One of the great strengths of our Catholic faith is the way it has been enriched by so many cultures of the world. We recently celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a gift from Mexican culture, and we have also received spiritual gifts from Germany, Italy, France and other places. This article, however, is about Ireland’s contribution to Christianity: the love of nature, a joyous vision of Christ, and life as blessed by God.
The Greek and Romans shared a philosophical tradition that divided matter from spirit and even set the two against one another. St. Augustine is one example. For him we can approach God only when we rid ourselves of any and every attachment to the physical world. The Irish saw no sense in this. They believed that God was ever present in nature and that the physical world is good and holy. Sites of great natural beauty were regarded as “thin places” where the spiritual world comes very close to our world. Irish monks sought out these “thin places.” They built stone huts, prayer halls, and great monasteries in valleys, beside rivers and lakes, and on islands. There they devoted themselves to the realization of God’s presence through prayer and the contemplation of the goodness of creation.
Early Christians, following St. Paul, saw the death of Jesus as the sacrifice that finally reconciled God to a sinful world. Their images of Jesus in sculpture and paintings tended to focus on the Passion—his suffering and dying on the cross. The Irish also revered Christ’s Passion, but for them the image of Christ as sacrificial victim was the prelude to the glory of the Resurrection. The great high crosses of medieval Ireland do not show Christ crucified as the central image. Instead they depict the triumphant Christ in the middle of the sun circle—a symbol of power and joy—his arms outstretched along the crossbar, as if to say “I am the One who has defeated death. Come to me and I will protect you.” The same idea can be seen in the breastplate prayer of St. Patrick: “For my shield this day I call Christ’s power in his dying on the cross, his arising from the tomb, his ascending.” Be joyful. The risen Christ is our shield and protector.
There is also a sense of blessing that runs throughout Irish life. My
wife and I took a course in the Irish language a few years ago. The
standard greeting in Gaelic—the Irish hello—is “Dia dhuit” which means
“God be with you.” One responds to this by saying “Dia’s Muire dhuit”
or “God and Mary be with you.” (If there are others to be greeted the
custom is to add a saint each time, “God and Mary and St. Patrick be
with you” and so on.) Most homes in Ireland still have a little font of
holy water by the front door to bless oneself and the house on entering
or leaving—or for special occasions. The last time we visited my wife’s
elderly cousin, Mary Downes, she wouldn’t let us leave until she said a
little prayer and sprinkled all of us with holy water, a blessing I
will never forget!
Dennis Temple will give an introductory talk on Celtic Spirituality at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, February 2 in the Voss Parish Center, 4412 N. Western.