The Truth of Who We Are

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Nunnery ruins, Isle of Iona, Scotland

Christ says to John that he is our memory. Humanity has forgotten itself. It has become subject to fears and falseness and ignorance. “I am the memory of the fullness,” says Christ. He comes to wake us up, both to ourselves and to one another. He carries within himself the true memory of our nature and of the fullness of our relationship with all things. He comes to release us from the falseness of what we are doing to one another. These themes from The Secret Book of John are similar to what we hear in the gospel of John. Jesus says that he has come “that those who do not see may see” (John 9:39). Or as he asserts in his trial before the Roman governor, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). He is the memory of the song. He witnesses to the truth of who we are.

I do not believe that the gospel, which literally means “good news,” is given to tell us that we have failed or been false. That is not news, and it is not good. We already know much of that about ourselves. We know we have been false, even to those whom we most love in our lives and would most want to be true to. We know we have failed people and whole nations throughout the world today, who are suffering or who are subjected to terrible injustices that we could do more to prevent. So the gospel is not given to tell us what we already know. Rather, the gospel is given to tell us what we do not know or what we have forgotten, and that is who we are, sons and daughters of the One from whom all things come. It is when we begin to remember who we are, and who all people truly are, that we will begin to remember also what we should be doing and how we should be relating to one another as individuals and as nations and as an entire earth community.

John Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts, 2008 (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) p7-8.

The Core of the Human Soul | John Philip Newell | Isle of Iona | Christ of the Celts

JPNewellbyAnnFowlerby John Philip Newell

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.

The image of God is the essence of our being. It is the core of the human soul.

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.

Christ of the Celts, 2008 (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 2-4.

 

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I Am About To Do A New Thing | John Philip Newell | Ghost Ranch

02a-MBy John Philip Newell

Casa del Sol is a little spirituality center in the high desert of New Mexico. It is committed, as our vision statement says, to “seeking the oneness of the human soul and the healing of creation.” At its service of blessing in 2006, we gathered in the courtyard of the old hacienda and sounded a large set of wind chimes in the four directions—south, west, north, and east. From the whole earth we were seeking the Spirit of new beginnings. As the chimes rang out in each of the four cardinal direc- tions, Jim Baird, our director of program, recited words from the prophecy of Isaiah: “I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). By the time we got to the east, the direction of light and fresh beginnings, Jim’s voice carried powerfully over the desert landscape, “I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”

He was saying, however, that if we assume that the Holy Wind of new beginnings can only come through our existing religious and cultural traditions, then we will likely miss the new thing.

Paul Tillich, the great German theologian who as early as the 1950s was prophetically announcing God as Ground of being, preached on these words from Isaiah. In his sermon, he said that as long as we think the new thing can only come through the old thing, then we will likely miss the new thing. He was not saying that the new thing cannot come through the old thing. He was not saying, for instance, that the new consciousness of earth’s oneness cannot be born from within the inherited language and thought forms of our religion and culture. He was saying, however, that if we assume that the Holy Wind of new beginnings can only come through our existing religious and cultural traditions, then we will likely miss the new thing. “It is not the old which creates the new,” he said. “All we can do is to be ready for it.” How do we get ready to open to the new Pentecost, to the new thing that the Spirit is doing in the earth and the human soul?

 A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 170-171.

Did the World Save Jesus?

By John Philip Newell

Roofless Church, New Harmony, IN

Roofless Church, New Harmony, IN

In one of my last conversations with Jane Owen before she died in the summer of 2010, she said, “New Harmony saved me.” Some would be excused for thinking that I had misheard her. Was it not Jane Owen who had saved New Harmony? Was it not her conviction that had turned around this forgotten little town, transforming it into a place of new vision for the world? History will record what many people have already said, that Jane Owen saved New Harmony. And they are right. That is part of the truth. But a deeper part of the story is that New Harmony saved her. “New Harmony saved me,” she said, “because it taught me how to love.” She was a rich young woman from Texas, but here she found the objects of her love—the people, the place, the vision of a new harmony. It was here that she learned how to sacrifice. And so it was here that she truly found herself.

Because Jesus found in the world the true object of his love, and in giving himself in love, he found himself forever.

This is the deeper part of the story in all great lives. Many will say that Nelson Mandela saved South Africa. But Nelson Mandela would be the first to say that South Africa saved him. In the people of South Africa he found the object of his love, and in giving himself for them he found his true stature of soul. Many would say that Oscar Romero saved El Salvador. And this is part of the story. But the deeper truth is that his love for the people of El Salvador saved Oscar Romero. And in the Christian household, we hear again and again in word and song that Jesus saved the world. But must we not also say that the hidden part of the story is that the world saved Jesus? Because Jesus found in the world the true object of his love, and in giving himself in love, he found himself forever.

What is it that will save us? Who are the people, the creatures, the lands, the nations that will awaken our compassion, and who in awakening our love will awaken our willingness to make whole again? These are the ones who hold the hidden part of the story in our search for wholeness. These are the ones in whom we will find the key to love.

 A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 164-165. 

The Cross and the Kiss of Choice

JPNewellbyAnnFowlerby John Philip Newell

Last year I gave some talks at a church in Minneapolis. Before the opening session, I was seated in a side chapel close to the main auditorium preparing myself in silence. The talks were going to touch on themes of sacrifice, of making whole again. And I was going to raise specific questions in relation to wholeness. Do we want to be part of transformation? And what are the costs of change, both individually and collectively? As I sat pondering these themes, I noticed on the front wall of the chapel a traditional Ethiopian cross with its large diamond shape at the top and narrow shaft connecting to a smaller square shape at the bottom. And I realized it was like a big key hanging on the wall in front of me.

In the Christian tradition, our key is the cross, or what Jung calls “the Christian totality symbol.” It opens for us the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love.

In the Christian tradition, our key is the cross, or what Jung calls “the Christian totality symbol.” It opens for us the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love. It connects for us what has been considered opposite—heaven and earth, the divine and the human, the one and the many, God and all things. It is the key of love. It is the key to transformation.

2002-21-1lgThis may begin to make it all sound simple. And I suppose it is simple. But it is not easy. The difficulty comes in using the key. The challenge ensues in taking it off the wall of our religious symbolism and making use of it in the relationships of our lives and the wider world. The test is in whether we choose to use it again and again and again, resisting the delusion that we will be well by looking after ourselves in isolation, by tending our own nation, our own species, our own tradition, to the neglect of the whole. It is what Teilhard de Chardin calls “the primacy of humility,” the greatness of bowing in love to what is deepest in one another.

The way of sacrifice cannot be imposed, for it is the way of love.

The way of sacrifice cannot be imposed, for it is the way of love. By its very nature it must be chosen. Hildegard says that we are “to act through the kiss of choice.” This is what ANC students did in loving their nation and paying the price of exile. This is what Jon Sobrino and his fellow Jesuits did in speaking out against the political abuses of El Salvador. They kissed the key to love. This is what our Mark did in the Glasgow terrorist attack in his willingness to sacrifice.

What is it that we will choose, and how can we strengthen one another to make this “kiss of choice”?

A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 165-168.

The Antithesis of Terrorism

DSCF3960by John Philip Newell

In 2007 there was a terrorist attack at Glasgow International Airport in Scotland. Ali and our younger son, Cameron, were traveling that day.They arrived at the airport just minutes before the Jeep that had been packed with explosives drove through the front window of the terminal and burst into flames. If they had arrived a few minutes later, they would have been checking in at exactly that spot in the airport. As it was, they were inside the terminal getting close to the ticket counter. Then suddenly in front of them hundreds of people were running in the opposite direction. Ahead of them they glimpsed the Jeep and one of the terrorists on fire.

 “I was listening for the moment of explosion. I was trying to decide when to throw myself over Cameron.”

People were desperately running to get away. Our son- in-law Mark was with Ali and Cameron. He had taken them to the airport and was helping with their luggage. He said, “Drop your bags. Run.” As the three of them ran, Mark, in later recounting what was going on in his mind, said, “I was listening for the moment of explosion. I was trying to decide when to throw myself over Cameron.”

This was not Mark boasting. This was a candid, straightforward expression of his heart. He would not put it this way because he does not claim to be religious. But for me this was an expression of the heart of God. It was an expression of the true depths of the human soul. Deep within us is the desire to love.

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In the end, the explosives did not detonate. Scotland was spared the sort of carnage that many places in our world are subjected to on a regular basis. How can we be part of transformation in our world so that such acts of terror do not pull us further apart? For us as a family, we will always remember Mark’s willingness to risk himself for Cameron. It was the antithesis of the fear and hatred that motivated the bomb plot. How can we nurture the willingness to sacrifice? In other words, how can we nourish the desire to love, a desire that is within us all, although often confined to the smallest circles of relationship and family, yet a desire that can be equally although more challengingly applied to broader spheres of relationship in our world? There are many stages to transformation, including the detailed deci- sions of how to reenvision and restructure the relationships of life, whether between nations and species or between individuals and communities. But unless there is a willingness to be compassionate and to bear the cost of love, we will move nowhere except into further separation and division.

 A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 164-165. 

The Mother Heart of God | John Philip Newell | Celtic Spirituality | Isle of Iona

by John Philip Newell

St. Martin's Cross outside the Abbey of Iona. Photo by Caleb Dodson.

St. Martin’s Cross outside the Abbey of Iona. Photo by Caleb Dodson.

On Iona, one of the high-standing crosses in front of the abbey is St. Martin’s Cross, with its distinctive Celtic feature of cross form and circle form combined as a way of pointing to the oneness of Christ and creation. At the heart of St. Martin’s Cross, where the vertical line and the horizontal line intersect, is an image of the Mother and Child. She holds the child against her breast. She has paid the price of labor and now holds the newborn close to her. She has born the pain of giving birth. And now she will sustain the child with her own being, with the milk of her love. In the Celtic world it is said that there is a mother’s heart at the heart of God. At the heart of a mother’s heart is the willingness to make sacrifice for her child. It is a revelation of the very heart of God’s being. And it is a revelation also of the human heart made in the image of God’s heart.

photoIn Christ of the Celts I tell the story of being brushed by an eagle. I had been hiking up an arroyo in New Mexico, and as I bent to pass under a fallen pine tree, I was met by an eagle swooping in the opposite direction with a rabbit in her talons. Either she had not noticed me or was so intent on the catch that she was not bothered by my presence. So we met under the tree’s fallen trunk, and her strong wing touched my left arm. It was an exhilarating experience, to have physical contact with this untamed icon of heaven. I was aware also that it was a spiritual experience, for in Christian symbolism the eagle is associated with John the Beloved, who sees with a height of unitary vision the oneness of all things. But the most important part of the story I did not tell in Christ of the Celts, for it had not yet happened.

After my eagle experience, there was someone in particular with whom I wanted to share the story. It was Ronald Royball, a native musician and storyteller from Santa Fe. We had met years earlier, and he had told me about a life- changing dream in which a great eagle had swept down from the sky to touch his hand with its wing tip. When Ronald woke, he realized he was to be a musician, playing the native flute and sharing the wisdom of his people through music and story.

So it was Ronald whom I especially wanted to tell. He joined me for lunch close to the arroyo where I had hiked the previous year. And with some pride I told him in great detail about everything that had happened, and showed him exactly where on my arm the eagle had brushed against me. When finally I finished, Ronald said, “John Philip, I want you to think about the rabbit.The rabbit is Christ.The rabbit connected you and the eagle. The rabbit made heaven and earth one for you. And he lost his life doing so. I want you to think about the rabbit.The rabbit is Christ.” He spoke not one word to me about the eagle!

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When I heard Ronald’s words, I knew he was right. I had missed the main point of the story. Yes, of course, I shall always be thrilled to know that I was brushed by an eagle. But I would not have met the eagle without the sacrifice of the rabbit. This is not to say that every part of the story can be directly applied spiritually.The rabbit did not choose to offer itself, although Native American wisdom would probably perceive an element of choice in all of nature’s sacrifices. But Ronald’s words prompted me to ask more deeply what this experience was about. His words prompted me to ask what the costly connections are that I am to make in my life. What are the costly connections we are to make? The encounter with the eagle was a meeting also with the rabbit.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 162-164.

The Ego’s Last Supper | John Philip Newell | Isle of Iona | Carl Jung

cross-iona-4By John Philip Newell

Carl Jung says that the cross is a “Christian totality symbol.” It symbolizes the way of completeness in which the quadrants or four cardinal points of the whole are connected. It consists of a vertical line and a horizontal line intersecting. The vertical line joins what is above with what is below— heaven and earth, spirit and matter, the cosmos and the earth. The horizontal line joins what is on one side with what is on the other side—East and West, the masculine and the feminine, the interests of one nation and the life of another. At the center of the cross, the opposites meet. And in the Christian tradition the center of the cross is the place of self-giving. It is love that has the power to conjoin what is considered irreconcilable. It is sacrifice that brings together the so-called opposites. But this is not to be con- fused with the doctrine of propitiation in which Christ’s death has often been imagined in Christianity to be a payment to God for the sins of the world. Rather the symbol is pointing to the nature of love itself. Oneness is costly. It will be born within us and among us only if we are willing to die to our separateness. As Jung says, we “must celebrate a Last Supper” with our ego. Whether as nations or as individuals or as an entire species, we must choose to abandon ourselves to love.

rebirthing

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In 1939 Jung had a dreamlike experience in the middle of the night. He woke and saw at the foot of his bed the figure of Christ on the cross “bathed in bright light.” And he saw that Christ’s body was made of “greenish gold.” It was for Jung a powerful vision and a disturbing one. The greenish gold of the dream, he realized, was the symbolic color for transformation in alchemical thought. It represented the anima mundi or the greening spirit that is within all things. Among medieval alchemists, it was this belief that led to the hope that base metals could be changed into gold, for all things shared the same golden essence of life. But for Jung it was a way of speaking of the human soul’s capacity for transformation.Within every human being is life’s sacred essence. And it is love, especially love’s willingness to sacrifice, that holds the key to transformation, to release again life’s essential oneness.The twelfth-century teacher Hildegard of Bingen expresses it similarly when she says that Jesus reveals “the greening power” of the soul. He shows us the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love. It is love that will release life’s greening force again.

A number of years ago on personal retreat, I used a form of contemplation developed by Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century. Ignatius had discovered that the imagination was a faculty of knowing. He realized also that it could be a tool of fantasy, a way of escaping reality. But the significance of his discovery was the realization that our imagination could take us to places within ourselves to which the rational mind alone does not have access. Ignatius developed a form of contemplation in which he was able to make an imaginal connection between Jesus and himself. Specifically it was a way of contemplation in which he imaginatively placed himself in the Gospel stories of Jesus. He would allow the senses of his imagination to color the place, to people the narrative, and to bring him into direct conversation with Jesus.

 Prayer or meditative practice is about being dis-membered in order to be re-membered.

This was the form of contemplation I used on retreat at St. Beuno’s spirituality center in the north of Wales, the monastery where the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins studied for the priesthood and wrote some of his greatest poetry. In the time of contemplation, I used a story from St. Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus is described as rising early in the morning “while it was still very dark” in order to go to a deserted place to pray (Mark 1:35). In my imagination I allowed the place to be a little bay off the Sound of Iona with which I am familiar. The time was early morning, just as the seagulls were beginning to announce the coming light. And I was a disciple wanting to be with Jesus in the silence of dawn.

I could not make him out on the shore. It was still too dark. There was only enough light to glimpse the barest outline of his form. I did not want to disturb him. My desire was simply to share in the silence. But in my imagination Jesus spoke to me. And his voice did not sound kindly. “What is it you want?” he asked. “I want to be with you,” I replied. To which Jesus responded, “You don’t know what you are asking.” The light of dawn was growing. I was able to see a bit more of his shape. I now saw that he was doubled over like an old man, leaning on a stick. And then he began to be dismembered, losing one limb after another, until finally all that was left of him was a clump of seaweed against a wet rock on the shore.

It was a disturbing contemplation for me. At first I tried to dismiss its details from my mind. I even tried to reshape the story, retracing its stages and attempting to force my imagination in other directions. But in the end I could see nothing but the clump of seaweed on the strand. And I began to realize that truly I had not known what I was asking for. Part of me had wanted to be with Jesus on the shore. I liked the idea of getting away from the crowds as Jesus had done in the Gospel story. But what I had not realized was that to join Jesus in prayer was to approach the place of dismemberment. Prayer or meditative practice is about being dis-membered in order to be re-membered. It is about descending into the death of the ego in order to be reborn from our true depths. It is about being stripped down to our essence, where we will find the gold of our being, the greening power of the soul.

Jung says that to find our true self “involves a passion of the ego.” It is about letting go of the pretence of separateness, whether as individuals or as nations or communities. It is about “ex-centration,” as Teilhard de Chardin calls it, a finding of our true center not simply within the limited confines of our own individuality but at the heart of one another as well. It is not about ceasing to love ourselves but about loving ourselves in a radically new way, by loving the other as our self. It is, says Teilhard, about shifting “the axis” of our being outside of ourselves. And in all of this it is about knowing that our essence is like the precious seaweed gathered on the shores of the Western Isles of Scotland each year to fertilize the fields for the next year’s growth and fecundity. This is the wisdom of Jesus that I heard again in my imagination on the shores of Iona. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). It is only as our separating ego is dis-membered that we will re-member our true self, one with all selves.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 156-160.

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Our Oldest Unity | John Philip Newell | Isle of Iona | New Harmony

02a-Mby John Philip Newell

Last year I had a dream in which an alchemist-like woman whom I did not know was summoning pieces of fish into a chrysalis-type structure, a place of transformation. The individual segments of fish seemed entirely unrelated to each other until they passed through the large cocoon- shaped chrysalis. But on the other side of the chrysalis, they emerged complete as a bright shining salmon, all of the pieces reconnected into a living whole. In the dream, I thought it was like the reverse of a meat grinder. The separate parts were now reunited and living. Toward the end of the dream, a word appeared visually in front of me, which upon waking I could not remember. But later in the morning it came back to me. The word was quintus.

There are many strands to this dream. One is the unknown woman who draws the parts back into a whole. She represents a feminine dimension within me, within us, which the dream suggests I am not yet fully conscious of. Her gift is to bring back into relationship what has been torn apart. Her charism is relational. And her wisdom is to know that the segments are part of a whole. In the dream, the pieces seem so fragmented, so separate, that it is easy to believe there is no connection. What is this grace of feminine, relational wisdom within us waiting to be reborn in our families and nations and among us as an earth com- munity? And do we know that this gift is within us?

The chrysalis-type structure is another significant part of the dream. The word chrysalis comes from the Greek khrusos, which means “gold.” It is used to refer to the transition state in the metamorphosis of an insect, especially from larva into butterfly. This is a hidden moment, the golden alchemical moment of transformation. And in the develop- ment of an insect, it is a quiescent time. Nothing appears to be happening in the stillness of the chrysalis. How do we enable one another to pay attention to the hidden gold of stillness within us where despite outward observation, the beginnings of transformation can be born? And how in our lives and relationships are we to recover faithful and trusting practices of stillness in order that deep change may emerge from the heart of our being?

The word that appears visually toward the end of the dream, when the bright, beautiful salmon appears, is quintus. It is Latin for “fifth.” The salmon represents something that is quintessential to life, something more than the four elements of which its body is constituted. Known for giving its life in order to spawn new beginnings, the salmon discloses something of life’s quinta essentia. It is like a window into the mystery of relationship at the heart of the universe. Life is not composed simply of its material elements. Its quintessence is the longing for relationship and for new beginnings.

Our oldest unity is our relationship with the earth.

Interestingly it was not a butterfly that emerged from the chrysalis in my dream.The butterfly also is a symbol of resurrection, which in the Christian tradition occurs when grace and nature combine, when grace awakens within our nature something that has been assumed dead and beyond hope. Instead what emerged from the chrysalis was a salmon. In the ancient Celtic world, the salmon was a symbol of wisdom, which in later Christian Celtic symbol- ism became associated with Christ, or more specifically with the wisdom of Christ’s way, which is the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love. This is the quinta essentia that holds all things together. Without love, the elements of our lives disperse. It is the quintus, the essential fifth, that brings all things into the wholeness of relationship. Love is the gold at the heart of life’s chrysalis. And it is not simply gold at the heart of the human chrysalis. It is the desire for relationship at the heart of the universe.

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Meister Eckhart says that “all creatures . . . seek the One.” This longing is deep within the stuff of our nature. It is deep within the body of the cosmos. We seek the One by seeking oneness with each other, by seeking to be in relationship with the rest of life, by living in relation to everything that has being. The tragedy of our reality is that we have fallen out of touch with this holy natural longing. Divisions that have multiplied divisions, and fears that have fed upon fears drive us further and further apart. Grace, says Teilhard de Chardin, is the “seed of resurrection” sown in our nature. And the greatest of graces, love, is what reawakens the deep longings of our being, the hunger for oneness, the desire for unity. How do we bring this greatest of graces to the relationships of our lives—our relationship with the earth, our relationship as nations, our relationship as wisdom traditions?

Our oldest unity is our relationship with the earth. And yet this is the relationship that we have so deeply neglected. For many of earth’s species, we are now too late to redeem the relationship. They are becoming extinct at an alarming and accelerating pace. We are in danger of a deep impoverishment of life as we have known it. But there is also hope for the community of earth. We are living in the midst of what Berry calls a “moment of grace.” As never before in the history of humanity, we are becoming aware of our interrelatedness. We are beginning to comprehend that what we do to other species is what we do to ourselves. We are beginning to perceive that what we do to other nations and peoples is what we do to our own soul. The question is whether we will choose to translate this emerging con- sciousness into transformative action. And the further question is where we will find strength and vision for this work.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 141-144.