Celtic Connections: Tapping into a Rich Heritage of Prayer

I am bending my knee
in the Eye of the Father, who created me,
in the Eye of the Son, who purchased me,
in the Eye of the Spirit, who cleansed me.
By your own Anointed One, O God,
bestow upon us fullness in our need.
Love towards God, the affection of God, the smile of God,
the wisdom of God, the grace of God, the fear of God,
and the will of God to do on the world of the Three
as angels and saints do in heaven;
each shade and light, each day and night,
each time in kindness, give us your Spirit.

This is the opening prayer of a lay and folk collection called Carmina Gadelica (“Songs of the Gaels,” © 1992, Lindisfarne Press, Edinburgh). In the nineteenth century, a British government official named Alexander Carmichael traveled around the rocky islands and peninsulas along the western fringe of Scotland assembling pieces of the remaining oral tradition of the local people, who kept these prayers and songs alive and used them over the centuries, often at some personal cost. This book, more than any other, has sparked the revival of Celtic spirituality today.

A Brief History

We often associate Scottish Christianity with John Knox, who studied in Geneva with John Calvin. Knox brought Calvin’s understanding of the Reformation to Scotland, where Presbyterianism then took root. But Scottish Christianity has deeper roots that stretch back to the fifth century. The Christian faith originally arrived in that part of the British Isles with early missionaries like Saint Ninian of Whithorn and Saint Columba of Iona.

These and the other monks who evangelized the British Isles were sent by a Catholic Church that was still dominated by its Eastern urban centers, such as Ephesus, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. In addition to having a distinctly Eastern theology, the early missionaries were deeply influenced by the monastic movement flowering in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. Through figures like Irenaeus of Lyons and Martin of Tours, the mission to the Celtic northwestern fringe of Europe was infused with the thought and spirituality of the Christian East.

In the sixth century, when Europe, swamped by waves of migration from the East, sank into the Dark Ages, the Irish monks kept the memory of civilization alive. From monastic communities in Wales and Ireland, missionaries ventured forth to reevangelize Western Europe, where Christian faith had largely withered. Celtic Christianity is thus the heritage of many continental Christians as well as those who come from the British Isles.

The Celtic Church tended to preserve much of the earlier, Eastern flavor of Christianity. It was never completely in sync with the direction taken by the Western Church when Rome began to regain dominance in the seventh century. It is more than mere coincidence that the areas most directly affected by Celtic missions—France, Switzerland, and the Rhine valley—later became fertile soil for both late Medieval mysticism and the Reformation.

Vestiges of the Celtic Church remained alive in the British Isles and Brittany until at least the twelfth century, when they finally died out or went underground. During and after the Reformation, both Anglican and Presbyterian leaders occasionally used the ancient Celtic Church as a precedent for the idea of a British church independent of Rome.

Today Western culture is experiencing a revival of interest in the Celts and in Celtic Christianity. The Celtic section in local music stores has exploded in the last few years; major television movies feature characters like Merlin and Patrick; bookstores offer popular books on

Celtic spirituality; and communities like Iona and Lindisfarne receive more visitors than ever.

The Main Attraction

The congregations I have served in suburban New Jersey have been using Celtic material in worship for several years. The main attraction is the creation language, the earthiness and everyday nature of the prayers, and the sheer beauty of the words.

One important resource for those who wish to enrich their worship with the contributions of brothers and sisters in the Celtic tradition is the 1994 edition of the Book of Common Order published by the Church of Scotland. According to the Introduction, this book also reflects the common heritage of prayer and devotion of the whole Church, drawing from the Orthodox wellsprings of liturgy and from the lay heritage of Celtic spirituality originating in these shores.

It includes a service of Holy Communion and a Morning Service, as well as a selection of blessings, all developed to reflect the language and theology of the Carmina Gadelica. In this article we’ll look at some of this material and mention some other Celtic resources available to churches today.

Deeply Trinitarian

The Celtic tradition was deeply trinitarian, as we see in this part of the opening prayers from the communion service:

In the name of the Father,
in the name of the Son,
in the name of the Spirit Holy,
Three in One:

God make us holy, Christ make us holy, Spirit make us holy, Three all-holy.

—from The Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press), © 1994, Panel on Worship of the Church of Scotland. Used by permission.

The Celtic peoples embraced Christianity largely without resistance. Conscious of a continuity between their pre-Christian, Druidic religion and the faith the missionaries brought, they received Christianity as the next logical step in their ongoing spiritual journey. For example, traditional Celtic religion had always shown a strong sense of the threeness of things, as is reflected in the following prayer of confession:

Count us not as nothing, O God,
count us not at nothing, O Christ,
count us not as nothing, O kind Spirit,
nor abandon us to eternal loss.
We confess our sins to you, Father, Son, and Spirit
Compassionate God of life, your kindly pardon give:
for our careless talk, our broken oath, our empty
for all that we have left undone,
for all that we have done amiss.
Jesus, only-begotten Son and Lamb of God the
you gave the blood of your body to save us from the
As we receive the Word and knowledge of your forgiveness,
enshield us, encircle us, each day, each night, each
dark, each light.
Uphold us, be our treasure, our triumph everlasting;
strong Son of God most high.

—from The Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press), © 1994, Panel on Worship of the Church of Scotland. Used by permission.

Profoundly Sensitive to
Nature and Creation

It’s important to note that the writers of the Book of Common Order did not always take prayers verbatim from the Carmina Gadelica. Rather, they consciously used phrases and language styles from earlier Celtic sources. For instance, the writers of this Great Prayer of Thanksgiving in the communion service drew on various sources, since the Carmina Gadelica includes no such prayer, nor any formal liturgical prayers, for that matter.

Living God, we acclaim you, majestic in holiness,
worthy of praise, worker of wonders.
In the beginning you created the universe.
You made the sun and stars above our heads,
the earth beneath our feet.
Your Word brought forth the rocks and streams,
the surging seas, the wild winds and the mild.
You fashioned life in all its myriad forms,
and shaped from clay the wonder of the human
You spoke your Word to those whom you had chosen;
in disobedience they turned from your commands.

—from The Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press), © 1994, Panel on Worship of the Church of Scotland. Used by permission.

This prayer also reflects the profound interest of the Celtic Church in nature and creation—an element of Celtic Christianity that offended the Protestant establishment during and after the Reformation era when they mistook it for the worship of nature instead of the worship of God in creation.

But this very emphasis on God’s presence in nature and creation has become one of the most attractive features of Celtic Christianity to many Western Christians today. In the Carmina Gadelica, nature is not just one theme among many. It is the central theme and the main place where we see God’s work.

A well-known example is Saint Patrick’s famous hymn, called variously the Lorica, “The Deer’s Cry,” or “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”:

I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the star-lit heaven,
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea
around the old eternal rocks. . . .
I bind unto myself the name,
the strong name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, the One in Three,
of whom all nature has creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.

—from the Book of Common Worship, © 1993, Westminster John Knox Press. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.

Some Protestant hymnals over the years have gone so far as to omit the stanzas with nature references. But the text of this hymn is now included in the latest edition of the Book of Common Worship (PCUSA). (However, even this version is abridged; the original had some extra petitions for protection against sorcerers and witches.)

This sensitivity to nature appears very early in the Celtic Church. Here is a marvelous and very early brief catechism by Saint Ninian of Whithorn (c. 432):

Q. What is best in this world?
A. To do the will of our Maker.

Q. What is our Maker’s will?
A. That we should live according to the laws of God’s creation.

Q. How do we know those laws?
A. By studying the Scriptures with devotion.

Q. What tool has our Maker provided for this study?
A. The intellect, which can probe everything.

Q. And what is the fruit of study?
A. To perceive the eternal Word of God reflected in every plant and insect, every bird and
animal, and every man and woman.

—from Celtic Fire: An Anthology of Celtic Christian Literature (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.)

Strongly Connected to the Affairs of Daily Life

The dwellers on the Celtic fringe of Europe were a distinctly nonurban people. They lived and worked in very close contact with the earth and sea, and this intimacy is reflected in their prayers. Thus the way that God’s presence and blessing are invoked in even the most menial and common of daily tasks is another significant theme in the Carmina Gadelica. For instance, many specific prayers and hymns are devoted to such work as shearing sheep, milking cows, banking the fire at night, going to sleep, cutting peat, bearing babies, spinning and blocking wool, and fishing.

Note that many of these domestic duties were normally undertaken by women. The Carmina Gadelica appears to make no distinction between the work of women and of men. Indeed, one of the central characteristics of the Celtic tradition generally is the relatively higher esteem given to women’s labor and authority.

The Celtic attentiveness to the radically incarnational nature of God comes across as a necessary counterweight to the tendency of Protestants to overstate God’s transcendence to the point that God may be removed from our daily lives and conveniently isolated in church, heaven, and the future. One way of capturing this incarnational spirit today would be to compose and collect prayers that relate to our own daily life in the distracting busyness of urban existence. How about a short prayer for starting the car, or booting the computer, for instance? Why not have a blessing when a teenager receives a driver’s license or at other moments of transition in our own lives? In doing so, we would be adopting a Celtic approach to the apostle Paul’s injunction to “pray constantly.”

Celtic Blessings

The most easily accessible and probably the most sublimely powerful manifestations of Celtic spirituality are found in the blessings. Their subtlety and richness, depth and simplicity are reminiscent of Haiku poetry. Here is a blessing emphasizing God’s trinitarian presence:

May the everlasting God shield you,
east and west and wherever you go.
And the blessing of God be upon us.
The blessing of the God of life.
The blessing of Christ be upon us,
the blessing of the Christ of love.
The blessing of the Spirit be upon us,
the blessing of the Spirit of grace.
The blessing of the Trinity be upon us.
Now and forevermore. Amen.

—from The Iona Community Worship Book, © 1988, WGRG the Iona Community (Scotland), admin. GIA Publications. For permission to reproduce this text contact GIA Publications, Inc., Chicago, IL 60638. 1-800-442-1358.

In the next example, the focus is on God’s presence in both the cosmic and the human community.

The love and affection of heaven be to you,
The love and affection of the saints be to you,
The love and affection of the angels be to you,
The love and affection of the sun be to you,
The love and affection of the moon be to you,
each day and each night of your lives,
To keep you from haters, to keep you from harm-
ers, to keep you from oppressors.

—from Songs of the Gaels (Edinburgh: Lindisfarne Press, © 1992)

This next blessing is attributed to Saint Patrick. It may be sung to the Gaelic tune bunessen (often sung to “Morning Has Broken”).

Christ be beside me,
Christ be before me,
Christ be behind me,
King of my heart.
Christ be within me,
Christ be below me,
Christ be above me,
never to part.

Christ on my right hand,
Christ on my left hand,
Christ all around me,
shield in my strife.
Christ in my sleeping,
Christ in my sitting,
Christ in my rising,
Light of my life.

Another very well-known Celtic hymn is “Be Thou My Vision,” sung to the tune slane. Following is a paraphrase of the Sanctus I prepared for singing to that tune:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of might,
Heaven and Earth overflow with your Light!
Hosanna in the highest, O blest is the One
who comes in the Lord’s Name!
Hosanna! Amen.

Other Resources

• Other prominent sources for Celtic worship material include the two editions of the Iona Community Worship Book (1988, 1991). These books were published by the group now responsible for managing the restored medieval abbey on the island of Iona in Scotland. (For more resource information on the Iona Community, see RW 62 [December 2001]).

• The books of Rev. David Adam have mostly original material with an intentional Celtic flavor or prayers adapted from older Celtic sources. Adam is the Anglican Vicar of the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne in northeast England. He has a talent for composing new poems and prayers that are saturated with the same Spirit as the Celtic Christians. It is often hard to tell his work from the prayers of the Carmina Gadelica or even from ancient material.

• A reliable text of an actual liturgy used by the ancient Celtic Church is found in the “Lorrha Liturgy,” part of a seventh-century manuscript called The Stowe Missal. This rich and intriguing document is not characteristically Celtic, but it reminds us that, for all its indigenousness, the Celtic Church was essentially Catholic. It participated in the forms of worship brought by the original missionaries. Neither the Celts nor other early Christians necessarily valued liturgical innovation.

The “Lorrha Liturgy” is basically a variation on the Gallic Liturgy, which was one of the original liturgical families of the early church. Highly ritualized, it focuses on a long celebration of the Eucharist. The saints, especially local figures, are named and invoked at length in two litanies. One of the most striking elements is the practice of soaking the broken loaf of bread in the wine and laying it on the paten like slabs of bloody meat before it is sliced up in the Confractio. One certainly can’t help thinking in terms of the exposed and broken flesh of the Savior. (The celebrant presumably administered the mixture to the people using a small spoon, as in Eastern Orthodox practice today.)

The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving in the “Lorrha Liturgy” begins with a remarkable recitation of God’s attributes. (Of course, the original was in Latin.)

Truly it is worthy and just and right and for our salvation, always and everywhere to give thanks, through Christ, to you, Holy Sovereign, Almighty and Eternal God. You who with your Son and the Holy Spirit, O God, are One and Immortal, Incorruptible and Immutable, Unseen and Faithful, Marvelous and Praiseworthy, Honorable and Mighty, the Highest and Magnificent, Living and True, Wise and Powerful, Holy and Exemplary, Great and Good, Awesome and Peaceful, Beautiful and Correct, Pure and Benign, Blessed and Just, Pious and Holy, not in one singularity of person but One Trinity of One Substance.

—adapted from the Lorrha Missal

The Nicene orthodoxy is readily apparent in this prayer. It goes on to include the traditional components of a Western Anaphora: variable Proper Prefaces, Sanctus, Anamnesis, and Words of Institution, with a lot of psalm verses mixed in. The original prayer included no explicit Epiklesis, or Invocation of the Holy Spirit, a characteristically Eastern feature that is now often included in many Western liturgies.

• Many other resources, both ancient and modern, are available to congregations who wish to explore this Celtic connection. Consider The Religious Songs of Connacht, a collection from Ireland similar to the Carmina Gadelica, and the popular Celtic Daily Prayer and Celtic Night Prayer published by the Northumbrian Community.

Bear in mind that not all material calling itself Celtic is going to have a Christian orientation. Indeed, a great deal is rather New Age-y, if not positively neo-pagan. You’ll want to use discretion in exploring these resources.

Finally, I include a beautiful blessing that has appeared in several collections, attributed only with vague reference to its Gaelic derivation. This anonymity is not uncommon in Celtic Christian resources. These folks prayed and labored in obscurity, giving little thought to their own fame. But they have left us with a treasure trove of Christian poetry that has few rivals.

Deep peace of the running wave to you,
deep peace of the flowing air to you,
deep peace of the quiet earth to you,
deep peace of the shining stars to you,
deep peace of the watching shepherds to you,
deep peace of the Son of peace to you!


The main attraction is the creation language, the earthiness and everyday nature of the prayers, and the sheer beauty of the words.

Reformed Worship 66 © December 2002, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.