My Own Spirituality – Simple, Sacramental, and Celtic

STUMBLING AROUND

My spiritual and theological evolution is varied and diverse, as for many. My spiritual  wanderings have taken me through Catholicism, Anglicanism, Reform Judaism, Buddhism, and Nature-based spirituality. I’ve been blessed by my engagement with each of these traditions.

Through my wanderings I never lost respect for and fascination with the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. My attraction wasn’t the miracles or the healings, or even the resurrection. Rather, I found the practical teachings of Jesus compelling – love your neighbor, break bread and share table with those different than you, embrace forgiveness as a path of healing and sanity, show deep concern for social justice and those on the margins, and care for the poor, the vulnerable, and the needy. This – the finding of meaning through kenotic love – to me, was wisdom and truth.

Jesus was compelling. Christianity wasn’t. I reject many of the standard foundations of what constitutes Christianity for most today. I do not affirm many traditional teachings such as original sin, sacrificial-substitutionary atonement, the existence of a personal God, and most notions of providence.

I strongly affirm evolution, science, and adopt a skeptical stance toward most supernatural claims, favoring an epistemological realism-naturalism.

If you ask me if Jesus is God incarnate, I’ll answer with a question – what is God? How do you understand divinity. Did he work miracles? They are likely metaphors, allegories, and mythic attempts to convey the essentials of Jesus’ teaching. The Resurrection? My reasoning and reflection on common experience leans toward the claim being more of a powerful metaphor rather than a physical reality.

All of this obviously leads to the question, am I a Christian? Again, my response likely won’t please most orthodox believers. I don’t really invest that much in labels. I find Jesus’ teaching and example compelling and convincing enough that I seek to model much of my life on such.

MY CHRISTIANITY

My expression of Christianity is unorthodox, progressive, yet Catholic and Anglican in form. It is Anglo-Celtic in flavor.

It’s post-denominational, sacramental, with strong natured-based aspects. It’s simple, or at least seeks to be. It doesn’t require clergy, hierarchical structures, or brick and mortar buildings. It’s anti-programic and loosely systematic. It’s largely rooted in organic communities, home-based, inclusive, and evolving.

It revolves around the convictions that there is tremendous value in the teaching and witness of Jesus, wisdom to be gleaned from the Christian tradition, but that both must be revisioned according to evidential theology, methodological naturalism, and modern sensibilities.

MY THEOLOGICAL INTERESTS & INTELLECTUAL FORMATION

Catholicism/Anglicanism – my formal education and formation occurred in Catholic and Anglican contexts as did the bulk of my religious life. I maintain a deep, critical respect for these compatible traditions and have found much benefit and. wisdom from how Anglicanism has led me to be understand Catholicism. My spirituality, while unorthodox and unconventional, remains broadly rooted in the Catholic and Anglican traditions and how these are practiced in the United States, Ireland, and England.

Celtic Spirituality – the deeply layered spirituality of the Celtic people’s rooted in the land and nature, motivated by Jesus’ teachings, and affirmed in simplicity and scholarship. Celtic spirituality is a sacramental spirituality in the broadest sense of that term. Celtic spirituality affirms a divine/sacred presence that pervades and interpenetrates every part of the universe. It includes an existential openness to the interconnectedness and unity of all being, the affirmation of the preciousness of all life.

Personalism – the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of all human persons (including the dignity and worth of all living things) rooted in the Judeo-Christian teaching that humankind was made in the Divine image.

Virtue & Natural Law Ethics – Morality is not imposed on humanity or revealed by a deity or religious authority. Rather it is an integral part of our natural identity. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. We fulfill ourselves and help others do the same through the integration of virtue into our lives and character. This vision offers a framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.

Historical Jesus Scholarship – the careful, systematic, scholarly application of historical, cultural and religious analysis, various hermeneutical methods and textual analysis to explore the teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth and the understanding and practices of the early Christian communities.

Narrative Theology -the idea that theology’s use of scripture should focus on a narrative representation rather than the development of a set of propositions reasoned from the texts themselves.  Narrative theology tries to focus its approach to theology to the meaning in the story and the ongoing claims of the various communities who comprise the people of the narrative.

Religious Naturalism – working from within the framework of a modest methodological naturalism to foster a spirituality informed by science and reason, theological realism, rooted in nature, affirming of human dignity, and dedicated to social justice and sustainability.

MY SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

Availability – much of authentic living is rooted in availability to others, to live in such a way as to embody hospitality. This availability implies a willingness to give others of our time, attention, affirmation, and resources – to be available to others through participation in their lives and genuine concern for them.

Availability accepts the challenge to live without walls, living openly in a way that our convictions can be seen, challenged, and questioned. Integrity implies that who we are religiously, is who we are simply and fully. This involves building friendships and authentic community outside our comfort zones and is motivated by authentic care and friendship. 

Availability is a form of kenotic love, and therefore should promote the concrete welfare of others and never be simply something self-serving. We can be tempted to think that we are making ourselves available and doing good, when in actuality we are imposing our own agenda on others, rather than respecting their radical otherness and particularity.  For availability to be authentic, we must avoid turning kenosis into a self-indulgent imposition of the self onto the other, in what Catherine Keller calls, “narcissistic projection.” 

Meditation, Reflection, & Prayer – prayer is an expression of the heart and human intention. Prayer provides inspiration and orientation for the human spirit, focusing our highest hopes and desires. 

Yet prayer is not magic. To quote Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.”

Much of my own prayer is akin to meditation or centering prayer – silent worship, reflection, a quiet communion with the world and that sacred presence we find within it.

Sabbath – beginning on Saturday evening and lasting through all of Sunday, I attempt to focus on leisure, creative activity, art, getting out in nature, socializing, and reflection. I often mark the start of this time of renewal with the lighting of candles, and sometimes a reading of poetry or scripture. If I’m with friends who are interested in such things, this can include a leisurely meal and discussion on the reading.

When possible, I try to gather afterwards with friends for a slow, Sunday dinner.

I do my best to avoid shopping, work, cleaning, mundane chores, and seek to limit my exposure to advertising and the popular culture on the Sabbath. Instead, I try to fill the time with simple pleasures, slow living, and unplug from the grind of the typical daily routine.

Practicing the Sabbath is urgently needed in our society, because it offers us a real way to resist the consumerist, commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses, along with anxiety and violence.

Sabbath is not only resistance. It is an alternative to the demanding, pervasive pressure of corporate advertising and the cult of corporate-professional sports that demand our “rest time.” Sabbath offers the time to taste and see an alternative way of living. 

The celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible reminder that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. Our practice of it can offer us a glimpse of the New Order of Love made real on a weekly basis.

An Open Table – a significant part of Jesus’ ministry involved food – feeding people, communal meals, gatherings, and table ministry. Therefore, practicing an open table (and door, and heart, and hand, and mind) is a living symbol of the new order of love. 

Sharing a meal at table together is an innately human act. Something sacred happens at the table  – people are encouraged to share food, ideas, and open their hearts. There’s an intimacy of the table. Being at table with others is different than being in a living room together, or standing around – it’s a face to face, measured encounter. 

The Liturgy of the Seasons – becoming more aware of nature, our local ecology, the sources and production of our food, its agricultural connections, and ecological implications – can play a role in deepening our spirituality. 

Attuning to the inherent rhythms of nature can reconnect us to our place in the world. Christian tradition offers ample opportunity for us to re-root ourselves in nature through celebrations that blend biblical events-narratives with agricultural cycles and the seasons.

Christians have historically marked the seasons with festivals that reinforced and celebrated their central myths, conjoining the meaning of significant religious events with the agricultural calendar. In Christian holy day celebration, the seasons provide a rich context for spiritual reflection, melding the deeper meaning of the mythic event with the inherent existential meaning of the natural cycle.

At start of the twenty-first century, most of us are no longer aware or even sensitive to the seasonal timing of these festivals and their natural meaning. The festivals remain, but gone is the direct sense of participation in the cyclic energies of the earth.  This sense of participation in nature must be restored.

As theologian Thomas Berry explains, the entire order of the universe can be experienced in the seasonal turnings and renewals. Seasonal patterns contain a fundamental dynamics of human life – desire, fulfillment, loss, change, growth, decline, and much more.

Each season and each holiday provides opportunity for reflection, personal accounting, and marking off significant times and events in our life. We live each day with the symbolism and metaphor of the constant progression/changing of the seasons – and food, meals, and sharing at table can be a concrete place for this to all take place and come together.

A DEEPER DIVE INTO CELTIC SPIRITUALITY

Celtic spirituality has experienced a resurgence over the past 40 years, being popularized across more than one religious tradition. Christian groups have reclaimed elements of Celtic spiritual practice digging deep into the roots of early Irish, Welsh, and Scottish Christianity. The rise of neopaganism, starting in the 1970s, witnessed the application of Celtic motifs, symbols, and ideas, drawing on themes from pre-Christian Celtic spiritualities. There also has been generous borrowing and overlaying of Celtic spiritual flavorings across more amorphis New Age trends.

It can be hard not to see spirals, interwoven knotwork, and references to our ancient Celtic ancestors on blogs, in articles, books, and the like. The Celts were once again ubiquitous.

And the Celts were, in fact, once ubiquitous – the predominant tribal culture(s) of central and Western Europe from . Over time, other tribal and ethnic cultural groups gained dominance, pushing the Celts further Westward, until they came to be the majority occupants of what is today Ireland, Wales, Scotland, parts of England, and Brittany.

The Celts left many traces of their earlier existence across much of Europe – calendars, art work, weapons, engravings, and a few remaining ruins of stone circles and the like. However, being a very ancient people, the Celts did not develop a written language until much later in their history.

The reality is, despite their ubiquitous, the Celts remain something of a silent witness. We know very little in terms of detail about their culture and religion. And much of what we do know has been written by their enemies and outside observers – not exactly the most reliable sources.

Worse still, there has been a wholesale imaginative fabricating of Celtic spirituality, much of which is not grounded in any reality. Unfortunately, many of these stories, claims, and references became accepted as fact, and then were repeated and spread widely. So, what passes today as Celtic spirituality is often nothing of the kind.

Despite the ambiguities, diversities, and clouded visions of the Celtic past, the fact remains that many people are deeply drawn to some aspects of Celtic spirituality, and it would do us well to attempt to sort out what might be reliable and able to usefully glean.

Why The Appeal?

Western culture has experienced a fragmentation in terms of mythic identity, with the pivotal trends being toward secularization, economic-consumer self identities, and the overall disenchantment of the daily world of lived experience.

We are neck deep in a powerful religious-cultural transformation with its roots reaching back 200 or more years. Communities are breaking down, religious traditions weakening and being abandoned, and a general sense of alienation from our roots, from each other, and from the land is felt deeply by many. Many Westerners are a people without a religious-cultural place.

The more materialist myths of progress, consumer identity, and place within the capitalist order are shallow at best. The reactions of many Christian and other religious traditions has not always been positive either, vacillating between control, abuse, fantasy, and pop spiritual entertainment. The overall result is a great experience of inauthenticity.

There appears to be something powerful within Celtic symbol, metaphor, and imagery that pulls at the spiritual imagination of many. I think much of this appeal are the interwoven notions of connected, genuine community, a people rooted in the land and nature, and a repository, albeit vague, of enchanted wisdom.

The Celts have been imagined to have what we want – authenticity and meaning. Tight knit Christian communities that convey the mystical aspects of the faith. A time tested relationship with the patterns and cycles of nature. An air of joy and hospitality in life. Imagined or real, it’s hard to not see the appeal.

Authentic Themes of Celtic Spirituality

Walk into most bookstores or browse books online and you’ll quickly realize that Celtic imagery and themes are heavily represented in the New Age, Metaphysics (no, not the philosophical variety), and Religion sections. Celtic Tarot, Celtic Magic, Druids, books on Celtic deities that never existed (culturally, or otherwise) Celtic Shamanism, and more.

We barely know who the Druids were, and are reduced to speculation concerning their role in society and religion. Assertions of Tarot decks (a card based divination system not developed until the late 1200s) inspired by the ancient Druids is comical at best, offensive at least. To borrow an expression, what passes as Celtic spirituality is mostly “blarney.”

So, what is real then? What might be authentic? Based on the little bit of reliable ancient history we have, and piecing together the themes found within both pre-Christian and Christian Celtic spiritualities, I propose the following.

Celtic pre-Christian culture, dating back to 500 B.C.E., permeated the land, and these beliefs also strongly influenced Celtic spiritual practices. As a result, much of Celtic Christianity can be characterized by a strongly incarnational theology: The natural world, in particular, reveals the sacramentality of all creation. Matter is infused with the divine presence and offers glimpses of the world behind the surface of things. This spirituality celebrates the human imagination, cultivating creativity through various art forms such as manuscript illumination and vibrant metalwork.

A People of The Land and Nature

The single most important teaching of Celtic spirituality is respect for Nature. Unlike “radah” of Genesis 1:26 which is constantly misinterpreted in the West as God giving humans the right to subdue nature, the Celts saw humans and nature as partners in a divinely-choreographed dance. Hence the goddesses are the archetypes of nature while the gods are the archetypes of culture. Culture and nature are passionate lovers not bitter rivals. 

From its inception, Celtic spirituality was based on the mystical experience of God’s love – in Nature and elsewhere – rather than on dogma, creedal formulations or orthodoxy.  While Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin dominated both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Pelagius’s doctrine of Original Blessing was the water in which Celtic Christians were baptized and the Holy Oils in which they were marinated.

The unfolding of the seasons was an overarching template for the Celtic imagination. In the pre-Christian tradition there are significant feast days aligned with the equinoxes and solstices. And then there are the cross-quarter days, which are the midway points between them and part of the harvest cycle.

A People Drawn to the Liminal

The Celtic imagination considers sacred places to be “thin,” or places where the veil between the worlds, meaning heaven and earth, seem especially near to each other.

Thresholds are the spaces between when we move from one time to another, as in the threshold of dawn to day or dusk to dark; from one space to another, as in times of pilgrimage or in moving from secular to sacred space; and from one awareness to another, as in times when old structures start to fall away and we begin to envision something new.

The Celtic peoples had a love of edges and boundary places, most likely as the result of living on an island, but they also held a keen sense of the Otherworld as a place just beneath the veil of this one.

Limina, in Latin, means a threshold, and the idea of liminality, for the Celts, was very closely related to the idea of Thin Places. It had to do with the idea of sacred time. There were four great feast days in the Celtic calendar: Imbolc (February 1st.), Bealtaine (May 1st.), Lughnasa (August 1st.) and Samhain (November 1st.) The year revolved around the Samhain-Bealtaine axis, and it began with the darkness. For the Celts, darkness was not the villain who gobbled up the light, rather it was the sacred womb out of which light and all of creation was birthed. Like Buddha’s insight that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”, the Celts saw darkness as the feminine aspect of God. Light and dark are lovers, not enemies.

The same was true of the day, which began not with sunrise but with sunset. Once again it was dusk/dark/mother who gave birth to dawn/light/child.

Celtic Christian monks were also drawn to edge places, inspired by those who fled to the desert. They found their own threshold places, such as Skellig Michael, a jagged stone island jutting out into the Atlantic on which the ruins of a monastic community are still perched on top.

A People of Understatement and Simplicity

Humility, understatement, and simplicity are strong Celtic values. A deeply reflective and expressive people, the Celts were also very much grounded in silence and solitude. Their Norse neighbors to the North and East valued boasting. The Celts valued understatement,

A People of Kindness and Hospitality

Hospitality, welcoming, inclusion – these too are strong Celtic values (not limited to the Celts, we might add.) The Celtic concept of kindness goes far beyond being nice. It involves a sense of openness, mutuality, reciprocity, generosity, and trust as one’s default position toward others.

A People Aware of Interconnectedness

The Celtic vision could be characterized as The Communion of All Sentient Beings. Each flower, rock, lake, wild boar, grove of trees, human, faery, god or ancestor was part of this great family. This, truly, was a vision worthy of a cosmic spirituality.

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