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Celtic spirituality listens for the heartbeat of God: Presbyterianism is influenced by ancient Celtic and Mediterranean traditions.

One of the favourite images in the Celtic tradition is of John the Beloved leaning against Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:23). It was said of him that he thus heard the heartbeat of God. He became an image of listening within life for the beat of God's presence. The emphasis is on listening within every moment and listening within ourselves and within all things for the beat without which there would be no life. The practice is of an inner attentiveness that can also lead to greater outer awareness and to a passionate commitment to care for one another and for the life of creation.

"Celtic spirituality" is a modem term that describes an ancient phenomenon. It refers to a stream of Christian spirituality that was born in the fourth-century world of Ireland and Britain. it is distinct from the "Mediterranean" tradition, which developed its distinguishing characteristics in the world of Constantine's Roman Empire. Just as we use the term "Canadian history" to include references to the development of a people who later called themselves Canadian, so we use the term Celtic spirituality to identify features of a spirituality that formed in the part of the world that later became known as the Celtic world of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

There are two main characteristics that distinguish the Celtic tradition from the Mediterranean. The first is the Celtic belief that what is deepest in us is the image of God. Genesis 1, with its description of humanity made in the image and likeness of God, is a foundational text. Everything else said about us needs to be said in the context of this foundational truth--what is deepest in us is the sacredness of God's image. On the other hand, the Mediterranean tradition says that what is deepest in us at birth is our sinfulness. This has had the effect of seeing grace as essentially opposed to what is at the heart of human nature.

A 19th-century teacher in the Celtic tradition used the analogy of royal garments that were still woven through with a costly thread of gold. If the golden thread were removed somehow, the entire garment would unravel. So it is, he said, with the image of God woven into the fabric of our being. If God's image were taken out of us somehow, we would unravel and cease to be. The image of God is not simply a characteristic of who we are, which may or may not be there depending on whether or not we have received the grace of baptism; the image of God is the essence of our being, and sin has not had the power to undo what God has woven into the fabric of our being.

The belief that what is deepest in us is the image of God has a number of radically important implications for our spirituality. It is to say the wisdom of God is deeper in our souls than the ignorance of what we have become. It is to say the beauty of God is truer to our depths than the ugliness of what we have done. Similarly, it is to say the creativity of God and the passion of God for what is just and right is deeper than any barrenness or apathy in our lives. And above all else, it is to say that love--the desire to love and to be loved--is at the very centre of the mystery of our being, deeper than any fear or hatred that may hold us hostage.

This is not to be naive about the power of sin and the perversion of what has gone wrong in our souls and relationships. It is simply to say that what God has planted at the core of our beings has not been undone by sin. The ninth-century Irish teacher John Scotus Eriugena said we suffer from an infection of soul, what he called a "leprosy" of soul. Just as the physical disease of leprosy has the power to distort the human face, making it appear ugly and grotesque, so sin has the power to infect the countenance of the soul, making it appear unnatural and even monstrous--so that we come to believe that is the true face of the soul. In the Gospel story, when Jesus offers the grace of healing to the lepers, he does not give them new faces; rather, he restores their true faces.

One of the favourite figures in early Celtic legend is the third-century Christian contemplative Antony of the Desert. He even appears etched into the designs of high-standing Celtic crosses. When people came out to see him in his desert hermitage, Antony was remembered as saying: "When you die and go to your place of judgment, you will not be asked whether you have become another Antony, or another St. Paul or St. Mary. You will be asked whether you have become truly yourself." In the Celtic tradition, there is a passionate and rigorous emphasis on repentance. Repentance, which simply means turning around, is not a turning around to become someone other than ourselves; it is a turning around in order to be truly ourselves. It is a turning away from the falseness of what we have become to re-turn to the true depths of our nature.

Grace and nature are both gifts of God. They are not opposed to one another. As Eriugena said, "Nature is the gift of being, and grace is the gift of well-being." Nature is a sacred gift. At the heart of the gift of our human nature is the image of God, knit together in our mother's womb. Yes, it has been infected by sin. Yes, it has been covered over by the falseness and inhumanity of what we have done to ourselves and to one another. And, yes, it needs what Eriugena called "the medicine of grace" if it is to be healed. But grace is given not that we might become other than natural or somehow more than natural; it is given that we might be truly natural. Grace is given to free us from the unnaturalness of what we have become. The Celtic tradition, in fact, refers to Christ as "the truly natural One," not as the supernatural One. He shows us the true face of our soul made in the image of God.

The second main characteristic that distinguishes the Celtic tradition from the Mediterranean tradition is the belief that creation is essentially good. Genesis I is a foundational text again. At the end of each day in the creation story is the phrase "And God saw that it was good?' Then at the end of the sixth day are the words "And God saw all that had been made, and behold it was very good." In the Celtic tradition, creation is viewed not merely as something that occurred at one point in the past; creation is forever being born. It is forever coming forth from the womb of God, from the realm of the invisible into the realm of the visible. And God forever sees what is created as essentially good.

Not only is creation viewed as a blessing, it is also regarded in essence as an expression of God. In his commentary on the prologue to St. John's Gospel--in particular the words "In the beginning was the Word ... and all things have come into being through the Word"--John Scotus Eriugena wrote that all things have been uttered into being by GOd. If God were to stop speaking, creation would cease to exist. Creation is a theophany--a showing or revealing of God. At the heart of the Christian mystery is the belief that God is love, that God is self-giving. All that God does, therefore, is a giving of Self. Creation, the great work of God, is essentially an offering of God's Self. It is a Self-disclosure to us of the mystery of God.

The answer to the question "Where do we look for God?" is not "away from creation" but, rather, "deep within all that has been created." Within ourselves, within our children and within all that has been spoken into being, we can listen for the expression of God. Eriugena said God speaks to us through two books: the "little book" of Scripture and the "big book" of creation. This is not to be naive about what has gone wrong in creation. It is not to pretend that creation, like the human soul, has not been infected by sin. It is to affirm, however, that creation is like a sacred text that we can learn to read in our journey of knowing God. It is also to say that what we do to matter is a spiritual issue, whether that be the matter of our human bodies, the matter of the body of creation, or the matter of the body politic and how we handle the resources of the earth. All these matters are central to spirituality in the Celtic tradition. On the other hand, the Mediterranean tradition has tended to separate spirit and matter. The mystery of God has been distanced from the matter of creation. What we do to creation, therefore, has often been regarded as not an essential part of our spirituality.

The Celtic tradition was formally rejected by the Synod of Whitby in the Kingdom of Northumbria (later, northern England) in the year 664. Part of the debate at Whitby reflected the Celtic mission's conviction that it was continuing the way of the Beloved Disciple who had leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper. The synod's rejection of the Celtic tradition was a tragedy for Western Christianity. But the reality is that it has lived on in the Celtic fringes of Britain over the centuries and is being recovered today. Although Presbyterianism has been heavily influenced by many aspects of the Mediterranean tradition, another part of our Scottish inheritance is the Celtic stream. The reclaiming of it can be an important resource for spirituality in the 21st century. It can help us listen again for the beat of God's presence--in this moment and in every moment, in our own lives and in the life of all that has being.

For further reading

Three books by J. Philip Newell:

* Listening to the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality

* The Book of Creation

* Celtic Benediction

Check the Year of Spirituality website, which is updated biweekly:

Rev. Dr. J. Philip Newell is writer theologian at The Cathedral of The Isles in Scotland. He is the author of many books on Celtic spirituality.
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Title Annotation:spirituality
Author:Newell, J. Philip
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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