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Draw near: Learning from Celtic Christian thankfulness

Lynne Baab • Tuesday July 26 2022

Draw near: Learning from Celtic Christian thankfulness

A look at some of the themes attributed to Celtic Christianity can enrich our thoughts about gratitude. What we call “Celtic Christianity” flourished from about the fifth to ninth centuries throughout the British Isles, but was particularly concentrated in the west and north: Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. There were also Celts in Brittany in France.

The Celts were described briefly in Greek literature in the centuries before and after Jesus, but very little is known about the pre-Christian Celts. We do know that in the Roman Empire the Celts were renowned for their ability to learn very long stories and poems from memory. Much of what we know about Celtic Christianity we have learned through the poems, prayers, blessings and ballads that have been passed down through the generations in Celtic lands. Here are three themes from Celtic Christianity that can stretch our experience of thankfulness:

1. The Celts had a strong sense of God’s presence everywhere in human life and in the created world. God’s handiwork in creation is evidence of God’s creativity and beauty, and in addition they believed that God is actually present in the beautiful things he made. The incarnation was also very real to them. Jesus became flesh to dwell in our world. So, because of creation and the incarnation, we can expect to see and experience God with us throughout daily life. 

Here’s a good summary from Sister John Miriam Jones’s book, With an Eagle’s Eye, about how this holistic perspective helps us:

“For the Celtic Christians, God was at hand, and their relationship with God was an intimate one. . . . These were men and women who grasped the full significance of the incarnation, the full reality of a God who became human, like us in all things but sin. . . . So because the Celts understood God’s presence in and through the created world, for them there was no dualism. Nothing was seen as secular. All was holy, or potentially so. Thus, if all of life is holy, all the pieces which make up the mystery of each of our lives are sacred pieces. Patching them together yields the holy.”

You may want to ponder the places in your daily life where God’s presence is most clear to you, where you feel God with you.

2. The Celts loved the Trinity. You may remember the story of St Patrick, who brought the Gospel to Ireland in AD 432. He is said to have used the three leaves of a clover plant to illustrate how the Trinity can be three and one. Here’s one of many Celtic poems about the Trinity for you to use in your thankfulness prayers.

     O Father who sought me
     O Son who bought me.
     O Holy Spirit who taught me.

3. Celtic Christians saw many forms of art, images, and symbols as essential for drawing near to God with our whole heart. Recently I have been painting with acrylic paints with my seven-year-old granddaughter. As you might suspect, the form of creativity I am most comfortable with involves words: identifying important themes, shaping sentences, pondering metaphors. I have no ability to draw and very little skill with paint. My granddaughter had to teach me the basics about acrylics. The juxtaposition of my competence in writing with my child-like attempts to paint makes me smile and brings light-heartedness to my days. All human creativity is rooted in the Creative One who made us, and God is present in all of it.

To nurture thankfulness, you may want to look at some art or read some poetry. Or you may want to do some painting, poetry writing, flower arranging, sewing, knitting, embroidery, or wood working yourself. Whatever you do, model yourself after Celtic Christians and approach your creative expressions with gratitude for the God who creates.

As a summary of these three Celtic Christian themes that can stretch our thankfulness prayers, here's a quotation from one of my favorite books, The Celtic Way of Prayer, by Esther de Waal:

“I have come to see that the Celtic way of prayer is prayer with the whole of myself, a totality of praying that embraces the fullness of my own personhood and allows me not only to pray with words but also, more important, with the heart, the feelings, using image and symbol, touching the springs of my imagination.”

Here’s a Celtic prayer for you that captures the holistic view of faith and life that we can celebrate as beloved humans created in the image of a creative God filled with majesty, justice and loving-kindness.

     I am giving Thee love with my whole devotion,
     I am giving Thee kneeling with my whole desire,
     I am giving Thee love with my whole heart. . . .
     I am giving Thee my soul, O God of all Gods.

(Next week: Open our hearts. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.

I am thrilled that my most popular book, Sabbath Keeping, is now available as an audiobook (as well as paperback and kindle). It joins Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life, my other book available as an audiobook. 

Three posts from my earlier series on Celtic Christianity:

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