Celtic Penance  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Given the trendiness of "Celtic spirituality", one does not expect to hear the word "penitence" mentioned in conjunction with it.  On this St Patrick's day, which falls, as always,  during Lent, we can stand to delve into how the actual Celtic church dealt with sin and repentance.  There exist a number of "penitentials", manuscripts listing sins and recommended penances, which were written to advise priests and other spiritual masters in dealing with those needing to morally unburden themselves.  If one is only familiar with the sort of Celtic spirituality found in New Age bookstores, these penitentials are likely to come as a rude shock.  One such penance, for example, consisted in standing up to one's neck in the sea in the middle of the night while reciting Psalm 119 (the longest) in its entirety. 

But the Christian Celts were not merely obsessed with sin as a bad deed earning demerits.  Irish Roman Catholic priest Liam Tracey, OSM, deals with broader issues in an article appearing in Thinking Faith, the online journal of the British Jesuits. 


Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of the Irish Church to the Christian tradition is one that is usually ignored by most popular treatments of 'Celtic Spirituality'.  That is the contribution made to the Sacrament of Penance and its codification in the genre of literature called the Penitentials, sometimes seen just as lists of sins and their appropriate penances, but perhaps more to be understood as part of the pastoral care of the Church...In the fifth and sixth centuries, right across Western Christianity, the normal modes of celebrating the Sacrament of Penance had broken down.  The system of public penance that was normative for serious sinners, which was modelled on the system of the catechumenate and seen as a second baptism, was rarely practiced.  As this system was a once off, a singular second chance, many people delayed approaching the sacrament until the end of their lives.  The realm of God's forgiving love and mercy was lost in practice.  The Irish had their own particular way of dealing with this pastoral issue that brought them into conflict with other mainland Churches.  The Irish, drawing from their background in monasticism and the great monastic teacher John Cassian, saw sin not so much as a crime but rather as something that impedes the development of a full Christian life.  One's soul friend would enable one to root out such imperfection, very often by replacing a 'vice' with a 'virtue'.  A soul friend is not just a relationship of friendship, it is much more one of mentor and disciple.  Not unique to the Irish, it became one of the most distinguishing features of their practice of monasticism.  The goal of the Christian life is conversion, and to ever deepen one's conversion to Christ.  The role of the soul friend is to help the Christian to remove what may be a block on that road.  The penitentials began in this atmosphere and are an attempt to codify the teachings and insights of these spiritual guides.  Yes, it does lead to an increasing individualistic sense of sin that has little contact with a concrete community.  It moves penance into a more private setting but it does also see sin as less than a crime and more as a sickness that needs treatment and the intervention of a skilled person, the soul friend.  also important for the Irish practice is what seems to be an Irish tradition--that of reparation.  This is where the offense to a person or group is offset by the payment of a fine by the guilty party.  Each offense has a particular price and it is easy to see how this notion could make its way into an already existing monastic practice.  The clash between the Irish system of penance and the Continental ones may also be read as a clash between and older Roman world and a newer emerging North European one.

This entry was posted on Sunday, March 17, 2013 at Sunday, March 17, 2013 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Fascinating! You usually don't hear Celtic spirituality being big on penance, especially over and against the Roman world. I like the concept of 'soul friend', healing as opposed to crime. It would've been useful in our discussion at our Lenten small group about the necessity of the Sacrament of Penance. Great post as always. :)

March 17, 2013 at 7:38 AM
Joe Rawls  

Glad you liked it, Met.

March 17, 2013 at 1:06 PM

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March 17, 2013 at 10:58 PM

I was reading something recently that brought this up (I'll have to dig up the source again), but the author commented to the effect that penitence is the most enduring feature of Celtic spirituality; the Irish missionaries introduced it to the mainland, where it supplanted the older model.

I'm a little skeptical about that claim, and my memory of the passage is hazy, but it seemed relevant to your interests.

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March 23, 2013 at 6:06 AM
Joe Rawls  

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March 24, 2013 at 9:41 PM

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