Life is a Road: Teachings From the Wandering Celtic Monks

Wandering as a spiritual practice is an essential part of the Celtic spirit. When Brendan set out on his mystical sea voyage, he let the waves guide his little boat, trusting that he would get where he was going. The same faith in the journey which Brendan had guided the wandering monks who left behind the security of home to seek the place of their resurrection. This faith required great detachment. Brendan travelled in circles for years before finding the promised land of the saints. He knew the destination was sure and so the exact path he took to get there was not as important. Our human life is a journey home. We come from God and it is to God that we will one day return. Therefore, much like Brendan, we should have a healthy detachment from the details of life in this world and have faith that we will find the land we seek when the time is right. 

Our time on this earth is like a journey on the ocean. We never know for sure what is coming or where we will end up. The sea is ever changing. There is no part of the sea which is the same today as it was yesterday, and tomorrow it will be something new again. While this truth is more easily perceived in the water than the land, the lands too change and are never the same as they once were. In fact, everything in creation is in a constant state of change. Growth and decay are the laws of nature. We are born, we travel through life, and we die. Nothing here is permanent. If we expect the things of this life to be solid and reliable, then we will be disappointed. Everyone we know will one day pass away and everything we’ve done will one day be forgotten. This means that we are but travellers through this life. God is our true home, in whom we exist eternally, from whom we came into this world and to whom we return when we die. 

As the wise Solomon says, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Solomon saw that all his hard work, all his learning and wisdom, all his pleasure and pain, are nothing more than chasing after the wind. All of them will pass away, nothing lasts forever. Yet, we are here and our fleeting human existence is all that we’ve got. After explaining all the ways in which life is meaningless, Solomon goes on to say, “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” Life is a gift from God and our living is beautiful and good. All the work, play, pain, and growth that comes with this fleeting life are a gift, even if we only get to enjoy them for a moment.

The Celtic understanding of the human condition has always been a positive one. Our incarnation on this earth is a gift and we are good in our essence. In fact, all of nature is good by virtue of being created by God. Columbanus, a wandering Irish monk who shared a name with Columcille, certainly saw creation in that light and you will read about his understanding of original goodness in the chapters ahead. Yet, like Solomon, he taught that we should pass through the world without any attachment to all of this beautiful creation. He described human life as an illusion, a lie, a mirage, a shadow, and most importantly, he described it as a road. The road of life is, for Columbanus, a means to an end. We should not become attached to it and we should keep our hearts in our true home in heaven rather than here on earth. Columbanus spoke of human life like this,

“Human life, fragile and marked for death, how many have you deceived, beguiled, and blinded? While in flight, you are nothing; while in sight, you are a shadow; while you rise up, you are but smoke. Every day you depart and every day you return; you depart in returning and you return in departing, different ending, same beginning, different pleasure, the same passing, sweet to the foolish and bitter to the wise.”

The ancient Celts used strong language for everything, that’s just how they talked. Some cultures like to exaggerate and some like to wash things over. In modern western culture we shy away from extreme language. When Columbanus says that human life beguiles and blinds us, he is using stronger language than most modern people are comfortable with. But, what he means is that we often think we will live forever and we become obsessed with meaningless things like wealth and political power when we should be focused on the things of God instead. If we look past the strong language, which is a literary device more than anything, we can see a truth not unfamiliar to monks around the world. Detachment is a virtue praised by most cultures who seek the higher aspects of the inner life. The Buddhist manages to balance detachment from the world with compassion for all living things, and Columbanus did something quite similar. If Columbanus were alive today and using language in a modern way, he might say,

“As beautiful and good as the creation may be, we are only passersby here. We do not get to rest in this world but rather we have an ephemeral existence. The human lifespan is like a tiny spark shooting out of a blazing fire. Lovely, yet momentary. A testament to the light of the fire from which it arises.”

I could sit around a fire at night and watch the smoke spiral in on itself and wisp daintily from one side to the other, only to explode with sparks from deep in its core, for hours at a time. It is one of my favourite things to do. The fireflies who often light up the night around our fire have a life even more like a puff of smoke than ours. Yet, a human life span and that of a fly are basically the same in comparison with eternity. And so, as Columbanus says of human life, “while you rise up, you are but smoke.” 

To be a creature is to be always changing and moving. Life is not a house made of bricks which is rooted and remains but a path which goes out and returns home again. This life is as nothing in itself. A beautiful and magnificent nothing. Columbanus described it as an emptiness. It is a way and an ascent. It is a means by which we travel home. As we journey along the road of life, we are pilgrims seeking the place of our resurrection. In many pilgrimages, the journey to the sacred site is part of the spiritual practice. Pilgrims will often walk long distances in order to reach the place where a beloved saint has been laid or where a miracle occurred a long time ago. We know that this human life, as fleeting and corruptible as it may be, is a path to resurrection because of the life and death of Jesus. Jesus was like a pilgrim here as well, not truly of this world but just passing through it. He came, did what he could, and eventually died. If we follow the same path as Christ, we know it leads to our resurrection as well. Those who live their life in imitation of Jesus are pilgrims making the same journey which he did. 

To be a pilgrim is to walk gently on the earth. It is to carry with you only what you need. A pilgrim is a guest in a sacred place. We visit here, leave nothing but prayers and works of kindness and take nothing with us except what has touched our hearts. This road of life which leads us home to God is a lovely journey. It is a scenic tour. It is also a great trial. This road has thieves and murderers and there are days when the sun never shines and you sleep in the rain and walk in the mud. 

The most dedicated of the Irish monks left behind the comfort and safety of their earthly home in search of their true home. Columbanus was such a wanderer for Christ and he made his life a kind of immram, setting out into the unknown with God as his guide. He left behind all attachment to material possessions and set out on a wild adventure into the unknown. He lived his human life as if he were a pilgrim here experiencing this wonderful world and yet knowing that God cannot be contained by it. He said,

“The fatherland is where our Father is. Thus we have no home on earth, since our Father is in heaven. And indeed, if he is everywhere by virtue of his power and the greatness of his divinity, he is deeper than the ocean, more stable than the earth, broader than the world, purer than the air, higher than the sky, and more brilliant than the sun.”

I love how he says our home is in God and not the world, and then turns it around to say that God is everywhere and names all the places on earth where God can be found. He does not say the earth is not his home because it is awful. Instead, he describes the beauty of the earth and then says that God is even more beautiful than that. As brilliant as the sun may be, God is brighter still. As deep as the ocean may be, God is deeper still. As stable as the earth may seem, God is more stable still. As pure as the air feels in our nostrils, God is even more pure than that. 

They say home is where the heart is and if our heart is in God, who is everywhere by virtue of her power and the greatness of her divinity, then we can feel at home wherever we go even while we know that our true home is deeper than the ocean and brighter than the sun. Through understanding the road of life we come to understand something about its destination and its origin. Incarnation is an opportunity to learn more about God. The spiritual journey which sees life as a road and not a destination knows that human life affords us the opportunity to seek that which is beyond all that we see around us. We should not settle down and think we can live here forever, because we can’t. We will one day return home to God and we will leave behind everything which we accomplished in this life. We cannot bring with us anything which we have accumulated here on this earth. So tread lightly, carry with you only what you need, and do not become attached to this world which is destined to pass away, but store up your treasures in heaven instead.

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