Celtic Spirituality: the Sacredness of Creation
August 1st is the ancient Celtic fire festival of Lughnasa, a celebration of the harvest. It is more, though, than a holiday. It is a day for reflection, prayer, and sacred ritual. The Celts were a religious people whose spirituality continues to this day. But what was their religion? What were their beliefs and practices? What exactly is Celtic spirituality? This post will discuss the religion of the ancient Celts then focus on describing the spirituality, strands of which have been adopted by neo-pagans and Christians alike.
Ancient Celtic Religion
The Celts had a complex belief system. Scholars are continuing to learn about it. Here is what they know so far. The Celts practiced animism. They believed that everything—people, plants, even inanimate objects—had a spirit or a divine essence. Thus everything was sacred and was to be treated with respect. The Celts also were polytheistic. Their mythology contains over 100 gods and goddesses, many of whom appeared in animal form or were associated with the natural elements, such as air or water. Pleasing these deities was an important task of their religious practices. The primary method used to appease the gods was worship, usually communal, often held in wooded areas, and always led by a Druid. The Druids were highly learned priests who acted as scholars and judges as well as spiritual leaders. Worship, at times, also included animal sacrifice. The animals most commonly offered up in sacrifice were bulls, which were a symbol of strength, virility, and wealth. Were humans sacrificed? That’s a subject of debate but most scholars believe the Celts rarely sacrificed humans.
Celts believed in supernatural beings, such as faeries, as well as deities. Some of these, they believed, were sinister. To combat this evil, the Celts practiced rituals involving magic to ward off or forestall evil. Good magic could be found in natural things, such as herbs or blessed water. They believed the singing of certain birds contained healing magic. To the Celts, music also had power. The skirl of the bagpipes was said to chase away evil spirits. On the other hand, some music, such as the sound of the harp, could enchant.
Having a theology strongly connected with nature, the Celts celebrated holy days which marked changes of seasons and the perceived movements of the sun and moon. Their agrarian culture made them aware of the yearly cycle of life, death, and rebirth. In alignment with this, the Celts firmly believed in an afterlife, the rebirth of the soul after death. The location of the Otherworld—the place souls go after the body dies—is different from that of some other religions. The Celts believed the Otherworld coexisted with the human world. The two simply were separated by a thin veil.
This spirituality spread to other areas. In the 6th century, Irish monks led by St. Columba founded the Iona monastery in Scotland. From there, these Celtic Catholic monks set out to re-Christianize the English who had reverted to paganism after the Anglo-Saxon invasion. The Celtic Catholic church eventually came under the direct control of the bishop in Rome but its spirituality continues to this day. In a 2019 article, the US Catholic magazine recommends adopting some Celtic beliefs and practices as ways to meditate and to find and celebrate God in creation.
Some Characteristics of Celtic Christian Spirituality
God All Around Me: At the heart of Celtic spirituality is the belief that God is present in everyone and everything. So anyone can encounter God anywhere, even in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life. In Celtic custom, a blessing is said not only at the start of each day but at the beginning of each task, whether one is about to make the fire, sweep the house, or do research to cure cancer. A blessing isn’t said to make something or someone holy. The person or thing already is. The blessing is made in gratitude to the Divine for the gift of the person or thing.
Divine Spaces: Nature is extremely important in Celtic spirituality. Creation reveals the Creator. Being present to one’s physical environment, especially the natural environment, can teach one about the Divine, lead one to rejoice in the Creator, and help one come face to face with God. Respect for creation—animals, trees, water, air, other humans—is a natural consequence of the realization that there is a divine spark in all living things.
Thin Places: Heaven, Celtic spirituality contends, is not far away up there somewhere. It is here, all around us. A thin veil hides it from our sight. There are places, though, and times when the veil becomes so thin, one can see through it to the other side. In thin places, we can see and experience the Otherworld. But whether we see it or sense it or not, we are always surrounded by it. Not only is God near us, so are our loved ones who’ve passed to the other side. They are always close, guiding us, supporting us, and continuing to warm us in their love.
Heart Memory: The ancient Celts had a writing system but they were primarily an oral tradition society. They believed that nothing important should be written down; it should be committed to memory. History, ancestry, music, poetry, and so forth were learned by heart. These precious things were then taught to the next generation and the next so they would never be lost.
The Never-Ending Cycle: The four Celtic fire festivals celebrate the mystery of life, death, and rebirth. The Celtic New Year is at Samhain, a holy day that focuses on death and the ancestors. It marks the beginning of the dark half of the year. The Celtic day itself also begins at sunset, a mindset worth reflecting on. The next fire festival is Imbolc, a celebration of spring when buds burst forth, bringing the hope of new life and possibilities. Beltane marks the start of the light half of the year and celebrates fertility. At Lughnasa, the promise of spring has come to fruition and it is time for the harvest. This season leads back to Samhain—death and darkness—and the cycle begins again. This concept finds a Christian parallel in the Paschal Mystery: life, death, and resurrection. Both can be metaphorical as well as literal. Throughout life, there can be many times when we experience some kind of death. The hope is that, each time, we will rise to new life.
This weekend, whether you celebrate Lughnasa or not, I hope these aspects of Celtic spirituality offer you insights, comfort, and joy.
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Slan go foil!
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