Love Instead of Religion by Ken McIntosh

The Celts loved Jesus. When they chose to follow him, it was less like converting to a new religion—and much more like falling passionately in love. In the mid-eighth century, an Irish monk named Colcu ú Duinechda of Clonmacnois wrote this love poem to Jesus:

O holy Jesus,
Gentle friend,
Morning Star,
Midday sun adorned,
Brilliant flame of righteousness, life everlasting and eternity,
Fountain ever-new, ever-living, ever-lasting. . . .
True and loving Brother.

We hear a lot about Jesus today, but the Jesus whose name is used so familiarly—as though we all know exactly whom we're talking about—doesn’t seem quite like the Jesus the Celts knew. Today’s Jesus doesn’t always shine with that same lovely light the Celts saw. And for those of us who call ourselves his followers, how many of us surrender ourselves to him with the Celts’ sense of helpless delight and incredulous adoration?

As a result, the Christ we think we know may not seem all that attractive to others. I know a young woman, for example, who believes in a Divine Reality—but she has trouble with Jesus. To her, Jesus seems too exclusive, too limited in scope; she cannot connect him with the signs of God’s presence she senses outside the church. What does this man—who (she believes) only concerns himself with the “faithful”—what does this long-ago, seemingly judgmental man have to do with the red and gold of sunset clouds, the silver splash of a waterfall, or the quiet voice that whispers in the wind? What does he have to do with the laughter between friends or the sheer pleasure of a good meal? In a world where so much evil has been done in his name, how is he even relevant?

Sadly, Christianity has given Jesus a bad name. If we could come to know Christ the way the ancient Celts did, though, we might have a very different perspective. For the Celtic followers of Jesus, Christ was the historical figure who walked on the Earth in the first century, and they sought to know him directly, person-to-person, the way you would get to know another person you met and were attracted to. The historical Jesus was very real to the Celts, but he was also more to them: the divine Logos—the Cosmic Word that made the world (John 1) and the one “who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:23). 

Yes, said the Celts, we can come to know Jesus within the Bible and in the sacraments of the church. But he also comes to us in dreams and visions, in each human being we meet, and in the natural world. The blazing sun itself is a display of Christ’s love, as are the sound of the wind and the ripple of water. 

The Celts’ passion for Christ did not make them narrow people mincing their way cautiously through life lest they fall into sin. On the contrary, their faith inspired them to open their hearts wider, to embrace nature and society more generously, since they found Christ revealed everywhere in the everyday world.

A medieval Welsh composition called The Food of the Soul describes a friar’s vision of Christ, detailing the beauty of the Divine Lord in abundant detail. As the mystical experience ends, Christ says to the friar, “Arise and love me further as much as you can.” The writer encourages his readers: “Then through true love and the whole desire of your heart, you should let your mind dwell on the great beauty of the Divine Child.”

Kenneth McIntosh is the author of Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life and Reading the Bible the Celtic Way: The Peacock's Tail Feathers. This post is adapted from Water from an Ancient Well.