I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven,
the glorious sun’s lifegiving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightening free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea,
around the old eternal rocks.
…I bind unto myself the name,
the strong name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the three in one and one in three…
( Voices United 317, vs. 3 & 5a)
These glorious words, attributed to St. Patrick, are well known in the Celtic Christian tradition as St. Patrick’s Breastplate.
Some time ago, Terry told me he had set these words to music that could be offered as an anthem for Trinity Sunday. I enthusiastically agreed to his suggestion, not only because Terry did such a superb job of composing music that is hauntingly beautiful and reflects the sounds and sentiments of Celtic spirituality, but also because it gave me an opportunity to plan a worship service with a Celtic theme which is a joy for me.
I first became aware of the theology of Celtic Christianity when I was taking an introductory course in Christian Theology. I was assigned Augustine’s theology of Sin and Evil to research and to prepare a presentation for my classmates. I think I did a good job of presenting Augustine’s perspectives but I did not agree with his assertion that people are born in sin and remain sinful until they are redeemed with God’s grace through the sacramental nature of the Church.
During that same course, I learned about a contemporary of Augustine’s named, Pelagius, who was declared a heretic and was eventually excommunicated from the Roman Church in 418 CE. Learning about Pelagius, and his distinctly Celtic theology, was the beginning of a sense that I was “coming home” to a theology that resonated with my own beliefs.
I discovered that Pelagius was a British theologian, possibly a monk, who lived from 360-420 CE and that he strongly opposed Augustine’s theology of “original sin”. Unlike Augustine, Pelagius believed that a baby is born without sin and that looking into the face of a newborn is as close to looking upon the face of God as one can get.
Some scholars claim that in the 4th century, Pelagius provided the earliest written manifestations of Celtic Christianity. Pelagius, however, was not alone as he reflected the beliefs and practices of the Celtic Christian movement of his era.
The early Christian Celts incorporated much of the nature mysticism of pre-Christian religions and essentially saw God and Christ in the entire natural world and believed in its innate goodness and blessing. In Celtic spirituality there was no distinction between God’s presence in worship and in every moment of daily life. Similar to many of the psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures, like Psalm 29 that we heard today, Celtic Christians believed God’s glory and goodness was manifest in all Creation and that all of creation sings glory to God.
Another aspect of early Celtic Christianity is that the Gospel of John was embraced as the exemplar for following Christ’s teachings, way of life, passion for justice, and appreciation for the mysterious and mystical nature of God’s spirit at work in all creation.
John’s Gospel expresses the importance of the Light that enlightens every person through Christ, the wisdom of the ages, and the energizing and provocative presence of God’s spirit. The reading from the gospel of John, which we heard today, with the mystical reference to wind and spirit is something that would have been readily embraced by early Celtic Christians.
The invitational nature of John’s Gospel, its examples of Jesus’ servant and justice seeking ministry, and the inclusive nature of early Christian communities influenced Celtic Christianity. In his writings, Pelagius, said,
“Some would say that believing in Christ and worshipping him is what matters for salvation. But this is not what Jesus himself said. His teaching was almost entirely concerned with action, and with the motives which inspire action. He affirmed goodness of behaviour in whoever he found, whether the person was Jew or Roman, male or female…Jesus does not invite people to become disciples for his own benefit, but to teach and guide them in the ways of goodness.” (Listening to the Heartbeat of God, J. Philip Newell, Paulist Press, 1997, pgs.18)
St. Patrick, who was also influenced by Celtic Christianity began his mission to Ireland around 430 CE, about a decade after Pelagius’ death. Author, J. Philip Newell, writes that it is in Patrick’s early Irish mission that,
“…we see a fuller emergence of some of the main distinguishing features of Celtic spirituality, including an awareness of the goodness of creation and a sense of the company of heaven’s presence among us on earth. What comes across again and again in the prayers and art of the early Irish Church is the intertwining of the spiritual and the material, heaven and earth, time and eternity.” (Listening to the Heartbeat of God, J. Philip Newell, Paulist Press, 1997, pg. 24)
The “everlasting pattern” of Celtic artistic expression also reflects this belief in the interweaving of God’s presence. With God there is no ending or beginning but simply a continuous eternal presence that is palpable and never separate from the material world. The Celtic cross, with its circle surrounding the intersection of the cross bars, is thought to be symbolic of the eternal and endless presence of God and is also reflective of the sun – a symbol of light and life.
Celtic Christianity grew and flourished through the dedication of missionaries like, Patrick, Brendan, Columba, Aidan and many others who allowed the winds of God to guide them to where they believed God wanted them to go. In some cases Celtic missionaries did this literally by sailing in rudderless boats that would catch the wind in the sails and take them to unknown locations where they would begin new missions. They would have been familiar with the reading from John’s Gospel, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
Celtic Christianity eventually went underground when, in 664 CE at the Synod in Whitby, King Oswy decided in favour of the Roman Church. Augustine’s doctrine of “original sin” and other established doctrines of the Roman Church became the official theology of Christianity in Britain. No longer tolerated by the official church, the prayers and beliefs of Celtic Christianity did continue in oral tradition and in the daily lives of ordinary people. In the mid-19th century, a civil servant named Alexander Carmichael began to record the prayers that had been passed down for centuries in the oral tradition of the Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland. About these prayers, author J. Philip Newell writes,
For generation after generation, parents had been teaching their children prayers whose origin stretched back beyond living memory. These prayers, usually sung or chanted rather than simply said, were recited as a rhythmic accompaniment to the people’s daily routine, at the rising of the sun and at its setting, at the kindling of the fire in the morning and at its covering at night. They were chanted individually while sowing the seed in the fields and collectively by women weaving cloth together.” (Listening to the Heartbeat of God, J. Philip Newell, Paulist Press, 1997, pg. 40)
A common feature of these Celtic prayers was a strong Trinitarian theme. Celtic Christianity had long accepted that there are different and yet interconnected ways of understanding God’s presence. The Seasons of the Spirit resource for this year’s Trinity Sunday explains the Celtic understanding of a God that is one in three and three in one.
“This understanding of a community of persons in an equal and harmonious unity reflects the very fundamental place the Celts gave to family, household, and kin in their society. This is the experience of God: a trinity, a community. …A number of Celtic rituals involved doing an action three times, invoking a strand of the Trinity each time. …The whole of life had rituals where the Trinity was invoked, blessed, and recognized as an earthly, daily presence. Thus the whole of life was blessed by the mystery and presence of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. It was life lived within the holy.” (Roddy Hamilton, Seasons of the Spirit, May 31, 2015, pg. 39)
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there has been a resurgence of interest in Celtic Christian theology. This has been assisted by the prolific writings of scholars and the availability of worship, music and devotional resources from the Iona Community in Scotland and the Northumbria Community in the north-eastern part of England. It is my perspective from time spent in both communities, that the Iona Community focuses more on the social justice aspects of Celtic Christianity and the Northumbria Community focuses more on the prayerful and contemplative rhythm of God’s presence in daily life and the power of God’s Spirit to motivate people to faith-filled action. Personal experience with both these Celtic communities has enriched my own personal journey of faith.
And so, with gratitude for people of faith throughout the centuries, and on this Trinity Sunday particularly for the persistent faith of Celtic Christianity, I’ll close with an excerpt from A Celtic Moment by Joyce Rupp:
“Like the unceasing prayer of the Celts,
an ancient call to gather the ordinary,
…bless whatever life offers to us in the routine
… the cherished, the surprising, the serene.
…put on the rich garment of intentional communion,
embrace the commonness of life
woven on the endless loom of the Holy.”
(An excerpt from, A Celtic Moment,
received from Joyce Rupp at a Celtic Spirituality retreat)