ to the Irish people). A strong tradition associated with Brigid was the sacred fire, kept burning continuously to celebrate the Light shining deep in all things, the Light that has not been overcome by darkness. Brigid's fire was extinguished violently in the 16th century by Protestant Reformers.
Brigid's teachings concerned the intimate relationship between humanity and the earth, and the sacredness of the feminine. She symbolizes models of female leadership, the liminal space of new beginnings, and the bridging or merging of opposites. This includes pre-Christian and Christian wisdoms – as both the earth goddess Brigid and St. Brigid, she represents both Druidic love of earth and Christian awareness of heaven. She is the saint of the greening earth and new life rising. The Hebrides islands on the west coast of Scotland are known as the “Islands of Brigid."
The 5th and 6th centuries were like the "golden age" in Celtic Christianity, in which the teachings and vision of prophets like Pelagius and Brigid thrived. This period ended abruptly in 597 with the arrival of the imperial Christian mission in Britain, which demanded uniformity with the Roman Church and its allegiance with imperial power. The Synod of Whitby in 664 enforced such uniformity, but several monasteries, such as Iona in the Hebrides and others in Wales, Cornwall, and parts of Ireland, resisted the declarations of Whitby.
Christianity in Scotland remained essentially Celtic until the 12th century, when Benedictine abbeys began to replace the great Celtic monastic sites, again a move by the Roman Church to enforce uniformity in Britain and Ireland. The 500-year history of resistance there was a time of immense creativity, both spiritually and artistically, and considerable Celtic influence on mainland Europe.
Part of what emerged in this resistance were the Culdees, persons living a monastic life without taking formal vows, so relatively free from ecclesiastical control. For centuries it was these itinerant Culdees (also called wandering scholars, scotus vagans, peregrini) who helped keep alive in the people the threatened vision of their ancient Celtic inheritance and its sense of the sacredness of the earth and all people. Their presence brought considerable Celtic influence to mainland Europe.
John Scotus Eriugena (ca. 815-877) – 9th century. The greatest of these wandering scholars was John Scotus Eriugena, who spent much time in France. Eriugena spoke of the “two books of God speaking:” biblical scripture and the living text of the physical universe. His central teaching was that everything that has being is sacred; the heart of our being is the Light from which we come. Jesus came to awaken us to our true nature and the sacredness of all life. We must listen to the inner authority of our souls, not to the external authorities of religion, nation, or culture.
Eriugena’s writings were condemned during his lifetime by the Church councils of 855 and 859, and were condemned again in 1585.
The Carmina Gadelica, “Songs of the Gaels”, dating back to the 6th century. The Carmina Gadelica refers to an ancient stream of prayer in poems and songs, from the western islands of Scotland and passed down through oral tradition.
These "Songs of the Gaels" name the elements of earth, air, fire, and water as sacred, speak of the sun and moon with reverence, and celebrate a natural world that breathes with spirit and the mystery present in all things. With divine and human intermingled, both body and soul are seen as sacred, with dancing, desiring, and loving also honored. Even death's crossing is welcomed as a return to the place of one's beginnings.
Calvinism, the Church of Scotland, tried to suppress this vision of the world, forbidding Celtic music, language, and poetry. The Highland Clearances of the 18th century called for the eviction of tenants from ancestral lands, and families and clans scattered.
These songs show the power of poetry and song to keep alive a vision of the sacredness of the earth and the sacredness of every human being, awakening people on a daily basis to the sacred within and around them.
Alexander John Scott (1805-66) – 19th century. Alexander John Scott, as a minister of the Church of Scotland, claimed his inner authority to challenge outward power structures by opposing the Westminster Confession of Faith, which declared human nature as essentially sinful. He was found guilty of heresy in 1831.
Drawing on other traditions and disciplines in addition to the Celtic, Scott taught the sacredness of the human soul and the earth, speaking of a “transparency” through which the Light of God can be seen. In his view, redemption meant overcoming disunity, waking up to the sacred interrelationship of all things and translating it into action. By this means, one achieves an Integration of physical and spiritual, reason and intuition, and earth and heaven. Imagination, Scott said, is the key to bringing us back into relationship again, reimagining our way to the essential interconnectedness of the universe. In this way, he nurtured creativity and imagination, even as his teachings were grounded in the work of justice, putting focus of spirituality on the well-being of humanity rather than on the salvation of one's own soul.
Scott's teachings formed the beginning of the Christian socialism movement. He spoke of revolution encompassing three components: consciousness of soul (awakening to the interconnectedness of oneself with all beings); strength of soul (living the vision of interconnection with moral integrity); and beauty of soul (serving this oneness with love, even at cost of sacrifice). Scott's central message may be summarized as the call to dream our way into new beginnings, in our lives and our world. Imagination – sacred imagination – plays a key role in dreaming the way forward, with its power of reweaving the patterns of relationship into new possibilities.
John Muir (1838-1914) – 19th/20th centuries. John Muir might be called an American Celt. He was born in Scotland. Echoing Eriugena (9th c.), he saw earth and the universe as a divine manuscript, an incarnation of the divine word. Thus, we humans are to consult the earth as our teacher and allow its essential interrelatedness to guide us in our vision of reality, and in our living. To understand that the earth and larger universe are forever unfolding, sacred, and evolutionary, is to invite us to a child's way of seeing in open-eyed wonder. Each species and living being is another manifestation of the sacredness in all things.
Muir believed that humans are called to be lovers of the earth, not its masters. The hope for humankind lies in God’s wildness, expressed both within ourselves and in the natural world.
Muir's thinking aligned with that of other American thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who also wrote from a sense of the inherent sacredness of nature and humanity. He was very engaged in advocating for the earth, for example through protests and lobbying to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite. His writings invite us to reawaken our primal love of the earth and call others into urgent action for one another and all of earth's creatures.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) – 19th and 20th centuries. French scientist, Jesuit priest, mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said that at the heart of matter is the heart of God – earth’s body and the human body are cherished. The universe is radically relational. The Light of the sacred is deep in all things. At the center of our relationship with the earth and one another is the relationship with the divine. We need to reawaken to spirit shining through matter; we need also to live this awareness and serve it in one another and in the earth. Teilhard de Chardin's work highlighted the sacredness of the Feminine.
His prophesy: The day will come when, after harnessing all the energies of earth, sea and sky, humanity will finally learn how to harness its greatest energy, love. On that day we will have “discovered fire” for the second time.
His teachings challenged religion regarding where the sacred is to be sought and adored, and further challenged the power structures of the Western world regarding the way matter is to be handled.
What love prompts us to do is to lose ourselves in love and thereby truly find ourselves, to live not from our false self, driven by the ego, but from our true self, made of God.
Sacrifice is never about payment for love (the expiation of sin), but about offering ourselves, even our failures, in the holy service of love and new beginnings, though we may suffer pangs of rebirth. Sacrifice is about shifting the axis of our life outside of ourselves and to the center of one another and of everything that has being. It is not just about our personal ego; it is also about the ego of our nation, our religion, our class, and our race. The “primacy of humility” means learning to live from the sacred common ground of life rather than lifting ourselves up over one another or separating ourselves from one another.
Teilhard de Chardin's teachings, honoring the sacredness of matter, were banned by his Jesuit order and by the Roman Church. Yet he courageously defied the unjust system and continued to write.
George MacLeod (1895-1991) – 20th century. George Macleod was a Celtic prophet in Scotland who lived the way of compassion, serving the material needs of humanity and the earth, and the path of nonviolence, both in action and of the heart. “Matter matters” – matter of the earth, matter of the human body, and matter of the body politic. Caring relationships with humans and the earth.
MacLeod rebuilt the abbey on the island of Iona on the western coast of Scotland, an endeavor which he saw as rebuilding the spirituality of St. Columba and the Celtic Christian vision that had taken root in Scotland in the 6th century. He spoke of the “thin veil” between heaven and earth at Iona – highlighting the Celtic Christian belief in the oneness of all life - past, present and future.
MacLeod looked for the divine in the suffering and the glory of both humanity and the earth. “Christ is vibrant in the material world, not just in the spiritual world.” We are not called to seek liberation from the world, but a liberation of the world. The divine is to be sought at the heart of every moment, every place, and every encounter. The time of salvation is here and now, for healing must be here and now. His vision was grounded in justice – to remain in relationship with, and in compassion for, earth and people. His message of non-violence was silenced during the war.
Kenneth White (1936 - ) – 20th century. Kenneth White is a Scottish poet, though spending most of his life in France. Through poetry he looks for the shining that is deep in all things, the “diamond country” at the heart of life. There is both glory and pain, beauty and suffering in our lives and the world – but deepest always is the shining, the “loveliness”, the interrelationship of all things and the connection of humanity with the cosmos.
White envisions a three-fold pathway – “rediscovering the earth”: seeing afresh our true relationship with the earth; “rewording the world”: allowing this relationship to reshape how we see and speak and relate; and journeying toward “a new-found land”, a new way of being.
For White, speaking out is essential: “seeing and saying … is power.”
White declares that we are survivors of a great catastrophe, namely the industrialized world’s separation from nature. Western civilization was created by empire, city-based rather than nature-based. It is the dialogue between the human and nonhuman that we must keep alive, accessing the subterranean flow of Light that is deep in all things.
In White's poetic vision, the legendary Brandan the Voyager symbolizes the wanderer, searching for what is beyond the horizons of the known. The journey of a human life is about opening to the way forward, trusting in what we do not yet see, knowing that the journey itself is sacred. In opening to the journey together, we can be part of nurturing hope in one another. We are on the edge of the new, sensing a different way of journeying with the earth and one another. We are to simply continue feeling our way farther forward, step by step, not to tame the world or Christianize it but to open ourselves to it more and more.