The Mother Heart of God | John Philip Newell | Celtic Spirituality | Isle of Iona

by John Philip Newell

St. Martin's Cross outside the Abbey of Iona. Photo by Caleb Dodson.

St. Martin’s Cross outside the Abbey of Iona. Photo by Caleb Dodson.

On Iona, one of the high-standing crosses in front of the abbey is St. Martin’s Cross, with its distinctive Celtic feature of cross form and circle form combined as a way of pointing to the oneness of Christ and creation. At the heart of St. Martin’s Cross, where the vertical line and the horizontal line intersect, is an image of the Mother and Child. She holds the child against her breast. She has paid the price of labor and now holds the newborn close to her. She has born the pain of giving birth. And now she will sustain the child with her own being, with the milk of her love. In the Celtic world it is said that there is a mother’s heart at the heart of God. At the heart of a mother’s heart is the willingness to make sacrifice for her child. It is a revelation of the very heart of God’s being. And it is a revelation also of the human heart made in the image of God’s heart.

photoIn Christ of the Celts I tell the story of being brushed by an eagle. I had been hiking up an arroyo in New Mexico, and as I bent to pass under a fallen pine tree, I was met by an eagle swooping in the opposite direction with a rabbit in her talons. Either she had not noticed me or was so intent on the catch that she was not bothered by my presence. So we met under the tree’s fallen trunk, and her strong wing touched my left arm. It was an exhilarating experience, to have physical contact with this untamed icon of heaven. I was aware also that it was a spiritual experience, for in Christian symbolism the eagle is associated with John the Beloved, who sees with a height of unitary vision the oneness of all things. But the most important part of the story I did not tell in Christ of the Celts, for it had not yet happened.

After my eagle experience, there was someone in particular with whom I wanted to share the story. It was Ronald Royball, a native musician and storyteller from Santa Fe. We had met years earlier, and he had told me about a life- changing dream in which a great eagle had swept down from the sky to touch his hand with its wing tip. When Ronald woke, he realized he was to be a musician, playing the native flute and sharing the wisdom of his people through music and story.

So it was Ronald whom I especially wanted to tell. He joined me for lunch close to the arroyo where I had hiked the previous year. And with some pride I told him in great detail about everything that had happened, and showed him exactly where on my arm the eagle had brushed against me. When finally I finished, Ronald said, “John Philip, I want you to think about the rabbit.The rabbit is Christ.The rabbit connected you and the eagle. The rabbit made heaven and earth one for you. And he lost his life doing so. I want you to think about the rabbit.The rabbit is Christ.” He spoke not one word to me about the eagle!

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When I heard Ronald’s words, I knew he was right. I had missed the main point of the story. Yes, of course, I shall always be thrilled to know that I was brushed by an eagle. But I would not have met the eagle without the sacrifice of the rabbit. This is not to say that every part of the story can be directly applied spiritually.The rabbit did not choose to offer itself, although Native American wisdom would probably perceive an element of choice in all of nature’s sacrifices. But Ronald’s words prompted me to ask more deeply what this experience was about. His words prompted me to ask what the costly connections are that I am to make in my life. What are the costly connections we are to make? The encounter with the eagle was a meeting also with the rabbit.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 162-164.