Bible Text: Amos 7:7-15 and Mark 6:14-29 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality Two Ways of Listening As we come to the end of this exploration of Celtic spirituality, it has become clear that the path chosen by the early Celtic church was not unbiblical; rather, it was not the path adopted by the dominant church tradition. The dominant tradition preferred to base its theology and spirituality on the tradition of St. Peter and the authority which was conferred on Peter by Christ Himself. The theology and spirituality of the Celtic church had taken its lead from St. John. Both paths were valid and biblical but in its push to reveal a united faith, the people of that time chose to see the issue as needing to be decided one way or the other. A little more understanding of each other’s position might have led to a different outcome. And so while the battle in 664 for the hearts and minds of the people came down to a decision for Peter or for John, we in this day and age can recognize the strengths and contributions of each stream and so find a place for both of them as we live our lives today. It is interesting to note that many of the mystical traditions of the Church followed the path of St. John. John was seen as the ultimate guide to the inner self. It is also interesting to note that John Scotus, whom I spoke of in an earlier talk, believed that there was room for both ways. He got in trouble for daring to promote the Celtic way. But he saw John as representing the way of contemplation while Peter the way of faithful action. It is interesting to note that Pelagius never advised people to only a contemplative way of approaching God. He firmly believed that it should issue forth in action. But the emphasis on the interior life and seeking for God within and in creation rather than in the heavens and in the holy places alone is what got him into trouble. Balance between the contemplative and the active is what we should all be seeking for. The strength of the John tradition is that it produces a spirituality that sees God in the whole of life and regards all things as inter-related. John’s way of seeing makes room for an open encounter with the Light of life wherever it is to be found. It is a tradition that is not bound by four walls for the sanctuary of God is to be found within the whole of creation. The strength of the Peter tradition is precisely that it has four walls. It enshrines the light of truth within the Church and its traditions and sacraments. It is a rock, a place of security and shelter, especially in the midst of stormy change. It allows us to turn with faith to the familiar house of prayer where others before us have found truth and guidance. And so to hold these two traditions together enables us to celebrate the sacraments and remember the traditions and teachings of the faith while allowing for the fact that the love and grace of God are not just for those who know God but for every person and every form of life because God is with and in all that has life. Even our own experiences in life have taught us that there are times when we have found God in the light of the morning or evening or the freshness of the wind. Sometimes we need the solitude of a hill to be still and attentive to God while at other times we find the time of communal worship, the celebration of the sacraments, the hymns and prayers a comfort. There is room for both the contemplative and the action, for the individual and the communal. Another difference between the two ways of listening is when it comes to sin. To John’s way of thinking, God’s goodness is at the heart of each one of us. In repenting of sin, we are not turning away in order to be someone else, but re-turning to our true selves, made in the loveliness and goodness of the image of God. It is a recognition that we have been created in the image of God to be holy as he is holy but that that goodness has been covered over. We need to peel back the layers to reveal again that light that is at heart of our own beings. To Peter’s way of seeing, we are ever capable of sin and are to be warned against this tendency in ourselves and others. Eventually this led to the Augustine belief that the essential goodness in us was totally erased with Adam’s fall. Here we need to find a balance where we believe and hope in our God-given goodness on the one hand and yet wise and alert to our sinful leanings. But how can we do this? From the John tradition we hear the emphasis on the new commandment from Jesus: “love one another just as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) To John change will come through love. John’s spirituality is guided above all else by a sense of the welling up of love from life’s deepest springs, the place of God’s abiding. In the Peter tradition, great confidence is placed in the outward strength and rightness of the law. It is important to note that we need both perspectives. Otherwise, our faith will be either a vague, unproductive enthusiasm for the sacredness of all life or a joyless moral dutifulness. And so while the focus of this series has been on the lost Celtic spirituality and the tradition of St. John, let us remember that we can learn from the many different ways of approaching God that have been followed by people over the centuries. In closing I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Philip Newell and his work to helping us delve more deeply into this ancient way of listening for the heartbeat of God. Perhaps for some of us this has met a longing within our hearts for a way that made sense to us but that we hadn’t heard expressed before. Perhaps our awareness of this neglected tradition will assist us in the future to go beyond these four walls and to become a place where people can step into and out of daily life and be reminded that the cathedral of God is the whole of creation. Perhaps then we will see and others will come to see that God can be found in the whole of life for that is where his heartbeat is and as we listen, we too may hear that heartbeat within us.
Bible Text: Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Mark 6:1-13 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality Last time we were learning about the attempt of Alexander Scott to reintroduce to the Presbyterian Church in Scotland a way of seeing God’s presence as embracing all of creation. His radical notion that God’s love and grace were for all people was not welcomed by the established church at that time. However, there was a younger Scottish minister who had been influenced by Scott and the novels of George MacDonald. His name was Norman MacLeod (1812-1872). In 1843 there was a split in the Church of Scotland. While MacLeod remained with the established church, he began to have a profound influence on the direction of its spirituality and theology. In a real sense, he reawakened within the Scottish church that ancient Celtic spirituality and presented it in such a way that people began to accept it as a path for the modern church. The Celtic trait of seeking God’s presence in the whole of life and not just within the Church and its traditions led to a relaxing of the Sabbath laws in the Church and enabled places of beauty and nature to be opened on Sundays allowing families to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation in the parks and gardens on what was - for most people - their only day off work. When the Church allowed the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to open on Sundays, it was a sign that the Church was beginning to acknowledge that God could be found and worshipped beyond the four walls of the church. The people were once again allowed to listen for the heartbeat of God in the whole of life. But as much as Norman MacLeod was a key figure in the rediscovery of this ancient way of seeing, it was Norman’s grandson, George Fielden MacLeod (1895-1991) who found a way to get the Church to see that it was not a matter of either/or but rather two ways of seeing and finding God in life. MacLeod emphasized that we are in touch with God every moment that we live, “for the simple reason that God is life: not religious life, nor Church life, but the whole of life….God is the Life of life.” (Newell, p. 76) Spiritual awareness, then, is not about becoming aware of God in a setting created by human hands but rather it is about being aware of God in the midst of the change and movement and flow of life, in the rising of the morning sun, in the work and relationships of daily life, in the interior life of the soul, in times of rest and sleep, and even dreaming. God is at the heart of all life. We don’t have to try to reach God through acts of devotion, for God is closer to us than our very breath. “We have been given union with God whether we like it or not,” MacLeod said, “Our flesh is his flesh, and we cannot jump out of our skins.” (Newell, p. 76) MacLeod was both a Celtic mystic and a Presbyterian minister. He was more concerned that people understand themselves to be Christian than Presbyterian and he encouraged people to not take too seriously the religious boundaries by which we so often define ourselves. After all, God is the Life of the world, not merely some religious aspect of it. When it came to his understanding of spirituality, he warned against believing that becoming more spiritual led a person away from the world. Rather, it was meant for us to go more deeply into life, to find God at the heart of life and to liberate God’s goodness within us and in our relationships, both individually and collectively. “It is the primacy of God as Now that we must recover in Christian mysticism,” said MacLeod. (Newell, p. 80) Our innumerable ‘nows’ as we go through our day are our points of contact with God. (Newell, p. 80) But while MacLeod emphasized a spirituality of awareness, a looking and listening in the midst of every moment of life, he also believed in setting aside time for formal private and communal prayer. He also firmly believed that God is not found apart from the stresses of life but within them. Our time of prayer need not be seen as an escape from the pressures of life but rather our conversation with the God who is there in the midst of life where life is lived. But he also had a vision to re-establish that ancient Celtic community of Iona and so in 1938 he gathered together a group of craftsmen and began to restore the old monastic buildings and begin a community dedicated to the discipline of prayer, rebuilding justice and re-establishing the foundations for peace. MacLeod brought into the mainstream of the Church a way of seeing that had never died out. Repressed for centuries, it continued to be sought for by the people who descended from that early Celtic community. Through this way of seeing, the essential goodness of creation is affirmed and the image of God is firmly visible in all humanity. Yet there is a keen awareness within this way of seeing that there is evil in the world and that the believer must be aware and vigilant. As vibrant as creation is with God’s life, there are forces of darkness that would bind us. We need the saving grace of God to liberate us in order that we might once again discover the essential goodness of our creation. The Celtic spirituality also reminds us that the spiritual realm is closer than we may think. Heaven and earth are connected in ways that are invisible and yet very visible. MacLeod’s plea for the modern day Church was for a recovery of the vision that would free us, individually and collectively, to see both the heights and depths of the mystery in which we live, the glory within us and in the matter of creation as well as the darkness, which, close and imprisoning, threatens each life. MacLeod saw danger in separating the secular from the sacred. When we do that, we make our faith an appendage to our life rather than life itself. Our salvation in Christ is not just for that part of us that makes time for God; our salvation in Christ is for every part of our life. When MacLeod passed away at the age of 96, the final prayer read at his funeral was this one composed by MacLeod himself: Be thou, triune God, in the midst of us as we give thanks for those who have gone from the sight of earthly eyes. They, in thy nearer presence, still worship with us in the mystery of the one family in heaven and on earth… If it be thy holy will, tell them how much we love them, and how we miss them, and how we long for the day when we shall meet with them again…. Strengthen us to go on in loving service of all thy children. Thus shall we have communion with thee, and, in thee, with our beloved ones. Thus shall we come to know within ourselves that there is no death and that only a veil divides, thin as gossamer. (Newell, p. 93) His prayer was written in the conviction of the closeness of the saints, and his belief that death is not a departing from life but a returning to its Heart. Next week will be the conclusion of this series.
Bible Text: Job 38: 1-11 and Mark 4:35-41 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality As we discovered last week, the Celtic spirituality had gone into hiding. It had been suppressed for a number of centuries and yet had survived. Its survival was given hope by the work of Alexander Carmichael. Yet in spite of this, it continued to be discouraged. In reflecting on what took place, it is interesting to note that those who first brought the Christian faith to the Celts did so in such a way as to incorporate and enliven the faith already present in the people. Their methods were enlightened and led the people to a deep and lasting relationship with God. Around the same time as Carmichael was collecting the prayers of an increasingly dispersed tradition in the Western Isles, another Scot, George MacDonald (1824-1905), was finding a new channel of expression for this ancient stream of spirituality and communicating it in the form of short stories and novels. MacDonald had been reared on the old Celtic stories and legends of the Western Isles and these shaped the spirituality that he expressed through his fictional works. His writing was meant for those who could see with the eyes of a child and his works of the imagination strove to recover the inner faculty of sight whereby God may be seen within us, among us and in all the things of creation. MacDonald owed much of his spirituality of the imagination to a so-called ‘heretic’ named Alexander John Scott (1805-66). Scott was guided in his theology by John Scotus whom we learned of in an earlier message. Scott’s belief that God’s love is in and for all people was in sharp contrast to the prevailing Calvinist doctrine which saw God as separate from the creation and God’s redemptive love as exclusively for those elected by God to receive the grace of light. Scott saw God as immediately present in the whole of life. He maintained that “everywhere we can find the ladder that connects heaven and earth, God and humanity, with the angels of the eternal light ascending and descending upon it.” (Newell, p. 62) This image is picked up by MacDonald in his stories and also by C. S. Lewis in the Narnian wardrobe. Scott, who grew up in the Western Isles, discovered that the people looked for God in the whole of life. He described them as listening for God in all things. “In their inmost being,” he said, “they knew a type of communion with the uncreated at the heart of creation.” (Newell, p. 63) They perceived the interweaving of the spiritual and the material, of heaven and earth, time and eternity. “Always,” said Scott, “there is the greatness that lies within and beneath the common. Everywhere…we can glimpse signs of the presence of God’s life in and among us, for God is the Being on which all being rests.” (Newell, p. 63) Scott ran afoul of the established Church and was stripped of his ordination because he maintained that the love of God was not limited to the Church and the elect but that the love of God was for all for Christ is the Life of the world. Scott also took issue with the perception that ordained ministers had a greater presence of God’s Spirit within them than the rest of humanity. He also criticized the Church’s Sabbatarianism. He didn’t disagree that there should be a day of rest but he firmly believed that the Sabbath was not the only holy day – but rather that the whole of life is sacred, every day, every hour, every moment. God’s life is like the heartbeat at the centre of life, pulsating within, sustaining all that is. God is forever communicating his life and love in and through the outward forms of creation. For Scott, the emphasis of Christ that we become like children is evidence to him that we are to recover the inner faculties we were born with and use them to glimpse the presence of the Spirit of God in the creation. He believed that we 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. In a real sense, this way of looking at things forces us to re-examine the materialism that has increasingly gripped our Western society and caused a growing spiritual insensitivity whereby life has come to be seen more and more in limited material terms. Value and meaning has shifted from the internal to the external. But lest we believe that the Celtic spirituality is a romantic perspective on creation – one that sees the world in an idyllic way – we need to remember that while maintaining the goodness of creation, the Celts knew that there were forces of evil present in the world. They knew that they needed to discern with inner sight what the essence of God in creation is and therefore what is truest and most unshakeable in life. They knew that as we listen to hear God’s living Word to us in the Scriptures, we will also hear words of human failure and violence. When we explore creation, we will perceive suffering and cruelty at one level, but deeper still we will perceive that grace and boundless creativity of God. Evil was described as a snake coiled up in the grass of our lives, ready to spring up and tempt us to violence of heart and action. Any spirituality must take account of the evil in and around us and provide ways of growing in spite of it. But their recognition of evil and its attempts to stop us from finding that light of God gave the Celts hope for they firmly believed that the darkness cannot overcome God’s essential light. It was even believed that Satan would one day repent and be restored to his original role of angel of light. The spirituality of the old Celtic church had begun to find new life and expression. It led to much social reform in Scotland and is probably to be found behind much of the ecological awareness in the world today. Another theme that continued to bubble up from the old Celtic church was the belief that at the heart of all things there is a unity of the person in God. Distinctions of male and female, race and colour disappear. With it came a freedom to use either male or female images to describe God. A mother’s heart could be imagined at the heart of God – God’s love perceived as that of a father. In fact, the feminine became a rich symbol of the One who gives birth to life, and who nurtures and watches over creation like a mother her child. The end of the 19th century began a major revival of the old Celtic spirituality in the Scottish church. It began to free itself from much of its enclosed Calvinism and opened itself up again to life and to the world. Next time – on July 5 – we will explore the next phase of the revival and the re-emergence of the community of Iona.
Bible Text: 2 Corinthians 5: 6-10, 14-17 and Mark 4: 26-34 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality Last time I spoke to you about the people who succeeded Pelagius and for whom the Celtic way of seeing the world made sense. I spoke to you of St. Ninian and how he organized the church in a way that reflected more of the Eastern Church tradition rather than the Western Church. I reflected on the great hymns of St. Patrick whose sense of God in all of creation created a world view in which God and our faith could not be separated from any aspect of our life. Then I spoke to you of John Scotus the Irishman who saw in the Celtic way an important contribution to the wider faith community and sought to bring that contribution into the mainstream of the church. While he wasn’t successful in that, the Celts doggedly refused to give up on the path that had guided their ancestors through life and had kept them firmly rooted in God and in Jesus Christ. Even when the last old Celtic monastic bastion on Iona had been converted to a more Roman structure and the worship and life of the community altered, Culdee chapels continued to dot the landscape of the outer reaches of Scotland. The Culdees were Celtic monks in the eremitic tradition – namely, people chose to live a relatively secluded prayer-focused life. They banded together in loosely structured monastic clusters and continued to teach and lead the people in the ways that they had come to love and cherish. And while visible signs of the Celtic spirituality disappeared from public view, it found its home among the people of the Western Isles. In the middle of the 19th century, a young civil servant named Alexander Carmichael began to record the prayers that had been passed down for centuries in the oral tradition of the Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland. While outwardly the people were part of the modern parish system, in their daily life they continued to pray the prayers handed down to them through the generations. These prayers were usually sung or chanted and were recited as a rhythmic accompaniment to the people’s daily routine – at the rising of the sun and its setting, at the kindling of a fire in the morning and its covering at night. These prayers were used in the most ordinary contexts of daily life and not within the four walls of a church on Sunday. Carmichael detected in many of them a liturgical character and tone and came to believe that they had come down from the tradition of the old Celtic Church – the chanting being reminiscent of its ancient music. Evidently the people could not be convinced to let these prayers fade away. They had been taught that the light of God was in them and that the goodness of creation was all around them and that heaven and earth were bound together. If you have ever traveled to the western isles, you know how conscious you need to be of the sky, the sea and all that surrounds you. The prayers that Carmichael collected are known as the Carmina Gadelica which means the songs and poems of the Gaels. These poems celebrate the goodness of creation. Even though they knew that the elements could be harsh, they believed that the grace of God was to be found in a love for all the elements that surrounded them. They even believed that the grace of healing was contained within the creation. They viewed the life of God as being deep within creation as well as being distinct from it. For them God is present in the elements but God is not the creation. They understood that there is a distinction between the Creator and the creation, between the Source of life and living things. And while they didn’t confuse the Creator and the creation, they held a great reverence for creation while not defying it. One of the customs of the people was for men to take off their cap to the sun in the morning and for women to bend their knee to the moon at night. As an old woman at Barra explained it: It is a matter for thankfulness, the golden-bright sun of virtues giving us warmth and light by day, and the white moon of the seasons giving us guidance and leading by night. It was noted that many of the prayers moved like the shuttle on a loom, between the physical and the spiritual giving thanks for the material gift of light while at the same time being aware of the spiritual light of God within creation. (Listening for the Heartbeat of God, p. 44) God is present at the heart of creation, God is the heartbeat of life but God is also close. There is a personal immediacy of God to us, a closeness not only of God but of the whole host of heaven, enfolding the Earth and its people with love. But this is no sentimental piety. There exists in these prayers a readiness to give and receive warm affection for Christ, the saints and angels. The saints and angels were real to the people and viewed as being present throughout life. They are regarded as messengers of God’s everlasting love for us. Remember that I told you about the Celtic belief that the image of God can be seen in newborns? Well they also practised what is known as the birth baptism. Three drops of water would be placed on the child’s forehead to acknowledge that the image of the God of life had been born into the world. They would still have the child baptized in the church but it could take months for a priest to come to the more remote parts. The Celtic belief that we have the light of God within us and that we are to pray for that light to shine through all that clouds and covers it over remained strong. They looked for God’s grace in their life to enable them to become more loving, wiser, more like Christ; but they never denied their need to be protected from evil. They were very aware of the existence of evil and the need constantly to guard against it. The more formal repression of the old spirituality began in the 16th century with the Reformation. Along with this went the suppression of the Gaelic tongue which was still widely spoken in the Western Isles and the highlands. Its suppression bears resemblance to the manner in which our own indigenous peoples saw the suppression of their language and culture. As people shared with Carmichael, they often preferred to do it in the quiet of the night or they would follow him to the next village to avoid any suspicion that they were speaking of the forbidden ways. Philip Newell, the author of the book on which these messages are based wonders what was it that the establishment so feared in this stream of spirituality? Was it in part that people of such a spirituality could not be neatly controlled or confined within the narrow bounds of religion and order as defined by the established Church and society of the day? In the end what really caused the old ways to die the most was the Highland Clearances of the first half of the 19th century. With no central place to be able to keep the tradition strong, the scattering of the clans and the families gradually led to fewer and fewer people remembering and following that old path. Carmichael’s work captured what would soon have been lost to the dust of history. But because of his work, the beauty of that old way of seeing found a new life and enables to not only know how they viewed the world and their faith in God but be able to choose that path for ourselves. One last thing to share today and that is their perspective on death. All through their life they sought for the light of God as they listened for the heartbeat of God in all things. But death was a place of dark sorrow that was difficult to cross. But while the light seemed to fade, they believed that the angels of God would guide them over to a goodness of unimaginable glory. But rather than seeing this goodness as unrelated to the present world, they saw it as a continuation of the goodness experienced here in creation and in the earth’s cycles of seasons. To them it was a return to the very heart of the seasons, to the Source of all creation, a returning to the One who is the heart of all life. I will end with a prayer which was said at the deathbed of a loved one that speaks of the depth of hope found in this tradition and speaks not just to the one who is facing death at that moment, but to the people as a whole and to all of creation: Thou goest home this night to thy home of winter, To thy home of autumn, of spring, and of summer; Thou goest home this night to thy perpetual home, To thine eternal bed, to thine eternal slumber…… The great sleep of Jesus, the surpassing sleep of Jesus, The sleep of Jesus’ wound, the sleep of Jesus’ grief, The young sleep of Jesus, the restoring sleep of Jesus, The sleep of the kiss of Jesus of peace and of glory…… The shade of death lies upon thy face, beloved, But the Jesus of grace has His hand round about thee; In nearness to the Trinity farewell to thy pains, Christ stands before thee and peace is in His mind. Sleep, O sleep in the calm of all calm, Sleep, O sleep in the guidance of guidance, Sleep, O sleep in the love of all loves; Sleep, O beloved, in the Lord of life, Sleep, O beloved, in the God of life!
Bible Text: Ezekiel 37: 1-14 & Romans 8:22 - 27 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality Last week we began exploring the Celtic spirituality by focusing on the concept of the goodness of creation. This meant not only that the created order at the time of Adam and Eve was good but that every thing created since that time is also inherently good. We discovered that the Celts believed that the light of God dwelt within all humanity and that sin and evil obscured that light. As we recognize our sin and seek to overcome it through the grace of God, we can come to a place where we can begin to see within us the heart with which we were created. We can begin to listen for the heartbeat of God as we listen for the beating of our own heart and spirit. Of course we know that few of us choose to live as hermits and we also know that discovering this light of God within us and staying on the path revealed by God in Christ is not easy. And so we are encouraged to find a soul friend who is not necessarily the minister or religious leader. We need to seek for a person to whom we can open our inner self. Today in our journey we will examine some of the ideas of other leaders of this Celtic spirituality – namely St. Ninian and St. Patrick. The collapse of the Roman Empire led to a period of about 200 years during which the Celtic church was even more isolated from its Roman cousin. Those who rose to lead the church in this time organized the community’s life in a different way. Instead of modelling the community on the Roman town and diocesan structure, he chose the Eastern monastic model which he felt was more suited to the Celtic people who were mostly rural and tribal. A cluster of monks would live in a settlement and their residence would serve as a centre of Christian life and prayer, as well as education and mission. The monks would then go out from these places to encounter the people. The people would also come but there was no on hierarchy and authority except the authority of the Word of God and the call to live life according to the wisdom of God revealed through the ages and finally in Jesus Christ. The church at this time developed even more the familiar theme of the goodness of creation and a sense of the company of heaven being present among us here on earth. In the prayers and art of the church there is an intertwining of the spiritual and material, heaven and earth, time and eternity. The Celtic church was not afraid to reach out and grasp for the strength of God and to seek for the energies of the elements of creation to be present with them. Life was not some isolated event lived without connection to the world around us as well as the world above us. The words of this hymn capture that reality: I bind unto myself today the virtues of the star-lit heaven; the glorious sun’s life-giving ray; the whiteness of the moon at evening; the flashing of the lightning free; the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks; the stable earth; the deep salt sea around the old eternal rocks. As for the emphasis on the closeness of the company of heaven among us on earth we need look no further than that very famous hymn St. Patrick’s Breastplate where we find these words: Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. And so for the Celtic church, Mary is not seen as the Queen of Heaven but as a country girl in touch with the concerns and delights of daily life; Peter is ever the fisherman whose knowledge of the sea continues to guide and guard all who work in the boats; and Christ is regarded not as a distant regal King but more as the Chief of the tribe, known to his people and close to them. The Christ who is above them in the brightness of the morning sun is the Christ who is beneath them in the dark fertility of the earth. The Christ who is with his people in the quiet calm of a windless sea is with them too in the midst of the wild wintry storm. The Christ who is within, at the very centre of their soul, is the Christ who is to be looked for in friend and stranger, Christ at the heart of all life. In the wisdom of those early missionaries to the Celts, the gospel was permitted to work its mystery of transformation in the life and culture of the people; and so, the gospel was seen as fulfilling rather than destroying the old Celtic mythologies. The strong relationship that the people felt to the creation around them was deepened by their faith in Jesus Christ. The missionaries brought a greater depth of meaning to everything the Celtic people had known and held dear. The people found in the Christian faith a freedom to become more truly themselves. The Celtic church embraced the vision of St. John who saw God as the light of the world. This led them to look for the grace of God within as well as beyond creation. It led them to listen for the heartbeat of God within all things – ourselves, one another and the whole of creation. Their expressed desire to hold together the revelation of God in creation and the revelation of God in the Bible brought them to the practice of listening for the living Word of God in nature as well as in the Scriptures. And even though the Celtic church’s spirituality was not officially sanctioned by the Pope from the 7th century onward, it continued to exist in an unofficial way. As clear evidence that so much of the Celtic beliefs had not disappeared from the spiritual life of the people, we find a 9th century Irish philosopher who taught that Christ moves among us in two shoes, as it were, one shoe being that of creation, the other that of the Scriptures, and he stressed the need to be as alert and attentive to Christ moving among us in creation as we are to the voice of Christ in the Scriptures. John Scotus Eriugena whose name means John the Irishman from Ireland was not a monk or a priest. But he saw in the Celtic spirituality a vision and a way of seeing God that the world needed to know. He spread the message far and wide and whole many rejected it, many more found it to contain truth. He understood St. John to be an observer of the inmost truth and believed that John had listened within and heard the Word of God through whom all things are made; and that Word is at the heart of life. And so for John Scotus, God is in all things and all things are created not out of nothing but out of the essence of God. As with the leaders of the Celtic church who had proceeded him, John believed that the light of God was at the heart of every person. But he also believed that sin covered it up so that the light could not be seen by us. And so the grace of God revealed through Christ is the gift of God that heals our inner sight and allows our eyes to be opened once again to the goodness that is deep within us. John believed that there is a unity and simplicity of God that underlies the multiplicity and complexity of the outward life. Thu grace of Christ restores us to our original simplicity. He believed that everything that is divided will be reunited, whether the division be between heaven and earth, male and female, visible or invisible. He stressed that at the heart of life to which we are to be restored, there is neither a male nor a female reality for the image of God is neither male nor female. These are distinctions at the surface of life but not at its heart. And while we may speak of male and female attributes when it comes to God, there is a unity in God that transcends these attributes and leads us to see God as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and Wisdom. It is interesting to note that even though many condemned the spirituality of the Celtic Church, much of its thought was picked up by Christian mystics such as Meister Elkhart among others. For those who have sought to follow a spiritual path to explore their inner heart through contemplation or retreat, the Celtic path has been their guide. On June 14th, we will explore listening for God in all things.
Bible Text: Acts 1:1-11 and 1 John 5:9-13 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality Listening for the Goodness While there has always been a recognized orthodoxy in the church with those ways of thinking that run contrary to it being discredited, it remains for us in our time to examine the controversies of the previous generations and decide for ourselves whether or not such thinking was indeed heretical and dangerous to a proper interpretation of the word of God or whether it was a politically motivated attempt to control the spiritual journey of the people. Many of us trace our roots to the British Isles with many of us laying claim to that heritage now recognized in song, art and poetry as Celtic. And while we may well recognize that the Celts were a spiritual people before the arrival of Christianity, there may be still questions in our minds as to the nature of that spirituality and whether or not it could find a legitimate expression within the Christian faith. While there were signs that the Christian faith had been introduced to the Celtic people as early as the third century, it was not until the fourth century that what has come to be viewed as a distinctive Celtic spirituality emerged. One of the first prominent Celtic theologians was a man named Pelagius. Many people believed that Pelagius was teaching that we are capable of saving ourselves and that we do not rely on the redeeming grace of God. Since most of the writings of Pelagius have not survived, it is difficult to give a fair assessment of his thought. He is most often viewed through the eyes of his two greatest critics, Augustine of Hippo and Jerome. Pelagius grew up in a different world from Augustine or Jerome and his spirituality grew out of his experience of God in what was a far more wild part of the world. The isolation of the British church – due to its position at the far edge of the Roman Empire – contributed to a number of things which did not sit well with Augustine who was more closely tied to Rome and the central seat of the faith. In everything from hair-style to diet and even physical appearance, there was much to criticize. Certainly it could be argued that it was inappropriate to adopt or carry on some of the pre-Christian practices but over the centuries we have discovered that such things can help to bridge the gap between the pre-Christian experience of God and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For many cultures their spirituality found a natural connection to the Christian message and so enabled people to embrace the faith and find a deeper meaning to their life. Many people actually found the teachings and thoughts of Pelagius to be deeply spiritual but his appearance caused others to find reasons to discredit him. The whole emphasis that is in the church today on spiritual direction and finding a spiritual director or guide is a feature of the Celtic church where people were encouraged to find what was called an anamchara or soul friend. But Pelagius did not expect this person to be the priest or religious leader. For him, the soul friend needed to be someone to whom you could open your inner self, ‘hiding nothing’, he says, ‘revealing everything’ in order to know and further explore what is in one’s own heart. Each of us would do well to find such a person. Another typical mark of the Celtic spirituality which Pelagius emphasized was a strong sense of the goodness of creation in which the life of God can be glimpsed. He believed that narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth. Every movement of the animals, the birds, insects, and fish – all revealed to him the presence and the spirit of God. This was not animism – a belief that the actual object was God but rather that as part of creation given life by God, the spirit of God dwelt there as it did throughout creation. He saw beauty and goodness in all creation. Not sure if mosquitoes and black flies were in his world and whether he would have been as positive about God’s presence in them. They are a challenge! Because Pelagius saw God as present within all that has life, he understood Jesus’ command to love our neighbour to mean not only our human neighbours but all life. He ran himself into trouble because he sought to widen the circle and challenge the people to not live their lives strictly in response to a set of beliefs or doctrines but to live a life of wisdom. They were encouraged to love all people, friends and enemies alike, and do good in return for evil. For him Jesus was the embodiment of all wisdom and humility and was the perfection of the wisdom by which we are to be guided in life. For Pelagius, doctrines may help to explain mysteries, Scripture records for us the teaching and example of Jesus and the early church, but it is how we respond with our heart and actions that truly matter. For him, to believe in Christ was no sign of true faith or spiritual growth; it was how that belief translated into a life seeking to follow the example of Christ. Many people came to believe that he was suggesting that we did not need to believe in Jesus or his atoning sacrifice but rather he was encouraging us to go beyond simple belief or doctrine to embrace the message of Christ in such a way as to grow in likeness to him. Never did he believe that we could become perfect but he believed that we needed to strive to that perfection. To restrain from doing wrong deeds is of little good if we are not prepared to also do good deeds. Pelagius also firmly held that every child is conceived and born in the image of God. He believed that the newborn contains the original, unsullied goodness of creation and humanity’s essential blessedness. For him in the birth of a child God was giving birth to his image on earth. While many believed that Pelagius denied the presence of evil and its power over the human person, rather Pelagius believed that the image and goodness of God was at the heart of humanity and that wrongdoing and evil obscured or covered it over. The light of God is at the heart of every person waiting to be liberated. Our redemption in Christ becomes for us a setting free, a releasing of what we essentially are. What Pelagius emphasized and sought for people to come to appreciate was the dignity of our human nature. He believed that our deepest desires are for God even though other desires obscure our true heart. He never claimed that we could not do that which is evil but he would allow us to believe that we could be forced to do it by a fault in our nature. He strongly believed in our freedom to choose the good and sought for people to have the confidence to know that this was God’s hope and desire. He never denied the centrality of God’s grace but rather saw it as the strength that enables us to choose the good and do it. Evil, he says, is like a fog that blinds is to our true selves. Pelagius looked for the good not only in the people within the Church but to those outside. When we meet good, kind and just people outside the church, where do these qualities come from? For Pelagius it is a sign that their essential nature is good and that nature is a gift of God. Rather than the world being opposed to the Church, Pelagius sees the Church as an integral part of the world given the key to unlock the essential nature of all creation. Our own acknowledgement of God in Christ is to be viewed as a liberation of our spirit to discover the essential goodness that our creation has granted us. The question for Pelagius is not how do we institutionalize this goodness but rather how do we help others to discover that essential goodness within them. For Pelagius, the gift of the gospel is that we are ‘instructed by the grace of Christ’, encouraged and shown the goodness of God that is within us. Philip Newell, the author whose work is the basis for this series writes the following: If we believe that at birth we lack the image of God and are essentially sinful, what are the implications for our spirituality? Does it mean that there is no vital connection between true spirituality and the sort of purity, simplicity, innocence and goodness of an infant? If we deny that God is at the very heart of life, are we essentially without God, without original goodness in our mothers’ wombs, so that our spirituality does not grow out of what God has planted within us? Is spirituality alien to our original nature, or does grace nurture our innate goodness? What about our relationship with the rest of humanity? If we regard others as lacking essential goodness because they are outside the Church’s sacramental ministry, does that mean that our spirituality has nothing to learn from other faiths and from the virtues that, as Pelagius reminds us, can be observed in our neighbours, many of whom are not members of the Christian church? (Listening for the Heartbeat of God, pp. 21-22) We do not know how Pelagius responded to his harsh treatment at the hands of the institutional church but we do know how he chose to live his life and express his faith. He wrote: ‘Wisdom consists in listening to the commandments of God, and obeying them. A person who has heard that God commands people to be generous, and then shares what he has with the poor, is truly wise. A person who has heard that God commands people to forgive…. and then reaches out in love to his persecutors, is truly wise’ (Carmina Gadelica III, p. 207)
Bible Text: Genesis 28:10-17 and 1 Peter 2:1-5, 9-10 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp The Meaning of Blessing Blessing is a common feature of Christian worship. We conclude our services of worship with a commissioning but also with a benediction or blessing. Blessing is an integral part of the marriage rite. Baptismal water and marriage rings are blessed before their liturgical use. Traditionally, church buildings are blessed in a very solemn rite known as consecration. Today I would like to explore the meaning of blessing: what is intended by a blessing. Some stories in the bible seem to suggest that the power to bless is a force held by certain people because of their place in the order of human relationships. In the story of Isaac and his sons, for instance, Isaac holds a blessing which he intends to give to Esau, his eldest son, before he dies. However, Isaac’s younger son, Jacob, masquerades as the elder brother and tricks his blind father into giving the blessing to the wrong son. The blessing passes almost like an impersonal force, and the deed once done cannot be reversed. Esau weeps and begs his father to bless him too, but Isaac is powerless and the gift remains with Jacob. Another strand of biblical thought suggests that blessing belongs primarily to God and is given only at God’s initiative. In one story, Balak, king of Moab, watches with horror as the people of Israel march triumphantly towards his land. He hires Balaam, a soothsayer, to curse the Israelites. But God tells Balaam that he has already blessed the Israelites, and warns him not to curse them. When Balaam is pressed by the king of Moab, God allows him to proceed with the ritual but commands him to repeat only what he is allowed to say. Three times Balaam tries to keep his contract with the king of Moab, but three times the words that come from his mouth are words of blessing. It is a lovely irony that the words of Balaam’s unwilling blessing, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel,” are now part of the introduction to the daily synagogue liturgy. (See Num 22–24.) Some stories tend to imply that a blessing opens the gateway to wealth and success for the person who receives the blessing. In other stories, like the story of Abraham, blessing has implications for the long-range future. God’s blessing of Abraham is a covenant which will extend to future generations. As the story of Abraham’s descendants unfolds, it becomes apparent that a blessing may be withheld because of disobedience. The absence of a blessing then may take the form of judgement. The first appearance of a blessing in a congregational setting of worship is recorded in Numbers 6. Part of this particular form of blessing is still used by both the Jewish and Christian faiths. The Lord commanded Moses to tell Aaron and his sons to use the following words in blessing the people of Israel: May the Lord bless you and take care of you; May the Lord be kind and gracious to you; May the Lord look on you with favour and give you peace. And the Lord said, “If they pronounce my name as a blessing upon the people of Israel, I will bless them.” In Hebrew thought a name connotes identity. Blessing the people with God’s name identifies them as the people of God. They are, as it were, inscribed with God’s signature. The first creation story (Gen 1.1—2.3) contains a whole theology of blessing. Some non-biblical creation stories seem to suggest that nature is sacred in itself or may be infused with sacred qualities through the practice of ritual and festival. The creation story at the beginning of Genesis stands stoutly against that tradition. The world is not divine but is here because God made it, and it has vitality because God blessed it. The creation story unfolds in the sequence of the days of the first week, but twice the flow of events is interrupted for a blessing (Gen 1.22 and 28), and a third blessing is added at the end (Gen 2.3). There appear to be two moments in the Genesis view of creation: first God creates, then God blesses. God’s blessing confers the vitality and power which the world will need for its fullness. Blessing in the Hebrew Scriptures is about life, full and overflowing. God blesses the creatures of water and air. God blesses the man and the woman with fertility and with responsibility for the world. Finally, at the end of the process of creation, God blesses the day of rest. Blessing is not just a gesture of good will. Blessing is a state of well-being given for the fulfilment of creation. It is wholeness. It is everything we have come to understand by the Hebrew word shalom. We may untangle a sequence of thought in which blessing is presented in the scriptures of the Old Testament: God blesses all life for its extension and well-being; humans participate in this blessing through procreation and by accepting responsibility for the created order. People bless people: parents bless their children, ministers bless the congregation, couples bless one another when they marry as a sign of their common participation in God’s blessing. People bless God as a response to God’s blessing and as prayer for their participation in God’s blessing (see Psalms 103 and 134 as examples). While the Hebrew Scriptures abound with examples of people blessing each other and blessing God for his goodness, there are few occasions when a blessing is offered for a place. Perhaps a close example is Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, a rite that was clearly intended to inaugurate the use of the new liturgical space he had built. However, his prayer of dedication (1 Kings 8.22–61) is less concerned with the state of the Temple as a blessed place than with the use of the Temple in the piety of Israel. When his prayer is ended, Solomon blesses the people by blessing God (vv. 55f). As Judaism developed, an elaborate scheme of blessings was created, to be recited on most important occasions of life, including everyday occasions like eating, drinking, being in a storm, on seeing a rainbow, etc. A prayer of this kind is called a “berakah”, because of its opening word in Hebrew. Rabbis taught that “It is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a benediction, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a benediction, he commits sacrilege.” Another rabbi said, “To enjoy anything of this world without a benediction is like making personal use of a thing consecrated to heaven, without acknowledging that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’” Jewish blessings often begin with the formula, “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe.” They continue with a statement of the reason why the blessing is offered. A simple blessing before eating bread continues, “who brings forth bread from the earth.” Longer blessings include petitions. Such blessings are prayers related to the ongoing process of life and the fulfilment of God’s creation. Prayer of this kind passed into Christian practice. In the Benedictus, for instance, Zechariah blesses his son John by blessing God for the covenant of salvation (Lk 1.68–79). Paul refers to the Communion cup as “the cup of blessing that we bless” (1 Cor 10.16). However, at a very early date in their history, Christians began to translate the Hebrew word for “blessing” into the Greek word for “thanksgiving,” especially when it referred to the communion. The practice of blessing the food of the communion by giving thanks continued, but other blessings eventually appeared to be prayers in which we ask God to do something quite different. A split was created between blessing and thanksgiving. If we analyze our traditional Western forms of blessing we find that they tend to suggest that something has to be done to things like wedding rings and candlesticks and vestments and church buildings to make them fit for the holy purposes in which they are to be used. There is an implication that the object in question is not holy but has to be made holy. At this point a return to the Jewish roots of blessing may be helpful. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has written: “Contrary to popular opinion, ‘blessing food’ does not add to its sanctity, but the very reverse. Food in its natural state is holy, as it is a creation of God, who is holy . . . . We recognize it as a gift of God by acknowledging God’s holiness in a blessing. Perhaps it is time to recover this sense that everything which comes from the Creator’s hand is holy and is released for our use by grateful praise and thanksgiving. In doing so we may discover again a vision of the universe as sacramental (and consequently of the environment as a sacred trust). We need to remind ourselves that although not every blessing is a thanksgiving, every blessing is an act of thanksgiving and finds its fulfilment and completion in that central Christian act of worship. The same point applies to the blessing of people. We bless people not to increase their spiritual dignity but to give thanks for the role they have been called to play within the reign of God and thus to release them to play their part. Every communion prayer is such a blessing: we give thanks for the mighty acts of God and pray that those who gather at the table may be “one body and one holy people, a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ, our Lord.” Of course our traditional forms of blessing people may continue (e.g., “Almighty God … bless you”), but we should remember that they are prayers of thanksgiving for God’s goodness and grace already received, and for its completion in these people. And so we cannot separate blessing and thanksgiving. Every prayer of blessing is thanksgiving for creation and redemption, offered in petition for the fulfilment of the divine purpose in God’s people and in the entire world. Prayers of blessing are the return of refracted light to its source. As we go from this place with a blessing, let us ever remember that it is for us a sign of thanksgiving and our recognition that we are the people of God!
Bible Text: Acts 3:12-19 1 John 3:1-7 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp We are truly the product of our experiences. For us today our experience of church and even how we express our faith in God is so much shaped by the history and ideas of those who have preceded us. As a Christian church and specifically Presbyterian denomination we view the world and our relation to it from a certain theological perspective. That perspective has been shaped and reshaped over the centuries by the reflections of major thinkers who have sought to guide us in our worship of and life with God so as to ensure that we were doing everything that was right and proper. Certainly we can say that they didn’t get it all right but we must consider carefully that they ever sought to lead us on a path to a proper and full understanding of who we are as a creation of God and how best to be the people they believed God had created us to be. As you can no doubt appreciate - even from reading the four gospels and the many letters which compose the accepted version of the Bible and chroncile the birth of the Christian church - there were many different ways of interpreting not only what we are to believe about God but how we are to express that belief not only in worship but in our daily living. In fact there are many points in the growth and spread of the Christian faith where conflicts arose over how to interpret the words of the writers of the Bible and even how to guide the faith of the people so as to develop a proper view of God and ensure that people took the right path. And so it was that there developed in a part of the world isolated from the influence of the Roman Empire and the religious thought in Rome, a way of seeing God and our faith in God that led the people to an understanding of their world and their relationship to God that was a challenge to the accepted position of church leaders such as Augustine and Jerome. What I am speaking about is the Celtic church. The Celtic church had developed a spirituality that stood in sharp contrast to the Roman church. Firmly rooted in the spirituality of the gospel of St. John, the Celtic church listened for the heartbeat of God. They believed that this heartbeat is at the heart of all life while the Roman church listened for God in the ordained teaching and life of the church. At a synod of the church catholic in 664, the decision was made that only one view would prevail. The decision was for the Roman church and so the spiritual heritage of the Celtic church was discouraged and gradually over time it faded into obscurity. Rather than believing that both ways of seeing God and our relationship to Him were good and acceptable, the decision was made to accept one and reject the other – the belief being that this would promote unity in the church. Of course we know that God does not meet us all in the same way and that each of us finds God or is found by Him in our own time. And so what was it that so alarmed the traditional church fathers who sought to protect the orthodoxy of the church from these radical Christians? There were two things that troubled the Roman church. The first was the Celtic emphasis on creation. For the Celts, God was not just the creator but inherently present in all of creation. For the Celtic church God could not and should not be separated from the creation. While many of us think of the created world like a piece of art that stands on its own once finished, the Celts believed that God has never stepped back from creation. In fact the belief is that God dwells within every part of the created order. The world in which we live cannot be distanced from us. And even though there will be a new heaven and earth, the beauty and vibrancy found in the world as it is cannot be seen apart from God. For the Celtic church, we are to seek God by looking towards the heart of life, not away from life. To believe that the heartbeat of God is found in all of creation causes us to pause and give serious consideration to how we interact with all of creation. It forces us to consider more carefully what it means to be a steward of creation. You could say that the Celtic church was more sensitive to the environment as all of life contains the sacred presence of God and needs to be respected and honoured. One other point of conflict between the Celtic and Roman church was whether or not the image of God was present in all people or only those who believed in God as expressed through the church. Perhaps you have heard of Pelagius. He is associated with a heresy that has led him to be condemned as one of the greatest deceivers of Christians of all time. Sadly, the difference in interpretation of the faith between Pelagius and Augustine became a political struggle that ended with the excommunication of Pelagius and the push to eradicate any of the theological views of the Celtic church. Pelagius maintained that the image of God can be seen in every newborn child and that, although obscured by sin, it exists at the heart of every person, waiting to be released through the grace of God. Pelagius was up against Augustine who not only was one of the great theologians of his time but who lived closer to the political centre of the faith. It was his interpretation that every one of us is born sinful and that the image of God can only be restored to us through the Church and its sacraments. Augustine developed a spirituality that accentuated a division between the Church, which was seen as holy, and the life of the world, perceived as godless. And while we may think that the Celtic spirituality grew out of a misguided path borne of an isolation it actually has its roots in the teaching of St. John and even to the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. It was a spirituality characterized by a listening within all things for the life of God. While this series of talks will not be presented consecutively due to a number of special events, there will be six over the next two to three months. All will be posted on the website for you to review or catch up on what you missed. As with any topic that concern our faith in and life with God, the spirituality of the Celtic church will resonate with some of you while others may opt for a different path. However, I believe it is important for us to understand and appreciate that while we all come to God in Christ, we may choose different ways to find our way there. My prayer is that you will find in this series something to help you plumb deeper into the mystery of life itself and your life with God. Reverend Bruce Kemp