The Celtic View of Pilgrimage

Croagh Patrick remains a popular pilgrimage spot after many centuries (Tourism Ireland photo)

Celtic Christianity had a number of distinctive features. Its hallmarks included a deep love for nature, an emphasis on the constant presence of God, and an artistic flowering.    

Pilgrimage was also central to Celtic Christianity, though the Celts interpreted the term in a different way than what would later become common in the church.  Throughout history most Christians have typically viewed pilgrimage as a journey taken to a holy place such as Lourdes or Rome. Pilgrims would make the journey and then return to their regular lives.

In Ireland and elsewhere in Britain, a different understanding emerged. Here pilgrimage was seen as the central metaphor for what it means to be a Christian. All life is to be a journey to God. We live in perpetual exile, constantly seeking after Christ, and our outward journeys are to reflect our inner transformation. In exiling themselves from the comforts of home, pilgrims taught themselves to rely only on God. Celtic Christians were to be hospites mundi, or guests of the world, living lightly on this earth and not becoming attached to possessions or to one location (such a lovely phrase that is—guests of the world).

The Celts had a saying for those setting out on pilgrimage:  “Let your feet follow your heart until you find your place of resurrection.” This was a spot where God’s will for a pilgrim would be revealed and fulfilled. The place of resurrection need not be a famous holy site or a place far away.  It could be a simple stone hut, a windswept island, or a secluded valley.  The important thing was that each person needed to find their own site.

Main page for Celtic Christian Sites

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