My experience watching Siamsa Tire (The National Folk Theatre of Ireland) perform “The Children of Lir” shows me that it is within the stories of the ancient Celts that their deepest truths are woven, a silver thread we can learn to see, to follow, to trust.
The Ceile de, or Spouses of God, a monastic order formed in the early centuries of Christianity in Ireland, and rebirthed in our time, tell this story: A remarkable change happened among the Druids, the priests of the ancient Celtic religion, somewhere around the time of the birth of Christ. A group arose who became known as the Strangers. They spoke out against the ostentations, the warlike behaviour that had characterized the Celts for centuries. They dressed simply in linen, wandered through Ireland, seeking hospitality wherever they were, teaching a new consciousness.
They told stories of a Holy One who would be born of a Virgin, One who would initiate a new time of peace and love. Though the fifth century saint, Patrick, has long been honoured as the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, it now seems that the new faith may have arrived as early as the first century. And when these first Christian travellers spoke of a Holy One, born of a Virgin, preaching love, the Celts recognised the tale told by the Strangers. This is why the coming of Christianity to Ireland was without bloodshed, with “nary a martyr” as the old tales say. All it took was a dawn and a song and the ringing of a bell.
Pre-Christian mythology among the Celts told of an invisible god who becomes visible in the feminine, able to be touched with the senses. In one myth a god who wanted to know itself divided into invisible and visible: spirit and matter/ Mater (universe, earth, body). So the Christian story of an invisible Father and a visible mother (Mary) birthing the Christ made sense to the Celts. For them, Christ, born of a heavenly Father and an earthly Mother, represents perfect balance.
Julian of Norwich, in her Celtic Heart, understood that as truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.
Celtic Christianity was woven into the hearts and souls of a people drawn to mystery rather than to rigidity of belief, rooted in the earth, in story, in music, in laughter. The Celts were naturally drawn to the mysticism of the Gospel of John. They embraced and understood a suffering Messiah, for they needed someone who knew pain as well as ecstasy, who could weep as well as sing, dance and rejoice. The Celts loved Jesus so much that re-imagined him as one of their own. That strange depiction on my wall that I thought was a woman crucified was copied from an 8th century image of Jesus with Celtic features, clothed in a long Celtic robe decorated with spirals…. from an 8th c. bronze plaque, St. John’s Rinnagan, County Roscommon, Ireland
What happened to this indigenous expression of Christianity? How could such a vibrant, rooted, faith wither? Be subsumed into the more rigid forms of Roman Catholic Christianity? The answer is not one of organic development but rather of a deliberate, sustained and determined crushing of roots, uprooting of plants, replanting with other expressions of Christianity by a Church whose increasingly centralized authority in Rome could not abide differences of expression, and valued conformity of belief and practice over a lived and living indigenous faith.
It took centuries for the Celtic expression of Christianity to be supplanted by the Roman expression, but from the moment in the late fourth century when Pelagius, a Celtic monk, debated with the great Augustine of Hippo that goodness, not sin, is at the heart of life, the death knell was already sounding for Celtic Christianity. Augustine won the debate and became a saint of the Roman Church. Pelagius lost and became a heretic. The doctrine of Original Sin took its place in the Christian story.
When the Normans arrived in Ireland in the 12th century, they replaced Irish monastic life with the large European orders of Augustinians and Benedictines, completing the transmutations in line with the Roman Model of Christianity.
What I’ve learned of Celtic Christianity shows me a weaving, still open for the Kairos moment, still loose enough to receive the shuttle cock carrying the weft thread of our new knowing that we are intimately part of, in fact we are holograms of, an interconnected universe. The weaving of Celtic Christianity has honoured the gifts of women, so denigrated, and the spiritual needs of women, so ignored, by the Roman Church. It has honoured the earth with her sacred cycles of night and day, her active summer days of the bright masculine sun-energy, her contemplative winter days of the dark feminine moon-energy, her birthings and dyings and risings.
One night, during these twice seven years of searching, I had a dream. A huge stone Church soars into the sky, obscuring the light. It is heavy, forbidding, much too burdened with all the laws inscribed upon its stones. It suddenly shakes, then topples backwards. As it falls, its perfect reflection in the lake that lies at its base rises. It is lighter, freer, still magical in openness and colour, with spaces where one might breathe freely, even underwater. It rises slowly even as the stone Church falls backwards. It takes its place in the clean and emptied air.
(to be continued)