Celebrating the Celtic Religion on St. Patrick’s Day | Opinion
Early Irish Christianity preserved native beliefs much longer than other transplanted forms of Christian faith. Irish Christians incorporated Celtic legends into their epics, and they also incorporated ancient sacred landscape.
Following an indigenous spring practice of lighting bonfires, St. Patrick’s Day celebrated Easter the Celtic way. Honoring local sun worship, he also designed the Celtic cross with a sun symbol in the center. Celtic wells and springs were honored for their healing properties and were used for baptisms. Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days on a mountain sacred to the Druids.
This vibrant faith has been condemned for its paganism and pantheism. Orthodox Christians pride themselves on believing that God is transcendent, completely beyond the world. They also believed, paradoxically, that God also became flesh in Christ. The clear implication, to me at least, is that all bodies and all earthly things are sacred.
The concept of a deity separated from the world presents serious logical problems. For example, how can an unchanging being relate to an ever-changing world, or how can an eternal, disembodied being come in time and flesh? The “panentheism” of “process” theology attempts to address these issues. See bit.ly/3sLWnm3.
Equally problematic is the question: how can an impassive being have empathy for his creatures? Early Christians who believed that God suffered were condemned as heretics. Orthodox bishops insisted that only human Jesus could feel pain or emotions.
Some claim, with good reason, that removing divinity from the world has led to its devaluation. Our Puritan fathers believed that the wilderness of America was the kingdom of Satan and had to be brought under control along with the natives therein.
The Puritan William Bradford described the New England countryside as a “hideous and desolate wasteland” and a “moral void”. The New England Transcendentalists countered this view, but this concept still dominated the colonization of North America.
For the Druids, the world was not just inert matter, but was actually alive. Irish Catholic poet John O’Donohue writes that with “an open heart and real, watchful reverence, one emerges into a landscape that is just as much if not more alive than you are”.
O’Donohue continues, “Much of modern psychology is full of loneliness. It was not born naturally from minds familiar with the eros of the earth. It lacks the rhythm and belonging of a true ecology of the heart. These places can act as a poultice to remove the poison from heart wounds.
O’Donohue tells the story of a friend who suffered from mental illness. She told him that she had brought back a stone from one of her walks. When she felt uneasy, she meditated on the stone, and she discovered that “there is fierce sanity in the stone.”
O’Donohue writes of his origins in the Burren region of western Ireland. The limestone slabs appear to have been “laid down by some kind of wild, surreal deity”. It was there that he first felt an “ancient conversation between ocean and stone”.
I remember another Irish Catholic poet—Wendell Berry. My favorite poem is called The Stones: “I had a slope full of stones/Like buried pianos they lay in the ground/Shards of ancient sea ledges, stumbling stones/Where the earth grabbed and kept them / dark, an old mute of music in them / that my head keeps now that I dug them in. Did the ancients call the “music of the spheres”?
You don’t have to be Irish to be a pantheist. Those who are amazed by the mountains and the vast forests, and calmed by the murmur of the streams unwittingly affirm the idea that God is in all things (pan+theos). The worship of trees (especially oaks) was central to Celtic religion.
My favorite walk on campus is to go to the Old Arboretum and visit the Mother Tree, a giant sequoia planted in 1916. I stretch my arms around her as far as they can go, and I sing, knowing nothing of Celtic, a Hindu mantra. to her.
I join O’Donohue, Berry and many others in embracing the ancient religion of the Celts and all other indigenous peoples, including the Nimiipuu on whose lands I live illegally.
Gier was coordinator of religious studies at the University of Idaho from 1980 to 2003. Email him at [email protected]