Celtic Spirituality – the Distinctives

I often get asked “Why are you interested in Celtic Christian spirituality?”  Below is a summary of the distinctives of this form of Christianity that make it attractive to me and have resulted in Mustard Seed Associates using it as the foundation for the annual retreat we hold.  This year’s retreat will be on Camano Island August 14th.

Distinctive Features of Celtic Christianity

  1. Central to Celtic spirituality is incarnation and an intense sense of the presence of God. “The Celt was very much a God-intoxicated man whose life was embraced on all sides by the divine Being”
    1. The presence of Christ was almost physically woven around their lives
    2. God was treated with awe, reverence and wonder but was essentially a human figure intimately involved in all creation and engaged in a dynamic relationship with it.
    3. The Trinity was seen as family and each family unit, clan or community was an icon of the Trinity
    4. All creation responds to God’s creative presence and sustaining love. God not only encircles and protects creation but also enlivens, activates and inspires it.
  2. A belief in the thinness of the veil between this world and the next.  Heaven and earth are interconnected and interacting.
    1. Celtic Christians prayed consciously as members of the great company of hosts – the persons of the Trinity, angels and archangels, the risen saints and disciples were all seen as close companions on their journey.
    2. Through this same host of witnesses God protected them from evil forces and enemies.
  3. Importance of little things – no task is too trivial to be sanctified by prayer and blessing
    1. Even mundane little task like washing dishes, milking the cow and sowing crops have sacred significance
    2. This is parallelled in their identification with the little people, the marginalized & the oppressed.  All persons represented God and might be heavenly visitors in disguise.
    3. Extending hospitality opened a door to the kingdom of God and welcomed Jesus into their midst.  It was an important expression of love both toward God and neighbour
  4. All of life flows to a rhythm of ebb and flow reflected in the natural world. This is reflected in the monastic rhythm that flowed between prayer and study, work and rest, community and solitude.
  5. A strong sense of sin and of the presence of evil forces in the world resulted in a strong recognition of the need for penitence which often led to austerely ascetic lives. Some become perpetual pilgrims or lived as hermits to avoid the comforts and temptations of a settled existence in which evil might flourish.
  6. Celtic Christians adapted well to the culture in which they operated. They are sometimes accused of syncretism because of their use of pre-Christian symbols which they transformed into the symbols of faith.


14 Responses

  1. […] again, it is well worth reading the whole article (this one is shorter). It isn’t always comfortable to think outside of our normal […]

  2. I think it’s great that you are sharing your specific beliefs. It helps to share the knowledge and get people a better understanding! I definately learned a lot from this posting. Thanks!

  3. thanks for this, it’s very inspiring!

    As for #6, didn’t the old catholic chuch do the same? don’t we have a lot of roman and platonist synchretism still in our evangelical theology because of that?

    • Actually I think that every Christian tradition could be accused of synchretism. One of the distinctives of Christianity in general is that it can be adapted to any culture which means that it tends to take the traditions of a culture and incorporate them into the practice of faith believing that God can redeem any culture and its traditions. Of course we call it synchretism when this happens in another culture and condemn it, when it happens in our own culture we either don’t notice or somehow rationalize it out of our reading of the bible and call it theology.

      • But if the culture changes, like modern to po-mo, you need to get rid of the ballast of older contextualisations (or synchretisms if you want) that will only stand in between people of the new culture and the gospel… Hmm, am I re-inventing the emerging church here?

  4. “The importance of little things,” – one of the distictice features of Celtic Spirituality. This means that “no task is too trivial to be sanctified by prayer and blessing.” As a matter of fact, “Even mundane little task like washing dishes, milking the cow and sowing crops have sacred significance,” Christine Sine adds.

    The above-cited feature of Celtic spirituality shares with the theology of work. Here, we see work as the greatest blessings and challenges because it fosters life and growth. . . Our work, no matter how lowly may it be, provides us a means for a living – a blessing.

  5. […] For explanations, expansions, and examples under the individual points, see the full post. […]

    • I appreciate your concerns about the Celtic tradition and what we can and cannot say about it. I have tried to use the most reliable sources in what I express here. However there is always room for doubt.
      One thing that tends to increase my confidence in what I express is that I have seen similar characteristics in African culture and in other premodern indigenous cultures which I think are probably closer to what Celtic culture and therefore Celtic Christian expression where like. Native American culture for example has the same relationship to creation and Christians from this tradition bring this understanding into their practice of Christian faith. I know that is not conclusive but it has certainly helped me.
      Also I must confess that I am not as concerned about the exact accuracy of the Celtic historians as I am about the shape of my own faith and what we can learn from others.

  6. Brambonius
    I think that is what contextualization is about – adapting faith practices to the context in which we live. But that does not & never should mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater and discarding all the traditions of the past. Part of what I love about the emerging church is that it has drawn on ancient traditions and reinvented them for today’s context

  7. […] of you know that Tom and I are very keen on Celtic Christian spirituality. One of the highlights of our life has been the opportunity to spend Holy week on the island of Iona […]

  8. […] year is our 19th Annual retreat. It will be held August 14th on Camano Island. We draw from the Celtic Christian tradition which had a deep sense of connectedness to God's creation. In the morning we interweave times of […]

  9. […] Introduction to Celtic tradition  […]

  10. Christine,

    Thank you so much for this little overview. I love the idea of #2, heaven and earth interacting and being interconnected. Significant.


    • Thanks Chris. I love that concept too. I think we sometimes feel there is a steel door between us and the heavenly realm but it is not true – we just need to keep our eyes and ears open to where that interaction is going on

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