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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.

Celtic Christianity: the earth and art

Wednesday April 29 2015

Celtic Christianity: the earth and art

It’s no accident that there are rabbits, mice, lizards and fish drawn between the lines and around the edges of the pages of the Book of Kells. The profound connection that the Celts felt between their lives and God’s creation spilled over into their art.

Sister John Miriam Jones, in her book With an Eagle’s Eye, writes that their sense of God’s presence and love led the Celts

to artistic expressions using metal, wood, stone, paint, words, and music. These wholehearted art lovers found countless ways to utilize the arts in expressing their beliefs and their love. The monastic era coincides with the production of the best of Celtic metalwork, manuscripts and sculpture – all of which attest to their awareness of and yearning for God’s immanent presence. [1]

She believes that all of this creativity and artistry comes from the truth that “deeply felt love requires expression.” [2]

The Celts saw in the creation the deep love of the Creator, and they felt moved to create also. Their art was deeply symbolic. The Celtic knots that have become so popular in jewelry and art and symbolic of the love of God, which has no beginning or end.

The Celtic cross, which has also become popular in recent years, is a cross with a circle behind it. The circle probably represents the earth or the sun, and the cross represents Jesus dying to conquer the forces of evil. To the Celts, the cross as a shape in art would never be separated from the strong meaning of Jesus’ death.

Many of the ancient high crosses in Ireland and Britain, large stone works of art with a worn frieze decorating the surface of each cross, show the story of our God who rescues, saves and feeds us. Often both the crucified Christ and the risen Christ are depicted. On many of the crosses Christ is shown with outstretched, wounded hands to bless the world as both Creator and Redeemer.

Part of the appeal of Celtic Christianity in our time is this connection between the creation, artistic expression and our faith in God. As we experience God’s handiwork in nature, we may identify with the Celts who lived among the trees and hills and woodland animals, and who saw all of nature as an expression of God’s creativity and as a true gift from God.

As we engage in any artistic expression, whether it’s quilting or drawing or baking or making music or woodworking or writing poetry, we receive deep encouragement from the Celts who seamlessly integrated their faith and their art. They created art for the love of Christ. They experienced themselves as connected to their Creator as they pursued artistic expression, and they expressed their understanding of God in symbols that were full of meaning for them. We can do the same.

These symbols and images can play a role when we want to break free of the pervasive, materialistic images bombarding us in the media. They may help us deepen our connection to the eternal and the holy. Celtic knots and scampering mice can become anchors for us, connecting us to God in a nonverbal but profound way. Esther de Waal, herself descended from Celts, writes in her wonderful book, The Celtic Way of Prayer:

Above all the Celtic tradition has reminded me of the importance of images, those foundational images whose depths and universal character have always brought such riches to Christian understanding. Most people today are being constantly battered by the succession of superficial images that meet us in the world of consumerism, in television and in advertising, where there is no chance to spend time testing their true meaning. Therefore, it now becomes vital, more than ever, to recover the fundamental images of fire, wind, bread, water, of light and dark, of the heart. These are the great impersonal symbols that are universal, understood by Christian and non-Christian alike. An Indian Christian priest once said that they were like a great bridge that Christ has thrown across the world and across history so that men and women may walk to meet each other and be completed in him. [3]

(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.”)

[1] Sister John Miriam Jones, S.C., With an Eagle’s Eye (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1998), 65.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 27.

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

Celtic Christianity: pilgrimage and the Celtic sense of place

Wednesday April 22 2015

Celtic Christianity: pilgrimage and the Celtic sense of place

Celtic Christians found God everywhere, in the smallest, mundane household activity, in nature, and in sites where something special had happened to a saint. They saw every good thing as a gift from God, and they saw difficult experiences as a different kind of gift, a way to learn or a call to repentence.

The fire that warmed the hearth and lightened the darkness spoke clearly that God is light. The bread that filled the hungry belly spoke of God’s provision. The trees and animals spoke of God’s artistry and care for creation.

The Celts saw God clearly in nature. By no means were they pantheists, equating the creation with God. Instead, they understood that the supernatural realm is very close to the physical world; in fact they believed and experienced the spiritual world touching our world in certain places. They had a name for the places and times when the spiritual world was most near: “thin places.” Water, oak forests and mountains were considered to be “thin places,” as were saints’ birthplaces and sites of past miracles and extraordinary events.

The significance of “thin places” drew the Celtic Christians into frequent pilgrimages. Celts valued travelling for a spiritual purpose, to visit a place or places where God might be close by. In Discovering Celtic Christianity, Bruce Reed Pullen describes five characteristics of Celtic pilgrimages. [1] These principles apply to pilgrimages today.

1. “Pilgrimage is purposeful; it has a destination.” Sometimes we undertake a pilgrimage to return to a place of memories; sometimes we go somewhere new, where we anticipate a deeper connection with God. Wherever we go, we expect a significant, integrated connection between our inner journey of faith and this outer journey. The Celts undertook pilgrimages not because an abbot or priest suggested it, but because of an inner prompting. They undertook their journeys “for the love of Christ.” [2]

2. “Pilgrimage is renewing.” We might not know why we are drawn to a place, but we expect that our inner being will be renewed and revitalized because of what we experience.

3. “Pilgrimage is a time for reflection.” A pilgrim may resemble a tourist for part of the day, looking at interesting sites and absorbing the historical aspects of a certain place. But a pilgrim always draws on Jesus’ pattern of prayerful reflection, taking time to be alone with God as a part of the journey.

4. “When a pilgrimage includes other pilgrims, the excitement of the journey is shared.” The Celtic experience of community spilled over to pilgrimages. Certainly some Celts went on pilgrimages alone, but others shared the experience with a partner or small group of fellow travelers.

5. “Pilgrimage transforms us.” A pilgrimage is a journey taken in search of the holy, and the Celts understood that it is impossible to encounter our Holy God without being changed in some way,  perhaps as expected, or more likely, in a very unexpected way. In fact, the very nature of a pilgrimage enables us to expect the unexpected. Pilgrims give up their commitment to planning and control, and they allow God to lead and guide.

I recently visited the town in Virginia where I lived in junior high. We left Virginia when I was 14, and I had never been back. We found the houses I lived in, the schools I attended, the church where I went to Sunday school, and the beach and pool where I swam. My husband said he had never seen me so happy. I didn’t set out to find these places with a spirit of pilgrimage, but as I look back on that visit, I definitely feel that I found something holy, a piece of my childhood stamped with the presence of God in those formative years of my life.

We may take a pilgrimage to a place of significance from our childhood or our parents’ lives. How many people have visited the Normandy beaches or the Nazi concentration camps with a sense of pilgrimage?

When I was a pastor in a congregation in Seattle, I took a group of women from our church to a monastery in Idaho every year, and that journey felt like a pilgrimage. As we drove across the eastern part of Washington State, a broad, wind-tossed landscape, we felt the stresses and irritations of city life dropping away. The trip prepared us for the profound silence and warm hospitality we found at the monastery, which enabled us to look at our lives afresh with God’s eyes.

The Celts were not people full of plans, organization and the need to control. They expected God’s guidance on every step of their pilgrimage journeys, and they had an amazing ability to expect God to work through the events of daily life. As I undertake pilgrimages, where I give up some sense of control, I can feel myself practicing the kind of responsiveness they had toward God.

(This coming Saturday, April 25, 2015, is the 100th anniversary of the landing of the Australia and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli, the site of huge loss of life. So many New Zealanders are talking these days about their pilgrimages to Gallipoli, either in the past or hoped for in the future. So I was happy that the section of my book that I wanted to post for this week focuses on pilgrimage.  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.”)

[1] Bruce Reed Pullen, Discovering Celtic Christianity (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1999), 10-12.
[2] Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 2-3.

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

Celtic Christianity: the first post of a series

Thursday April 16 2015

Celtic Christianity: the first post of a series

A few years ago a friend from Ireland gave me a book full of pictures from the Book of Kells. I was astonished at the beauty and complexity of the illustrations. It was my first introduction to Celtic Christianity.

The Book of Kells is a lavishly illustrated version of the four Gospels, produced in Ireland between the seventh and ninth centuries. Capital letters are colorful figures of people or animals, intertwined with Celtic knots, those crossed lines with no beginning or end that we see so often today in Celtic jewelry.

There are animals everywhere in the Book of Kells. Fish swim between lines of text; rabbits and mice scamper between the lines. The artists clearly had a deep fondness for God’s creatures. A lightness and exuberance characterize every page of the Book of Kells, along with a joy in nature and artistry. These are typical characteristics of Celtic Christianity.

Who were the Celts? The Celts were tribal people who can be traced as early as 500 B.C. in France and Germany. The Roman Empire pushed some of the tribes north and west to Great Britain. Within Britain, the Romans pushed them yet further north and west.

Christianity began to come to the British Isles in the second and third centuries after Christ. In the fifth century, St. Patrick was one of many people who brought the Christian faith to Ireland. Because the Christian faith flourished within the already existing Celtic culture, and because the Celtic lands were so far from Rome, Celtic Christianity has a unique flavor and emphasis.

What we call “Celtic Christianity” flourished from about the fifth to ninth centuries throughout the British Isles, but particularly concentrated in the west and north: Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. There were also Celts in Brittany in France. Today these lands often host Celtic festivals, both Christian and pre-Christian. In this blog post and the posts over the next few weeks, we will look specifically at the unique flavor of Christianity as we believe it was practiced in Celtic lands from the middle to the end of the first millennium.

The Celts were described briefly in Greek literature in the centuries before and after Jesus, but very little is known about the pre-Christian Celts. We do know that in the Roman Empire the Celts were renowned for their ability to learn very long stories and poems from memory. Much of what we know about Celtic Christianity we have learned through the poems, prayers, blessings and ballads that have been passed down through the generations in Celtic lands. For centuries, probably ever since the time of Patrick, Celtic children learned about God from the words of their mothers and fathers as they sang softly while cooking, sewing, farming and caring for animals.

In the early twentieth century, travelling salesman Alexander Carmichael visited the highlands and islands of Scotland. He wrote down and published six volumes of Celtic “hymns and incantations” in the collection entitled Carmina Gadelica.

I can imagine myself as a woman living in Ireland or Scotland 1,200 or 1,500 years ago. As I set off on a short journey to visit my parents in a neighboring village, I sing to myself a blessing for my journey:

The guarding of the God of life be upon me,
The guarding of loving Christ be upon me,
The guarding of the Holy Spirit be upon me,
Every step of the way,
To aid me and enfold me,
Every day and night of my life. [1]

I can also picture myself as a mother or grandmother of young children in Celtic times. As I mend clothes by the firelight in the evening, I sing a soft song that the children can hear as they fall asleep close by. I sing it every night, and the children know it as well as I do. One of them sings along with me:

Christ with me sleeping,
Christ with me waking,
Christ with me watching,
Every day and night.[2]

Celtic Christian had a vivid sense of the supernatural, and they cultivated places and times of year when the supernatural world seemed most close to our world. They Celts loved pilgrimages to places where God felt close. They were comfortable with experiencing mystery and awe in the face of a transcendent God. They loved the Trinity: three in one, one in three. These are some of the themes we’ll look at in blog posts in the coming weeks.

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

[1] Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 27.
[2] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gaedelica 1 (Scottish Academic Press, 1900), 3.

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

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