Anima Mundi

Last year, I spent a day hiking through Glen Tromie in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. It was midwinter, and the ground was covered by a thick layer of snow. I had walked for hours without meeting anyone. I love the intimacy of this glen. Some of its neighbors, like Glen Feshie and Glen Einich, are wilder and grander, but Glen Tromie is a perfect winter walk with its smaller proportions and shelter of hills on either side. During the hike, I realized just how much I love this land. I also wondered how it is that I hold this love together with my love for other landscapes, other wildernesses. I thought of the vast stretches of sky and sandstone mesas in the high desert of New Mexico or the ancient rock formations and lakes of the Canadian Shield where I spent my summers as a boy. What is it that allows the love of these different places to be one?

At the same time, my thoughts turned to the particularities of our lives and relationships. How do we remain true in our family life, in our devotion to nation, in our loyalty to religious tradition, and at the same time be in faithful relationship with those beyond the boundaries of these defined relationships? Can we live a conciliation between the two? I had been reading Jung’s thoughts about what he calls the “transcendent function.” It is a way of uniting supposed opposites. It is a disciplined practice of placing oneself in between two worlds, or at the midpoint between two extremes that seem irreconcilable, and faithfully waiting until the intersecting of their shared essence occurs. It is a way of seeking oneness between the two ends of a spectrum that otherwise fall into duality.

What are the dualisms of our lives? I love this place and not that place. I love my family, my nation, my religious inheritance, my species but not those people, those traditions, those species, those life-forms. And what about the ultimate dualisms that Jesus addresses in his teachings? I love God but not my brother. Or I love myself but not my neighbor. Jesus transcends these separations by disclosing the oneness of love. The one “who truly loves,” says Eckhart, “can only love one thing.” So radical is this oneness that it means that what we do to ourselves is what we do to God. What we do to our neighbor, what we do to the earth, is what we do to ourselves.

As I walked through Glen Tromie reflecting on my love of one place in relation to my love of other places, I was searching for a “transcendent function,” something that would hold them together. And what emerged in my thoughts was the medieval concept of anima mundi, or “the soul of the earth.” The Scottish landscape in which I was walking can seem so entirely different from the New Mexican landscape. One is eternally moist and verdant. The other is a high desert of sand with occasional outrageous outbursts of color and blossom. And yet in both places I breathe deeply. I inhale the soul of creation in these landscapes and am alive to its oneness. It is what Teilhard de Chardin calls the “fragrance” of the Feminine deep within the body of the earth, that quality within matter that awakens our desire for union. But the modern world, especially since the seventeenth century, has lost its awareness of the anima mundi. Matter is no longer animated by spirit. Instead, says Richard Tarnas, the universe is viewed as a “soulless vacuum.” And humanity is regarded as an exception of the cosmos. Spiritual and psychological qualities are located exclusively in the human psyche rather than in the vastness of the universe and in everything that has being. We have raised humanity into a separate category from the earth instead of seeing that we carry within ourselves the essence of the earth.

Toward the end of day in Glen Tromie, I was reveling in a sense of the anima mundi all around me. The whiteness of the landscape, the soft curves of the mountain peaks, the flow of the river were like a living body infused with soul. By now it was twilight as I headed out of the glen. But suddenly ahead of me on the path was a pack of dogs. They had picked up scent and were rushing at me full speed and angry. No one was with them. They came from the direction of the hunting lodge and kennels nearby. Clearly they had been pent up for too long and were now exploding with aggressive energy.

All my attention was focused on the big hounds at the front of the pack. I thought if I could speak to them, calling out firmly but unthreateningly, I could establish a type of relationship with them and settle them. They stopped about ten feet in front of me, still barking furiously but by now unsure what to do. Although part of me was frightened, I felt a calmness in my voice. Years of experience growing up as a boy with dogs, and the fact that the big hounds had now stopped and were listening to me, made me think I was going to be all right.

Out of the corner of my eye, I was aware of a little dog that I assumed to be a puppy. So he was of no concern to me. My focus remained on the big hounds directly in front of me. But suddenly the little dog bit me from the backside. It was not a puppy after all. It was a small terrier. He dug his teeth into the back of my leg, cutting my skin and drawing blood. It lasted but a split second and then he was gone, rejoining the others. The pack now began to disperse a little, enough at least to let me move forward. But now as I hobbled on, limping slightly at the sharp sting of the bite, I kept my eyes on the terrier as well. And soon I was safely away.

An experience of anima mundi! Never an experience to be romanticized. There are always little terriers in life that will bite our backside if we are not careful. We need to give our attetion to them as well, our concentrated attention. This is not to detract from the reality of my experience of elation in the glen — even though I will never again hike Glen Tromie without a walking stick in hand! I do not doubt that there is an anima or spiritual dimension within everything that has being, and that within each life-form is the Soul from whom we and all things come. I do believe, however, that we have to learn how to be in relationship with all things again, how to approach one another, and how to reassure each other. And we need to know the risks. We need to be aware of how fragmented the unity is and just how deeply our wholeness has been divided by fears and aggressions that have further compounded the brokenness. We need to find ways of giving real attention to one another, of entering into “genuine dialogue” with the earth and its creatures. And in all of this we need to believe again in our “incredible power to love.” It is deep within us. It is deep within everything that has being. And it alone holds the strength to redeem our relationships.

Newell, John Philip. A New Harmony. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. | Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash

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

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 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