A celebration of life
In the busyness and confusion of our 21st century world, Celtic Christianity offers a spirituality for our time, says Liz Babbs
Eight years ago, I spent some time travelling across Britain visiting Scotland, Northumbria and Ireland while writing my first Celtic gift book The Celtic Heart (Lion 2003) . Originally, this book did not have a Celtic theme, but during my trip across Britain, I found myself increasingly drawn to, and inspired by, the radical faith and lifestyle of the Celtic saints. They have left a lasting impression on the landscape and have touched the hearts of countless people across the centuries.
When I sailed with friends by yacht to Iona, I felt an incredible sense of connection with these saints and the passion that fuelled their spiritual journeys. Even the difficulty we had anchoring that day reminded me of the incredible dangers these passionate, monastic wanderers faced on the open seas.
But it was when I visited the stunningly beautiful tidal island of Lindisfarne (or Holy Island) that I realised I was no longer a tourist, but a pilgrim in search of ‘the ancient paths’. An inner transformation had taken place, that was also changing the course of my writing.
While much of the West values money, fame, power and success, unearthing the precious treasures from the Celtic tradition can enrich and transform our lives. Celtic Christianity has contemporary relevance today and this is why I have written my new book Celtic Treasure, because I wanted to share some of the riches from this ancient tradition with all who are hungry for a spiritual encounter with God.
Celtic Christians cared for the environment and rejoiced in creation, appreciating the delicate balance between human beings and nature. They did not separate the Creator from all he had created, but worshipped God through the natural world. Like the well-known Celtic symbol, the Celtic knot, they could see God woven into everything and celebrated him in every aspect of their lives.
They enjoyed his presence, even when doing the most mundane of tasks like milking the cows, or kindling the fire and they said special prayers to accompany these activities.
Joy and celebration was integral to the Celts way of life, because it was seen as being part of the abundant life God promises in John’s Gospel: “I came to give life - life in all its fullness” (John 10:10 CEV). As the Celts were particularly drawn to the teachings of John, they believed God wanted them to celebrate, because having fun is a hallmark of a vibrant community.
Their simple lifestyle, uncluttered by materialism, enabled them to appreciate more fully the generosity and abundance of God. And they thanked God for everything in their daily lives, like the sunrise, the provision of food and the blessing of friends:
Bless to us, O God
The morning sun that is above us,
The good earth that is beneath us,
The friends that are around us,
Your image deep within us,
The day which is before us.
When Jesus was asked for the most important commandment, he said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. (Mark 12:30-31). The Celts understood that their relationship with God and each other was at the heart of the Gospel message and so building community and offering hospitality was central to their way of life.
The Celts were a highly creative people, producing pottery and woodwork, metalwork and elaborate jewellery. Celtic art flourished with the coming of Christianity, producing sculpture, elaborately carved crosses depicting stories from the Bible and creating exquisitely beautiful manuscripts, like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.
A ceilidh, which today is known as a popular social dance event, was originally a social gathering and could include story telling, songs, poems, proverbs and ballads, but not necessarily dance. I love the idea of people sharing their God-given creativity in this way, but then creativity was seen as a natural expression of worship to the Celts.
There is much we can learn from the Celtic way with its inclusive and holistic spirituality, and in the way it recognises the importance of equality and justice, honours creation and models the love of God and each other. In the words of St Columba: “See that you be at peace among yourselves my children, and love one another, follow the example of the good men of old, and God will comfort you and help you, both in this world and the world to come.”