I am often asked the question “what is Celtic Christianity?” and it is actually a difficult one to answer. For the purposes of this article, I want to suggest that we think of two different expressions of Celtic Christianity, a medieval one and a modern one. The medieval world is far removed from our own in so may ways. If we wish to engage with the writings of that period, we have to step out of our comfort zones and put on medieval coloured glasses.
Contemporary Celtic Christianity, on the other hand, is a modern phenomenon. This can be seen by the fact it that exists in the modern world. Celtic Christians today see the world through a different set of glasses. Our lives are radically different from those of the medieval Celtic Christians. Some of what can be found in contemporary Celtic Christianity has ancient roots and some of it is modern invention. Of course, this is true of every generation.
This dynamic between the old and the new is a regular topic of discussion in our Celtic Christianity Facebook group which you can find HERE. In some ways, this article is written to speak to that on going discussion and the important discernment which it requires of us.
I have been studying the Irish penitentials (books about penance) lately and I came across something which I found to be truly beautiful. The question of penance is one where medieval and contemporary Celtic Christianity often diverge but the penitential tradition is surprising when you actually sit down to engage with it. I think that contemporary Celtic Christianity would be wise to have a more open mind towards our medieval forebears. While reading through the texts (some of which are admittedly boring and awful) I came across a little gem which I think can help build a bridge between our two worlds.
I decided to write my little reflection here as if it were part of a contemporary penitential. It assumes that penance is a form of spiritual medicine which helps to bring a soul back into harmony by the application of contraries. This is the theological framework in which the medieval anamcharas practiced their art of penance. Penance was a form of spiritual practice which healed spiritual wounds.
People in all ages fail to live up to their own ideals and the early Celtic Christians were no different than us in that regard. While we live in a time which emphasises human rights, we also live in a time which is full of numerous violations of human rights. The principles are sound but their application is still lacking. The same is true of the Celtic penitential tradition. They had a beautiful theology of penance as healing which they often failed to implement in the way we think they should have.
As our intention is to revive what is good not to condemn what is bad, we prefer to focus on the beautiful ideal which the early Celtic monks strove towards, not the flawed human reality in which they actually lived. The penitential of Finnian demonstrates a sense of awareness around the need for continuing growth and improvement in the art of penance. In fact, it ends with an admission that the author falls short in many ways and that he hopes another person will be able to improve upon his work. It says,
“These few things concerning the remedies of penance, my dearly beloved brethren, according to the pronouncement of Scripture and to the opinion of some very learned men, I have tried to write down, compelled by love of you, beyond my ability and authority. There are still other authoritative decisions concerning either the remedies or the several kinds of those who are to be cured, which now concern for brevity, or the situation of the place, or the poverty of my talent does not permit me to set down. But if any diligent searcher of divine reading should for himself find out more, or bring forth and write down better things, we, too, shall agree and follow him.”
This book is an answer to his request. Our intention is to continue his efforts and come closer to manifesting his vision for a world in which every person is healed of their spiritual wounds and brought into the fullness of the Kingdom of God. We also admit that there is room for improvement and growth in the words which we have laid down in this book. Our efforts will inevitably fall short of perfection for the same reasons which Finnian’s did. Finnian names three reasons why his penitential needs to be improved in the quote above. These will always be true of every generation who attempts to undertake this effort.
Firstly, Finnian says that he is concerned with brevity. While this book is significantly less brief than his penitential (which is only a few pages long) there are still a great number of things which we were not able to include. The human soul is the image of God and God can never be known in Her fullness. Therefore, just as we can never say everything there is to say about God, we can never say everything there is to say about the human condition. Even with an entire library full of books, the quest to understand what it means to be human will never be complete.
Secondly, Finnian says that we must take into consideration the situations in which we find ourselves. The world we live in is very different from the world which Finnian lived in and we need to take that into consideration when we administer penance to souls who are suffering. This is another thing which will always be true. The changing conditions of human existence require that we adapt and change the spiritual practices which we use. One day this book will no longer speak to the realities of time and place and will need to be adjusted accordingly.
Thirdly, Finnian says that the poverty of his talent is another reason why new ideas and insights need to be welcomed into the penitential tradition. This admission is a great act of humility on his part. It is also very true. There are many penances which Finnian lays out that are harsh and unimaginative. He recommends fasting on bread and water for just about everything, which seems to ignore his insistence on the use of contraries. Of course, this is also something which we must be humble about as well. We are also blind to our own shortcomings and, just like Finnian, we should agree to follow others when their new insights prove ours to be obsolete.
May Christ bless you with the peace which penance bestows and may your soul become bright as a swan. Amen
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