ALL HALLOWS, DUBLIN
2nd December 2000
Symposium: Wild Devotion: Challenge or Threat?
in partnership with Tilburg Faculty of Theology - Centre for Religious Communicatios,
Presentation by Dara Molloy.
My name is Dara Molloy. I am a priest and a monk in the Celtic tradition. I live
on Inis Mór, Aran Islands. I have lived on Aran for 15 years and for ten of
those years I remained within the Roman Catholic church, attempting to live the life
of a Celtic monk as a priest within Roman Catholicism. For the last five years, I
have separated myself from the institutional church, but continue to practice as
a priest and live as a monk within the Celtic tradition. I am married with three
It may surprise you to hear that I am married and still claiming to be a monk. I
think that you will find that many Celtic monks in the past had wives, or at least
concubines! As the European church at the time disapproved of marriage for monks
or priests, the sacrament of marriage was not available for them. A concubine was
a wife without the sacrament!
For me, living as a monk means living a life focussed on spiritual rather than material
values. In this sense I believe that many people are living as monks today.
As a priest in the Celtic tradition I celebrate a Celtic Eucharist every Sunday for
the public (usually a small group), and I also perform other ceremonies at the request
of people, for example, marriage and baptismal ceremonies. My ceremonies are not
confined to the sacraments however. Together with others throughout the year, we
celebrate ritually such events as the solstices and equinoxes, as well as the four
My input today is on why Celtic Spirituality is attractive to people and on what
relationship it has with the institutional churches. From the outset I wish to state
my position, which is that I believe the two to be irreconcilable. For me, the institutional
Christian churches are examples of multinational organisations who have detached
themselves from the influence of the local in order to be transportable to all parts
of the globe. Christian churches produce an ecclesial product similar to McDonaldís
or Coca Cola. Celtic spirituality, on the contrary, is an indigenous spirituality,
where the local influence is intrinsic to it. In this, it is similar to all indigenous
spiritualities everywhere. Other examples are the Native American tradition and the
Aboriginal Australians, both of which are now also so attractive to people.
I also wish to say from the outset that I believe that Ireland was spiritually and
ecclesialy colonised. Ireland has always been conscious of its political colonisation
and resisted it for eight hundred years until it eventually shook itself free. But
Ireland has never really brought to consciousness the fact that it had an indigenous
spirituality and an indigenous form of church which was gradually suppressed by the
hegemonic inroads of the Rome centred European Church. That spiritual and ecclesial
colonisation remains with us and the resurgence of Celtic spirituality is the beginning
of a process of reclaiming what was lost.
A Celtic event on Aran last Sunday:
Last Sunday, a group of about 25 people gathered at a graveyard on Inis Mór
to pray the rosary. A woman from the area led the prayer. No priest was present.
The graveyard has not been used for fifty years and is called on the island Reilig
na Leanaí, the childrenís graveyard. Here, children were buried who had
died before baptism. Because the church did not allow them to be buried in a consecrated
graveyard, they were buried here. Often the burials took place at night. No ceremony
was attached to the burials, no priest was present, and the gravestones are loose
stones without any inscription.
Why the priest was not present last Sunday, I can only surmise. All of those who
attended were Roman Catholic and Mass goers. The notice for the occasion was on the
church noticeboard. There may be a simple explanation, or perhaps the priest felt
uncomfortable with the situation. Perhaps he thought it unwise to join these people
in an act of defiance against church policy and church theology. Although church
theologians have softened their attitude towards unbaptised children, there is still
no change in the churchís position with regard to original sin. The concept of original
sin is the nub of the problem.
This concept is alluded to in St Paulís letter to the Romans 5:12-21. Paul compares
Adam to Jesus. Adam brought sin into the world, Jesus is the one who defeated sin
and brought us salvation. The concept was developed by St Augustine in the fourth
and fifth century. Augustine taught that since Adam, we are conceived and born in
sin. This original sin is passed on to us through the concupiscence of our parents.
When we are born we are in sin and inclined to further sin. We cannot be saved from
this without the sacraments. These sacraments can only be administered by the church.
So when a child, or anybody, dies without baptism they are not saved, cannot go to
heaven, and so cannot be buried in a consecrated graveyard. The church invented a
place called limbo in which to place these children, as they felt hell would be too
severe a punishment for them.
A Celtic monk called Pelagius arrived in Rome around 394 AD. He taught a different
theology. He said that children are born innocent, untainted by any sin. Sin can
only take place through an action of the will. We are all born with a spark of goodness
within us. Through the decisions we make and the use of our freewill, we can choose
good over evil. It is even possible, at least in theory, to live a completely sinless
Pelagius also spoke against an authoritarian church. The European church at the time
was using Councils and Synods to build up a canon of ëorthodoxí teachings. It is
from these Councils that we get our Creed. Augustine and others were insisting that
authority rested with the church leaders in matters of belief and that members of
the church were obliged to accept the teaching of these in authority. The view of
Pelagius was that the ultimate authority lay within ourselves. It is within us that
we will find the direction that the divine wishes us to take. His view of orthodoxy
is best summed up in this quote from him:
ìYou will realise that doctrines are the invention of the human mind, as it tries
to penetrate the mystery of God. You will realise that scripture itself is the work
of human minds, recording the example and teaching of Jesus. Thus it is not
what you believe (in your head) that matters, it is how you respond with your heart
and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters, but becoming like him.î
To cut a long story short, Pelagius was eventually condemned as a dangerous heretic
by the church in 418 AD and since then Pelagianism has been outlawed.
Pelagius, unlike Augustine, was not an original thinker. His ideas were those of
the people and the culture from which he came. The whole Celtic world was Pelagian
and remained so until the Celtic monasteries were finally suppressed in the 12th
century. The writings of Pelagius continued to be circulated among the Celtic monks
long after Pelagius died, even up until the 9th century.
The group of islanders who gathered for the rosary at Reilig na Leanaí
last Sunday probably knew nothing about the controversy between Pelagius and
Augustine, may never have heard of Pelagius at all, but nonetheless their actions
were Pelagian. By doing what they did, they stood against Augustineís teaching and
against the teaching authority of the church.
It is my contention that as soon as the clergy lose their grip on the Irish people,
Ireland will revert back to its Celtic spiritual heritage. It is still in the bones
and blood of the people, and they will have nowhere else to go.
Let me speak more now about this Celtic spiritual heritage and why it is so attractive
right now. I offer six good reasons.
Reason One: The Celtic Old Testament is full of diverse images of the Divine.
Christian churches only allow one trinitarian image of the Divine. This image is
male and is in the heavens. Celtic spirituality, with the coming of Christianity,
accepted this Holy Trinity, but without letting go of a large pantheon of other gods
and goddesses. These Celtic gods were male and female, married and had children,
and lived among the people rather than far removed in heaven. There was Lugh the
god of light, Aengus Og the god of youth and romance, Manannan and Lir, two gods
of the sea, Dagda the great father god, Anu also called Brid goddess of the land,
and many others.
Images of god are projections and personifications of divine energy that we experience
in our day to day living. Those that the people experienced most became the most
important to the people. But having a pantheon of them allowed for subtlety of experience.
Experiencing the divine at sea will be different to experiencing the divine on land.
Experiencing the divine at harvest time will be different from experiencing the divine
in the middle of winter.
Many Christian festivals held in Ireland have just a thin veneer of Christianity
that covers something far more ancient and pagan. Festivals such as Halloween, St
Brigidís Day, Lughnasa marked by the Assumption of Our lady, and even Christmas and
Reason Two: Celtic spirituality connects one with nature and with the Land of
Celtic spirituality makes Ireland a holy land for Irish people who live here.
All over the country there are sacred spots - holy wells, burial places of saints,
hermitages, oratories, old monastic ruins, pilgrim paths, holy mountains and islands,
as well as older sites such as dolmens, stone circles, burial mounds, places like
Newgrange, Uisneach, the Paps in Kerry, Dun Aengus on Inis Mor, Ben Bulben, Armagh,
Tara, and so on interminably.
Druidic worship took place in the landscape, not in buildings made by human hands.
The sacred oak groves were the places for the great Druidic rituals. Other trees
carried sacred meanings, as did animals and plants. One could not walk the landscape
without being immersed in the presence of the divine, not in a general way but in
specific ways dictated by what of nature was around you and what you saw and experienced.
This connection with nature, and with Ireland as a holy land, makes the ground we
walk on sacred. It is not surprising that people are drawn to this aspect of Celtic
spirituality, when we live in a world which is so disrespectful of nature and hell
bent on destroying it.
The theology of the mainstream churches does not offer this connection with the land
or with place. On the contrary, the formula is that of all multinationals - create
a product that can be universally sold. Multinational churches have deliberately
distanced their worship and their rituals from the influence of place and of culture.
The Celtic church, in particular, suffered extinction under the Roman urge to create
uniformity, to keep every aspect of church life under central control, and to build
a worldwide Holy Roman Empire. It took people out of their own sacred landscape and
surroundings and brought them into church buildings where ceremonies were conducted
according to the Roman ritual by clerics under the thumb of Rome.
Reason Three: Celtic mythology is spiritually nourishing.
The Christian churches have done two things to destroy the nourishment possibilities
of mythology. The first thing they did was to condemn all pagan mythology as anathema.
The second thing they did was to turn Christian mythology into historic facts and
dogmas enforced by conciliar decrees. Mythology is of the same order as dreams. It
is created to carry meaning and to relate humans to their environment.
Celtic spirituality is full of mythology. There are wonderful stories about how Ireland
came to be created and populated. How the land got its name. Stories about battles
between light and darkness, heroes and villains, romances and elopements, as well
as stories connected with various times of the year and various places on the landscape.
In the shops today, collections of these stories are being snapped up.
This mythology also includes the concept of another world next to this world. This
is not the same as heaven. Neither is there any concept of hell. The concept of the
Otherworld is a useful psychological tool in the struggle people have today to relate
to their unconscious side. The otherworld is an image for the unconscious as well
as being a place where people go after death and a place where the divine can come
from. There are places on the landscape which are thin places, where one has a chance
of coming in contact with, or entering, this Otherworld. Similarly, there are times
in the day and in the calendar year when the Otherworld can be accessed more than
at other times.
When people read these stories, do you think that people take them literally? When
people read that Cuchulainnís father was the god of light Lugh, or that Balor had
an evil eye in the centre of his forehead, do you think that people believe this
as historic fact? No, but the stories remain interesting because they carry meaning
which people are finding relevant right now for their own lives.
These stories are not celebrated in churches today, nor are the stories associated
with the Irish saints. Instead, all of the readings shared in churches come from
one source, the Bible, and for the most part these stories are not told as myth but
as fact. Or else, the interpretation of these myths is controlled by the church which
defines the meaning one must take out of them. I regard most of scripture as mythology,
including the gospels, and by controlling the development of this mythology and its
interpretation, the churches have killed it off much of the possibilities of its
use as spiritual food.
Reason Four: Celtic spirituality emphasises inner authority rather than the recognition
of external authorities.
The Celtic Church never developed a centralised bureacracy nor any type of hierarchy
of authority. To climb the ladder of success in the Celtic church one could get no
further than the post of abbot or abbess in the local monastery. The church held
no synods or no councils. Monasteries were independent of each other, although often
federated. Priests and bishops held no power and were generally members of monasteries,
subject to the authority of the abbot or abbess. When Irish monks went to Europe,
they showed little respect for bishops. Columbanus refused to meet them. They were
not consulted when the monks sought to found a monastery in their dioceses. Columbanus
even wrote letters to the Pope at the time attempting to correct his views on certain
It was not that the Celtic monks were anti-authority. They were not Protestants.
But, like Pelagius, they believed that the direction for oneís life came from the
divine spark within oneself, and that the challenge to be a Christian was not a question
of what one believed but of how one lived. They argued against authoritarian forms
of church and against uniformity. They asked to be left alone and to be given the
freedom to live according to the voice of the Divine within them. Their argument
was for diversity to be allowed and treasured within the church. It was not to be
and the Celtic Church was eventually brought into line with Rome. In the process,
a unique expression of Christianity, that had grown organically from a sophisticated
Celtic culture and had become truly inculturated and indigenous, was wiped out.
Celtic spirituality is not dogmatic. It allows people to explore the myths and legends,
the holy places and to celebrate the Celtic calendar as part of their personal journey.
What they find on that journey is their business. In the place of a teaching authority,
Celtic spirituality advises an anamchara ñ a soul friend, who is not a spiritual
director, not a professional, not a cleric, not even a counsellor, but one who is
an equal with whom one can share intimately on a spiritual level.
Celtic spirituality emphasises an inner source of authority, as Jesus did, while
the Christian churches usually emphasise external authority.
Reason Five: Celtic spirituality offers a model of church that is attractive for
The model of church offered by Celtic spirituality is of small groups independent
of each other or at most federated or networked. The ideal for the monks was the
number thirteen, imitating Christ and the twelve. This model is to be found in the
gospel in the stories of the salt of the earth, the light on the hilltop and the
leaven in the bread.
When Irish monasticism began, it began in this way. Small groups of Irish people
came together to live under a new Christian inspiration. Their monasteries grew to
become the small towns and villages of Ireland. In the process Ireland was transformed.
When a group of local people gather to pray together once a week, or meditate on
the scriptures, they are acting out of this model. When all the Christian institutions
fall away, this will be the one model left to people. It is the one Jesus himself
gave us, and I have no doubt it is also the most appropriate.
Reason Six: Celtic spirituality gave us a model of mission appropriate for today.
When Irish monks went abroad to Europe, they generally travelled in groups in
which the ideal number was thirteen ó the abbott and twelves monks. They called their
travelling peregrinatio pro Christo, wandering for Christ. These monks were
not going as missionaries in the normal sense of that word. Their purpose for travel
was primarily their own spiritual perfection, rather than the evangelisation of others.
The monks were seeking martyrdom and there were three ways of achieving this. Going
into exile was the third way, called white martyrdom. It meant the sacrificing of
everything to do with home to be like Abram, called to go to a place that God would
show. The other types of martyrdom were red martyrdom, shedding your blood ó something
difficult to achieve in Ireland as there was no persecution ó and green martydom
ó taking on extreme ascetic practices, as was done for example by monks who went
to live on Skellig Michael.
Celtic monks had an Abramic model of mission. Like Abram, they heard a call to leave
their home and go to a place that God would show them. This would be their place
of resurrection. Symbolic of the type of journey that they made was the idea
that they were to travel on a boat without oar, rudder or sail. Only the Holy Spirit
would lead them to where they were to go.
Irish monks had no strategy for the conversion of Europe. They believed however that
in the conversion of themselves and in their faithful response to an Abramic call
of peregrinatio, they would be a light and a leaven which would cause transformation
around them. When Columbanus founded his first monastery in Europe, it was in Annegray
in Burgundy, France. When this became too big, he built a second, his most famous,
in Luxeuil, just two miles down the road. A third one was later built in Fontaines,
again within walking distance of the other two. This type of expansion does not speak
of a strategic plan to convert all of Europe, yet before Columbanus died in Bobbio,
Italy, he and his disciples had founded more than one hundred monasteries throughout
The model of mission provided by Celtic spirituality is Abramic. It is a mission
that focusses on oneís own sanctification rather than the salvation of others. Those
who live out of this model of mission today, travel to places where they feel called
to live in solidarity with others. Their mission bears none of the hallmarks of colonisation
or cultural domination, nor does it seek to impose institutional forms of church
or spirituality. It is a mission of solidarity and service.
Pelagius may have been the first Celtic monk to raise his head above the parapet
and confront the uniforming and authoritarian tendencies of the European churches.
But what he declared as important for Celtic Christians is probably still a good
summary of what attracts people to Celtic Christianity:
1. A love of Providence - allowing the divine to lead us;
2. An assertion of the essential goodness of all creation and a denial of transmitted
3. An emphasis on nature as a channel for divine communication;
4. An emphasis on Christian practice (ethics and issues of justice) rather than on
belief, dogma and orthodoxy;
5. A lifestyle that is sustainable -frugal, respectful, ascetic;
6. An enthusiastic striving for inpeccantia (sinlessness);
7. A willingness to travel (peregrinatio) with the spirit leading.
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