In the latter part of the 19th century, a brilliant piece of Gaelic literature was published which has become a well-worn tome on my bookshelf: Carmina Gadelica. It is a large collection of hymns, prayers, charms, poetry and rituals of the people in the Highlands of Scotland and surrounding Islands from the 19th century. This colorful volume was collected by Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912) during his many travels with the Civil Service of the UK. Originally produced in Gaelic, I’m thankful it was translated into English to reach a wider audience.
What is fascinating to me about this reservoir of Gaelic imagination and ritual is that it was, in large part, handed down through oral tradition and so tightly woven into daily life as to become a living tapestry. I discovered prayers for rising from bed, milking the cow, blessings for the cloth the women were weaving, prayers for peat fire and water at the well among others. Prayers and thankfulness to the Holy Trinity permeated their lives which dissolved a distinction between secular and sacred, between the holy and the mundane. All was a gift from God, all of life was seen in that pure paradigm; I had found kindred minds.
Now, if you are a Christian reader, you may have winced at that word charms earlier. If it brought spells and magic to mind, you wouldn’t be far off. And here is another reason why the Carmina Gadelica is such a vital resource: it provides context for understanding the conversion of a pagan people to christianity. It is said that the Picts, the Celts in the northern regions of Scotland, embraced christianity rather easily when compared to other nomadic tribal people in ancient Europe. Their love of the number three, their awe and reverence of the natural world and the mystery of the skies was their genesis for understanding God, the Creator and Christ the Redeemer. Many of those converted by Bishop Palladius, St. Patrick and St. Columba would see Christ as a fulfillment of their law, of their understanding of creation.
Reading these prayers was the surface of a deep blue sea containing authors whose writings would further my curiosity of learning about the faith of these simple people. Chief among those authors is Esther de Waal, an Anglican lay woman living in the Welsh borders. Ms. de Waal provided for me not only a scholarly look into celtic spirituality (she is a scholar of the Cistercian, Benedictine and celtic traditions), but the catalyst for researching monasticism, christian symbology, and the idea of rhythm in our walk with Christ.
For anyone looking into celtic spirituality, beware the multitude of false works on this theme. By that, I mean you can find an abundance of books labeled ‘celtic spirituality’ that have nothing to do with Christ and His Church. These books typically include poetry and blessings from a new-age intellect. They may be long on beauty, but shallow in Truth. In this regard, Esther de Waal has set the bar in defining genuine celtic traditions from new-age nonsense.