The Descent of the Spirit

The Descent of the Spirit by Jacques Lipchitz in the cloisters of Iona Abbey

In New Harmony, Indiana, there is a modern place of prayer that addresses [the yearning to bring back into relationship again so-called opposites…the masculine and the feminine…the humanity and the life of the earth]. It is called the Roofless Church. It has four defining walls, but there is no roof. Like the Nunnery [on Iona], it sits open to the elements. It was created under the inspiration of Jane Blaffer Owen (1915-2010), one of the most beautiful and wise women I have ever known. Over fifty years ago, well in advance of today’s earth awareness movement, Jane Owen say that our sacred sites must not be characterized by division from the creatures and from earth’s other peoples and religious traditions.

At the heart of the Roofless Church is a sculpture by the Jewish artist Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973). It is called The Descent of the Spirit. In the form of a dove the Spirit descends onto an abstract divine feminine form that opens to give birth. At one level Lipchitz is pointing to the Jesus story, conceived by the Spirit in the womb of Mary. At another level he is pointing to the universe story. Everything is conceived by the Spirit in the womb of the cosmos. Everything is sacred.

Jane Owen met Lipchitz in New York City at the end of the Second World War through the German-American theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965). Lipchitz had escaped Nazi-occupied France with the help of a Roman Catholic priest in Plateau d’Assy. Even before his escape, he had conceived the idea of the sculpture. In New York he shared his vision with Jane Owen. She commissioned him to create three casts of the piece. One was to be in the Roofless Church of New Harmony. The second was to be in the parish church of Assy in France. The third was to be in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The cathedral leaders agreed in principle to feature the sculpture, but when they saw it, they refused to accept it. It was too explicit in representation of the Divine Feminine opening to give birth. So instead, as Jane Owen explained to me when I met her many years later, they commissioned another artist to create a statue of George Washington riding a horse! The young Jane Owen was upset by their refusal. She went to New York to pour our her soul to a religious sister who told her there was someone visiting from Scotland whom she should meet. His name was George MacLeod (1895-1991). He and his young Scottish community were in the midst of rebuilding Iona Abbey.

I would have loved to be there for that first meeting. Jane Owen was as formidable a feminine presence as George MacLeod was a masculine energy. They later became good friends, but on that first occasion they had only a few minutes together. Jane said to George, “The third cast belongs on Iona.” To which George replied, ” We Presbyterians would find it difficult to live with a sculpture of Our Lady, but if she were to arrive with a dowry we would find it easier to live with her.” So she arrived with a dowry, and that dowry paid for the rebuilding of the cloisters of Iona Abbey.

George MacLeod was right, of course. Scottish Presbyterians would not find it easy to live with a sculpture of Our Lady, and especially its explicit feminine birthing form. Nor would they find it easy to live with Lipchitz’s name for the piece, Our Lady of Delight. They might not know what to do with the Divine Feminine, but they also would not know what to do with delight! So MacLeod renamed the sculpture The Descent of the Spirit, and there she sits in the cloisters of Iona Abbey. Every time I see her I feel that her time has come. More and more it can be said that she belongs to this moment in time. She represents the recovery of the feminine that we are in the midst of, and with the feminine a recovery of the awareness that everything that is born is sacred.

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

Prayer of Awareness

All things come from you, O God,
and to you we return.
All things emerge in your great river of life
and into you we vanish again.
At the beginning of this day
we wake
not as separate streams
but as countless currents in a single flow
the flow of this day’s dawning
the flow of this day’s delight
the flow of this day’s sorrows
your flow, O God,
in the twisting and turnings of this new day.

Be still and aware. 

From Praying with the Earth by John Philip Newell | Photo by Karin Baard

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


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.


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


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.”


  • 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


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


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