Reclaiming Celtic Christianity
Some twenty miles south of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is the Ulster village of Downpatrick. It has 10,000 residents, two dozen pubs (a number of which I have had the pleasure of chugging a few pints), and one massive, glorious church: Down Cathedral. Built on a holy hill once used by the druids, transformed into a monastery and finally a church, it is also the traditional burial site of Ireland’s most revered saint: Patrick.
Patrick spent his life loving and serving the people of his adopted island home, so when he died on March 17, 461, he was buried on that sacred site, giving his name to the village and eventually the cathedral. But Ireland has three patron saints, and when Patrick died, a little girl emerged to take his place as spiritual leader – a native Celtic woman. Her name was Brigid.
In many ways, she was as important and influential as Patrick, carrying his mantle and his mission. When she died, she too was buried at Downpatrick (As an aside she has the best Irish prayer ever written. It begins, “I’d like to give a lake of beer to God for all eternity,” and ends, “We’ll be drinking to good health in heaven forever, and every drop will be a prayer.”).
When Brigid died, a four-year old Irish boy’s life was just beginning. He was named Columba. In time, on the island of Iona, he established a library, a theology school, was the first person to take Christianity to all of Scotland, and it is reported that he vanquished a terrible, mysterious sea creature at a lake called Ness (which may explain why the Loch Ness Monster hasn’t been found).
When Columba died, like his forefather and foremother, his remains were transported back to Downpatrick where he too was laid to rest. These three Irish saints – Patrick, Brigid, and Columba – living in succession, represent the heart of what has been called “Celtic Christianity.” This is more than a geographical designation. It is a humble, simple, form of faith. It is Christianity that never united with power, with the Empire, with violence or manipulation.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine “converted” to Christianity, the cross, which had been the suffering symbol of a crucified rabbi, became a crusading tool of military and ethnic conquest. A culture was “Christianized,” not so much when it conformed to the words and ways of Jesus, but when it bowed before the Emperor. Thus, most of Western Europe was “converted” at the end of a sword (as were Europe’s colonies), but Patrick chose a different way.
He came in humility, simplicity, and vulnerability. He came as a servant, with honesty, authenticity, treating others with dignity and respect. Rather than forcing faith on people, he lovingly met them where they were, and never used the cross or faith as a weapon. Celtic Christianity sounds much like what Jesus intended for his first disciples, and we who follow him today, would do well to return to that path.
Photo by Adrian Moran