17 April 2008

Is there a Celtic Spirituality?

Saint Chad’s Well at Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield. Saint Chad is an interesting link between Celtic spirituality in Ireland and the seventh century church in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2007)

Patrick Comerford


There is a fresh and new interest in Celtic Spirituality that is not confined to Ireland but that is a worldwide phenomenon. At an academic level it has been stimulated by the work of scholars such as the Jesuit Diarmud Ó Laoghaire, the Carmelite Peter O’Dwyer and the Redemptorist John Ó Ríordáin and writers such as the late John O’Donohue, poet and author of Anam Cara (1997) who died earlier this year. Last weekend, a group of first year students visited Durham Cathedral, including the shrine of Saint Cuthbert.

But if we are going to talk about Celtic spirituality, we should begin with a word of caution or warning: firstly, there is a lot of second-rate, romantic talk about Celtic spirituality and Celtic religion; and secondly, it is difficult to say if there is such a group of people as Celts. The term Celts comes from terms used by the Greeks and Romans to describe the people who lived in Gaul (France). But who were the Celts?

Much of the writing about Celtic spirituality is superficial, amateur, new age material, making spurious claims for the writers and against Christianity. For example:

“Perhaps it is this mixture of pagan and Christian that makes Celtic Spirituality so interesting and so accessible today. For many the established churches have become too sterile and dead, trapped in their mausoleums of stone and religious diktat. It is easier to find spiritual truth in a sacred grove than a dusty half empty church hall.”

Or what do you make of this claim:

“Celtic Spirituality … is not a religion, it is a series of beliefs and practices to help you become aware of the spiritual world around you and your place in it. Whether you find it suitable to work with Jesus, his apostles and the Celtic Saints, or Brigid, Mannán Mac Lir and the Celtic gods, it matters little. What matters is that your life is enriched; you are at peace with your inner-being and that you become aware of the magic and incredible world that surrounds us all.”

Patrick Wormald observes: “It is difficult to resist the impression that what Protestant confessionalism did for the idea of a ‘Celtic’ church until the 1960s is now being done by ‘new age’ paganism, based on notions of some sort of ‘Celtic spirituality’ allegedly distinguished by a unique ‘closeness to nature’.”

We need to approach any discussion about Celtic spirituality with both theological and cultural caution.

The Celts: who were they?

The English word Celt is modern. Romantic antiquarian interest from the 17th century on led to the term “Celt” being extended. It is first used in the modern way in 1707 in the writings of Edward Lhuyd, whose work, along with that of other late 17th century scholars, brought academic attention to the languages and history of these early inhabitants of these islands. The rise of nationalism brought Celtic revivals from the 19th century in areas where the use of Celtic languages had continued.

“Celtic” is now used to identify the languages and cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany – known traditionally as the six Celtic nations. But “Celtic” is also used to describe Continental European regions with a Celtic heritage but without a Celtic language, such as northern Iberia, and to a lesser degree France.

But was there ever such a group as “Celtic” people? During the Iron Age, Celtic-speaking people lived across a wide range of lands, from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to Anatolia (Asia Minor). But the origin of the people we call Celts is a subject of debate and controversy. Did they originate in southern Europe, or in what is now southern Germany and Austria? And how did they reach the remote Atlantic coast and islands of Western Europe we now know as the “Celtic fringe”?

“Celticity” generally refers to the shared cultural indicators of a group peoples, such as language, myths, artefacts and social organisation. But recent theories emphasise their shared culture and language rather than seeking any common ethnicity.

The origin of the names used since classical times for the Celtic peoples is obscure and has been controversial. Indeed, there are 19 records of the alternative term “Pictish” being used for the inhabitants of Ireland and Britain before the 18th century.

There are few written records of ancient Celtic languages and most of the evidence for personal names and place names is found in Greek and Roman authors. And the only direct archaeological evidence for Celtic-speaking peoples comes from coins and inscriptions.

The Greek and Latin words that give us the term Celt (Latin Celtus, plural Celti or Celtae; Greek Κέλτης, plural Κέλται, or Κελτός, plural Κελτοί) seem to be based on a native Celtic ethnic name. A direct clue that the different names used by Greek writers (Κελτοί or Γαλᾶται) and Latin writers (Galli) refer to speakers of the same or similar languages comes from Saint Jerome (AD 342-419), who, in his commentary on the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, notes the language of the Anatolian Galatians at his time.

The first literary reference to the Celtic people, as Κελτοί (Κeltoi), is by the Greek historian Hecataeus of Miletus in 517 BC. He says that the town of Massilia (Marseilles) is near the Celts and also mentions a Celtic town of Nyrex (Noreia in Austria?). Herodotus appears to locate the Keltoi either at the source of the Danube or in Iberia, but the reference is not clear.

The English Gaul(s) and Latin Gallus or Galli may derive from a Celtic ethnic or tribal name that was borrowed into Latin during Celtic expansions into Italy in the 400s BC. On the other hand, its root may be the common Celtic galno, meaning power or strength. The Greek Γαλᾶται (Galatai) seems to be based on the same root, borrowed directly from the same hypothetical Celtic source which gave us Galli (the suffix -atai is simply an ethnic name indicator). There are indications too of a Romance adaptation of the Germanic Walha- when it comes to the English word Welsh, which originates from word wælisc, the Anglo-Saxon form of walhiska-, the Germanic word for “foreign.”

There are many competing theories about the original homeland of the Celts. For some scholars, Celtic proto-language may have arisen in the Pontic-Caspian region. Strabo suggests that the Celtic heartland was in southern France. Pliny the Elder says the Celts originated in southern Portugal and Spain.

Celts settled in Thrace (southern Bulgaria and northern Greece), where they ruled for over a century, and in Anatolia (Asia Minor), where they we know them in the New Testament as the Galatians. The Galatians maintained their Celtic language for at least 700 years, if we accept the evidence from Saint Jerome.

Whatever their origins may have been, by the Roman period most of the inhabitants of the isles of Ireland and Britain were speaking Goidelic or Brythonic languages, close counterparts to Gallic languages spoken on continental Europe.

The Book of Leinster, written in the 12th century but drawing on a much earlier Irish oral tradition, states that the first Celts to arrive in Ireland were from Iberia. But we do not know what languages were spoken in Ireland and Britain before the Celts arrived.

There is little archaeological evidence in Ireland for large intrusive groups of Celtic immigrants. European Celtic influences and language may have been absorbed gradually. But did the Celts arrive in Ireland by invasion? Or did their culture and language spread gradually to other peoples already living on these islands? As one writer in The Irish Times argued recently, just because we all eat pasta and pizza, drink Chianti, holiday in Tuscany and are familiar with Versace and Gucci, doesn’t make us Italian, even in culture. Nor does it indicate there was ever an Italian invasion of Ireland. Were the Celtic languages and culture adopted as some sort of early fashion statement?

Celtic Christianity

Is there any way in which we talk about a “Celtic Christianity” with distinguishing, unique traditions, especially in spirituality, liturgies and rituals that mark it out from other traditions in the Church in the neighbouring sub-Roman world?

“Celtic Christianity,” or Insular Christianity – sometimes called the “Celtic Church” – broadly refers to the early mediaeval Christian practice that developed around the Irish Sea in the 5th and 6th centuries, among many people on these islands, including the Irish, Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Cumbrians, but excluding the Anglo-Saxons and some Picts. By extension, the term can refer to the monastic networks founded from Scotland and Ireland on Continental Europe, especially Gaul (France).

The term “Celtic Christianity” is sometimes extended beyond the 7th century to describe later Christian practice in these areas. But the history of Irish, Welsh, Scots, Breton, Cornish, and Manx churches diverges significantly after the 8th century, with great differences developing between even rival Irish traditions.

Historians generally avoid this use of the term in this context. Indeed, many historians do not use the term “Celtic Church”, since that entails a sense of there being a unified and identifiable entity separated from greater Latin Christendom.

It is easy to exaggerate the cohesiveness of the Celtic Christian communities. Scholars have long recognised that the term “Celtic Church” is simply inappropriate to describe Christianity among Celtic-speaking peoples, since this would imply a notion of unity, or a self-identifying entity, that simply did not exist.

Patrick Wormald writes: “One of the common misconceptions is that there was a ‘Roman Church’ to which the ‘Celtic’ [Church] was nationally opposed.” Celtic-speaking areas were part of Latin Christendom as a whole. Within that Latin Christendom, there was a significant degree of variations in liturgy and structure, alongside a respect for the standing of the see of Rome.

But we can talk about certain traditions in Celtic-speaking lands, and the development and spread of these traditions, especially in the 6th and 7th centuries. Some scholars call this expression of Christianity “Insular Christianity” when they talk of the Churches grouped around the Irish Sea, the “Celtic Mediterranean.” The term “Celtic Christianity” may also be used simply in the sense of different Catholic practices, institutions, and saints amongst the Celtic peoples, in which case it could be used meaningfully well beyond the 7th century.

Celtic Christianity

Saint Patrick:

Britain was the most remote province in the Roman Empire. Christianity reached England in the first few centuries AD, and the first recorded martyr in England was Saint Alban, during the reign of Diocletian.

The Roman legions were withdrawn from England in 407 to defend Italy during the attacks by the Visigoths. Rome was sacked in 410, the legions did not return to England, and Roman influence came to an end. In the time that followed, these islands developed distinctively from the rest of Western Europe, and the Irish Sea acted as a centre from which a new culture developed among the “Celtic” peoples.

Christianity has central role in this process, with a distinctive, Insular Christianity emerging with its own traditions and practices.

Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire. But Christianity came here from the former Roman outposts, and a unique Church organisation emerged, focussed on the monasteries, rather than on episcopal dioceses.

Important figures in this process included Saint Ninian, Palladius, and Saint Patrick, the so-called “Apostle to the Irish.”

The regions under Roman rule adopted Christianity along with the rest of the Roman Empire. Christianity first came to the Celts in the 2nd century, during the Roman occupation of England and Wales, possibly through Christians in the army. However, Ireland and Scotland were outside Roman rule and only moved from Celtic polytheism to Christianity in the 5th century AD.

Ireland was converted under missionaries from Britain such as Patrick.

As this distinctive expression of Christianity was emerging and developing, the Anglo-Saxons, who were not yet Christians, were migrating to or invading England from Frisia and other Germanic areas.

Celtic missions

Early Celtic saints and founding figures of the Church included Saint Martin in France, Saint Ninian in Scotland, Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid in Ireland, Saint Illtyd, Saint Samson and Saint David in Wales and Brittany. Other important Celtic saints, or saints who influenced the development of Christianity in the Celtic-speaking areas include Saints Dubricius, Illtud, David, Cadoc, Deiniol, Samson, Paul Aurelian, Petroc, Piran, Ia, Brigit, Moluag, Kentigern (Mungo), and Germanus of Auxerre.

In the 6th and 7th centuries, monks from Ireland established monastic settlements in parts of Scotland. They included Saint Columba or Saint Colmcille, who settled on Iona. In the 6th century, Ireland became “a land of saints and scholars” and missionaries from Ireland became a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Saxon parts of Britain and central Europe.

As the Anglo-Saxons colonised what is now England, Celtic missionaries from Scotland and Ireland set out to evangelise them. In the year 631, Saint Aidan was sent from Iona to evangelise them from the island of Lindisfarne, on England’s north-east coast. Monks from Iona, under Saint Aidan, founded the See of Lindisfarne in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in 635. From there, Celtic practice heavily influenced northern England, and the missionaries from Lindisfarne reached as far south as London.

Irish monks were also settling in Continental Europe, particularly in Gaul (France), including Saint Columbanus. Irish monks exerted a profound influence greater than many Continental centres that could boast much more ancient traditions.

Meanwhile, in 597, Pope Gregory sent a mission to the English, led by Augustine. These renewed links with the greater Latin West brought the Celtic-speaking peoples into close contact with other expressions of Christianity. Some of the customs and traditions that had developed in Celtic Christianity gave rise to disputes with the rest of the Western Church. These included questions on how to calculate the date of Easter, differences on the use of tonsure, and penitential rites.

Distinctive traditions

The achievements of Christianity in the Celtic-speaking world are significant. For example, Irish society had no pre-Christian history of literacy. Yet within a few generations of the arrival of Christianity, the monastic and clerical class of the isle had become fully integrated with the culture of Latin letters. Apart from their Latin texts, Irish monks also developed a written language for Old Irish.

Some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition were during this period, such as the Book of Kells, and intricately carved high standing crosses.

The episcopal structures were adapted to an environment that was wholly different from the prevailing sub-Roman world. By the 7th century, the established ecclesiastical structure on Continental Europe was one bishop for each diocese. The bishop had his see in a city that was able to support a cathedral. This structure, to some degree, mirrored the secular administrative structures of the Roman Empire, which had subdivided provinces into “dioceses.” However, most of the Celtic world had never been part of the Roman Empire. With the notable exceptions of parts of Wales, Devon, and Cornwall, the Celtic world was without developed cities. And so a different ecclesiastical structure was needed for Insular Christianity, especially in Ireland.

This ecclesiastical structure developed around monastic communities ruled by abbots, and the monastic institutions were integrated into their royal houses and domains. Abbots often were not ordained as priests or bishops, and so separate bishops were still needed for sacramental functions. Unlike continental diocesan bishops, these bishops often had little authority within Celtic ecclesiastical structure.

The first example of a papal privilege granting a monastery freedom from episcopal oversight is provided by Pope Honorius I for one of Saint Columbanus’s monasteries.

Calculating the date of Easter

Celtic Christianity was often marked by its conservatism, even archaism. One example is the method used to calculate Easter, with Insular Christianity using a calculation table similar to one approved by Saint Jerome. However, by the 6th and 7th centuries this method was obsolete and the table been replaced by those of Victorius of Aquitaine and Dionysius Exiguus.

As the Celtic Churches renewed their contact with Continental Europe, the divergence became obvious. Most groups, including the southern Irish, accepted the updated tables, but not the monastery of Iona and the houses linked to it.

At the Synod of Whitby in 664, the rules of the Roman mission were accepted by the Church in England, and they were extended later throughout Britain and Ireland. But the decrees of Whitby did not immediately change the face of Christianity on these islands. There were pockets of resistance to the Roman mission, especially in Devon, Cornwall and Scotland, and the monks of Iona did not accept the decisions reached at Whitby in 664 until 716.

Irish monks kept a distinct tonsure, or method of cutting one’s hair, to distinguish their social identity as monks (rather than warriors or peasants, who wore different styles of hair). The ‘Celtic’ tonsure involved cutting away the hair above one’s forehead. This differed from the prevailing custom, which was to shave the top of the head, leaving a halo of hair – in imitation of Christ’s crown of thorns.


In Ireland a distinctive form of penance developed, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and where penance was given privately and ordinarily performed privately as well. Certain handbooks were made, called “penitentials”, designed as a guide for confessors and as a means of regularising the penance given for each particular sin.

In the past, penance had been a public ritual. Penitents were divided into a separate part of the church during the liturgy, even coming to church in sackcloth and ashes in a process known as exomologesis that often involved general confession. This public penance may have been preceded by a private confession, and for some sins private penance may have been allowed. Nonetheless, penance and reconciliation was prevailingly a public rite that included absolution at its conclusion.

The Irish penitential practice spread throughout continental Europe, where the form of public penance had fallen into disuse. Saint Columbanus is said to have introduced the medicamenta paentitentiae, the “medicines of penance,” to Gaul at a time when they had come to be neglected. Alhough the process met some resistance, by 1215 the practice had become established as the norm, with the Fourth Lateran Council establishing a canonical statute requiring confession at a minimum of once per year.

Renewed interest in ‘Celtic Spirituality’

The notion of a “Celtic Church,” and its nature, has been a continual source of disagreement and symbolism, beginning especially with the Reformations. Some Roman Catholic writers argue that the idea of a separate tradition from that of Rome is an anachronism and mythological. Some authors accuse George Buchanan and others of supplying “the initial propaganda for the makers of the Scottish Kirk” by inventing the notion of a national “Celtic” Church opposed to a “Roman” one.

At times, the Reformations and the political events surrounding them have been interpreted as a return to true and original Christian traditions. However, what might be accepted or rejected as historically factual does not detract from the symbolic nature of a Celtic Church which was overtaken by Romanised Christianity.

Nevertheless, the Celtic tradition met more resistance after the 16th century Reformations. In Scotland, a combination of religious persecution and the 19th century Highland clearances caused the Celtic culture to fragment and the oral tradition began to be lost.

In the 19th century, however, there was a revival of interest in Celtic spirituality in these islands, with renewed interest in the poetry, customs or household prayers of the western Celtic fringes.

In Scotland, many of the poems and prayers were gathered in the 19th century to form a collection edited by Alexander Carmichael as the Carmina Gadelica (1900) and in Ireland by Douglas Hyde, a son of a Church of Ireland rector and later the first President of Ireland, in the Religious Songs of Connacht (1906).

In 1938, George McCleod, a Church of Scotland minister, rebuilt Iona’s ancient Abbey, fulfilling a prophecy of Saint Columba, and founded the modern Iona Community.

Since the 1980s, Celtic-style books of prayers by the Revd David Adam, Vicar of Lindisfarne, have became widely popular, as have a wave of books about Celtic Christianity, study courses, and Celtic interest networks.

Themes in Celtic Spirituality

For centuries the riches of Celtic spirituality were transmitted orally. These included prayers sung or chanted at the rising and setting of the sun, in the midst of daily work and routine, at a child's birth, or a loved one’s deathbed. There were prayers of daily life celebrating God as Life within all life, with creation as his dwelling place. God was always overwhelmingly present all around.


Celtic Christians saw a universe ablaze with God’s glory, suffused with a presence that calls, nods and beckons – a creation personally united with its Creator in every atom and fibre. – David Adam

There’s no plant in the ground
But is full of his blessing.
There’s no thing in the sea
But is full of his life...
There is nought in the sky
But proclaims his goodness.
Jesu! O Jesu! it’s good to praise thee!
– (Carmina Gadelica)

Saint Patrick called Jesus the True Sun. Ray Simpson writes in Celtic Blessings: “A good way to experience Jesus is to use what I call the Sun Bathing Exercise. Imagine Jesus as the smiling sunshine of God pouring rays of light upon you. Just soak these up, relax and feel better! Celtic Christians see Jesus as the divine light that permeates all creation. So by spending time in nature we can also be spending time with Jesus.”


The glory of God is seen in a human life lived to the full. – Saint Irenaeus of Lyons

O Son of God … dear child of Mary, you are the refined molten metal of our forge. – Tadhg Og O Huiginn

Christ is the supreme example of a complete human life. By being united to him, we can learn how to be fully human by finding a body-mind-intuition balance, and by growing in wisdom and, above all, love.

Worship and community

Early Celtic Christians shared their food, money, work, play and worship in little communities which were always open to the people who lived around them. Wherever they lived they saw Christ in their neighbour and made community with them.

Celtic writers talked about worshipping God with the "five stringed harp" – meaning all five senses. The Celtic churches punctuated each day and night with periods of prayer.

The Trinity

Celtic Christians had a strong emphasis on the Holy Trinity. They followed the one God who embraces the world with his two arms of love: the right arm is Christ, the left arm is the Spirit.

I lie down this night with God
And God will lie down with me
I lie down this night with Christ
And Christ will lie down with me
I lie down this night with the Spirit
And the Spirit will lie down with me.
– (Carmina Gadelica)

Everyday prayers

The Celts prayed about anything and everything in a natural way. Prayers for frequent activities were learned by heart and handed down by word of mouth or later in writing.

Some of the Celtic prayers are blessings:

Bless to me, O God
Each thing my eye sees,
Each sound my ear hears,
Each person I meet.

Some Celtic prayers were “circling prayers”:

Circle me, Lord.
Keep peace within,
keep harm without.
Circle me, Lord.
Keep love within,
keep hate without.

Prayer and imagination

Celtic prayer is also marked by the use of imagination, for example, by imagining that Jesus, his mother or friends were in the kitchen, in the house, in the workplace, or even in the bedroom. Here are some examples:

I will do my household chores as would Mary, mother of Jesus.

I will travel to my next place in the presence of the angels of protection.

Who is that near me when I am sad and alone?
It is Jesus, the King of the sun.

Armour (“Breastplate”) prayers

The most famous of the armour or breastplate prayers for protection is known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. This invites God’s force-field to strengthen us for life’s struggles.

The armour consists of:

1. God – the three in one
2. Human valour as lived by Christ
3. Angels and great souls
4. Powers of creation
5. Spiritual gifts

The praying person then confronts negative forces one by one, invites Christ into each situation, and repeats the opening invocation.

In the prayer we call Saint Patrick’s Breastplate (see Hymns 322 and 611 in Church Hymnal) the writer imagines that he is Patrick, putting on the different items of God’s armour: God, good spirits, saints, powers of creation, spiritual gifts – just like a suit of armour. The eighth verse of this prayer (Hymn 322) has these words:

Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Blessing prayers

The Celtic way was to bless everything in life (except evil), however earthy or everyday, all around the clock. Animals, food, gifts, jobs, lovemaking, meals, travel. Here are examples of an anniversary and a sleep blessing:

On this your anniversary
God give you the best of memories,
Christ give you pardon for failings,
Spirit give you the fruits of friendship.

Sleep in peace,
Sleep soundly,
Sleep in love.
Weaver of dreams
Weave well in you as you sleep.
– Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings.

Miracles and Celtic saints

In Celtic Christianity, saints were regarded as holy spiritual overlords who were close to God, provided assistance in times of need, had special influence in the court of heaven, and were able to plead with God for favours.

Many miracles were associated with them, including visions, healings, favours granted, mystical appearances and more. Places where miracles had been performed became pilgrimage sites.

The Anamchara

Celtic Christians recognised the importance of shared spiritual journeys, and their Anamchara or Soul Friend, was their spiritual director. Anamchara were sought out as men and women of wisdom, great spirituality and insight, who were willing to share their understanding of the faith with others. Saint Brigid said that “the person without an Anamchara is like a body without a head.”

Some Celtic saints:

Saint Brigid of Kildare

Saint Brigid is second only to Saint Patrick as the patron of Ireland. She is also known as Mary of the Gael. A passage in the Book of Lismore testifies to her importance: “It is she who helpeth everyone who is in danger; it is she that abateth the pestilences; it is she that quelleth the rage and the storm of the sea. She is the prophetess of Christ; she is the Queen of the South; she is the Mary of the Gael.”

Saint Brigid is said to offer protection to poets, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, dairymaids, midwives, newborn babies and fugitives. The numerous stories of miracles performed by her even in childhood convey the impression that she was really a person of compassion, charity and strength. To fetch well water which tasted more like ale for a sick servant or to pick up rushes from the floor to twist into a cross to explain the message of salvation to a dying man show her practicality and resourcefulness. Her generosity was legendary and frequently necessitated resort to prayer to make good the deficit.

Her father Dubtach was a pagan nobleman in Leinster, and her mother his Christian bondwoman, Brotseach, whom he sold to a Druid who lived at Faughart near Dundalk. There the child was born in the mid-5th century, ca 451 or 453, and given Christian baptism with the name of Brid or Brigid. It is said that as a child she was taken to hear Saint Patrick preach, and as she listened to him she fell into an ecstasy.

At marriageable age, perhaps 14, she decided to enter the religious life. She left home with seven other young girls and travelled to Co Meath where Saint Macaille was bishop.

Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. She went to Ardagh to make their final vows before Saint Mel, a nephew of Saint Patrick. Here Brigid founded another convent and she remained there for 12 years.

Later, a unique community of monks and nuns developed at Kildare, with Brigid as Abbess of the nuns and Conleth, the first Bishop of Kildare, as Abbot of the monks, but with the reins of authority firmly in Brigid’s hands. Kildare became a centre for spirituality and learning, healing, faith-sharing and evangelism.

Brigid died on 1 February ca 521 and 528. She is depicted in art as an abbess holding a lamp or candle with often a cow in the background. This poem is ascribed to her:

I long for a great lake of ale I long for the meats of belief and pure piety I long for the flails of penance at my house I long for them to have barrels full of peace I long to give away jars full of love I long for them to have cellars full of mercy I long for cheerfulness to be in their drinking I long for Jesus too to be there among them.

For a sermon on the occasion of Saint Brigid’s Day, 1 February 2008, visit: http://revpatrickcomerford.blogspot.com/2008/02/thoughts-on-saint-brigids-day.html

Saint Columba

Columba is intimately associated with Iona, a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland - and is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. But he was born in Ireland and lived here until his 40s, and is linked to a number of Irish monastic foundations, including Kells and Derry.

He was born in Co Donegal in December 520 into a wealthy royal family and was given the name Colum (“the dove”). He became a priest at a monastery founded by Saint Finian and spent many years in his home region establishing literally hundreds of churches and monasteries.

It is said that during a visit to see Saint Finnian, Columba secretly copied a beautifully inscribed Psalter that Finnian had brought back from Rome, and in doing this devalued the original book. Columba refused to give back the copy and Finnian challenged him in court. The king ruled in favour of Finnian, saying famously: “To every cow belongs her calf; to every book belongs its copy.”

However, when Columba still refused to give back his copy a clan war broke out between the king’s followers and Columba’s supporters. Many people were killed in the fighting, and Columba was ashamed. He decided to make restitution by bringing to Christ, as many people in another land as had lost their life in his own land in the war. He had chosen the way of “white martyrdom” – exiling himself from his homeland as a penance.

In 563, at the age of 42, Columba and 12 companion monks sailed in a currach to the island of Iona, where he settled in Iona and founded a monastery.

The monks on Iona lived in separate cells and spent many hours in worship and contemplation, and in producing beautiful copies of the Gospels. They worked hard on the land to support themselves and to provide hospitality to visitors. Iona became the largest Christian centre in northern Britain, attracting thousands of monks.

Iona later became a centre for missionary outreach. Much of the highlands of Scotland were evangelised from Iona.

It is said that Saint Columba raised from the dead a child of one of the Pictish kings in Inverness, who was then converted to Christianity and encouraged his subjects also to convert. Columba wrote many poems and songs.

In 597, at the age of 76, a week before he died, Columba climbed the hill overlooking the monastery in Iona, blessed the monks, and said: “In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, Instead of monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle, But ere the world come to an end Iona shall be as it was.” During his last days he dictated a prayer to his monks:

See that you are at peace among yourselves,
my children, and love one another.
Take the example of the good men of ancient
times and God will comfort and aid you,
both in this world and in the world to come.

His feast day is 9 June.

Iona continued to be an important Christian centre after Columba’s death, and there was a Benedictine monastery and convent there from the Middle Ages. The monasteries and convent on Iona were closed by the Scottish reformers in the 1560s. They fell into ruin and the island returned to a grazing place.

Iona Abbey, and the founding of the Iona Community in the 1930s by George Macleod which continues to grow and inspire Christians today from throughout the world. Again, just as Columba predicted.

Saint Cuthbert (636-687)

Saint Cuthbert was born around 634 in the Scottish border country near Melrose. Later, he worked there a shepherd. One night, by the River Leader, he had a vision of a great light, stretching from earth to heaven. The light faded and Cuthbert was left to wonder about the meaning of the vision. He learned later that on that same night, 31 August 651, Saint Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died. To the young shepherd, the vision seemed to be a challenge and a call to serve God. He entered the Monastery of Old Melrose – one of the parent seats of the Church in Scotland and founded by Aidan – and there he spent 13 years as a monk.

Eata, Abbot of Melrose, took Cuthbert with him to Ripon where they entered the monastery together. Cuthbert later returned to Melrose as Prior in 661. As prior, he took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664, when accepted the synod decisions on the date of Easter and the tonsure.

Cuthbert returned to Lindisfarne as Prior but then travelled the length and breadth of Northumbria, from the River Tees to the Firth of Forth. He preached in Galloway, giving his name to the largest county, Kirk-Cuthbert, now known as Kirkcudbright. He was a missionary as well as a monk and won many for Christ through his conversations rather than by preaching.

Cuthbert was reputed to have the gift of healing and so, wherever he went, people would flock to him in scenes reminiscent of the ministry of Christ. Bede says that no one took home with them the burden that they came with.

Tradition has it that, on his journeys, Cuthbert stopped by the shores of the Nor' Loch just below Edinburgh Castle and built a little hut there on the site of the present Saint Cuthbert’s Church.

In search of a solitary life, Cuthbert and some of his monks built a round cell and chapel of stones and turf six miles south of Lindisfarne. He lived there for eight years, devoting his time to prayer.

In York on Easter Day, 26 March 685, he was consecrated bishop and became Bishop of Lindisfarne, following in Aidan's footsteps. He died in 687.

Saint Cuthbert was known for his miracles during his life, and also after his death. During the Danish raids in Northumbria in 698, Cuthbert’s followers moved his body and carried it from place to place for safety. In 883, he was buried in Chester-le-Street and in 996 he was reburied in Durham Cathedral, where his shrine remains to this day.

Some key centres for Celtic spirituality:


Glencolubkille and Garton, Co Donegal: Garton is the birthplace of Saint Columba, and he described Glencolumbkille as “Glen of the psalms and the prayers, glen of Heaven.”

Glendalough, Co Wicklow: Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, 25 miles from Dublin, is the best preserved “monastic city” in Ireland, with its round tower, seven churches and visitor's centre, which tells the story of its founder, Saint Kevin.


Iona: Saint Columba established his monastery on Iona in the 6th century. The modern Iona Community was founded in 1938 as an ecumenical community committed to seeking new ways of living the Christian faith in today’s world.

Whithorn: Saint Ninian founded the first large Christian community here in the 5th century. The Whithorn Dig is excavating the site, and provides a focus for visitors. Half a mile away on the shore hundreds of pilgrims have inscribed prayers on the rocks at Saint Ninian’s Cave.


Saint David’s and Saint Non’s: Saint David’s Cathedral is near the site of the great monastic community founded by Wales’s patron saint. At nearby Saint Non’s, a well and retreat house mark the traditional site where David’s mother, Non, gave birth, and is the start of a coastal pilgrim trail.


Lindisfarne, Northumberland: Lindisfarne has sometimes been described as the “cradle of English Christianity.” Alcuin, adviser to the Emperor Charlemagne, described Lindisfarne as “the holiest place in England.” It was from Lindisfarne that Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert spread the Christian faith north and south.

Whitby, Yorkshire: The ruins of Saint Hilda’s Abbey and the magnificent Caedmon Cross in the churchyard opposite stand out like sentinels on this cliff top site. This was once the largest English monastic community for men and women. Today, the Order of The Holy Paraclete offers retreat accommodation at Saint Hilda’s Priory.

Durham: The shrine of Saint Cuthbert is at Durham Cathedral.

Lichfield: The shrine of Saint Chad, who was educated at an Irish monastery and established the church in Mercia.

Bradwell, Essex: The 9th century chapel in Bradwell was founded by Saint Cedd of Lindisfarne.

Resources and links:

Web resources:

The Centre for the Study of Religion in Celtic Societies at the University of Wales has an e-library: click here
The Iona Community: http://www.iona.org.uk/
The Island of Lindisfarne: http://www.lindisfarne.org.uk/
Saint Hilda’s Priory, the Order of the Holy Paraclete, Whitby: http://www.ohpwhitby.org/index.htm
Wild Goose Resource Group: http://www.iona.org.uk/wgrg_home.php


David Adam, Border Lands (Sheed & Ward). The Best of David Adam's Celtic vision. This is a compilation of four of his most popular books and includes prayers, meditations and Celtic art.
David Adam, The Eye of the Eagle (Triangle). The Celtic hymn, Be Thou My Vision, is still popular after 12 centuries. David Adam takes the reader through this hymn, seeking to discover the spiritual riches that are hidden in all our lives.
Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1993). Ian Bradley is a Presbyterian minister from the Church of Scotland and lectured in the Department of Theology in the University of Aberdeen. This is a good, sound introduction to Celtic spirituality.
Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community (London: Harper Collins, 2000). An introduction to daily prayer drawing on resources from the “Celtic Church” throughout these islands, with good notes and introductions to further resources.
The Iona Community Worship Book (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 1994 ed).
Mary Keaney, Celtic Heritage Saints (Dublin: Veritas, 1998) … introduces us to scholars, adventurous sailors, saints who get their heads chopped off, friends and enemies of kings. Good for using in schools, Sunday schools, and with confirmation classes.
Diana Leatham, They Built on Rock (Hodder & Stoughton). This book tells the stories of the Celtic saints who maintained their faith during the Dark Ages. The people profiled include Saint Cuthbert, Saint Ninian, Saint David and Saint Columba.
James P. Mackey, An introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh T&T Clark, 1995 ed). A well-edited collection of essays by 14 of the best experts on Celtic Christianity, including mission, liturgy, prayers, hymns and the arts.
Caitlín Matthews, Celtic Devotional: daily prayers and rituals (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 2004): some useful resources, including prayer, blessings and ceremonies.
Patrick Murray, The Deer’s Cry (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1986). A useful anthology of poetry and verse.
Peter O’Dwyer, Céilí Dé: Spiritual reform in Ireland 750-900 (Dublin: Editions Tailliura, 1981). The story of the movement within Celtic monasticism that gave us Saint Maelruain’s Monastery in Tallaght and the Derrynaflann Chalice.
Pat Robson, The Celtic Heart (London: Fount, 1998). A collection of Celtic writings celebrating the seasons of life by an Anglican priest living in Cornwall. It includes short biographies of saints and influential figures.
Michael Rodgers and Marcus Losack, Glendalough: A Celtic Pilgrimage (Dublin: Columba Press, 1996). A useful guidebook to our nearest Celtic monastic foundation.
GO Simms, Commemorating Saints & Others of the Irish Church (Dublin: Columba Press, 1999) … biographical notes and suggestions for intercessions.
Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings (Loyola Press). How many of us have whispered an impromptu prayer to our computer, begging it not to crash? Celtic Blessings reveals that such actions are part of an ancient and sacred ritual.
Ray Simpson, Exploring Celtic Spirituality (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995; Stowmarket: Kevin Mayhew, 2004). The chapters of this book feature different aspects of Celtic spirituality, including cherishing the earth, contemplative prayer and the healing of society. There are prayers and responses at the end of each chapter.
Martin Wallace, The Celtic Resource Book (London: Church House Publishing). The whole breadth of Celtic Christianity is spanned here – from liturgies and prayers and the stories of Celtic saints, through to Celtic art. The book includes liturgies for different times of the day, for use at home or in larger groups.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar on Celtic Spirituality on the Year I course, Christian Spirituality on 17 April 2008.

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