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.


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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.

Stories from Iona Abbey | Celtic Spirituality | John Philip Newell

By John Philip Newell

37541083-thomas-mertonThe new harmony that we seek is not the construction of a new unity. It is, as Thomas Merton says, the rediscovery of an “older unity.” It is not the laying of a new foundation for relationship. It is the fresh uncovering of life’s original groundwork. In the final weeks of his life, Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk and visionary for peace, met in Asia with leaders of other religious traditions. One of the last things he said to them was, “My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

Our experiences of communion in life are glimpses into this original unity. They are a rediscovery of what we most truly are—one. Whether it is our experience of gazing into the vast infinity of night skies or looking deep into the eyes of one we love, it is the recognizing of a oneness we did not create but have been gifted with. It is the rediscovery of a harmony that precedes us, the remembering of a unity that is deep in the body of the universe.

church4The best of our rituals and religious disciplines of communion reflect this. They do not create oneness. They help us remember our oneness. They do not make unity. They release our unity. They free us from the forgetfulness of thinking we are essentially separate. They liberate us from the delusions of isolated individuality. In our sacrament of communion in the Christian household, when we share one bread and one cup together, we recite Jesus’ words, “Do this to remember me.” We do this to re-member, to bring back into relationship again what has been forgotten, to reawaken within ourselves the way of oneness, the truth of oneness, the life of oneness.

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One of the great blessings of my four years at the abbey on Iona was gathering together with people from around the world every Friday evening to share bread and wine at the long table. This ancient Scottish practice of communion, in which a table extends the entire length of the chancel, is celebrated weekly at the abbey. Gathered around the table were always many nations and languages, many colors and denominations. It was an experience of the world at table together. And when the world gathers together at table, there is always the sublime as well as the ridiculous.

I shall never forget one Friday evening in particular. Our service had begun at the east end of the cathedral. During the first hymn, I led the procession from the nave into the chancel so that we could be seated around the long table. The first to join me at the head of the table were some lads from Easterhouse, a rough council housing scheme in Glasgow. Perhaps they had never been in a church before.

Sometimes this was the case on Iona, when groups from different traditions and backgrounds gathered together.

The lads were wide-eyed about the proceedings and appeared happy enough to be there. But sitting at table together was probably not what they had expected. The combination of food and drink, together with their being warmly welcomed into the life of the community, made them feel so much at home that they pulled out their cigarettes and lit up at the table. I was hesitant to inhibit their style, but felt they should at least know that this was not our custom at the abbey. So as the rest of the congregation was still singing and making its way from the nave to the table, I had a quiet word with the boys, to which they obligingly responded by putting out their cigarettes. I thought the worst was over. In fact the comedy had just begun. When it came to sharing the bread and the wine, they were the first to receive. And by the time the chalice reached the fourth lad, it had been drained dry. The celebration of an older unity!

As well as absurd occasions at the abbey, there were truly extraordinary moments of oneness. There was the time when Zaki Badawi, a prominent scholar of the Islamic community in Britain, led us in a Muslim call to prayer in the abbey church. This was a sound that had never been heard within the eight-hundred-year-old walls of the abbey. And yet it sounded as if it deeply belonged. It was the sound of a new-ancient harmony that was being born again within us and between us.

And there was the week when Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, the cofounder of Clergy for Peace in Jerusalem, taught Torah at the abbey. The agreement was that he would teach Scripture in the mornings and for the rest of the day join in as much of the community’s life as he wished. Jeremy fully participated in the pattern of our days. Every morning he would join us for prayer in the abbey church. In the evenings he would sing hymns with us and listen to our Scriptures.

Toward the end of the week, we asked Jeremy if he would preach at the long-table celebration of communion. Being a good rabbi, he said he did not know a precedent of a Jewish rabbi preaching at a communion service. But he knew a precedent of a rabbi singing a table blessing at a Christian communion, so he would sing a table blessing for us. When it came time for the blessing, Jeremy gave it a ten-minute introduction. So we had a sermon after all!

Ali was presiding that evening, so she was seated at the head of the table. And because Jeremy was preaching—or giving the table blessing as he called it—he sat immediately next to her. We assumed he was simply wanting to be present for communion rather than to fully participate in communion. When it came time for the sharing of the bread and wine, however, Ali, intending simply to start the bread around the table, handed it to Jeremy so that he could then pass it on to his neighbor. But Jeremy received the bread and ate before serving his neighbor. And he did the same with the cup.

An older unity was being rediscovered among us, a oneness that precedes our divisions, a unity that underlies our differentiations. In speaking about the communion service later on that night, Rabbi Jeremy explained that it  had not been his intention to receive the bread and wine when he came to the service. But as he sat at table he realized that it was all so deeply familiar, the sharing of bread and wine at table together. He also realized that he had been so welcomed as a Jewish rabbi into the abbey community that he could receive the bread and the wine according to his own tradition. He knew that he was not being untrue to us or to his own inheritance. He was being deeply true. He also knew that he wanted to be true to an older unity, the unity of the human soul, the unity of the earth.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 132-136.

The Heartbeat of God | Celtic Spirituality

By John Philip Newell

photoPerhaps the profoundest words ever uttered were “God is love” (1 John 4:16). They are attributed to John the Beloved, the one who leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper and was said to have heard the heartbeat of God. The profoundest utterances in life are always the simplest of utterances. The problem with truth is not that it is too complicated for expression. The problem with truth is that it is too simple for expression. Three simple words, “God is love,” which is to say that when we love, we are one with God. And when we do not love, we are not one with God.

According to legend, John the Beloved lived to a ripe old age, until over a hundred. He was the cousin of Jesus, son of Mary’s sister, Salome. Youngest among the disciples, he had been especially loved. After the crucifixion, he was silent for years amidst the uncertainties and violence of Jerusalem. With the destruction of the Temple, he fled Palestine for Ephesus with Mary the Mother. There he discovered his voice again and denounced the inhumanities of empire. He was sent into political exile for years on the island of Patmos, and finally as an old man returned to Ephesus. This is the fascinating stuff of legend. How much of it actually occurred we do not know. What is certain, however, is that the Community of John believed in love. “God is love,” they said, “and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16).

He had witnessed the crucifixion. He had become like a son to Mary. He had dreamed of a new heaven and a new earth. He had threatened the empire with the power of his words and paid the price with years of exile. There was so much he could tell them. But all he would say was “Little children, love one another.”

One of the last stories of St. John’s life relates to his being so weak that he had to be carried to morning and evening prayer in Ephesus. And as he was being carried by members of his community, he would say just one thing to hem: “Little children, love one another.” After a while they became frustrated by this. Here was the great man, John the Beloved. He had grown up with Jesus. He had been part of the inner circle of disciples who entered Jerusalem amidst the song and jubilation of crowds who hoped this would be a new era in the life of their nation. He had witnessed the crucifixion. He had become like a son to Mary. He had dreamed of a new heaven and a new earth. He had threatened the empire with the power of his words and paid the price with years of exile. There was so much he could tell them. But all he would say was “Little children, love one another.” Finally, one day on the way to prayer they asked him, “Teacher, why do you always say this?” To which John replied, “Because it was the Lord’s precept, and if it alone is done, it is enough.”

photoDo we need something more than this wisdom? Or is it just that we pretend we need more and end up doing less? We so much think we need to do more than love our enemy that we end up downplaying our greatest strength, our “incredible power to love.” We so much think we need to focus primarily on our defensive strategies, our accumulation of more and more wealth, our obsession with the human species to the neglect of other species, that we end up ignoring our greatest capacity to redeem the relationships of our lives and world, by loving one another.

You will recall John and Fran, the young couple whom I married on Iona. Because John was Roman Catholic and Fran was Protestant, their families were not supportive of their relationship. The tragic division that had marked Northern Ireland and so many other parts of the Christian household was playing itself out between their families. A number of years after their Iona wedding, they gave birth to their first child, Uist, a beautiful boy. They asked my Ali to baptize him in the River Isla. It was a cold day as we clambered down to the river and found a place midstream that was stable enough for Ali and the little holy family to stand. And gathered together on the riverbank with tears of delight were the two families, one Roman Catholic and one Protestant. Uist’s birth had brought them together.

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Uist’s birth was the symbol of a new beginning. The word symbol comes from the Greek sum, meaning “together,” and bolos, meaning “throw.” A symbol throws together or brings into relationship what has previously been unconnected. The birth was a union of opposites, of male and female but also of Roman Catholic and Protestant. Uist was of John, and he was also of Fran. Yet he was his own person, entirely unique. As Jung says in his work on symbols, the thing that is born of a marriage of opposites is “not a compromise but something new.” Uist was not the dilution of a Roman Catholic family or the diminution of a Protestant family. He was a new creation. And his life was not bound by the limitations of his heritage.

The divine child born as a symbol of unity is an image cherished in many traditions. And it appears at the very heart of our Christian household. The Christ-child is born of heaven and earth, of God and humanity, of time and eternity. He is not simply one or the other. He is both. And he shows us that we are both, that the spiritual and the material are one, that heaven and earth intersect in us. In the ancient prayers of the Hebrides in Scotland, the Christ-child is referred to as “Son of the sun” and “Son of the moon.”

He brings together what has been considered opposite. He is the marriage of spirit and matter, the seen and the unseen, grace and nature. As Teilhard de Chardin says, he is the synthesis of what we “could never have dared join together.” He is the symbol of oneness. He shows us the pearl of great price. It is ours if we will have it. But it will cost us every- thing. Because its cost is love.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 127-131.

Knowing the Celtic Christ | John Philip Newell | Celtic Spirituality | Heartbeat

JPN at Columba's Bay JPEG
One of the greatest teachers in the Celtic world, John Scotus Eriugena in ninth-century Ireland, taught that Christ is our memory. We suffer from the “soul’s forgetfulness,” he says. Christ comes to reawaken us to our true nature. He is our epiphany. He comes to show us the face of God. He comes to show us also our face, the true face of the human soul. This leads the Celtic tradition to celebrate the relationship between nature and grace. Instead of grace being viewed as opposed to our essential nature or as somehow saving us from ourselves, nature and grace are viewed as flowing together from God. They are both sacred gifts. The gift of nature, says Eriugena, is the gift of “being”; the gift of grace, on the other hand, is the gift of “well-being.” Grace is given to reconnect us to our true nature. At the heart of our being is the image of God, and thus the wisdom of God, the creativity of God, the passions of God, the longings of God. Grace is opposed not to what is deepest in us but to what is false in us. It is given to restore us to the core of our being and to free us from the unnaturalness of what we are doing to one another and to the earth.

Christ is often referred to in the Celtic tradition as the truly natural one.

Christ is often referred to in the Celtic tradition as the truly natural one. He comes not to make us more than natural or somehow other than natural but to make us truly natural. He comes to restore us to the original root of our being. As the twentieth-century French mystic-scientist Teilhard de Chardin says much later in the Celtic world, grace is “the seed of resurrection” sown in our nature. It is given not to make us something other than ourselves but to make us radically ourselves. Grace is given not to implant in us a foreign wisdom but to make us alive to the wisdom that was born with us in our mother’s womb. Grace is given not to lead us into another identity but to reconnect us to the beauty of our deepest identity. And grace is given not that we might find some exterior source of strength but that we might be established again in the deep inner security of our being and in learning to lose ourselves in love for one another to truly find ourselves.

photoThis is not to pretend that there are not infections deep within us and deep within the interrelationships of life. Eriugena refers to sin as an infection, “leprosy of the soul.” And just as leprosy distorts the human face and makes it appear grotesque and ugly, so sin distorts the countenance of the soul and makes it appear mon- strous, so much so that we come to believe that that is the face of the human soul. And just as leprosy is a dis- ease of insensitivity, of loss of feeling, so sin leads us into an insensitivity to what is deepest within us, and more and more we treat one another as if we were not made in the image of God. Eriugena makes the point that in the gospel story when Jesus heals the lepers, he does not give them new faces. Rather he restores them to their true faces and to the freshness of their original countenances. Grace reconnects us to what is first and deepest in us. It restores us to the root of our well-being, which is deeper than the infections that threaten our minds and souls and relationships.

We have tended to define ourselves and one another in terms of the blight, in terms of sin or evil, in terms of the failings or illnesses of our lives, instead of seeing what is deeper still, the beauty of the image of God at the core of our being.

Alexander Scott, the nineteenth-century Celtic teacher, uses the analogy of a plant suffering from blight. If such a plant were shown to botanists, even if the botanists had never seen that type of plant before, they would define it in terms of its essential life features. They would identify the plant with reference to its healthy properties of height and color and scent. They would not define it in terms of its blight. Rather they would say that the blight is foreign to the plant, that it is attacking the essence of the plant. Now this may seem a very obvious point botanically. But maybe it is so obvious that we have missed the point when it comes to defining human nature. We have tended to define ourselves and one another in terms of the blight, in terms of sin or evil, in terms of the failings or illnesses of our lives, instead of seeing what is deeper still, the beauty of the image of God at the core of our being.

Given what we now know of the interrelatedness of life and how even the unborn child is infected by the psychological scars of its family or by the pollution of its wider environment, we may wish to say that sin is lurking inside the door of the womb. The shadow comes very close to the beginning of our lives, but deeper still is the Light from which we come. The conception of all life in the universe is sacred.

When Eriugena and other Celtic teachers speak of Christ as our memory, as the one who leads us to our deepest identity, as the one who remembers the song of our beginnings, they are not ignoring the depth of sin’s infection. They are not suggesting that our true self is just under the surface of a film of falseness, easily recovered, or that the harmony deep within all things can be recaptured with just a bit of fine tuning. The infections within the human soul are chronic. There are diseases of greed and limited self-interest among us as individuals and as nations that are ageless, so much so that we can hardly imagine what the true harmony of the earth sounds like. These are not just superficial infections. They are tangled in the very roots of our being. They are cancerous. And some of them need to be surgically removed.

Eriugena uses the analogy of sin pouncing on everything that is born. In commenting on the words from Genesis 4, “Sin is lurking at the door, its desire is for you,” Eriugena says that sin is hovering at the door of the womb, ready to infect everything that comes into being.

To say that the root of every person and creature is in God, rather than opposed to God, has enormous implications for how we view ourselves, including our deepest physical, sexual, and emotional energies.

To say that the root of every person and creature is in God, rather than opposed to God, has enormous implications for how we view ourselves, including our deepest physical, sexual, and emotional energies. It also profoundly affects the way we view one another, even in the midst of terrible failings and falseness in our lives and world. Satan is sometimes referred to by Eriugena and other Celtic teachers as Angel of Light. This is a way of pointing to the deepest identity of everything that has being, whether creaturely or angelic. The extent to which our energies, and the energies of any created thing, are evil and destructive is the extent to which we are not being truly ourselves.

IMG_5202Eriugena may well have believed literally in a personal presence and source of evil, named Satan, as most of the medieval world, whether Celtic or imperial, did. More significantly, however, he is inviting us to be aware of our own capacity for falseness and the potential for distortion in everything that has been created. But most important of all, he is recalling us to our deepest identity as born of Light. We become sinful to the extent that we are not being truly ourselves. We become false to the extent that we are not living from the true root of our being. And Eriugena is pointing also to the path of healing and transformation. We find new beginnings not by looking away from the conflicting energies that stir within us but by looking within them for the sacred Origin of life and desire. In the midst of confusions and struggle in our lives, we are being invited to search deeper than the shadows for the Light of our beginnings. It is also the Light of our true end.

We can be part of a new birthing within us and between us today. And the new birthing relates to the ancient song that we are invited to hear again. It may seem such a distant song that we hear it only as in a dream. But the more we become reacquainted with its music, the more we will come to know that the deepest notes within us and between us in our world are not discord. They form an ancient harmony.

John Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: the Healing of Creation, 2008 (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 9-15. 

The Rebirthing of God


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For many years now the Celtic poet, peacemaker and scholar John Philip Newell has been writing about the sacredness of being, the of-Godness that is at the heart of our lives and all life. In this new work he asks what the world in general—and Christianity in particular—would look like if the true depths of our sacredness were to come forth in radically new ways.


John Philip Newell

Drawing on modern prophets from East and West, and using the holy island of Iona as an icon of new beginnings, this book speaks directly to the heart of Christians—those within the well-defined bounds of Christian practice and those on the disenchanted edges—as well as to the faithful and seekers of other traditions. It offers the hope of a fresh stirring of the Spirit among us and the invitation to be part of laboring in a new holy birth of sacred living.

Publisher: Skylight Paths

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A Great Pearl

By John Philip Newell














During our years at the abbey on Iona, I received many requests from couples around the world wanting to be married on the holy island. My standard response was to invite them to come and speak with me about it. This was a tall order. Iona is a long way even from the Scottish mainland, so not many couples followed up their initial request. But John and Fran did. And when they met with me, they explained that their families were not supportive of their relationship. John was Roman Catholic and Fran was Protestant. The tragic division that has marked Northern Ireland and so many other parts of the Christian household was playing itself out between their families. John and Fran sensed that at the abbey they would find a place of welcome. I agreed to marry them in three month’s time. The plan was that they would return to the abbey as guests for a week, and at the end of the week, in the midst of the Friday evening communion service, we would celebrate their marriage. And the abbey community would be their family of support.

By the end of that week three months later, John and Fran had been taken into the hearts of staff and guests alike. Older women poured affection and advice on Fran. Younger men were queuing up to be John’s best man. The abbey kitchen baked a cake. And bottles of wine were appearing from every nook and cranny. Hundreds of us entered the abbey church that evening. The long table, an ancient Scottish practice, had been prepared. It stretched with candlelight the entire length of the chancel. The bread and wine were ready. We sat in concentric rows around the table with John and Fran at the center. It was like the great wedding feast imagined by St. John the Divine in his Book of Revelation, in which the union of heaven and earth is celebrated.

The word communion means “one with.” It is of Latin origin, a combination of the word cum, meaning “with,” and unus, meaning “one.” But for a Latin speaker there would have been a rich image associated with it. Unus means “one” but unio means “a great pearl.” The value of a great pearl is its oneness. A single unio is of much greater value than a collection of margaritae (“smaller pearls”). When we enter communion with another, we enter a precious unity. It is like the “pearl of great price” that Jesus uses to speak of the treasure of God (Matthew 13:46).

In the abbey that night, we witnessed a pearl of great price being formed. In giving themselves to each other in love, John and Fran were making a unio. And their oneness did not represent a loss of individuality. Quite the opposite. John and Fran were entering a union that was based on a deep cherishing of their distinctness as individuals. John at the table that night, with a beaming smile that even his heavy mustache did not hide, looked more himself than ever. Fran, with her shining eyes of certainty, looked more beautifully like Fran than she had ever done. And the rest of us too were caught up in transformation. We too were celebrating oneness. This, says Teilhard de Chardin, is the great gift of Christianity, “to be united while remaining oneself.” Communion is not about absorption or loss of self. It is about finding ourselves in one another.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 113-115.

Seeking a New Harmony

IMG_5249.JPGBy John Philip Newell

A few summers ago at our little retreat center in New Mexico, we were exploring themes of wholeness. We were asking how the broken harmony of our lives and world can be transformed. What does the transformation from woundedness to wholeness look like, whether individually or among us as nations and species? Among the participants at our retreat was a couple from Colorado, Larry and Diane. A number of months earlier, they had lost their son, Zach, in an airplane crash. They opened their hearts to us as a group and allowed us to share in their grieving. When it came time in our reflections to ask what it means to seek transformation, and how we are to move from brokenness toward wholeness, Larry said simply and unforgettably, “If by wholeness you mean some sort of smoothing over of the gaping wound that will always be in me because of my son’s death, I don’t want that sort of wholeness.”

“If by wholeness you mean some sort of smoothing over of the gaping wound that will always be in me because of my son’s death, I don’t want that sort of wholeness.”

Larry was not meaning that he wanted forever to be paralyzed by his son’s death. He was not meaning that he did not wish to move toward transformation. He was meaning, however, that he wished never to forget the preciousness of his son’s life and his agony as a father in losing Zach. And he was meaning that any true journey of transformation would not skirt around that wound but would incorporate it deeply into whatever the new beginning was to be. When he finished speaking, he reminded us of the resurrection story in St. John’s Gospel. The risen Jesus, he said, shows the disciples the marks of crucifixion in his hands and side. The resurrection story is not about the wounds being undone. It is not about the suffering being smoothed over. The wounds are deeply visible. They are part of the new beginning. They are an inseparable part of the new beginning.

Jung says that wholeness is about “integration . . . but not perfection.”

557-MJung says that wholeness is about “integration . . . but not perfection.” It is about bringing into relationship again the many parts of our lives, including our brokenness, in order to experience transformation. It is not about forgetting the wound or pretending that it did not happen. It is about seeking a new beginning that grows inseparably out of the suffering. It is not about returning to Eden, an unblemished state of innocence within us or between us. It is about bringing our origin in Eden, the root that connects us still to the sacredness of our beginnings, into the depths of our exile from Eden, including all of the woundedness that false decisions and wrong turns have created within us and between us in our lives.

As the Scottish poet Kenneth White writes, this is not “any kind of easy harmonization.” It is not about returning to a simple unspoiled melody. It is about seeking a new harmony that fully recognizes the experience and the depth of our brokenness. Or as Edwin Muir, another Scottish poet, put it in his poem “One Foot in Eden,” it is about seeking a blossom that was “never known” in Eden. “What,” he asks, “had Eden ever to say of hope and faith and pity and love”? These, he says, are “strange blessings” to Eden. They come not simply out of the garden of our beginnings. They are born out of the “grief” and “darkened fields” of our lives.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 98-99.