Listening within Creation
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.