The United Church of Canada is fortunate to have a remarkable resource for Celtic Worship in the person of Ivan Gregan (Seumas Eoin). One of the strongest worship experiences I can remember occurred in a Celtic Worship led by Ivan in Waterloo, very late one hot night in late Spring a couple of years ago. Ivan is the moderator of the Celtic Worship discussion at The Worship Place [an online community primarily used by UC clergy types]. I thought it might be helpful to include here three of his posts on Celtic Worship – I found them very interesting. I've edited them a bit for inclusion here. If you have a strong interest in Celtic Worship you might be interested in signing up for that part of The Worship Place.
Introduction to Celtic Worship:
Celtic Christian Worship refers to the Praises of those people who inhabited the Celtic Lands of Ireland, Greater Britain, Brittany, and Galicia in Spain during the period after their evangelization until about the 13th Century. Often in writing it is restricted to the lands of Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the period from about 400 - 900 AD.
Distinction must be made between 'modern' and 'authentic' Celtic Praise. "Modern' is a new-age cash-in on a Celtic fad that emphasizes a nature-based, modernist approach to a pan-world theology. It has no roots in the ancient prayers or practices and has no connection to the traditional theology or spirituality of the Celtic Peoples. "Authentic" Celtic praise is derived from very few sources. As far as material we have but a few manuscripts from an early age and then the collection of prayers gathered by Alexander Carmichael during his wanderings in the Gaelic speaking areas of western Scotland during the later 1800's. While some scholars look upon his collection with suspect eye, more receive it gratefully as a tome of work done for generations to come. I find it interesting that some of the prayers he collected in Western Scotland are still in circulation here in Canada in my father's and mother's generation almost 200 years after the Clearances. Therefore I would give those collections a great weight. Even some of the practices of which he wrote were very familiar to me as a boy growing up - when to cut wood, when to plant seed, when to butcher a pig, prayers to the moon - these were all common practices.
Many of the prayers were taught from mothers to their children just as many English speakers were taught "Now I lay me down to sleep." Many of the liturgical pieces were used in homes or around the farms but people were taught that they were not 'good enough' for Church or that they were 'the old ways' and not to be said when in the presence of 'others'. This made a great rift between 'church faith' and 'folk faith' although the 'folk faith' is very liturgical, poetical, useful, and memorizable. It might equate to memorizing a catechism that would never be recited in Church.
Celtic prayers in Gaelic are very rhythmical - easy to memorize. They are laden with several layers of meaning - just like the language itself! It has been said that they are composed with the heartbeat of heaven inside them - I would agree. Part of the poetry is the fact that the language itself is poetical and people who speak it try not just to say something but to phrase it in such a manner that it becomes laden with double meanings. As there is music in the heart of people, so also the Celtic people believe that there are prayers in the hearts of the people and we just have to set them free.
A brief description of the Festivals.
Samhainn (Samhuinn) pronounced like 'salve - ing'. It begins on the rising of Pleiades and falls usually on October 31/ November 01. It was a time when the veil between the other world and this world was tissue thin and the spirits of the dead were(are) believed to be free to wander in this world. Offerings of sweets were presented to honour them. People often dressed up in the clothes of a dead person (or a reasonable facsimile of their clothes) and wandered around the villages gathering the sweets. What we knew as Hallowe'en here in the Maritimes was a continuance of this celebration. Modern day 'Darth Vader' or 'Harry Potter' costumes don't cut it - should be ghosts, goblins, etc.. This was a major celebration In the Celtic Christian tradition, this feast became entwined with the feast of All Saints / All Souls.
Winter Solstice - longest night. Celebrated on December 21. Often greenery was brought into the house - holly, ivy, boughs etc along with pine cones (seeds of new birth) and a festive Yule Log was prepared to be burnt upon the hearth. It was from the Longest Night that in some circles the date for the Nativity of Jesus was set. His birthday was seen as occurring on the night of the New Moon closest to the Longest Night - the darkest time of the Year. It was reasoned that Jesus was born for each of us and to each of us in the darkest time of our lives.
Imbolc - February 1 -2. Feast for rekindling the fires. Various forms of this survive into the modern day. Often at night still in Celtic homes where heating is done by wood or peat, a prayer is said over the fire to safeguard it through the night so that there might be embers present in the morning. IN ancient times the fires would be let to go out during Imbolc and have to be rekindled in the morning to remind us of the preciousness of heat and flame.
On the Holy Weekend, some people would let the fires go out in their homes on Holy Saturday (or even Good Friday) and then make a symbolic lighting of them again on Easter Morning with the accompanying words "Hallelujah He is risen! The Light of God has not gone out".
Spring Equinox - day and night equal. This was a time for envisioning new plantings. From the Spring Equinox the time for Easter was set. In the Celtic tradition, we celebrated Easter on the first Full Moon following the Spring Equinox. In the West it was the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. This often led to the Celtic People celebrating the Resurrection in the midst of the Western Church's Holy Week, since for the Celts, Easter could fall on any day of the week!
Beltane - May 01 / 02. Bonfire time! This was the time for the planting of new crops, new ideas, new relationships.
Summer Solstice - June 21-22. Solar zenith Not a big celebration but a marker of time.
Lughnasadh (try and get your tongue around that one!! - "loo - nas - a" is fairly close!) August 1 - 2. First Harvest. This was a party time often celebrated with loaves of bread and fresh fruit.
Fall Equinox - September 21 / 22. This is the time for collecting seeds, finishing off of old business and a special time for giving thanks for the year that was ending. This would correspond to our Thanksgiving. In some places there was and still is a "Thank Offering Service" held in our Churches at this time of the year in which we give thanks for any and many special blessings during the past year. This is a direct carry over of this ancient feast.
The living and the dead & funeral liturgies
The ancient Celtic belief was that there was never a great separation between the living and the dead - we are simply living at the same time in different frequencies.
The belief is that the dead are held by Christ in heaven just as we on earth are held by him. The living and the dead meet on a regular basis at Communion as we share the sacrament together.
Another aspect of Celtic theology is that the dead wait in heaven for an invitation to come and join us in our praises. They sit 'perched on the edge of eternity waiting and wanting to return to comfort (ie. com - with forte- strength) us'. At any worship service if we mention their name, they will return to sit by our side and commune with us, offering us blessings from God, strengthening us, and encouraging us with their spiritual gifts and presence. This is what we would call the 'great cloud of witnesses'.
Among the Celts there is never a great distinction between the living and the dead and we believe that there is constant interaction between the two. Thus we speak of those who died a century ago as if we know them.
There is a wonderful hymn which I believe comes to us in English from the Iona Community although I know similar words in Gaelic. It is called "From the falter of breath, through the silence called death, to the wonder that's breaking beyond...." and it is sung to the "Iona Boat Song" not the Skye Boat Song.
In Scots Gaelic, heaven is called 'an taobh thall' literally - the other side. Often in ancient times, there was a piece of land or a Church, that if a person who was being pursued for any reason made it there, he or she was 'in sanctuary' - like modern refugees in a Church basement. This place was called 'an taobh thall' and was fearfully honoured by all. No weapons were allowed and once there a person was expected to dwell there forever. Only the 'holy ones' (holy men and women, not necessarily in religious orders but deemed by all to be holy) could go over and return. While a person could see the people on 'an taobh thall' and even converse with them, they could not cross over (unless they planned to stay). Thus heaven was never seen as a distant place, up there, beyond us - it was simply 'over there'. The holy men and women went back and forth, bringing messages and good tidings.
The Irish talk about 'tir nan og' -the land of youth - and it is the equivalent to 'an taobh thall'.
There is a wonderful Gaelic poem called 'Circle of the Sea' and it talks about how 'we are all on the sea, steering our courses throughout our lives'. Finally we will set our sails and sail to the Westward to the white sand beaches and there find home.
So, yes, the Celtic people did and do believe in the interaction of the living and the dead. When I was growing up, there were always stories of the dead coming back to comfort us, assure us, or to scare the living daylights out of us.
At the moment of death, we believe that the holy ones, the beings of light, return to comfort the soul of the dying and surround them and comfort them. Often the old people would talk about seeing 'them' standing around the dying. They then knew that the end was very near for the veil between heaven and earth was tissue thin.
The funeral service was a 'bunch of friends accompanying the soul on the last mile of the way', directing him or her into heaven and finally presenting them into God's Hands. In the funeral service they are received by God and welcomed into paradise. A Funeral Service was definitely not a memorial service. The Funeral concentrated on God and had the purpose of directing the soul to God. It is the last good earthly thing we can do for a dead person. They are wonderful events that leave all of us longing for home.