17 March 2008

So-called 'Celtic Spirituality'

On the traditional date of St Patrick's Day, today, 17 March, I came across an article that debunks a lot of the rubbish written about 'Celtic Spirituality'. Last year I was in a coffee shop on the Hill of Tara, which St Patrick possibly visited and which was the seat of the High Kings of Ireland in those days. It is within sight of the seminary I studied in, St Columban's, and in the parish where my maternal grandmother grew up. The coffee shop had a bookstore. Most of the books were about New Age and so-called 'Celtic Spirituality'. The coffee and food were great but the bookshop left me feeling profoundly sad.

The author of the article is Fr Liam Tracey OSM, Professor of Liturgy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare, Ireland. He teaches courses in liturgy at undergraduate and postgraduate level and has a particular interest in Irish liturgical evidence.

Father Tracey shows how the the Church in the early days of Christianity in 'these islands' - many Irish people don't like the term 'British Isles' for Britain, the Isle of Man and Ireland and the smaller islands off their shores - is not isolated from the life of the Church in mainland Europe. Indeed, it influenced the latter, particularly in the practice of the sacrament of penance.

As a member of the Missionary Society of St Columban I found his references to that saint very interesting. He refers to St Columban(us) in a number of places and in the conclusion of his article:

For many Irish Christians, the command of God to Abraham in the Book of Genesis to leave his own place and set out for the land that God would give him and his descendents (Gen 12:1), was a command they too were called to follow. Some went in search of a more solitary life, others left to evangelise peoples who had not yet heard the Christian Gospel and some seem be searching for a promised land. It is hard to underestimate this important motif of pilgrimage for these early missionaries. It is Columbanus (+615) who perhaps most epitomised this figure of a missionary monk, part of the great movement of peregrini. Looking to the example of Patrick, they sought the salvation of many and a solitary spot of their own.

The lessons of the past for the people of today

Yes, there is much that we can learn from the prayers, the writings, the hymns and the stories of the Irish. But we must be careful to see that this tradition is rooted in a wider Christian tradition. Only by paying close attention to the world in which these people lived and the texts that they have left us, do we truly honour their memory and truly meet them and not a product of our own dreams. David Perrin notes that

[…] in Christian Celtic spirituality, God, or perhaps, more accurately, the Divine presence, was recognized intensely in the workings of nature and was easily discerned in the landscapes of Ireland, Scotland, and England. For the Celts there was a sacredness to everyday place. The opposite is true in many cultures and settings today.

Perhaps we could best honour Ireland's patron saint by imitating him as St Columban and others did, 'Looking to the example of Patrick, they sought the salvation of many and a solitary spot of their own'. We don't have to be overseas missionaries to do the former or monks or nuns to do the latter, but by virtue of our baptism each of us is responsible for seeking the salvation of others and in order to do that each of us needs a 'solitary spot' in our life where we can pray.

But God continues to call some to be overseas missionaries, some to be monks and nuns, and some to be both.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Check out my You Tube clip Fr..hilarious!

Still think you must have been a brat for your mother! Only joking! Good job there's a lot of miles between us!