Reflections on Celtic Spirituality.
I love ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ where all manner of ordinary household items from the ‘there and then’ of years gone by are paraded in the ‘here and now’ of today, explained and valued. There are often huge surprises for people, making me wish I had kept more things handed down from my Grandparents. For younger people they were just things, novelties that they had not seen before but for older folk they were the stuff of memories, a nostalgic rediscovery of the past that had largely been lost. I recall handing down my prized Matchbox cars and Dinky Toys from my childhood to my son Jonny which of course although new to Jonny were evoking all sorts of memories for me.
This is what has been happening these last 35 years or so with Celtic spirituality. There is an enormous interest still in all things Celtic, although it may well have peaked. Publishers were falling over themselves to get book after book published while the interest was there. Some are dry as dust academic works with hundreds of footnotes and others far worse, the ‘flavour of the month’ popular romantic twee stuff. The Celtic themepark ‘Be a celt for a day’ experience, like some sort of spiritual Disneyland.
For the Northumbria Community there was never any design or intent to be this or that, including Celtic. It was and is a simple fact that as we struggled to obey the call of God on our lives, as we attempted to respond to the questions ‘Who is it that you seek?’ ‘How then shall we live?’ ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ as we researched an authentic Northumbrian spirituality, we discovered (in the history and teaching of the Celtic church in Northumbria) rays of light in the darkness, coherence in the confusion that made sense of the nonsense within us and around us and gave us an understanding of our own spiritual journey in God. The ‘here and now’ of our own journey began to make sense as the there and then’ of some aspects of Celtic spirituality became a treasure chest of wisdom that gave us a language to explain and express what God had laid on our hearts.
The greatest discovery was that the heart of Celtic spirituality was simply living the life, following the Way, travelling the journey in the everyday ordinariness of life –the pain and the pleasure, the heartaches and the hopes, the disappointment and the dreams. This is of great importance because this is essentially what spirituality is.
WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY?
Dom John Chapman, the Benedictine Abbot famous for his ‘Spiritual Letters’ once said that all spiritual writers disagreed with one another and that he disagreed with all of them. A healthy reminder that spirituality takes many shapes and forms. It is also a much used word in most traditions today and although historically it is a term that has developed and changed in its emphases, put very basically its modern use is simply that which describes how we live out what we most profoundly believe.
Spirituality then, describes our approach to life – what we think, what we do and how we do it, what we see etc. Perhaps we get at least a similarity of its meaning when we talk about a person’s mentality, or mind set or world view.
Sr Benedicta Ward writing about the spirituality of St Cuthbert hits the mark when she says ‘By spirituality then, I mean what Cuthbert himself thought and said and did and prayed in the light of the gospel of Christ.’ Spirituality is how we live, what we think, what we say, what we do, how we pray in embracing and expressing the gospel in our everyday roles, responsibilities and relationships. For our Community this embracing and expressing of the gospel is through the lenses of our Rule of life, Availability and Vulnerability.
Our personal history and spirituality is like a deep well of accumulated values and experiences from which we can all draw wisdom and strength for the various tasks, decisions and relationships we face in everyday life. In the good times and bad times, the joy and the sorrow that make up the unfinished-ness of life.
In this we are all painfully aware that not everything we accumulate is helpful and good for us, and we need to be clearing the well from time to time. It was Bernard of Clairvaux who said ‘Everyone has to drink from his/her own well’ so if the water becomes stagnant it can poison us and we need (with the help of the Holy Spirit) to keep the water fresh and flowing, by keeping a constant check to see if there is any rubbish blocking the flow of our growth in God.
This is why it is crucially important that our spirituality must not be seen as a separate compartment marked sacred whereas real life is lived in all the other compartments marked secular. To do this is to set limits and put boundaries on God. i.e. We only look for Him and are ready to listen to Him when we are involved in those sacred things – prayer, singing of hymns, meditation – and if for whatever reason we fail in our doing of these things then as a consequence we don’t meet with God at all. (Or worse is the thinking that if God speaks only through the Bible – then all we have to do is shut the Bible and this effectively shuts out God).
Worship is all that we are and all that we do, both inside and outside the structures of the church. All of our lives is a search for God so that everything we are and everything we do is an offering of worship to God. Spirituality is the whole of our lives because it is not about doing but about being. So that whatever we ‘do’ – we do it as the person we are, our personhood (mind, emotions, body, spirit, will) is an integrated whole. This is our being – the same person going to work, cooking a meal, reading the Bible, mowing the lawn, shouting at the kids, saying our prayers, watching the TV, laughing, crying, bored, excited, angry, sad whatever – spirituality touches and influences every part of our lives and every part of our lives touches and influences our spirituality – the life of the whole person in relationship with God. Relationship is not static but dynamic, it is alive and growing, developing, ‘reaching out’ in a constant movement toward change and transformation.
This is why it is messy, because it is always in process and any building site is messy and it is messy until it is finished but there is a goal, a purpose which makes it (in our better moments) an exciting adventure filled with mystery or to put that in the vernacular ‘we don’t know what on earth we are doing or where the hell we are going’ but God does!
One of the great discoveries for us was that we don’t ever make this journey on our own. Not only do we have many travelling companions today, we are also aware that many have trodden these paths before us, and that we are ‘treading where the saints have trod’, connected by faith to ‘the great cloud of witnesses’who urge us to go farther on and further in. Hebrews 12:1-3.
So although we freely acknowledge that spirituality takes many forms, has many streams, we are connected by a common spirituality to the desert, Celtic, Monastic, Contemplative stream. This is where we are rooted, where we belong and where we are most comfortable. That does not mean that we do not draw great help and inspiration from the many other streams and traditions that make up the rich tapestry of God’s Church. We do!
All we have ever taught is that God has shown us, as he has shown many others ‘a way to express The Way’. God forbid any arrogance or stupidity that says we have ‘got it all’, that is the language of cults and sects.
Nor are we are seeking to replicate an era long past and we have sometimes struggled with the free use of the word ‘Celtic’ because it is much misunderstood, often misrepresented and misused by popularism. e.g. The ‘weirdies and the beardies,’ the trendy latest fad, the ridiculous nostalgia that romanticises about ‘wild waves crashing on misty shores’ as expressions of Celtic Christianity.
All that we are saying (and very tentatively at that) is that some of those biblical and ethical emphases that were central to the lifestyle and teaching of desert and Celtic monasticism have real similarities to the emphases that God has laid on our own hearts. The discovery of some of their emphases in our search for a Northumbrian spirituality, gave us a language to understand ourselves, and helped us to tell our story.
WHO WERE THE CELTS?
In the centuries BC, the northern neighbours of ancient Greece and Rome were known by the description KELTOI = strangers or hidden ones. The word CEILT = ‘an act of concealing’ from which the word Kilt, the short male skirt of traditional Celtic dress comes and we all know what a kilt conceals under it!
A southern flank of these peoples had come South of the Black Sea and had settled in that part of modern Turkey known as Galatia in biblical times. The Celtic peoples and languages were also to be found in much of Europe including Brittany, Gaul and the British Isles. Then, following the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons the Celtic people were largely pushed to the western extremes settling in Cornwall, Wales, Isle of Man, Cumbria, SW Scotland and the whole of Ireland. So from the earliest times almost all of Britain and Ireland was, culturally at least, Celtic. So that the word Celtic covers a whole culture which included pagan and pre-Christian elements as well as the so called Celtic church.
They were rural, tribal, always on the move people, ‘pagani’ and as such they were different to the Roman church which identified with the dominant power of the cities. The Roman church was unsure how to respond to these people as they were relational rather than rational, inspirational rather than institutional.
Ireland (unlike Britain and Gaul) was untouched by the Roman Empire, thus it was from Ireland that Celtic spirituality had its roots and passion and expansion. The primary missionary movement across Britain which became a hinge in history as much of Europe was evangelised e.g. Patrick to Ireland 432, Columba 560 Ireland to Iona, Aidan 635 to Lindisfarne. Columbanus 591 to France, Italy and so it goes on. There are ancient sites/crosses all across Europe of Irish and Northumbrian saints bearing witness to the monastic mission.
So then we want to learn from history not live in it. We are not out to replicate a period of time as many do in their expression of faith. So that we have17th century language, 18th century hymns, 19th century morality, and 20th century middle class values, rather than a contemporary 21st century expression of life in God. So although there is no doubt at all that we have been and are greatly informed and greatly inspired by aspects of Celtic spirituality, we are not a Celtic Community. That is not our ‘Reason to Be.’ We are ‘a new monastic’ Community in that we are simply among those who are trying to carry the baton that has been handed on to our own generation, so that in some very small way we may fan the flame, continue the tradition and be part of the prayers of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Celtic Saints and Missionaries for our own generation.
In the Celtic Christian world every ‘church’ was monastic. So when we talk about the Celtic church it is synonymous with the monastery, with people living in Community. It wasn’t simply a matter of just declaring truths but living out the gospel in community. They would have identified with Elisabeth Goudge in her paraphrasing of Francis of Assissi; ‘Francis went everywhere preaching the gospel and sometimes he used words.’ (Preach the gospel, if necessary, use words).
It wasn’t so much a central emphasis on GNOSIS = to know, resulting in a rational, propositional presentation of gospel facts. This can lead to the arrogance of a ‘we’ve got it all’ attitude and if there is a rejection of the propositions, it often means a rejection of the person too.
Rather it has a central emphasis on ACSESIS = to live, which is relational and personal. It is the ‘come and see’ of John 1.43. It is seeking to be ‘at Home with Jesus’. It is asking the questions, ‘Who is it that you seek?’ and ‘How then shall we live?’
Magnus Magnussen put it well when he observed that Roman Clergy said ‘Do as I say and expected to be obeyed, the Celtic clergy said ‘Do as I do’ and hoped to be followed.’ That’s why Soulfriends were encouraged – Anam chara.
The monastery was a monastic school where the seeking of God was ‘the one thing necessary’ – the very foundation of life. ‘Teaching what we live by living what we teach’ is a lifestyle we do want to replicate. This is why (as a Community) we talk about ‘a new monasticism’ because we believe that God has called us together as a contemporary expression of the desert, monastic tradition, which draws from and is inspired by our Celtic heritage.
2] Sacramental Principle
This is a celebration of ordinariness and an earthed humanity. They believed that nothing was secular because everything was sacred. Nothing is outside of God’s love and grace. David Adam writes ‘The vision of the Celts was sacramental rather than mystical. They saw God in and through things rather than direct visions. The Celt says we must take time to learn to play ‘The 5 stringed Harp’ = the 5 senses.’ What we hear, see, smell, taste, touch all speaks of God. It is incarnational living as the Apostle John wrote ‘That which we have seen from the beginning..’ 1John 1
It was a “holy worldliness” to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase where a holistic approach to life was expressed daily in the real incarnational ordinariness of life as it is. There was no false divide between the sacred and secular. Where an integrated life, of body and soul, work and worship, wonder and ordinariness; prayer and life are the norm. A sacramental outlook that because it sees God in everything, encourages a reverence for God’s creation and a respect for the care of his world. An everyday spirituality of ordinariness accessible to all. Never anti –intellectual it was an earthed spirituality that met people where they were. People did not have to climb ecclesiastical walls or learn ‘holy God speak’ to encounter ‘a thin place.’
Esther De Waal puts it well; ‘The Celtic approach to God opens up a world in which nothing is too common to be exalted and nothing is so exalted that it cannot be made common.’ They believed that the presence of God infused daily life and thus transforms it, so that at any moment, any object, any job of work, can become a place for encounter with God. In everyday happenings and ordinary ways, so that we have prayers for getting up, lighting the fire, getting dressed, milking the cow etc.
3] Contemplation and Mission
A commitment to Mission (meaning ‘being sent/obedience to the task’) as connecting with people, community on the road, building relationships, exploring spirituality; living in the story and living out the story. For the Community it is engaging in mission out of a context of being in the monastery.
It is consciously putting personhood before productivity; it is acknowledging that ‘I’m a human being not a human doing’. It is freedom to be, to embrace intentional uselessness and waste time with God. Thomas Merton describes this well, “The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness; in a certain sense he is supposed to be useless, because his mission is not to do this or that job but to be a man of God.”
This is exemplified by the Ebb and Flow of the tides of Holy Island. It is significant that Aidan, coming from Iona chose Lindisfarne as his mission centre because it’s closed off from the mainland for half the day. Aidan chose Lindisfarne because it reminded him of Iona but also because it reminded him of the need for the cell and the coracle, being and doing, monastery fuelling mission, seeking God in the heart in order to better serve God in the world. It is seen in the blessing from our Morning Office, ‘May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you wherever he may send you… may he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you…’
The Nether Springs spoke of the tide coming in, enclosure, seeking God and facing self in the cell.
The Upper Springs spoke of the tide going out, encounter, the initiatives of the Spirit in the coracle.
The inner journey – the landscape of the heart and the outer journey – the landscape of the land are both part of the same life embracing/expressing availability to God and to others. Life was seen as a pilgrimage.
Frederick Beuchner wrote ‘Faith is a journey without maps’ and part of our availability to God and to others is a willingness to walk in the paradox of life’s uncertainties; to be content with living the questions without having to know all the answers.
Moving into the unknown as well as the known, wandering for the love of Christ (wondering for the love of Christ too) aware that our God is a God of surprises. Our life may involve pilgrimage and peregrinati in a physical sense and this is certainly part of our Community’s vision but for us all – the tide is in, the tide is out, the coracle is on the sea – speaks of the inner journey of faith expressed differently for all of us in obedience to the Spirit’s nudges. Mission is a mixture of going, staying, moving on, doing, being, excitement, mundane in the home and market place. Finding God at work in the everyday ordinariness of life as it is.
Hospitality of Heart. Welcoming God into their hearts each day but also welcoming others because that person could be Christ.
When Cuthbert went to his Inner Farne solitude he built a guest room for God. It is being aware of the teaching of Matthew 25 ‘Inasmuch as you did it to the least… you did it to me’ and of Hebrews 13 which speaks of our ‘entertaining angels unaware’.
Hospitality was seen in care for the poor. King Oswald gave many gifts to Aidan but he in turn shared them with the ordinary people, including a horse given away and a silver plate melted down, broken up and distributed. ‘Aidan stopped and spoke to whoever he met, both rich and poor. If they were heathen, he invited them to embrace the mystery of faith and be baptised. If they were already believers, he strengthened their faith.’
It was seen in an all embracing welcome of people as people, not seeing labels or sex or denominations as we often see today. They were committed to love of God, love of neighbour and love of one another, and this meant that although solidly under a Trinitarian banner, ‘to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength’ it did not mean a narrow parochialism, insularity or separatism but a desire for a true ecumenism where all streams and traditions of God’s rich diverse Tapestry called the Church, are seen as an enrichment, and where all those who seek are welcomed. Women were truly equal and were often valued leaders e.g. Hild, Brigid, Ebba. A further example is that in this period inheritance law came through the maternal line.
5] Creation Affirming
Love of nature. An awareness of the unity of creation. Columbanus ‘If you wish to understand the Creator, first understand His creation.’ Not pantheism, which is a worshipping of the stones but an affirmation of the wonder of the One who made the stones. Not New Age extremes that substituted Mother Earth for Father God but love for, respect for the physical environment. They were aware of the Cross over Creation. That God was to redeem the whole created order. This was seen in the quiet care of all living things and a special affinity with animals that preceded Francis of Assissi.
They had a strong sense of place and knew the importance of the Land, of roots and identity. They spoke of thin places, holy ground. Many of the problem spots in our world are all about land, roots, identity, holy places.
This is one of the reasons for Celtic spirituality being so popular. In a world of pending ecological disasters of over population, global warming, food shortages, pollution, Aids, traffic gridlock and industrial chaos, little wonder Celtic spirituality appeals.
6] Spiritual Warfare
Perhaps coming from their Druidic, pagan culture they had a very real sense of the spiritual world. They understood spiritual warfare as an everyday reality – the Sign of Cross was Trinity affirming and Cross exalting. A saving sign of protection to keep away evil, not superstition but a statement of fact.
Liturgical Prayer was seen as a confronting of the Powers in the heart (cell) as well as in our place of mission where Bede’s history records countless episodes of Signs and Wonders, and the erecting of High Crosses at the crossroads.
It was the equivalent of Exodus 17 where Aaron and Hur held up the hands of Moses so that God’s people would prevail in battle. Liturgical prayer was a form of spiritual warfare by holding up the hands of the Church through prayer
The use of the ‘sign of the Cross’ is a powerful symbol still! As is the Celtic CAIM prayer of encircling. As is the use of blessing = thinking and wishing well on others (benediction) as opposed to cursing = thinking and wishing ill on another (malediction). Our own Midday Office – Theresa’s Bookmark is another good example ‘Let nothing disturb thee.. alone God suffices’..
7] Trinitarian Belief
The emphasis on the Trinity cannot be overstated. It’s always good to remind ourselves as Christians, that Community began in the heart of God. That the self sufficient God who is love, is Community within Himself. And that all Community flows from this.
God is Trinity, that is, Persons in relationship and the profound truth is that we are made in His image and likeness. Our Christian faith and tradition tells us that it is God’s purpose in and through Christ to work towards fully restoring that image and likeness in every expression of His Church.
The early Celtic Northumbrian spirituality had a profound understanding of this. One of their prayers stated, ‘God is Father, Son and Spirit. Therefore God is Three in One. Therefore God is Community. If we are made in the image of God, Then we will find our fulfilment in Community (in relationships of love).’
We can affirm every day the beginning of Patrick’s Breastplate hymn. ‘I bind unto myself this day the strong Name of the Trinity.’ It is a living awareness that God the Father is FOR us, God the Son is WITH us, and God the Holy Spirit is IN us. ‘Greater is He who is in you, that he who is in the world’ wrote the Apostle John.
8] Love of Learning
A deep love of the Scriptures as God’s memory book of relationships and encounter. To listening & learning from the Scriptures, with both the prayerful reading of Lectio divina and studied research of the Bible encouraged. They had a great love of learning but it was a yearning for wisdom not necessarily knowledge. They had a wonderful balance and were known as Saints and Scholars. They wanted to learn how to live, how to follow Jesus as Lord as a way of life.
Monasteries were centers of learning and education where the embracing of the Arts were encouraged – music, story, calligraphy, jewellery were all ‘windows on Heaven’ and creative gifts were encouraged. They had poetic imagination, creative artistry (Book of Kells etc) and used dreams, imagery, symbols and storytelling to pass on what they had learned about life in God.
9] Understanding of Time
Not western filofax mentality of ‘every second counts’ in 100 mph living. Time was a sacred dimension and had to be used wisely and well. They understood that when God created time he made plenty of it. We all have all the time we need to do anything we want to do – the problem is not ‘I don’t have the time’ because we all (Prime Minister, Pope or pleb) have all the time there is – 24 hour day, 60 min hour etc. The problem is in what we truly value which of course can be see in our prioritising.
They didn’t see time as chronological only i.e. one historical event following on from another but God was, is and is to come, the Eternal Now God, whose name is always I AM! Jesus is the same Yesterday, Today and Forever.
So the past, present and future are all linked to God’s Now. So Columba, Brigid, Hild, Aidan are all our spiritual contemporaries. Read again Hebrews 12 with this is mind. See the relay Race, the passing of the Baton as the ongoingness of the Communion of the Saints and the continuity of the Church Militant and Triumphant.
This is the spirituality we attempt to embrace as a Community. It is a discipleship still under construction, full of complex, paradoxical, ‘don’t know what we are doing’ disorder but it is life. Incomplete, aspiring, getting better, a ‘let us live up to what we have already attained’ Phil 3:16 as well as ‘pressing on’ Alone and Together.
To discover and explore our spirituality, our way of life is a journey. Not as is often depicted as a straight line from A to B but a maze of criss-crossed lines beginning at W or P or C and going via X and S. It is dynamic, moving, changing, often mundane and routine, often scary and uncertain and most of all messy. Mike Yaconelli put it well in stating that ”Spirituality is not a formula, it is not a test, it is a relationship. Spirituality is not about competency, it is about intimacy. Spirituality is not about perfection, it is about connection. The way of the spiritual life begins where we are now in the mess of our lives. Accepting the reality of our broken flawed lives is the beginning of spirituality, not because the spiritual life will remove our flaws but because we let go of seeking perfection and, instead, seek God, the One who is present in the tangled-ness of our lives. Spirituality is not about being fixed, it is about God being present in the mess of our unfixedness.”
The decisions and choices we keep trying to make (aspiration) say a lot about our values, our attitude to life – to God, to others and to ourselves. It’s not only what we say but what we show that reveal our true priorities and the real meaning we give to relationships and to material things. I’m talking here about desire not competence; the desire expressed so well in ‘Children’s Letters to God’. “Dear God, I’m doing the best I can. Love Frank aged 6”
Let me finish with a quote from a great hymn from the past. ‘My goal is God Himself not joy nor peace nor even blessing but Himself my God. Tis His to lead me there, not mine but His, at any cost, dear Lord, by any road’.