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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Celtic Christianity and Sophiology

John Duncan, St. Bride (1913)

Celtic Christianity has haunted my soul since my early youth, from at least the time when at the age of eighteen I bought a Celtic cross from the gift shop of The Detroit Institute of Arts and which has hung about my neck for most of the intervening forty years. That cross was the seed. Over a decade later, my wife and I chose Claddagh rings as wedding bands—for one, because they were relatively inexpensive and we were poor, and, more importantly, because Celtic spirituality spoke to our souls in a profound way. In addition, my five eldest children all have Celtic names—Brendan, Dylan, Thomas Gwynn, Mae, and Aidan—and Brendan was baptized with water from the Chalice Well in Glastonbury.

Inspired by the lives of the Celtic saints, in my first or second year as a Waldorf teacher I wrote a play, The Journey of St. Brendan the Navigator, for my students to perform. Our school’s eurythmy teacher, Brigitta (Bridget to us Celts) helped me turn it into a kind of Miracle Play, with my class performing the parts of Brendan and his monks, another class as the whale upon whose back Brendan and his companions celebrated Easter Mass, another class as the island of birds, and so on. The teachers even participated, and my dear friend Mary Jo played the role of the wise hermit Brendan met on the Isle of the Blessed. I still recall her face and gestures as her character told Brendan and his crew the time had not yet come to settle upon those shores. I wrote the play out in long hand, and I’m not even sure if I still have a copy, alas. Nevertheless, the entire thing was one of the most beautiful moments in my thirty years of teaching. It felt as if light filled the room. No one was untouched.

Certainly, among other things, what really appealed to me then (and continues to) is the synergy between the angelic and natural orders in Celtic spirituality. The Celtic churches, so difficult to perceive clearly through the mists of history, moved in such an awareness. The legends of the Celtic saints—Patrick, Brendan, Brigid, and Columba for example—are rich with a natural world barely touched by agriculture. It is also interesting to note that Celtic monasticism with its extraordinary emphasis on asceticism and learning arose in a geographical area almost complete devoid of urban centers. It may be precisely because of this that Celtic monks participated in the wildness of Creation in a manner almost entirely unknown in other contexts. The exquisite Welsh “Litany of the Creation” (c. 7th century) voices this beautifully:

I beseech the people of heaven with bright-armed Michael; I beseech you by the triad of wind, sun, and moon.

I beseech you by water and the cruel air; I beseech you by fire, I beseech you by earth.[1]

This sensibility inhabits so much of the liturgical, devotional, and mythic language of Celtic Christianity that it is hard to miss, as in this excerpt from one of the more powerful prayers in the Christian tradition, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, also known as The Deer’s Cry:

I arise today Through the strength of heaven; Light of sun, Radiance of moon, Splendour of fire, Speed of lightning, Swiftness of wind, Depth of sea, Stability of earth, Firmness of rock.

In Celtic spirituality, all of Creation participates in Divinity. As Christopher Bamford writes in the introduction to his outstanding collection (edited with William Parker Marsh), Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness, what we find in Celtic spirituality is “a continuity in cosmic process, that extended from its inception, Creation, to its conclusion, Deification.” [2]

When St. Patrick was asked by the Irish pagan royalty who this God he spoke of was, he had this to say:

Our God is the God of all men, the God of heaven and earth, of sea and river, of sun and moon and stars, of the lofty mountain and the lowly valleys, the God above heaven and in heaven and under heaven; he has his dwelling round heaven and earth and sea and all that in them is. He inspires all, he quickens all, he dominates all, he sustains all. He lights the light of the sun; he furnishes the light of the light; he has made springs in the dry land and has set stars to minister to the greater lights. [3]

The Celtic Church was its own unique individuality, not Roman and not Byzantine, and not encumbered by the bureaucratic complications of hierarchical administration and the annoyances and interferences of ecclesial busybodies. (Those interested in this topic may want to check out F. E. Warren’s The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church, first published in 1881). The Irish Church, in particular, had no martyrs to speak of and was characterized by “its pastoral way, its uncomplicated fervour, the dislike of its representatives for all manner of officialdom and organization [which] was precisely what the men of Rome so disliked.” [4] The Celtic ethos took seriously Christ’s admonishment to “Preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). That sounds like my kind of church.

This all sounds a lot like Sophiology, too, of course, and for good reason (and I haven’t even mentioned the important place of women in Celtic religion and culture). And Sophiology, I claim, is the default position for Judeo-Christian ways of being—ways of being long since compromised by the designs of religious politicians and ecclesial people of power to the point of almost absolute disfigurement. As Margaret Barker argues, in the context of First Temple Judaism, “Those with the ‘biblical’ way of thinking saw the creation as the work of God, and felt that people who saw it in any other way were not liberated but deprived.” [5] Furthermore, “the covenant of creation bound everything in one system: the material world, living beings, human society, and the invisible forces they called angels or powers.” [6] I was right: this is Sophiology.

This is also, I claim, the Kingdom Christ proclaimed.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.

1. Oliver Davies, trans. with Thomas O’Loughlin, Celtic Spirituality New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 298.

2. Christopher Bamford and William Parker Marsh, Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness (Lindisfarne, 1982), 12.

3. In H. J. Massingham, The Tree of Life (London, 1943), 37-38.

4. Gerhard Herm, The Celts: The People Who Came out of the Darkness (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977), 268.

5. Margaret Barker, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 26.

6. Ibid., 111.

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