The Cross in Celtic Spirituality

by Sister Mary Ann Strain, C.P.
Saint Martin's CrossAlmighty God, Creator:
The morning is Yours, rising into fullness.
The summer is Yours, dipping into autumn.
Eternity is Yours, dipping into time.
The vibrant grasses, the scent of flowers,
the lichen on the rocks,
the tang of sea-weed.
But creation isn't enough.
Always in the beauty, the foreshadowing of decay
The lambs frolicking careless:
so soon to be led off to the slaughter.
Nature red and scarred as well as lush and green.
In the garden also:
always the thorn.
Creation is not enough.

Almighty God, Redeemer:
The sap of life in our bones and being is Yours,
lifting us to ecstasy.
But always in the beauty,
the tang of sin, in our consciences,
The dry lichen of sins long dead,
but seared upon our minds.
In the garden that is each of us,
always the thorn. 1
--The Rev. George F. McLeod

This poem suggests why interest in Celtic Spirituality is growing today. Celtic Christianity, which developed from the fifth to the ninth centuries in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man, has a balance that appeals to the heart as well as the head. It is a Christianity full of "tenderness and passion, with a dedication to beauty and yet a commitment to asceticism of the most extreme kind, a triumphant hymning of creation and yet an unswerving devotion to the cross."2 above right: St Martin's Cross, Iona

Saint John's CrossCeltic Christians experienced the passion of Jesus as an immediate and real event. "I bitterly lament Christ being crucified. Alas, for anyone who has seen the Son of the living God stretched fast on the cross! Alas, the body possessing wisest dignity that has been plunged into gore!" 3

A sense of the immediacy of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross gave Celtic writing a power and a poignancy that touches the heart. right: St John's Cross, Iona The Celts did not view history as a succession of events following one after another. Time was not ordered chronologically for them, but in terms of relationship. For example, they considered St. Patrick and St. Brigid friends and kindred spirits, even though Brigid was just a little girl when Patrick died and probably never met him.

Similarly, Brigid is often portrayed as midwife to Mary, helping her bring Jesus to birth. Now this makes sense because Brigid spent her life bringing Christ to birth in our world. In the Celtic mind, then, Brigid belongs in Bethlehem and all Christians belong on Calvary, because all need the power and protection of the Cross.

At the cry of the first bird
They began to crucify Thee,
O cheek like a swan.
It were not right ever to cease lamenting -
It was like the parting of the day from night,
Ah! though sore suffering
Put upon the body of Mary's Son -
Sorer to Him was the grief
That was upon her for His sake. 4

Clearly, for the Celtic imagination being united with the crucified Christ was at once powerful and reassuring.

A hundred welcomes to Thee, O Blessed Body,
A hundred welcomes to Thy Body that was crucified.
A hundred welcomes to Thy Body, O Lord.
O Son of God, to Thee all hail
O Tree, whose blossoms never fail,
Thy boughs of luck perfume the gale
As Mark and Matthew both have told us.
If Thou art willing to accept us
And hold us in Thy hand as precious
Mercy I ask of Thee and grace
For me and each who of Adam's race is
Whom God and the Church have bade us pray for. Amen. 5

Anyone visiting Ireland is likely to be impressed by the great stone high crosses standing out in the landscape. Numbering about a hundred in Ireland, they are also found in North and West Britain 6 and are magnificent expressions of the Celtic belief in the power of the cross. Decorated with carvings telling the story of God's work of salvation from Creation to the Last judgment, and once brightly painted, they marked sacred boundaries and served as gathering places for prayer and worship.

Detail from Cross of the ScripturesAn outstanding example of one of these crosses can be found at Clonmacnois an ancient monastic ruin on the banks of the Shannon River. One of four high crosses on the site, it is called the Cross of the Scriptures because it depicts scenes of the crucifixion on one side and Christ in his glory on the other.7 detail: right

Most scholars believe these crosses are descendants of standing stones that pre-Christian Celts erected to represent the "axis mundi," the link between heaven and earth. High crosses can be found at early monastic sites and important early burial sites. For the Celts, the "other world" was near. God, the saints, the dead, angels, demons, were close at hand. 8 "Heaven is about a foot above your head." Certain places in particular were "thin places," where only a veil separated one world from the other. They marked these places with the most powerful symbol they knew, the cross, their cornerstone of faith and hope.

Celtic prayers to the cross

The Celtic belief in the omnipresence of the spirit world inspired countless prayers calling on the power of the cross for protection. The simplest of these was the sign of the cross that was made to ward off evil and to seek the protection of God. A little more elaborate is this short prayer from Connemara: 9

O Lord who didst suffer Thy tortures for me
Torn with iron from the head to the knee,
Whose feet and whose hands were nailed to the tree,
Help, Lord! I come seeking protection from Thee.


Ordinary people prayed these prayers to ask God's help and protection in daily life as well as in times of danger. Women marked the sign of the cross on loaves of bread before they were baked. Milk pails were blessed before they were filled so that a demon wouldn't hide in the milk. The cross was seen as a weapon that could shield one from danger and trouble. By prayers like these they remembered God in their daily lives.

We can gain much from the Celtic Christian tradition. Its wealth of art, poetry and prayers can deepen our devotion to the Passion of Jesus and help us to keep its memory ever in our hearts. In our world today the Passion of Jesus can seem a remote event that is difficult to appreciate. A bit of the Celtic imagination could make it more immediate to us. Its beautiful prayers invoking the power of the cross might help us experience its power with more frequency. The cross could become, as it was for the Celts, the cornerstone of our faith and hope.

1 The Whole Earth Shall Cry Glory: Iona Prayers by the Rev. George F. McLeod (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 1985), 8.
2 Esther de Waal, Every Earthly Blessing (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Publications, 1990), 13.
3 Ibid., 122-123.
4 Kuno Meyer, Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry, Constable, 1911, p. 99.Press, 1972), 359.
5 Douglas Hyde, Religious Songs of Connacht (Shannon, Ireland: Irish University
6 Philip Sheldrake, Living Between Worlds (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995), 46.
7 Edward C. Sellner, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1993), 13.
8 Sheldrake, p. 46.
9 de Waal, p. 126.
10 Hyde, p. 227.

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