Those of us who think of ourselves as “Celtic Followers of Christ” often like to idealize the ancient Celtic saints. The truth is, the early Celtic Christ-followers were a mixed bag (just like today’s). Many of them affirmed women’s spiritual roles—but some were downright misogynists. Some were tolerant of other beliefs and traditions—and others were as narrow-minded as any of today’s most intolerant conservatives. But one thing they all truly had in common—something that sets them apart and endears them to me—is this: they all loved animals.
Like their spiritual descendent, Francis of Assisi, they considered animals to be their brothers and sisters, beloved partners in the unfolding of the gospel. As Meg Llewellyn says in Celtic Miracles and Wonders, the Celts saw the Earth’s creatures as both “intimate friends” and “revelations of the Divine.” Llewellyn writes:
Saint Ciaran’s first students were the forest animals; Saint Colman had a mouse for a friend. We may doubt that the mouse made sure his human friend kept the Holy Hours, and we may find it hard to believe the story where bees build an altar and celebrate mass—but what these stories reveal is the Celts’ sense that animals were humans’ equals before God. They were as capable of receiving and expressing Divine love as any person, which for the Celtic saints meant that they were to be treated with compassion and friendship.
There are countless stories about the Celtic saints and their animal friends, but one of my favorites is the story of Saint Ciarán and his cow. This Ciarán (also known as Kieran) is not the same as the one whose stories are told in Celtic Miracles and Wonders (that one was known as Saint Ciarán the Elder), but like his namesake, Ciarán the Younger also loved animals. Stories handed down through the centuries describe his kinship with both farm animals and wild animals.
As a boy, he took care of his father’s cows—and when he grew up, he took his favorite cow with him when he went to join the abbey at Clonard. His large and gentle friend then provided the entire abbey with milk throughout her lifetime—and was so beloved, such an essential part of the community, that when she died, her hide was kept as a holy relic that was said to possess healing qualities. Five centuries later, says tradition, the hide of Ciarán’s cow was made into the parchment that made the pages of The Book of the Dun Cow, one of the oldest Celtic literary collections. This connection between beloved beast, creativity, and the loving reverence that spans centuries is a demonstration of the living knotwork the Celts perceived intertwining throughout the world, drawing innumerable strands into the pattern of Creation.
At Anamchara Books, our goal is to publish books that are faithful to this same Celtic vision of the world. To that end, one of our sister imprints, Village Earth Books, has just released a series of children’s books titled “Animals Need You.” Titles include Caring for Cats, Caring for Dogs, Caring for Small Animals, Caring for Farm Animals, and Caring for Wild Animals. I wrote in the introduction, “Animal lives matter. Human welfare and animal welfare are interwoven so tightly that they cannot be separated. In other words, what hurts animals will ultimately hurt us as well.”
I think Saint Ciarán and the other Celtic saints would have agreed. Animals, humans, artistic expression, books, the Earth, and time itself . . . all are woven together in an endless chain of Divine creation.
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.