This morning I'm studying early Christian history. As usual I'm gleefully hopping around from resource to resource. My goal is to discover what's interesting about the early Christians of Ireland since, within weeks, I'll be looking at a bunch of old monstery ruins there and don't want to be wondering what the big deal is.
It should be no surprise that the course of early Catholicism ran parallel to the culture of the hierarchical Roman Empire. By the fifth century St Augustine put his stamp on the early Church by consolidating the idea of Original Sin — the flesh is evil and we are all born bad.
But Rome never conquered Ireland. When Christian missionaries arrived, the independent Celts welcomed them, absorbed the new beliefs easily, and integrated Christianity with its existing culture.
I'm reading "Celtic Christianity: A Sacred Tradition, a Vision of Hope" by Timothy Joyce OSB. He points out 6 themes that come from the ancient Celts to the Christian church. "These are enduring traits," he says, "which, to me, identify the Celtic personality still alive and influential today."
1. Talkers. The Celts were intensely verbal with an oral culture. "Poetry, proclamations, music, and story were the warp and woof of daily existence."
2. Mystical Imagination. "There was a peculiar non-linear way of apprehending time and space so that past and present intertwine; those who had died were still present, and the other world was transparent in the everyday ordinary ways of life."
3. Clannish. The social unit of the Celts was the clan or tribe. This meant strong communal responsibility for self-development and the emergence of local authority over choosing their own kings and deciding on their bards.
4. Love of heroes and warriors (easily transferred to Jesus and the saints).
Both men and women were heroes and warriors in line with the generally equal place of women in Celtic society... The warrior spirit was balanced by the gentleness of the poet and mystic. And paradox was also of feature of Celtic spirituality: never a black-and-white "either-or" attitude but more a "both-and" embracing of opposites.
5. Love of nature — both its beauty and its dark power.
6. Wanderers. The Celts love to roam and explore.
So the early Celtic Christians easily saw Jesus as a great hero but practiced their religion in an earthy, egalitarian and very local way, but always up for a pilgrimage.
A final note: Pelagius was an Irish monk whose positive attitude about the inate goodness of human beings might have counterbalanced Augustine's pessimism. But, alas, Augustine persuaded the Pope to excommunicate good old Pelagius.