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Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination

Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination

4.3 3
by Esther De Waal

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Esther de Waal, one of Celtic Christianity's preeminent scholars, shows how this tradition of worship draws on both the pre-Christian past and on the fullness of the Gospel. It is also an enlightening glimpse at the history, folklore, and liturgy of the Celtic people.

Esther de Waal introduces readers to monastic prayer and praise (the foundation stone of Celtic


Esther de Waal, one of Celtic Christianity's preeminent scholars, shows how this tradition of worship draws on both the pre-Christian past and on the fullness of the Gospel. It is also an enlightening glimpse at the history, folklore, and liturgy of the Celtic people.

Esther de Waal introduces readers to monastic prayer and praise (the foundation stone of Celtic Christianity), early Irish litanies, medieval Welsh praise poems, and the wealth of blessings derived from an oral tradition that made prayer a part of daily life. Through this invigorating book, readers enter a world in which ritual and rhythm, nature and seasons, images and symbols play an essential role. A welcome contrast to modern worship, Celtic prayer is liberating and, like a living spring, forever fresh.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In what will undoubtedly be a classic on Celtic spirituality and prayer, Esther de Waal leads her readers to a rediscovery of the beauty and richness of the Celtic way of life."
--Rosemary Rader, OSB

"What Esther has written is superb, because the combination of Esther's own spirituality and early Celtic spirituality is bound to be superb...I have read every word slowly, carefully, enjoying, being nourished. It isn't just that Celtic spirituality with its loving immediacy is appealing, it is that it is necessary at this time of violence and indifference and greed in the Western world. It can, indeed, be our salvation."
--Madeleine L'Engle

"Esther de Waal's unique contribution to Celtic Christian studies is that she is never outside her subject. Her constant ability to apply the life of those earlier centuries to her own devotional life makes it possible for those of us who read her to encounter those people in such a way that their Christian journey can become food and drink for us in the hunger and thirst of our own century."
--Herbert O'Driscoll, author of A Doorway in Time

"A rich tapestry of learning, personal experience of prayer, empathy with monastic endeavor and a real understanding of what inspiration is needed by so many of the laity also in their journey of Christian prayer today."
--Patrick Barry, OSB, Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this beautiful book, retreat leader de Waal recovers the spirituality of Celtic religion and integrates it into a kind of guidebook. Through Celtic poems, songs, Irish litanies and medieval Welsh praise poems, de Waal conducts the reader on what she calls a "peregrinatio," or journey into prayer. Believing that the metaphor of a journey comes closest both to the Celtic way of prayer and to our contemporary description of seeking spirituality, de Waal traverses what she calls the "common realities of life: time, presence, solitariness, dark forces" to demonstrate how prayer may be integrated into the fabric of daily life. In addition, she recovers Celtic symbols as ways of enriching the religious imagination. Finally, she asserts that discovering the rhythms of natural life provides a "corrective to our cerebral emphasis on prayer which has for too long stifled our approach to prayer." (Aug.)
Library Journal
Historian and retreat leader de Waal explores the rich legacy of Celtic songs, poems, prayers, and blessings that grew out of the dynamic meeting of Christian monasticism with an older, communal way of life ordered by kinship, a rural sense of place, the pattern of the seasons, and the cycles of birth and death. The author does a fine job tracing the strands that make Celtic Christianity compelling and unique. An important addition to Celtic literature for both general readers and specialists.
Among the many books that use and adapt Celtic sources, the works Esther De Waal are perhaps the wisest and most profound.
Christianity Today

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The rediscovery of the Celtic world has been an extraordinary revelation for many Christians in recent years, an opening up of the depths and riches within our own tradition that many of us had not before suspected. As I reflect on what it has meant to me, I think that above all it has enriched my understanding of prayer. It has taught me, and encouraged me into, a deeper, fuller way of prayer. 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.

I like to think of it as a journey into prayer. The Celtic understanding of journeying is in itself so rich and so significant. It is peregrinatio, seeking, quest, adventure, wandering, exile--it is ultimately a journey, as I try to show in the first chapter, to find the place of my resurrection, the resurrected self, the self that I might hope to be, to become, the true self in Christ. This journey is possible only because I am finding my roots--that familiar paradox known in all monastic life and a reflection of basic human experience, that only if one is rooted at home in one's own self, in the place in which one finds oneself, is one able to move forward, to open up new boundaries, both exterior and interior, in other words, to embark on a life of continual and never-ending conversion, transformation. To find my roots takes me back to the part of my self that is more ancient than I am, and this is, of course, the power of the Celtic heritage. In my own case there are both my family roots, which are Scottish, and the place where I was born, and where I now once again live, which is the Border country of Wales. But for any of us the Celtic tradition is the ancient or elemental--a return to the elements, the earth, stone, fire, water, the ebb and flow of tides and seasons, the pattern of the year as it swings on its axis from Samhaine, November 1, when all grows dark, to Beltaine, May 1, the coming of light and spring. To pray the Celtic way means above all to be aware of this rhythm of dark and light. The dark and the light are themselves symbols of the Celtic refusal to deny darkness, pain, suffering and yet to exult in rejoicing, celebration in the fullness and goodness of life. This is in itself a recognition of the fullness of my own humanity.

Coming from the farthest fringes of the Western world, Celtic Christianity (an expression I prefer to use rather than speaking of the Celtic Church)1 --> keeps alive what is ancient Christian usage, usage which like that of the East comes from a deep central point before the Papacy began to tidy up and to rationalize. This was more difficult in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany, the main Celtic areas, simply because of geographical distance and the lack of towns. This point is of more than antiquarian interest: It also speaks to me symbolically, taking me back to the ancient, the early, both in my own self, and in the experience of Christendom, where I encounter something basic, primal, fundamental, universal. I am taken back beyond the party labels and the denominational divisions of the Church today, beyond the divides of the Reformation or the schism of East and West. I am also taken beyond the split of intellect and feeling, of mind and heart, that came with the growth of the rational and analytical approach that the development of the universities brought to the European mind in the twelfth century. Here is something very profound. This deep point within the Christian tradition touches also some deep point in my own consciousness, my own deepest inner self.

This tapestry of the riches of the Celtic way of prayer has about it something of the variety of shapes and colors that I find in a page of the Book of Kells, and so I find myself asking where and how we can begin to unravel one of these extraordinary spirals or threads so that it leads us on into our exploration. I think that the essential starting point is the fact that Celtic Christianity was essentially monastic, as indeed the origins of Christianity in the whole of Britain were strictly monastic.2 --> The Celtic way of prayer was learned from the monasteries; it was from its religious communities that the people learned to pray. As a result, they learned that there was no separation of praying and living; praying and working flow into each other, so that life is to be punctuated by prayer, become prayer. If ordinary people took their ideas on prayer from this ideal of continual prayer, it should not really surprise us that when we uncover something of the way of praying that was handed down in the oral tradition and was collected in Scotland and Ireland at the end of the last century, what we find is lay spirituality, a household religion in which praying is inseparable from an ordinary daily working life.3 -->

Those earliest years in Ireland and Wales forged a powerful mix between monastic Christianity and what existed already in the people to whom this Christian message was now brought. It was the way in which Christianity responded to what it found in these lands that gives it its unique character and emphasis. The Celtic countries lay on the edge of the known Western world, largely outside the Roman Empire, a people lacking the social molds and mental framework and cultural infrastructure the Roman Empire brought elsewhere. These were a rural people, living close to the earth, close to stone and water, and their religious worship was shaped by their awareness of these elemental forces. They were a rural people for whom the clan, the tribe, and kinship were important, a close-knit people who thought of themselves in a corporate way as belonging to one another. They were a warrior people, a people whose myths and legends told them of heroes and heroic exploits. Above all, they were a people of the imagination, whose amazing artistic achievements in geometric design, filigree work, and enameling can be seen in La Tene art, and whose skill with words (spoken not written) flowered in poetry and storytelling. This was a society in which the poet held a highly respected place, played a professional role, and where storytelling was taken seriously and demanded many years of study and learning. All this was taken up by a Christianity that was not afraid of what it found but felt that it was natural to appropriate it into the fullness of Christian living and praying. So the Celtic way of prayer is a reflection of this: It is elemental, corporate, heroic, imaginative. This is its gift to us.

As I have gone deeper in my exploration of the Celtic heritage, I have found that it has touched me profoundly at many levels that had not hitherto been a familiar part of my twentieth-century upbringing and education. I discovered that if I wanted to encounter Celtic Christianity, I had to look at poetry, and so I found myself being taken into the world of poetry and song. My own religious upbringing had been so intellectual and cerebral, a matter of going to church, of reciting the Creed, of saying prayers. And instead here was a world that told me books were not enough, that books could not express the wonder of the world that God had made:
The Father created the world by a miracle;
it is difficult to express its measure.
Letters cannot contain it, letters cannot comprehend it.4 -->

The Celtic journey that I am describing in this book is unlike any other journey I know. Its shape and its end are different, as are the songs I sing while I journey, the company I keep along the road. I have been brought into contact with the visual and the nonverbal, confronted by the power of image and of symbol. I have found myself thinking about God as a poet, an artist, drawing us all into his great work of art. I have been taken beyond the rational and intellectual and cerebral, for this world touches the springs of my imagination. I am reminded of what Thomas Merton said in Contemplation in a World of Action about the role of the imagination as a discovering faculty, as a means of seeing new meanings, and above all as an essential element in prayer:
Imagination is the creative task of making symbols, joining things together in such a way that they throw new light on each other and on everything around them. The imagination is a discovering faculty, a faculty for seeing relationships, for seeing meanings that are special and even quite new. The imagination is something which enables us to discover unique present meaning in a given moment of our life. Without imagination the contemplative life can be extremely dull and fruitless.5 -->

So I have been brought face-to-face with a world at once very familiar and very mysterious, for I have found in the Celtic a worldview that touches on much that is common, shared, perhaps archetypal, in all human experience. I have become aware of how this way of seeing the world is common to all early peoples, to the traditional and aboriginal peoples throughout the world. Although I do not develop it here, I am sure that the exploration of this Celtic world will be prophetic for the future as we try to break down the barriers so that we may reach out to one another. This discovery of my own Celtic roots has meant that I have also become more aware of the riches of many other traditional peoples. I have found that much in the African or Native American experience speaks the same language as the Celtic, has a shared and common resonance. For I have found in Celtic understanding nothing of the highly individualistic, competitive, inward-looking approach common in today's society. Here, instead, everyone sees themselves in relation to one another, and that extends beyond human beings to the wild creatures, the birds and the animals, the earth itself.6 --> This has brought a sense of being a part of the whole web of being. There is something here of "the breathing together of all things" as Teilhard de Chardin put it, something of the mystery of coinherence of which Charles Williams writes in his novels. The new science speaks much the same language, of mutual interdependence. Here is the promise of a more holistic approach to the world, of healing of the many fractures that maim and corrupt each of us and the world in which we live.

The Celtic world touches all of this but yet remains totally unique, earthy, and mysterious, knowing darkness and pain but equally rejoicing in light, full of poetry and song and celebration, showing me the depths of penitence and the heights of praise, touching me in the secret hidden parts of my own self and yet connecting me with others. So although each of us is in the end solitary (and that is something that Celtic Christianity knows well), I am reminded that I travel in company with those who have made this peregrinatio before me, by the whole company of heaven, the saints and the angels, a "cloud of witnesses," who surround me and who hold me up as I go.


1. It is essential to use this term and not to speak of the "Celtic Church," which can be misleading if it suggests that there ever was a Celtic Church as opposed to a "Roman Church." Any such idea would have been totally inimical to the Celtic people, who never regarded themselves as being in some different church, and for whom the Bishop of Rome always remained important.

2. See Patrick Barry OSB, Saint Benedict and Christianity in England (Ampleforth Abbey Press, 1995).

3. The six volumes of the Carmina Gadelica, songs, prayers, and blessings from the oral tradition of the western Highlands and islands of Scotland, were originally collected and edited by Alexander Carmichael at the end of the last century and published by the Scottish Academic Press as Carmina Gadelica, Hymns and Incantations Orally Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Translated into English. There will be many subsequent references in the rest of the book to the Carmina Gadelica, since these poems, prayers, songs, and blessings (it is impossible to fit them into any neat categories) have been a source of enjoyment, inspiration, and practical prayer ever since I first discovered them. Although the six original volumes were published under a variety of editors between 1900 and 1928, in order to make them more easily accessible I edited them in 1988 as Celtic Vision, Prayers and Blessings from the Outer Hebrides (St. Bede's Publications, Petersham, Massachusetts). There is in addition a very short introduction God Under My Roof (Paraclete Press). They have now been made easily available in a single volume, a new edition published in 1992 with a preface by John MacInnes from Floris Books, and have inspired the prolific output of David Adam, who has taken their format and produced modern versions which, however attractive, I feel lack much of the depth and the sense of harsh reality that make the original prayers so powerful. To sentimentalize or to sanitize is tempting, but it is a betrayal of this way of praying.

4. From a ninth-century Welsh poem, in Oliver Davies and Fiona Bowie, Celtic Christian Spirituality, an Anthology of Medieval and Modern Sources (Continuum), p. 27.

5. Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Image Books, 1973), p. 357.

6. This is one of the reasons I edited the translations by Helen Waddell of the stories of the friendships between the Desert Fathers and the Celtic saints and the wild creatures who played such an important role in their lives, Beasts and Saints (Eerdmans, 1996).

Meet the Author

Esther de Waal lives in a small cottage on the Welsh/English border. After studying and teaching history at Cambridge University, she married, had four sons, and moved to Canterbury, where she lived in a house that had been part of the medieval monastic community. She leads retreats, lectures, and travels widely. Her major interests are the fields of the Benedictine and Celtic traditions.

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