The sensuality and celebration of all that is created...

When I was ordained into Christian ministry 32 years ago, my mentor - Ray
Swartzback - preached a message entitled, "Trapped in the Trappings." Brother Ray was a genius and a giant when preaching. And at the heart of his message was this gem: don't allow your wounds, your ego or your congregation trap you in the trappings of ministry. Rather, let the love of God made flesh in Christ shine in everything you do; anything less will burn you out and diminish the light of of Christ. 

He was right. As long as I stayed grounded in love - love of God, love of others and love of self - the absurdity of ministry made sense and I was saturated with joy. Whenever I thought too highly of myself, however, or when I let the pressures to be successful run the show, ministry became a drag and I ached to get out. I recall reading a slim volume by George MacLeod, the Church of Scotland minister who reclaimed and rebuilt the ministry of Iona during the Great Depression, shortly before my ordination. I knew then that his Celtic spirituality rang more true to me than the Calvinism of my youth. MacLeod's insistence that the whole earth cried glory - and was filled with the living presence of the Lord - resonated with my heart and my head in ways that my Reformed tradition's teaching concerning the total depravity of humanity did not. 

But none of the existing texts celebrating Celtic spirituality offered a clearly articulated alternative to the status quo: most resources were either pseudo-Druidic ramblings or New Age romantic paeans to a time long gone. MacLeod spoke with a passion that was attractive, but at the time I was unable to learn about the intellectual and spiritual practices that strengthened his Celtic faith. So, I stumbled about on my own while exploring two streams of what I now know as embodied Celtic practices: the conviction that all of creation is good rather than fallen, and, the hunch that nourishing all our senses in truth, beauty and goodness is a living prayer. 

My first spiritual discipline for discerning the goodness of all creation was music. I kept finding non-religious songs that spoke more honestly about my experience in the world than almost any of the traditional hymns. Not that I didn't find solace and insight in hymns, too. But the music of the streets and airwaves carried a whole lot more love and prophetic challenge to me than what I heard in church. Take Bruce Springsteen's confessional "Living Proof." He must have been reading my emails when he wrote this - especially the part where he almost weeps, "you do a lot sad and hurtful things when it's you you're trying to lose... you do some sad and hurtful things and I've seen living proof."

In time I found the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, who gave me another way to express this quest for the goodness within all creation in his poem: "I Saw Christ Today."

I saw Christ today
At a street corner stand
In the rags of a beggar he stood
He held ballads in his hand

He was crying out "Two a penny
Will anyone buy
The finest ballads ever made
From the stuff of joy"
But the blind and deaf went past
Knowing only there
An uncouth ballad seller
With tail-matted hair

And IO whom men call fool
His ballads bought
Found him who the pieties
Have vainly sought.

Today I better grasp why I find the buzz of the holy in the sounds of improvised jazz as well as U2, Sarah McLachlan and Leonard Cohen: God is not only still speaking, but God is fully present within the totality of creation. When I was finally able to visit Iona, during the 20th anniversary of ordination, I was able to get my hands on the prayers of MacLeod and other interpretive writings and my grasp of Celtic spirituality deepened. (Just a take a listen to U2's newest offering: pure bliss!)

Invisible we see You, Christ above us.
With earthy eyes we see above us, clouds or sunshine, grey or bright.
But with the eye of faith we know you reign:
instinct in the sun ray
speaking in the storm,
warming and moving all creation, Christ above us.
We do not see all things subject unto You.
But we know that man is made to rise.
Already exalted, already honoured, even now our
citizenship is in heaven
Christ above us, invisible we see You.
Invisible we see You, Christ beneath us.
With earthly eyes we see beneath us stones and dust and dross,
fit subjects for the analyst’s table.
But with the eye of faith, we know You uphold.
In You all things consist and hang together:
the very atom is light energy
the grass is vibrant,
the rock pulsate.
All is in flux, turn but a stone and an angel moves.
Underneath are the everlasting arms.
Unknowable we know you, Christ beneath us.

The other practice that I stumbled upon intuitively - and later intentionally - involves feasting wherein all the senses celebrate the God of glory and love. Before I became a person of faith, I used to bake bread - and it was a living time of prayer for me. Mixing the earthy ingredients connected me to the grittiness of life, kneading the dough invited me to get physical and intimate with my food, waiting gave me time to read and sit quietly - and then eating freshly baked bread! It was a taste of heaven on earth. Only later did I learn that part of Celtic spirituality has to do with the way our senses invite us into communion with the Lord.

Most of my Reformed heritage worked to denigrate and diminish the sensual; I didn't now why, but it was clear that being "spiritual" was more about giving things up than embracing them fully. But how could I deny the sensual goodness of freshly baked bread? It seemed sinful to pretend it wasn't an ecstatic experience. Same with feasting with friends - or welcoming strangers - or smelling lilacs - or being consumed by a lover. It was all good - very, very good as God said in the beginning - so I trusted the goodness and sought a way to understand it.

A book by Joy Mead, published by Iona, One Loaf: an Everyday Celebration, gave me some of the words and tools to affirm the blessings of all that is truly sensual and holy.  One poem in particular, Bread-time, cuts to the chase:

Because bread won't be hurried
we have to learn to let it be,
to do nothing, to be patient,
to wait for the proving.
Because bread won't be hurried
and is a life and death process,
we find out in its making
that time is not a line
but a cycle of ends and beginnings
rhythms and seasons,
growth and death,
celebrations and mourning,
work and rest,
eating and fasting,
because bread won't be hurried.

Here is the very essence of Celtic spiritual disciplines, yes? She puts it like this in another poem:

Paul, it seems, thought
truth and sincerity to be in the history
and purity of unleavened bread.
But wasn't it more
the haste of a people
anxious to leave captivity
and so with no time
to wait for a rising.

I wonder.
Didn't Jesus show us
truth and hope
in the light and lovely
pleasure-making, wholly joy-filled,
god-given, fully-leavened loaf
enjoyed while watching
the flowers of the fields.

Do this, he said
take wine and bread
fruit and grain
old customs
old ways.
I make them now
in the irreversible power 
of community.

Today, as the grayness of a New England autumn takes hold of the Berkshires; today, as the cool air awakens and refreshes my skin; today, as I walk about the yard and notice not only the brown dead leaves but the vibrant gold and red ones, too: I am aware of a new season.  It is a time of preparation and a time of anticipation. Winter is coming, but it has not yet arrived. So there are pumpkins to be picked and bread to be baked. There is insulation to be readied and clothes to be put away as sweaters replace sandals and shorts. The wisdom tradition of Israel, long embraced by Celtic Christianity, tells us to acknowledge with our sense that to everything there is a season... a time to dance under the moon, a time to bake some more bread and hoist a pint for all that is good and gracious.


ddl said…
I love the poem "Because bread won't be hurried..." So good. And yes, I am thinking about trying to make our worship experience here more intentionally sensual-- in a way that tries to connect worship to all of our senses. I am going to try to show a film clip today as part of the service (a Cosmos Sunday) It's a Sagan video called The Pale Blue is really beautiful, but also sharpens our awareness of the world and the immanent nature of God, if you believe this. Thank you for some of the resources and books that you mention in a previous post... My book list is entirely too long...but the Spirit will help me choose what is needed at this point among the smorgasbord of selections. A book that has been helpful to me in reflection is called Out of the Woods, by Lynn Darling. It appeals to me because it has a bit of the "explorer" in it... A woman who is now an empty-nester and previously, a widow, is now negotiating finding landmarks for her journey, but the book talks about several explorers...navigation...and the physical experience of being in the woods and learning how to navigate without a GPS or other aid (except a compass). Fascinating. And also sensual. You can "hear" and "smell" the woods...etc. And you get to know the little commmunity that is formed. And it is set in New England...Vermont. So it has that flavor. Even though it is a non fiction female biography, I think that it would appeal to a male as well because of the adventure both internally and externally...and her guide who is a wilderness guide, a bit rough around the edges.
RJ said…
I will check it out... sounds like something Di has read. Thanks.

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