Celtic Christian Spirituality
Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings--Annotated & Explained
by Mary C. Earle
Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2011
Reviewed by Teresa Di Biase
“Our lifelong pilgrimage is an invitation to gaze silently and steadily at present circumstances, watching for God’s presence and guidance” (74). Who better to companion us in this pilgrimage than those men and women who journeyed “for the love of Christ,” the Celtic saints of ancient Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and their spiritual descendants of more recent times? Thanks to the careful selection of their sayings and writings made by spiritual director Mary C. Earle, we can be confident that our journey will lead to that place of wholeness and blessing the Celts called their “place of resurrection.”
Earle, an Episcopal priest, first discovered the tradition of Celtic Christian prayer many years ago through a book given her by a mentor toward the end of her seminary training. The effect was transformative: “The aridity that too much speculative theology and doctrinal wrangling had created within me began to dissipate. A sense of faith, living and true, strong and robust, playful and forthright, came through these prayers” (1). It is clear that for Earle, these texts do more than illustrate aspects of the Celtic Christian tradition, one of her stated purposes in compiling this anthology. Even more important, these writings have been selected for their capacity to provoke reflection and prayer as well as lead to deepening desire for personal and communal transformation.
The sources range from the fifth-century writings of Saints Patrick and Pelagius, through the ninth-century teachings of John Scotus Eriugena, to the famous nineteenth-century collection of Hebridean prayers known as the Carmina Gadelica, and finally to the more contemporary writings of J. Philip Newell and John O’Donohue. Other lesser-known or anonymous voices are also included. Earle makes no claim to originality, drawing instead from previously published versions of these texts. Her contribution lies in the selection, organization, and annotation of what she terms modestly a “place to begin" (16). The reader is guided through the major emphases of the Celtic tradition in eight sections of the book: creation, prayer, incarnation, daily life and work, soul friends, pilgrimage, social justice, and blessing as a way of life. Each section is given a brief but illuminating introduction that sets the texts in context and points to their relevance for modern pilgrims.
The longest section is devoted to creation, the emphasis for which the Celts are best known, and it includes such treasures as Pelagius’s Letter to an Elderly Friend, where he reminds his reader to “remember that all love comes from God; so when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree, we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.” In “The Mass of the Grove,” a fourteenth-century poet likens the trilling of a bird to “An unfaltering reading to the people / Of the gospel without haste” (29). Indeed, it is savoring, rather than haste, which is the response Celtic Christian Spirituality will evoke in its readers.
Perhaps the most moving passage for me was at the book’s end, where John O’Donoghue, the Irish poet who has written about anam cara (soul friendship), utters a blessing that echoes what many spiritual directors desire for themselves, as well as those they companion on the pilgrimage of life:
To Come Home to Yourself
May all that is unforgiven in you
May your fears yield
Their deepest tranquilities.
May all that is unlived in you
Blossom into a future
Graced with love.
Teresa Di Biase is a spiritual director, Benedictine oblate, and university librarian. She teaches spiritual practices in parish and retreat sessions and cofacilitates an ecumenical spiritual formation group in Seattle, Washington, USA.