When we think of Celtic spirituality in our day, we might think of nature mysticism, or of poetry and storytelling, or even of a holistic spirituality that embodies the best of both paganism and Christianity. But what we often forget is how important monasteries were to the ancient Celts.
St. Brigid was the abbess of a great monastery. So was St. Kevin, and St. Brendan, and St. Columcille. The sites we think of as great Celtic Holy Sites: Kildare, Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, Skellig Michael, Iona — all were the locations of early monasteries, founded during the golden age of the Celtic saints.
One of the truly remarkable qualities of Celtic monastic life, is the existence of entire monastic villages — where celibate men, celibate women, and families shared a common living space, arrayed around a central place of worship which formed the heart of the monastery. The monks and nuns lived separately, but sometimes were even under the authority of the same abbot or abbess. St. Brigid, in particular, is remarkable as an abbess of a monastery that included both men and women — given the patriarchal nature of the age she lived in, it was remarkable that she exerted spiritual authority over men, and perhaps represents a vestigial remnant of pre-Christian Celtic culture, where women likely could enjoy greater respect as spiritual leaders in their communities.
One of the great legacies of Celtic monasticism is the heritage of artistry — from illuminated manuscripts like The Book of Kells with intricate calligraphy surrounded by finely detailed designs of knotwork and spirals, to the carved high crosses covered with images taken from events in the Bible and the lives of the saints, to other precious artifacts, including ceremonial crosses, chalices and patens used for Holy Communion. It seems that the ancient monks and nuns had a healthy appreciation for using creative talent to glorify God, and to fill their lives with beauty and creativity. Of course, this is hardly unique to the Celtic world — but in our postmodern age, it’s easy for us to forget that once upon a time, people gave their creative efforts to God in an act of worship and adoration. The colorful and intricately beautiful legacy of Celtic art reminds us that this is certainly true of Celtic Christians, and witnesses to an understanding of spirituality that is deeply friendly toward material things and earthly beauty.
Yet it is also important to bear in mind that the spirituality of the monasteries was not simply anchored to the material world. One charming quality of the Celtic monasteries was an observance of what is called “the three Lents.” Lent — the period of time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday — is traditionally a time of spiritual preparation for Christians, with an emphasis on prayer, fasting and self-denial, and almsgiving (helping out those who are in need). It is a symbolic way for Christians to participate in the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in anticipation of the sense of celebration and joy that is marked by Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Nowadays many Christians don’t bother to observe Lent at all, and even among those who do, for many it is just a time for a token sacrifice, giving up chocolate or beer or social media for the 40-day period. But the Celtic Christians hardly settled for such mitigated observance: they took Lent seriously, and insisted that prayer, fasting and almsgiving would be central to their religious observance during that season. But the Celts took it even a step further. The custom of the “Three Lents” involved observing three different periods of fasting, prayer and almsgiving — in addition to the 40 days prior to Easter, the forty days before Christmas and the forty days before the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) were also embraced as times for fasting and self-denial. What this means is that over the course of the year, about 1/3 of the time would be devoted to such intentional simplicity.
I don’t know how widespread the observance of the Three Lents was, but it’s a fascinating idea and one with an interesting parallel in the Rule of St. Benedict — the most popular guidebook for monks in western Christianity. St. Benedict suggests that a monk should live his (or her) life as if it were a perpetual Lent! In other words, to the Benedictine monk, the virtues of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not just special disciplines for certain seasons, but should be cultivating as ongoing characteristics of a truly spiritual life.
If Benedict’s idea seems a bit rigorous — especially for those of us who aren’t monks or nuns — then the Celtic practice of the Three Lents might be a more attainable spiritual practice. We can all use more prayer in our lives, and perhaps everyone has areas in their lives that would benefit from some appropriate extra discipline, and heaven knows we are all almost daily confronted with people in need. What if we decided to devote three 40-day seasons each year to cultivating these virtues? Wouldn’t our lives — and our spirituality — more fully mature as a result? After all, spirituality is like playing a musical instrument or maintaining physical fitness; it requires regular discipline to keep us in peak form.
Spirituality is not something we do to earn God’s love; it is always a response to that love, freely given. But if we are going to respond to God’s freely given love, doesn’t it make sense to respond as well as we are able? Observing the three Lents can be a way to do that.