2nd December 2000

Symposium: Wild Devotion: Challenge or Threat?

in partnership with Tilburg Faculty of Theology - Centre for Religious Communicatios, the Netherlands.


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 children.

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 seasons.

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 life.

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 1

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 Easter.

Reason Two: Celtic spirituality connects one with nature and with the Land of Ireland.

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 matters.

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 today.

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 Europe.

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.

In Conclusion:

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 sin;

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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