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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.")

Celtic Christianity: Community

Friday May 15 2015

Celtic Christianity: Community

Celtic culture was monastic and communal. Villages centered around small monasteries, and prayer and devotion of the monks contagiously spread into village life. Ordinary village people often prayed the daily offices – the liturgical daily prayers at set times – with the monks or at home with their families. The pattern of each day was punctuated with calls to prayer at specific times. This created a rhythm in each day, as well as a rhythm over the course of the year as the prayers changed to reflect the church calendar.

The Celts embraced community in part because they were so aware of their connection to angels and saints. The Celts’ “thin places” reflected their awareness of the ways the supernatural realm touches the physical realm; the angels and saints, to the Celts, were close by at certain times and in certain places. This gave them a sense of community with the angels and saints, and that sense of community spilled over into community with the people around them.

The Celts looked for people to act as mentors for them, and they called those mentors “soul friends.” Having a soul friend was an integral part of living in community. In our day, more people are finding great help from working with a spiritual director, a person to meet with on a regular schedule, perhaps monthly, who helps us discern the hand of God in our lives. A partner on the journey feels like a helpful support.

Women were valued as leaders in Celtic Christian society, and the female leaders of monasteries for women were regarded with as much respect as the male leaders of monasteries. Brigid of Kildaire and Hilda of Whitby are just to examples of women who founded monasteries and were viewed as leaders in the wider Christian community. [1] The leadership of women, along with the partnership between men and women, was one of the aspects of Christian community that was lost when the church in Celtic lands became more connected to the Roman church.

Celtic Christians embraced the importance of hospitality, aware that the way they treated strangers mirrored the way they treated Christ. According to Sister John Miriam Jones, they “treasured the sacramental understanding, ‘Christ in friend and stranger.’” [2] The Celts exercised community as a community.

Celtic Christians also valued mission very highly. Sister Jones writes,

Celtic monks had a compulsion to share the joy of their consciousness of the Holy Three and of God’s creation. The gospel dictum of mission allowed such sharing, and they seemed possessed by that call. . . . Within their passionate style of evangelization was a sensitivity to the human dignity of those they encountered. . . They respected the responses of those who resisted. Ultimately missionary efforts were viewed as the Holy Spirit’s domain, so despite the intensity of their work, the results were accepted with humility and abandonment. [3]

Mission was viewed as a calling of the community, and mission efforts were undertaken by the community.

Another aspect of Celtic Christian community, which may seem unusual to us, is their embrace of silence. Silence was an important discipline in the Celtic monastic tradition, and that tradition influenced everyday life outside the monasteries. We may find it easy to believe that community always involves a lot of communication; the Celts embraced silence as a form of communication with God that forms one of the foundations for community life.

This blending of silence and community can sound attractive at many stages and phases of life. Time to think and pray, and time to reflect, become important at certain times. The security of the embrace of the community, to uphold us and encourage us as we reflect, think and pray, feels like a wonderful balance.

The Celts’ practice of their faith was so integrated and wholistic. Hospitality, mission, art, connection to the earth, women and men serving together, silence and community were all woven together as a seamless garment. Their unified faith that spread into every aspect of life can be a tremendous model for us as we seek to live in relationship with God in our fragmented culture.

[1] Bruce Reed Pullen, Discovering Celtic Christianity (Mystic, Conn: Twenty-Third Publications, 1999), 72-79, 122-130.
[2] Sr. John Miriam Jones, S.C., With an Eagle’s Eye (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press), 28.
[3] Ibid., 58-59.

(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: The Trinity

Saturday May 9 2015

Celtic Christianity: The Trinity

Deeply ingrained in the heart and soul of Celtic Christian spirituality is the mystery of one God in three persons, a truth that is taught clearly in the Bible, even though the word Trinity is not found in Scripture. Three in one; one in three. Esther de Waal writes:

Here is a profound experience of God from a people who are deeply Trinitarian without any philosophical struggle about how that is to be expressed intellectually. Perhaps the legend of St. Patrick stooping down to pick up the shamrock in order to explain the Trinity is after all more significant than we might have thought. It is as though he were saying to those early Irish people: Your God is a God who is Three-in-One and this is most natural and immediately accessible thing in the world. [1]

The image of three in one is found frequently in Celtic art and poetry. Analogies from nature and daily life permeate the Celtic poems about the Trinity:

     Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
     Three joints of the finger, but still only one finger fair,
     Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
     Frost, snow-flakes and ice, all water their origin share,
     Three Persons in God; to one God alone we make prayer. [2]

Sometimes Celtic poems go on at length about the Holy Three, but some are brief and vivid, like this one:

     O Father who sought me
     O Son who bought me
     O Holy Spirit who taught me. [3]

I wonder if enthusiasm for the Trinity has fallen into disfavor because our generation has such a nigh need to be able to explain and understand everything in a rational way. I can remember as a child being very enthusiastic about the Trinity. In my simple childhood faith, I enjoyed the riddle of one being three and three being one. The Celts’ enthusiasm for this great mystery has rekindled in me a joy and wonder at the great truth that we simply cannot understand everything about God, and we don’t need to.

A personal story about the way Celtic Christianity helped one person: Integration of so many things

By Sandra, age 30

My background was Roman Catholic and Assembly of God, and I didn’t know how to marry them. I would go into Bible studies in my Assembly of God church and say, “We should take care of the environment,” and no one would respond. On every subject, I got a lot of answers, but no questions, no mystery. Among Catholics, I would talk about the importance of an active faith that relies on the Holy Spirit, and no one could relate. In both settings, I saw in church life a dichotomy between the physical world and the spiritual world. The Celtic Christians just did not see that split. I found in Celtic Christianity an integration of so many things: care for creation, reliance on the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in everyday life, God being present and real and yet also full of mystery. I get so frustrated that we have lost so much of the unique and balanced Celtic world view.

(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 (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 38, 39.
[2] Eleanor Hull, The Poem Book of the Gael, quoted in de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, 39-40.
[3] Douglas Hyde, Religious Songs of Connacht, Volume II (London: Dublin, 1906, reprint Irish University Press, 1972), 39.

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