Celtic spirituality

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History


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 Columba, Holy Island

The Christ faith first spread in the British Isles among the Celtic peoples. But how did the Celts (peoples from central Europe) come to be in Britain in the first place? And what happened to the Celtic version of the Christian faith in Britain? This page explains.

The pagan Celts occupied central and western Europe for many centuries before the time of Christ, but Roman troops eventually pushed them to the western fringes of the continent. They settled in Britain, Ireland and Gaul (France).

It was among the Celtic peoples that Christianity first came to Britain.

When the Roman forces withdrew from Britain around the year 410, Christianity nearly died out. However, Christ-like personalities established loving Christian communities to which multitudes responded. They included St Martin (in France), St Ninian (in Scotland), St Patrick and St Brigid (in Ireland), St Illtyd, St Samson and St David (in Wales and Brittany).

In the 6th century, Ireland became “a land of saints and scholars” and sent out “wanderers for the love of God” across Europe. St Columba established a monastery on the island of Iona in Scotland.

At the same time, pagan Anglo-Saxons (the English) colonised what is now England. In the year 631, St Aidan was sent from Iona to evangelise them from the island of Lindisfarne, on England’s north-east coast. Lindisfarne missionaries won the hearts of the English and reached as far south as London.

The Pope also sent a mission to the English, led by Augustine. In 664, the rules of the Roman mission were laid upon the English, and later upon all Britain and Ireland. Anglo-Saxon Christian leaders trained by Aidan’s mission, notably Cuthbert and Hilda, accepted the new framework but maintained the Celtic spirituality.

This spirituality went underground, but something of its spirit surfaced in the poetry, customs or household prayers in the western Celtic fringes. Many of these poems and prayers were gathered in the 19th century to form a collection known as The Carmina Gadelica.

In 1938, George McCleod, a Church of Scotland minister, rebuilt Iona’s ancient abbey, fulfilling a prophecy of St Columba, and founded the modern Iona Community. Since the 1980s, Celtic-style books of prayers by David Adam, vicar of Lindisfarne, have became widely popular, as have a wave of books about Celtic Christianity, study courses, and Celtic interest networks.

If you would like to know more about Celtic Christianity, click here to visit the e-library at The Centre for the Study of Religion in Celtic Societies at the University of Wales.

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About this module

Early Christianity in Celtic lands had a more natural, less imperial feel than it did elsewhere and it’s spirituality is reviving today. Read here about its history, themes, places and prayers.

This has a strong sense of God’s presence in creation and in everyday life, celebrates God through all the senses, releases creativity, respects both women’s and men’s gifts and values contemplation.

Ray Simpson lives and works on Holy Island in Northumbria. He is the author of Exploring Celtic Spirituality and Celtic Blessings. Our thanks go to him for his contribution to this module.

Categories: Spirituality, Experiential,

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Module contents

arrow Introduction to Celtic Christianity

arrow History

arrow Themes

arrow Places

arrow Prayers

arrow Blessings

arrow Books

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