The Light at the Heart of Life

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There is a tendency to romanticize the Celtic tradition’s sense of the presence of God in all that is. We more readily look to the beauty of a Hebridean sunset, for instance, or to the array of dawn colour over vast stretches of sea than to the light of life in the city or in the places and people whom we find it difficult to view as bearers of God’s brilliance. But, as Kenneth White writes:

the loveliness is everywhere
even
in the ugliest
and most hostile environment
the loveliness is everywhere
as the turning of a corner
in the eyes
and on the lips
of a stranger
in the emptiest areas
where is no place for hope
and only death
invites the heart
the loveliness is there
it emerges
incomprehensible
inexplicable
it rises in its own reality
and what we must learn is
how to receive it
into ours

The Celtic tradition invites us to look with the inner eye. In all people, in all places, in every created thing the light of God is shining. It may lie buried and forgotten under layers of darkness and distortion but it is there waiting to be recovered.

As George MacLeod says in one of his prayers, ‘Show to us the glory in the grey’. It is looking for the light of God in the most ordinary, and even dullest, of contexts. In MacLeod’s case it was a search that led him into the worst slums of Glasgow in the ‘Hungry Thirties’, there to affirm the presence of light among some of the most economically destitute and socially neglected men and women of Scotland. Similarly, in ‘Walking the Coast’, Kenneth White writes of the glow that can be found within the apparent dullness of nature:

the pebble of rough
and unprepossessing stone
the harsh dull case
splits open
to reveal
the lovely agate crystal
the boulder
cut asunder
shows a blue-gleaming layer of amethyst -
there is a principle
of beauty and order
at the heart of chaos
within life there is life

What are the ‘greynesses’ and ‘hard dull cases’ of our lives, whether that be in our environments and communities, or in ourselves and relationships, deeper than which we may look to recover a sense of the light and beauty of the first day?

The Celtic tradition often portrays grace as washing away the things that obscure the essential goodness of life. The light that was in the beginning still glows at the heart of life but we do not see its full brilliance. ‘It was to bring human nature back to this vision that the Incarnate Word of God descended,’ writes Eriugena, ‘sweeping away the shadows of false phantasies, opening the eyes of the mind, showing Himself in all things.’ Grace is like a cleansing rain over the landscape of life, followed by a sunlight that restores our vision. As Kenneth White writes,

the sky has broken
and the earth
sea-washed
is all diamond

Newell, John Philip. The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1999. | Photo by reza shayestehpour on Unsplash

The Essence of Our Being

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What is it we have forgotten about ourselves and one another? In the Celtic tradition, the Garden of Eden is not a place in space and time from which we are separated. It is the deepest dimension of our being from which we live in a type of exile. It is our place of origin or genesis in God. Eden is home, but we live far removed from it. And yet in the Genesis account, the Garden is not destroyed. Rather Adam and Eve become fugitives from the place of their deepest identity. It is a picture of humanity living in exile.

At the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures, the Book of Genesis describes humanity as made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26). This is a fundamental truth in our biblical inheritance. Everything else that is said about us in the scriptures needs to be read in the light of this starting point. The image of God is at the core of our being. And like the Garden, it has not been destroyed. It may have become covered over or lost sight of, but it is at the beginning of who we are.

A nineteenth-century teacher in the Celtic world, Alexander Scott, used the analogy of royal garments. Apparently in his day, royal garments were woven through with a costly thread, a thread of gold. And if somehow the golden thread were taken out of the garment, the whole garment would unravel. So it is, he said, with the image of God woven into the fabric of our being. If it were taken out of us, we would unravel. We would cease to be. So the image of God is not simply a characteristic of who we are, which may or may not be there, depending on whether or not we have been baptized. The image of God is the essence of our being. It is the core of the human soul. We are sacred not because we have been baptized or because we belong to one faith tradition over another.

We are sacred because we have been born.

But what does it mean to be made in the image of God? What does it mean to say that the Garden is our place of deepest identity? In part, it is to say that wisdom is deep within us, deeper than the ignorance of what we have done or become. It is to say that the passion of God for what is just and right is deep within, deeper than any apathy or participation in wrong that has crippled us. To be made in the image of God is to say that creativity is at the core of our being, deeper than any barrenness that has dominated our lives and relationships. And above all else, it is to say that love and the desire to give ourselves away to one another in love is at the heart of who we are, deeper than any fear or hatred that holds us hostage. Deep within us is a longing for union, for our genesis is in the One from whom all things have come. Our home is the garden, and deep within us is the yearning to hear its song again.

Newell, John Philip. Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008. | Photo by Emiel Molenaar on Unsplash

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

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.

 

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

May We Know that We Are Beloved

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A number of years ago during one of my visits to New Harmony, I was walking along the Wabash River, which flows with its broad and mighty current along the outskirts of town. It was evening, and halfway through my walk a wild storm blew in. I was close to the Angel of Compassion, and there was no other place to seek shelter. I felt awkward about physically entering a piece of art, but, believing that my brother Tobi Kahn would forgive me, I huddled under the great granite archway and found myself standing immediately next to the angel of compassion.

It was dark, and I could not remember exactly what the sculpture’s words of inscription were, but my memory was, “Every Human Being is the Beloved of the Nameless Eternal One.” So, as the wind and rain whirled about me in the darkness and the sound of the river in spate grew, I began to repeat over and over a simple prayer in my heart. “May I know that I am beloved. May I know that I am beloved. May I know that I am beloved.” My mind took me to haunted places within myself where I doubt that I am beloved—places in my body and mind and soul. I remembered times in my life when I had been ugly and false in my actions. I thought of how little I was doing for the transformation of the world, of how little of myself I was giving away for the sake of others.

“May I know that I am beloved,” I prayed. “May I know that I am beloved.”

After a while, the storm abated. It was time to leave and head back to town. Or so I thought. I was only fifty yards from the archway when the rains came again. They drove me back to the angel of compassion for a second time. So again I prayed, but this time the words were, “May she know that she is beloved. May she know that she is beloved.” I named within myself people whom I love. I thought of my sister who had experienced betrayal and the collapse of her marriage. I longed for her to know that she was beautiful in her mind and body and soul. That she was beloved. I thought of my friend struggling through chemotherapy and seeking the strength to look death in the face. “May he know that he is beloved. May he know that he is beloved.”

Again the storm dropped. And again I began to walk toward town, but a third time the rains came and drove me back to the angel. So for a third time I prayed. But this time it was, “May we know that we are beloved. May we know that we are beloved.” My thoughts turned to Iraq, to Palestine, to places of deep wrong and abuse in our cities and among us as nations, where we forget that the other is beloved. My heart was aware of children who doubt that they are loved because of the neglect they suffer. I thought of creatures and entire species who are struggling because of our failure to love the earth.

“May we know that we are beloved. May we know that we are beloved.”

Is there a prayer more central than this? Is there something deeper than this for us to know in our bodies and minds if we are to be well and if we are to give ourselves for one another’s well-being? Three times I was led to the angel. Three times I prayed these words in repetition. But I suppose it is three times a day that I need to pray them, or three times an hour. I know that I need this prayer, and I know that my journey is only one particular expression of the common journey of humanity and the earth. I know that my need is part of our need and part of the earth’s need. And I know that I not only need the angel of compassion in the archway of this moment in my life but that I am part of the messenger of compassion in the archway of this moment in our world. If together we are to be well, we must know ourselves to be bearers of compassion, inclining to one another and to the earth with presence.

Newell, John Philip. A New Harmony. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Christ is our Memory

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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. 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.

-from  Christ of the Celts: the Healing of Creation by John Philip Newell. Photo by Chuck Summers.

The Beat of the Sacred | John Philip Newell | Celtic Spirituality | Heartbeat

JPNewellbyAnnFowlerIt was on Iona years ago that I first became aware of the need to reclaim some of the features of ancient Christianity in the Celtic world as lost treasure for today. Part of that treasure is the much-cherished image of John the evangelist, also known as John the Beloved, leaning against Jesus at the Last Supper. Celtic tradition holds that by doing this he heard the heartbeat of God. He became a symbol of the practice of listening—listening deep within ourselves, within one another, and within the body of the earth for the beat of the Sacred Presence.

Do we know that within each one of us is the unspeakably beautiful beat of the Sacred? Do we know that we can honor that Sacredness in one another and in everything that has being? And do we know that this combination—growing in awareness that we are bearers of Presence, along with a faithful commitment to honor that Presence in one another and in the earth—holds the key to transformation in our world?

-Newell, The Rebirthing of God, 2014 (Skylight: New York) xvii.