The Enchantments of Celtic Christianity

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

I'm marking the day as my new book Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age is due out next week. But Amazon has already been shipping the book, so you can get your copy today!

The connection between the book and St. Patrick comes from Part 3 of Hunting Magic Eels entitled "Enchanted Christianities." The point of this section of the book is that we don't have to reinvent enchantment from scratch. Christianity is full of enchanted traditions, and in Part 3 of Hunting Magic Eels I survey four of them--the Liturgical, the Contemplative, the Charismatic, and the Celtic.

I'm proud and excited about all of these chapters, but I'm especially proud of the chapter on Celtic Christianity, which begins with St. Patrick. 

The reason I'm so proud of this chapter is that, as I mention in the book, Celtic Christianity has become a bit of a brand. As you know, there's a whole cottage industry out there--from books to music to retreat gurus--marketing itself as "Celtic," and much of it, from a historical and scholarly perspective, is just wrong or plain silly. I didn't want my chapter to be like that. 

So, I took a deep dive into historical Celtic sources and scholarly accounts of Irish monasticism. My book is written for a popular, general audience, but I'm proud of my Celtic Christianity chapter mainly as an academic and scholar. To brag a bit, I think this chapter is one of the best popular-level pieces out there about Celtic Christianity in presenting the distinctive flavors of Celtic Christianity while avoiding the nonsense and distortions you find everywhere under the brand "Celtic." As I write in Hunting Magic Eels:

Before digging into the enchantments of Celtic Christianity, I need to stop and say something about objections that might call the entire notion of “Celtic Christianity” into question.

The first objection concerns the commercialization of Celtic Christianity. Basically, “Celtic” is a bit of a brand. Slap a Celtic knot or cross or an Irish blessing on something, and you can sell it as “Celtic.” Likewise, in the realm of faith and religion, you can slap “Celtic” onto almost any spiritual nonsense and sell that as well. There’s a ton of books on the market selling “Celtic” versions of Christianity and spirituality, many full of rubbish and caring little about historical accuracy. Anything vaguely spiritual or mystical can get branded as “Celtic.” To avoid this, I’ve taken care to make sure that all the Celtic poems and prayers you read in this chapter come from historical Celtic sources...

Which brings us to a second, more scholarly concern. Almost everything about the Celts and Celtic Christianity is controversial and disputed. Many scholars contend that the “Celts” never really existed, not as a culturally and ethnically identifiable people. Another example: almost everything about St. Patrick can trigger an academic temper tantrum. Some scholars, though in the clear minority, question if St. Patrick even existed. Others have also argued that the [frequently cited] “Celtic versus Roman” church contrast is too simplistic and distorting. The Roman and Celtic streams bled into and influenced each other, it is argued, making them impossible to disentangle. Many speakers, gurus, artists, and authors like to contrast a freer, more spiritual, more egalitarian, more environmentally friendly “Celtic” Christianity with a more dogmatic, rigid, patriarchal, and hierarchical “Roman” Christianity. Scholars think that contrast is way too simplistic or just plain wrong. As St. Patrick himself once said to the Celts, “If you would be Christians, then be as the Romans.”

These objections duly noted, most scholars agree that the Christianity that emerged from Patrick’s Ireland did have a distinctive quality, texture, and sensibility. These qualities can be found elsewhere within the Christian tradition, so we need to avoid simplistic, unwarranted contrasts. For example, the Desert Fathers were hugely influential upon the Celtic saints. Much of what gets branded as “Celtic” can be found throughout the Christian tradition. But the contrasts people make about Celtic Christianity haven’t emerged out of nowhere. Scholars have long recognized distinctive features that characterized Irish monasticism, a unique spiritual sensibility we can gather under the label “Celtic Christianity.” The particular texture of this spirituality can be gleaned by reading the poems, prayers, sermons, devotions, and liturgies of the early Irish Christian tradition along with the lives of the Irish saints. This distinctive Celtic spirituality is also communicated through the art and artifacts the Irish Christians bequeathed to us, from the high crosses of Ireland to the illuminations of The Book of Kells.

We should keep a critical eye out whenever we hear something marketed to us as “Celtic,” but anyone can read the Celtic breastplate prayers—the most famous being St. Patrick’s—and see there’s something unique going on in this neck of the Christian woods. You experience the peculiar strangeness of Celtic Christianity when you hear St. Columba opine, “Jesus is my druid.” Or learn about the Celtic caim prayers, prayers of protection offered to the Trinity as one draws a circle of protection around oneself to ward off dark, occult forces. If all that sounds a wee bit magical, well, it is. That’s why we’re here. With the Celtic tradition, we are, most definitely, in a unique neck of the Christian woods. And who isn’t up for a walk in an enchanted forest?

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