Before I attended The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, I had never heard of “Celtic Spirituality.” When I heard the term “Celtic” I thought of knots, music, and dancing, and to be honest, I never was a huge fan of any of it. But it was through my time at The Seattle School, and specifically in the Celtic Spirituality class, that I realized how life-giving Celtic Spirituality could be for my own faith and spiritual practices.
As I learned more about the way Celtic Christians viewed and interacted with God in the world – within our being, our surroundings, as well as beyond space and time – it was as if a long awaited gust of wind was finally filling the sails of my sailboat, initiating a new and enriching journey. Celtic Spirituality’s emphasis on the image of God within us, as well as its holistic engagement of the Trinity and its recognition of the feminine aspects of God, awakened me to not only seeing the sacred in text or in times of worship, but also in the everyday, and most especially within my own questions, longing, and way of being.
Awakening to the sacred that surrounds and is within is essential to the pilgrim’s journey, and the spirituality of the Christian Celts can serve as the pilgrim’s compass. To introduce you to Celtic Spirituality, I decided to go straight to the person who introduced it to me: spiritual director, teacher of spiritual formation, and pilgrimage guide, Tom Cashman. Below is a brief introductory interview with him about Celtic Spirituality, and I’ve also included resources from his class which I found helpful in my own discovery and application.
Next week my continued interview with Tom Cashman takes us to our first pilgrimage site, which just so happens to be a place of Celtic Pilgrimage: the Isle of Iona in Scotland. -Lacy
What is Celtic Spirituality?
Celtic Spirituality is a strand of our Christian heritage that refers to a group of 4-11th CE churches that existed in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Isle of Man, and Galicia. Their somewhat alternative Christianity developed geographically and culturally separate from the church of Rome and thrived on a world-view and constellation of values that were somewhat different from that of the Roman church. The role of women in the church, our connection with the natural world, servant leadership, and mysticism are a few of those values that received more emphasis in the Celtic worldview than did their counterparts on the Continent.
Something I distinctly remember from your class is the difference between the Celtic way of evangelism and the Roman way of evangelism. Could you describe some of the differences in the styles of evangelism and how those differences also reflected the differences between both groups’ approach to faith?
The Celtic monks brought the Gospel to other lands quite differently from the Roman tradition of evangelism. The monks believed that the Holy Spirit was already at work there ahead of them. They came in a non-confrontational way, inviting the non-believers to enter their small community, partaking of their hospitality, food, medicine and farming methods, and immersing them in the ethos of Christian Community. Only when they asked to join did the monks then baptize and teach. They reversed the Roman process which admitted persons to community only after they had already committed to Christ and were baptized.
What is the significance of Celtic Spirituality for Christians today?
The significance of Celtic Spirituality for today is much more than one of curiosity, historicity, or archeology. The current ground-swell of interest is nothing less, I believe, than a move of the Holy Spirit that is bringing back this worldview and these values for a church that is in significant transition. The Celtic perspective is a profound gift for this transitional church that gropes its way blindly toward and through emergent communities that intuitively seem to think and act in Celtic Christian ways.
I also remember from the class that the Holy Spirit is really significant to Celtic Spirituality, and is often referred to as the “wild goose.” Tell me a bit about that, as well as how a Celtic perspective of the Holy Spirit can impact our experience of the Trinity today.
The origin of the Wild Goose as icon of the Holy Spirit is lost in the mists of time. But it conveys a sense of unpredictability, wildness and faithfulness. Their sense that the Holy Spirit also was the feminine aspect of God brings a certain balance to the Trinity and a corrective to our male-dominated Church which projects male domination even onto the Trinity itself. (Read more about the Wild Goose here.)
Obviously Celtic Spirituality is of great importance to you. When did you first discover Celtic Spirituality? How has it impacted and informed your faith?
In 1994 I went to Killarney, Ireland for an ITA conference. This was a spur-of-the-moment decision that turned out to be life-changing. Celtic Spirituality was a strand of the conference which also included ecological and native wisdom themes. I “caught” the compelling mystique of another aspect of Christianity with those people and that place, and was asked repeatedly on my return to speak about this “Celtic Spirituality” people had been hearing of. Thus I became a student, teacher, writer, speaker and leader of workshops and retreats on this incredible subject.
This came during a great transition time in my life, and discovering our Celtic roots gave me a pathway back into finding my place within the Christian tradition. It also gave me a mission, and a method. I found that emulating the lives of the Celtic saints and rediscovering their worldview and values was transformative. And that is still so in my life today.
What does Celtic Spirituality have to do with pilgrimage, both personally and generally?
Unwittingly and in retrospect, I discovered that the 1994 ITA experience was in fact a pilgrimage. Without knowing it I was in search of the sacred as I traveled to Ireland.
A few years later I went on a pilgrimage led by Sr. Cintra Pemberton to Ireland along with 32 other pilgrims. Meanwhile study showed me that pilgrimage was one of the great exploratory, spiritual growth – and sometimes penitential – experiences that Celtic Christians undertook as part of their spiritual practice. A variety of destinations and routes took on the cachet of sacred ritual. Major destinations like Rome, Jerusalem, and a bit later Santiago de Compostela, Spain the site associated with St. James. Lesser treks were to Lindisfarne (from Durham Cathedral) and to other monastic communities of Ireland and Scotland.
Pilgrimage became a way of life for many monastic evangelists who became the peregrini Christi, Wanderers for Christ, allowing a combination of intent and natural forces of tide, wind and weather to determine their ultimate destinations, allowing them to find “the place of my resurrection” the phrase used as they spoke and wrote of the place their pilgrimage would take them, ending in death.
The obvious metaphor/connection for all Christians is the pilgrimage of life, each of us traveling perhaps only a few miles, but through a variety of experiences, people met and connections made that shape our journey. Living with a pilgrim’s perspective changes, well, everything. It opens us to a wider range of spirituality, and enables us to move from day to day and week to week with expectation.
The following are some resources from Tom’s Celtic Spirituality Class at The Seattle School:
- Soulfaring by Cintra Pemberton
- Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community
- The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George G. Hunter, III
- Listening to the Heartbeat of God by J. Philip Newell
Is Celtic spirituality new to you? What of Tom’s description of Celtic spirituality resonated with you?
An Episcopal layman, Tom has been a spiritual director for over 25 years. Trained in the Jubilee Spiritual Direction program (Vancouver School of Theology 1986) he works primarily with clergy and those in the ordination path. He has been a teacher and clergy coach since retiring in 2003 from a technology company in the “Silicon Rainforest” of Redmond WA. Tom also has a degree in Applied Behavioral Science from LIOS (Leadership Institute of Seattle) 1994 specializing in consulting and leadership.
In the academic world, Tom has been on staff and an adjunct for the Pastoral Leadership Program at Seattle University (2003-08). He retired in 2012 after 9 years as adjunct professor at The Seattle School for Theology & Psychology (formerly Mars Hill Graduate School) in Seattle’s Belltown since 2003, teaching Spiritual Formation and Celtic Spirituality. He also taught at the School of Theology of the Episcopal Diocese in their College for Congregational Development (2009-2012) and serves on the Congregational Consulting Services team.
His passionate commitment to revisiting and reclaiming the values of Celtic Christian Spirituality is lived out by teaching, writing, speaking, and leading retreats and workshops in the Northwest, and pilgrimages in Ireland and the UK. Tom is married to Lin who also is a spiritual director and healer-practitioner of both Reiki and therapeutic touch. He has three grown children, four grandchildren, and refreshes himself with fly-fishing, music and cooking.