Celtic comeback I -- searching for roots

It happened every year in the weeks just before St. Patrick's Day.

"Without fail, publishers would start putting out the same drivel. You'd see books of Irish blessings and Irish stories and Irish saints and Irish whatever and all of it would be green. Everything would be green -- the covers, the printing, everything," said Catholic writer Thomas Cahill, author of the 1995 bestseller, "How the Irish Saved Civilization."

In a strange way, it's getting harder to spot this annual surge. Somewhere along the way, the tartan tide washed in and never receded. These days, the Celts are on the march year round. There's more to this than St. Patrick's Day parades, a legacy of great literature and tenors singing songs that make people cry in their ale.

For things Celtic, this is a new age. Visit most music stores and, instead of a few offerings by the Chieftains, shoppers will find racks of new Celtic music, from ethereal lullabies to foot-stomping reels. There has been a similar surge of interest in Celtic history, fiction, art and spirituality. The latter can appeal to everyone from those seeking pop-pagan mysticism to Christian pilgrims searching for their roots in the bloody soil of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man.

Some people become interested in Celtic spirituality because they want to reject what they perceive as traditional Christianity, said Cahill. Others become fascinated with the Celtic past because they are seeking traditional Christianity.

"One reason Celtic spirituality is so attractive is that it's foreign, but not too foreign. It's familiar, but not too familiar. It's Western, but there is this sense of the Eastern to it, as well," he said. "The Celtic church offered a Christianity that was whole and undivided. It came before the division of East and West, let alone the division between Protestant and Catholic."

But there's a problem. Today, Celtic Christianity is -- quite literally -- in ruins. It's hard to join a church that can best be seen in the fallen remnants of ancient abbeys and in priceless, handwritten manuscripts on museum shelves. Interest in Celtic Christianity may be on the rise, but modern seekers won't be able to find congregations bearing that label in a telephone book.

Where should they go? Truth is, several churches can lay claim to some piece of the shattered Celtic cross and their claims often clash. Church history in England is as complex as a Celtic knot.

Celtic bishops took part in the first Christian councils, soon after the era of the apostles. Their churches were influenced both by missionaries from Roman Britain, such as St. Patrick, and Eastern monasticism. Celtic pilgrims traveled to Rome, but also to Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople. As Cahill's book notes, Celtic scribes and missionaries played a pivotal role in the preservation of Western culture and the spread of Christianity during the chaotic era after the fall of Rome. The Church of Rome gained control of England in the Norman Conquest of 1066, soon after the bitter 1054 division of Christianity into the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. Then the Church of England successfully broke with Rome in 1533. Yet, Anglicanism and its children were born out of a compromise between Rome and those who were protesting the teachings of Rome. Instead of returning to Celtic traditions, Anglicanism blended many of Rome's structures with the innovations of the surging Protestants.

Celtic Christianity remained buried in the rubble left by invaders and reformers.

"The Celtic church was suppressed and suppressed and, finally, it was crushed," said novelist Stephen Lawhead of Oxford, who is best known for weaving Celtic history and myths into his "Pendragon" cycle and "The Song of Albion" trilogy. "But that is part of the whole appeal of this. Celtic Christianity is like the fly caught in amber. It's frozen in time. It died before it could mutate into something else. This is why so many people yearn for it. This also speaks to the rootlessness that so many Americans feel."