The wisdom and promise of Celtic mysticism...

Many people attuned to the song of the soul sense that we are standing on the
precipice of something new: a new spiritual awakening, a new commitment to the common good, a new way of integrating the spirit with the flesh, a new unity between the personal and the political. As I listen more carefully to their insights and longings, my hunch is that this emerging newness is more apt to be a 21st century incarnation of our ancient mystical traditions than a totally new creation. As the worldly-wise preacher of Israel wrote 300 years before Christ: 

 What do people gain from all the toil
   at which they toil under the sun? 
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
   but the earth remains for ever…
What has been is what will be,
   and what has been done is what will be done;
   there is nothing new under the sun. 

Still, it is evident that there is a vigorous, post-modern quest for a new/old spirituality taking place throughout the churches of the US. And the good news is that Celtic mysticism offers some time-tested alternatives to both the vapid sentimentalism that so often informs popular piety, as well as the arid formality of the once religious mainstream. Like the wise Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, quipped at the end of the 20th century: "The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’ . . . or will cease to be anything at all.”

J. Philip Newell, Warden of Spirituality for the Anglican diocese of Portsmouth, makes a strong case that in our quest for a new/old mystical revival, the first Celtic theologian, Pelagius, offers invaluable alternatives to the status quo. Three broad areas of his theology are illustrative of his unique mystical wisdom that has resonance with this moment in time.

+ First, this ancient Celtic saint/heretic not only celebrated the  inherit goodness of creation, he sensed God's presence deep within it. God neither created the world only to step back into benign observation nor did the Lord fashion creation as a mere parable of the holy. God is infused in all of nature because in the beginning, "when God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature; it was that his breath had brought every creature to life.

Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God's spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God's spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God's eyes, nothing on earth is ugly.

Newell goes on to note that because "Pelagius saw God as present within all that had life, he understood Jesus' command to love our neighbor as ourself to mean loving not only our human neighbor but all of life forms that surround us. So that when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree, we are participating in the fullness of God's love." With the mobilization of the Climate March in NYC only one week away - an event calling for a new and compassionate relationship to all of creation - the Celtic mysticism of this ancient theologian rings out with surprising relevance. Indeed, in this liturgical season of "creation," I am discovering long forgotten insights about where I am embraced by God's grace in my ordinary life.

+ Second, the Celtic mystical theologian, Pelagius, was grounded in the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. He taught that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Wisdom tradition - the embodiment of Sophia - as he lived his common life with insight and humility. In this, Celtic mysticism is more concerned with right living - compassionate, honest and real - than right thinking. This is, of course, a challenge to the institutional Church of all traditions that too often insists that they - and they alone - posses the key to both correct wisdom and right living for people of faith. Small wonder that over the past 50 years so many tender and thinking people of all Christian denominations have voted with their feet and simply left. They continue to love Jesus, but can no longer abide with a bureaucratic and judgmental institution knowing full well that Jesus taught: God desires mercy not judgment!

This morning's NY Times noted that some religious traditions are starting to grasp what real people having been saying for decades: we need a church that is long on compassion and short on judgment. We desire mercy not sacrifice. We want our worship to resonate with our ordinary lives and speak to us in ways that help us mature in faith, hope and love. (for more see: _r=0&abt=0002&abg=1

+ And third, the Celtic mysticism of Pelagius is bathed in a celebration of God's image in a newborn child. He does not insist on the primacy of sin at the start of life as both the Reformed and Roman Catholic world do. He opposes the binary theology of Augustine who insists that all sin is physically and spiritually a reality of heredity - passed on through the mother's womb - so that we begin life broken and depraved. Pelagius does not deny or diminish the reality of sin, but questions the wisdom and truth of such a harsh assessment. It simply does not square with the God of steadfast love and mercy, especially as embodied in Christ. Newell writes that the challenge of Pelagius:

...stood in stark contrast to Augustine's thinking and the developing spirituality of the Church in the Roman world, which accentuated the evil in humanity and our essential unrighteousness. Augustine, with his sharp awareness of the pervasiveness of wrong-doing in the world, stated that the human child is born depraved and humanity's sinful nature has been sexually transmitted from one generation to the next, stretching from Adam to the present. Augustine believed that from conception and birth we lack the image of God until it is restored in the sacrament of baptism, and that conception involves us in the sinfulness of nature, sexual intercourse being associated with lustful desire. 

The perspective... of Pelagius, on the other hand, is that to look into the face of a newborn is to look at the image of God; he maintained that creation is essentially good and that the sexual dimension of procreation is God-given. The emphasis that would increasingly be developed in the Celtic tradition was that in the birth of a child God is giving birth to his image on earth. 

As I enter this day of Sabbath rest and reflection, as I look upon the beauty just outside my window this morning - or embrace some of the mystery of being in my strange puppy's eyes as she looks at me and evokes only love - I find that I am more and more certain that the path of Celtic mysticism is my spiritual home. It takes practice, however, to grow into this alternative way of living and seeing. Fr. Richard Rohr makes clear that simply knowing is not enough: if we are to live into the promise of mystical love, we must practice - and we must especially practice some type of quiet contemplation.

Contemplation is the key to unlocking the attachments and addictions of the mind so that we can see clearly. I think some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear.

I find most people operate not out of “consciousness,” but out of their level of practiced brain function, which relies on early-life conditioning and has little to do with God encounter or grace or mercy or freedom or love. We primarily operate from habituated patterns based on what Mom told me, what went wrong when I was young, and the defense mechanisms I learned that helped me to be right and good, to be first and famous, or whatever I may want to be. These are not all bad but they are not all good either.

All of that old and practiced thinking has to be recognized and
accounted for, which is the work of contemplation. Without contemplation, you don’t see clearly. Everything is all about you, and you just keep seeing everything through your own agenda, anger, and wounds. Isn’t that most people you know?  Few ever achieve much inner freedom. Contemplation, sadly, helps you see your woundedness! That’s why most people do not stay long with contemplative prayer, because it’s not very glorious. It’s a continual humiliation, realizing, “Oh my God, I did it again. I still don’t know how to love!”

We need some form of contemplative practice that touches our unconscious conditioning, where all our wounds lie, where all our defense mechanisms are operative secretly. Once these are not taken so seriously, there is finally room for the inrushing of God and grace!

The way of humility and compassion, informed by this new/old mysticism, is a treasure to be practiced, explored, celebrated and shared. Lord, may it be so for me today.


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