The maker of all things,
The Lord God worship we :
Heaven white with angels’ wings,
Earth and the white-waved sea.
These lovely lines, culled some years ago from a book of Celtic spirituality which I can no longer find, wonderfully reflect the way our ancestors cherished a joined up vision of God and nature that must have carried over from the animism of their pagan predecessors. Those founders of the Celtic realms had a litany of over 600 gods and goddesses, some associated with aspects of nature as a whole and some confined to a particular place – a well, a lake, a river, a mountain.
The first Celtic Christians we can still recognise today were the Roman Britons, forebears of the modern Welsh. Their missionary endeavours led to the planting of Christianity in Ireland from where it was re‑exported to Scotland, Northumbria and much of Europe.
Following the withdrawal of the Roman army in the fifth century Germanic invaders conquered what we now call England. The Britons survived in Strathclyde, Cumbria, Wales and in Cornwall from where an exodus of boat people led to the planting of the British language and Celtic Christianity in that part of Gaul we now call Brittany.
Today the original British tongue survives in Wales where the memory of the earliest form of Celtic Christianity lives on in the names of many hundreds of saints, more than enough to replace every one of the 600+ gods and goddesses of ancient Britain.
These reflections have been inspired by ‘The Book of Welsh Saints’. Published in November 2000, this big book (over 600 pages) sets out to do no less than restore the lost memories of their saints to the people of Wales. Most of the book consists of an alphabetical listing of all the saints about which the author has been able to glean some information. In his introductory section the writer, whose background is in the business rather than the academic world, sets out his thesis in broad strokes. Wales has kept its language but has been unable to resist MacDonaldisation. The surviving churches are dying as their dwindling congregations age (teenagers have voted with their feet. Wales has also become the poorest nation of the UK with GDP levels in SW Wales at 55% of the UK average. The solution: revive our Christian culture. This will be based, not so much on a return to the near empty churches (an unlikely scenario), but on a return to conviviality and fellowship founded on a new awareness of our links to places and to the holy men and women of the past who have sanctified them.
So let there be a reviveal of the festivals, fairs and pilgrimages that once formed a living and lived calendar binding individuals to their people, both living and dead, and to the land they share (in the Catholic Church of my Irish childhood they called this ‘The Communion of Saints’). This will restore both hwyl (fun, enthusiasm) and hiraeth (a longing awareness of a loved but absent person or place) and will revitalise tourism – the economy of the future – on the basis of a culture that will be popular and informed. This restored culture, broadly secular though it may have to be, will be rooted in a recovery of our common heritage.
This book challenges the Catholic Church in Wales to take the Vatican 2 proposals for ‘inculturation’ more seriously than our largely settlers’ mentality has permitted until now. How ironic it would be if, in this as in the case of child protection, we were forced to learn much about the application of our Christian values and heritage to everyday living from our largely secularised but committed fellow citizens.
Breverton, T.D. :‘The Book of Welsh Saints’, Glyndwr Publishing, November 2000. £24-99. ISBN : 1-903529-01-8.