The Celtic Church: Myths and Reality
set apart, this
many dreams, still
yields its secret, but
it is only as men seek,
that they truly find. To reach
the heart of Iona is to find
something eternal.” -G.E. Troup
There has been a resurgence of interest in all things Celtic, including the church as it existed in the British Isles. The problem is there is little information available on the specifics of the church in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. What little we do possess gives us some interesting insights however. The Celtic church is an enigma even for modern historians and theologians. On the one hand you had a church that was seemingly orthodox and resistant to Papal control, for which it has become the fancy of Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians. On the other hand you have a church whose primary religious order of authority possessed a spirituality that was quite creation centered, focused not just on God as transcendent deity, but also in God immanent in His natural world. A sort of penentheistic theology, akin to that of the notorious heretic Matthew Fox. This Celtic religious order I speak of was the Order of Culdees, the inheritors of much of the ancient Druidic tradition and spirituality, not to mention spiritual influence.
The name Culdee itself is of confusing origin and many opinions have been offered. The most likely is that it comes from the word “culdich”, meaning “certain strangers.” This makes sense considering that Celtic Christian tradition has it that in 37 A.D., followers of Jesus Christ appeared on the shores of the British Isles. These followers were supposedly Jewish and if so would certainly have looked different, dressed different and spoke a foreign language. Some traditions say that Joseph of Arimathea was the leader of this band of disciples, who had visited previously with the young Jesus, though this has no evidence to support it and is almost certainly pious myth. Whatever the case, these strangers were granted an audience by Arvaragus, the king of that particular region. The king found them kind, humble and worthy of his trust, so he decided to give them a place to live in the local Druid community. Later the same king granted them a plot of land equal to “twelve hides”, where they are said to have built the first Christian Church in Britain. Folk tradition has it that this church was built on the very site of the now ruined church at Glastonbury.
Is there evidence for this particular claim? If we take into account the record known as the Domesday survey, it appears there certainly is. A passage in the Domesday survey (1088 A.D.) states:
“The Domus Dei in the great monastery at Glastingbury. This
Glastingbury church possesses its own villa XII hides of land
for which have never been paid tax.”
This does not prove the folk tale to be accurate. It merely proves an ancient origin for the church. It could very well be that the monks of Glastonbury started the story of Joseph of Arimathea themselves to keep the faithful donating to the monastery. Such things were quite common and gave rise throughout Europe to various churches claiming to even have the various body parts and personal belongings of various Biblical persons, and enough wood claimed to have been from the cross upon which Christ was crucified to build a ship. Further documentary evidence does exist to show that after building of the Glastonbury church a group of Druids converted to Christianity. It then would have been no surprise that, since these Druids already possessed spiritual authority and influence among the people, they would have eventually been ordained priests and certainly began to convert others-including other Druids.
One of the questions we must ask is what was it that encouraged these Druids to convert to this new religion, leaving behind the path of their ancestors? Was it through a sincere faith in the Gospel? I cannot go so far as to say that every Druid who converted did so for reasons other than faith, but I suspect there were other motivational factors at play. The first thing we have to understand is that Druidic spirituality was syncretistic. That is, they absorbed elements of various philosophies and religions they came in contact with. The first Druids traveled to Britain from the Balkans finding philosophies and religions similar to theirs and adding what seemed to them a good fit. So when these Druids met the “culdich” it was natural for them to search out the truths that seemed right to them in this new faith and implement them. Also these strangers had received their teachings first hand from Jesus Himself, so they were as close to the source as they could get, and this would have appealed to the Druids immensely. Keep in mind that the Christianity of that time was not the Christianity of today. It wasn’t the product of Reformers. It wasn’t a religion being used to subdue and control a tribe or nation as was to happen in the future. This was a more simple faith without the baggage of much of modern Christianity. Of course, this also means that they quite possibly wouldn't have had ongoing guidance in orthodoxy either. Once these former Druids had converted, they could control the direction of this new faith.
The Druids, besides being the priestly class, were the intelligentsia. They were the physicians, priests, naturalists, musicians and historians of their people. To become a Druid one had to memorize the entire corpus of Bardic works and all other collected knowledge of their people without the benefit of writing anything down. No simple challenge and not one for the ignorant. Thus they were held in very high esteem as the protected class of society. It was considered a great crime to kill a Druid, even in war. Again, these were the intelligentsia of society, the protectors of their peoples' history and heritage. So we must assume that this new faith they encountered was one that they felt was perhaps the fulfillment of their spiritual path, and not some betrayal of their people or traditions. When these Druids converted they didn’t just drop their traditions, they brought many of them into their Christian faith. We can find evidence of this in the symbolism of Celtic Christianity (geese, trees, groves, wells, and other creation centered symbols), as well as in such writings as the Carmina Gadelica.
The Carmina Gadelica is a collection of ancient Celtic prayers that reflect earlier Druidic nature spirituality, where we find sentiments that demonstrate a strong connection to the nature spirituality of the Druids. Prayers such as:
Thou King of the Moon,
Thou King of the Sun,
Thou King of the Planets,
Thou King of the Stars,
Thou King of the Globe,
Thou King of the Sky,
Oh! Lovely Thy countenance,
Thou beauteous beam!
Given this Druidic heritage it is no surprise that Celtic Christian tradition tells us of Culdee saints who talked with animals, much in the same way that Saint Francis of Assisi was said to do. Nor is it surprising that groves, springs and wells were considered holy. Another strong indicator that the Culdees were the heirs of Druid tradition is their occupation of the ancient Druid holy sites and groves, including the “sacred” Isle of Iona. This island is located off the west coast of Scotland and was the site of a large conclave of Druids, for which it has always been known alternately as “Innis nan Druidhneach”, old Gaelic for “Druid’s Isle”. The fact that this island held such spiritual importance in Celtic society is attested to as well by the historian Lewis Spence in his book “The Mysteries of Britain”, where he confirms this tradition by research, concluding,
“Their (the Druids) chief seat in Scotland was the Island of Iona.”
It was this very same stronghold of Druidic learning that the Culdees soon took over, and where Saint Columba established his monastery in the 6th century. Speaking of this succession of spiritual authority by the Culdees the 19th century historian Godfrey Higgens wrote in his treatise “The Celtic Druids”,
“In the early history of the Christian church, in Britain and Ireland, we meet with an order of priests called Culdees...They had a very celebrated monastery in the Island of Iona, and others in remote situations, and these situations, by accident or design, mostly the former possessions of the Druids...the result of all the enquiries which I have made into the history of the Culdees is, that they were the last remains of the Druids, who had been converted to Christianity..”
Yet another 19th century historian, John Jamieson, wrote in his “Historical Account of the Ancient Culdees of Iona” that there is a..
“tradition in the Highlands of Scotland, that the Culdees immediately succeeded the Druids, as the ministers of religion..”
He too notes the Culdees having inherited the Druidic holy places as well by informing us that one of the well known Christian churches at Clachan “originally belonged to a Druidical temple.” Indeed, even the unique style of tonsure the Culdees practiced was unlike any in the entire Christian world, but was exactly the same as that of the Druids.
What all of this demonstrates is that the romantic notion of the Celtic church as a purer form of Christianity may indeed be wrong, and that the evidence points to an early pagan influence that was rightly prohibited later when the papacy exerted control over the churches of the British Isles. Rather than being a bastion of pure Christian theology and practice, the Celtic church was at the very best heterodox. This is not to say that every Christian in the church was in sin (such is not the case), but that the gradual move toward Biblical orthodoxy, resisted staunchly by a few leaders of the Celtic church early on, was responsible for the more edifying aspects of Celtic Christian spirituality that we know of today.