Partly there is a problem dealing with Celtic spirituality, or indeed, Celtic anything. It is comparatively recently in history that the coalescence of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Briton, Manx, and other 'Celtic fringe' cultural groups have been classified as a unified Celtic society. Certainly the early people in these regions (not to mention those on the continent) would have seen differences as outweighing the similarities, and would have found unity only in being non-Roman and non-Germanic.
Certainly there is a sharing of story, world view, and spiritual sense, however, that helps us make sense of describing Celtic Spirituality as a category. This relates both to the earlier non-Christian Celtic religions (yes, there was more than one) and the ways in which Christianity spread to the Celtic regions.
'While recognising the importance of Celtic primal religion at the earliest and most formative stage of evangelisation of the Celtic-speaking cultures, it must be recognised that the surviving evidence for Celtic religion in sparse, and often comes from widely differing places and times. But something of its general character does emerge.'
Included in this character are a sense of place (which often includes woodlands, water, glades, springs, mountains, etc.). Ideas of treasure, particularly hidden treasure, and that being a treasure that is not always what the world would value, abound. Heroism and bravery, often at dramatic cost with a deep sense of loss even in the victories, goes through many tales. Other worldly and pantheistic imagery coexist in many ways. Animals and birds are often seen as messengers, harbingers, or symbolic -- many of the illuminated manuscript from Irish monasteries show the continuation of this sort of influence. Celtic religions are also predominantly oral, hence the popularity of story, song, and poem as opposed to argued technical essays or homiletic forms.
The texts in this volume are divided according to the following categories:
These are lives of the saints, often told as heroic (and sometimes tragic) tales. Of course the greatest cycle known to us is the Patrick Tradition -- those stories and legends that have gathered around St. Patrick, who lived in the fifth century. These include letters, declarations, a life story, sayings, and St. Patrick's Breastplate, known to many as a very long hymn, but which actually exists in many different forms. Apart from the Patrick stories are stories of St. Brigit, St. Brendan, St. David, St. Beuno, and St. Melangell, all unique Celtic saints.
In a recently issued popular history, entitled How the Irish Saved Civilisation, Thomas Cahill argues that the preservation of culture and learning in the Irish monastic movement gives us much of our knowledge and continuation from civilisation in the past. There is much to be said for this argument, for the early Irish love of books, knowledge, and historical sense of preservation of the valuable gives us much of Celtic wisdom, as well as much of the Greco-Roman tradition as well.
Early Irish and Welsh poetry are presented, most of it anonymous, and much of it seems very similar to Celtic devotional material of today. It still speaks to us with a very strong voice.
Blessing and brightness,
Great power and might
To the King who rules over all.
To the chosen Trinity has been joined
Before all, after all, universal
Blessing and everlasting blessing,
Blessing everlasting and blessing.
This could be a text from a modern hymnal. The Celtic peoples, with their love of number symbols in addition to natural symbols, fastened on the idea of the Trinity with very little difficulty. The trifold nature of the above poem, going several layers deep, shows this affinity.
Devotional Texts and Liturgies
These texts are meant to be used for lectio divina, a kind of spiritual reading, as well as prayers enacted in the community for blessing. Some litanies and excerpts from the great Stowe Missal give a sense of patterns of worship for Celtic peoples.
Apocrypha, Exegesis, Homilies, and Theology
These four categories include expansions of the biblical text (such as the story of The Creation of Adam), and interpretation of particular pieces (a Gloss on Psalm 103) which gives insight into how Celtic peoples interpreted the biblical texts, which come from a culture so foreign and yet so similar to their own. Also, the Homilies give a sense on what preachers found important; that these survive may give us a sense also of what the hearers considered important (most of my homilies will not survive the week they are delivered!). The theology texts here give a good flavour of the academic and spiritual side of Celtic learning and reflection. The theological treatises are introduced and interspersed with verse that drives home the spiritual dimension far better than any learned discourse could do.
Seventy pages of notes on technical and academic aspects of the texts (translation, interpretation, history, cultural notation, etc.) and a generous fifteen-page bibliography help round out this text, and make it useful both for spiritual direction and insight as well as for academic research and historical and literary investigation.
Edited and introduced by Oliver Davies with collaboration from Thomas O'Loughlin, Celtic Spirituality draws primarily from Latin, Irish and Welsh manuscripts to show the texts that have been 'rediscovered' frequently in Christian history as providing an 'alternative' to mainstream' Christian thought and practice. Perhaps it is the legacy and the gift of the Celtic peoples to always provide a fringe, from Roman times to the present, and from that fringe a freshness of ideas, approach, and insight comes forward to renew culture and civilisation in many facets.
This is part of a series of spiritual and mystical writings from many religious viewpoints, produced by the Paulist Press. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts are presented with clarity, careful translation that works for accuracy both of word and spirit, and interesting historical insight.
In my eighteen or so years as a Celtic Catholic, and especially in the past five years, I have seen the term "Celtic Christianity" applied to everything from the sublime (love of nature and the saints) to the ridiculous (giving communion to your dog) to the utterly intolerable (worshipping pagan gods). Some modern writers on the theme do an excellent job of interpreting this strand of the Christian Faith for the modern reader; others are better left unread. So where is a serious inquirer to go for "the real goods"? Where to find out what our ancient Fathers and Mothers in the Faith really believed, thought, and did? Davies's book is an excellent resource.</P>
Limiting his own comments and interpretations to the introduction (and with an excellent preface by James Mackey), Davies contents himself with providing clear and easily readable translations of original source material. Some of the most important documents for understanding the mind of the early Celtic Christian are here. You can read all of St. Patrick's own writings and the ancient biography by Muirchú. Discover the most ancient accounts of St. Brigit, St. Brendan, St. David, and even the dear but little-known St. Melangell and her hare. But that's not all. There is the monastic Rule of St. Columbanus, ten Irish poems, twenty Welsh poems, and several devotional prayer-poems. You can find some of the oldest Celtic liturgical material, interpretations of Scriptural passages, ten ancient sermons, and some theology courtesy of Pelagius and John Scottus Eriugena.</P>
This is all original material, carefully translated and presented in an easy-to-use format. But it's not dry dusty stuff: it breathes a freshness from the early days of the Faith that is sometimes missing from more modern writers. We've perhaps been around too long, thought about it too much. Our Celtic saints got the good news "hot off the press," and embraced it with a shocking enthusiasm which is good for us jaded post-moderns. I hope you read this book and enjoy it as much as I have.</P>