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Celtic Spirituality: Syncretism & Celtic Christian Symbols


spiral earthworks in Scotland, evoking ancient Celtic Spirituality - Isle of Skye

SYNCRETISM

In the previous post, we explored the Celtic spiritual tradition that predates Roman and Christian contact and colonization. Ever since they collided, the Celtic and Roman-Christian perspectives have influenced each other profoundly and mutually. That's because the Celts, like most ancestral peoples have employed syncretism as a cultural survival strategy blending native traditions with those of outsiders, including those of dispossessors. We can learn a lot about syncretism by comparing the history of the Celts with the history of other ancestral peoples.


It’s important here to note some of the many differences between the Celts' experience interacting with Rome/Christianity, and, for instance, the experiences of the First Nations of the Americas with Europe, the United States, and Christianity:

  • The Celts of the NAI (Northeast Atlantic Islands) remained at or beyond the frontier of the Roman Empire, and then Roman Christianity, for over a millennium before the Mediterranean lifeways became widely adopted and enforced.

  • By maintaining regular contact that whole time, the NAI and the continent developed similar exposure and immunity to biological pathogens.

  • Neither Rome nor the Church had the human or technological capacity for outright conquest in the NAI, let alone genocide, and the Celts there never suffered the worst of these atrocities.

In contrast, both Europe and the United States had such destructive capacity and waged official campaigns of conquest and genocide against the First Nations of the Americas, while their diseases wrought further devastation. Together these forces ensured the swift spread of Western-white people and culture, and the forcible assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Despite these and other devastations – harsher than any the Celts faced – First Nations people have survived and even thrived to this day, preserving their ancestral cultures and spiritualities in the face of all odds.


In fact, when we examine how these First Nations have employed syncretism, we find a challenge to the assumption that conquering dispossessors can ever meaningfully claim cultural superiority. We also find a challenge to the assumption that the dispossessed are mere casualties of assimilation, rather than what they truly are: stewards of still-living cultures and spiritualities. And we find illustrative examples that can help us better understand Celtic syncretism.


One classic example in South America involves Pachamama, the traditional Incan Mother Goddess who now also permeates Christianity in the region, being associated with the Virgin Mary and God's abundant love in creation. This reinforces reverence for Nature, the feminine, and Indigenous ancestry in a religion that has often historically denigrated these things. Her presence thereby also helps animate people’s investment in and redefinition of that religion.

two canyon lakes, separate but feeding into each other - Sun Lakes Dry Falls, Washington, USA

We can consider this integration as a deliberate cultural survival strategy, wherein ancestral people maintained connection to their tradition, first secretly but eventually publicly, despite the Church’s attempts at erasure. We can also consider this effort as an even more confrontational act, wherein the dispossessed forced the Church to adopt their ancestral tradition lest they refuse to participate in Christianity. And we can consider this as an organic cross-pollination, wherein the dispossessors saw the inherent truth in the native tradition and the dispossessed saw their natural affinities with the non-native lifeways, each even having their own revelatory experiences with the other.


However we look at it, the resilience of the ancestral peoples and wisdom is evident. And we see this resilience in both the First Nations and the Celts, though again the circumstances compelling syncretism were not equivalent. So what did syncretism look like for the Celts?


CELTIC CHRISTIAN SYMBOLS

Little is known about Celtic-Roman syncretism, but Celtic Christianity is relatively well-documented. Many people throughout the world nowadays recognize the symbols of the Celtic Cross, Triskelion, and Knot, which serve as elegant encapsulations of Celtic Christian theology.

intricate stone Celtic cross
CELTIC CROSS

The circle affixed in the Celtic Cross symbolizes the Celtic Christian affirmation of the inherent, original goodness of all Creation – the entirety of the world is within the body of Christ.


This is of course a direct challenge to the Roman/Imperial Christian misconception of original sin, which has sadly dominated Church teaching since Augustine in the 4-5th century. This delusion dualistically, erroneously asserts that only the Creator is good while Creation – Nature and all humanity, but especially the body, the feminine, the queer, and the racial and religious “other” – is evil. The Celts have shown repeatedly that this backwards doctrine of "original sin" is thoroughly refuted by the example of Jesus, an accurate interpretation of the Gospels, and a deep understanding of the principle of Christ.


God is incarnate in every thing, every one, and the whole circle of existence is incarnate in God. God carries the cross of our suffering alongside us. The whole Universe and the whole of you is forever inside the Creator’s love, no exceptions.


Able to maintain sufficient independence from the Imperial Church, the Celts could nurture this truer Christ-ianity, which began as soon as missionaries first presented the Celts with the life, death, and resurrection of God in Jesus. The Nature-loving Celts (like many other ancestral peoples) were immediately able to grasp the deeper meaning of the Gospels, “Of course: life, death, resurrection – such is the Divine’s endless cyclical pattern! And look, cross and circle even create a wheel, and a compass symbol for the four directions, elements, etc.! How great to hear that this Jesus really gets the Earth’s wisdom!” Here we see an underappreciated Christian affinity for Pagan ways. [1]


Further, the Celtic understanding of the Soul indicates an integration of the pantheism above into Christian panentheism: God in (but not as) all Creation, all Creation in (but not as) God. We the Created are undeniably separate from the Divine, flawed and incomplete, but only in our egos and then only somewhat, never in our Souls or fully. In fact, in the words of Irish poet John O’Donohue, this transcendent goodness, the truest you fashioned by the Creator – your Soul – is a larger circle than the “you” of your everyday awareness. Your Soul contains and saves you, not the other way around, and you can live in Divine harmony with it. [2]

carving in stone of three-spiral Triskelion
CELTIC TRISKELION

This wisdom is elaborated in the threefold spiral of the Celtic Triskelion, which symbolizes the unfolding, fractal nature of the world and of God. It also symbolizes the Trinity, through which God can be understood in three coexisting personalities: Creator (transcendent), Christ (incarnate), and Spirit (interflowing). The Celts loved a notion of God as three. Here we see another underappreciated affinity between Christianity and polytheism, though the Celts did move to embrace monotheism, loving the fullness of the Trinity Mystery – God as mysteriously Three-in-One. [3] They understood that this principle attunes us to the rich Christian traditions of playing with paradox, challenging misconceptions of dualism, and recognizing the wholeness of the living God. [4]


We also see the Christian-polytheistic kinship in Celtic enthusiasm for saints, holy days, and Biblical heroines and heroes. For example, when the Church canonized St. Brigid of Ireland, in Celtic eyes they also simultaneously “canonized” the Irish goddess of the Sacred Fire, Brighid, with whom the saint had become associated. This incorporated Brighid’s midwinter feast day, Imbolc, into the liturgical calendar as the holy day of Candlemas. In connection with this Pagan firelight festival, Brigid, Brighid, and the Celts themselves also became more deeply connected with Mary Magdalene and John the Apostle, both often depicted as resting their heads on Jesus’ chest – deeply intimate with the soft fire in the heart of God. [5] This rich blending of spiritualities is characteristic of Celtic-led syncretism.

intricate stone Celtic knot
CELTIC KNOT

This intimacy is further emphasized by the Celtic Knot, which symbolizes Celtic Christian recognition of the interwoven-ness of all things. As we’ve explored, this applies to God and Nature, humanity and the cultures composing it. But it also applies to individuals: we are each related in the Family of Creation. This means we must respect all Creation’s dignity, work for justice and peace, and live simply and without harming our fellow beings. It also means we must embrace as family anyone we might see as “other,” remembering they too have a Soul. Many Celtic communities observed this hospitality as an intentional social practice, as they did the responsibility of actively helping people remember their own Souls. [6] This was the role of the Soul Friend – Anam Cara – with which all people were paired. It’s in this ancient role that I've been trained through the Celtic Center and hope to serve you.


How does an Anam Cara help? How does one remember and live in harmony with their Soul? One way to phrase it would be “by following the mysterious voices of Spirit – the threads in the Knot.” We can actually look to the bards, ovates, and druids for examples of what this might mean:

  • In the bardic tradition, an Anam Cara might encourage someone to follow the voice of their Muse or creative impulses. Many renowned Celts have practiced pursuing the next stanza of a poem or note of song to profound Soul-insights.

  • In the ovate tradition, an Anam Cara might encourage someone to follow the voices of plants, animals, winds, waters, or even faeries. Only then could they find the sacred places in Nature that provided Soul-nourishment.

  • In the druid tradition, an Anam Cara might encourage someone to follow the voice of a dream. In so doing, the Celts made their mark as legendary practitioners of peregrinatio – following one's dreams to the ends of the Earth on Soul-adventures (possibly even achieving the first European voyage to the Americas)! [7]

Indeed, we can hear countless voices, threads – “spirits” in the animist conception – calling to us at all times. All of them lead back toward the one Spirit in which we are always intertwined.

sturdy tree on rocky outcropping - Steamboat Rock State Park
A RENEWED CHRISTIANITY

Fortunately and finally, the modern Church is growing in its appreciation for the life-affirming Celtic interpretation of Christianity. The Celtic perspective clearly has a lot to offer in the global process of unsettling the legacy of Imperial Christianity and healing some of the damage that's been done, a process that ancestral traditions everywhere have been leading for centuries.


But despite the progress in unsettling and healing, the legacy of damage has bred a well-founded skepticism about Christianity. This skepticism increasingly pervades Western culture – maybe even shapes your own assessment, dear reader. I know I’m a skeptic. But I’m also a Christian, and as a practitioner of the Mystic and Celtic traditions, I’ve learned I can be all these things at once. In the Articles of Faith series on Mystic Spirituality I laid out some principles that show how that’s possible, and you can bet that I’m on board with the life-affirming Celtic Christianity above, as I’m sure many people might be. In the next Article of Faith I engage with Christian Spirituality on a more intimate level, and maybe a more challenging one. Whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, I hope you’ll engage with me.


Stay tuned for Christian Spirituality: Open for Interpretations!

In the meantime, I hope this article stirs some reflection questions for you:

  • How have you been redefining your spirituality?

  • How have you been “saved by your Soul?”

  • How have you been experiencing the wholeness of God and playfulness of paradox?

  • How are you been embracing as family anyone we might see as “other”?

  • How are you been following the mysterious voices of Spirit toward insight, nourishment, and adventure?

  • With any of these – how would you like to?


To learn more

[1] Esther De Waal, Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition (Morehouse Publishing: 1999)

[2] John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (Harper Perennial: 1998, 1996)

[3] Esther De Waal, “ ”

[4] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (Whitaker House: 2016)

[6] Esther De Waal, “ ”

[7] Esther De Waal, “ ”

J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Paulist Press: 1997)


Image credits: #1; #2 - Rick Beckel; #3; #4; #5; #6 - Devin Bard

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