Knowing the Celtic Christ | John Philip Newell | Celtic Spirituality | Heartbeat

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One of the greatest teachers in the Celtic world, John Scotus Eriugena in ninth-century Ireland, taught that Christ is our memory. We suffer from the “soul’s forgetfulness,” he says. Christ comes to reawaken us to our true nature. He is our epiphany. He comes to show us the face of God. He comes to show us also our face, the true face of the human soul. This leads the Celtic tradition to celebrate the relationship between nature and grace. Instead of grace being viewed as opposed to our essential nature or as somehow saving us from ourselves, nature and grace are viewed as flowing together from God. They are both sacred gifts. The gift of nature, says Eriugena, is the gift of “being”; the gift of grace, on the other hand, is the gift of “well-being.” Grace is given to reconnect us to our true nature. At the heart of our being is the image of God, and thus the wisdom of God, the creativity of God, the passions of God, the longings of God. Grace is opposed not to what is deepest in us but to what is false in us. It is given to restore us to the core of our being and to free us from the unnaturalness of what we are doing to one another and to the earth.

Christ is often referred to in the Celtic tradition as the truly natural one.

Christ is often referred to in the Celtic tradition as the truly natural one. He comes not to make us more than natural or somehow other than natural but to make us truly natural. He comes to restore us to the original root of our being. As the twentieth-century French mystic-scientist Teilhard de Chardin says much later in the Celtic world, grace is “the seed of resurrection” sown in our nature. It is given not to make us something other than ourselves but to make us radically ourselves. Grace is given not to implant in us a foreign wisdom but to make us alive to the wisdom that was born with us in our mother’s womb. Grace is given not to lead us into another identity but to reconnect us to the beauty of our deepest identity. And grace is given not that we might find some exterior source of strength but that we might be established again in the deep inner security of our being and in learning to lose ourselves in love for one another to truly find ourselves.

photoThis is not to pretend that there are not infections deep within us and deep within the interrelationships of life. Eriugena refers to sin as an infection, “leprosy of the soul.” And just as leprosy distorts the human face and makes it appear grotesque and ugly, so sin distorts the countenance of the soul and makes it appear mon- strous, so much so that we come to believe that that is the face of the human soul. And just as leprosy is a dis- ease of insensitivity, of loss of feeling, so sin leads us into an insensitivity to what is deepest within us, and more and more we treat one another as if we were not made in the image of God. Eriugena makes the point that in the gospel story when Jesus heals the lepers, he does not give them new faces. Rather he restores them to their true faces and to the freshness of their original countenances. Grace reconnects us to what is first and deepest in us. It restores us to the root of our well-being, which is deeper than the infections that threaten our minds and souls and relationships.

We have tended to define ourselves and one another in terms of the blight, in terms of sin or evil, in terms of the failings or illnesses of our lives, instead of seeing what is deeper still, the beauty of the image of God at the core of our being.

Alexander Scott, the nineteenth-century Celtic teacher, uses the analogy of a plant suffering from blight. If such a plant were shown to botanists, even if the botanists had never seen that type of plant before, they would define it in terms of its essential life features. They would identify the plant with reference to its healthy properties of height and color and scent. They would not define it in terms of its blight. Rather they would say that the blight is foreign to the plant, that it is attacking the essence of the plant. Now this may seem a very obvious point botanically. But maybe it is so obvious that we have missed the point when it comes to defining human nature. We have tended to define ourselves and one another in terms of the blight, in terms of sin or evil, in terms of the failings or illnesses of our lives, instead of seeing what is deeper still, the beauty of the image of God at the core of our being.

Given what we now know of the interrelatedness of life and how even the unborn child is infected by the psychological scars of its family or by the pollution of its wider environment, we may wish to say that sin is lurking inside the door of the womb. The shadow comes very close to the beginning of our lives, but deeper still is the Light from which we come. The conception of all life in the universe is sacred.

When Eriugena and other Celtic teachers speak of Christ as our memory, as the one who leads us to our deepest identity, as the one who remembers the song of our beginnings, they are not ignoring the depth of sin’s infection. They are not suggesting that our true self is just under the surface of a film of falseness, easily recovered, or that the harmony deep within all things can be recaptured with just a bit of fine tuning. The infections within the human soul are chronic. There are diseases of greed and limited self-interest among us as individuals and as nations that are ageless, so much so that we can hardly imagine what the true harmony of the earth sounds like. These are not just superficial infections. They are tangled in the very roots of our being. They are cancerous. And some of them need to be surgically removed.

Eriugena uses the analogy of sin pouncing on everything that is born. In commenting on the words from Genesis 4, “Sin is lurking at the door, its desire is for you,” Eriugena says that sin is hovering at the door of the womb, ready to infect everything that comes into being.

To say that the root of every person and creature is in God, rather than opposed to God, has enormous implications for how we view ourselves, including our deepest physical, sexual, and emotional energies.

To say that the root of every person and creature is in God, rather than opposed to God, has enormous implications for how we view ourselves, including our deepest physical, sexual, and emotional energies. It also profoundly affects the way we view one another, even in the midst of terrible failings and falseness in our lives and world. Satan is sometimes referred to by Eriugena and other Celtic teachers as Angel of Light. This is a way of pointing to the deepest identity of everything that has being, whether creaturely or angelic. The extent to which our energies, and the energies of any created thing, are evil and destructive is the extent to which we are not being truly ourselves.

IMG_5202Eriugena may well have believed literally in a personal presence and source of evil, named Satan, as most of the medieval world, whether Celtic or imperial, did. More significantly, however, he is inviting us to be aware of our own capacity for falseness and the potential for distortion in everything that has been created. But most important of all, he is recalling us to our deepest identity as born of Light. We become sinful to the extent that we are not being truly ourselves. We become false to the extent that we are not living from the true root of our being. And Eriugena is pointing also to the path of healing and transformation. We find new beginnings not by looking away from the conflicting energies that stir within us but by looking within them for the sacred Origin of life and desire. In the midst of confusions and struggle in our lives, we are being invited to search deeper than the shadows for the Light of our beginnings. It is also the Light of our true end.

We can be part of a new birthing within us and between us today. And the new birthing relates to the ancient song that we are invited to hear again. It may seem such a distant song that we hear it only as in a dream. But the more we become reacquainted with its music, the more we will come to know that the deepest notes within us and between us in our world are not discord. They form an ancient harmony.

John Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: the Healing of Creation, 2008 (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 9-15.