An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom: A Little Guide to Mystery, Spirit, and Compassion

An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom: A Little Guide to Mystery, Spirit, and Compassion

by Carl McColman


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Drawing on myth, folklore, poetry, and the tales of Celtic gods and heroes, this little book is an invitation to readers to explore the spiritual tradition of the Celtic peoples--a tradition rooted in hospitality and one that is of growing importance in these increasingly fractured and troubled times.

An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom is divided into three parts:

  1. The Celtic Mystery: In this section McColman illustrates the mystery inherent in the Celtic spiritual path with a brief discussion of the three streams of Celtic spirituality and an introduction to thin places and holy wells.
  2. The Celtic Saints: McColman explores how faith in the Celtic saints is rooted in the desert spirituality of the early Christian tradition. Also included are profiles of Patrick, Brendan, and Bridget.
  3. How to Walk the Celtic Path: In this section the author explores hospitality, spiritual direction story-telling, spiritual power, and the Grail.

McColman has written a splendid intro to a spiritual path that will appeal to both believers and seekers who are interested in all things Celtic.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571747921
Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
Publication date: 11/01/2018
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 819,544
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Carl McColman lives near Atlanta, Georgia, where he is a member of the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit—a contemplative community under the spiritual guidance of Trappist monks. He is the author of Answering the Contemplative Call and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. Carl frequently leads workshops and retreats on contemplative spirituality at churches, seminaries, monasteries, and retreat centers. Visit him at

Read an Excerpt


The Mystery

The Celts are the people of the end of the world.

Visit the tip of the Cornwall peninsula and you will find a rocky placed called Land's End, where the thundering surf of the Atlantic pounds mercilessly against the ancient rocks. But once upon a time, it was Ireland — at least in the imagination of mainland Europeans — where you made your last stop before the vast, boundless ocean. The end of the world. All that lay beyond formed the stuff of myths and legends. A few hardy voyagers — we'll meet some of them in the pages to come — ventured out into the deep and came back with tales of lands like Tír na nÓg, the island of eternal youth, or the Land of Promise of the Saints, the closest place to heaven that could be found in all the earth. Aside from those heroic wanderers, for most people the west coast of Ireland, where the vast ocean continually pounded the shore, represented the edge of mystery, the gateway into an unknown and unseeable world.

Today we have lost that sense of the wondrous mystery awaiting us just beyond the edge of the ocean. A traveler leaving the British Isles heading west arrives not at Tír na nÓg or the Land of Promise, but rather comes to Boston or New York. So it may be difficult for us to appreciate that sense of openness to ever-present mystery that informed the poetry and stories and spirituality of the Celts long ago. We may know better than our ancestors, thanks to the round earth and the gift of flight, than to face the ocean fog with a sense of awe and wonder — let alone a wee bit of foreboding. But we make a mistake if we insist on approaching Celtic wisdom with a purely materialistic sense of things.

Perhaps the end of the world — the edge of mystery — is not so much a place on the map as it is a place in the heart.

Perhaps, even today, in our time hedged in by materialistic thinking and a culture besotted with entertainment and noise, we mortals are being invited into a spiritual "otherworld" as foreign and fearsome to us as the beach must have been to the first prehistoric creature who dared to crawl out of the ocean some half a billion years ago.

Since the Celts of old were so conscious of living at the end of the world, their wisdom and spirituality remain meaningful and useful for us, even today. Their way of seeing remains helpful to anyone today who seeks to enter the uncharted realms of mystery and Spirit. Great Britain and Ireland may no longer represent the ends of the physical earth, but they — or at least, the poets and saints, seers and wise ones who lived there — can still symbolize for us a final stopping place before that immense and mysterious journey to the mystical world that lies just beyond the reach of the senses.

To begin our journey into the mysteries of Celtic spirituality, we might begin by reflecting on the people of old whom we now call the Celts.

Are they simply the people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany (with Galicia thrown in for good measure)? For those are the lands, all situated on the western edge of Europe, that we now think of as the home of the Celts. But these folks actually represent the tiniest remnant of what once was a mighty culture, thundering across the continent in ancient times. We know from history that at the height of their worldly influence, the Celtic peoples called much of Europe home, from Ireland in the west to modern-day Turkey in the east. Galatia in Turkey, the place where a people called the Galatians received a letter from Saint Paul, was a homeland to some of the Celts. Perhaps when we read Paul's letter to the Galatians, we might think of it as Paul's letter to the Celts.

Another way to think about the Celtic world would be to include anyone who can trace his or her ancestry back to one of these lands. That adds millions, indeed hundreds of millions, of Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Patagonians, and various others into the mix. For that matter, may we suppose that the Celtic mystery enfolds everyone who comes to live in a Celtic land, or even anyone (of any ancestry or ethnicity) whose heart is stirred by the songs and poetry, the wisdom and spirituality of this ancient family of cultures and languages?

Each question leads to another. Just what makes the Celtic world "Celtic"? What separates Celt from Saxon or Roman or Slav? How is Celtic Christianity different from Roman Christianity or Greek Christianity or Syriac Christianity?

Such questions may shape a scholar's career or give a historian a sense of purpose and mission. But these are not the questions we need to be asking.

Celtic spirituality emerges from the heart of hospitality, of welcoming and invitation, of coming together. It's not particularly interested in what separates us from one another. The Celtic character is marked by kinship and convivial fellowship. It's a spirituality of stories and adventures, of conflicts fearlessly fought and love passionately shared. In other words, the Celtic people are a people of loyalty and relationship, characterized not by the ideas in their heads but by the fire in their hearts.

Language has a vital role to play in shaping the Celtic heart and mind. Celtic spirituality has its roots as much in language as in place. I have a shirt with a lovely saying in Irish on it: Tir gan teanga, tir gan anam —"A land without a tongue is a land without soul." There's a bit of politics in this, for the Celtic languages for years were burdened by efforts of the English and the French to eradicate them, and today even if governments are no longer hostile to the ancient tongues, the indifferences of commerce and mass media continue to threaten the languages that once graced the lips of saints like Brigid of Kildare and David of Wales.

Language matters because each tongue carries not only its own vocabulary but also its own syntax — in its grammar, a language shapes the way its speakers view the world. This was beautifully conveyed in the science fiction movie Arrival, where aliens came to earth and brought a language that, as humans learned to speak it, sparked a revolution in consciousness. The question it begs: When languages such as Manx or Cornish disappear from the face of the earth, does a certain way of seeing the world, or even of knowing God, die with them?

I don't speak a Celtic language; I only know a smattering of Irish and Scots Gaelic. But I know enough to believe that these languages do in fact convey a way of seeing that is unique and vital, and even as the most basic of learners, I've received glimpses of that unique view. Perhaps it's not practical for us all to try to become fluent in the language our ancestors spoke, but I think we do owe it to them (and ourselves) to try to capture as much of their distinctive consciousness as we can, even given the limitations of our own tongue.

Speaking of politics, we can also say that Celtic spirituality represents the wisdom of a people who never were conquered by the Roman Empire, so they preserved an ancient way of seeing and knowing that was lost elsewhere. When the Celts embraced Christianity, they embraced a way of following Jesus that had not been compromised by the worldly power of the urban elites of Rome or Alexandria or Constantinople.

Living as they did on the very end of the world, the Celts forged an identity anchored in a deep sense of nature, a love of their land, a passion for kinship, and a love for the Spirit that embraced beauty and silence, solitude and self-forgetfulness, deep peace and deep listening.

How can we make Celtic wisdom our own? Especially for those of us who live far away from the islands on the edge, what does it mean to walk a Celtic path? It is a question that eludes an easy logical answer. The Celts are not so much philosophers as poets, not so much architects as artists. Their songs and lore invite us to discover meaning through myth and symbol and dream; to celebrate life through the crashing of wave on rocks or the whisper of a winter wind.

Perhaps the wisest way to walk this path is to immerse ourselves in the myths of the bards and the poetry of the saints, and consider how their lives illuminate our own. Indeed, no better way to embrace Celtic wisdom exists, at least as far as I can tell. But keep in mind that the stories are told in different ways, in different places and times. Keep in mind that you or I can hear the same stories or ponder the same legends and discern different rhythms in our heart and different paths on which we are called to walk. For the Celtic way is not shaped by sameness and standardization, but rather it celebrates the very kind of abundant diversity that makes the natural world so beautiful and so fearfully wonderful.

So let us tell the stories and sing the songs and enjoy the dance. Let us stand before the roar of the ancient ocean and climb the crags of the desolate high places. And most of all, let us listen to the silence between every beat of the drum that is our hearts. For in that silence we find something even deeper than a language that has been lost or a myth barely remembered. In the silence, we find our souls, and in our souls, we find the presence of God. For God is not elsewhere. God waits in the silence in our hearts.


Three Streams

A Benedictine monk in Ireland suggested that there are "three streams" to Celtic spirituality.

Seán Ó Duinn was a monk of Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick. He was an expert on Irish history and Celtic spirituality, having written books on Saint Brigid and the folklore associated with the ancient megalithic sites of Ireland. Like a sleuth, this scholarly monk unraveled layers of stories, legends, and lore to shed light on the intricate web of relationships between the various ages of Irish spirituality. His understanding of Hibernian mysticism provides us with insight into the spirituality and wisdom of all the Celtic peoples.

First came the megalithic (stone age, or pre-Celtic) age, the age of the ancient sacred sites that still stand like mute sentinels on the windswept landscape: stone circles such as those found at Drombeg in Ireland or Callanish in Scotland; dolmens — standing stones that look like tables or altars but are actually the remnants of prehistoric tombs; and more elaborate grave sites such as Newgrange, a remarkable artificial mound oriented so that the sunrise of the winter solstice illuminates the tiny passageway into the central chamber where three tombs lay under an elaborate corbeled roof. Most of what we know of the beliefs and rituals of these ancient megalithic people comes to us through the silence of archaeological remains, although plenty of the folklore and myth that developed over the following ages speaks to the power and magic of these prehistoric sites.

Next came the Celtic age itself, an age of myth and poetry and stories, a time when warriors and druids shaped the destiny of the tribal peoples. We don't know exactly when the Celts first came to the lands now most associated with their identity: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany, and Galicia in Spain. There's even lively debate over whether the movement of Celtic culture into these lands came gradually and peaceably, or more suddenly as a result of invasion and conflict. The myths themselves embody the honor and dignity of a warrior people; indeed, the foundational text of Irish mythology is called the Book of Invasions. But regardless of how the Celts first arrived in their destined homelands, the tales recited by their bards — tales of gods and goddesses, champions and poets, sages and seers, druids and lovers — revealed the heart of their wisdom and spirituality, a magic that soon became synonymous with the lands where this distinctive culture took root.

The third stream represents the coming of Christianity. Once again, exactly how this happened may forever be shrouded in mystery. We have legends such as how Saint Patrick evangelized the Irish or how Saint Columcille brought the faith to Scotland; but the evidence beneath the popular legends remains sparse and contradictory, making the historical fact far from certain. Perhaps Patrick came to Ireland many years after an earlier missionary named Palladius, for example. Or were Palladius and Patrick contemporaries, or even two names of the same person? No one knows for sure. But we do know the Christians did come, and when they arrived, they stepped out from the confining safety of the Roman Empire to bring the message of Christ and his mercy and hope to a culture and a people radically unlike the familiar contours of "civilized" society.

When the Celts became Christian, they embraced new stories and new wisdom — the stories of Jesus and his apostles, as well as the emerging literature from the mystics of the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. But Celtic Christianity represented not so much the imposition of one religious identity on top of another, but rather the marriage or blending of the two. Christians brought with them tales of, and insights into, a God of mercy and forgiveness, incarnate in the healer and wonderworker from Nazareth; and the Celts responded by writing poetry that articulated their devotion, retreating into the wilderness to find remote places for prayer and sanctity, and — most surprising of all — preserving the ancient pagan lore of their ancestors in writing, something the druids themselves refused to do but the monks who followed Christ did with exuberance. So, paradoxically, we have Christians to thank for the preservation of Celtic pagan lore.

These three streams of megalithic archaeology, pagan legend, and Christian lore combine together to give us the rich and heady waters of Celtic spirituality. It may not be the only kind of spirituality to emerge from the encounter between separate wisdom traditions — Christianity itself is the child of Jewish monotheism and Greco-Roman philosophy — but Celtic mysticism became a unique portal into the mysteries of the Spirit, a passageway that may be more essential and relevant — not just for Celts, but for all people — than ever.

What can we learn from such a messy history? If you want an exercise in frustration, go to your local university library and try to sort through articles and monographs by scholars who attempt to make sense of ancient Celtic spirituality. Many different theories exist as to how the Celts came to be, what exactly they believed, and why it matters (or doesn't matter) today. Meanwhile, every generation yields a new wave of romantics and dreamers who approach the Celts not with the steely logic of the scholar, but the playful lyricism of the visionary, which leads to new and different ways of entering the wonder and mystery of Celtic consciousness — but which also makes the possibility of understanding Celtic wisdom in any kind of logical way all the more elusive.

I believe it makes the most sense to approach the Celtic mysteries with a singing heart rather than an analytical mind. Celtic spirituality is the stuff of myth and legend. It is a story to tell, not a system to understand; a song to be sung rather than a proposition to be debated. If this way of thinking strikes you as fuzzy or lazy, I suspect you will find much of the literature of Celtic wisdom and spirituality to be more frustrating than enlightening. Even so, I invite you to keep reading, for one never knows when the whispers of eternity will break through even the most guarded, orderly mind.

When I gaze into the rushing and singing waters of the three streams, here's what I see:

First, I see that the stories we tell shape our identity. The ancient, prehistoric sites — from Newgrange to the stone circles to the old stone tables and the so-called fairy rings — all took on new life and new meaning when they were woven into the myths of the Celts. Newgrange became more than just an astronomically sophisticated burial place: it became the ancestral home of the gods who lived in the underworld. We can sanctimoniously dismiss the myths because they tell tales that "aren't true," but then we miss the insight into human nature or the mysteries of the psyche that are encoded within the signs and symbols of our legends and lore. C. S. Lewis is a helpful guide here: even though he regarded the Christian story as the only "true myth," he continued to draw from the wisdom and wit of many other legends and lore to celebrate their capacity to entertain us, and even more important, to teach us important truths about who we human beings really are.

In the three streams of Celtic spirituality, I see that the present and the past converse with one another, and perhaps with the future as well. When the megalith builders died out and were supplanted by the story-telling Celts, their land and ancient monuments spoke to the Celtic imagination — and that imagination, in turn, brought light to the Christian monks who sought to keep knowledge and wisdom alive during the so-called Dark Ages. What's beautiful about Celtic spirituality is how it brings these three streams of wisdom to us, here and now, calling us to embrace the insights of the past as a way to sculpt meaning and purpose for our lives at this moment — and to chart a direction for how we may live into our future with grace and compassion.


Excerpted from "An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom"
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Copyright © 2018 Carl McColman.
Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Part 1 The Celtic Mystery 1

Chapter 1 The Mystery 3

Chapter 2 Three Streams 13

Chapter 3 Thin Places 23

Chapter 4 Holy Wells 33

Chapter 5 The Edge of Waiting 43

Part 2 The Celtic Saints 53

Chapter 6 The Desert 55

Chapter 7 The Cloister 65

Chapter 8 Patrick the Enlightener 77

Chapter 9 Brigid, Mary of the Gaels 89

Chapter 10 Brendan the Navigator 105

Chapter 11 Columcille, Saint in Exile 117

Chapter 12 For All the Saints 125

Part 3 Walking the Celtic Path 139

Chapter 13 Hospitality 141

Chapter 14 Anamchara 151

Chapter 15 Shanachie 163

Chapter 16 Neart 173

Chapter 17 The Grail 183

Acknowledgments 191

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