Glendalough Hermitage

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Celtic Spirituality

From earliest times, human beings have felt a need to respond to the call of the sacred. Our ancestors lived in a world that was filled with dangers and the threat of the unknown. They, like us, did not know where they came from or where they were going. Their existence was precarious, to say the least. Yet the horizon of their world was luminous with wonder. They felt themselves to be in contact with the spirit of the Ultimate Mystery that lies beyond this world and we know from the cave paintings of Lascaux and other areas in France and Spain that they expressed this connection in sacred painting, dance and ritual.

The spirit of this primal call to worship lived on in animistic spiritualities of which pre-Christian Celtic spirituality was one. The meeting of this animistic spirituality and Christianity in Ireland of the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries yielded many riches. From the animistic spirituality, Celtic Christianity received a wealth of wisdom concerning the presence of God in creation and our natural connection with the Divine; from Christianity, primal Celtic spirituality received a civilizing message of love and compassion and a new intimacy in our relationship with God which made this love possible.

In the spirit of the hospitality and welcome which, as Caitlin Matthews says, characterizes both the primal and Christian streams of Celtic spirituality, we honour and welcome all that is good and helpful in both traditions. We recognize that people experience the Divine in many different ways and walk many different paths towards the Mystery which calls us. At Glendalough Hermitage Centre, we welcome all who seek to respond to this call of the Sacred and we respect and honour the path that each individual is called to take.

Within the broad parameters of the complex and multi-faceted thing that is Celtic spirituality, however, our focus is on the lived experience of spirituality by those Irish men and women who professed themselves as Christian as this new religion dawned in a land which already had such a strong and rich tradition of worshipping the Divine. In looking to the experience of these early Celtic Christians, we seek to explore how their experience, emerging as it does out of the meeting of two traditions, can relate to our lives today.

You worship the sun that rises and sets;
I preach to you, Christ, the sun that never sets.
(St. Patrick)

In Ireland, we are fortunate to have a wealth of stories, history, folklore and legends about holy women and men who have walked before us. One such man was Kevin who came to Glendalough to live close to God and nature and ended up founding a monastery. Stories abound about Kevin’s holiness and affinity with living creatures. 

One of the true testaments to the spirituality of the time, however, comes to us in the words of St. Patrick himself, in the prayer known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. It is at one and the same time an ancient form of prayer for protection on a journey and a remarkable and personal Credo.

Legend tells us that Patrick lit a fire on the hill of Slane one Holy Saturday in direct opposition to the High-King Laeghaire who was about to light a ritual fire on the hill of Tara to proclaim his authority over all. Outraged at this challenge to his ascendency, the High-King ordered Patrick to come before him. Fearing the worst, Patrick set out on his journey, chanting this prayer invoking the power of God to protect him against the evil wishes of his foes. We are told that the High-King tried to ambush Patrick as he travelled but all he saw when he looked at Patrick was a group of deer and a fawn following them. For this reason, the prayer is also known as The Deer’s Cry.

St. Patrick’s Breastplate (also known as The Deer’s Cry)

I arise today
Through a mighty power:
The Holy Trinity!
Affirming threeness,
Confessing oneness,
In the creating of all
Through love.

I arise today
Through Christ’s power
In his coming and in his baptizing;
Through Christ’s power
In his dying on the cross,
His arising from the tomb,
His ascending;
Through Christ’s power
In his coming for judgment and ending.

I arise today
Through the strong power of the seraphim,
With angels obeying,
And archangels attending,
In the glorious company
Of the holy and risen ones,
In the prayers of the fathers,
In visions prophetic
And commands apostolic,
In the annals of witness,
In virginal innocence,
To the deeds of steadfast men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

This day I call to me:
God’s strength to direct me,
God’s power to sustain me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s vision to light me,
God’s ear to my hearing,
God’s word to my speaking,
God’s hand to uphold me,
God’s pathway before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s legions to save me:
From snares of the demons,
From evil enticements,
From failings of nature,
From one man or many
That seek to destroy me
Anear or afar.

Around me I gather:
These forces to save
My soul and my body
From dark powers that assail me:
Against false prophesying,
Against pagan devisings,
Against heretical lying,
And false gods all around me.
Against spells cast by women,
By blacksmiths, by Druids,
Against knowledge unlawful
That injures the body,
That injures the spirit.

Be Christ this day my strong protector:
Against poison and burning,
Against drowning and wounding,
Through reward wide and plenty…
Christ beside me, Christ before me;
Christ behind me, Christ within me;
Christ beneath me, Christ above me;
Christ to right of me, Christ to left of me;
Christ in my lying, my sitting, my rising;
Christ in heart of all who know me,
Christ on tongue of all who meet me,
Christ in eye of all who see me,
Christ in ear of all who hear me.

I arise today
Through a mighty power:
The Holy Trinity!
Affirming threeness,
Confessing oneness,
In the creating of all
Through love.

For to the Lord belongs salvation
And to the Lord belongs salvation
And to Christ belongs salvation.

May your salvation, Lord, be with us always.

In this prayer, we find most, though not all, of the key themes of Celtic spirituality: journey or pilgrimage, nature and the immanent presence of God, Trinity, Christ-centredness, conflict between good and evil, need for protection and communion with holy spirits.