My interest in things Celtic (however you might wish to define that term) stretches back over twenty years, to a moment when I first heard a recording of The Deer’s Cry, also known as St Patrick’s Breastplate from a musical composition entitled The Pilgrim composed by Shaun Davey. When I first heard this piece of music something stirred deep in my soul, something that I suspect had laid dormant until that point in my life. In the intervening years, I have attempted to deepen my understanding of that nebulous reality known as “Celtic spirituality”, a journey that continues to unfold even now.
This book is part of that continuing exploration and one that has made a small but significant contribution to that ever-unfolding journey. In a series of easily accessible chapters, Christine Valters Paintner provides some insight into spiritual practices drawn from the history of the Irish saints and monastics, practices that have as much significance today as they did in the past.
However, this is no mere theoretical exploration, though there is a goodly degree of rigour found in the text. The book draws on the personal experience of Christian and her husband, John, which has then been distilled through the great mystical and theological tradition of Christianity. Examples from their own lives are used to help illustrate the practices being discussed, which enables the reader to see that what is being explored and explained is not outside the reach of the beginning seeker.
I consider this book to be one well worth reading whether you are particularly drawn to “Celtic spirituality” or not; there is wisdom here for anyone wishing to explore a more definite and deliberate spiritual life.
“Different times and different cultures have influenced the ways in which the Eucharist has been celebrated and understood; and the action received from the Lord to be done in his memory has shown different aspects of its deeper reality in these differing human situations.
“We now live in times in which belief in God is no longer taken for granted and in which there are many different approaches to life and its meaning. This has its influence on those who believe in Christ as well as those who do not.
“This new situation invites us to present our faith in Christ differently, calling us to offer a presentation of the Eucharist that can begin on common ground with our contemporaries and in language that believers today may find inviting and meaningful.
“As a means of achieving this, the author suggests that we look again at the basic things we use as signs in the Eucharist. These are things we have in common with other human beings: bread, wine, water, symbolic actions and our own bodies.
“These things are taken into our celebration of the Eucharist and are used as signs that take us beyond themselves into the depths of the Eucharist, that is into its very mystery.
“The author also points out the human grounding of those things indicated by words we use in speaking about the Eucharist: memory, presence and sacrifice.
“We are dealing with everyday, human things that take us beyond the ordinary from which they come, into the mystery of God among us in Christ which we celebrate when we gather for Eucharist.”
A few years ago I had the great privilege and pleasure of accompanying a pilgrimage from our diocesan schools office to Ireland. It was a double-barreled pilgrimage for me, both spiritual and personal, walking in the footsteps of one of the founders of one of the religious orders who first ran schools in our diocese, and my first visit to the country and land from which my family sprang.
As part of that journey, we made a visit to Glendalough and were privileged to be given a walking tour of that ‘cradle of Irish Christianity’ by the author of this book. On that occasion, we walked around the edge of the lakes, pausing occasionally to celebrate the various rituals of the Catholic Mass in what can truly be called a ‘thin place’. That visit to Glendalough left an indelible mark on me, and I suspect that any future visit to Ireland will include spending time in and around this sacred place.
Reading through this book took me back to the place that St Kevin came to call home. Each page brought back memories of the meandering journey of that short visit to Glendalough, to the natural beauty that revealed a gracious and generous God, and to the very tangible presence of the Transcendent that seeps through the ‘thin veil’ into this plane of existence.
Accompanied by wonderful illustrations drawn from the location in which Glendalough is located, this book is truly a ‘soul journey’, with the reader being drawn into both location and meaning. Even if I had never been to that wonderful valley I suspect I would have felt like I had after reading this small contribution.
“Listening for the Heartbeat of God presents a spirituality for today, modeled on the vital characteristics of Celtic spirituality through the centuries. Here is an emphasis on the essential goodness of creation and of humanity made in the image of God. This book traces the lines of Celtic spirituality from the British church in the fourth century through to the twentieth century, in the founder of the Iona Community, George Macleod.
J. Philip Newell finds Celtic spiritual roots in the New Testament, in the mysticism of St. John the Evangelist. John was especially remembered as the one who lay against Jesus at the Last Supper and heard the heartbeat of God. Hence he became a Celtic image of listening to God in all of life. This fresh angle on Celtic spirituality – linking figures in the Bible and in British Christian history – will be warmly welcomed by all who are concerned to refresh the roots of their faith.”
Although a short 100 pages, this book has much to offer those seeking to authentically live out their baptismal call to life, mission and ministry. Drawing on the example and models of monastic life and applying them to life outside the monastic boundaries, Ian Adams presents a range of possibilities for those seeking that deeper commitment, which in times past may have required entry into a monastic community.
Adams, himself a founder of a ‘new expression’ of monastic life in the English city of Oxford, does not lay out one particular way of proceeding, but rather provides insights for consideration, potential modes of living that are authentic, grounded firmly in the desire to be in relationship with God and others, and driven by something that might not immediately be nameable. For the committed seeker, the insights of Adams – and indeed, the insights of the monastic/religious life within the great tradition of Christianity – provide things to contemplate, possibilities to explore, and a means of finding that which is being sought.
One of the great advantages of this book is that Adams has walked the walk and is not merely talking the talk. His own journey, glimpses of which can be discovered throughout the text, provides reassurance that finding that sought is entirely possible. All that is required is an openness to what God might have in store for the seeker…and a readiness to take the first step.
There’s much to think about to be found in this little volume, at least for me.
Examining the story of St Aidan of Lindisfarne, and his mission and ministry among the inhabitants nearby, an alternative way of embracing ministry in the contemporary world is proposed. It is a way based less on regulation and program, and more on relationship and conversation. Aidan’s Way, as outlined here, has much to offer contemporary Christianity as it seeks to recover both its place in the world and its reputation and esteem.
In one sense, the model proposed in this book is not rocket science. And yet, it needs to be written down, explained, and outlined in the present age because we have forgotten how to do mission in a way that is focussed first and foremost on Christ and not us. Although the significance of the early ‘Celtic church’ – even its very existence – might be a question for scholarly debate, the example of the early saints of the Christian Church in the lands now known as Great Britain is harder to ignore.
Preeminent among those early saints, at least from the perspective of the authors, is St Aidan. And the examples outlined here about the way Aidan went about his task, and more specifically the attitude that underpinned his approach to mission and ministry, are worthy of prayerful consideration for what they might be able to offer as the Church continues to embrace mission and ministry in contemporary times.
This was a book that I needed to read – and needed to read at this point in my ongoing journey of life and ministry.
Ray Simpson, one of the founders of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, a ‘new monastic’ community living in the tradition of the early Celtic saints after whom they are named, outlines the myriad ways in which the spiritual life that empowered Aidan, Hilda and other saintly persons of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England has much to offer the Christian Church of the 21st century. The simple yet radically different approaches Simpson outlines appeals to those readers who might be struggling to make sense of where that Church is at the present time, and offers an alternative – yet thoroughly orthodox – way of being Christian and being Church in the here and now.
While there is much debate about what ‘the Celtic church’ looked like, and those who seek it make it a reality once more might be seeking in vain, it is the example of those who were part of the Church ‘back then’ that has the power to provide a direction for today. It is more important, I would suggest, that we speak not of ‘the Celtic church’ but rather of the Celtic approach to being Church. And that, I would suggest, is what Simpson has attempted to outline in this small volume which is immediately accessible to any reader wanting to explore this possibility.
In writing this volume, Simpson draws not only on his own experience of forming something new but also on the history, stories, and poetry of his Christian forbears. It is from these sources, combined with engagement with Scripture and the Christian theological tradition, that Simpson offers his insights for those things that will permit the Christian faith to once again take firm root in the hearts of believers and the society in which believers dwell.