When I first became a Christian, about twenty years ago, I approached my fledgling faith like I approach most things in life that are new to me – I tried to get some books on the subject. Back then (and still now to some extent) the bookshelves were groaning with publications about Celtic Christianity. I learned that these people from the misty past were gentle, hospitable, simple but learned Christians, free spirits who had a strong love and care for Creation; they were hand-woven, eco-friendly, cuddly characters – they were probably low fat and kind to your skin too.
Or perhaps not.
For a start, there’s a whole debate about whether or not there ever was such a thing as ‘Celtic Christianity’, but we’re not going to get in to that here. For the purposes of simplicity, if not of absolute accuracy, we’re going to slap the label ‘Celtic Christianity’ on the faith of Christians in Ireland and Western Britain between around 400 and 700AD. This is slightly arbitrary, but I can be like that.
The Celtic Christians I’ve been learning about over the past few months were not exactly as I’d come to imagine them. The natural world was something they battled against as well as rejoiced in; they were involved in high politics as well as deep prayer; there was something of the warrior about them at times, and they also were some of the finest scholars of their age; their prayers of blessing are well remembered, but you wouldn’t have forgotten if you’d been on the receiving end of one of their curses; and they were, as we would have said in my schooldays, ‘well hard’.
If you’d like to know more about this era, and the many romantic veils its been shrouded in, the best book I’ve read by a long chalk is Donald Meek’s, ‘The Quest for Celtic Christianity’, and so for today, I’ll leave the last word to him:
‘Dissatisfaction or disillusionment with the present is a potent general factor in the contemporary quest, but perhaps the chief motivation in the remaking of the spiritual past - a motivation which transcends all the centuries from Columba's time to our own - is loss: loss of key saints, loss of spiritual ideals, loss of innocence, loss of language, loss of connection with the flow of history, loss of identity and perhaps ultimately the loss of faith itself. To compensate for that loss, and to escape the chill winds of harsh reality, we search for a refuge in the warm shelter of retrospective spiritual romanticism.’