The Revival of Celtic Christian Spirituality

Beldon Lane assists us in understanding a bit of the history of Celtic Christian Spirituality and its modern importance.

An excerpt from BACKPACKING WITH THE SAINTS, by Beldon Lane, pp. 44-45

The retrieval of Celtic spirituality has been an important development in religious thought over the past hundred years. It allows us to put back together things that were separated in the English-speaking world after the year 597. That was the year Columba died and a Roman missionary named Augustine became Archbishop of Canterbury. The two events symbolized a vast shift in the history of British Christianity. By the year 664, at the Synod of Whitby, Celtic spirituality was largely overthrown by the power of Rome, its wild mysticism and independence brought under Latin control. In the imagery of St. Bede, the apostle Peter’s hierarchical authority triumphed over the apostle John’s mystical vision of the Light shining in everyone and everything. Pelagius’ sense of the original goodness of human life and Eriugena’s emphasis on balancing the book of Scripture with the book of Nature were minimized, if not labeled heretical. Eriugena had declared both books to be integral to faith. He warned that without the large text of creation we miss the vastness of the message and without the small text of the Gospels we miss its intimacy.

With the decline of Celtic spirituality, Western Christianity lost much of its wildness, its uncontrolled and risky edge. It lent itself increasingly to abstract thought, an excessive wordiness, and an authoritarian clericalism. It paid less attention to nature and symbol, focusing more on the correctness of its theological formulations. In the Celtic Book of Kells, the Gospels possessed a magical power of their own, akin to the mystical landscape they illuminated. In subsequent Western thought, the accounts of Jesus’ life became instead a basis for rational argument and creedal divisiveness. The diminishment of the earthy Celtic spirit led to an impoverishment of the spiritual life in general. Thankfully, its energy is being rediscovered today.  It serves, for me at least, as a complement and corrective to the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions that have been so influential in my life.…I need the wildness of nature to enliven my reading of the sacred word. My soul requires a boisterous exercise of faith, allowing the Spirit to blow where it wishes. Many people today long for an authentic spiritual experience. They expect it to be dangerous. They’re ready when necessary to “chuck up everything” and venture out, yielding to the longing that arises within.