Faith & Reason: The tale of Columba and the adolescents

The romantic whimsy which surrounds modern accounts of Celtic spirituality is a far cry from the earthy reality of life on a sixth-century Scottish island, argues Andrew Brown.
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The 1,400th anniversary of the death of St Columba is a timely opportunity to point out what a deeply pernicious influence Celtic spirituality has been. The word "Celtic" works upon the Anglo-Saxon imagination rather as whisky works on the reservation Indian: promising freedom and delight and delivering only a choking swamp of self-pity. It is obviously too late for any serious revisionist attempt to associate Celtic spirituality with such things as mistletoe and human sacrifices burned alive in wicker baskets. But there is no need to acquiesce in silence to what is going on. We can at least point out what a strong odour of lavender and health foods hangs around the subject.

There need be nothing wrong in misunderstanding the past. Most revolutions are actually created by people who want to return to some golden age; without an idea of the purity of the early church, there would have been no Reformation; without the mythical Noble Savage there might have been no Enlightenment. But it is hard to see what use a dream of Celtic spirituality does except to take people away from problems that need solving.

The Celtic church, you see, is supposed to have been ecological, united, not hung up on sex, ethnic, yet at the same time international; and free of all hierarchies: it is a long and glorious dream of adolescence. What little we know about it suggests something far more complicated. Columba himself was the son and nephew of kings. They may have been small-time Irish kings, but it is still difficult to get more established than he was, in an era when power was personal and familial.

It is true that the Celtic church had little hierarchy, but that is not because it was opposed to nasty adult authority. The social conditions of the time did not really allow for the establishment of any large hierarchies: the collapse of the Roman Empire had shown what happened to them. But such power as could be exercised, was. Columba, as abbot of Iona, was firmly in charge of choosing the bishops for Scotland; while the disciplines and privations of the Celtic monastic life are hardly to be imagined. It may well be that living on seaweed, rainwater and the occasional fish is necessary to come close to God out on some battered skerry in the North Atlantic. But that is hardly what most modern people seem to mean by it.

The only literary treatment I know that does justice to the strangeness and danger that those days must have had is also the least spiritual and the most frightening. T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone is not a very sentimental book in any of its parts, despite the best efforts of Walt Disney to turn it into an everyday tale of comforting magic. Even Disney would have recoiled from the other three books, which with it make up The Once and Future King. They tell the story of the destruction of Arthur by his Celtic relations. The Queen of Air and Darkness opens with a scene in which Arthur's half-sister Morgause drops a live trussed cat into a cauldron of boiling water, for magical purposes. This has nothing to do with Christianity, but it may well be a more authentic expression of what the real inhabitants of those parts in those times were like.

White was an Englishman, and the distinction he draws in his books between Celt and Saxon, Gael and Gaul, is not free of sentimentality. Nor was he sympathetic to Christianity: he seems to have taken its untruth for granted, so that the priests who appear in The Once and Future King are vicar-ish caricatures; and the Irish saints take time off from their hermitages to get drunk and hit people with shillelaghs. But he did understand the pressures of darkness and confusion to which religion is a response. Beneath the magic and the sentimentality, The Once and Future King is a book about sin, and its workings out. Arthur sleeps all unknowing with his own half- sister and begets the child who will kill him, but, long before, the roots of that disaster were planted by his father. Magic can do anything in that world except restore innocence.

As I said, this is a deeply pagan view. It offers no possibility of renewal, or repentance, though it is full of remorse. It is the drama of Eden, and expulsion from Eden. Yet exactly that hopelessness and sense of a world groaning under weight of cumulative sin brings T.H. White far closer to Columba's real world than anything now sold as "Celtic Spirituality".

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely