For Celtic Christians, God was not a far-off deity, removed from the world and the affairs of human beings. On the contrary, God was all around them – in the landscape of sea and mountain, bog and forest, in the rising and setting of the sun, in the comings and goings of the days and seasons, in the rising and sitting, moving and working of the people. Everything was sacred.
Celtic spirituality is alive with this sense of the presence of God. The boundary between the sacred and the earthly is paper thin, if it is there at all. The ordinary and mundane in life is as filled with the presence of God as the awe-inspiring and majestic.
Celtic spirituality celebrates the little things in life and marks them with prayers and rituals. Getting up, washing, dressing, lighting the fire, going out to sow the seed – all these and many more carried out in the presence and to the glory of God and in partnership with Him. Life was not just lived, it was prayed.
As Douglas Hyde wrote, the Irish people “see the hand of God in every place, in every time and in every thing. They have this sense of life being embraced on all sides by God.”
The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh expresses well this sense of the fullness of God immanent in our world:
“Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me…”
“ A humble scene in a backward place
Where no one important ever looked…
… beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God
Was breathing his love by a cutaway bog.”
In a very concrete way, the mystical sense, the sense that makes us aware and alive to the presence of God in and around us is essential to Celtic spirituality.
For us today too, it is important to see with this mystical eye, to let God be in our seeing, in our hearing, in our speaking. When we see in this way, we become aware that nothing and no-one is apart from God. All is grace.
Celtic Christianity was profoundly Trinitarian. The Trinity was woven into the rhythms of speech and prayer and was invoked at the commencement of every action and event, large and small.
The little drop of the Father on thy little forehead, beloved one.
The little drop of the Son on thy little forehead, beloved one.
The little drop of the Spirit on thy little forehead, beloved one.
The little drop of the Three to lave thee with the graces.
The Father of many resting places grant you rest;
The Christ who stilled the storm grant you calm;
The Spirit who fills all things grant you peace.
God’s light be your light,
God’s love be your love,
God’s way be your way.
The arm of God be about you,
The way of Christ guide you,
The strength of the Spirit support you.
The holy God encircle you and keep you safe;
The mighty God defend you from all dangers;
The loving God give you his peace.
Be the peace of the Spirit mine this night,
Be the peace of the Son mine this night,
Be the peace of the Father mine this night,
The peace of all peace be mine this night,
Each morning and evening of my life.
As we see in St. Patrick’s prayer, belief in the Trinity is explicitly confessed at the start and at the end. That God is Three-in-One was very important to the early Celtic Christians. Yet, as Esther de Waal points out, their understanding of Trinity seems to be simple and natural, even homely, far removed from the intellectual and abstract concepts that have taken the theological centre stage.
Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snow-flakes and ice, all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer.
Trinity, the communion of three persons in one, was accepted in Celtic spirituality as simply the way things are. In essence, this is how nature is, how God is and how we are in our true being as the image of God. One yet also three, three yet always one. Trinity has much to teach us about being individuals true to ourselves yet also being a person for others.
Christ is at the centre of the Celtic understanding and practice of Christianity. Christ is the key, the cornerstone. He is our way into the great mystery of the Trinity, into the protecting and enfolding presence of God which constantly surrounds us. He is the presence that walks with us through life, protecting us from danger and opening our eyes to see him everywhere we look. For Celtic Christians, Christ truly is “the way, the truth and life.” (John 14:6)
St. Patrick’s prayer celebrates the many aspects of the mystery of Christ: his incarnation, his baptism, his death and resurrection, his ascension and his anticipated return. Most of all, however, the prayer glories in the presence of Christ with us. That Christ is present in our world and in each of us is taken as a fact; it is simply the reality in which we live. Christ is here, now, waiting for us to call on him so that he can fill us with his life and love and Spirit.
“We have no need to go searching,
For the phrase that sets the heart burning,
We’ll hear it…
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.”
Christ is with us, Christ is in us, Christ is all around us, in all who we do and are. St. Patrick and the Celtic Christians knew this because they lived it. The world, for them, is charged with the transfiguring presence of Christ. They understood what St. Paul was saying when he said, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Everything we do, whether we are rising, or sitting, or lying is utterly different because we do it in Christ and with Christ and for Christ.
It is the Lord, in the dawning,
In the renewal, in the arrival, in the new day.
It is the Lord, in the crowd,
In the church, in the conversation, in the crisis.
It is the Lord, in our joys,
In our sorrows, in our sickness, in our health.
It is the Lord, in the stable,
In the humble, in the stranger, in the poor.
It is the Lord, risen and returned,
Alive for evermore, giving me new life, saving me in strife.
It is the Lord.
Christ, however, is not an idol to be possessed or propitiated. As David Adam says, “the Celtic Church did not so much seek to bring Christ as to discover Him: not to possess Him, but to see him ‘in friend and stranger’; to liberate the Christ who is already there.” We fail to see Christ, not because he is absent, but because we are blind. Thus, Patrick prays that Christ will be in his seeing, in his hearing, in his speaking, in his loving so that all who look upon him will see Christ and all whom he looks upon will be Christ – an extraordinary and mystical vision of Christ in all and through all and for all.
This leads us to live as Christ lives, to love and serve all whom we meet, because “whatever we do to the least of these little ones who are members of my family, you do it to me.” (Matt 25:40) An old Irish rune captures this well:
I saw a stranger yesterday,
I put food for him in the eating place,
Drink for him in the drinking place,
Music for him in the listening place;
And in the Holy Name of the Trinity
He blessed myself and my house,
My possessions and my family.
And the lark said as she sang:
It is often, often, often,
Christ comes disguised as a stranger.
Finally, if Christ is at the centre of Celtic Christianity, so too is the cross which features so strongly in artifacts and manuscripts remaining from this time. The cross is a reminder not just of the redemption Christ has won for us but of the fact that, even in our deepest sufferings and sorrows, Christ is with us. The Irish Celts knew great sorrow as they lived in turbulent times, through invasions and oppression and all the evils that violence brings. Yet their sense of the constant presence of Christ never faltered. In this presence, they found the courage to go on, knowing that, however dark the night, the morning light always comes.
The Christ-centredness of Celtic Christianity presents us with a real challenge and a real opportunity today: can we look to Christ at the centre of our lives and walk with confidence in his all-encompassing presence as they did?