Saturday, March 17, 2012
Smells, Bells and the Book of Kells
Recently, there has been an interest in Celtic Culture spurred on by the Titanic and Braveheart movies and we have the influence of Celts in popular music and the Christian church too. There are numerous "Celtic worship" CD's available (I have several) and for a time, the sure way to score a hit on top 40 radio was to include the plaintive wail of the penny whistle, or the bleating sound of warm air being squeezed from a sheep's bladder under the armpit of a Scotsman. There have even been recent popular Christian books written describing early Celtic Christianity as innovative and vibrant and thoroughly distinct from the Roman Church. Unfortunately, their history is basically reconstructed because of a distinct anti-Catholic bias.
My question is this? Was Celtic Christianity as spread to Ireland by St. Patrick (under authority of Pope Celestine who sent him) truly similar to American Evangelical Christianity?
Meaning was early Celtic faith non-sacramental, independent, and with the role of the Blessed Virgin relegated to a reading in Luke, Chapter 1 around Christmas time?
The Book of Kells is one of the most famous books in the history of the world and was completed in about 800 AD but may have been started 1-200 hundred years before. It was written in Latin, not to confuse the Celts, but because Latin was the language of scholars in all cultures and therefore was truly a universal way of communicating the written word. The Mass in Latin has been derided as a way of keeping the common man from understanding the gospels, but the reality is it is the language of Roman Culture which at one time ruled the entire ancient world.
The manuscript contains transcriptions of the four Gospels, lavishly illustrated and ornamented. It is the most elaborate manuscript of its kind to survive from the early Middle Ages and most Celtic iconography derives its inspiration from its pages.
The scribes and artists who created the Book were Columban monks who lived in a monastery on the remote island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. The monastery was founded late in the sixth century by an Irish monk, St Colm Cille.
At the time the book was produced, Irish monks were renowned throughout the rest of Europe for their work as scribes and illustrators. These Irish monks practiced a monastic life but participated in the sacraments of the Church including the Blessed Sacrament as well as the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Interestingly, when missionaries from the continent came to Ireland, private confession was taken back to the rest of the Catholic Church and was instituted by Rome as the way to receive the sacrament. Prior to this confession and reconciliation was a public affair and the penitents had to confess their sins in front of the entire Church and the penance given often tooks months to perform! (Ouch!) Remembering of course, doing penance is not for the forgiveness of sins, only Jesus can forgive sins through the priest. Penance is making restitution for the temporal consequences of your sin, but I digress.
My main point was that Celtic Christianity was thoroughly Catholic in doctrine though there were definitely some variances which the Church corrected (See my this post)
The photo above is from the Book of Kells. Needless to say, they understood the role of Mary in salvation history. So the next time you hear the plaintive wail of the Northumbrian pipes and your heart waxes warm towards those good old days of Celtic Christianity, remember it was always smells (incense), bells (rung during the Consecration), and the Book of Kells (Gospels)!