Celtic Christianity was profoundly aware of God’s presence in nature. A distinct strand in Christianity, Celtic spirituality developed in a society appreciative of cultural inspiration from the Mediterranean world, but determined to cling onto what was good in its Druid heritage.
From Christianity it drew the story of Christ; from Druidry it inherited a love of the divine presence in the natural world. From these two roots grew a vigorous and beautiful tree that produced rich fruit.
The Sun and the Cross
“Glory to thee, Thou glorious sun…… Face of the God of life.” Moorhouse cites this prayer from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of ancient Celtic prayers collected by Alexander Carmichael in the nineteenth century, the prayer being chanted daily by an old highland Scotsman.
It expresses a key symbol in Celtic spirituality, the idea that the sun’s light was the way in which the divine presence was mediated to humans, a kind of natural revelation akin to what Scholastic Christians called the Book of Nature. But for Scholastic thought knowledge of God was gained by inference from the book, whereas for the Celts the sun was almost a sacramental vehicle of the divine presence. Moorhouse suggests that in its awe at the sun Celtic Christianity came close to Pantheism. The Celtic monk or druid standing in the light of the risen sun was in his mind bathing in God’s luminescence.
It is this concept of the sacred sun that reveals the true significance of the Celtic cross, whose characteristic structure is a cross and a ring. The ring is the sun, the revelation of the divine in and through nature prior to the manifestation of God’s love and mercy in Christ. Just as Roman Christianity drew on Graeco-roman philosophy to express its religious belief, the Celts drew on ancient Druidic insights into the significance of the sun to enrich their theological thinking.
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Yet Celtic Christians were open to Greek philosophy as well, for the Irish preserved knowledge of Greek when most of Western Europe had failed in this respect, the result being a rich vein of thought from Celtic, Greek and Christian sources.
Harmony with the Earth
Animals and Celtic saints were close companions. Toulson takes the view that the abundant legends of the relationship between Celtic saints and animals hint at a reality behind the legend. She believes that they hail back to a shamanic/Druidic belief that spiritual people could communicate with the animal world.
Certainly there are tales of saints communicating with animals, asking them to be quiet while they prayed. However, St Beuno, of Wales, desisted from asking frogs to cease croaking as he believed that their voices were singing to the honour of God. The legend goes that Saint Kevin, founder of Glendalough [in Wicklow] a monastery that may well have antedated Patrick’s arrival in Erin, was standing at prayer with his arms outstretched in the Egyptian way when a bird settled and nested on his arms.
The saint stood still until the bird had nested and the chicks fledged. While clearly legendary, this tale indicates a Coptic [Egyptian] influence on the Irish church.
It is also said of Kevin that an angel bade him to till the land at his monastery, but he refused the angel’s command as he would be taking homes from the animals who dwelt on the Earth. It is said that he settled at Glendalough [Valley of Two Lakes] as he could forage in its rich meadows. Not many monks went this far in their love of nature.
The Desert Experience
In North Wales you will find a place called Dyserth. This word means Desert. The Egyptian influence on Irish Christianity brought the love of the desert to Ireland. Egypt was the land of the Desert Fathers, stalwart ascetics who sought Christ in remote barren regions, fasting and praying for long hours and undergoing extremities of ascetism.
The Celts imitated that spiritual heroism and included it in their spirituality. So Celtic monks would seek their personal desert. an element of this was sometimes “the green martyrdom” leaving Ireland for another land. Some would find remote islands to found their hermitage, others went to lonely hills. Near Dyserth at the northern foot of the Clwydian mountain range in Wales, a Celtic hermit found his personal desert.
For the Celtic hermits this lonely life was enriched by the presence of nature. They harkened to the sound waves on the shores of their island homes, they heard the echoes of God’s voice in the bird song in the marshes and the woods, and the sounds of their psalms resonated with the music of the wind in their solitude. They partook of the sacrament of nature and drank it to its fill.
The Druidic Root
“In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God” says John’s Gospel chapter one. For the evangelist, God’s Word [Logos] was the underlying rational principle of nature. For the Druids the principle that gave meaning was light, and thus Celtic Christians, unwilling to abandon what was worthwhile in druidic wisdom, saw God’s presence in light, through which the Word was mediated. Thus there developed a rich blend of Christian, Celtic and Greek thought that expressed itself in art work and some hymnody of high standard that still inspires many in our time – and to which many are, in our ecologically conscious age, returning.