Northern Ireland was a hard place to grow up, its extraordinary physical beauty contrasting with the bloody sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics. The “plantation” of English and Scottish Protestant settlers in the region by English monarchs in the 16th century — who thought to keep better control of the Catholic island off of England’s western shore — resulted in a harsh division of the six northern counties in Ireland. From the 16th through the 20th centuries, the Protestants and Catholics lived side by side, never letting go of the anger. The result: outbreaks of violence that left thousands dead, and many thousands more bitterly determined to gain revenge.
Grace Clunie grew up Free Presbyterian (a very conservative branch of the Protestant Presbyterian denomination) in Northern Ireland. The polarization of her country pained her, and as she sought an education, she found what she describes as “philosophy with a hammer: knock it down and start again.” She moved away from divisive spiritual ideas, seeking out a spirituality “…that could be discovered as life revealed itself.” After a university education and a career as a librarian, she joined the Church of Ireland, (the Anglican Church in Ireland) and eventually was ordained an Anglican priest, also gaining a master’s degree in ethics at Trinity College, Dublin.
“What I came to over the years was a growing awareness of the continuity of Celtic Christianity, and of the pre-Christian stream of history and culture that contributes to the Christian tradition here and makes it so alive,” she said when we met at the ancient Celtic site of Navan, outside of Armagh in August 2012.
“The Celts lived close to the earth, they were in touch with the cycles of the seasons, and when Christianity came to this island early on, the people who brought it did not reject the wisdom they found here, but led people to an understanding of who Jesus Christ is.”
At New Year’s 1988, at a time of great violence in Northern Ireland, Grace and some friends went to the hill of Navan to pray for peace. She marks that time as the beginning of her Celtic pilgrimage, and has written of the practice of pilgrimage, “We may not be able to travel to faraway places, but there is yet benefit in being a ‘heart’ pilgrim – i.e. having that nomadic approach to life that is always open to moving on, not getting stuck in a rut, open to new experiences, new relationships and understandings – open to the ever onward call of God.”
She answered the call herself at first in a traditional way: as rector of St. Nicholas Church, Belfast. As her experience of Christianity in the Celtic tradition deepened, and she traveled to more of the sites of pilgrimage in both Northern Ireland, still a part of the United Kingdom, and the independent nation of Ireland, or Eire, she felt drawn to live out that experience in her daily life and work.
“I had a dream, a stairway of wide stone steps, with dust and dirt at the bottom. I took a broom to sweep away the dirt, and a mosaic floor was revealed, offering shalom, the biblical idea of peace and wholeness. In the dream, I knew that this beauty was not just for me, but to share: the recognition of what is in each of our hearts. It was a call to be authentic, to be what we are created to be. The best thing we can be is ourselves. What are your gifts? Celebrate them. Being your authentic self is the most sacred path, the most valuable pilgrimage.”
Eventually, Grace became the director of the Center for Celtic Spirituality at the Anglican Cathedral in Armagh, where she shares her passion, leading retreats and pilgrimages to sacred sites, meeting with interested seekers and teaching courses, currently one called “The Celtic Spirit and Literature” at Queens University in Belfast.
According to Grace, Celtic Christianity offers the love of Jesus Christ in love of the natural world; connection with community; hospitality; a recognition of monastic influences — and especially the acknowledgement that the Sacred Presence of God is for all times and places, and that faith is not just one hour on Sunday morning — the practice of sharing one’s spiritual journey with a close friend, known in Irish as anamchara, or “soul friend,” and the appreciation and practice of art and music and pilgrimage.
“It seems to me that the gift of this age is the rediscovery of prayer, the kind of prayer that God speaks of in the words, ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ It’s not about doing. We have a lot of illusions about what we can ‘do.’ That is the journey I am on, and although going to holy places is a wonderful part of it, it is really an inner journey. The poet Patrick Kavanagh says that it take a whole lifetime to get to know one field well. The pilgrimage is always to deepen understanding, and it begins with knowing that we know nothing.”
Clunie, while making that acknowledgement in her own life, also understands that many people today are attracted to Celtic Christianity, but really don’t know where to start. For that reason, she wrote a brief introductory book, Sacred Living, published earlier this year, and available from Columba Press and Amazon.
“I went to a place called Nendrum, near Camber in County Down, one of the ancient Celtic monastic sites. At the center is the church, a little town, and the graves of the monks. In the next ring out, the artisans and creative people, the next, the farm animals that worked the fields and provided wool for the community. And there was the oldest tide mill that has been found anywhere, using the communion of the tides to grind grain to make food. It seemed to me that is a very good way to live—with the sacred at the heart of things, with creativity surrounding that, with the creatures that are close to the earth in the next circle, and with a relationship with the tides, which are controlled by our place in the universe, as a source of nourishment. Deep connection is at the heart of Celtic spirituality, and that journey of connection is the one I am on.”
— The Rev. Georgia DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry.