Celtic Christianity and a spirituality of place; An Irish/English Australian perspective

I have recently discovered on the net the website of the Community of Aiden and Hilda based on the holy Island of Lindisfarne in Britain.

This community is committed to the Celtic tradition of Christianity, a tradition that predates the Roman church by centuries. British Celtic Christianity is rooted in, amongst other things, the mythology of Joseph of Aremathea, the man who recovered Jesus’ body from the cross, and his establishment of the Jesus movement in England after the crucifixion. There is nothing to suggest this myth is implausible as the Jews, especially those loyal to Jesus were scattered from Jerusalem in the first century. The Roman trade routes ran from Jerusalem to England and in 40 AD, within years of the crucifixion the Romans invaded England. The possibility of a refugee Jew ending up in England is not a thin one.

Celtic Christianity and the traditions upheld until today in places such as the Community of Aiden and Hilda, is the fusion of indigenous European spirituality with the revolutionary notions of Jesus of Nazareth – without the state theology of the empire of Rome.

The Irish church also has been a fusion of Celtic spirituality and Christianity, although it was the foreign Roman theology that Saint Patrick carried into Ireland in his quest to extinguish the rainbow serpent. The Irish church’s geographical separation from, and nationalist resistance to, Roman Church authority has allowed elements of Celtic spirituality to survive within the Irish church as with the English Celtic christian traditions.

Celtic Christianity demands a spiritual relationship with land. Celtic Christianity has dreaming places and stories which became one with the Christian stories.

The Celtic Christians have a spirituality of place and that place is under their feet where their ancestors have been buried for generations. The Roman Christianity had a spirituality of place too, but the place was Rome and all indigenous place based spiritualities in England were systematically exterminated by Roman Christianity just as the empire had done in Jerusalem.

Rome’s place based theology was a schizophrenic one. While absolute religious authority lay in the hierarchy of Rome, the stories of Christianity including the Papal claim to the line of Peter, were of the middle east – a distant outpost of the Roman empire, an outpost it eventually lost.

Because of the discordance of place in the Roman church’s own history and structure, it is incapable of manifesting a land and place based spirituality. Roman theology dovetails seamlessly with Rome’s imperial and colonial politics.

Roman Christianity brought the extinguishment of indigenous place based spiritualities as it spread throughout Europe. Celtic Christianity affirmed the importance of place, a central element of the revolutionary philosophy of Jesus and the traditional philosophy of indigenous paganism. The story of Jesus fulfilled the old law of Europe just as did the old law of Israel. The Roman church fulfilled the needs of Empire in brutally crushing the old laws of the land.

But what lessons can we in Australia learn from Celtic Christianity?

Those of us who are descendents of Western European families will find an obvious curiosity about our own history and religious traditions, the dreaming of the lands where our ancestors are buried – our dreaming. But, even if we embrace Celtic spiritualities as part of our own history and tradition, as the journey that our bloodline has travelled in the last few thousand years, how do we embrace a spirituality of place when those places of our own dreaming are thousands of miles away? In Australia, we are as much in touch with our own places as we are in the place of the Jesus story … how do we embrace a spirituality of place in Australia?

Many before me have pointed at the obvious importance of this place, Australia. Many have felt, as I have, that we do not even know this land, we have only just met her. Many see the importance of getting to know this land including its spirituality/

But this is where I say many Christian folk don’t go far enough. They assert that we can find a spirituality of place by doing as the Aboriginal people do, to listen to the land, feel the land and allow ourselves to be influenced by the land. All of this is of course true but there is a key element that is missing from most explorations of Australian spirituality and that is the matter of a relationship with the people of the land, the people who have evolved as the manifestation of the spirituality of this place. The land and the people are one. We cannot know the land if we do not know the people.

If we, as Europeanised Christians, try to discover the spirit of Australia as arrogantly as Captain Cook discovered the east coast, then our spiritual journey is a colonial illusion. If we are to treat the landscape as a spiritual Terra Nullius – a blank canvas on which we can impose our migrant illusions, then our spiritual tradition will be no less corrupt and rotten as the legal system that grew from the legal doctrine of Terra Nullius.

All of us in Australia live on Aboriginal land. In all cases, the reason we are living on this land is because the traditional owners were killed or imprisoned to make the land available for our use. In all cases, there are traditional owners alive today and living in poverty because of their dispossession from that land. Until the Australian Christian church can confront this basic existential fact of its own existence in this country then all the nice words of justice and welfare and harmony are meaningless.

So what are we who crave an authentic place and ecology based spirituality to do? The spirituality under our feet does not belong to us and our own spirituality is based somewhere else.

I say, we need to re-define ourselves, re-identify ourselves. Instead of perceiving ourselves as citizens under the sovereignty of Elizabeth or of the Australian parliament derived from Elizabeth we need to embrace our own dreaming and history and identify as Aborigines of our own homeland – living in the country of Aborigines of this place.

Can we identify as indigenous English, Irish, Vietnamese, and Greek African people with a culture and a dreaming, or did our spirituality begin when we received the Romanised Middle East dreaming story?

To identify as an indigenous person with a dreaming is relevant to wherever we are in the world, even if we are in Australia, as we are. The first point of peaceful contact between Aborigines of this continent and Aborigines of other places will not be in the structures of the imperial government and society, not through court ruling or legislation and certainly not through welfare service delivery, it will be on the spiritual level as brothers and sisters of the same mother – the earth and the same father – God the creator.

Respect for the ancient heritage of place is the overlap between Celtic Christianity and Aboriginal spirituality, not as equals in this land but as an elder and a child, a teacher and a student, a master and a disciple. Respect alone is the key to this understanding.

An Aborigine from one country cannot claim another person’s country. This is the case of an Aborigine from Cape York in Sydney as much as it is for an Aborigine of Ireland to claim land rights in Sydney. The Aborigines from Cape York and from Ireland will always be a visitor to Sydney, although their offspring could well be indigenous to that land if they married into the indigenous line. Even if the Cape York or Irish Aborigine was adopted into a family outside of their territory, their dreaming is what it is and doesn’t change. Their land is their land, they are who they are.

This respect for traditional ownership does not mean non-traditional owners cannot live on or learn about a piece of land. Respect is the very basis by which we can begin to learn about the land and build a relationship of integrity with it.

To respect traditional owners we must have a relationship with them, a mutual understanding and contract as to our role in the scheme of things in the dreaming of this country. This of course can only happen by way of the grace of the traditional owners otherwise any relationship would just be a colonial imposition, an argument about squatting.

Celtic Christianity is a tradition that can be fully embraced by those of us of Celtic lineage. It belongs to us even if we are in Australia; it represents our ancestors, our dreaming and our land. This is a much better starting point for our spiritual journey in Australia than the Roman imperial misrepresentation of the dreaming stories of the Middle East.

Just as the indigenous land spiritualities of Europe and Judea were able to fuse into the Celtic church nearly 2000 years ago, the tradition of Celtic Christianity can find a harmony with Australian Aboriginal spirituality if it is based on an authentic spirituality of the land and place.

Much of the old Australian Aboriginal stories and dances disappeared during the genocide. The people of this country also have the difficult task of re-building their indigenous spirituality after the ravages of imperialism just as the Celtic Christians are doing in a bit more comfortable circumstances in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. However there is a lot more intact in traditional Aboriginal spirituality than is in the Celtic spiritual tradition. The Aboriginal spirit has not been so thoroughly damaged in this country as it was in Europe. I have no doubt that the evolution of an authentic spirituality of place amongst non-Aboriginal Australians, learnt from Aboriginal Australians, will provide clues and direction to the rebuilding of place-based spirituality in Europe.

There is nothing left of the Druid tradition and neo-pagans make it all up as they go along. I believe the Celtic Christianity of the ilk of the Community of Aiden and Hilda have maintained the traditions, even if in the vessel of imported Christianity, in more profound ways than the various attempts of blind pagan revivalism that has become popular.

I believe the knowledge and experience of spirituality in this country that can be learnt from Aboriginal peoples will be an invaluable resource to European people seeking the real meaning of the bible story as well as their own dreaming and land.

I say, we have a responsibility to our own dreaming and land overseas and to the future of places like the Community of Aiden and Hilda to make such discoveries in this country.

See also

Colonised Land; Colonised Mind (A Scottish perspective)

Babylon and the Christian Church in Australia


One response to “Celtic Christianity and a spirituality of place; An Irish/English Australian perspective

  1. Thomas wb ATKINSON

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.celtic Tom
    Living in djabwurung

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