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Celtic Christianity: Jan’s story about pilgrimage

Thursday June 25 2015

Celtic Christianity: Jan’s story about pilgrimage

Jan, 58, spent a year in Britain when she was in her forties. It was a transforming experience in many ways. She described it like this:

In my forties I was running my own consulting business, my husband was an engineer, and our adult children had left home. A minister friend said to me that midlife is a time to take out your values and reexamine them. That certainly happened to me.

I began to question everything: my values, my work, my lifestyle, my relationship with God, my spiritual path. There was a dryness in my faith and in my life. My faith was mostly in my head, not a full-body kind of worship, as the Celts would say.

I kept coming across the phrase, “follow your bliss.” I always answered, “I’d like to live in England and Scotland for a year.” All my life I have wanted to live in Britain and research women in the early Christian church, photograph English villages and visit my extended family.

A friend gave me good advice, telling me to journal about my dreams and daydreams. I realized as I dreamed that I really wanted my life to be an adventure well lived, and not just by rote and habit, which is the easy way when things are going well. I knew I didn’t want just any adventure, but I longed for an adventure with God, for my life to be renewed and transformed.

There were huge obstacles to going: the house, the cats, the 190-pound Newfoundland dog, my husband’s business and my own consulting business. But one by one the obstacles melted away, and we found ourselves on the way to England.

My cousins in England and Scotland found us two cottages to rent. When we first got there, neither cottage was ready so we travelled for five weeks. With no agenda, praying for guidance for the day, we had to simply be open to what we were given. People continually gave us ideas where to go next.

We visited all kinds of sites that are significant to Celtic history: Holy Island, Whitby, Iona, St David’s, Durham, Glastonbury, abbeys and cathedrals as well as ancient sacred sites. In many of these settings, I could feel a sense of sacredness, a sense of place, a connection with the ancestors.

I went to a conference led by Esther de Waal. One night she gave a talk on Celtic Christian spirituality. A huge light bulb went on my head. I realized, “I’ve been on a Celtic pilgrimage! That’s why I’m here. This is the path God has set out for me.”

During the rest of our time in England, we visited and revisited Celtic sites. By now I was listening to my whole body. In cathedrals, I would touch the stones. I would hug those stone Celtic crosses or standing stones in fields. The Celtic sites gave me a sense of time and timelessness, a connection with the early Celtic saints. I realized their incredible relevance for today.

As we returned to the States, I realized I had gained a sense of balance that I had never had before. I would look at something and say, “That’s God’s awesome design,” and I would marvel. I have chickens now, and I experience God’s amazing creativity in my hens every day: their itty bitty eyelashes, the variety of feathers on different parts of their body. God designed each feather, each eyelash, just right for its function. As I look at the wonder of nature, I realize I’m a part of the whole.

There’s a part of me that has become a mystic or monk. I value a quiet spiritual walk and meditation. The Celts ministered to me through the way they prayed: their sense of sacredness, the way they prayed for protection against evil, their awareness of being surrounded by angels. My values have changed so much.

Bruce Reed Pullen, in Discovering Celtic Christianity, gives a good summary of the kind of journey Jan discovered herself to be on:

A “pilgrim” is one who dedicates a period of time to the search for the holy, for a closer experience of the living God. The pilgrim travels light and wears comfortable clothing. Serious pilgrims combine both the outward journey toward a holy place and the inward journey toward self-understanding. Humor and laughter help to make the journey enjoyable when both frustration and fun, rain and rainbows, and stark scenery and beautiful horizons are encountered along with way. Worship, both private and public, is often part of the journey. A pilgrim is patient, knowing that eventually the journey will end in arrival, and in that arriving will be blessings as never before.

(This is the last post about Celtic Christiany excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab. If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Previous posts on Celtic Christianity:

Celtic Christianity: Ross’s story about art

Friday June 19 2015

Celtic Christianity: Ross’s story about art

Ross, 62, is a retired businessman who has been studying Celtic Christianity for many years. His involvement in creating an illuminated biblical passage in the Celtic style has helped him enter into the values and integrated worldview of the Celts:

Celtic Christianity allowed God to reach me on all sorts of levels. The Book of Kells [1] and the other Celtic illuminated manuscripts made me see another side of God’s truth, the way truth is connected with beauty.

I am awed by the Celtic monks’ willingness to put their lives into their art. I am awed by the beauty, elegance and style of their art. These dear brothers and sisters prepared themselves for the holy task of working with Scripture. Before they picked up a brush each day, they spent time in confession and received forgiveness. They viewed their work very much as a part of their worship.

I myself am working on a piece of Celtic art. I’ve got a nice big piece of vellum [2], and I’ve sketched out a Scripture verse. In this past paced world, where you can generate a piece of computer art in a few minutes, it’s amazing to think of the time and effort lavished on each page of the Book of Kells. Working on my own Celtic art connects me with the patience and long vision of the Celtic months. It may take me ten years to have something of quality that can be passed on.

There’s a lot to it. The art, the chemistry of missing the colors, the challenge of working with gold leaf. The Celts were so integrated with God’s creation, and I experience a little of that integration as I work on my own piece of art.

 

[1]The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels in Latin based on the Vulgate text which St Jerome completed in 384AD, intermixed with readings from the earlier Old Latin translation. The book is written on vellum (prepared calfskin) in a bold and expert version of the script known as "insular majuscule". The manuscript’s celebrity derives largely from the impact of its lavish decoration, the extent and artistry of which is incomparable. Abstract decoration and images of plant, animal and human ornament punctuate the text with the aim of glorifying Jesus’ life and message, and keeping his attributes and symbols constantly in the eye of the reader. The date and place of origin of the Book of Kells have attracted a great deal of scholarly controversy. The majority academic opinion now tends to attribute it to the scriptorium of Iona (Argyllshire), but conflicting claims have located it in Northumbria or in Pictland in eastern Scotland. It must have been close to the year 800 that the Book of Kells was written. (More about the manuscript here, and images of it here.)

[2] Vellum often refers to a parchment made from calf skin, as opposed to that from other animals. It is prepared for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books.

(This post is excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab. If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

Celtic Christianity: Paradoxes

Thursday June 11 2015

Celtic Christianity: Paradoxes

As we journey through life, we are increasingly drawn to integrate the various parts of our lives. The Celtic worldview was beautifully integrated, with all aspects of life a part of a greater whole. This integration was possible because the Celtic Christians were comfortable with paradox and mystery. With each passing year of life, most people become more comfortable with mystery and paradox, so the Celts can guide us as we move in that direction.

Some of the paradoxes embraced by the Celtic Christians are:

  • God is present in nature and everyday life through his spirit, yet God is also the exalted Creator and Redeemer. God is in all but also above all – both immanent and transcendent.
  • God is one God, yet God is three persons in community with one another.
  • We can experience God through our emotions, and we can also experience God through our minds.
  • God is at home with us in our daily life, yet God also calls us to pilgrimages where we will learn new things about him and experience him in new ways.
  • Nature is good, it is beautiful, and it displays the artistry of the Creator, yet evil is present in nature and in human nature.
  • The spiritual realm is close by and frequently touches our physical world, yet the spiritual realm is most fulfilled in heaven, which is a totally separate place.
  • God gives us great and wonderful blessings, and God is present when we experience good things, yet God is also present through our sufferings, which teach us and shape us.

Anyone who has lived a few years of life with God has experienced some of these paradoxes. The Celtic Christian acceptance of paradox without the need to explain everything can bring a wonderful perspective of lightness and joy.

To conclude this series on Celtic Christianity, for the next two weeks I’ll post testimonies about the impact of Celtic Christianity in the lives of two individuals. That means this is the last post presenting teaching about this wonderful tradition. Here’s a good summary from Sister John Miriam Jones’s book, With an Eagle’s Eye:

For the Celtic Christians, God was at hand, and their relationship with God was an intimate one.     . . . These were men and women who grasped the full significance of the incarnation, the full reality of a God who became human, like us in all things but sin. . . . So because the Celts understood God’s presence in and through the created world, for them there was no dualism. Nothing was seen as secular. All was holy, or potentially so. Thus, if all of life is holy, all the pieces which make up the mystery of each of our lives are sacred pieces. Patching them together yields the holy.

 

Some questions to ponder, write about, or talk about with friends:

1. Where are the “thin places” in your life – times and places where God seems particularly present? Spend some time thanking God for those places.

2. Pick one of the Celtic prayers in this series of blog posts and copy it into your daily calendar or onto a slip of paper. Look at the poem several times a day and pray the words, in anticipation of a greater sense of God’s presence with you throughout the day.

3. Which of the paradoxes embraced by the Celtic Christians feels most comfortable to you? Which seems most uncomfortable? Why? Spend some time reflecting on and praying about the role of paradox in your life.

(This post is excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab. If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

Celtic Christianity: sorrow for sin without self-absorption or self-punishment

Thursday June 4 2015

Celtic Christianity: sorrow for sin without self-absorption or self-punishment

Celtic Christians had a strong sense of evil in the world, with a particularly keen sense of their own tendency toward evil. This influenced their patterns of prayer in a profound way, calling them to express sorrow and sadness in prayer as well as joy and thankfulness. They understood clearly that the death of Jesus was absolutely necessary to buy back the universe from Satan, who had taken the world under his power because of human sin.

Because of the Celt’s joy in nature, it would be easy to believe that they saw everything as good. Instead they had a healthy balance between the wonder of the created world and the presence of evil in that world. With world events in our day showing us evil in new ways and inciting fear for our personal and national future, it’s especially important that we achieve a balance like that of the Celts.

Esther de Waal writes about the sense of guilt that bedeviled her childhood, the sense of never being good enough, of failing again and again in trying to measure up. In the Celts there is none of that kind of self-focused guilt. Instead, she notes that in the Celtic poems and songs,

I have found sorrow, deep sorrow, many tears, an outpouring of grief, but it is never turned on itself, never the kind of sorrow that becomes inward, self-destructive guilt, feeding on itself. Tears, as I learn them from the Celtic Christian tradition, are never what so often my own tears become: tears or rage or of self pity, tears of frustration, tears because I have put my own self at the center of the picture and feel that I have not received the treatment that I deserve – the tears of a child, in fact, for whom “life isn’t fair.” . . .  But true tears are those of real, deep personal sorrow, of repentance, that lead to the determination to change.[1]

The Celtic Christian patterns of prayer (described here and in last week’s post as well) are very appropriate in our self-focused, consumeristic world today. We find ourselves longing for an authentic spiritual practice involving the whole self. Cletic Christian prayer isn’t a superficial practice involving only a part of life. The Celts brought themselves, their very beings, to God in gratitude, in praise and in sorrow.

A testimony about Celtic Christianity and prayer:

My travels to Ireland have changed me, most noticeably in my desire to infuse my own life with more quiet. Celtic spirituality embraces the necessity for silence and solitude in order to connect with God, to hear him, to renew one’s self. The lush Irish countryside invites this kind of tranquility, but I have found that intentional quiet moments can be equally fulfilling right in my own living room in the middle of fast-paced America.

The Celtic view of prayer is simple and comprehensive: pray all the time. The Apostle Paul’s command, “Be joyful always, pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) is taken quite literally. There are volumes of books written on Celtic prayer that include prayers for every action that might occur in a normal day. From waking to eating to working to playing to sleeping, Celtic spirituality bathes each day in prayer. [2]

(Next week: the paradoxes of Celtic Christianity. This post is excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab. If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

[1]  Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, 123.
[2] Lois Rabey, “Celtic Christianity,” (2001).

Celtic Christianity: Wholistic Prayer

Thursday May 28 2015

Celtic Christianity: Wholistic Prayer

I am giving Thee love with my whole devotion,
I am giving Thee kneeling with my whole desire,
I am giving Thee love with my whole heart. . . .
I am giving Thee my soul, O God of all Gods. [1]

Celtic Christian prayer is full of praise and thankfulness, devotion and commitment, and deep sorrow for sin. The prayers and songs in Carmina Gaedelica draw us into a kind of prayer that involves the whole self: mind, body and soul.

The call to prayer, so evident in Celtic Christianity, finds its roots in the strong sense of the Triune God: God the Father who created us, God the son who redeemed us, and God the Spirit who indwells us. This is not a vague kind of prayer to the universe or to an unknown God. We may find it easy to think that because the Celts loved nature so much and found God so visible in his creation, they directed their prayers to the creation. Not at all. It is God revealed in Christ through the power of the Spirit who called them to prayer and to whom they directed their prayers.

The Celts desired to praise God with their whole beings. “My speech – may it praise you without flaw; may my heart love you, King of Heaven and of earth.” [2] Another poem says:

Lord, be it thine,
Unfaltering praise of mine!
To thee my whole heart’s love be given
Of earth and Heaven Thou King divine. [3]

The Celtic poems and prayers express deep gratitude for the created world, for the beauty of doe and fawn and horse, flowers in bloom, purple heather, the honeybees, the fish in the swift streams, even the grains of sand and the clods of earth. The prayers move smoothly from thankfulness for the beauty of earth to praise for the God of glory, the Trinity, the loving Father, the redeeming Son.

The Celts help to bring us back to an Old Testament sense of thankfulness based on the acts of God – on what God has done for all of us, not just for me. Celtic prayers focused more on thankfulness than on asking God to give them something.

Everything I have received from Thee it came,
Each thing for which I hope, from Thy love it will come,
Each thing I enjoy, it is of Thy bounty,
Each thing I ask, comes of Thy disposing. [4]

The Celtic Christian emphasis on thankfulness rather than petition can be a helpful teacher to us. In our materialistic and acquisitive culture, where we are told over and over that we don’t have enough and that more is always better, we need to stop listening to the insistent voices of the media and focus very simply on what God has already given us. First and foremost, God has given us his presence in all of life. God has given us forgiveness through Jesus Christ, a beautiful world to live in, and friends and family around us. We find it hard to notice our blessings because we focus so strongly on what we don’t have. The Celts remind us that the discipline of thankfulness will enable us to see the riches of the world God has given us.

In The Celtic Way of Prayer, Esther de Waal writes,

I have come to see that the Celtic way of prayer is prayer with the whole of myself, a totality of praying that embraces the fullness of my own personhood and allows me not only to pray with words but also, more important, with the heart, the feelings, using image and symbol, touching the springs of my imagination.

 

(Next week: more on prayer in Celtic Christianity. This post is excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab. If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

[1] Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica II, quoted by Esther de Waal in The Celtic Way of Prayer, 203-4.
[2] G. Murphy, Early Irish Lyrics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 4.
[3] The Celtic Way of Prayer, 188.
[4] Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica II, quoted in The Celtic Way of Prayer, 205.

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