Friday, January 13, 2017

On Celtic Christianity

For those of you who have bothered to read my about me page, you'll remember that I was researching and looking into Celtic Christianity. For those who haven't bothered to read my about me page... Now you know.


My love affair with all things Celtic started so long ago that I can't exactly recall when. I think it probably took root after watching Braveheart in my teens. In my formative years, I was wildly obsessed about my families and where we came from most likely because of my parents divorcing. I wanted something to feel like I belonged, and after watching Braveheart and finding a scarf in my family's tartan in a closet I started to find solace in my mother's family roots. But, this being the far off stone age before Google (but after Lycos), I didn't have much information at hand.

It wasn't until my senior year of high school that I actually wore my first kilt. During spirit week we had an international day and I had a friend's mom make me a kilt out of some material (not wool, but a very lightweight cotton) using a kilt pattern obtained from Walmart. I wore that kilt to school and then to church that night - I had a lot of strange looks. Shortly after that I purchased my first kilt from Sport Kilt (which I'm wearing as I type this) and wore that around from time to time. I still thought of the kilt as some ancient garment worn ages ago by the ancient Celts.

When I started college with my wife we met a delightful old man who was wanting to start a Celtic club at the university. We ended up having a few people in our club, many of whom I'm still friends with today. And as I mentioned when I started this blog, myself and one other guy thought about starting a Celtic Christian Church. We really knew nothing about such a thing, but since Google existed at this point I used that to do some research. It was because of my researching Celtic Christianity that I was exposed to a world of tradition, and eventually became Orthodox.

My friend and I started a group on Facebook called Order of Christian Druids, which still exists today. We were trying to mesh Christianity with paganism that had a Celtic flair. We had a bunch of other crazy beliefs. I took to calling myself a Celtic Christian even though I had no idea what that really entailed. I spent some time trying to delve into a lot of things Celtic, and not just Irish and Scottish. To this day, Celtic lore still enthralls me.

But what is Celtic Christianity?

Most people think that Celtic Christianity is much like what my friend and I thought it was - a bastardized form of Christianity and Celtic paganism. I think people think this way because of the erroneous belief that Christianity stole such things as the concept of the Trinity from the Celts, and that Christianity stole all of its feast days from various pagan holidays. Even now in my Facebook group there are so many people who are trying to mesh Druidism with Christianity.

Of course, that is all bullocks.

There is a problem, of course, in trying to mesh Druidism with Christianity. Mainly, that problem is that we really have no clue what Druidism entailed. We know there were Ovates, Bards, and Druids (maybe) which were essentially soothe sayers, poets, singers, historians, lawyers, and priestly caste. And that is where the extent of our knowledge ends. Sure we know some of the names of the gods in the Celtic Pantheon, but aside from just a few writings we really don't know much else. What we have today is a romantic recreation that takes many, many liberties. We have lost the original because the Celts didn't keep a written record - everything was recorded by the Bards and told via oral transmission from one generation to the next; once the Bards stopped being a thing this knowledge was lost. Yet, there are those who claim that their family has this lost knowledge in some form or fashion but they refuse to share it with others because they fear persecution (I've seriously heard this from a person. In this day and age when paganism seems to be on the rise people are afraid of being persecuted for real actual knowledge of the Druids), even though they could be sharing this knowledge with the world and bettering our understanding of ancient Celtic culture.

All of that being said, there was a form of Celtic Christianity that was distinct from other forms of Christianity. This is not to say it was lesser than other forms, but it was a distinct form much like the Roman Rite, the Ambrosian Rite, the Sarum Rite, the Byzantine Rite, and even other forms which have fallen out of use. There were even different rites that are counted among a general Celtic Rite.

Perhaps the most well-known rite is the Ionan Rite which is known for computing the date of Easter differently than Rome, as well as having a different tonsure (from ear to ear instead of the bowl cut on the top most people associate with monastic tonsures). The Celts (at this point referring to the Irish and Scottish) used various different liturgies, Divine Offices, and monastic rules - an example of a liturgy used is the Stowe Missal, an example of a Divine Office is the Bangor Antiphonary, and an example of a monastic rule is the Rule of Tallaght/Mael Ruain/Celi De.

And at the mention of the Celi De, or Culdees, this brings me to my next topic. Many people have this romantic idea of who or what the Culdees were. Stephen R. Lawhead (a favorite author of mine, though not my most favorite) writes about the Culdees in his Celtic Crusades series. In this series the Culdees are depicted as Holy monastics that hold to some secret knowledge and are fighting against the corruption that has taken hold in the Church - it smacks a little of Gnosticism. I see this a lot from other places - that the Culdees were keepers of some secret Divine truth. But the truth is that we don't really know a whole lot, despite the last of the Culdees disappearing in the 1500s.

What we do know is that the Culdees were similar to religious Canons, and that they didn't take monastic vows (Wikipedia). Many see them as kind of precursors to Protestantism because they supposedly didn't venerate Saints of relics, didn't use images, and were opposed to the sacraments (more on this below) - however as Schaff notes we know the Culdees venerated icons, they had much zeal for asceticism and monasticism, and they loved ceremony - there is no evidence that they held to a Sola Scriptura, or a faith instead of works view, nor that they held to any views opposed to those held by their Western counterparts. We know these things because we know that the Culdees carried relics from place to place (which implies veneration), we know they loved ceremony because we have a copy of their liturgy, and likewise with their monastic rule (though admittedly we don't know if all of the Culdees across Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, and parts of the continent, followed the same rule). We also know from this same rule that there was some importance given to the feast day of St. Patrick.

In fact, we could technically recreate a working "Celtic Rite" much as the Celtic Orthodox Church did. During the stage where I was trying to be a Celtic Christian, I came across the Celtic Orthodox Church (based out of Akron, OH) that was headed by a Bishop Maelruain (Kristopher) Dowling and his wife Deaconess Elizabeth Dowling. They compiled a book that contains the liturgy, Divine Office, and Rule of Tallaght all together, Lorra-Stowe Missal and the Hours of Bangor and they had many other resources on their now defunct website. The only real problem is that the Stowe Missal (which isn't a missal) isn't a complete liturgy, though it has been approved for use by the Russian Orthodox Church. From most recent research it seems that Bishop Maelruain has passed away (though he was not in communion with the canonical Orthodox jurisdictions I still use his title as I would for others, such as Fr. Peter Farrington formerly of the Coptic Orthodox Church, or Fr. Michael Fye of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Anglican Church), but I think his wife is still alive. Their website has been defunct now for some years, but their book linked to above can still be purchased from the publisher.

Now, I'm not suggesting that I or anybody else should leave the Eastern Orthodox Church to start another Celtic Orthodox Christian Church using these resources, I'm only saying that if we were so inclined we could recreate a Culdee community that is canonically Orthodox.

But, what happened to the Culdees? Well, mostly they integrated (either peaceably or forced by losing land) with Canons Regular as the Roman Rite took dominance in the Celtic Isles. As I stated above, the Culdees were already similar to Canons anyway, so it wasn't like it was a huge change. The last of the Culdees seemed to be in Armagh (Ireland, if you couldn't guess) until King Henry dissolved all of the monasteries under the thumb of the English Church.

Why do some people think that Celtic Christianity has pagan elements, or even that the Culdees are precursors to Protestantism? Well, the Culdees were not without detractors. Many disliked the way that ecclesiastical titles and property seemed to be hereditary, passing from father to son - much like the Druids, as were their communities. Bede, as well as others, complained about their practices having a pagan bent to them, and mention their refusal to venerate Saints; these accusations can hardly be considered seriously as there was a strong push from the Norman invaders to make everybody tow the line of the Roman Rite - their writings can be considered no more than mere propaganda. Again, we know that the Culdees venerated the saints because we have an existing copy of their liturgy, and that liturgy has a long list of saints where we are imploring them to pray for us and other mentions of saints and martyrs throughout - not to mention the aforementioned fact of the Culdees carrying relics with them.

Also, Bede is not infallible in his writings - he is the reason so many people think that Easter comes from a pagan goddess. But it should be noted that a few historians think that the Druids ended up becoming the Culdees (source). I've often read (perhaps due to what Taliesin supposedly wrote*) that in many of the old tales that the Druids looked forward to the coming of Christ, which is why Christianity spread so easily in the Isles (not that there weren't hardships, obstacles, and even threat of death/martyrs).

If one looks at writings of some Celtic Saints we can see what we suppose is a bit of Druidism leaking in. I refer of course to the Breastplate of Saint Patrick, and where Saint Columbcille writes that Jesus is his druid, among others. Can we say for certain that druidism was leaking in, or is it just that these early Celtic Saints were using terminology they and those around them were familiar with? I think that much like the four Gospels are each written with a certain audience in mind that Sts. Patrick and Columbcille wrote with their Celtic brethren in mind, using terminology that they would be familiar with. Using similar terms to describe a new idea is actually smart because you are using existing ideas to prove your argument without having to explain what you mean every second sentence. St. Paul did something similar on Mars Hill wherein he equated the unknown god with God - he used what his audience knew to explain new ideas.

The writings of these saints are probably the only real hint that we have as to what the Druids believed.

So, what do we know about Celtic Christianity? We know that Christianity came to the British Isles relatively early - tradition tells us that one of the oldest Christian churches was founded by Joseph of Arimathea in Glastonbury. We know that missionaries met Druids in their travels, and some saints may have been related to some Druids. We know that many saints used terminology that would have been familiar to the Celtic pagans. We know that the Culdees formed and spread throughout the British Isles and parts of the Western European continent, having originated in Ireland. We know the Culdees were part of an orthodox Celtic Rite. We know the Celtic tonsure was different, as was their computation of Easter (being an older form). We know the Culdees faced opposition by those who were spreading the Roman way of doing things. And we know that the Culdees eventually disappeared.

We do not know if the Druids became the Culdees, though I would hazard a guess that many did convert to Christianity and became the Culdees who took some forms of what they knew and applied that to their new religion.

We can almost certainly say that the Culdees were not keepers of some mystic truth, nor were they Proto-Protestants that were against the sacraments and veneration of saints.

We also know that there are a great number of Celtic saints, and that the monasteries that existed in Ireland and Scotland were places of great learning.

And it can all be summed up by saying that the ancient Celtic Rites were orthodox rites, not holding to any heresies, that were eventually superseded by the Roman Rite, much the same way that the plethora of rites in the East were gradually replaced with the Byzantine Rite.

People claiming to be Celtic Christians are most likely meaning that they practice some bastardized form of Christianity and whatever they suppose Druidism to be (usually a form of naturism). But we have no real clue what Druidism entailed, and all we have today are recreations of what people wish Druidism was. Maybe some of them are correct, maybe they are not. But what we do know is that Druidism gave way to Christianity and we have a very rich tradition all on our own, thanks in part to such great saints in the Celtic Isles.

Am I still trying to be a Druid and a Christian? Well, no, not exactly. To be a Druid one would have to be a priest of a pagan religion, and that would mean separating myself from the Church. So why am I still a part of the Facebook group Order of Christian Druids? Because it is part of the reason that I became Orthodox. Because I still feel a very strong pull towards Celtic things, and I love to see others ideas. Because I'm interested in learning - purely from an intellectual point of view - about what people think Druidism is (most people think that Druidism is basically an uber hippie form of paganism). And because I am trying to relate to those who are in my group so that maybe I can lead them to Orthodoxy. I say not exactly because St. Columbcille said Christ was his Druid, and it is this sentiment from the Celtic Saints that I am exploring more in depth.

*I see "quotes" from Taliesin that say, "Christ, the Word from the beginning, was from the beginning our teacher, and we never lost His teaching. Christianity was a new thing in Asia, but there never was a time when the Druids of Britain held not its doctrines," but I can't find the actual source in the Book of Taliesin, the oldest source I can find for this quote comes from Williams Morgan's book St. Paul in Britain from 1880. If someone else is aware of where I can find this quote from Taliesin please let me know.
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