Here at Anamchara Books, we’ve been impressed (and thrilled) by the overwhelming positive response to our release of the first installment of The Celtic Study Bible—Reading the Bible the Celtic Way: The Peacock’s Tail Feathers by Kenneth McIntosh. Personally, I’m both excited and grateful that this serendipitous idea (which came while exploring Devon and Cornwall with Ken and his wife Marsha) is bearing fruit—and that it’s clearly answering a felt need for many of you. But it’s made me wonder—why? Why are so many of us attracted to “Celtic spirituality”?
As some of our Facebook followers have commented recently, the ideas and perspectives we’re talking about aren’t unique to the Celts. For example, all aboriginal cultures (including the Americas’ First Peoples) honor the sacred in the natural world. While the Christian Celts referred to Nature as God’s “second scripture,” many other religious traditions also perceive the Divine Presence in trees and water, stones and beasts, mountains and seas. The Bible itself, as well as the writings of the early church fathers, contain many of the same ideas that Ken McIntosh and Ray Simpson bring to light in their bestselling books on Celtic spirituality (Water from an Ancient Well and Celtic Christianity). What’s more, we can’t claim that we can exactly define what Celtic spirituality even is. What it means to one person may not be what it means to another. Even the ancient Celts, both Pagan and Christian, wouldn’t have agreed with each other about what they believed.
So why our attraction to that word “Celtic”? I suspect some of our reasons are only indirectly related to theology—finding a connection with our historical roots, for example, or the fascination we feel for a real-life world we seldom see outside of fantasy novels. And perhaps most of all, we love the ancient Celts, both Pagan and Christian, because they refused to go along with what the rest of the world said they should be; they were fierce, wild, free—in a way we long to be. For many of us, I think, Celtic spirituality represents our rebellion against both modern organized religion and Western society’s values.
My morning reading today was Camus’s The Rebel, which led to me thinking about the ways in which rebellion relates to the attraction we feel for Celtic spirituality. As Camus underlines, rebellion is often a positive force in the world. Not only does it see past the mental boxes that obscure our vision, but it can also reveal new paths to take. It’s what gets human beings back on course whenever we’ve wandered off into the weeds and set up camp there (which we are so very prone to doing). Rebellion also keeps us from getting bogged down in resentment. True rebellion has nothing to do with complaining about all the things we don’t like in the world. Instead, it takes action.
Camus points out that the person who is a rebel is not the same as an outlaw. The Outlaw breaks the rules. She feels like a stranger in a strange land, and she lays claim to her “specialness” and aloneness as an excuse for going her own way, even when it hurts others. Since the community has hurt her, she feels justified in hurting back. The Rebel, however, is not a loner. Like the Outlaw, she too has felt like a stranger in a strange land, a land where she not only doesn't fit but where she doesn't want to fit—but she has stepped out of her solitude and joined together with others to bring change to the world, to make it a better place.
Camus has this to say:
“Man’s [sic] solidarity is founded upon rebellion, and rebellion, in turn can only find its justification in human solidarity. We have, then, the right to say that any rebellion which claims the right to deny or destroy this solidarity, loses simultaneously its right to be called rebellion and becomes in reality an acquiescence to murder.”
In today’s world, where partisanship has become nearly an insanity, these are good words to remember. Those of us who follow the Celtic spiritual path are not forming another denomination—and we’re not setting ourselves up as spiritual Outlaws, intent on destroying more conservative or liberal perspectives. Our devotion to Celtic spirituality doesn’t focus on resentment against our past experiences with the church or society nor on complaining about current events.
Camus describes resentment as something that’s sealed up and bottled, a creative force that is blocked from doing any good in the world. Rebellion, he says, “breaks the seal and allows the whole being to come into play. It liberates stagnant waters and allows them to become a raging torrent.” Rebellion, insists Camus, is a passionate affirmation of the integrity of all life.
So my hope for The Celtic Study Bible is this: may it break the seal on the resentment we feel about the ways in which religion may have failed us in the past. May it give greater freedom to our entire beings, liberating us as individuals from the ways society holds us back, so that together we can become a raging torrent for good.
Although I love the sheer otherworldliness of Celtic spirituality, I often need to remind myself that the Celts were always practical, always living out their sense of life’s Mystery in the practical here-and-now. And so, my final prayer (at least for today) for The Celtic Study Bible is this: that it will (using Camus’s words) inspire us “to dedicate ourselves for the duration of our lives to the house we build—to the dignity of humankind and to the Earth—reaping a harvest that sows its seed and sustains the world again and again.”
Ellyn Sanna is Executive Editor of Anamchara Books and author of numerous books on spirituality including All Shall Be Well: A Modern-Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich.