Today I would like to share with you a guest post from my friend Kenneth McIntosh. He is a wise teacher of Celtic Christianity, a minister in the United Church of Christ, and regularly leads forest church gatherings where he lives in New York. Kenneth is the author of Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life, the Celtic historical-fantasy novel Magic Reversed, recently published Hope in an Age of Fear: The Wisdom of the Book of Revelation, and soon-to-be-published The Soul of the Green Man.
I hope you enjoy his reflection as much as I did!
In the Christian culture of my younger years there was much talk of “doing great things for God.” There were exemplars of what “great things for God” looked like: Jim Elliot the missionary who died trying to contact a remote tribe “unreached” by the Gospel, David Wilkinson the small town preacher who went to the city and converted violent gang members to Christ, and—the biggest of them all—Billy Graham the evangelist who led stadiums full of people to Christ.
Looking back, I’m thankful that these Protestant heroes of the past were not characterized by the mean-spirited partisanship which today’s politicized Evangelicals are known for. I’m not so keen on people like Elliot disrupting the cultures of remote tribal people, but there’s nothing wrong with someone like Wilkinson inviting violent and purposeless youth to experience a spiritual awakening, and I saw lives influenced for good by the senior Graham’s preaching.
In retrospect, I don’t think these examples were negative, but this kind of teaching fell short of what I’d now consider healthy life-in-the-Spirit because “spiritual” actions were elevated above lesser “secular” activities. Even then this seemed odd to me: my father was a research scientist whose work saved lives, though he was not a confessing Christian for much of his career. Was his work not as noble as being an evangelist or a missionary?
And the flaw in doing “great things for God” lay in an even larger omission: what about doing “little things” for God? The idea of being heroes for Christ held forth big and dramatic gestures at the expense of the common and ordinary. Who was to say what were “big things” for God, and little things? Would not a farmer seeding and plowing her field be doing God’s work? God must love dirt—since God made so very much of it.
The greatest gift of Celtic spirituality for me has been the awareness that everything is sacred. This insight is not unique to Celtic thinking, but it came to me as I began to walk that way.
One realization of this came reading Alexander Carmichael’s book of Victorian folkloric research titled Carmina Gadelica. Carmichael recorded the prayers and chants of Highland Scots whose daily routines were accompanied by these ritualized remembrances of God’s presence. In the Carmina there are prayers for starting the day, for washing, for cooking, for smooring the fire, for planting and gardening (even for specific plants).
The big implicit message of all this is “everyday chores matter to God.” Carmichael was convinced that these prayers and chants which had hitherto existed only in oral tradition were continuous with Celtic practices from the Early Middle Ages, a contention that has neither been proven nor discounted since he recorded them.
Another expression of the importance of the ordinary in Celtic Christianity comes in the famous last words of Saint David, the patron saint of Wales. While David is enshrined in the magnificent Cathedral that bears his name, in life he was a lover of common things, known as “the water man” for his simplicity, famous for preaching outdoors, and most-often-quoted for his last words“ Be joyful, brothers and sisters. Keep your faith and do the little things that you have seen and heard with me.” In abbreviated form this became a well know Welsh saying, “Do the little things.”
Celtic Christians continued the ancient Jewish ways more than their Christian contemporaries did, and the Jewish people have never forgotten the importance of honoring God in ordinary things. Perhaps this is because Levitical commandments and Kosher practices have enabled Jews to remember their identity against overwhelming attempts to assimilate or destroy them.
There are Jewish prayers for everyday actions, much like the prayers for daily life in the Carmina. These include things that other traditions have regarded as profane: there is a prayer for celebrating married sex and another giving thanks for being able to go to the bathroom.
Recently, Rabbi Michael Rose Knopf shared a blessing for putting on a face mask. He labeled this precautionary measure as a Mitzvah—a righteous deed that connects the doer with God. This prayer is: “Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the World, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us to protect life.”
In this time of pandemic, when so many things are uncertain, I believe that the ancient wisdom of “Do the little things” is more vital than ever. The tiniest things—too small to be seen via light microscopy, and smaller than the cells of our body—have disrupted lives across our entire planet. These sub-microscopic assailants have proven to be the most dangerous and fearsome foes, and it is fitting that they are also best combated on a minuscule scale.
Perhaps other battles have highlighted the importance of big, bold, brash doings—but not this war that we are in now. Tiny gestures—putting on a mask, washing hands, keeping a six-foot distance—are not tiny; they can determine the difference between life and death. Certainly, there are heroes in this battle—doctors and nurses for example—yet we also realize the importance of workers, the people now designated as “essential.”
Isolated at home we realized the vital importance of people who manufacture paper products, harvest crops, render meat, and deliver mail and packages. The choices of thousands of people to continue working and consequently increasing their risk of contagion may not appear dramatic, and are not accompanied by fanfare, yet these everyday labors have kept societies fed and protected during this time. In this season of great challenge, little things are big in their impact. So bless God, and may God bless you, as you stay faithful in small yet vital ways. Do the little things.
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