How did Celtic Christianity emerge?
Christianity was introduced to Britain during the Roman occupation. When the Roman armies left in the fifth century, Christianity took root and developed till the arrival of the Normans at the end of the eleventh century.
Celtic Cross at Nevern
However, there never was a ‘Celtic Church’ as such; these Christians regarded themselves as members of the universal Church which included East and West till the great division of 1054. That is why the Celtic Christians were free to travel on the Continent and beyond, and share fully in the activities of local schools and monasteries.
Nevertheless, as in other parts of Christendom, a distinctive spirituality emerged in each of the Celtic lands. Local theologies developed and particular aspects of the Christian faith were emphasized. This was the result of Christianity’s interaction with the cultural, social and political environment of the local situation.
In his article on ‘Celtic Spirituality’ Thomas O’Loughlin (2005) notes that
while the medieval West certainly had an image of its religious unity (expressed in maps, law and language) it had no experience of the actual uniformity in such matters as liturgy or the desire for uniformity in doctrinal expressions that characterise recent centuries. For example, only with print did liturgical uniformity over a wide area become possible, while only with the Reformation did the desire for such uniformity become a force in ecclesiastical politics. The earlier the period one looks at in the West the more one finds that local connections produce distinctive patterns in spirituality relating to local patterns of settlement, legal background and language use (p.183).
The use of Irish or Welsh alongside the use of Latin was a clear indication of both the local and universal features of Celtic Christianity.
An extensive selection of medieval texts from Irish and Welsh sources can be found translated into English in Davies, O. (1999). There is an anthology of medieval and modern materials from Brittany, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in
Davies, O. and Bowie, F. (1995).
What are the main characteristics of Celtic Christianity in Wales from the fifth to the twelfth centuries?
After studying the early Welsh texts, Oliver Davies (1996) concludes that the distinctively Welsh tradition can be summed up in three terms: ‘It is Trinitarian, Incarnational and cosmic’.
He notes that ‘it is a form of Christianity which affords a special value to the creativity of the poet’ (p. 144).
The earliest example of this poetic tradition, written in Welsh, contains a reference to the Holy Trinity. This poem was found in the margin of the ninth century Latin Juvencus manuscript kept in the University Library at Cambridge. Of the nine verses, six are explicitly Trinitarian though in different ways. This emphasis on the Holy Trinity is continued in several of the poems included in the Black Book of Carmarthen possibly dating from the ninth and tenth centuries.
The Celtic awareness of God as the communion of the Three in One resulted in an emphasis on community.
Belief affects behaviour. The Celtic awareness of God as the communion of the Three in One resulted in an emphasis on community. This was expressed in the monastic movement which pre-dated Patrick in Ireland and also took root in Wales from an early period.
On the basis of the Lives of the Welsh saints Oliver Davies (1996) suggests that there were broadly three types of monasteries in Wales.
There were major monastic centres such as Llancarfan, Tywyn, Llanbadarn Fawr, Clynnog Fawr and St Illtud’s community at Llantwit Major. In addition to these large and bustling monasteries which followed a less rigorous pattern of life, there were communities where manual labour was the norm for all and which were regarded as being more ascetical in their character. It is recorded that Samson and David both retreated from Llantwit Major to Caldey Island, and that Dyfrig made his Lenten retreat on Bardsey, where he also returned to die. David’s own original community, to judge from Rhigyfarch’s Life of David, may well also have been of this kind. A further type of monastic life-style is visible however in Samson’s rejection of Caldey and his retreat to a cave where, together with a small number of other hermits, he pursued a more uncompromising vocation’ (pp. 10f).
Artist’s impression of Llanbadarn Fawr in the sixth century
As well as praising the Holy Trinity with their lips these Celtic Christians expressed the Trinitarian way of existence in their life together.
The Trinitarian communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit was reflected in the communion of saints with which it was linked through the Spirit which had overshadowed the Virgin Mary.
The Juvencus verses end with these words:
it is not too great toil to praise the Son of Mary
In keeping with its source, the early Celtic Christian tradition celebrated the Incarnation.
On the face of the world
There was not born
His equal …
Gentle and strong
Son of the Godhead
Son of humanity.
In his gentle birth and passionate suffering the incarnate Christ identified with a group of people living under threat. We fought and were always in retreat
(R.S.Thomas, ‘Welsh History’).
Christ’s capacity to suffer in love encouraged perseverance, hope and a sense of purpose.
Christ’s cross is bright
A shining breastplate
Against all harm
Against all our enemies may it be strong:
The place of our protection.
This Welsh prayer for protection reminds one of Patrick’s Breastplate.
Recognition of the incarnate God leads to an emphasis on physicality. The material matters. The physical body is involved in the development of a mature spirituality. The Loves of Taliesin has been described as ‘one of the greatest works of medieval Welsh religious literature.’ The poet celebrates the beauty of a wedding feast as well as the beauty of the shining moon, the grain on the stalk, the seagulls playing, the fish in the lake, the horse in its halter. Yet the heart of this poem is the need for penance. Disciplining the body is not seen in a negative light, but opens up the possibility of giving glory to God.
The beauty of the virtue in doing penance for excess,
Beautiful too that God shall save me.
As well as the Trinitarian and Incarnational aspects of Celtic Christianity, Oliver Davies (1996) pinpoints its stress on the cosmic. The Juvencus verses open with this affirmation:
Almighty Creator, it is you who made the land and the sea ….
In the twelfth century we find a cosmic poem of praise which combines motifs from the world of nature, human society and the church.
Hail to you, glorious Lord!
May church and chancel praise you …
May plain and hillside praise you …
May darkness and light praise you …
May the birds and the bees praise you …
May male and female praise you,
May the seven days and the stars praise you …
May the sand and the earth praise you,
May all the good things created praise you,
And I too shall praise you, Lord of glory,
Hail to you, glorious Lord!
There was a vivid sense of the presence of the Creator in his creation among the Celtic Christians. The glory of God shone through all his works. The transcendent Lord was the immanent Being at the heart of all things.
The sacredness of particular places became transparent in their association with holy people who later were known as saints. Since his death, Patrick had been addressed as a saint. The seventh century inscription on the famous stone in Llanddewibrefi Church mentioned ‘holy David’. Places and wells linked with these saints became places of pilgrimage. People yearned to be caught up in this cosmic holiness. As they shared in God’s holiness they began to reflect it; being limited lights they started to reveal the Light.
James P Mackey insists that Celtic Christianity still exists and A.M.Allchin (2005) notes where it can be found. He mentions four poets who emerged in the middle of the twentieth century: Saunders Lewis, Gwenallt Jones, Waldo Williams and Euros Bowen.
All of them, in very different literary idioms, found themselves called to make their own this fifteen-hundred-year tradition of sacred poetry … Thus these four “doctors of the Church” … are part of an unfolding story which still goes on …’ (p.642).
Fortunately, many poems written by these four authors have been translated into English and published, for example:
- Davies, C., Davies, S. (1993), Euros Bowen: Priest-Poet, Cardiff, Church in Wales.
- Allchin, D. Morgan, D.D. Thomas, P. (2000), Sensuous Glory: The poetic vision of D.Gwenallt Jones, Norwich, Canterbury Press.
- Clancy, J.P. (1993), Selected Poems: Saunders Lewis, Cardiff, University of Wales Press.
- Conran, T. (1997), The Peacemakers: Selected Poems Waldo Williams, Llandysul, Gomer Press.
The other source of modern Welsh spirituality pinpointed by A. M. Allchin is the extensive body of hymns in Welsh. Their imagery is a reminder of the Eastern icons – they could be described as verbal icons. To mark the third Christian millennium a panel representing most of the church traditions in Wales compiled a selection of more than 900 Welsh hymns. Caneuon Ffydd, Pwyllgor Llyfr Emynau Cydenwadol, Llandysul, Gwasg Gomer, 2001, has sold more copies than any publication in the Welsh language. That must provide a glimmer of hope in the face of much anxiety within the churches at present.
Today we are at the point of waiting as we look for new expressions of the Christian life within the chaos of our time. Out of the bewilderment of the post-Roman era there emerged the age of the saints, the fountain-head of Celtic Christianity. God’s way of renewal is by death and resurrection.