Sunday, July 3, 2011

Celtic Fire

"In every church and monastery of Celtic Britain and Ireland a fire was kept burning, day and night, summer and winter, as a sign of God's presence...While the rest of Europe was entering a dark age of conflict and division, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christian gospel was lighting the hearts of the rugged Celtic tribesman, and thousands upon thousands of simple men and women became monks and missionaries, poets and pilgrims, ablaze with the love of Christ" (1-2).

Celtic Fire is a wonderful book, and a fine introduction to Celtic Christianity. The book contains a selection of writings from ancient Britain and Ireland and is skillfully presented by the Revd. Robert Van De Weyer, an Anglican priest who has written often on Celtic themes.

Celtic Fire begins with a sparkling 25 page essay providing readers with an overview of some of the uniqueness features of Celtic Christianity including the Druids, Desert Fathers, and the theology of Pelagius. The bulk of the book contains an anthology which highlights many of the famous people and literature in Celtic Christianity. For example, there are hagiographical sections which include the Confession of Patrick, the voyage of St. Brendan, Aidan, Hilda, and others. The "highlites" of their lives are presented and are well worth reading.

Another section contains some the better known prayers generated the Celtic saints. It's evening now as I write and let me recite a prayer entitled "Covering the Fire":

Lord, preserve the fire, as Christ preseves us all. Lord, may its warmth reamin in our midst, as Christ is always among us. Lord, may it rise to life in the morning, as we shall rise with Christ to eternal life." (147).

I love these kind of prayers and it reminds of just how tied to Nature and the Seasons of Life the Celts were. We moderns seem to have lost these  kinds of attachments.

One of the most interesting sections in Celtic Fire is the latter part of the book which shares some unique Celtic literary devices. A popular Welsh literary form was the "gnome" a maxim which was preceded by an unrelated image. Reading them, I am reminded of Zen "koans". Let me share a few:

"Red is the cock's comb, and loud his voice. God praises man when man praises God".

"Delightful are the tops of gorse bushes, their blossom reflects the brightness of the sun. None can know the truth except God".

The Irish also had some unique literary devices. A "triad", or mnemonic, was used to express moral and spiritual truths. I find these to be very clever and witty and its easy to picture monks dreaming up these pithy sayings.

"Three sources of new life: a woman's belly, a hen's egg, a wrong forgiven".

"Three people whose ears are closed: a king bent on conquest, a merchent bent on profit, a monk who thinks himself holy".  

"Three things that unlock the secrets of the soul: heavy drinking, violent anger, innocent trust".

I hope this wets your appetite for more. Celtic Fire reminds us that the divine spirit is living everywhere, and in every living creature, and in the world around us. And like olden times, the lives of the Celtic saints can be a light of brightness for us again.

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