The Song of Mary

John Philip Newell reads The Song of Mary in the Michael Chapel in Iona Abbey

A version of the Magnificat based on Luke 1:46-55

My soul sings of you, O God.
My spirit delights in your Presence.

You have cherished my womanhood.
You have honored earth’s body.

All will know the sacredness of birth.
All will know the gift of life.

Your grace is to those who are open.
Your mercy to the humble in heart.

The dreams of the proud crumble.
The plans of the powerful fail.

You feed the hungry with goodness.
You deny the rich their greed.

The hopes of the poor are precious.
The birth pangs of creation are heard.

You have been faithful to the human family.
You are the seed of new beginnings.

My soul sings of you, O God.
My spirit delights in your presence.

From Sounds of the Eternal by John Philip Newell | Video by Karin Baard | Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

 

The Goodness of the Earth

To experience the goodness in life is to be in touch with the gift of God. We all have memories of the goodness of creation. We have smelled the freshness of the earth after rain. We have known the delight of biting into a crisp autumn apple. We have gazed upon field after field of golden corn. We have touched the cool smoothness of a rock, sea-washed for millennia. The goodness is there. We are called into an awareness of it, to be alert, as Alexander Scott taught, to ‘the fathomless mystery involved in the mere existence of a pebble.’

George MacDonald, long anticipating some of the ecological awareness of the twentieth century, described the grandmother figure in his novel, The Golden Key, as at one with the mystery of creation. Typically, MacDonald uses a wise and beautiful old woman to represent the divine. Clad in a green dress, she lives in a great wood and is always barefooted. Those who visit her similarly are invited to take off their shoes. To touch the ground with their bare feet is to become more alive  to the vibrancy of the goodness that is in the earth. The allusion is clearly to the Book of Exodus and the story of Moses encountering God in the flames of a blazing bush. ‘Remove the sandals from your feet,’ says God, ‘for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ In the Celtic tradition all ground is holy, for within it is the goodness of God.

We all know what a difference it can make to be barefooted. To feel the soft moisture of grass beneath our feet opens new awarenesses in us. It can allow us to see life with a different perspective. The same, of course, can be said about walking on rough terrain. To expose our feet to stony ground also leads to new awarenesses! A heightened sense of the earth on which we walk is not just about pleasurable experiences. It is about knowing and reverencing the creation of which we are a part. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose years in the Celtic culture of northern Wales inspired much of his poetry, writes of the way in which we have cut ourselves off from feeling the grandeur of God in creation. By ‘being shod’, he says, our feet can no longer feel. We have lost touch with ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’.

The answer to our extreme insensitivities to creation in the Western world today does not lie in a resumed practice of going barefooted. We need to find new ways of reopening the doors of our senses to creation, whether we live in crowded cities or open countryside. The experience of feeling the earth with our feet is a symbol of the rediscovery that needs to happen if we are to come back into a true sense of relationship with creation. This can happen through an attentiveness to the mystery of what grows in our city gardens and household plant pots, as it will happen also in the vast stretches of open fields of the country and in our ancient woods. It is the experience of the goodness of the earth that will help sustain our commitment to care for the earth.

Newell, John Philip. The Book of Creation. New York: Paulist Press, 1999.
Photo by Jan Romero on Unsplash

The First Breath of Day

PRAYER OF AWARENESS

It is in the depths of life that we find you
at the heart of this moment
at the centre of our soul
deep in the earth and its eternal stirrings.
You are the Ground of all being
the Well-Spring of time
Womb of the earth
the Seed-Force of stars.
And so at the opening of this day
we wait
not for blessings from afar
but for You
the very Soil of our soul
the early Freshness of morning
the first Breath of day.

Be still and aware

John Philip Newell | Praying with the Earth | Photo by Jonas Weckschmied on Unsplash

 

John Muir Pilgrimage Reflection from Ali Newell

In May, John Philip and Ali Newell led a group of University of Edinburgh faculty and students on a two-day pilgrimage along the John Muir Way in Scotland. Below is a reflection from Ali about their time together, and after her reflection you’ll also find a short video made by one of the participants, Adam Hussein.
John Muir Way in Scotland | Photo by Ali Newell

John Muir Way in Scotland | Photo by Ali Newell

I would say there is no better way to reconnect to our Mother Earth and to know her as gift than to go for a walk!

John Muir said, ‘Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves’ (John Muir, Our National Parks: 1901).

For two days, eighteen staff and students at Edinburgh University walked thirty two miles of the John Muir Way in Scotland. Our pilgrimage route took us along the coastal route from Aberlady Bay to North Berwick and then inland before finishing at John Muir’s birthplace in Dunbar.

We listened to John Philip expand on John Muir readings along the way reminding us of Muir’s prophetic vision of ecological consciousness arising from Muir’s study and deep appreciation of nature. As we stood amongst blue forget-me-nots surrounded by trees in a magical wood, Muir’s words written about a different forest connected also for us.

John Philip Newell on the John Muir Way in Scotland

John Philip Newell on the John Muir Way in Scotland | Photo by Glen Cousquer

‘Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish’ (John Muir,  The National Parks and Forest Reservations).

Glen Cousquer, our wilderness guide helped us pause and notice as he introduced us to the birds, animals and plants of the area – the whole hidden world alive around us.

‘How many hearts with warm red blood in them are beating under cover of the woods, and how many teeth and eyes are shining! A multitude of animal people, intimately related to us, but of whose lives we know almost nothing, are as busy about their own affairs as we are about ours’(John Muir, Our National Parks: 1901, Chapter 1).

Glen also brought home how much the ecosystem was affected by the farming and the many golf courses around us and drew our attention to the importance of the Aberlady Bay nature reserve and other Scottish conservation areas.

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John Muir Way in Scotland | Photo by Ali Newell

John Muir wrote powerfully about the thoughtless destruction of the natural environment and campaigned tirelessly for wilderness parks.

‘These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar Dam, in the valley HetchHetchy. As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man’ (John Muir, The Yosemite: 1912, Chapter 15).

Our contemplative times in silence on the pilgrimage were opportunities to take time to value more deeply the sights and sounds around us and be present to nature’s healing and reenergising power.

‘Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike’
(John Muir, The Yosemite: 1912, Page 256).

At Canty Bay where we stopped overnight, we had an amazing meal of vegetarian haggis and rhubarb crumble prepared by two French students, Tiffany and Pela. The food was locally sourced, fresh and organic and, for us weary pilgrims, it was a taste of heaven. In the evening, Beth led us in a beautiful earth-honoring liturgy round a fire on the beach. In the mist, Adam danced a piece on the sand which he had choreographed for the pilgrimage. We listened to Donald playing fiddle tunes (Muir loved fiddle music and ballads) and then as a full moon rose over the hill, we had nothing to do but gaze and join the moon in its prayer of light.

Donald fiddles for the group on the beach | Photo by Ali Newell

Donald fiddles for the group on the beach | Photo by Ali Newell

‘My fire was in all its glory about midnight, and, having made a bark shed to shelter me from the rain and partially dry my clothing, I had nothing to do but look and listen and join the trees in their hymns and prayers’ 
(John Muir, Travels in Alaska: 1915, Chapter 2).

 On the second day we finished at John Muir’s birthplace to remember his prophetic gift to Scotland and North America and paused at the end to become aware of what environmental actions or campaigning or change in lifestyle we might like to take as a result of spending time on the John Muir way.

Looking back on our time together, one of our reflections afterwards about the second day was that we would have preferred slowing down more as the pace was very challenging. Muir had something interesting to say about just that which relates to pilgrimage and its sense of walking in order to value what is sacred.

‘Albert Palmer tells of a conversation he had with John Muir on the trail. He asked Muir, “Someone told me you did not approve of the word hike. Is that so? Muir’s blue eyes flashed, and with his Scottish accent he replied: “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them’ (John Muir, as quoted by Albert W. Palmer,  The Mountain Trail and its Message).

Ali Newell

Film by Adam Hussein on the John Muir Way in Scotland, May 2018

 

Rob Bell Interviews John Philip Newell

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In February, Rob Bell and John Philip Newell got together again for a riveting night of conversation, contemplation, and, when Rob Bell is involved, of course laughter. Recorded live at Largo – a stalwart and intimate music and comedy club in Los Angeles – their conversation was then converted into an episode of Rob Bell’s podcast, The RobCast. When these two teachers get talking, it’s electric. And it doesn’t hurt that they enjoy being together!

This interview uses John Philip’s book Christ of the Celts as an anchoring point, but covers a wide range of topics – original sin, the true meaning of being “born again”, the diaspora of the Christian household, grace, and more. Trust us – you don’t want to miss this stimulating, thought provoking, and at times delightfully glib and cheerful conversation.

Here’s what Rob Bell has to say about John Philip Newell:

“There are distinct moments in your life when somebody came along and their words were exactly what you needed for that next stage of your path…either they were showing you what’s possible at the exact moment you needed it or they gave language to the thing that you’ve been feeling but didn’t know what to call it…I discovered JPN a couple of years ago and when I started reading him, I was just overwhelmed..He seemed to be naming things that I had been feeling but didn’t have the depth or understanding for.”

And John Philip Newell on Rob Bell:

“I love Rob Bell, his open-eyed wonder at life, his understanding of pain and struggle, and his faith-filled capacity to keep unfolding. And, not least of all, he is more fun than any spiritual teacher I have known.”

TO LISTEN 

  • Listen on Rob Bell’s website here.
  • Listen on your favorite Podcast app by searching for RobCast and looking for Episode 203, released on July 2, 2018, titled “Live from Largo with John Philip Newell”.

Blessed Are You, O God

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Blessed are you, O God of justice

Blessed are you, O God of beauty

Blessed are you, O God of gentleness

Blessed are you, O God of wild unbridled winds.

We find you in all things.

We find you in every creature.

We find in the depths of our ever-living souls.

Praise be to you.

John Philip Newell, Celtic Treasure: Daily Scriptures and Prayer | Photo by Karin Baard

Reconnecting with Spiritual Practice

Hermit's Cell on Iona

Hermit’s Cell on Iona

One sign of rebirthing, not only within the Christian household but also in the lives of many in the Western world today who do not identify with any particular religious tradition, is a reconnecting with spiritual practice. In the last two decades there has been an enormous burst of interest in yoga and other practices from the East, based on ancient teachings and disciplines that combine physical rigor with spiritual awareness. Likewise, we have seen a resurgence of labyrinth building in our church and public parks, and a reclaiming of other simple contemplative tools that speak of the desire to recover practices from the past to promote the rebirthing of spiritual well-being today.

One of the stations of the Iona pilgrimage is the Hermit’s Cell. It sits at the heart of the island. No more than a circular ruin of stones, it is the remains of an ancient Celtic beehive hut. Legend has it that Columba and his brothers would retreat there in turn for periods of solitude and prayer as a balance to their life together in community. The Hermit’s Cell stands as a sign of the relationship between contemplation and action, silence and expression, solitude and relationship.

On pilgrimage to the Hermit’s Cell I was once asked how many monks used to live here – a question that reveals the disorientation among many moderns in approaching the ancient practices of solitude and stillness. An interesting feature of the Iona Hermit’s Cell is its location. It is hidden amid hills in the interior of the island, so people often get lost trying to find it. They become disoriented. Similarly, so much of our culture, including our religious inheritance, has felt lost when it comes to spiritual practice. But we are in the midst of a reawakening.

One of the things that we remember on pilgrimage as we approach the Hermit’s Cell in silence together is that reclaiming the relationship between stillness and action, or between solitude and relationship, is part of the desire to come back into relationship with the wisdom of nature’s rhythms. The earth knows its patterns of night followed by day, of winter barrenness succeeded by spring energy and summer fruiting, of long periods of infolding and dormancy followed by seasons of unfolding and the expression of seed-force. We know that if we do not give ourselves over to the darkness and dreaming of nighttime, entering its intimate invitation to sleep and rest, we will be only half-awake to the demands and creativity of the day. Yet at other levels we forget the natural patterns that we are part of. Or we pretend that we can be deeply engaged and productive while pushing ourselves and others in ways that are antithetical to the essential rhythms of earth’s cycles and seasons.

Newell, John Philip. The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New BeginningsVermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014. | Photo by Karin Baard

Prayer of Thanksgiving & Intercession

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That from our depth new life emerges

thanks be to you, O God.

That through our body

and the bodies of men and women everywhere

heaven’s creativity is born on earth,

children of eternity are conceived in time

and everlasting bonds of tenderness

and forged amidst the hardness of life’s struggles,

thanks be to you.

That in our soul

and the soul of every human being

sacred hopes are hidden,

longings for what has never been are heard

and visions for earth’s peace and

prosperity are glimpsed,

thanks be to you.

For those near to us who are in turmoil this day

and for every family in its brokenness,

for the woundedness of our own life

and for every creature that is suffering,

O God of all life, we pray.

John Philip Newell, Sounds of the Eternal | Photo by Karin Baard

Harmony

Photo by Luca Campioni on Unsplash

Photo by Luca Campioni on Unsplash

The Spirit is doing a new thing.  It is springing forth now in our consciousness, among every people, in every discipline, in every walk of life.  Do we see it?  And shall we serve it?  A new Pentecost is stirring in the human soul.  Will we open to this moment of grace and be led into relationships of oneness we could never before have imagined?[1]

This is how the 2011 A New Harmony concludes, noticing a new consciousness and asking in succession “Do we…” “shall we…” and “Will we…”  Seven years later, it would be tempting to offer a negative response.  It does not seem as though we see it, nor that we shall serve it, nor even that we will be open to it.  But, this would be a premature conclusion.

Harmony is a fitting concept, notes coming together, distinct yet working in concert to make a beautiful sound, one that can onlybe made by a coming together.  When we look at what is happening along the southern U.S. border, and the reverberations across this land and around the world, we might better describe it as dissonance.  The cries of the children torn from parents under the illusion of showers, these children left lying under foil blankets reportedly drugged.  Dissonant.  The cries for justice from those of us seeing these pictures, clutching our own children more tightly and blanketed by our own sense of helplessness. Dissonant.  The different tunes not sung but shouted at one another by those on distant ends of the political scale.  Dissonant. Will these notes come together again to sing some semblance of a song?  In moments of such angst, Newell often refers us to the Dalai Lama who maintains with his joyful disposition that the future is not yet decided.  What part shall we play in that decision, in a tuning process?

There is reason to believe we are closer to harmony than we may think.  If you have ever tuned a guitar to itself, you will know the familiar sound of playing two notes in succession, audible waves emanating at intervals that indicate the distance between the two notes. The closer the notes get to being in tune, the faster the waves pulse and the more unsettled the sound is.  Then, with little warning, the waves align, and the notes come together as one.  It is uncomfortably dissonant just before the notes release into one another.

Just as Newell reminds us that fundamentalism, the tight grasping onto the old, the desperate yet futile grabbing onto what is slipping away, is one response to change, we can choose to respond differently.  We can honor the passing away and make room for something else to come into being, and we can dare to think that new thing could be something more beautiful.  Are these death pains we are experiencing or birth pangs?  Perhaps, they are both.  Bandages often lay at the scene of each, accompanied by sweat, sometimes blood, and always tears.  Always tears. We can bury our tears and drown out the sounds of the struggle that accompanies each of these realities, or we can be fully present to them and allow them to touch us.  If we are there for the death, we will be on hand for the birth.

Newell concludes The Rebirthing of God, written closer to our time, by naming this historical moment as uncertain.  He points us to our dreams as source for new beginnings.[2]  Yolanda King, the granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great Civil Rights activist, the great lover of Jesus, was asked to speak at a rally that arose in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.  At only 9 years old, it was Yolanda’s presence that was as remarkable as her words, a living link to one who helped us dream a different way of being into reality.  At an accompanying interview her words spoke of another dream, one connected to this old dreamer.

The interviewer asked the young King, “You never knew your grandfather, but knowing that everything you have heard, what do you think that he would think about you and this movement?”

King responded, “He would probably be amazed that all of these people are getting together.”  Her answer seemed simple enough…and then she continued, “And a few days ago, I had a dream about him.”

“You did not!” gasped the interviewer in surprise.  New realities breaking in are hard to accept, but the interviewer recovered, “Tell me about that dream.”

Yolanda described seeing her grandfather in a museum, and he’d come back to life.  It was fuzzy—that’s how dream reality is—but she could see all these reporters and cameras gathered around him trying to interview him, and while she could not recall precisely what he said, she took from the dream sequence that her grandfather was with her in these times.[3]  Think about that image, people leaning in to hear King’s voice again, the prophetic voice from beyond us and yet somehow clearly deep within us.

Something is happening.  We are told that when some heard the voice of Jesus, they thought he was John the Baptist from beyond the grave, others Elijah, and still others other prophets.  The prophets are speaking again.  Do we hear it?

We have often considered our religious traditions for what they have to say, but perhaps the gift they have to offer us all now is how to listen.  Can we listen for the heartbeat of God that is pulsing through creation, affirming the sacredness of all things, reminding us to reach not for our fundamentals but for our fundamental oneness?  Out of this rhythm, let us then speak, let us put our bodies where bodies are being torn apart, and let us be living instruments of this tuning.  Let us hear it.  Let us serve it.  Let us be open to it.

Rob McClellan
Heartbeat Board

– – –

Last year, Heartbeat created our Refugee Fund in memory of John Philip Newell’s father who had an incredible passion for helping refugees the world over. While our Refugee Fund is only one of our initiatives at Heartbeat, it typifies why we exist as a foundation: to foster and support compassionate action. Last year, Heartbeat granted a $5,000 grant to Annunciation House in El Paso to support their work with refugees. Annunciation House not only meets the immediate needs of individuals and families (many being released from detention), but also advocates for a humane response to the plight of migrants and fights against the rampant misinformation that is influencing recent policy decisions in the U.S.  Heartbeat is committed to continuing to support the work of Annunciation House and other similar organizations working to care for migrants and refugees. You can contribute to this work but giving to Heartbeat’s Refugee Fund, by clicking here.

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[1]John Philip Newell, A New Harmony:  The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul(San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011), 175.

[2]John Philip Newell, The Rebirthing of God:  Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings(Woodstock:  SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2014), 124.

[3]http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1803/24/cnr.05.html

My Faith Compels Me To Act

Frannie Kieschnick with other women of faith in Hildago, TX Photo Credit: David F. Choy | Facebook: David F. Choy | Instagram: @davidfchoy

Frannie Kieschnick with other women of faith in Hildago, TX
Photo Credit: David F. Choy | Facebook: David F. Choy | Instagram: @davidfchoy

In an email to us before she left for Texas with a delegation of twelve other women of faith to bear witness to the experiences and protest the treatment of migrant and refugee families on the border, our dear friend and board member Frannie Kieschnick so simply and powerfully wrote, “my faith compels me to act.”

She also referenced a sermon by Susan Russell at All Saints Pasadena who quoted Salam Al-Marayati, the president and co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and who has been recognized for his commitment to improving the public understanding of Islam and policies impacting American Muslims: “I have seen the face of extremism in many parts of the world; extremism which is the violation of one simple principle and commandment of all our religions: Defend human dignity. And when you tear families apart, you violate the very essence of who God calls us to be.”

The face of extremism can be found right now at our country’s border, in our homeland, as people seeking and begging for dignity are violated. John Philip Newell wrote in his book A New Harmony“think of the hubris of our lives. Think of our individual arrogance, the way we pursue our own well-being at the neglect and even expense of other individuals and other families. Think of the hubris of our nationhood, pretending that we could look after the safety of our homeland by ignoring and even violating the sovereignty of other lands…the way of hubris pretends that we can be well by oppressing, by exploiting another people in order to serve our own people…it pretends that we can be well by depriving, by denying to others and to other species what we ourselves most cherish.”

We cannot love God and hate or hurt others. For truly there is no other – we are all one. The Oneness, the Sacred, is at the heart of all people, and it is a falseness to believe that we can love ourselves and demean others.

Please follow the delegation’s journey at @Revfhk1 and @FaithPublicLife on Twitter and Facebook. We, at Heartbeat, will be following and sharing their updates from the border. In the next few days, we will also be sharing ways that you can support the work being done at the border to help our neighbors.

To Frannie and the other women of faith in Texas, and to you reading, we pray, “In body, mind, and spirit may you be well this day, and may you be strong for the work of healing in the world.”

Amen.

Heartbeat board member Frannie Kieschnick  Photo credit: David F. Choy | Facebook: David F. Choy | Instagram: @davidfchoy

Heartbeat board member Frannie Kieschnick
Photo credit: David F. Choy | Facebook: David F. Choy | Instagram: @davidfchoy