Celtic Spirituality: A Unitarian and Druidic Perspective
Address to the Scottish Unitarian Association
by Alistair Bate © 2004
Firstly, I feel it would be a good idea to clarify my understanding of what we mean by “Celtic” and what we mean by “spirituality” in this context. To me Celtic spirituality is a choice based on attraction and is nothing to do with ethnicity. All northern Europeans can trace a Celtic bloodline if we go back far enough, anyway. However, unlike many, perhaps most, of you, I am not ethnically very Celtic at all. Like most Irish Protestants I am pure blood Anglo-Saxon, in my case, with a hint of Scots from the western Isles through a great grandfather. Even that probably does not make me one eighth Celtic as it is now known that the people of Lewis are for the most part ethnically Norse, having conquered the Gaelic speaking inhabitants, killed most of them off but kept their language. However, there is little in fact to separate the ancient Angles, Saxons, Celts and Norse when it comes to spirituality – all practised a form of indigenous religion which was shamanic, or what anthropologists used to call animistic religion. No, for me, brought up in a Celtic country but immersed in a largely anglicised culture, the adoption of Celtic spirituality was a choice and the latest endpoint on a spiritual quest.
Spirituality is a tricky word, quite fashionable, and often wrongly – in my opinion – contrasted and set against religion. To many people religion has become a dirty word, associated with what they imagine to be oppressive, conservative and dead or dying institutions whereas “spirituality” is often equated with a highly individualistic “pick-n-mix” attitude to the full treasury of global religious philosophy and practice. My definition of spirituality is this; “spirituality is an individual’s hunger for truth and her willingness to step forward in faith”. This personal quest can be informed by a variety of things but principally by (1) the individual’s conscience, (2) our response to the natural world and (3) the wisdom traditions or revelation. Most of us, I believe, favour one or two of the above over other factors. Although I love the natural world passionately, and I also try -at least now and again – to listen to my conscience, my own spirituality has been primarily a theological quest and it is mainly this development of a distinctly Celtic theology that I will be dwelling on tonight. Of course ethics and the natural world play a huge part in theology too. Earlier today we had the pleasure of listening to Dr Mary Lowe’s contribution to our subject from a Christian perspective. One of the marvellous things about Celtic spirituality, I think, is that it blurs the boundaries between Christian and Pagan and as a Unitarian Universalist I positively welcome blurred boundaries. Most Celtic Christians are inclined to value the Druid heritage to a greater or lesser extent and Druids have consistently, though not of course universally, adopted an inclusive attitude towards Christianity. As a foreign, triumphalist and quite fundamentalist sort of religion, often imposed upon an unwilling populace, Christianity naturally encountered some Druidic opposition but there is also some deal of evidence for Druidic/Christian cross-fertilisation, co-operation and assimilation. The ancient Druids were the philosophers, priests, judges, poets and healers in their societies so it follows that anything that is truly Celtic in Celtic Christianity is the legacy of Druidism. It also follows that those of us who follow a reconstructed old religion today, a “new-old religion” if you like, do so largely because of the church’s preservation of the oral tradition, through the work of monastic scribes, and the assimilation by the Church of some of the best sort of Druid practices.
I expect that some of you, thinking within the traditional patriarchal paradigm of revealed religion, will doubt the authenticity of a religious movement such as a renewed Celtic paganism if it makes any claims to historical continuity with the paganism of the distant past. … You may have noticed that I have just sprung the “p” word on you – a word which means so many different things to different people. So let me clarify briefly what I mean by “pagan”. The druidry of the pre-Christian past was undoubtedly pagan, the word “Pagani” in Latin is generally accepted to mean “country dwellers” as oppose to urbanites. This highlights the fact that when post-Constantinian Christians began to call non-Christians Pagans they were themselves mainly an urban phenomena. In the modern context Druids may or may not identify as Pagan. Some members of my Order identify as Christians, or Unitarians, or followers of other religious and esoteric paths.
However to get back to the question of continuity with the ancient tradition, I attempt to make no claims for an institutional continuity but I would like to unravel the four threads, which I believe make up our claim to some sort of authentic spiritual continuity. Firstly, I have mentioned the preserving work of the Celtic monks. In writing down the old stories, many of them were motivated from a real love of and honour for the ancestors, a very Druidic sentiment in itself. They viewed their recent Druid past as a sort of Older Testament. Secondly, outside the familiar Church institutions the Bardic schools continued much as before even to the extent of honouring the old Gods and Goddesses with prayers and invocations. Many of these institutions in Ireland and in Wales continued into the 18th century when they were transformed by the neo-Druidic revival about which I will speak later. Thirdly, the old religion was preserved among the ordinary people who continued to visit holy wells, to celebrate fire festivals and to recite thinly Christianised prayers to thinly canonised deities. Fourthly, and this is my only non-academic point. There have been, and are, people who by interior attunement are inspired by the same spirit that motivated the Druids of old. It is an article of faith for me, that the essence of the old religion may be gleaned from both personal experience in meditation and ritual, and in reflective reading of the Book of Nature.
In spite of its creedal nature Christianity has changed dramatically over the last two millenia. Would the moderate Presbyterian of today recognise the fanatical witch-burning zealot of the 16th century, I ask you? Similarly, I ask, would the tree hugging, often vegetarian, Druid of today recognise his ancestor, who when faced with Roman invasion suggested that the sacrifice of a young prince as a messenger to the other world might be a good idea? Yes, thankfully both Druidism and Christianity have both grown up a good deal over the last two millenia. Like two brothers Druidism and Christianity they have grown side by side, sharing this sacred land, though one was hidden away at home and in the woods, while the other was making a name for himself in the world. Maybe it is time for the quiet older brother to come out of retirement and share his wisdom. This is what we are about in the Druid Order. For those of you to whom all this is fresh I’d like now to read to you a list of articles which describe what amounts to a Druidic statement of faith and purpose, though it is definitely not a creed. It is produced by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.
Druidry encourages us to love widely and deeply. It fosters:
- Love of the Land, the Earth, the Wild ~ reverence for Nature.
- Love of Peace ~ Druids were traditionally peace-makers, and still are: each ceremony begins with Peace to the Quarters, there is a Druid’s Peace Prayer, and Druids plant Peace Groves.
- Love of Beauty ~ The Druid path cultivates the Bard, the Artist Within, and fosters creativity.
- Love of Justice ~ Druids were judges and law-makers. Traditionally Druids are interested in restorative, not punitive, justice.
- Love of Story and Myth ~ Druidry recognises and uses the power of mythology and stories.
- Love of History and Reverence for the Ancestors ~ Druidry recognizes the forming power of the Past.
- Love of Trees ~ Druids today plant trees and Sacred Groves, and study treelore.
- Love of Stones ~ Druids today build stone circles, collect stones and work with crystals.
- Love of Truth ~ Druid Philosophy is a quest for Wisdom.
- Love of Animals ~ Druidry sees animals as sacred, and teaches sacred animal lore.
- Love of the Body ~ Druidry sees the body and sexuality as sacred.
- Love of the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Sky ~ Druid Starlore, embodied in the old stories and in the stone circles, teaches a love for the Universe.
- Love of Each Other ~ Druidry fosters the magic of relationships, of community.
- Love of Life ~ Druidry encourages celebration and full commitment to life ~ it is not a spirituality that wants us to escape from life.
The above statements, written just a couple of years ago, accurately describe Druidry today and for the remainder of this lecture I would like to explain the circuitous route we have taken in order to get to them. But first you may be asking, “What is distinctly Celtic about the statements we have just read, so here are three hallmarks of Druidic and Celtic spirituality in my understanding:
(1)Celtic spirituality is INCLUSIVE. It is theologically inclusive because as indigenous religion there is no particular revelation – such as the Christ event or the Mohammed event or the Buddha event, breaking into history and changing things. No, Celtic spirituality at least of the Druid sort, is like Unitarianism, creedless.
(2)The second hallmark is that the theological inclusivity in Celtic spirituality naturally expresses itself in social, gender, and racial inclusiveness. Among Celts, there is no sense of being God’s especially Chosen people, although some of the Welsh might dispute this!
(3)The third hallmark is that Celtic Spirituality is non-dualistic. Simplistic definitions of God and humanity, right and wrong, black and white are rejected in favour of a gloriously colourful cosmology in which there is only one Divine Universe “in which we live and move and have our being”.
As I take you now through a whistle stop tour of Druidry from the 18th century look out for the signs of inclusivism and non-dualism.
I will start in 1717 with the person of John Toland founder of the Druid tradition called “An Druidh Uileach Braithrearchas”, the Universal Bond of Druids, now represented by two groups; the Ancient Druid Order and the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. Toland was an Irishman, a fluent Gaelic speaker with some knowledge of Welsh as well. He wrote over 100 works, most famously “A history of the Druids” and “Pantheisticon” in which he argued for a pantheist theology. Interestingly the year 1717 was the same year in which the Grand Lodge of England was founded and it is also known that Toland and Elias Ashmole the free-Masonic founder knew each other. It may be worth mentioning at this point, two later Chosen Chiefs of the Order who are quite well known, The Revd William Stukeley, antiquarian and proto-archaeologist and William Blake, poet, painter and mystic. Stukeley was the first person to link the Druids with Stonehenge. Blake needs no introduction. He famously declared himself a Druid when refusing to take the oath in a court of law.
Another highly significant member of the 18th century Druidic fraternity was Iolo Morgannwg, Unitarian lay preacher and founder of the South Wales Unitarian Association. He claimed to be heir to a wealth of Bardic lore having been initiated into the last remnant of welsh Bardism, thus providing a much needed link between the old and new Druidism. He established the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain in 1792 at a ceremony on Primrose Hill in London. This body later evolved into the present Welsh National Eisteddfod. Iolo was a political radical, a friend of both Joseph Priestley the radical Unitarian minister in Birmingham and of Tom Paine, writer of “The Rights of Man”. His strong egalitarian streak finds expression in the Gorsedd Prayer, the one prayer used by Druids of all Orders. … I believe that prayers are meant to be prayed rather than read so if you wish you might like to join me now in the Gorsedd prayer:
Grant O God thy protection, and in protection strength,
and in strength understanding and in understanding knowledge
and in knowledge the knowledge of justice,
and in the knowledge of justice the love of it,
and in the love of it the love of all existences,
and in the love of all existences the love of God and all goodness. Awen.
Iolo was a social and political activist, but above all he was a Bard. The Welsh Unitarian hymn book is full of his hymns, unfortunately to my knowledge none in English. Only a few of his poems have been translated from the original Welsh. Here is one of them, a poem inspired by a visit to a stone circle:
“As the sun, so shy, speeds on to hide behind the western hills
I stand within this
Ancient circle with its rugged stones
Pointing to the sky
Like the digits on the clock of time –
The time that has refused to move,
As if the keeper of this heather hearth has gone to bed
Remembering not to lift
The fallen weights of Time and Space.
And as I rest upon this stone
I see a ladder too – like Jacob did
Reaching far into the end of Time, and
I seem to touch that void where there was only
That brooded on the great abyss
Giving birth to
Life. And as the painful pangs of birth subside
I hear in the wind a mighty voice commanding through eternal space,
“Let there be Light”, and
Light there Was.
The Light was good,
And it kissed the earth, they fell in love
And made a promise to be true for ever and for Ever.
They’re still in love, for
As I rest upon this stone tonight I spy them kissing in their
As touch they do on that horizon bed
Where they’ll embrace ’till dawn
I know they will not part
For as tomorrow comes they’ll wake, and walk together through
While all the children of the living earth
Will call them blessed as they pass.
And as I touch this stone
I feel the hands of those
Who at dawn of human life
Erected to that same Old Sun
This temple of eternal praise, and thanked the
Source of Light and Love for just
Another day – to be alive.
And now I hear in the stillness of this hill,
Where there’s no time,
The voice of him who said,
“Let there be Light”
And light there was,
And will be tomorrow for my sons,
And their children too.”
Very much cast in this monotheistic and liberal religious mould are two of our later Chief Druids, George Watson MacGregor Reid, Chosen Chief from 1909 – 1946 and his son Robert McGregor Reid, Chosen Chief from 1946 – 1964. George Watson McGregor Reid was also the founding minister of the South London Universalist Church. Many of its surviving members became Unitarians after his death. He may have first come across Universalism as a young man living in Glasgow, during the last days of the ministry of the Revd Caroline Soule, who ministered in both Dundee and Glasgow.
An anonymous Druidic confession of faith dated 1912 reflects George’s Universalism and no doubt would be acceptable to many contemporary Unitarians. It is also faithful to the pantheistic theology first presented by the order’s founding father, John Toland:
“I believe in the existence of divine Purpose within all that is. That there is no order or wrong within Nature; That nature is the reflected majesty of The Powers, and of The Almighty Power that lies beyond the All … I believe … the purposed evolution of all things towards the better and the best and in the Ultimate growth of All things into Good. (1912)
While George’s son Robert was less inclined towards organised Universalism than his father, his personal theology would have found favour with all those pantheists, Unitarians and Universalists who had gone on before. The following is excerpted from an opening discourse to new Companions of the Order made by Robert, or Chief Ariovistus as we call him, in 1962.
“Our community has existed ever since the first day of Creation, when God spoke the word: Let there be Light. It will continue to exist until the end of time. It is the society of the Children of Light, whose bodies are formed of light, and who live in the light for ever”. … “the Mysteries that we are taught, embrace what can be known regarding God or Goddess, nature and Humankind ….. We study deeply the one great book – the Book of Nature, in which the keys of every secret are contained: we follow the only possible method of studying it, that of experience. Our place of meeting is the temple of the Holy Spirit that pervades the Universe. So easy to be found by the worthy, yet ever hidden from the eyes of the vulgar. The history of this Most Ancient Faith has been similar throughout all ages and amongst all peoples. …. The Perfect way can be obtained by all who seek it in Spirit and in Truth. The doors of the great temple are open to all men and women and closed against none. … thus will our Order raise all to the highest sense of duty and to the possession of gladness of mind, which is the outward sign of internal peace. To possess gladness of the heart and mind is to hold within the greatest treasure of mortal existence. To the seeker after this treasure the arms of the Druid Order, the fellowship of Light, are ever extended.”
If all this sounds quite conventional, quite Unitarian, and not terribly Celtic to you then you wouldn’t be far wrong, but after the death of Chief Ariovistus Druidry began to reclaim its Celtic past as the new Chief, Ross Nicholls revived the ancient grades of Bard and Ovate, and revived the practice of ritual at the four cross quarter festivals: Bealtinne, Lughnasadh, Samhain and Imbolc, as well as the Solstices and Equinoxes. Ross, or Chief Nuinn as he is known in the Order, was a schoolmaster, poet, artist and deacon in the Celtic Orthodox Church. He was Chief from 1964 until his death in 1977 and in keeping with the spirit of the times he welcomed the new freedom of the sixties. Anticipating the spirit of feminist theology he researched the stories of ancient Celtic Goddesses and incorporated some of these stories into the Druid liturgy. At this point Druidry began to evolve less as a Universalist esoteric movement and more specifically as a neo-pagan movement, expressed in terms of the veneration of the one God or Great Spirit under many names, feminine names and attributes as well as masculine ones. Just as devout Hindus profess to worship the One God manifested in countless forms so in the mind of Chief Nuinn there was no suggestion that traditional Druid monotheism was being compromised by honouring particular gods and goddesses from Celtic mythology. Prof. Ronald Hutton writes in his history of modern paganism; “”To Nichols, the “One God” was immanent in nature and could manifest in female as well as male forms, so that the Great mother was as powerful an expression of this entity as the Christian deity.” (Ronald Hutton – Witches, Druids and King Arthur – p.241 (from Ross Nichols – Book of Druidry – p. 119-123))
A couple of weeks ago I attended a wonderful peace concert in Glasgow to celebrate the visit of the 14th Dalia Lama. It began with a beautiful rendition of a popular Celtic blessing with which I am sure you are all familiar:
Deep peace, pure white of the moon to you.
Deep peace, pure green of the grass to you.
Deep peace, pure brown of the earth to you.
Deep peace, pure grey of the dew to you.
Deep peace, pure blue of the sky to you,
Deep peace of the running wave to you,
Deep peace of the flowing air to you,
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the Sun of peace to you.
This beautiful blessing is often ascribed as “Ancient Celtic”. But it was in fact written by one William Sharp, born in Paisley, lived most of his life in England, and wrote poetry under the pen name Fiona MacLoud. Sharp published “The Pagan Review” in 1892. The first and only issue stated that the publication was to be “pagan in sentiment, pagan in conviction, and pagan in outlook”. In our own day when conventionally religious people have apoplexy over the mention of the word pagan you can imagine the reaction in 1892. However Sharp was not alone. In 1889 George Russell, along with William Butler Yeats, founded the Dublin Hermetic Society and wrote “The Gods have returned to Eire and have centred themselves in the sacred mountains and blow the fires through the country. They have been seen by several in vision. They will awaken the magical instinct everywhere and the universal heart of the people will return to the old Druidic beliefs.” Obviously Russell had a somewhat different idea of what the old druidic beliefs were than the like of Iolo Morgannwg or the McGregor Reids. Incidentally Russell also wrote a popular hymn in our Unitarian Green hymn book entitled “The Golden heresy of truth”.
Yeats too wrote of the return of the old Gods, quote, ” the Dagda, with his overflowing cauldron, Lugh with his spear dipped in poppy juice, lest it rush forth into battle, Angus with his three birds on his shoulder, Badbh with her herd of red swine, and all the heroic children of Dana, (will) set up once more their temples of grey stone. They’re reign has never ceased, but only waned in power a little, for the Sidhe still pass in every wind, and dance and play at hurley, and fight their sudden battles in every hollow and in every hill”. (Hutton, p 156)
After Yeats and Russell had laid down their pens, at least on esoteric subjects, William Sharp as Fiona MacLeod was still going strong. He wrote the following prophecy in 1910 “the Holy Spirit shall come again which once was born to us as the Son of God, but then shall be the daughter of God. All shall be aware of the descending of the Divine Womanhood upon the human heart as a universal spirit descending upon awaiting souls”. This rediscoverry of the Celtic goddess energy was amply fulfilled in the life and work of Chief Nuinn and the subsequent development of late twentieth century Druidry. The Druidic expression of Celtic Spirituality today is, as it always has been, INCLUSIVE; theologically, socially, sexually racially and environmentally.
It was after my first studies in feminist theology that I embraced both Druidry and Unitarianism, which I see as slightly different expressions of the same divine Wisdom, love and freedom. The Awen, the flowing spirit of Druidry is a free flowing stream of raised consciousness in tune with our native lands but most importantly in tune with the native land of our hearts, Oneness with All that Is.