Monday, October 11, 2021

The Classics of Western Spirituality: Celtic Spirituality

I normally don't recommend anything from Paulist Press, and for the most part, Their Classics of Western Spirituality is largely a hit-or-miss with quality texts that you may not be able to get any where else but problematic introductions containing large amounts of heresy throughout. But Celtic Spirituality was a stand-out. It is organized very neatly. The introduction is actually of high quality. And the texts introduced are so unique, that there are very few places one can even find them. I was brought to Catholicism largely through two was technically a woman. There is a heavy passion for the Catholic faith in its most ancient forms among the Irish Catholics still. Having read more in Eastern Christian spirituality lately, I wanted to go back to the early texts of the Western Christian world. There is much to be appreciated among the Western texts, especially being a former Anglican.

The book itself is divided into sections consisting of hagiography, monastic texts, poetry, devotion, liturgy, homilies, and theology. Though homilies sometimes overlap with theology and there is certainly no hagiography bereft of theology. The hagiographies are some of the most exotic to ever come across, and yet still, this is the Western world we are in. They show a movement of the Celtic peoples from Paganism to Christianity. The poetry heavily focuses on the saints and specifically the angels. It also shows a seasonal cycle reflecting the nature of the seasons in Celtic worship.

The hagiographical texts are wonderfully organized and very entertaining to read. They also display a Christian conquest of Paganism. Many Christians are given holy names when they enter into the Faith, but the Celtic Christians were given the names of the Celtic deities. St. Ite was baptized as Deirdre, the name of a Pagan Celtic god. St. Brigit of Kildare, whom I am quite fond of, beholds the name of the Celtic deity Brigid. The deity has found itself replaced with a holy figure. This is a rare practice in Christianity, yet it seems that the Celts did it regularly. The hagiographical texts contain the Patrick tradition, the Brigittine tradition, the narrative of St. Brendan's voyage, St. David, St. Beuno, and St. Melangell. Almost mythic at times, and in many instances adventurous. St. Patrick's dispute with the King Coroticus is narrated in these texts in which St. Patrick, by the power of God, commands the King to be turned into a fox. St. Brigit also has her own narrative with a fox where she saves a man from death. St. Brendan's voyage is a true seafarer's tale filled with sea monsters, an unknown island as the goal, temptations distracting the brothers as they sail forth, and various other dangers. St. David, St. Beuno, and St. Melangell read more like biographies, though some heathens will mock the miracles that are recorded to their own damnations.

The monastic texts shows how consistent the Celtic Christians were with the Egyptian world. Many scholars have also made the conclusion that the Celtic monastic tradition was heavily influenced by the Egyptian movement of the Desert Fathers. The monastic texts contain practical guides of spirituality for both laity and monastics. Though the different groups of laity and monastics are judged quite differently. The monastic rule of Cummean, Gildas, and Columbanus are all included in this work.

The poetry is mostly of two different traditions, that of the Welsh and that of the Irish. There are thirty poems in all. The poems elaborate on the nature of the Trinity, the nature of angels, and the Virgin Mary. They are quite beautiful reads. One such poem lists the seven archangels by name and is a prayerful plea for all the angels to be with him every single day of the week. I especially loved this poem. But the poems on the Trinity were also quite beautiful. St. Columba also has a poem in the devotional texts. In fact, some of the devotional texts may have been better listed under the poetical texts. The texts on the liturgy show how the Celts carried out their liturgical devotions. Though there is also certain clues hinted at in liturgical practice within the Brigittine narratives.

Next, we move into the homilies and the theological texts. Columbanus's sermons are included in here, as well as homilies of different Celtic traditions, an old Cambrai homily, and a Celtic catechesis. Not all of the authors appear to be known. Striking is the inclusion of the British monk Pelagius's text on The Christian Life. Some might want to skip this text, though it is important to note that just because a man falls into heresy, doesn't necessarily mean his entire life's work is invalidated. There does not seem to be dismissal or an argument made against any orthodox Christian doctrine on sin within the pages written by Pelagius that were included in this text. More of St. Columba's beautiful poetry is included among the theological texts. The work finishes off with a piece of John Scotus Eriugena's The Food of the Soul, which has a practical guide to Christian morality, a definition of the seven deadly sins, and their counterparts in the virtues.

It is rare that I can recommend unequivocally a work published by Paulist Press, yet I do so for this book, particularly because of my own enrichment by Irish Christians over the years. I am very fond of the Celtic Christians and their spirituality. There is a connection between East and West through the pages of these Christians and their spirituality is among the most adventurous. Excluding St. George's slaying of the dragon, there may not be a more adventurous and imaginative spirituality. Their spirituality is needed to be reflected on more-so than ever as a war is waged against the spirits of imagination and creation by many living among us today. It is important to recover this aspect of the Celtic spirituality. I highly recommend Celtic Spirituality, especially to my Irish-Scotch friends out there!

1 comment:

  1. Good review. As a 75% Irish 25% Scottish Catholic Canadian, I feel drawn to this kind of work.