A Look at Differences Between Celtic and Latin Spiritual Traditions
The great beauty of our Celtic heritage is that it is already very much a part of the Anglican way and other Protestant traditions, much more than we realize. The interweaving of Celtic and Latin heritages, though, is so tightly integrated that we generally do not see the contrasting qualities, even the actual conflicting virtues, and emphases that differentiate the two orthodox ways. I want to show you some of the differences in the Celtic and Latin traditions.
GRATITUDE OR TRIBUTE— Perhaps the greatest single contrast found between the Celtic and Latin forms of Christianity can be summarized in two phrases: Celtic gratitude and Latin tribute. From St. Patrick forward among the great saints of Irish and English backgrounds and all the way to St. Francis of Assisi (who was educated by the French Celts), the theme of gratitude is prevalent in the hymns, prayers, stories of the Celtic way. In contrast from the time of the settling of the Church institutionally within the Roman imperial framework, the Latin Church took upon itself the necessity of garnering its resources by exacting support either in benign acceptance of the Church’s requirements or in various more intensely invasive and coercive forms. Latin stewardship comes out of duty based upon tribute. In our own day, we are frequently confused about giving time, talent, and money to the Church because the Church uses both approaches when they are not compatible.
MAKING WAR OR PEACE— Another major theme in Celtic spiritual life is that of peace. St. Patrick brought peace to the pagan Celts and in so doing created among them for some centuries a time of prosperous growth in civilization and education. In contrast, Latin Christianity was captivated by an imperial structure that frequently for good defensive reasons necessarily was involved it in war making. The Latin Church, once forced to hold on to the last vestiges of the old empire in the West, took on most all of the governmental offices and jurisdictions that had once belonged to the pagan empire, including its defense. The contrast between Latin and Celtic spiritual life has to do with what they inherited. Christianity in Ireland brought peace to the pagan Celts. Christianity received the Latin empire with all its organizational trappings from the pagan Romans. Such a difference has permanently affected how Christian faith has been experienced and practiced. Mission among the Latins was accomplished by the soldier and priest conquering native populations and settling the Church in new lands. Celts missionized by going to discover the Christ in others and sharing the divine peace and the Good News.
LOCAL EXPRESSION OR GENERAL UNIFORMITY— As Christianity adapted itself to the Celtic environment without the imperial influence of the Romans, it settled into the local villages and tribes. While the essentials of early orthodox faith and doctrine were generally accepted, Christianity among the Celts adapted its ecclesiastical forms to the place and nature of the local situation, be it village or missionary, monastically based movements in Ireland, England, Scotland, and on the European continent. In contrast, Rome based Christianity began to expand with the claim that orthodoxy was as much based in organizational forms (like having dioceses, adjudicatory bodies and governing bishops or executives) and usages as it was in doctrine. As a result, wherever the Roman Church reasserted itself, it brought the tremendously successful heritage of Latin organization with it. The further result was that the Roman Church has generally not effectively adapted to the local people and their native expressions of spiritual and culture life. As we find in many locations around the world, especially in Latin America, Christianity and native religious practices live in a patch work of schizophrenic expressions, such as voodoo.
PENITENCE: ACTION OR EMOTIONALLY BASED—St. Columba made and won war and lost his innocence. As a result, with grace and gratitude, he accepted his penance and was permanently banished from his home and princely ways to go on to a life of holy journeys developing faith in villages and monasteries. He responded to his penance by acting out his repentance from pride and war-making in a vigorous and by all accounts an uncompromising personal expression of his mission. He was energetic, loving, and terribly gifted with spiritual talents. As well, he was a man who was direct, even gruff, and bravely honest and truthful. He set the tone of a penitential life for all the Celtic saints that followed. In contrast, Latin penance was notably psychological and inward, resulting in an individually penitent sinner. Augustine set the pace with his elaborate and eloquent Confessions. A rich tradition of self reflection and spiritual reform developed onward and probably formed the basis for both the religious and secular models of psychological reflection we use today. The outcome of this sort of penitence has not been a vast revolution in mission development but in personal adjustment to the ever present authority of the Church and the State. While all Christian traditions use a general confession, there is little sense of the person or body of the Church being brought to vigorous action in Christian mission because of the penitential experience. Celtic spirituality has much to recommend itself to us in its rich heritage of penitence as the catalyst for journeys in mission.
SPIRITUAL REVELATION FROM WITHIN OR FROM ABOVE—Celtic spirituality encourages an awareness of our spiritual growth from within us personally or from within the faith community, especially the local congregation. Latin spirituality relies on formal, external authority for revelation. While both traditions honor fundamental doctrines or theological standards, the Celtic tradition has actively encouraged spiritual discernment as emerging from the person or community within and from which innovative spiritual direction and diversity flow out. The Latin tradition encourages conformity to the rules and formal disciplines that adjust the person or community to meticulous, universal standards. Consequently the Celtic tradition encourages creative adaptations of formal rules and procedures whereas the Latin tradition rewards pharisaic adherence to the Church’s teaching. The profound difference between the two traditions can be illustrated by the question, “Are we those people who grow in the religion of Jesus or the religion about Jesus?” Or, “Are we to become more faithful to God or to the Church? Is the Church made to save people or is the Church made to help people to discover God within.
THE GROUND OF EXPERIENCE: A NATURAL OR RATIONAL ORDER—Celtic spirituality encourages the journey into the unknown and in faith believes that the content of the journey contains almost everything of spiritual importance. Consequently the Celtic tradition of Christianity does not shy away from the chaotic and natural. This tradition encourages the intuitive hunch, the gut feeling for guidance. It believes that we were made by God, equipped naturally to find our way first in what we experience. Celtic spirituality encourages faithful people to give formal, reasonable structure to their personal and community experience. The Latin tradition emphasizes the formal, rational, traditionally structured ways that are to be trusted with or frequently against what our human nature tells us in hunches, stories, and other nonlinear forms. For instance, to this day in Roman Catholic, Protestant, fundamentalist, many Lutheran, and Episcopal seminary curricula there are little to no education offerings about mystical, intuitive histories or training in experiences that have informed nearly all major religious and scientific breakthroughs throughout the centuries.
THE CREATED ORDER: BASICALLY SPIRITUAL OR MATERIAL-- The Celtic tradition places an emphasis on our evolving spiritual nature within the material. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. We are with Christ, the incarnation of the divine in this gloriously material reality. The Latin tradition tends to emphasize the idea that we are fallen creatures who must be redeemed from our tainted, material condition. Perhaps the greatest scandal of the many that repulsed the Romans in their views of the St. Columba and Brigid oriented missions were their easy co-habitation in the great double-houses in which men, women, and their children lead holy and monastic lives, surely a sign, the purist Latins thought, of the lack of ascetic, sexual discipline. Why? Because of the Latin exultation of a life without sexual, intimate companionship, except for procreation. The Celts emphasized the importance of finding the divine in the material creation and in the human condition in its rich variety.
SIN: MISSING THE MARK AND CORRECTION OR FALL AND ULTIMATE CORRUPTION—Perhaps one of the greatest hallmarks of difference is in the way the Latin Church defined sin as the fall of all creation from grace for which only the atonement of the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ could bring about forgiveness and release from Hell. The Celts believed that Christ brought completion and fulfillment to humanity and the created order. For the Celts, sin was in the order of Paul’s definition of it as “missing the mark,” however simple or disastrous. Sin was encompassed within a sacred creation, not a fall into the Pit. Atonement for the Celts was the unifying reality of Christ whose life, death and resurrection brought the revelation of an underlying and orderly reality, a completion, balance and righteousness (right relationships) to all of humanity and creation. With the triumph of Augustine’s notion of the fall from grace born on sin and its procreation through generative sexual relations and the constant necessity of renewing redemption in the penitential system of the Latin Church (in its peculiar adaptation of the Celtic use of private confession to one’s soul mentor), a chain of spiritual deceit was set in motion with disastrous results for humanity and the earth.
This corrupt and deadly model that we see in its death throws, begs a certain question and answer. How do you eradicate sin in creation? Stop procreating, stop life and end the world and material corruption! Stop procreating—create a mandatory system of celibacy for the high caste-clergy- that denies sexuality. Stop life—use up the resources of the created order with no sense of the earth’s sanctity and heavenly qualities. End the world—await with fear and perverse glee an end time in which this world passes away, in which the righteous, separated from the impure, unredeemed and perpetually fallen, can live in heaven off earth. Stop material corruption—create a system that has evolved in such a way as to destroy much of the whole earth in minutes and, therefore, get “rid” of sin. (Practically speaking this corrupt view remains amazingly “human-earth-centric” as if creation in all its glory were not ultimately providentially, cosmically and divinely centered!)
The Celtic model provides the necessary antidote to this hideous twist in Christian theology and history by a return to a great and magnificent vision of sin as opportunity for transformation and redemption for building up the earth creation. The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer gives us a magnificent summary of this view of sin and redemption in the following prayer of thanksgiving:
Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have
done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole
creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life,
and for the mystery of love.
We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for
the loving care which surrounds us on every side.
We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best
efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy
and delight us.
We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.
Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the
truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast
obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying,
through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life
again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.
Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and
make him known; and through him, at all times and in all
places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.