March 17, 2013
St Patrick arrived in Ireland around the year 430 to bring Christianity to the island. What he encountered there was a culture that was very open to and ready to receive his message. In the accounts of the Christian mission to Ireland there are no stories of martyrdom or of conflict; no one was thrown to the lions for becoming a Christian; families were not divided over religion. Instead, the Irish found a congruity between the pre-Christian nature mysticism of the Druids and the gospel of Christ. They wove together their reverence for the natural world with a new belief in spirit not confined to matter and the hope of eternal life. Places that had been sacred to the Druids became Christian holy sites. The gospel was seen as fulfilling rather than destroying the old Celtic mythologies.
They blended together their worship of the Son and their reverence for the sun, which you can see in the Celtic cross on the cover of your bulletin. The circle inspired by the sun, overlaid on the cross, is a visual reminder of the presence of God in both the natural world and the person of Christ. The intertwining pattern on the Celtic cross is a reminder of the intertwining of heaven and earth, of the physical and spiritual.
This happy co-existence of Celtic and Christian spirituality was largely due to the fact that the Celtic world lay largely outside the bounds of the Roman Empire. The Celtic church and the Roman church developed independently of each other for over two hundred years. By the time the Roman hierarchy moved to bring the churches in Scotland and Ireland into the fold of the one true church in the seventh century, the Celtic Church had developed some unique habits. They had developed a habit of finding God in all things. In honor of St. Patrick and his Trinitarian clover, let’s consider three places in particular that they found God that are especially relevant for us today.
First, the Celtic Christians found God in creation. When the Roman church’s architecture committee drew up blueprints for how churches should be built, they never reached the Celts, so they built churches and monasteries that were small wooden and thatch structures. The Roman church was building grand and glorious stone churches that drew a sharp distinction between the place of worship and the created world outside. The rural Celts believed they could find God anywhere, in a grove of trees or the light of the moon or the waves lapping up against the rocks, so their sanctuaries were integrated with their natural surroundings.
Not only did he Celts pray in church, but they chanted prayers as an accompaniment to their daily routine, at the rising of the sun and its setting, at the kindling of the fire at the beginning of day and its covering at day’s end, prayers that were passed down through the generations and were finally written down in the 1800s. Before a journey, people would pray for the departing person by invoking the goodness of creation: “the goodness of sea be thine, the goodness of earth be thine, the goodness of heaven be thine.” In the morning they would greet the sun with a bow, saying “The eye of the great God, the eye of the God of glory, the eye of the King of hosts, the eye of the King of the living, Pouring upon us at each time and season, pouring upon us gently and generously. Glory to thee, Thou glorious sun, face of the God of life.” Everywhere they turned they found God in the created world.
Second, the Celtic Christians found God at the heart of the human. When Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and the most influential Western theologian, wrote his treatises about human depravity and original sin, they never made it across the ocean to the Celtic church. So Celtic Christians, instead of realizing that they were born into this world as sinners needing to achieve a state of grace, believed that they were born in the image and likeness of God, and that God’s grace was their birthright. They were inspired to believe in the essential goodness of humanity by the words we heard today that begin the gospel of John: “the light that enlightens every person was coming into the world,” and that light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” They believed the psalmist’s declaration that human beings are “a little lower than God, clothed with glory and honor.”
In a newborn child they saw the image of God. A phrase in one of the blessings that was said over a newborn baby is “The lovely likeness of the Lord is in thy pure face.” In the Western isles of Scotland, midwives would bless a newborn baby by putting three drops of water on the child’s forehead as she prayed, “The little drop of the Father on they little forehead, beloved one. The little drop of the Son on thy little forehead, beloved one. The little drop of the Spirit on thy forehead, beloved one . . . To keep thee for the Three, to shield thee, to surround thee; To save thee for the three, To fill thee with the graces; The little drop of the Three To love thee with the graces.”
When the early Roman church determined that Eve was the cause of Adam’s downfall, they blamed her as the source of original sin. But the Celtic churches never got the memo about original sin or about women being responsible for it, and so women were active in church leadership and priests were permitted to marry. St. Brigid, a few generations after Patrick, was the Abbess of Kildare, the leader of a monastic community for both men and women, and the Irish came to revere her as their spiritual mother, second only to Patrick.
Third, the Celtic Christians found God close at hand, as near as the air we breathe. God is personal and immediate, never remote and distant. A typical prayer went like this: “God to enfold me, God to surround me, God in my speaking, God in my thinking. God in my sleeping, God in my waking, God in my watching, God in my hoping. God in my life, God in my lips, God in my soul, God in my heart. God in my sufficing, God in my slumber, God in mine ever-living soul, God in mine eternity.” The Breastplate of St. Patrick, that we will read together in a moment, is an example of this kind of prayer that pulls God in close.
So what does the Celtic Christian tradition have to do with the vastly different world we live in today? This tradition reminds us of the truth about ourselves that is so easy to forget: that we are made in God’s image and the earth is God’s temple.
Every day we are faced with the question: is the earth simply a bundle of natural resources made conveniently available for our use, and are we simply here to consume those resources? Or is the earth the sacred dwelling place of God and we the ones entrusted with its stewardship?
Every day we are faced with the question: Is the material world all there is, and the spiritual a figment of our imagination? Or is the universe a living witness to God’s majesty; is it, as English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “charged with the grandeur of God”?
Every day we are faced with the question: Are we here merely by evolutionary accident, or have we evolved to fulfill a purpose as co-creators, a little lower than God, clothed with glory and honor?
Every day we are faced with the question: is our value limited to what we can produce, achieve, or put on a resume, or are we all worthy of honor because we bear the stamp of God’s image?
Every day when we are tempted to discount our own human dignity or sell God’s good gifts off the highest bidder, let us remember: oh no, that is not who you are. You are made in the likeness of God, and you inhabit a world in which God is revealed in all things, waiting to be found.