Prepared by Susan Wilkes, PhD
Celtic spirituality weaves together a nature-based approach from pre-Christian times with Eastern forms of Christianity as well as the more familiar Roman Catholicism. When Christianity was introduced in the Celtic lands, the distance from Rome enabled the Church to grow in a unique way. The strong nature-based spirituality predominant in pre-Christian history was incorporated easily into an almost mystical sense of God within nature. Sacred sites such as oak groves, wells, and ancient worship places were integrated into the new faith. A circle, which some believe to represent the sun or moon, was incorporated into the cross to form what we know as the Celtic cross. Still today, one of the most prominent features of Celtic spirituality is its emphasis on creation and divinity within it.
A second yet related feature is the perspective on the sacredness in everyday life. The focus is on God’s immanence, where the divine is seen to be manifested in or encompassing the material world. Prayers and blessings handed down through the oral tradition show the Celts’ reverence for the simplest acts in daily life—smooring the fire at night, weaving, or rising in the morning. Creativity including poetic imagination, song, and artistry was an expression of the soul.
Further, the early Celtic Christians believed in the essential goodness of humanity and saw “penance” as an act of healing rather than punishment. This was fundamentally opposed to the Augustian view of original sin and caused a clash with the Roman Catholic Church that eventually led to a decision against the Celtic mission at the Synod of Whitby in 664. Celtic spirituality survived outside of the formal church, particularly through art and oral tradition passed down through generations. Today, the resurgence of interest in the spiritual practices of the ancient Celts is perhaps due to our collective hunger for connection with the Holy in these ancient, new ways.
The Chrysalis Perspective
The emphasis on creativity as a vibrant part of spirituality resonates for many Chrysalis members. In fact, an early tagline for Chrysalis was that it sought to ”support people in the art of living lives of creativity, meaning and compassion.“ Chrysalis has long offered events where various forms of creative expression are celebrated and members are encouraged to write, draw, and dance.
The Celtic use of circle imagery—in symbols of sun and moon, in round towers of Ireland, and beautiful spiral artistry—is also reflected in Chrysalis’ outdoor labyrinth. While the labyrinth is associated with the Middle Ages and the Christian mystical tradition, it is based on the concept of pilgrimage, a notion the ancient Celts lived out as part of the spiritual journey.
- Chant for peace with “Whichever Way You Turn” by John Philip Newell, sung by Fran McKendree and friends.
- Join Reverend Ali Newell, spouse of Celtic author Philip Newell, in “Body Prayer,” a set of gentle movements accompanied by a spoken blessing from Ali.
- Learn about the beautiful Book of Kells, an illustrated copy of the Four Gospels. Originally created by the monks on Iona, it was moved to a monastery at Kells in Ireland during the Viking raids in the 8th century. Today, it is housed at Trinity College in Dublin.
- Listen to the poem Beannacht, the Gaelic word for blessing, recited by the late Celtic author and poet John O’Donohue.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is Iona? Why do I hear about it being associated with Celtic spirituality?
Iona, a small, windswept island off the western coast of Scotland, was the site of an important monastery founded by 6th-century Celtic Saint Columba. Iona became a renowned center of learning and Celtic Christianity. The Book of Kells and numerous sculpted high crosses on the island are examples of the artistic vibrancy on Iona. Viking raids eventually forced the monks to leave Iona. Around 1200, spiritual life on Iona was renewed with the founding of a Benedictine abbey dedicated to Columba. The Iona Nunnery was an Augustinian convent established sometime after the foundation of the Benedictine monastery. The ruins of the nunnery stand in a peaceful garden adjacent to Iona’s village.In 1938 George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, an ecumenical community of people from different walks of life and different traditions committed to seeking new ways of living the Gospel in today’s world. This community is a leading force in the present Celtic Christian revival. The Abbey, now an ecumenical church, is the destination for thousands of modern day pilgrims each year.
Who are some of the famous people in Celtic spirituality?
The facts and folklore of Saint Brigid’s life are delightfully intertwined in various stories and in records advocating for her sainthood. While at times it is difficult to tease out myth from fact, we do know that Brigid was born in approximately 453 to a pagan chieftain and a Christian slave. In this sculpture at the well in her honor, we see reflections of both the beloved pagan Goddess Brighid whose symbol was perpetual fire and Saint Brigid with fire as symbol of the Holy Spirit.
The main emphasis in the stories of Brigid is on her healing powers, skill with animals, hospitality, generosity, and concern for the poor. Brigid established a monastery at Kildare in 480, a double monastery for men and women which she led with grace for many years. What emerges from many of these stories about Brigid is the portrait of a strong and gentle woman, a powerful leader, a good organizer, and a wise spiritual guide. Kildare included a renowned art school that produced illuminated copies of texts such as the book of Kildare. It has been lost but scholars note that it would have been a volume much like the beautiful Book of Kells. One of the earliest female leaders in the church, Brigid became well known for her leadership and sought out for guidance as Kildare became a cathedral city.
St. Patrick, the other patron saint of Ireland, was actually born in Britain. From two pieces of literature written in the 5th century by Patrick himself, we learn he was taken as a slave to Ireland when he was 16. After seven years there, he made his way back to Britain but a series of dreams led him to return to Ireland. Many of the tales told about Patrick, such as defeating the Druid henchmen or driving the snakes out of Ireland, came from later writings promoting him for the sainthood. While it is difficult to discern fact from legend in these tales, it is clear that Patrick’s work in spreading the Gospel was successful. Monasteries founded by Patrick and others became centers of power and artistic achievement.
What non-print resources about Celtic spirituality are available?
Heartbeat, the American nonprofit devoted to promoting the vision of John Phillip and Ali Newell, posts videos of many of John Philip’s teachings on its YouTube channel, SalvaTerraVision.
Solas Bhríde (Brigid’s light) is a small Christian center in Kildare, Ireland which has as its focus Brigid and Celtic Christianity. It seeks to unfold the legacy of Brigid of Kildare and its relevance for the modern world. The center welcomes people of all faiths and no faith.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, offers a popular Celtic worship service each Sunday at 5:30 pm. An annual class in Celtic spirituality is offered each winter.
John Philip Newell has developed several recordings of chants and music in the Celtic tradition.
Oliver Davies (edited and translated) | Celtic Spirituality | New York: Paulist Press, 1999 | Translations of original texts in Celtic Christianity. Includes Irish, Welsh, and Latin sermons, liturgy, poems, saints’ lives, and monastic rules.
Esther De Waal | Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition |
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 1999 | An introduction to Celtic spirituality that provides a narrative as well as poetry and songs of the ancient Celts. Explores Celtic views of pilgrimage, solitude, creation, and healing.
Timothy Joyce | Celtic Christianity | New York: Orbis Books, 1998 | Primarily a history of Celtic Christianity in Ireland, beginning with early Christian mission and Celtic Christians through the story of the eventual influence of the Roman Catholic church.
J. Philip Newell | Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation | San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008 | Through an exploration of the Celtic image of Christ, Newell offers the ancient traditions of Celtic Christianity as a way forward in healing humankind and the earth.
J. Philip Newell | Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality | New York: Paulist Press, 1997 | An overview of Celtic spirituality and its implications for us today.
J. Philip Newell | Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter | Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002 | An illustrated prayer companion provides morning and evening prayer outlines for every day of the week.
John O’Donohue | Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom | New York: Harper Perennial, 2004 | In Anam Cara, Gaelic for “soul friend,” the ancient teachings, stories, and blessings of Celtic wisdom provide such profound insights on the universal themes of friendship, solitude, love, and death.
John O’Donohue | To Bless This Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings | New York: Doubleday, 2008 | A beautiful collection of blessings to help readers through both the everyday and the extraordinary events of their lives.
Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community | New York: HarperCollins, 2002 | Liturgies, prayers, and meditations from Northumbria in northeastern England. Contains daily readings as well as liturgy for special occasions.