Spring is in full bloom. The appearance of wildflowers and budding pecan trees suggest that the frosts are over and that rebirth is underway. In the northern hemisphere the Easter season has always been associated with nature’s springtime miracle of renewal. This was especially the case among the Celts, the ancestral peoples of Britain, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In fact, given their closeness to nature, they developed what scholars tells us was a creation-based Celtic spirituality.
Recently I attended a series of lectures by a Presbyterian theologian, John Philip Newell, who directed a retreat at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. Newell was born in Canada, but serves in the Scottish Church and lives in Edinburg. He and his wife, Alison, and their children lived for four years in the Monastery on Iona an island in the Scottish Hebrides. Iona was the seat of Irish monasticism in the sixth century and is today the center for a religious revitalization of what is called “Celtic Spirituality.” We might reflect for a few moments on Celtic spirituality and its significance for us who live at this moment of salvation history here in this beautiful corner of God’s creation, Karnes County.
First, we need to place ourselves in the broader history of God’s redemptive work as the church grew in the Mediterranean world after Pentecost. Church historians tell us that the expansion of the church from the third to the sixth centuries was tied closely to the structure of the Roman Empire. When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312, the church grew in influence more in the urban than in the rural areas of the Empire. This was clearly the case in the outer reaches of the Empire such as Britain. Dioceses and Bishops represented large geographical areas, but the seats of religious and political power were in the cities and not in the rural areas. This was especially the case in largely rural Britain. That plus the distance of Britain from the center of Roman Christianity in the Mediterranean allowed for the growth of a uniquely indigenous understanding of Christianity among the Celts. Central to this Celtic religious experience was John, the Beloved, and the Evangelist of the Fourth Gospel. John was remembered as the beloved disciple because at the Last Supper, he rested his head on Jesus’ breast (John 13: 23) and they supposed, could hear his heart beating. The Celts believed that in the beating heart of God made Man one could hear the beating of God’s life in all creation. One had only to enter fully into that creation and listen.
Now the Celts, as farmers, not unlike many here In Karnes County, were people intimately connected to God’s creation. They observed the seasons, they waited for the rains in order to plant, and they saw in the springtime, a rebirth of creation that foreshadowed our resurrection in Christ and the unveiling of the New Creation. The Celts were immersed in nature and the conclusion of the creation story of Genesis chapter 1 resonated with them, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day” (Genesis 1: 31). For the Celts God’s creation was good and if one listened, one could hear the heart of God beating in His creation much as John heard the heart of Christ. In Christ the Creator became One with his creation.
The great apostle of the Celts was Pelagius, the son of a Welsh bard or poet, which might explain why Pelagius was well educated. Early in the 380 he traveled to Rome where he became a well known for two religious viewpoints. First, he taught that the spirit of the living God is present in all things. He wrote, “When our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree, we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.” Dog owners will not need to be convinced of this nor will folks who have beautiful gardens in their yards.
A second religious insight flowed from the first. He was convinced that every child was conceived and born in the image of God. The picture of an infant child or grandchild is indeed the face of God. Pelagius did not deny that there is evil in the world, but within each newborn there exists a Light that in the words of John the Evangelist, “no darkness has been able to overcome.” That light in humanity has been obscured and covered over by wrongdoing and sin, and needs to be redeemed. Evil is like an occupying army, says Pelagius. Salvation is to be freed from the occupying force of sin. God offers us freedom, but we must listen to God within us, care for creation, and live as did Jesus Christ, the very Wisdom of God incarnate.
Pelagius’ religious teaching did not go unchallenged and the consequences have been huge for us Christians. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, perceived Pelagius as undercutting his own religious understanding of the fall from grace and need for redemption. Augustine taught that all humans are born into an original sin, handed down from Adam, that made us all totally depraved and in need of God’s grace. He believed that from conception and birth we lack the image of God, until it is restored in the sacrament of baptism. This led Augustine to emphasize that baptism into the church was necessary for salvation. Creation and human nature were unholy due to the original sin of Adam. In the words of theologian J. Philip Newell (1977:6) Augustine “developed a spirituality that accentuated a division between the Church, which was seen as holy, on the one hand, and the life of the world, perceived as godless, on the other.”
Augustine in the year 417 asked the Bishop of Rome to excommunicate Pelagius for heresy. The Pope declined to condemn Pelagius. The Bishops of North Africa then appealed to the Emperor Honorius who in the year 418 banished Pelagius from Rome for “disturbing the peace” and a Papal condemnation followed soon after.
When the Roman Army left Britain in the year 410, the Anglos and Saxons of Germanic origin invaded the island. Many Celts retreated to Scotland and Wales and established monasteries in the rural areas. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the early 400s where it flourished. Being a Celt, he drew upon natural images to explain the nature of God. His favorite image of the Trinity was the shamrock, in whose leaf Patrick saw the image of the Trinity and the goodness of creation. The Celts were at one with the Creator and his creation. They were not burdened with the Mediterranean dualisms and divisions between heaven and earth, matter and spirit, nature and grace, male and female. Augustine’s theology introduced those divisions into Western Christianity. The Reformers, who relied heavily on Augustine’s dualism, his theology of original sin, and the depravity of human nature, carried them forward, as did the Roman Church in its own way.
Augustine’s dualism has had profound effects on Western Christianity and our world. Take for example the often quoted, but erroneous misinterpretation of Genesis 1: 28 where we read, “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” This verse has been used to justify the unsustainable exploitation of the earth, ravaging its resources and polluting its air without regard for the consequences for present and future generations. This was never the intention of the Creator who gave us a Garden to attend as good stewards. God helps us in our weakness, however, as the darkness does not overcome the light. The rediscovery of Celtic Spirituality at this moment in the church’s journey is, in my opinion, the fruit of the Spirit.
Many in this county come from a ranching and agricultural background so are not far from care for the land and its wellbeing. We thank God for land, rain, animals a successful harvest and a healthy herd of cattle. Many in this room are even of Celtic descent, Scots, Irish, Welsh and Britons, so this spirituality is not alien to us. A Celtic spirituality would have us recall that God is not separate from His creation. Our world is a place of God’s revelation and the whole of life is a sacrament. According to Philip Newell, George MacLeod, the founder of the modern community of Iona, rediscovered the ancient conviction of the sixth century Celtic monks of that island; “God is the Life of the world, and not merely some religious aspect of it.”
As we witness the ever-growing expansion of oil and gas exploitation around us, we need to keep in touch with our Celtic spirituality. We need to recognize that God cares for his creation and walks here much as he did in the Garden of Eden “in the cool of the evening,” as says the author of Genesis (3:8). We need to care for the air, the water and the land in this corner of the Garden called Karnes. God has given us this place in His Garden so we can find Him here and now. Our task is to harness the greatest energy of all, the energy of God’s love for his earth. To do so we need to turn to God’s Beloved Son and listen so that our hearts beat in sync with the heart of God in His New Creation.