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Celtic Spirituality - Response for Our Time

posted 7 Mar 2017, 18:43 by Peter Harney   [ updated 8 Mar 2017, 15:29 ]
       
A View from the Isle of Iona
 
The Wider View

Irenaeus held the seeker was apavia or ‘roadlessness’, that was to say he/she was attuned to the mystery in themselves to discover the next step in the journey along the way.  The feet would lead to places of the heart and into moments of resurrection.  This sense of apavia has been integral to my sabbatical year that included both intentional attentiveness to the presence of ‘the light’ and ‘the shadow’ within and without.

Entering the Dynamic of an Eco-Community

Last year I journeyed to Forres and Findhorn in northern Scotland sparked a new awareness of my kin-ship with nature that I tried to capture in this poem written when walking the trails along the Findhorn River.

An afternoon at Findhorn River and Forest

Gaia responds to my touch…
I feel her soft skin…
Underneath, her beating heart!
There is a tinkle in the air…
water falling on rocks unseen…
a note caught above the gushing flow
of the busy river below…
Yet this gushing is soft and mellowing
Inviting quiet…in time…
Everywhere the sturdy rocks give forth life
moss, lichens and bread sponges.
Stop!

I too came from rock
My ancient ancestor…my kin…
Sunlight below dances on watery foam
The colours vibrate with radiance…
Orange, sapphire blue, iridescent green
And rusty brown – an energetic display
Nature’s diaphanous light show….
Everywhere there is a fresh moistness
it refreshes with a clarity not felt
in built environments.
The earth here is porous…the air thin.
Water creating unexpected openings in rock
in the quieter spaces…ah! dappled light…
And the music of the cosmos is audible…
Attend!

Moss grows on the slow face of solid earth
And the ancient trunks of cedar trees…
While branches stretch with more
rapid intentionality…
This striving is too fast for the
slow paced spongy moss.

The side of my path decays and falls
Roots of the beech are visible now…
Here is the life source…
The connection to mother earth…
The cavernous world of middle earth…
The long life-work of soil is revealed…

The stranger here is me!
Temporary, walking over…
Sensing momentarily connection
The forest family stays present…
very conscious and speaks of
wisdom born in deep roots
Attentive listening to a sense of…infinity!

Findhorn is founded on 3 principles – co-creation with nature, inner listening and work is love in action.  In this context I entered into the ‘Experience Week’ that introduced me to ‘attunement’ and the role of the ‘focaliser.’  When members of the Findhorn eco-community come together they connect-hands and attune to the presence of the spirit of the earth community (the divine) alive within them.  Insights are shared in creative ways before the work of the day begins.  This reflection is led by a ‘focaliser’ who invites those gathered to be still and attend to the movements of life within.  The ‘focaliser’ continues to hold the group’s welfare during the time the group is together.  The ‘Experience Week’ involved learning the spiritual practice of mediation (silent and directed) done each morning and evening in the sanctuaries that are dotted across two sites - The Park and Cluny (hotel). 

The Findhorn experience included talks by community members each evening on various communal and spiritual issues, working in the Cullerne Gardens (organic gardens which provide food for two meals each day feeding 300 people), the Kitchen (vegetarian meals only), Home Care and caring for the gardens, lawns and trees in The Park.  The sharing of experience each day invited participants to deepen a sense of their inner selves, others and the energetic presence of the natural world.  The Findhorn community has been evolving over 50 years, adjusting its operation to the changing circumstances of those who come to join the community.  Governance has been responsive to the needs of members over the years with a system of communal decision-making in place.  Of course it takes great personal integrity and skill to ensure diverse views are heard and responded to meaningfully.  What I found engaging was the willingness of those elected to governance to listen and change as membership changed, always attentive to the vision of the community of living sustainably according to the founding principles within spiritual reflective practice.  Every building in The Park reflected good eco-design, power was provided by four wind generators, human waste was recycled to the soil through what was called ‘the living machine’, restoration of the devastated natural forest was well underway and each family group generally practiced permaculture gardening. 

Some thoughts on community:
•    The community needs to be continually open to new members who share and live the founding principles that ensure a sustainable earth community of life.
•    The way the community evolves must include the residential and wider community all sharing their energy, wisdom and dreams.
•    Those who come need to be aware of the foundation story of the unfolding Universe and be prepared to engage in spiritual meditative practice and rituals especially connected to the beauty and life of nature.
•    Creativity of members is encouraged to flourish within the context of the foundational spirituality and principles.
•    The cries of the earth and those made poor are heard and practically responded to through outreach projects.
•    The community seeks to live sustainably through sourcing needs locally and from the production of food utilising the gifts of nature in season.
•    Everything gardens – as much as possible is returned to the soil.
•    ‘Program Offerings’ of The Archer Mountain Community grow out of the foundational spirituality, founding principles and the needs of the earth community
•    Members are asked to contribute according to their capacity and capability.
•    All are welcome to come, to attend, receive and make a contribution.
•    Attune to the heart of the earth wisdom within each person before decisions are taken.


Journey to Indigenous Spiritual Roots

Thomas Merton wrote of his experience when reading of the community on Iona: ‘I am reading about Celtic spirituality, the hermits, the lyric poems, the pilgrims, the sea travellers – a whole ‘new world’ that has waited until now to open up to me.’   Here is my ‘new world’ experience:

The Hermit’s Cell – Iona

I sit quietly alone on a rock
one cell in the wall built by Columba in 590…
A place of refuge, of reflection and silence…
Pilgrims have left sacred stones 2.6 b years old…
I put 3 in my pocket for the sanctuary of the Archer…
This ring of cell rocks holds the secrets of a mystic heart…
Columba’s…be still…
 
He came…sat, contemplated and pondered
What would become of his Celtic Community?
Would it grow?  The Book of Kells would be finished soon…
The marauding Vikings have brought
Destruction and death to the abbey and
The lives of the monks
Devastating!  Now to rebuild in stone…
From the stones of the island…

From here the Abbey is hidden…
It is a world apart…solitude and quiet at last…
The sea is visible...disturbed but watching…
The wind is always whistling its messages of hope
The breeze catches the low grasses and heather
Tossing the thin strands and seeds into the air…
Quiet descends again…rest from the labour of community life…

This sanctuary is vibrant with spiritual energy
I cannot sleep when I am here…
Yet my bones are aching for rest…
The earth speaks and invites me to listen…
Attend!!!
The breeze drops…a moment of utter calm…
It is back with its gentle fingers on my face and hands…
Here is a thin place where the rocks have voice…

They tell me that our spirit will continue for 600 years
Then the Roman church, its wealth and empire
will destroy all that we have made…
The monks will be expelled or forced to join
Another… religion!…
A religion that is male dominated and hierarchical…
Doctrine is set and enforced by Roman patriarchy…
All must follow or be driven out…
Easter will be celebrated with royal majesty
Not as the re-birthing of creation
The coming alive of the Cosmic Christ…
Women will be suppressed and excluded…
No longer will they have an equal voice with men…
No longer will they be considered equal as scholars…
They will be kept apart and suppressed into maidservants…
Hilda and Bridgette will be undermined and belittled.

But a different more humble voice stirs…
The spiritualty of the Celts will endure…
Monks with satchels – blanket, bell, bible and staff
Will go forth to the known world…
They will bring the good news of creation
The gift of original blessing and
Equality for all in the earth community…
The feminie will be present and tangible everywhere
A voice of nurture and compassion
Of learning and intuitive wisdom…

This will be a time in history
Remembered for learning, art, the growing of soils
Herbal medicine, dance, attunement to the natural world…
Open-heartedness and inclusion of all
Especially the marginalised and
rejected classes and tribes.
Wherever the spirit of Iona is embraced
the sound of the pilgrim’s bell will be heard
Ringing a note in tune
with the bells of this Abbey.
Within the silent heart of this cell…
I wait and listen…
Surely this time will be know as
The Enlightened Age not the Dark Ages.

 

Vivienne Hull in here book on Iona and Celtic Spirituality writes that the Roman emperor Constantine in 386 AD made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and the church reflected the trends of society rather than standing for its reformation.  So the Roman church in its foundation story holds the vestiges of power and domination.  There is evidence of patriarchy, bureaucracy, the divine right of kings with its consequences of infallible dogmas and doctrines, males wielding ultimate authority, top down processes, secrecy, exclusion of women and often the vulnerable especially children and the natural world are see as tools for human use.  Humanity is viewed as fundamentally flawed and so intervention by Church authority is needed for redemption and salvation.  

Celtic Christianity grew up in association with the Roman Church before the year 1000, a period in history that was dubbed by secular and church scholars - the Dark Ages.  A key figure of these times was Pelagius born in 359, possibly the same year as Augustine.  He as was a bellicose Irishman and Jerome, who translated the bible into Latin from the Greek, could not tolerate, as Pelagius was a free spirit.  This was at a time when Christianity had not yet been declared the religion of the Holy Roman Empire.  Augustine, the leading Roman theologian of that time, respected Pelagius but saw him as a threat to the establishment of Roman authority as the true seat of Christianity, as the Celts saw John, the beloved disciple, as their Founder not Peter as Rome did. 

Augustine had Pelagius brought before 3 synods comprised of bishops selected by Augustine from Roman, Eastern and African churches.  Pelagius held centrality of the gift of free will and denied Augustinian’s teaching on the doctrine of the Fall and Original Sin. Pelagius was vindicated twice but in 416 Augustine appealed to Pope Innocent, who saw Pelagius as a threat to his authority and ruled against him. This decision against the Irish Celtics and their creation sensitive spirituality by Augustine, established that the highest court of appeals with regard to doctrine was now centred in Rome.  It was a turning point in the history of Christianity.  From the 5th century Augustine’s pessimistic view of humanity was set to dominate Christianity for the next 1500 years.

The Cosmic Christ is in every sentient being. Christ is the inner anam cara, or soul friend, the one who shows the way, guiding each person at every moment and reminding them of their true nature.  So what matters was developing a third eye that was attentive and present to the Cosmic Christ, not just believing in the death and resurrection of the historical Jesus.  Augustine held another view that only through the mediation of the church could salvation and eternal life be assured.

The Celtic view on the inherent goodness of creation was a further irreconcilable difference with Augustine.  The creator was not apart from creation but imminent, in creation, and all things were lit through and through with the light of the Cosmic Christ.  There was a sacramental presence in all life.  This was a non-dualistic view of creation that led Augustine to accuse Pelagius of pantheism.   The mystical intimacy of human nature and the imminence of the divine, characterise the essence of the Celtic Christian tradition, and demonstrate that for the Celts there is a mysterious presence in all life, holding all in love and original blessing.

The Celtic influence spread widely and the confrontation with Rome came with the invoking of the Council of Whitby in 664.  Hilda, the abbess of Whitby, leader one of the finest Celtic abbey schools of the times, presided.  Who would determine the way doctrine would be approached?  The debate included such topics as the date of Easter that the Irish celebrated according to the way of the ancient Druids that differed from the Roman church.   Abbesses would not concede authority to the abbots and bishops seeing themselves as equals.  The Celts held that the Eucharist could be celebrated outside in nature not always in a church.  At the end of the debate King Oswie asked: ‘Who holds the keys to the gates of Heaven?’  To the Celts this was a nonsensical question because they believed the world was a thin place where the experience of God was available to everyone at anytime.  However the Roman delegates saw that it not only held the keys but also extensive financial resources.  Ultimately the King decided in favour of the Roman delegation led by Wilfred a delegate of Augustine of Canterbury.  It took another 500 years before the Roman church finally subjected the energy, grace and influence of Celtic spirituality to rule.

By 1100 the Columba communities on Iona were replaced by the Benedictines that held a theological view of separating the sacred from the secular.  Pockets of those who followed the way of John the apostle persisted for centuries.  By the 18th Century those who followed the Celtic way were small and quite marginalised and branded as ‘superstitious’ as Enlightenment thinking took hold of western culture.

Celtic Christianity’s life-celebrating spirit and hopeful perspective on human nature were replaced by the Augustinian pessimism that has characterised so much of both Catholic and Protestant Christianity to our own day.

A question to ponder: What are the dysfunctional spiritual and psychological practices found in the Church today as a result of the Celtic community of John the apostle (who the Celts saw as their founding inspiration) being suppressed?

Many people with European roots have in their gene pool the Celtic DNA.  Perhaps at this stage in our unfolding story of ever awakening consciousness, we might explore with much potential benefit this forgotten spiritual tradition. 

PJH 7/3/2017

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