is a land with one foot in the here-and-now and one strongly planted
in its history. The country is a study in contrasts. Ireland is currently
experiencing an economic boom thanks to the computer industry, but
still relishes and celebrates its roots in simplicity. Every year,
around five million people visit this country that is only 189 miles
wide and 302 miles long but enjoys a history and appeal of much larger
So too is the case with
Celtic spirituality. For even though it has its roots in the pagan
beliefs of the ancient Celts (pronounced Kelts), its basic
tenets still resonate with Christians today. As a matter of fact,
Celtic spirituality is experiencing a resurgence these days.
Last June, I had the
opportunity to accompany 29 fellow pilgrims on a 12-day journey to
discover the history and spirituality of Ireland. The pilgrimage,
which was sponsored by the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati,
Ohio, was led by Sister John Miriam Jones, S.C., academic dean of
the college and author of With an Eagle’s Eye: A Seven-day Sojourn
in Celtic Spirituality.
Were the Celts?
According to Sister
John Miriam, the Celts were people whose faith permeated every aspect
of their lives. They were originally from Central Europe, and inhabited
Ireland—as well as England and Scotland and Brittany in northern France—around
500-150 B.C. after being driven to the west and north, mostly by the
St. Patrick introduced
Christianity to the Celts around 431 A.D. In his attempts to convert
the Celts, Patrick highlighted the many similarities between their
beliefs and those of the Christian faith, such as the existence of
an afterlife. Seeing the parallels, the Celts were easily converted.
Their conversion brought to Christianity a perspective unlike that
of the Romans.
That unique spiritual
perspective still finds appeal to this day. With that in mind, our
group examined the historical sites of Ireland within the context
of four major themes of Celtic spirituality: pilgrimage, the immanent
presence of God, monasticism and community, and art and symbolism.
Search of Holiness
As we embarked on our pilgrimage on a typically Irish “soft day,”
complete with misty rain and moderate temperatures, we connected with
the Celtic theme of pilgrimage. We too were pilgrims on a faith journey.
Pilgrimage was a very important aspect of Celtic spirituality, notes
Sister John Miriam, adding that “pilgrimage is still very much alive
“Pilgrimage is always a search for God and God’s goodness,” she says.
“True pilgrimage has to do with a change of heart. The outward journey
serves to frame an inner journey: a journey of repentance and rebirth;
a journey which seeks a deeper faith, greater holiness; a journey
in search of God.”
For the early Christian monks, the concept of pilgrimage was closely
tied with the Christian notion of penance. Monks would often embark
on pilgrimages as a way of seeking out a place which would reveal
God to them.
Celtic men and women soon took up the practice of pilgrimage as a
means of discovering their own path to God. Along their way, pilgrims
would leave tangible signs of their journey such as pilgrims’ stones,
which are rudely fashioned crosses, or small mounds of stones called
cairns. The stones represented either a prayer or the completion
of the pilgrimage.
Round towers, found throughout Ireland, also played a vital role
in pilgrimages. The towers, which are believed to have served a number
of purposes including serving as bell towers and as places of refuge
during attacks, can be seen for miles. They would have provided pilgrims
with direction and inspiration to complete their journey.
How does this Celtic notion of pilgrimage translate in 21st-century
terms? Grace Szubski, a fellow pilgrimage member and lawyer from Brecksville,
Ohio, notes that “the Celtic pilgrims were searching for a deeper
faith and an inner peace with God. All these centuries later, we,
too, are on that same quest. Retreats, religious shrines and World
Youth Days are just some examples of our spiritual journey with God
in the 21st century.”
God in the 'Thin Places'
Traveling through Ireland, as the ancient pilgrims would have, offers
an excellent opportunity to experience one of the other major themes
of Celtic spirituality: the immanent presence of God, which means
that God is everywhere.
For Celtic Christians, God was a key part of all things natural and
beautiful. Whereas the ancient Celts worshiped pagan gods for nearly
every natural setting, Celtic Christians praised God’s design and
creation of all things natural. “The hills, the sky, the sea, the
forests were not God, but their spiritual qualities revealed God and
were connected to God,” Sister John Miriam explains.
Places where people feel most strongly connected with God’s presence
are referred to as “thin places.” It is in these places where the
seen and unseen worlds are most closely connected and inhabitants
of both worlds can momentarily touch the other. “For us, then, it
is a place where it is possible to touch and be touched by God, as
well as the angels, saints and those who have died,” according to
Sister John Miriam.
The land of Ireland seems to have endless “thin places.” As author
Steve Rabey says in his book, In the House of Memory: Ancient Celtic
Wisdom for Everyday Life, thin places for the ancient Celts could
be sacred natural landscapes or “holy places of human construction.”
For anyone looking around the Irish landscape, locating a thin place
in nature seems rather simple. The abundance of beauty makes it easy
to recognize God’s imprint and presence. The ruggedness of the Cliffs
of Moher, waves of purple rhododendron, vast fields of green and forest-like
settings throughout Ireland all seem to convey the idea that God is
near at hand.
For Jean Kotzbauer, who was in Ireland for the first time, the beauty
was almost overwhelming. “I’ve heard so much about Ireland and seen
pictures of how beautiful it is, but to really see and experience
it gives you a whole new understanding and appreciation,” she says.
One example of a human-constructed thin place is Newgrange, an ancient
passage tomb located in the Boyne Valley. Knowth and Dowth, two smaller
burial tombs, are also located in this area but are not open to visitors.
These burial tombs, which predate Stonehenge and the pyramids, were
constructed so that every year on December 21—the shortest day of
the year—light would enter a small opening above the entrance and
illuminate the passageway and center room of the burial tomb for 17
minutes. The appearance of light in the chamber during the winter
months would reaffirm for the Celts that summer would again come,
just as there would be life after death. Today, there is a 10-year
waiting list to witness on December 21 this spectacular feat of engineering
God in Community
As our group explored
and celebrated Celtic spirituality, we gained an appreciation for
the Celtic Christians’ emphasis on community.
“The Celts seemed to
have a natural disposition for community. The kinship they felt with
the angels and saints was completed by their kinship with one another.
Perhaps that is why life shared together in and around the monastery
became the ordinary way in which Christian life was lived,” explains
Sister John Miriam.
Solitary hermits developed
many of these monastic communities. Others were then attracted to
the communities by the monks’ holiness and the location of the monastic
community, leading to the eventual growth of rather large monastic
cities encompassing a variety of people seeking to express their faith
through their own lives and work. From the sixth to the 12th century,
these monastic cities flourished with religious and laity living and
During our pilgrimage
we visited three of Ireland’s most famous monastic communities: Glendalough,
Monasterboice and Clonmacnoise.
Monasterboice was founded
in the sixth century by St. Buite. The monastery is most recognized
for its exquisite High Crosses, especially Mueirdach’s Cross, which
is the tallest High Cross in Ireland.
Glendalough, which means
“The Valley of the Two Lakes,” was founded in the sixth century by
St. Kevin. Following the establishment of the monastic city, St. Kevin
retreated to a cave—known as St. Kevin’s Bed—by the upper lake where,
according to legend, he lived to be 106. According to another legend,
a woman appeared in St. Kevin’s cave to seduce him; he flung her over
the cliff and into the lake below.
Clonmacnoise was a major
center of religion, learning, trade, craftsmanship and political influence.
It was founded around 548 A.D. by St. Ciarán and, because of its large
lay population, actually resembled a town more than a monastery. It
is also home to one of Ireland’s finest surviving High Crosses, the
“Cross of the Scriptures.” The panels of the “Cross of the Scriptures”
depict Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, with the center of
the cross showing the risen Christ.
This theme of community
came alive on the trip for Sister John Miriam, who was exploring Ireland
with a large group for the first time. “People from many backgrounds
seemed to coalesce well around our common Irish connections and the
enjoyment of our common experience,” she says.
and Symbolic Expressions of Faith
Celtic design is rather
easily identified. Its intricacies and symbolism are an important
expression of the faith and beliefs of the Celtic Christians. These
designs can be seen in a broad range throughout Ireland, from the
highly intricate artwork in the ninth-century Book of Kells
to the craftsmanship of the High Crosses. The characteristic interweaving
patterns and designs commonly found in Celtic artwork represent that
“all things relate” and “all things are holy.”
Perhaps the most recognizable
symbols of Celtic spirituality are Ireland’s more than 100 High Crosses.
These imposing crosses stand anywhere from 10 to 15 feet tall, with
each element of the cross serving as a symbol. For instance, the circle
within the crossbar that is so identifiable with Celtic crosses is
often interpreted as representing God’s continuing connection with
life and earth.
The crosses evolved
over the years from being primarily design-oriented in the seventh
and eighth centuries to being more scriptural later. These scriptural
crosses, often referred to as “Sermons in Stone,” helped illustrate
important Christian concepts for preliterate Celts.
Many of the High Crosses
have been damaged over the years from exposure to the elements. Some
of the crosses have been relocated indoors for preservation purposes.
Even those that remain in their original locations, however worn they
may be, continue to symbolize the multifaceted aspects of Celtic spirituality.
In addition to the expression
of faith in stone, the Book of Kells, which is on display at
Trinity College in Dublin, is considered to be the greatest Irish
work of art to have survived from the Middle Ages. The book was produced
around the beginning of the ninth century by the monks of a monastery
at Iona, a small island off the west coast of Scotland. The book contains
a Latin text of the four Gospels, as well as intricate Celtic designs
to illustrate the text, like large initial capital letters and page
designs of animals and flowers. It was sent to Dublin in 1653 for
Celtic music, dance
and literature are also outward expressions of the Celts’ awareness
of God’s immanent presence. The popular Riverdance is a modern-day
celebration of Celtic music and dance. And authors such as James Joyce,
Frank McCourt and poet Seamus Heaney capture the essence of Celtic
life through their writings.
Spirituality for the 21st Century
Celtic spirituality can offer all of us—Irish or not—an important
reminder not to abandon the past. Just as the Celtic Christians built
upon the concepts of the ancient Celts, so too can we take this spirituality
and make it our own.
Sister Marty Dermody, a photographer and videographer for the Sisters
of Charity in Cincinnati, Ohio, says the pilgrimage gave her a better
understanding of Celtic spirituality. “It made the Celtic Christians
come alive for me. I could very easily identify with their ideas of
God at hand within their lives. I believe the Celts were a very spiritual
people and I felt privileged to be able to have the time to experience
their culture as we journeyed through the many places. I felt connected
with them because of their recognition of God through nature. I felt
touched by God in the misty, mystical places we toured, most especially
St. Patrick himself offers a good summation of Celtic spirituality:
“Christ, shield me this day: Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ
behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ
on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when
I arise, Christ in the heart of every person who thinks of me, Christ
in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me.”
Traveling to Ireland offered a firsthand experience of the history
of Celtic spirituality. It is unique, yet universal. Perhaps pilgrims
see that best. As Sister John Miriam reminds us, “The thing that distinguishes
a pilgrimage is what’s in your heart and why you’re doing it.”
Patrick: Pastoral But Passionate
“Ireland is unique
in religious history for being the only land into which Christianity
was introduced without bloodshed,” writes Thomas Cahill in his
book How the Irish Saved Civilization. St. Patrick deserves
a great deal of credit for that honor. For while he was not
the first to attempt conversion of the Celts to Christianity—a
Christian bishop named Palladius holds that distinction—Patrick
was successful at doing so.
And while Patrick
is perhaps the best-known and -loved Irish saint, he actually
was born about 389 A.D. in Roman Britain under the name Patricius.
When he was a teenager, he was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland
where he worked as a shepherd for six years before escaping
and returning to his homeland.
Much of what we
do know about Patrick comes from his writings. His Confession
details his call to convert the Irish to Christianity. In “Letter
to Coroticus” Patrick addresses an Irish warlord and his soldiers
who had snatched some recent Christian converts to sell them
into slavery, for which Patrick excommunicated them. Both provide
us with insight into Patrick and his mission.
Exactly when he
returned to Ireland is unknown, but when he did return, as they
say, the rest is history. Patrick knew the Celtic people from
his time of enslavement in Ireland. It is this knowledge that
helped Patrick evangelize the Celts in a whole new way—unlike
that of the Romans—and develop a unique type of Celtic Christianity.
In his quest for conversion, Patrick was both pastoral and passionate,
noting the similarities between the Celts’ pagan beliefs and
the beliefs of Christianity, but at the same time firmly defending
his Christian beliefs when he felt it necessary. Patrick died
As Steve Rabey
says in In the House of Memory, “What Patrick gave the
Irish was a faith that took the best of traditional pagan beliefs
and redefined those in Christian terms. The Celtic Christians
didn’t tear down and destroy the stone circles and monuments
that had been around for ages, as some zealous preachers would
do centuries later. Instead, they merely inscribed crosses on
them alongside the pagan symbols.”
Celtic Spirituality In Our Lives
of Celtic spirituality, it is often difficult to imagine its
application apart from the land of its origin.
There are, however, numerous ways in which we can incorporate
these practices into our own lives right at home. Here are
a few suggestions:
on a pilgrimage—physically or spiritually. Remember
that as Sister John Miriam points out, “The thing that
distinguishes a pilgrimage is what’s in your heart.”
Her book, With An Eagle’s Eye: A Seven-day Sojourn
in Celtic Spirituality (Ave Maria Press), offers
readers an opportunity to embark on a pilgrimage without
leaving home, or it can serve as a guideline for an
a “thin place” where you feel especially connected with
God and feel God’s presence. Perhaps it is at a cemetery
where a loved one is buried or a favorite spot in nature.
Christians found solace in community living. Celebrate
the communities of which you are a part, whether they
be your faith community, family or friends.
of us cannot begin to express ourselves artistically
in ways such as the High Crosses or the Book of Kells.
We can, however, use our individual talents to express
our faith: Draw a picture or write a poem about something
that strikes you as particularly representative of God’s
further suggestions on modern-day application of Celtic spirituality,
check out In the House of Memory: Ancient Celtic Wisdom
for Everyday Life (Plume Publishing), by Steve Rabey.
is an assistant editor of this publication and fourth-generation Irish-American.
Her dad, Bob Hines, accompanied her on this trip.