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St. Ciaran's Clonmacnoise
by Edward C. Sellner

Clonmacnoise High Cross

Ancient peoples recognized that places where roads, paths, and trackways meet are significant sites of mysterious numinous powers. Hermes, the Greek god of fertility and of healing, was associated with crossroads, and his statue, know as a “herm,” used to be set up at those locations to remind travelers that he would, if called upon provide protection and guidance. Romans, to show their respect for crossroads, frequently built little chapels at such locations which were dedicated to the Lares or guardian spirits of the place, where sacrifices could be offered or gifts left behind in order to obtain favor for the direction in which one chose to travel. The ancient Celts believed that spirits were everywhere, inhabiting the entire landscape, but that certain geographical sites were especially sacred, including junctions of rivers and roads.

In the center of Ireland, on the banks of the River Shannon, at the crossroads in medieval times where the Eiscir Riada or “Great Road” met which linked east and west, stand the ruins of one of the most famous monasteries of the Early Irish Church. Once possibly the site of some pagan sanctuary, since a beautiful gold torc, or neckring, of eastern French or Rhenish origin [c.300 BCE] was discovered there, this place was also made holy by early Christian Celts. In 544 or 543 CE [scholars differ on the exact date], St. Ciaran founded a monastery there that came to be called “Clonmacnoise,” one of those liminal places where the living presence of the past is encountered first-hand, and where one finds, as modern pilgrims do, intimations of a dynamic spirituality that is still very much alive.

The precise dates of Ciaran’s life are unknown [some say he lived from 512 to 545, others from 516 to 549 CE] but he is considered to be one of the earliest monastic founders, all of whom were given the distinguished title of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland” and were said to have been educated by St. Finnian of Clonard. Ciaran himself is described in an early hagiography or life of the saint as “a soul friend, a wonderworker, a man whose brilliance in miracles and marvels, virtues and good deeds, lit the Western world.” Unlike other Irish saints who are usually portrayed as coming from the ranks of the nobility and eventually ordained bishops, Ciaran was the son of a craftsman or “carpenter,” and always remained a simple priest. Both women and men were drawn to Ciaran because of his reputation for holiness, but another factor may also have helped. The same hagiography describes him as “very attractive, for he was physically more handsome than anyone else his age.” For whatever reason, accounts confirm that he was recognized, early in his life, as someone with tremendous potential as a spiritual leader.

There is a story, for example, about how his mentor, St. Finnian, perceived the future greatness of Ciaran and of another of his students, Columcille, who later founded monasteries at Durrow and Derry in Ireland, and Iona, off the coast of Scotland:

Once a vision appeared to Finnian in which two moons arose from Clonard, a golden moon and a silvery moon. The golden moon went into the north of the island, lighting Ireland and Scotland. The silvery moon went on until it reached the Shannon, lighting the center of Ireland. The first, Finnian realized, foretold Columcille’s wisdom and the grace of his noble kin; the second had to do with Ciaran’s monastery at Clonmacnoise and his many virtues and good deeds.

Finnian quite obviously had great affection for both of his students, but it was Ciaran whom he called “little heart” and “dear one” whom “I love”, and upon whom he wished “an abundance of dignity and wisdom.” But Finnian wasn’t the only one of his mentors to foresee, and help foster, as good mentors do, Ciaran’s leadership and the important monastery he was to found at the crossroads. According to another story, one that also includes an account of a visionary experience, Ciaran left Clonard, “after learning scholarship and wisdom,” and lived with St. Enda for a time:

Ciaran went to the island of Aran to commune with Enda. Both of them saw the same vision of a great fruitful tree growing beside a stream in the middle of Ireland. This tree protected the entire island, its fruit crossed the sea that surrounded Ireland, and the birds of the world came to carry off some the that fruit. Ciaran turned to Enda and told him what he had seen. Enda, in turn, said to him: “The great tree you saw is you, Ciaran, for you are great in the eyes of God and of all humankind. All of Ireland will be sheltered by the grace that is in you, and many people will be fed by your fasting and prayers. Go in the name of God to the Center of Ireland, and found your church on the banks of a stream.

Besides the acknowledgement of Ciaran’s greatness and that of his future monastery in this story, the inclusion of the tree symbolism is highly significant. Trees denote fertility, immortality, and wisdom, as well as a person’s roots and spiritual heritage. Many world spiritual traditions consider the tree to be a symbol of the axis mundi, the center of the world, and to be near a tree is to be in touch with the life of the cosmos. The pagan spiritual leaders of the Celts, the druids and druidesses, associated trees, especially the oak, with sacredness and power, and it is interesting to note in the lives of the early Irish saints how many of them built their monasteries on sites near oak groves. [Kildare, which St. Brigit founded, for example, means “church of the oak”, and Columcille’s Durrow and Derry had been sites of oak trees.]

According to the vision, then, that Ciaran and Enda shared, Clonmacnoise obviously was to be a special place, a “thin place” reflecting a wealth of wisdom and a depth of spirituality that would not only affect the island of Ireland but be carried to other parts of the world. Like the twentieth-century Oglala Sioux shaman, Black Elk, who had a similar vision of a great tree, filled with singing birds, that inaugurated his own ministry, shaped his entire life, and , in his last days, haunted him so much that he cried out that it might bloom again for his people, this Celtic vision acted as an invitation for Ciaran himself to embrace his vocation as a spiritual leader and to bring into being what the vision – and Enda’s helpful interpretation of it – had revealed.

It is not known how long Ciaran stayed with Enda on Aran, but eventually, led by a stag [whose antlers, we are told, had been used by Ciaran as a book-stand!], the younger monk traveled to Hare Island in Lough Ree where he lived for three years before settling, with eight companions, at Clonmacnoise. Ciaran decided upon the latter site because of its natural beauty, and as he said, because “many souls will go to heaven from here, and in this place there will be communion with God and God’s people forever.” Less than a year later, on September 9, Ciaran died unexpectedly at the age of thirty-three, possibly a victim, like his tutor Finnian, of the yellow plague that was sweeping Ireland.

Because of his youthful age at the time of his death, some early writers of his life compared Ciaran to St. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, while others to Jesus himself. According to a nineteenth-century scholar, John Healy, a bishop of Clonfert, “There was no saint more beloved by his own contemporaries – by Enda, and Kevin, and Finnian, and Columcille. They all loved him dearly whilst he was with them; and their hearts were sore at his departure …. There is no saint whose name is held in more affectionate remembrance than the founder of Clonmacnoise.”

Clonmacnoise North Cross

Ciaran’s words about the site as the “place of resurrection: for him and many others were extremely accurate. Clonmacnoise, after his death, became on of Ireland’s oldest and most prestigious monastic communities. Of all the monasteries which emerged in the Golden Age of the Irish saints [the sixth and seventh centuries], it was second only in ecclesial importance to Armagh in Northern Ireland, and yet probably surpassed even that site in terms of its artistic, literary, and educational achievements. Its monastic inhabitants, at one point, numbered at least a thousand, probably more, and, like some of the other Irish and British monasteries, Clonmacnoise consisted at one time of both male and female inhabitants. Untold numbers of missionaries were trained there who planted or replanted the faith in Britain and continental Europe at a time when Germanic tribes were destroying the churches and libraries that contained much of the classical and religious culture of the West. In Clonmacnoise’s scriptoria, the scribes produced some of the earliest vernacular Irish histories, including the Book of the dun cow [now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England], which contains the Annals of Tighernach as well as the earliest extant version of the Irish epic, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Two prominent theologians studied at Clonmacnoise: Alcuin [c.735-804], a Northumbrian who took his learning to the court of Charlemagne where he came to be recognized as one of the greatest scholars in Western Europe, the inspirer of the Carolingian Renaissance; and, John Scotus Erigena [c. 810-877] who was administrative head and teacher at the Palace School of Charles the Bald in Laon, France, and whose controversial writings on nature, original sin, predestination, and free will are still being discussed today.

During the middle ages, precisely because of its prominence and its accumulation of rich and ornate religious objects [i.e., the beautiful Clonmacnoise Crozier, considered to be one of the fines ecclesial items to have survived, is on view at the national Museum in Dublin; the finely decorated metalwork shrine of the Stowe Missal was also made Clonmacnoise], Ciaran’s monastery was increasingly assaulted by native and foreigners alike. In 769 CE, in one battle with a nearby Columbian monastery, Durrow, the latter suffered the loss of two hundred men. Almost a hundred years later, the King of Cashel, Felim Mac Criffan, plundered Clonmacnoise three times; one of these times, in 833, he is said to have ‘butchered the monks like sheep.” Evidently Mac Criffan experienced some sort of conversion experience, however, for, following a life of attacking other monasteries, such as Durrow and Kildare, he is listed in the Annals of Ulster as optimus Scotorum,” “the best of the Irish – as scribe and an anchorite.” Clonmacnoise was also plundered and burned on at least ten occasions by the Vikings. In 884, one of these Viking leaders, Turgesius, burned down the monastery, after his wife, Ota, danced naked on the high altar and engaged in other lewd and idolatrous acts. Between 832 and 1204, it was attacked thirty-three times and finally reduced to ruins by the English in 1552 when it was claimed, according to an annalist, “not a bell, large or small, an image or an altar, a book or a gem, or even a glass in a window, was left which was not carried away.” A hundred years later, to add to this tragedy, the notoriously vicious Cromwell himself returned with his army and cannonaded the site.

Still Clonmacnoise was never really destroyed. At one time listed as one of the four most sacred of pilgrimage sites in Ireland, it actually has a longer history of pilgrimages than any other. [The first pilgrim recorded at Clonmacnoise was noted in the annals as having died in 606 CE.] The burial place of many named and unnamed Christians, pilgrims, monks, and kings, including Rory O’Connor, the last high king of Ireland, Clonmacnoise continues to attract thousands of pilgrims each year. For the modern pilgrim who wants to know more about its long, rich, and tragic history, there are now scenes from that history painted on the wall of the new Visitor Center that was constructed in the early 1990’s. As one walks down the hall and follows the historical scenes chronologically, it is difficult not to be amazed at Clonmacnoise’s ability to endure!

As a pilgrim, I first visited St. Ciaran’s Clonmacnoise in 1984 when I was beginning to do more research into the history of the Early Celtic church and its tradition of the anamchara, a Gaelic term meaning “friend of the soul” or simply “soul friend;” that is, someone who acts in a variety of roles, such as being a teacher, mentor, confessor, or spiritual guide. Clonmacnoise had come to my attention, initially, when I had watched , along with millions of television viewers worldwide, John Paul II celebrate Mass on that site in 1979, with thousands of people in attendance. I was intrigued that the Pope had decided to go to that particular place, so early in pontificate. I was also fascinated with what I heard from commentators about how Clonmacnoise had educated both clerical and lay leaders, missionaries and ordinary Christians for over a thousand years. One other factor contributed to my desire to someday visit Clonmacnoise: when I read how it had housed a community of religious women for centuries, a fact that I found particularly intriguing, considering how the church on the continent of Europe had increasingly isolated communities of women during medieval and post-Protestant Reformation times. Thus, my anticipation when I arrived in Ireland in late May of 1984. At last I was going to have the opportunity of visiting Clonmacnoise as well as other sites associated with the Irish saints. Of course, for me, any visit to Ireland – for whatever reasons – is like going home. Although of Irish, Germanic, and Norman roots, I believe I have an Irish soul, and for me Ireland is, as Yeats’ says so poignantly in his poetry, “the home of my fathers [and mothers], the home of my heart.”

I should say to that, as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with he lives of the saints, especially those of the early desert and Celtic traditions. My soul resonates with their stories. Along with Jesus and his mother, Mary, they have become, over the years, my mentors, teachers, spiritual guides, soul friends. They inspire me with their struggles and heroic acts, but also, perhaps most of all, by the simple and courageous ways they lived their lives, one day at a time; they teach me of the importance of certain values, such as hospitality, compassion, creativity, persistence. They have become sources of support in times of depression and despair, and often, in prayer, have come to offer their help through a presence that is almost tangible. From my experience and, really, contrary to my own expectations, they do not judge me when my life has strayed, but only offer their encouragement, as true soul friends do, by accepting me where I’m at rather than where I “ought to be.”

From the time my mother first read to me as a child, while sitting on her knee, I have found myself caught up in the stories of these spiritual leaders. When I grew older, the nuns and priests who were friends of my parents visited our home, taught me in the classroom, accompanied me to Scout camp, showed me how to pray, and perhaps most of all, reinforced this trait, this love of the saints. Years later, after becoming a theologian, a teacher, and a writer, I am still haunted by their stories. As I began to research and write about them, I also became convinced that, if I am to understand them and what they have to teach people today, I not only need to read their own writings and what others have written about them, but I need to visit the places where they themselves lived and worked. As Kathleen Norris has described so well in her book, Dakota, it is our environment, our physical surroundings, our landscape that has such a profound impact on our ideas of the holy and Holy One [our theology] and the ways we seek to acknowledge and celebrate the holy in our lives [our spirituality]. Journeys to the places associated with the saints become pilgrimages when we open our eyes – and ears and hearts – to what they have to teach us. At the same time, as many can attest, pilgrimages and not without hardships, annoyances, or just plain frustrations. The latter characterized my first visit to Clonmacnoise.

At Dublin’s main bus depot, I had signed up for a one-day tour that, in addition to a boat ride up the Shannon River and a visit to some other places in central Ireland, Promised to spend a significant amount of time at Clonmacnoise. Unfortunately, what was advertised and what actually occurred were not quite the same. The bus driver, evidently new to route, spent a great deal of time, once we’d left the city, scratching his head, consulting a map as he drove, and muttering to himself. By the time we actually reached Clonmacnoise, he made an apologetic announcement that he had gotten lost, and because we were so far behind schedule, we would only have twenty minutes there. Since it had been the primary reason why I had chosen this particular excursion, I was, shall we say, a bit disappointed! [since then, after a number of other disappointments, including my arriving at Jarrow, England, just five minutes after the main exhibit on the Venerable Bede had closed, I have learned that such disappointments can be interpreted as invitations, that is, “excuses” to return.]

But that was my frustration at Clonmacnoise: my having to literally run from one part of the monastic ruins to another, from what is called “the Nuns’ Church” to the medieval Cathedral, from round towers to high crosses, in a short amount of time, taking as many pictures with my 35 mm camera as I could. Still, I was excited and exhilarated at finally being there, able to see at last this place associated with St. Ciaran that had already touched my imagination.

What I was most struck by, as I headed first for the ruins of the twelfth-century Nuns; Church which are located some five hundred yards east of the main settlement, was the beauty of the landscape itself. There, within eyesight, were the blue waters of Ireland’s largest river, the Shannon, with two round towers clearly visible, on lush slopes of varying shades of green. The sun, on that hot summer day, was actually shining [contrary to almost every subsequent visit I’ve made when it rained], its rays reflecting on the brown and white stones of the monastic monuments and high crosses, as well as the smaller crosses, marking numerous, more modern graves. [Every local person seems to want to be buried here, since it is believed, from early times, that if one is interred in this holy ground, one guaranteed a place in heaven.]

When I reached what remains of the Nuns’ Church, with its Romanesque style, I quickly snapped pictures of its famous, beautifully carved west doorway and chancel arch. While both are decorated largely with abstract carvings, on the chancel arch itself are small animal heads, with wide eyes and grinning faces that look, for all the world, as if they were carved by Walt Disney. There also on the chancel arch, I observed, a female figure with her naked legs parted, displaying herself. Although I had no idea at the time what this lascivious figure was about, I learned later, from my reading about sheela-na-gigs, that these fertility images were introduced into Ireland at the time of the Norman invasions, at least six centuries after St. Ciaran had founded Clonmacnoise. Placed above doorways and windows in castles and some church buildings, these female figures were considered by the medieval Irish as fertility symbols,, warnings against lust, and, like the gargoyles on the cathedrals in France, protectors from harm.

As I quickly wandered back toward the main area, I was drawn to a smaller, strangely contorted stone structure, its walls slanting inward, as if about to collapse. I stopped at its front doorway, and read a brief notice, telling me that this tiny oratory was the presumed site of St. Ciaran’s grave. This was the place which once contained the relics of the monastic founder where so many pilgrims, throughout the centuries, had come for inspiration, healing, and forgiveness. Grateful for having stumbled, almost literally, upon this holy site, I recalled that here was where one of the most moving stories about soul friendship had originally occurred. According to this story, when Ciaran was about to die:

The angels went to meet his soul, filling as they did all the space between heaven and earth. He was carried back into his little church, and raising his hands, he blessed his people. Then he told the brethren to shut him up in the church until Kevin should come from Glendalough … [When Kevin arrived] the elders … opened the little church to him. At once Ciaran’s spirit returned from heaven and re-entered his body so that he could commune with Kevin and welcome him. The two friends stayed together from the one watch to another, engaged in mutual conversation, and strengthened their friendship. Then Ciaran blessed Kevin, and Kevin blessed water and administered the eucharist to Ciaran. Ciaran gave his bell to Kevin as a sign of their lasting unity.

The symbolism of this story is profound, revealing how strong the bonds of such intimate relationships are, able to endure even death itself. The reference to the exchange of gifts between friends also symbolizes the mutuality many people experience when one is or has a soul friend. Meditating quietly there for a moment, I prayed for my family and friends who had given me so much for which to be grateful. I prayed to St. Ciaran too who, as a result of this visit – no matter how rushed – was becoming even more of a soul friend.

Then, aware of time running out, I reluctantly moved on to the much larger building not far from Ciaran’s gravesite. Another plaque identified it as the Cathedral, a simple rectangular structure with a wide expanse of space within. Again this church was a much later addition to the monastic community begun by St. Ciaran, probably first built in the thirteenth century when the Early Irish Church, as a more independent ecclesial reality, had come to an end. This building, like the Nuns’ Church, has more elaborate doorways probably added about the same time the church for the nuns was built. What caught my attention immediately, as I approached the main door, were the carved figures of three men, one headless, dressed in different types of religious garb. As I focused my camera on them, I asked myself who they might be. Obviously, I thought, they must have been important saints to have been placed in such a prominent position. Only later did I discover that they were, in fact, depictions of St. Francis and St. Dominic, with St. Patrick standing between them. The figure of St. Patrick, elevated slightly above the two, represents the coming of Christianity to Ireland in the early fifth century, while the other two symbolize those religious orders from the Continent which eventually, in the twelfth century, superseded the older monastic communities found throughout Ireland, including that at Clonmacnoise. It was during this same century that Rome, increasingly seeking uniformity in dogma, ecclesial structures, and liturgical practices, divided the Early Irish Church into dioceses and appointed bishops to rule over them. All Of these changes had been when the Cathedral and Nuns’ Church were first built.

From the Cathedral, I quickly ran to the three high crosses which were then located nearby. [In order to protect them from further deterioration and harm, all three were moved into the new Visitor Center in 1992-93 and replaced by replicas which, at least at this point, look exactly like the originals.] Of all the ruins at Clonmacnoise, these three crosses, in particular, represent visually what the stories of the saints express verbally. They truly are stories in stone, and, in their own way, “thin places” in which one encounters a transcendent reality. If Celtic Christians living in Brittany believe that their elaborate crosses as they constructed them, are ladders to heaven, it is also true that, like the tree imagery found in Ciaran’s and Enda’s vision, Irish high crosses are representative of the axis mundi, of being centered, grounded, in touch with both heaven and earth. No wonder a number of the key stories about the Irish saints locate them praying or teaching near high crosses – or climbing them! One of the most moving stories, found in the life of St. Maedoc of Ferns, expresses well how high crosses are associated with mystery and numinosity, and, once again, how enduring are the ties between soul friends. According to this story, Maedoc returns to Ferns, his monastery located in southeastern Ireland, following a visit to Clonmacnoise:

Sometime later Maedoc was teaching a student by a high cross at the monastery of Ferns. The student saw him mount a golden ladder reaching from earth to heaven. Maedoc climbed the ladder, and when he returned sometime later, the student could not look in his face because of the brilliance of his countenance. Maedoc told him, “Never tell anyone about what you have seen.” “If that is what you want,” the student replied, “I will not tell anyone.” “Columcille has died,” Maedoc told him, “and I went to meet him with the family of heaven. He was my own soul friend in this world, so I wanted to pay him my respects.” The student told this story only after Maedoc’s death, when he had become an adult and a holy man himself.

Probably like the one that appears in Maedoc’s story, many of the high crosses of Ireland, especially the most famous of them, the “Cross of the Scriptures” at Clonmacnoise, are probably products of the Celi De Reform movement that swept Ireland and other parts of the British Isles beginning in the eight century. This occurred at the time that the hagiographies and stories of the saints were first being written down. The Culdees or Celi De, a term that means “friends” or “servants” or “people of God”, were committed to preserving the spiritual heritage that was being threatened from both within the church [i.e., as the monasteries became wealthier, they also became more corrupt], and without [i.e., the Norsemen or Vikings had begun their assault of the monasteries in the late eighth century]. This Celi De movement had a tremendous influence on the growing devotion to the saints, liturgical reform, the revitalization of monastic studies, and the increasing emphasis on having an anamchara or soul friend, a form of ministry eventually associated in the Western Church with ordained male priest in the sacrament of reconciliation, or “confession.” In these earlier centuries of Celtic Christianity, however, such relationships were open to lay people as well as the ordained, women as well as men. Much of the inspiration of the Celi De movement was found in the spiritual history of the early Celtic heroes, like Patrick, Brigit, Columcille [the “holy trinity” of Irish saints], Finnian, Ita, Kevin, Maedoc, and Ciaran himself. It was also influenced by the ascetic ideals of the desert fathers and mother who had lived in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria during the fourth and fifth centuries, and whose sayings and stories were expressed in the writings of Athanasius and Cassian, among others. Clonmacnoise along with other monasteries, such as those at Tallaght, Finglas, Louth, Lismore, Terryglass, Clonfert, Ferns, and Clonbroney had members of their communities that were dedicated to these reform ideals. Certainly many of the high crosses carved when the Celi De movement was popular were influenced by their love of the saints, in general, and of soul friends, in particular. One of the sayings associated with Oengus, a leader in the Culdee movement, has him exclaiming, “O God of heaven, whoever creates a song of praise for the saint, great will be that person’s glory!”

On this first visit to Clonmacnoise, I did not know the history of the Celi De when I approached the high crosses, but I was immediately impressed with the figures that were carved on them and spirituality these stories in stone reveal. The first one I encountered, the tenth-century Cross of the Scriptures, was standing before the west door of the cathedral. Perhaps the most beautiful of any of the high crosses in Ireland, except for Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice, it is unusual not only for its slender proportions, but because its arms tilt slightly upward towards the heavens. On this high cross are dramatic scenes taken from salvation history, including one panel that may depict the Irish King Diarmaid helping St. Ciaran build his first church at Clonmacnoise. On the east face, below the depiction of Christ at the final judgement, surrounded by the blessed on one side and damned on the other, are scenes from the Hebrew Scriptures, with two chariots and three horsemen carved on its base. On the west face, various stories from the passion of Christ are portrayed, and on its base a scene of the resurrection that includes two women at the empty tomb. On the south side of this cross are two representations, the kiss of Judas above a hunting scene, while on the north side, at its base, are shown fabulous animals, including a unicorn. The north side, on the shaft of the cross, also contains three other scenes, at least one of which portrays the desert hermits Paul and Antony, representatives of the desert tradition that the Celi De loved so well.

The second high cross, the ninth-century “South Cross”, has fewer depictions of the stories from Scripture and more circular, interweaving designs, similar to the patterns found on the gigantic rock outside of the entrance to Newgrange and in the illuminated pages of the Book of Kells. In its simplicity, this cross reminded me of some of the earliest high crosses that I had seen in Ireland at the Ahenny cemetery, south of Kilkenny. Certainly more abstract in design than the other two crosses, this one, too, expresses important aspects of Celtic spirituality, primarily the ancient Celts’ sense that the soul moves in circles and that time, rather than linear, is cyclical; that our lives are not so much moving ahead as they are returning, renewing, repeating, circling, deepening. Many of the “circling” or “encirclement” prayers for protection that originated with the pagan Celts were “baptized” by Christian Celts and used on a daily basis:

Circle me, Lord; keep fear without, keep joy within.
Circle me, Lord; keep complaining without, keep peace within.
Circle me, Lord; keep despair without, keep beauty within.
Circle me, Lord; keep deceit without, keep mercy within

All these simple prayers reflect this theology of time and an awareness that the circle, rather than the pyramid, more closely epitomizes wholeness and the sacred, Christian communities and the Holy One. It is no wonder that the circular design itself stands at the center of most Celtic high crosses.

I almost missed the third high cross at Clonmacnoise, at that time standing north of the Cathedral [hence, its name, “the North Cross”], as I continued my quick circuit of the ruins. [The bus driver by this time was shouting for us to return to the bus!] I practically bypassed this ninth-century cross precisely because what remains of it is really no more than the shaft minus the circular cross-beam. In many ways, though, this cross fragment proved to be the most interesting of them all. On its three sides are carved interweaving designs, with the fourth side, totally blank. But what caught my attention immediately, as I stopped and stared at one of the panels, was a very strange looking human figure sitting with crossed legs in a Buddha-like pose. This artistic representation appeared to be more “eastern”, more like art from India, than any of Celtic origins; certainly more pagan than any Christian design that I’d seen. What was this figure doing on a Irish high cross, I wondered aloud, one that usually contains only biblical and saintly figures, along with those of Christ? With my curiosity raised to a high degree, while aware too of the rapid passing of time, I quickly snapped a picture of this strange phenomenon. Then I headed back toward the bus where the other, more “obedient” and, I might add, less enthusiastic occupants were awaiting my return, along with the driver.

Years later, I discovered that the mysterious figure on the North Cross is none other than Cernunnos, the wild pagan Celtic god of nature, fertility, and plenty, the Lord of the Animals and guardian of the doorway between the natural world and the Otherworld. His name means “horned one,” and he is often artistically depicted seated cross-legged, having antlers, and accompanied by other animals, including a stag and a ram-horned serpent, both symbols of sexual potency and rebirth. While Christians on the European continent demonized this figure, replacing his stag horns with a tail, cloven feet, and devil’s horns, Celtic Christians appreciated the positive side of what he represented: the kinship we all can and should have with nature, with passion, with our own bodies and sexuality. These values, represented by Cernunnos, a predecessor of the Green Man, an archetype of nature mysticism that emerged in the middle ages, are reflected in the stories of the Irish heroes, CuChulain and Finn MacCool, the beautiful nature poetry of the Irish hermits, and the stories of Ciaran himself which, like those of other Irish saints, are filled with references to animals and natural environment. Intimations of the continuing presence of Cernunnos are also found in the later stories of Robin Hood, Merlin, and St. Francis too, the latter who was raised [as was the medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen] in lands to which Irish missionaries had traveled centuries before.

Since that first visit to Clonmacnoise, I have been back numerous times, bringing college students and other pilgrims to this holy site which the Irish scholar, John Ryan, describes as “the greatest of Irish Monasteries.” In discussing with them its rich history, I point out those things that caught my attention years before, and discuss how much of Celtic christian spirituality is reflected in its stone monuments and high crosses. This spirituality, a unique synthesis of both pagan and Christian elements, is characterized by a deep love of stories, of nature, and of friendships so intimate and enduring that they are associated with the soul. Clonmacnoise, located at the center of Ireland and at the crossroads, truly is a "“thin place” where, with the help of St. Ciaran’s leadership, a lasting spiritual legacy took root and grew, awakening many people to the beauty of the landscape and of each other, the sacredness and fragility of our lives, and the importance of love, forgiveness, and gratitude.

Suggested readings on Clonmacnoise:

Harbison, Peter. Pilgrimage in Ireland: the Monuments and the People. Syracuse University Press, 1992

Healy, Most Rev. John. Ireland’s ancient Schools and Scholars. Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker, 1890

Manning, Conleth. Clonmacnoise. Dublin: Office of Public Works, 1994

Richardson, Hilary, and Scarry, John. An Introduction to Irish High Crosses. Cork, Ireland: the Mercier Press, 1990

Sellner, Edward. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1993

Tubridy, Mary, ed. The Heritage of Clonmacnoise. Dublin: Trinity College, 1987

Copyright  1997 by Edward Sellner.  All rights Reserved.  Used with permission.


Edward C. Sellner is a professor of Theology and Spirituality at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. 
His published works include:

Wisdom of the Celtic Saints (Ave Maria Press 1996, Bog Walk Press, 2006)
Finding the Monk Within: Great Monastic Values for Today (Ambassador Books Inc,2008)
Pilgrimage: Exploring a Great Spiritual Practice (Sorin Books,2004)
Stories of the Celtic Soul Friends: Their Meaning for Today (Paulist Press, 2003)
The Celtic Soul Friend: A Trusted Guide for Today (Ave Maria Press, 2002)
Mentoring: The Ministry of Spiritual Kindship (Cowley Publications, 2002)



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