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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.

Thoughts for Pentecost: The Holy Spirit, God’s empowering presence

Wednesday May 20 2015

Thoughts for Pentecost: The Holy Spirit, God’s empowering presence

“If there’s a God, then that God must have power. So I guess the idea of the Holy Spirit, a spirit related to God’s power, makes sense to me. Of course, I don’t believe in God. But if I did, there would be some kind of spirit of power.”

I heard those words from an acquaintance, and I thought it was interesting he equated the Holy Spirit with God’s power. I wonder if most Christians view the Holy Spirit that way. Christians celebrate Pentecost this month, on May 24, the day described in Acts chapter 2 when God sent the Holy Spirit upon the believers in Jesus.

One of my favorite books on the Holy Spirit is entitled God’s Empowering Presence. The author, Gordon D. Fee, has given a simple description of the Holy Spirit in his title. But what kind of empowering presence are we talking about? What kind of power?

I have noticed that the kind of power Christians expect from the Holy Spirit seems to be connected to their view of Jesus. This makes sense, because in John 14, Jesus talks to the disciples about going away and then coming back to be with them. Christians have long interpreted these words about Jesus’ presence with the disciples as referring to the Holy Spirit. This Jesus, present with us through the Holy Spirit, is fully God and fully human, so it’s not surprising that people view him in a variety of ways.

Some Christians see Jesus, first and foremost, as a wise and insightful teacher, and those Christians seem to view the Holy Spirit, first and foremost, as a supernatural source of wisdom, insight and guidance, giving them the power to live wisely. Other Christians see Jesus most clearly as a lover of all people, even the most marginalized and outcast, and those Christians seem to expect the Holy Spirit to give them power from God to love and care across boundaries and in difficult and challenging situations. Yet others, when they look at the way Jesus is described in the Gospels, first see a powerful healer, and they seem to expect the Holy Spirit to come into human life with abundant and dramatic power to heal.

In my experience, those three views of the Holy Spirit are the most common, but there are others. If one views Jesus primarily as a holy and pure man with exacting standards, then the Holy Spirit might be experienced mostly as one who rebukes and convicts of sin. The power to see our sin is important, but must be balanced by Jesus’ grace and mercy.

As the wider culture becomes more secular, an increasingly significant view of the Holy Spirit relates to Jesus as the one sent by God into the world to do God’s mission. In this view, the Holy Spirit is God’s presence with us to send us into the world with the power to engage in God’s priorities.

Surely all five of these views of Jesus and the Holy Spirit can be supported by the Bible: wise guide, lover, healer, one who convicts of sin, and sender into mission. I would argue that all five are relevant and helpful when thinking about Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

When you think of Jesus, what characteristic comes to mind first and foremost? In what ways does your view of Jesus influence your view of the Holy Spirit?

(This post appeared on May 15, 2015 in the Otago Daily Times, my local newspaper. The newspaper has a "faith and reason" column every Friday, and recently my department was asked to provide one column per month. I was rostered on for May, to my delight. And I get December as well! I'll resume my series on Celtic Christianity next week. If you'd like to receive emails when I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under "Subscribe.")

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