Glencar Waterfall, County Leitrim, Ireland
UUCD Sermon March 24, 2019
Carolyn Kerns, MDiv
Hello. Thank you so much for inviting me to share with you today; I’m honored to be here and excited to talk to about some of the history and practices and worldview that make up Celtic Spirituality.
I want to start by recognizing that we are holding this service on the traditional land of the Anishinaabe and Lakota people; as we explore today a spirituality and tradition that must needs be pieced together — much of it lost through the mist of time and the movement of people and the violence of oppression — I believe it is imperative that we consider how we in this moment, in this place, participate in honoring, protecting, and preserving a people and worldview that actively face the same threat.
“Celtic Spirituality” is a very large umbrella term that encompasses both paganism and Christianity. It also refers to both ancient and modern practice in each tradition. Because of my personal background, and especially as we turn to Celtic Spirituality in our modern world, we are mostly going to focus on its pagan expression- but if you are really interested in modern Christian practices in Celtic Spirituality come see me after this talk and I’ll point you in the direction of a few good books to start with 🙂
Piecing ancient (pre-Christian) Celtic spirituality together is a difficult task. We do not have any direct primary source material- however there is an abundance of secondary sources for us to explore, including the mythology preserved by early Christian scribes during and immediately after the conversion period, folklore that preserved the memory of deities in certain areas, and of course, our interpretation of archeological finds.
These three sources, and the cultures that created them (neolithic indigenous peoples of the British Isles, the Celtic settlers, and the Christians), are called the “three streams” that inform Celtic Spirituality by scholar and friar Sean O’Duinn.
The teaching I’m sharing today is drawn from the work of scholars who are pagan, and scholars who are Christian, but for each of whom their Celtic spirituality is a personal practice and academic endeavor.
OK. Let’s ground ourselves in time and place. The Celts were a group of people who lived in the Iron Age, starting roughly around 800 BCE, whose civilization at its largest encompassed the modern day United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Northern Italy, much of eastern Europe, and even as far east as parts of Turkey. Their movement and growth took several centuries, of course, and was in itself a wave of invading peoples moving into already occupied lands.
Father Sean O’Laoire writes:
“Around the time that Lao Tzu and Confucius were plying their trade in China; when Mahavira and the Buddha were teaching in India; when Zoroaster was preaching in Persia; and Jeremiah was the prophet to Israel, a tribe of people called the Milesians – better known as the Celts – was invading Ireland. They defeated the earlier inhabitants, the Tuatha Dé Danann (the People of the goddess Danu) and an agreement was reached whereby Ireland was divided between them in two equal parts: the Celts got Ireland above the ground and the Tuatha Dé Danann got Ireland beneath the ground! So the Tuatha Dé Danann shape-shifted and became the Slua Sidhe (the Faery Host).”
Let’s examine that story from the vantage point of herstory: Marija Gimbutas teaches us (and has been vindicated recently by DNA testing of ancient remains) that for tens of thousands of years before the invasion of Indo-European tribes (which is what the Celts were), there existed a civilization across Europe that was peaceful, artistic, and highly developed, and who lived interdependently with one another and all of Nature. They worshipped a Goddess that was the source of life, expressed on the planet in the trees, rocks, rivers, and animals (including humans).
The myth of the fight with the Tuatha de Danann, retold by Father O’Laoire as a quaint origin story of the Celtic people, can easily be interpreted as the remnants of the first wave of invasion. The people of the old Goddess went to live underground – as in, died. Gone now. But their impact remained, and it influenced and infused Celtic life in a way that we will see again with the arrival of Christianity.
Irish pagan Reconstructionist Morgan Daimler calls the Tuatha de Danann the “Gods of Ireland”. She writes: “We know from [archeological sites] that the Gods honored there were worshipped with offerings, and stories such as De Gabail in t-Sida imply that such offerings were necessary for the people to receive blessings and abundance… The different Tuatha de Danann had their own sacred paces and real world sites that belonged to them”.
Because, you see, as John Matthews, author of The Celtic Shaman, tells us:
“[The Celts] viewed creation as a totality, not as something divided into realms of matter and spirit, or indeed of inner and outer. [We can again] learn to live in harmony with everything in creation: the elements, the animals which walk the land, the birds which fly in the air, the fish that swim in the seas and rivers, the myriad mineral an plant life forms. We are all part of a single creation, and by separating ourselves off we have caused irreparable damage to ourselves and our environment.”
This statement is echoed by Father O’Laoire who writes:
“The single most important teaching of Celtic spirituality is respect for Nature. Unlike “radah” of Genesis 1:26 which is constantly misinterpreted in the West as God giving humans the right to subdue nature, the Celts saw humans and nature as partners in a divinely-choreographed dance. Hence the goddesses are the archetypes of nature while the gods are the archetypes of culture. Culture and nature are passionate lovers not bitter rivals. And, as I said earlier, the mission of the ovate/prophet was to continually call culture back into alignment with nature.
So important was this partnership that once the High King of Ireland had been selected by the Liath Fáil (the Stone of Destiny) he underwent a marriage ceremony where he (as the representative of culture) exchanged wedding vows with the goddess (as the representative of nature). If he proved faithful to his vows the land would prosper; if he proved unfaithful, famine and war were assured.”
So this is the environment into which Christianity arrived in the middle of the 1st millenium. As we shall see, this worldview became deeply intertwined in the way that Celtic Christians — Irish Catholics, as they’d become — continued to experience the world and express their faith.
Father O’Laoire offers that there are 4 traditions to choose from regarding the way that Christianity came to Ireland. One of course is the story of St. Patrick, “a Roman bishop who landed in Ireland in 432 CE and set about converting the Irish to Roman Catholicism until his death in 461 CE.” But the narrative that O’Laoire posits is actually another. Rather, he says, it was
“of hermits from Egypt seeking more and more remote areas in their Peregrinatio pro Dei Amore (Journeying for the Love of God) towards the end of the third century. A group of them sailed across the Mediterranean, out through the straits of Gibraltar and up the west coast of Europe. They landed in Ireland, which was very heavily forested at that time and scattered, each to their own isolated region.”
His reasoning is fascinating, as well as a more beautiful and life-giving origin story of Christianity within mythology of Celtic Spirituality.
First of all, he writes:
“it is obvious from the records that Celtic Christianity was not organized around the Roman model of parishes and dioceses (names taken from empirical Rome’s jurisdictional units.) The Celtic Christian Church, from its inception was organized around the little chapels of individual hermits. People wanted to bury their dead in close proximity to these holy women and holy men.
In Gaelic, the word, “Cill” (written as the prefix “Kil-” in English) can mean either a church or a graveyard. When you encounter Irish place names e.g., Kilarney, Kilkenny, Kildare… these originally were the graveyards that grew up around the churches of these saints.”
And then began the efforts, over and over again, to reform the Christianity on the Irish Isle:
“In 664 AD, Roman emissaries called a synod at Whitby in Scotland, whose objective was to lick the Celts into alignment with Rome.
In the end the Celtic churches of Britain kowtowed to Rome but the Irish church stubbornly refused.
Then in 1169 AD Ireland was invaded by the Normans and, at the behest of Pope Adrian IV, the first (and only) English pope, they sought once more to lick the Irish church into ecclesiastical shape. Droves of new monks, primarily Augustinians (preaching Original Sin rather than the doctrine Original Blessing which continues to characterize Celtic Christianity), were tasked with this “reform.” They were only marginally successful.
When the Normans of Britain morphed into the English aristocracy, the pressure was on again but in a different form. A now Protestant England attempted over the next 300 years to replace Celtic Christianity with a state-controlled, imagination-less, dry puritanical religion. To jumpstart this process they created, in 1609, the “Plantation of Ulster” – which involved the mass deportation of Celtic Catholics from the ancient northeastern province of Ireland in favor of joyless Presbyterians from Scotland and England.
Ireland was now being ruled from Westminster which enacted the “Penal Laws” which, initially, made it a big financial and social disadvantage to cling to Irish Catholicism and, eventually, a crime to do so. Irish Catholics were forbidden from purchasing or leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in or within 5 miles of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession…”
Even within Christianity, the Earth-honoring worldview had continued to thrive and feed the children of Ireland. And then from within that worldview was villanized and punished and nearly eradicated.
Which brings us to the modern era. Whether within the tradition of Celtic Christianity, or the pagan revival of pre-Christian Celtic Spirituality, we find a rising wave of interest in a religion that seeks unity with nature, and a life-giving cosmic story centered on this abundant, beautiful earth.
Modern pagan reconstructionists like Morgan Daimler seek to “[use] solid academic evidence and personal inspiration to envision what [the polytheism of ancient Ireland] would have looked like today if it had existed without interruption.”
Let’s look at some of the pieces of this new ancient tradition!
“It can be said,” writes Daimler (although in proper pagan fashion she also acknowledges that there are no hard and fast beliefs)
“that [we] share these basic beliefs: polytheism, animism, belief in honoring spirits and ancestors, immorality of the soul, and shared cosmology…..which means we believe in many Gods who are all unique individuals and also that all things have a spirit. This plays out in practice in the acknowledgement and honoring of different Irish Gods, often members of the Tuatha de Danann, and of Otherwordly spirits, spirits of the land, and ancestral spirits.”
She goes on to explain that:
“In Irish lore [the inhabitants of the Otherworld,] the Fair Folk, live in the land, on the sea, and in the air, being associated with the mounds, stone circles, and watery locations including the sea and bogs, caverns, and strange swirls of the wind as well as specific trees, especially lone hawthorn trees. Looking at this we can perhaps begin to see that the Irish concept of the Other world is as complex as the beliefs about the people who live within it.
These Otherworldly lands are described as being fair beyond measure, beautiful, peaceful, and rich. Many mortals in tales who were taken into Fairyland did not want to leave it until a longing to see their families or old homes finally overtook them…The concept of the Otherworld plays a significant role in Irish cosmology.”
John Matthews adds: “To most of us living in the West today, the whole of life, including its spirituality, is based on an ethic which has separated people from the rest of [nature], divided spirit from flesh, mind from matter.”
In Celtic Spirituality this is not so. The Otherworld is as real, alive, and available as this physical earth- there is no separation of spirit and matter, or of human and nature. All is interconnected.
The four major holy days of Celtic pagan spirituality are called the Fire Festivals, and fall roughly in between the solar festivals of the soltices and equinoxes.
Samhain falls at the end of October. “Usually a three-day celebration, fires are extinguished and re-lit from one central sacred fire. The spirits of the dead are believed to return to their homes on Samhain and it is a folk practice to leave out a plate of food, a glass of water, or to light a white candle to welcome them.
Imbolc in early February is most focused on the family. In most parts of Ireland the women of the household, especially the oldest daughter, played the most important role during this holiday, which honored the Goddess Brighid.
Beltaine, like Samhain, is a three-day celebration that had many folk practices associated with it. Among them, the fire was extinguished and re-lit, echoing Samhain, and an old practice of building two fires between which the livestock were driven for blessing.
Lunasa was once a holiday celebrated over several weeks. At its core, “Lunasa celebrates the beginning of the harvest and the new abundance of food being gathered. Another common practice was for people to gather together outdoors and a traditional place, often with the entire community, and the site chosen would not only be someplace beautiful and wild, but also remote enough that traveling to it would represent something of a challenge.”
All religions change, and people always move- there is no pure expression of a faith tradition or spiritual pathway.
That being said, we live in a most exciting time in human civilization: we have the tools to explore our forgotten histories, the horrible lessons we’ve learned from having enacted great violence and oppression, and ultimately the freedom to form our own ideologies forged of these learnings.
Especially here, on this continent, among the settler peoples, the opportunity to choose a different worldview, one that recognizes our place in the interconnected web of life and the cosmos is of utmost importance.
And so I leave you today with the words of Lyla June Johnston, a Diné singer, writer, and activist— words that thrill my spirit:
“the Great Sacred Motherland of Europe is still alive and breathing and waiting for her children to come home! She is waiting for us to ask her for songs so that we may sing to her once again. She is waiting for us to scratch passed the surface of time, into the B.C. period when our languages were thriving and our dancing feet kissed the face of the earth. She is waiting. She is waiting for us to remember who we are. If you hold this descent, or any forgotten descent for that matter, I am asking you to join me in this prayer to remember who we are. I have a feeling this prayer will heal the whole world.”
Daimler, Morgan “Irish Paganism: Reconstructing Irish Polytheism” Moon Books: Winchester UK 2015.
Greenfield, Trevor, ed., “The Celtic Goddess” Moon Books: Winchester, UK 2018.
Johnston, Lyda June “The Story of How Humanity Fell in Love with Itself Again” radicaldiscipleship.net January 12, 2018.
Matthews, John “The Celtic Shaman: A Practical Guide” Rider Books: London 2001. (first published 1991)
Berger, Eric “Celtic Spirituality draws pagans and Christians alike” Religion News Service religionnews.com March 25, 2019.
O’Duinn, Sean “Where Three Streams Meet: Celtic Spirituality” Columbia Press: 2000.
O’Laoire, Sean “Celtic Spirituality 101 – Before the Time of Christ” patheos.com May 31, 2016.
O’Laoire, Sean “Celtic Spirituality 201 – The Arrival of Christianity” patheos.com May 31, 2016.
O’Laoire, Sean “Celtic Spirituality 301 – The Leaven and the Diaspora” patheos.com May 31, 2016.