Celtic music, dancing, and art are popular these days. Some prospective parents are even considering Celtic names for their babies. Along with this attraction to all things Celtic is a resurgence of interest in Celtic spirituality. Although some look at Celtic spirituality from a New Age or Wicca perspective, for Christians Celtic spirituality is a meaningful way for them to interpret their faith.
So how did Celtic Christianity come about? It all goes back to the Celts, a group of tribes who ended up settling in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. Their religion was polytheistic with a special reverence for the number three. Sacred places and shrines were important to the Celts and were located near powerful natural features such as lakes, groves, or springs.
The conversion of the Celts to Christianity began in the third century when Christianity came to Britain. Saint Patrick, who was from Britain, arrived in Ireland in the fifth century and converted many of the Irish. In the 6th century Saint Columba traveled from Ireland to Scotland to spread Christianity.
Christianity was accepted by the Celts because of similar beliefs between the two as well as the Christians’ willingness to incorporate Celtic practices into Christianity. Christian worship places were often the same sites that had been used for the Celts’ pagan rituals. Celtic images were used at Christian worship sites and in Christian artwork. The High Crosses seen throughout Ireland were probably an adaptation of symbolic stones erected by the Celts. These crosses, a variation of the Celtic cross, have magnificent carvings of images from pagan mythology as well as images from the Bible and the lives of the saints.
The most famous symbol of Celtic Christianity is probably the Celtic cross. It is a cross which has a ring or circle around its intersection. Legends state that the Celtic Christian cross was introduced by Saint Patrick who combined the symbol of Christianity with the sun cross, a pagan symbol of a cross inside a circle, to show the importance of the cross by linking it with the idea of the life-giving properties of the sun.
If you’d like to know more about Celtic Christianity there are numerous books, DVDs, and other resources available on Amazon and other websites. You can view a PowerPoint presentation I made for a retreat called Thin Places: Exploring Celtic Spirituality on the website of the Parish Resource Center. In the weeks to come I’ll also be posting more blogs about other facets of Celtic Christianity.