With The Rev. Deacon Joe Dzugan
Listening for The Heartbeat of God, Celtic Christian Spirituality – Part 12
Opening Prayer for Thursday Morning
With you is the source of life, O God. You are the beginning of all that is.
From your life, the fire of the rising sun streams forth. You are the life-flow of creation’s rivers,
the sap of blood in our veins, earth’s fecundity, the fruiting of the trees, creatures’ birthing,
the conception of new thought, desire’s origin. All these are of you, O God, and we are of you.
You are the morning’s freshness.
-J. Philip Newell, Sounds of the Eternal – A Celtic Psalter, p. 50.
Remember the Key “Threads” in Celtic Christian Spirituality
Celtic Christian Spirituality – Two Ways of Listening: John and Peter
The stream of Celtic spirituality is characterized by the expectation of finding God within, of hearing the living voice of God speaking from the very heart of life, within creation, and within ourselves. It is a spirituality that recognizes the authority of St. John and reflects his way of looking and listening for God. At the decisive Synod of Whitby in 664, where two distinct ways of seeing, represented by the Celtic and Roman missions, came into conflict, the former allied itself to John. Coleman of Lindisfarne argued that the Celtic tradition originated from St. John, the disciple who was, he said, “especially loved by our Lord.” Wilfrid, on the other hand, argued for the Roman mission, which he claimed, was based on the authority of St. Peter, whom he called “the most blessed Prince of the Apostles.” The tragic outcome of the synod was not that it chose the Roman mission, but that it neither made room within the Church for both ways of seeing or declared that both were firmly rooted in the gospel tradition.
The practice of listening for God within the whole of life was based on the perspective of St. John’s Gospel; it is therefore not limited to the Celtic tradition, but found in various mystical traditions in the history of the Church. Celtic spirituality is, however, unique in the way in which it developed and cherished John’s vision. It is important to always remember that Christianity is not confined to a single perspective; rather, it comprises a rich interweaving of approaches to God. It is not a question of choosing between the John and Peter traditions, but of attempting to hold them together. We need to ask how we can celebrate both and merge them into a spirituality for ourselves and the Church today.
In the New Testament, the John tradition is of course best reflected by the Gospel according to St. John. The Peter tradition, on the other hand, finds its clearest expression in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, which includes the reference to Peter as the rock on which Christ will build his Church (chapter 16). By comparing these Gospels, we can understand the conflict of the Synod of Whitby (664) and its aftermath and the tensions and complementarities between these two ways of seeing.
The strength of the John tradition is that it produces a spirituality that sees God in the whole of life and regards all things as interrelated. In all creation, and in all the people of creation, the light of God is there to be glimpsed, in the rising of the morning sun, in the moon at night, and at the heart of the life of any person, even if that person is of an entirely different religious tradition or of no religious tradition. John’s way of seeing makes room for an open encounter with the Light of life wherever it is to be found. As the history of Celtic spirituality shows, it is a tradition that can stand free of the four walls of the Church, for the sanctuary of God is not separate from but contained within the whole of creation.
The strength of the Peter tradition is precisely that it does have four walls, as it were. It enshrines the light of truth within the Church and its traditions and sacraments. It is a rock, a place of shelter and security, especially in the midst of stormy change.
The Peter tradition allows us, even in our times of personal confusion, to turn with faith to the familiar house of prayer where our mothers and fathers and those before them have for centuries found truth and guidance.
These ways of seeing can combine to create a spirituality that is simultaneously well-rooted in a specific tradition and open to God in the whole of life. Together they can provide access to the ancient treasury of the house of faith, while at the same time equipping us to discern God’s presence in all of life.
If they are not held together, however, the result will be a spirituality in part cut off from the world, and in its religious constraints, separated from life, from the earth and its people. It may fear creation as an essentially threatening and even godless place, doubting those of other faiths, or imagine that the Church’s buildings and tradition contain the holy rather than simply symbolizing the holiness that is everywhere present.
Alternatively, the division might produce a spirituality that, in an attempt to broaden its vision, is no longer connected to any Church and becomes cut off from the truths and mysteries traditionally protected by the walls of the Church. While retaining a strong sense of inter-relatedness of all people and of the whole of creation, it may cease to learn from the great corpus of the Church’s wisdom and become an individualistic spirituality.
The two traditions have often been pulled apart, but they are much stronger together. The truth of “God with us” that is celebrated by particular people in particular places need not be an exclusive celebration; it applies to every person and every form of life because God is with and in all that has life.
The creative tension between these two ways of seeing is symbolized by Iona. Outside the main entrance to St. Mary’s Cathedral, on the island, stand the great Celtic crosses of St. John and St. Martin. There need be no discontinuity in worshipping at the foot of these crosses and then moving inside to continue worship within the stone walls of the Benedictine Abbey. Rather, the one experience can enrich the other. Being part of the song of creation, and as members of the Church, of the living communion of saints, are two aspects of the one mystery. Teilhard de Chardin, who was a scientist, a priest, and one of the twentieth century’s great Christian mystics, saw, for instance, that when the priest raises his hands in consecration over the bread and wine at the church’s altar, he is declaring all matter, all life, to be Christ’s body and blood.
-J. Philip Newell, Listening for The Heartbeat of God – A Celtic Spirituality, chapter six.
Closing Prayer for Thursday Morning
In the gift of this new day, in the gift of the present moment, in the gift of time and eternity intertwined
let us be grateful, let us be attentive, let us be open to what has never happened before,
in the gift of this new day, in the gift of the present moment, in the gift of time and eternity intertwined.
May the light of God illumine the heart of my soul.
May the flame of Christ kindle me to love.
May the fire of the Spirit free me to live this day, tonight, and forever.
-J. Philip Newell, Sounds of the Eternal – A Celtic Psalter, p. 53.
“Listening for The Heartbeat of God”, Deacon Joe Dzugan, St. Francis Episcopal Church, 2022.
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