Today is the first Sunday of the month when we share guest posts from people living and teaching the Contemplative and/or Celtic Christian way around the globe. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that people doing amazing things in isolated parts of the world can learn from one another and grow together. We hope this article inspires you to dive a little deeper into what it means to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors while looking forward to what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren.
Chris McMullen is a retried Anglican priest who lives in New Brunswick, Canada. He studies Celtic Christianity a great deal and has been a big help to me when I’m trying to locate English translations of primary sources. He has written a reflection on Eriugena (who is one of my favourites) and he does a great job of making that sometimes difficult author accessible and easy to read. I hope you enjoy his post!
The Church of Scotland adapted a morning prayer by the Nineteenth-century crofter, Mary Gillies for the congregational statement of faith in its “Order for Communion in the Celtic Tradition”.
In part it goes like this:
We believe, O Lord and God of the peoples,
That You are the Creator
Of the ends of the earth,
The Creator of the skies above,
The Creator of the oceans below.
You made our bodies from dust;
You gave to our bodies breath,
And to our souls their life.
We believe, O God or all gods,
That You gave Your beloved Son
In covenant for us.
He lived as we must live;
He died as we must die.
You raised Him from death’s dark domain,
And set us free to live for ever.
He speaks for us before Your throne,
And brings us grace to help
In time of need.
We believe that He will return
To give new life to the world.
In Celtic Christianity, there is a very close connection between the experience and celebration of the inspiring presence of God in creation, and God’s intimate companionship with us by virtue of the birth, life, death and resurrection of “Mary’s Son”. A mature spirituality in this heritage will delight in and depend upon both dimensions of the Creator and Redeemer’s love for creation.
Many people today turn to Celtic spirituality to recover a sense of the intimate and caring presence of God in the wonder and beauty of the natural world. Not a few of us reject the caricature of a distant, judgemental deity whose alienation from people can only be assuaged with some sort of blood sacrifice on the part of Jesus.
Indeed, many fundamentalist versions of Christianity seem to honour “Mary’s Son” as little more than the blood-stained leader of an exclusive sect that is as alienated from the natural world as it is from people who do not think as its members do. Such “conservatives” accuse Celtic Christian believers of “pantheism”.
But a strong delight in the intimate accessibility of a transcendent God nonetheless omnipresent in creation, always went together with and because of his saving work and presence as our daily companion in Jesus of Nazareth.
The ancient Irish commentators for instance, always understood the time of Jesus during his forty days in the wilderness “with the wild animals” (Mark 1:13), not as a danger or part of his trial –as virtually all other interpreters ancient and modern do– but as a blessing and comfort. The sinless Christ enjoyed a caring companionship with the beasts, just as was envisioned for humans in the Bible in Genesis 2 before it was interrupted by our sin.
It is You Who made the land and the sea…
The world cannot comprehend your glory,
in song bright and melodious,
Even though the grass and trees should sing,
all your wonders, O my true Lord!
The Father created the world by a miracle;
It is difficult to express its measure…
Jesus created for the hosts of Christendom
With miracles many He came:
Resurrection through his nature for them.
He who made the wonder of the world,
Will save us, has saved us.
It is not too great a toil to praise the Trinity!
Indeed, these two dimensions of spirituality may foster and reinforce each other. As we praise God, in the very Celtic theologian John Baillie’s prayer,
“For earth and sea and sky, for scudding cloud and singing bird,” we may also ask that “the remembrance of the blessed Life that once was lived out in this common earth under these ordinary skies may remain with [us] in all the tasks and duties of this day”.
The wonderful world we live in was lived in by the Creator Himself in Jesus; and Jesus, who we rely upon for daily mercy and help, loves and will save our wider world as well, healing all of its suffering as surely as he will save us for eternity.
Can these two contrasting metaphysical notions “fit” together –the immanent presence of the Creator in nature; and yet the compassionate rescue of creation by the birth, life, death and resurrection of the transcendent Eternal One?
I have been thrilled to find the characteristically “Celtic” answer to this in the thought of the Ninth-century philosopher, John Scotus Eriugena –hailed by John Macquarrie as “the greatest Celtic thinker who ever lived”. In Book Five of his “Periphyseon: On the Division of Nature”, Eriugena speaks of creation itself being made by God through the birth and life of the divine “Word” in Jesus. This is also attested more devotionally in his famous homily on John 1: 1-14, “the Word became flesh”.
Eriugena taught that humans ourselves are meant to have a mediating role, between God and creation, as spiritual beings in the image of God who at the same time share animal life with the rest of nature. This is why we can have such a sense of inspiration and ecstasy when we are attentive to the natural world. Tragically, human sin has disrupted this and led to much suffering among God’s beloved creatures, human and otherwise.
But by Jesus’ death, this is compassionately embraced into God’s own mercy and healed. And by his resurrection, all of creation will be restored and perfected for eternity. As people of that destiny, we may experience and anticipate this great Resurrection of all of Nature even now. That is why the “Lives” of the Celtic saints, uniquely, included so many stories about their kindness to and friendship with wild animals. As saints, their holiness was exhibiting our true identity and final destiny as children of God (see Romans 8:18-30).
So let us love our Saviour, Jesus, and lovingly delight in His creation –and in both ways, by the Holy Spirit (another great Person and saving Helper of the Triune God in Celtic spirituality –but that’s another topic!), each and every day!
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