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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.

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