As with Julian of Norwich, this is a book I’d been planning to read for a long time. I’m very attracted to the idea of “Celtic Christianity,” even though I know it’ a vague concept into which people tend to toss whatever ideas they like about early Christianity in the British Isles (including the prevailing Seventh-day Adventist belief, tenacious though hard to document, that many Celtic Christians worshipped on the seventh day).
I wear a Celtic cross because the little I do know about Celtic practices within early Christianity suggest that Ireland, particularly, was one of the few places where Christianity blended into the culture by adopting and “baptizing,” rather than condemning and abolishing, existing pagan practices. I don’t mean pagan practices such as human sacrifice, which the early Celtic Christians were rather strongly opposed to and with good reason. I mean that many of the attitudes, the artwork, even the local gods (transformed into saints) of pagan Ireland were included in Celtic Christianity. It seems a much better model of how to evangelize than the traditional Christian “missionary” model which says “Your culture is all wrong; here, take ours instead!”
These are the ideas I’ve picked up about Celtic practices from general reading and from attending a workshop on the subject a couple of years ago. A lot of those ideas were popularized by Esther De Waal in this book and others, as she has made something of a career of uncovering the history of Celtic Christian practices in Great Britain and Ireland. She describes a Christianity very much in harmony with traditional culture, very closely tied to the earth, and very affirming of the goodness of God’s creation.
In many ways the things I read about Celtic Christian practices in this book reminded me of what I found in Julian of Norwich, though she was an English Roman Catholic who lived about 1000 years after St. Patrick. In both I found the same affirmation of the goodness of God’s creation co-existing alongside a harsh asceticism with a strong emphasis on suffering and penitence. I think it’s hard for our modern minds to put those two ideas together (it may get easier, as our minds get more postmodern). I tend to think that people who live in tiny hermitages and stand in icy-cold water to pray probably view God as a harsh and punitive God, this earth as a bad and sinful place, and the body as something to be mortified and denied. But that’s not true, either of the Celtic Christians such as St. Columba, or of Julian of Norwich.
This is very interesting to me, given that so much of my reading and thinking this Lent has been about desire and self-denial, about living simply, about what we can and should give up, and why. I’m seeking a balance, I guess — the same balance Elizabeth Gilbert sought when she went on her journey to explore pleasure, prayer, and how to harmonize the two. Hints along the way — such as Every Earthly Blessing — suggest that such a harmony is far from impossible, perhaps even essential. That we need to know that God is good and the world is good before we can begin ordering our desires, disciplining ourselves to lay aside some pleasures for the greater good. I have a lot of thinking yet to do on this issue, but Esther De Waal’s explorations of Celtic practices have helped me along the way, and provided a nice endpoint to this year’s Lenten reading and reflection. At the very least, I have a new list of questions to start asking myself in the year ahead.