Celtic Spirituality Part 3: Living the Sacred Life

"The three marks of a godly man: to seek knowledge,
to perform justice and to exercise mercy"
             -- Welch Bardic Triad

The Celts understood there was an unseen world that surrounded and interpenetrated everyday life. They lived in unbroken relationship to that world and were enriched by it. The Celts lived simultaneously on multiple levels of being, blending the physical, spiritual and symbolic throughout their activities and culture. People in the traditional Gaelic-speaking Western regions of Ireland and Scotland had prayers for everything they did: for greeting the day, going to bed, milking, looming, cooking, bathing, herding, banking the fire and setting out on a journey. There are countless prayers of protection that usually invoked the power of the elements of Nature or God. The Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael offers "The sacred Three, to save, to surround, to shield, the hearth, the house, this eve, this night, Oh! this eve, this night, and every night, each single night, Amen." The "three" in this case means the sacred Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit or equally, in earlier Goddess versions, the Maiden, Mother and Crone.

In the Celtic world, all of creation was ensouled, even the earth herself. The interplay of the five elements of earth, air, fire, water and spirit gave rise to each unique rock, tree and well of creation. The element of spirit was perceived as non-human, sentient, etheric beings who populated the landscape as fairies, sprites, leprechauns, elementals and dragons. Each had unique qualities that were respected and honored. Each sacred place in the landscape was linked, and still is, to one of those spirits as well as associated gods and goddesses to the legends of the land, for in Ireland every place is associated with legend. The sacredness of these places was a tangible sanctity that transcended time and space, allowing one to move into direct experience of the divine without the intervention of doctrine or dogma. As spiritual practice was held outside on sacred land, the power of the elements and the spirits of land and legend were an active, vital part of the practice, which enhanced the tangibility of their presence.

Since land was sacred, under Druidic law it could not be bought or sold. Rather, land was held in common by clans or families. Some priestly families held responsibility for the most sacred of places, often on their lands. As Christianity began its conversion of the Celtic world, the same families then provided the Christian saints, who lived as the Druids had, in these sacred holy places. Monasteries were often formed around these sacred places as the spiritual practice shifted focus.

A deep relationship with nature was characteristic of the Celtic saints, who believed, like their Druid ancestors, that knowledge of God lay not with the study of the scriptures, but with God's creation. By living a simple life, they strove to become one with that creation and God. Living in deep harmony with nature, they were often supported by animal friends who would bring them food, guide their way and bring them messages.

For many monks, male and female, life was hermetic. When monks chose to live together, it was in the model of Christ and the twelve apostles as an abbot and twelve monks in a rough-hewn monastery. Typically, when numbers grew, thirteen would set off to create a new monastery. Over time, monasteries grew from a collection of crude huts to a walled village. Monasteries like Kildare and Glendaloch in Ireland were whole communities. The abbot of these monasteries replaced the function of the Druid as religious head of clan culture, while the chief remained secular head and warlord. Smiths, bakers, weavers and farmers lived together with the monks. In addition to being spiritual centers, the monasteries served as hospitals and universities to the surrounding countryside.

Central to Celtic spiritual practice is the cycle of the ceremonial year. It represents the circle of Life and is, in itself, a symbol of creation. The solstices and equinoxes hold the position of the four directions representing the flow of life through the seasons and cycles of the sun. Cross-quarter days held midway between the solstices and the equinoxes are Celtic holy days.

Samain, the feast of the dead, is the beginning of winter and Celtic New Year. It is held traditionally at first frost as a time to honor ancestors and remember the dead. On this night, the King ritually wed the Goddess as a sign of his stewardship and the ongoing fertility of land and harvest.

Imbolc, on February 1, is a time of quickening that holds the promise of spring. Lambs are born in Britain and Ireland; snowdrops peek through the snow, and light has returned in strength and duration. This is Brigit's feast day and a time for honoring mothers.

Beltain celebrated the coming of summer, on May 1. The fertility of the land and people was celebrated by feasting, dancing around the may pole and much lovemaking. Fires throughout the land were extinguished at night to be relit from Druidic ceremonial fires. Stock was driven between the fires for purification before the embers were carried back to the hearths of the people.

Lughassa, held on August 1, celebrated the first fruits of the harvest. It was a time of feasting, games, stories, music and dancing. There were trade fairs where rents were paid, legal matters settled, and work found for the coming year. In acknowledgement of the fruits of the planting and the death that comes with harvest, the festival Corn King was ritually offered to be reborn in the first loaf of bread.

To the Celts, these festivals are not merely dates on a calendar. Rather, they coincide with changes in the land and psyches of the people. In a culture without division between the physical and spiritual, they provided an opportunity for spiritual expression and experience. So important were they that they were transitioned under Christian influence into the holy days of Candlemas (Imbolc); Easter (Beltain); the Ascension of Christ (Lughassa); and All Hallow's Eve and All Saint's Day (Samain).

The continuity of Celtic Spirituality is the source of its strength and relevance today. As we hear the spiritual call of Earth and Creation, we need not give up any foundation we may have in Christianity. Through an earth-centered focus of Celtic Spirituality, we may find ourselves revisiting a forsaken Christianity in a new, less encumbered light. This is the spiritual origin of most of us of European descent. Recalling our roots is a way to bring aspects of our beings that may have seemed destined to alienation back into harmony once again. 

Published in Alaska Wellness, January/February 2002