Love Needs Reality

mink-mingle-39939When I was a student of theology in Scotland, Jack, one of my best boyhood friends from Canada, went through a sexual orientation crisis. He experienced a nervous breakdown. Nearly everything in his culture, his religious upbringing, and his immediate family context opposed the realization that was stirring in him—that he was gay. I was not there to be supportive at the time. But he came through the crisis, clear and strong in his identity. When Ali and I moved back to Canada in the early 1980s, Jack came to see us and to share his story.

I was eager to show him my support, even though part of me felt uncomfortable about his sexuality. In my theological training in Edinburgh, I had intellectually worked through the idea of homosexuality, but that was simply working through an idea. Here, on the other hand, was one of my best boyhood friends, and he was gay, and I was experiencing another response in my gut. But Ali and I were clear in our intention. We wanted to extend a hand of love to him. So we invited Jack and his partner for a meal.

A few days before the dinner, Jack called to say that he and Peter were vegetarian. Now this was the early 1980s and vegetarianism was as strange to me then as homosexuality. But we dutifully prepared the meal. When they arrived, we were all very polite, everyone trying to get it just right. Then, as Ali brought in the main course, placing it on the dining room table, she said, “It’s been a long time since I’ve made a homosexual meal.” There was stunned silence and then we all collapsed into laughter together, tears streaming down our faces. From then on, I was just fine. No more gut reactions. Ali’s slip had expressed the unspoken discomfort all of us were feeling, and that was all we needed. We were free now to remember the essence of Jack and Peter and to forget the label of their sexual orientation.

When we say yes to the true heart of one another, we move back into relationship. This is what the Dalai Lama calls the kinship of all being and what Weil refers to as the new saintliness. It is not like the old notion of saintliness that has so dominated much of our religious inheritance, in which we have been given the impression that holiness is about looking away from this world to a spiritual home that is above or beyond us. For Weil the universe, here and now, is our true home. We have no other country, she says. This is where the Sacred is to be found, in the body of the earth, in our human bodies, and in the body of our communities and nations.

This is not to romanticize the universe and the many bodies of which it consists, our beautiful and broken bodies, the glorious and infected bodies of earth’s creatures, and the mysterious and challenging interrelationship of all things. Everything, says Weil, can offer “resistance to love.” What we know in our families and in the most intimate relationships of our lives is that we have the capacity to choose not to love. This capacity, with its wide range of expressions, can be found in all things. There is a preference for oneness in the universe, from the atomic level upward, but it is not predetermined or fixed. Everything can, at some level, choose to violate the harmony. Everything has the capacity to resist oneness.

This is our home—the universe—where our love, our capacity to say yes, is to be focused. It is too easy, says Weil, to love an imaginary home, a spiritual country, or an unseen dimension somewhere beyond us or other than us, because we can turn it into anything we wish. “Love needs reality,” she says. Or, as we have already heard St. John say, “You cannot hate your brother or sister and love God” (1 John 4:20; adapted). You cannot do it because they are one. Similarly, you cannot turn your gaze from the universe and claim to be looking for God. For God is here and now, inseparably woven into the fabric of our being and into the very matter of the universe.

Newell, John Philip. The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings. Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014. | Photo by Mink Mingle on Unsplash

May Our Enemy Become Our Friend

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May our enemy become our friend, O God,

that we may share earth’s goodness.

May our enemy become our friend, O God,

that our children may meet and marry.

May our enemy become our friend, O God,

that we may remember our shared birth in you.

May we grow in grace

may we grow in gratitude

may we grow in wisdom

that our enemy may become our friend.

From Praying with the Earth by John Philip Newell | Photo by Levi Guzman on Unsplash

St. Brigid

February 2nd is St. Brigid’s Day, one of the few Christian holidays in which a female is remembered, recognized, and honored.

The Abbey on Iona at Twilight | Photographer Brad Ruggles

The Abbey on Iona at Twilight | Photographer Brad Ruggles

On Iona there is a wellspring on the northern side of Dun I. It is called the Well of Eternal Youth. It has pre-Christian significance and is associated with St. Brigid of Kildare, the fifth-century Irish saint who is much celebrated in the Western isles of Scotland – or the Hebrides as they are also known, meaning the islands of Bride or Brigid. Legend has it that her mother was a Christian and her stepfather a Druid priest. She combines within herself the stream of Christian devotion in confluence with the wisdom of pre-Christian religious insight. So she is often associated with sites in the Celtic world, like the Well of Eternal Youth on Iona, that were considered sacred long before the advent of Christianity.

Brigid of Kildare is the saint who straddles the Christian and the pre-Christian. Even the name of her monastic community in Ireland, Kildare, simply means the Church of the Oaks. It was a holy oak grove from Druidic times that was baptized by Brigid into Celtic Christian practice. She embodied a devotion to Christ and an honoring of pre-Christian wisdom, especially its reverencing of nature and the healing properties of the earth.

According to legend, Brigid was the midwife and wet nurse of the Christ Child. She is described as the barmaid at the inn in Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph seek shelter. There is no room at the inn but Brigid provides them with space in the stable. At the moment of the birth, Brigid midwives the Christ Child and then suckles him at her breast. It is a story that points to the way in which the Christian Gospel in the Celtic world was nurtured on the nature mysticism that preceded Christianity. The myths and legends of that world were incorporated into its celebration of Christ. They were like an old testament to the new revelation. There was no concern about historical discontinuity. The anachronism of a fifth-century Irish saint being present at a first-century Middle Eastern birth did not worry the Celts. This was a story that allowed two worlds to become one.

On the island of Iona it was said that Brigid would appear at the Well of Eternal Youth on the summer solstice when, in the Western isles of Scotland, darkness does not fully come until after midnight. So, even well into the nineteenth century, people would gather in the late twilight of midsummer’s night to seek Brigid’s blessing. Not surprisingly, Brigid’s blessing was sought in the twilight, for she belongs to the liminal realm between worlds that is represented by the fading of light and the approaching darkness.

It is the time ruled neither by the sun nor by the moon but by the meeting of the two. It is the time of the two lights, twilight.

Into this liminal realm, between the known and the unknown, we are invited to enter if we are to learn more of the way forward in our lives as individuals and as communities and nations. This is why, in so much of Celtic storytelling and legend, lovers meet and worlds conjoin in the twilight. It is the coming together of the masculine and the feminine. It is the convergence of the unseen world of those who have gone before us and this present dimension of space and time in which the seen and the physical dominate. It may be a time of encountering messengers for the invisible realms of the universe that are linked inextricably to our realm, but at the same time transcend us in our struggle with unknown forces of darkness within and without. This is also why, in so much Eastern spiritual practice, the early hours of dawn are viewed as the time of meditation, when night and day are commingling in ways that more readily allow us to move from the known to the unknown and from the nameable to the ineffable. This is why I sought the predawn hours of early morning in which to begin the writing or this book each day. This is the time that is closer to dream life and the half-wakeful state of knowing in which both light and shadow come forth and all things appear as one.

 

Newell, John Philip. The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings. Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014. | Photography by Brad Ruggles

The Heartbeat of God

In honor of the start of the 2018 School of Celtic Consciousness this week with its location in California, the following excerpt will be from the SCC’s required reading: Listening for the Heartbeat of God.

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One of the primary marks of Celtic spirituality, its belief in the essential goodness of creation, is prominent in the works of Scott and MacDonald. They believed that the natural world is infinitely deep. Everything in creation has issued forth from the invisible and contains something of the unseen life of God. Otherwise it would cease to exist. Because God’s life is like the heartbeat at the centre of life, pulsating within, sustaining all that is, MacDonald’s princess[1] is aware of and alert to the Soul of creation.  She has a sense of relationship with it, for all created things are an expression of God for our souls to see and feel. God is forever communicating his life and love in and through the outward forms of creation. The young princess is portrayed as greeting the flowering fields in the morning and seeing the connection between the light and the mystery of the night skies and the beauty and love of the grandmother. The one is an expression of the other.

Just as an infant comes to know his mother through form and colour, scent and sound, so we come to a knowledge of God through the universe. ‘Those who have a child’s heart,’ said Scott, ‘will own and welcome this.’[2] Again, the emphasis is on becoming like a child, recovering the inner faculties we were born with and using them to glimpse the presence of the spirit in created matter. Scott underlined the need to regain our innate childlike way of seeing that becomes increasingly obscured by neglect throughout our lives. The gift of the imagination, which in a child is still uninhibited, allows creation to be a lens through which we may fleetingly bring into focus aspects of the eternal. The young princess in MacDonald’s story is surrounded by people whose inner senses and imagination have been so dulled by lack of use that they believe there is nothing to see in the matter of creation. Their blindness is an omen of the materialism that was increasingly to grip the Western world as the nineteenth century progressed.

John Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God, Paulist Press, 1997, pp.64-5.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

 


[1] Refers to one of MacDonald’s best-known novels, The Princess and the Goblin (1872). It tells the story of a young princess living in a great country house. She discovers that in the house, in one of its remote attic rooms, is a beautiful woman, in whom the freshness of youth is combined with the wisdom of the ages. Although she has always been present, like a grandmother watching over the princess and her family, and has been known to the king and others before, the princess meets her for the first time early in the story. She sits spinning a thread of light that is woven through all things, and which she instructs the young princess to hold wherever she is in order to feel her presence and be led to her. Others in the house see neither the beautiful woman nor her thread of light, and her room, which is to the young princess the most wonderful of places, filled with the scent of wild roses and the sound of the world’s flowing waters, is to others merely an empty attic, dusty and forsaken.     The eternal mother is present to nurture and to guide, but present too are terrible forces of darkness plotting destruction. Within the mountain on which the house is built, living in subterranean caves, are goblins that tunnel their way into the foundations of the house, threaten its safety and intend to take the princess captive. The goblins are neither human nor animal, but a distorted and evil combination of the two. In the end their evil is self-destructive. The flood they had planned for the destruction of the house is turned on them and on their caves. The princess, having followed the beautiful woman’s thread, escapes safely and, although the foundations of her house have been shaken by evil, they are not destroyed.

[2] Alexander J. Scott, ‘Introductory Discourse on Revelation’, Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, Darling, 1838, p. 4.

 

Deep Peace

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This day and this night,

may I know O God

The deep peace

of the running wave

The deep peace

of the flowing air

The deep peace

of the quiet earth

The deep peace

of the shining stars

The deep peace

of the Son of Peace.

From Celtic Prayers from Iona by John Philip Newell | Photo courtesy of Karin Baard

In This Great River of Life, a Chant

 Our friends at AwakeningSoul have lovingly created a musical setting for one of John Philip Newell’s prayers from Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter. We hope you enjoy the chant below, “In This Great River of Life”, composed by Lindsey Blount and Fran McKendree and performed by the AwakeningSoul Ensemble.

To play, please click at the very left edge of the audio file. 

Performed by the AwakeningSoul Ensemble;
Lindsey Blount Lange, lead vocals
Isabel Castellvi, cello and vocals
River Guerguerian, percussion
Fran McKendree, vocals, acoustic guitar, mountain dulcimer
Charles Milling, bass, electric guitar and vocals

 

In This Great River of Life  words; John Philip Newell © John Philip Newell
music; Lindsey Blount Lange/Fran McKendree © 2018 Neath Music, BMI

 

Soon available for download on CDBaby.com and iTunes

Let Me Serve Love, a Chant

 Our friends at AwakeningSoul have lovingly created a musical setting for one of John Philip Newell’s prayers from Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter. We hope you enjoy the chant below, “Let Me Serve Love”, composed by Lindsey Blount and Fran McKendree and performed by the AwakeningSoul Ensemble.

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To play, please click at the very left edge of the audio file. 

Performed by the AwakeningSoul Ensemble;
Lindsey Blount Lange, lead vocals
Isabel Castellvi, cello and vocals
River Guerguerian, percussion
Fran McKendree, vocals, acoustic guitar, mountain dulcimer
Charles Milling, bass, electric guitar and vocals

 

Let Me Serve Love  words; John Philip Newell © John Philip Newell
music; Lindsey Blount Lange/Fran McKendree © 2018 Neath Music, BMI

 

Soon available for download on CDBaby.com and iTunes

The Little Book and the Big Book

Guava_leaves_sunlightOne day, toward the end of Cameron’s nap when I thought he would soon be waking, I went out to the yard. There he was, lying on his back in the carriage, fully awake but perfectly still. He was looking at the light dappling through the leaves of the fig tree. I paused to watch him. After a while, he lifted his arms toward the light in a type of response. I was witnessing a communion with the Glory that dapples through creation. And as I stood watching Cameron, I remembered, perhaps now the earliest memory of my life, doing exactly the same thing as an infant, lying under a tree watching light dapple.

The great Irish teacher John Scotus Eriugena taught that God speaks to us through two books. One is the little book, he says, the book of scripture, physically little. The other is the big book, the book of creation, vast as the universe. Just as God speaks to us through the words of scripture, so God speaks to us through the elements of creation. The cosmos is like a living sacred text that we can learn to read and interpret. Just as we prayerfully ponder the words of the Bible in Christian practice, and as other traditions study their sacred texts, so we are invited to listen to the life of creation as an ongoing, living utterance of God.

The problem is that we hardly know the alphabet of that language. We have not been taught to read creation with the same devotion as we read scripture. But it is not because we have not been addressed. Some of our earliest memories of life are of being spoken to through creation. We remember as children lying on our backs in the grass gazing up into the infinity of the skies. We remember with open-eyed wonder watching light reflect off flowing water, whether in the purity of a country stream or in the gullies of a city street after rainfall. So it is not that we have not been addressed. And it is not that we are not being addressed now. It is that we have forgotten. And in many cases, it is because we have been educated out of listening to the sacred sounds of creation.

Newell, John Philip. Christ of the Celts. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008. | Photo courtesy of מינוזיג, published on Wikicommons.

The Grace of Awakening

e_DSC8542The grace of awakening is one of becoming aware of who we truly are, and choosing to live out of that truth. The story of the father trying to wake his son up for school in the morning makes this point. The son responded to the knocking at his bedroom door by saying, ‘I am not going to get up, and I shall tell you three reasons why: the first is because I hate education, the second is because the children tease me, and the third is because education is boring.’ To this the father replied, ‘You are going to get up, and I shall tell you three reasons why: the first is because it is your duty to get up, the second is because you are forty-five years old, and the third is because you are the headmaster.’ We need to wake up to who we are.

Not only is it an awakening but a choosing to get up, as it were, or to live according to the truth that has been spoken within us. The grace that enables us to become more aware of who we are is one that can stir also within us the desire to be conformed to that truth. Just as Jesus told the paralysed man who lay on his bed to stand and walk, so there are creativities within us that have not only been undiscovered but unused, and in being unused are underdeveloped, if not entirely seized up. Being awakened to a creative depth will be the initial kindling within us of a desire to be restored or reconnected to that creativity. The grace of awakening is one that can lead us further and further into the truth of who we are. What is it that will so awaken and restore us? Where are we to look or listen?

Newell, John Philip. One Foot in Eden: A Celtic View of the Stages of Life. New York: Paulist Press, 1999. | Photo courtesy of Chuck Summers

Ways of Seeing

IMG_7739Like an infant’s open-eyed wonder

and the insights of a wise grandmother,

like a young man’s vision for justice

and the vitality that shines in a girl’s face,

like tears that flow in a friend bereaved

and laughter in a lover’s eyes,

you have given us ways of seeing, O God,

you have endowed us with sight like your own.

Let these be alive in us this day,

let these be alive in us.

From Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter by John Philip Newell | Photo courtesy of Karin Baard