Reflection: 09-09

This month’s reflection is on Esther de Waal’s book The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination. As I stated in a past reflection, this is the second book I have from de Waal. I found it just as refreshing as the other one but a little dry, similar to a dry wine (and I don’t particularly like wine). My mind seemed to wander more in this book than her previous one. This isn’t to say that I didn’t get a lot out of it. Quite the contrary. As before, de Waal offers some great insight into the Celtic world which leaves me thirsting for more.

In her introduction, she stated that with Celtic prayer, one is moved into the natural rhythm of light and dark. ‘The dark and light are themselves symbols of the Celtic refusal to deny darkness, pain, suffering and yet to exult in rejoicing celebration in the fullness and goodness of life’ (pg x). It is to the interlocking and overlapping that I find myself drawn. Recently we were entertaining a friend we hadn’t seen in quite some time and our discussions turned – as they often do – to our spiritual journeys. When he spoke of wanting to meditate but forever failing at finding the time to do so, I reminded him of the Celtic way of prayer; of not separating life into distinct compartments but recognizing that all of life is sacred and he should try prayer and meditation in the middle of the mundane. As de Waal points out, the Celtic Christians were ‘essentially monastic’ and ‘there was no separation of praying and living; praying and working flow into each other, so that life is to be punctuated by prayer, become prayer’ (pg xi). ‘Life is to...become prayer.’ That, to me, should be the essence of life. How far does this way of living reach? De Waal answers this question by stating, ‘I am sure that the exploration of this Celtic world will be prophetic for the future as we try to break down the barriers so that we may reach out to one another...I have found in Celtic understanding nothing of the highly individualistic, competitive, inward-looking approach common in today’s society. Here, instead, everyone sees themselves in relation to one another, and that extends beyond human beings to the wild creature, the birds, and the animals, the earth itself...Here is the promise of a more holistic approach to the world’... (pp xiv, xv). All of this is tied to prayer – of making our prayers so integrated within our lives that the two cannot be separated. I hear this yearning from all around me. Dying are the days of staunch individualism (and good riddance). There is a desperate cry for acceptance of our inter-connectedness. And once more, Celtic Christianity speaks to this.

She begins her book about Journeying. That is, she sees in the Celtic world the idea of the journey, the adventure, and those who embark on it are referred to as peregrini. In one story (that I have heard before and love deeply) she tells of three peregrini on their way to Rome when they are stopped and brought to a local king. When they explain why they are on their way to Rome, the king responds,
To go to Rome
is much of trouble, little of profit;
The King whom thou seekest there,
Unless thou bring him with thee,
thou wilt not find
I love that little poem. It reminds me of a story that John Philip Newell told. When meeting with different religious leaders, he asked what he should bring. ‘Bring your gift. Bring Christ,’ was the response. In other words, we should not be seeking Christ at the end of our journey unless we understand that Christ is with us throughout our journey. We should be seeing Christ every where we go and in every face we see, human or otherwise.

As I have admitted previously, I sometimes feel like such a slacker when it comes to prayer. So often, my prayer life leaves a lot to be desired – compared to some. I’m certain, that compared to others, my life seems to be full of prayer (but I doubt it). I am my own worse critic. I often see all of my faults and never any of my strengths. I was taught, when doing a job interview, that when asked about strengths and weaknesses, that the answer should relate to the job being sought. In keeping that same idea, my strength in prayer is that I always have at least one prayer book with me – often two. It is reassuring to know that I have the prayers of the saints at my finger tips when the time arises. I like having the Daily Office within my reach for I turn to it to remind myself that I want my life to ‘become prayer’ like our Celtic Christian heritage.

Today, on one of the blogs I frequent, this came up:
I have sometimes set aside my prayer book for days and weeks on end, and I find, at the end of those days and weeks on end, that I have lapsed into narcissism. Though meaning to commune with or reverence or at least acknowledge God, I wind up talking to myself about my emotions du jour. I worry about my mother’s health, or I stress about money, or (more happily) I bop up and down with excitement about good news or sunshine or life in general, but I never get much further than that. It is returning to my prayer book that places me: places me in words that ask me to confess my sins, even when I can’t think of any red-letter deeds recently committed; words that ask me to pray for presidents and homeless Charlottesvillians and everyone in between; words that praise God even on the mornings when I wonder if God exists at all. Sure, sometimes it is great when, in prayer, we can express to God just what we feel; but better still when, in the act of praying, our feelings change. Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims. It repoints the person praying, taking him somewhere else.

From Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline by Lauren F. Winner (Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2003).
That, to me, is exactly where I am when it comes to prayer and how I feel about a prayer book. Often, I don’t ‘feel’ like praying, but, I do. It helps, too, that I have others to lead in the morning.

Another point that she brings up is that of images. Coming from a Protestant (i.e., non-anglican protestantism) background, the idea of images was always troubling for me. Mostly because, and I think I can speak for everyone in those denominations, I didn’t understand images at all. I instantly thought of them all as idols and one of the Big Ten is that we shouldn’t have anything to do with idols. But, as I began my journey in the Episcopal Church, I began to see images in a different way. Not just icons, but the whole ceremony itself was an image, a symbol. It became clear that there is a danger with images in that we can forget the reason we have them. Images point to something else. While traveling, when we see the sign pointing to the destination, we don’t stop at the sign and claim ‘We’re here!’ We understand that the sign points to something else. The same with all images – whether that’s a photograph or painting or poetry. The photograph of a thunderstorm is not the storm but points one to the storm.

I have come to use many images in my own prayer life. Mostly a ring on my right pointing finger. It is a simplified version of prayer beads. It has be amazing to me how those raised little bumps and cross can focus my thoughts on my prayers.

One of the things she points out is the need to reconnect to the universal elemental things as symbols – fire, wind, bread, water, of light and dark, of the heart. We need to rethink how those elements are images, symbols, pointing beyond themselves. However, and this is just me, one thing that we must guard against is loosing our connection to nature, the goodness of nature. I can see how we might do that. When I was in Full Preterism, that was one thing that we did – we ‘spiritualized’ just about everything. All things natural were ‘only symbols, types and shadows’ of heavenly truths or ‘spiritual realities’. While there is some truth in that, the problem was that we started seeing all natural things as nothing more than a symbol. I do not agree with that any longer. One thing Celtic Christianity has taught me is the ‘very good’-ness of creation. [The big game changer for me was reading N. T. Wright’s book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. I highly recommend it.]

One of the things in Celtic prayer [heck, Celtic Christian culture, actually] that has been most influential in my thoughts, something that de Waal spends an entire chapter on, is that of the Trinity. When I spoke with my friend about meditating during the mundane, that was what I had in my mind. Over and over again we are told that the Irish people prayed constantly. Everything that had a routine, there was a prayer for that. Whether milking the cow, needing dough, stoking the peat fire, there was a prayer for it. I am trying to find ways of incorporating that into my prayer life. I have made progress but it’s been difficult [and some would say rather silly]. When I put on deodorant, I use three swipes and pray ‘In the name of the Father/Mother; and of the Child; and the Holy Spirit’. I do the same thing when stirring my coffee. The point is, however, I want to get to a place where I find my own voice to add to those of our ancestors. I yearn for the day that I can know these by heart and have them pop into my thoughts whenever they are needed.

When she wrote about the Trinity, she used some great words and phrases that reminded me a lot of the novel The Shack by William P Young [I highly recommend this book, also]. She stated that the Trinity speaks of ‘harmony, unity, interrelationship, [and] interdependence’ (pg. 38). And that the Trinity ‘is the God . . . whose very essence is a threefold unity of persons, three person bound in a unity of love’ (pg. 38). This definition reminds me of what St Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1, ‘I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose’ (v 10, New Living Translation). And what was recorded about the early Church in Acts 4, ‘All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had’ (v 32, NLT). It seems to me that the early Church, as well as the Celtic Christians, were on to this thing described as being ‘bound in a unity of love’.

I would like to finish this off with a pretty lengthy quote from chapter 5, ‘The Presence of God’. It reflects the way I want my life to be, the way I want others to remember it:
Everything that [the Celtic Christians] touched, every tool that they handled, was done with respect and reverence; every activity performed with a a sense of the presence of God, indeed done in partnership with [God]. So life was lived at two levels. Each successive task performed seriously, carefully, with attention, and simultaneously becoming the occasion for finding the presence of God, and in particular the three members of the Trinity, since much of the work was routine and it could, therefore, be done rhythmically in the name of the [Father/Mother, Child, and Holy Spirit]. “These are the prayers of a people who have so much to do from dawn to dusk from dark to dark,” says Eleanor Hull, another writer who know the Irish well, “that they had little time for long, formal prayers. Instead throughout the day they make each activity in turn the occasion for prayer, doing what has to be done carefully for its own sake but simultaneously making it into the occasion for prayer. Each thing in turn, however humble, however mundane, can be handed over to God, or preformed in partnership with the cooperation of the Trinity, saints and angels.” What Douglas Hyde saw in the Irish was a people for whom God was “a thing assured, true, intelligible. They feel invisible powers before them, and by their side, and at their back, throughout the day and throughout the night”.
This is how I want my life to be; how I yearn for it to become. I see myself with a long way to go on that journey, but, like those before me, I must take Christ with me and recognize the essence of Christ in everything around me if I am to find Christ at the end of my journey.

In The Grace of the Three in One,



Popular Posts