The Structure Of Celtic Christianity

The Celtic church had four grades of brethren, reflecting the quaternary structure of the land of Ireland, the symbolic image of wholeness. At the lowest level were the Juniores Alumni, students who served; above them, the Operarii, lay brothers, who did the manual labour; above them, the Seniores, elders, dedicated to prayer and teaching; and over the whole community ruled the head, Abba Pater or Pater Spiritualis, who lived apart from the others on higher ground. The four circles inherent in the Celtic Cross reflect this four-fold organization so prevalent in Celtic culture. Apart from their autonomy from the church of the four Patriarchs, one of the objections made by the orthodox against the Celtic church was that their tonsure was non-Christian. The druids had tonsured themselves in styles according to which order they belonged, and the Celtic monastic tonsure was condemned as a version of this, or that worn by the theurgic sage Simon Magus and his

Gradually, as time passed, the ancestral holy places of the Celts were altered by Christian worship, during which process the older practices were not obliterated but absorbed.

followers. However, whatever its origin, it was clearly non-Catholic, and the tonsure was altered immediately the Celtic church was absorbed into the Roman sphere of influence after the Synod of Whitby. The Annals of Mac Firbis tell us that then: 'The tonsure of St Peter the Apostle was taken by the family of Iona, for it was the tonsure of Simon Magus they had until then, as had Colum Cille (Columba) himself.'

At first, Celtic monasteries were no more than small aggregations of cells, caves or huts, where a few monks lived together but remained relatively independent of one another. Soon they grew, however, and expanded to create new, centralized settlements. In Britain, Irish monks founded the monasteries at Iona, Lindisfarne, Glastonbury, Malmesbury and Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth. Also, by the seventh century, Celtic monastic settlements had been made in mainland Europe. Then, the largest Celtic monastery of all was at Bangor on Belfast Lough. Reputed to have 3,000 monks, Bangor was the focus for missionary activities all over western Europe. From there, St Sinell, tutor of St Columbanus, travelled south in 589 and founded the monastery of Bobbio, near Milan in Italy.

In turn, Columbanus founded the monastery of Luxeuil, in the Celtic sacred land of the Vosges. Later, he moved on to Fontaines, and then Bobbio in the Italian Apennines. He and his followers are said to have founded around 100 monasteries. One of the most attractive locations was an earthly reflection of the otherworldly Celtic Avalon, the holy island of Reichenau in Lake Constance, which became a fertile monastic settlement. Elsewhere, Celtic monks founded the monasteries of St Gall, St Bertin, Jumieges, St Riquier, Remirement, Jouarre, Chelles, Noirmoutier, Echternach, Hanau, Lagny and Wurzburg. These monasteries and others served as a network of hostels for Celtic pilgrims on their way to Rome, Egypt and Jerusalem. As well as travelling overland, Irish priests were remarkable seamen. From Ireland, Celtic monks first settled Iona, then founded further monasteries in the Orkneys and Shetland Islands, where the islands named 'Papa' attest to their widespread travels. They reached the Faeroes shortly after the year 700. They and their descendants lived there until around 860, when they were dispossessed by the Norse. Finally, Irish churchmen discovered Iceland in the 790s, but they made no permanent settlements there until Celtic Christians went with the first Norse settlers.

Nevertheless, despite its pioneering activities in the former Celtic heartland, the Celtic church was the loser in a power struggle with the centralized church of Rome. Better-organized Benedictine monasti-cism was on the increase. Gradually, the Benedictine rule ousted the stricter Columbanian rule of the Celtic monasteries. By now isolated from its eastern Mediterranean roots, the strength of the Celtic church proved to be unequal to the power of the Roman church, and at the

Synod of Whitby in 664 the Celts

The Strength of the Celtic church proved were ordered to adopt Roman usages, to be unequal to the power of the Roman effectively amalgamating the Celtic with the Roman church. Finally, church, and at the Synod of Whitby in the Synod of Autun in 670 made

664 the Celts were ordered to adopt the Benedictine rule compulsory in

Roman usages. monasteries in France, supplanting the

Celtic rule. Benedict's rule was much less harsh and exacting than the strict asceticism that by then had become the norm in Celtic Christianity, and hence it was a more attractive proposition for the aspiring monk. However, there was a place for the Celtic Cross in the new Romanized system.

precedents and Origins

In many ways, the Celtic Cross is a continuation and refinement of a number of aspects of traditional spiritual culture. Most fundamentally, it contains symbolic elements that express the relationship of human beings to the divine. These elements are transcendent of religious doctrine, belonging to the perennial philosophy which underlies all religions.

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