It is not that easy to be a human, easy to be married, or easy to love your neighbor as yourself when you forget to love yourself. And it is strangely easy to just forget about love altogether.
Sometimes, when I am attempting marriage counseling, I would like to send the couple off with John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (1998/2022) until they can feel the possibility of another context for loving than the one they inherited from America or their traumatized and confused parents.
A soul friend to yourself and others
When O’Donohue begins his lovely book, he tries to describe a place in which to live that is hard for postmodern people to imagine. He wants us to return to a lost place the Celts knew well. He says of them:
“Their sense of ontological friendship yielded a world of experience imbued with a rich texture of otherness, ambivalence, symbolism, and imagination. For our sore and tormented separation, the possibility of this imagination and unifying friendship is the Celtic gift. “
Every marriage will be better if the partners have a sense of “ontological friendship.” That is, the sense of living IN Friendship with a capital F. That is, not sorting out the world or trying to get some power over it, but being a welcome and welcoming part of it — curious, receptive, awestruck, and creative. If we listened to our mate (and everyone, of course) from that context, it would be great.
Instead, we often come to our relationships from our “sore and tormented separation.” And the way we evaluate one another’s words more than feeling with someone beyond their words keeps us wounding others and creating distance. Sometimes I try to force a partner into a new way to listen and they realize they really do not want to give up their wound or their distance. If they lose their aloneness, they are not sure who they will be. Moving into an unknown place with trust in God and others is one of the things O’Donohue wants us to relearn.
John O’Donohue can’t help being poetic. When I bought Anam Cara (“Soul Friend”), I have to admit I was disappointed to find out it was not a collection of his poems. But as I read, I realized I was not disappointed after all, because his prose is basically poetry. I have arranged his following paragraph as a poem. In it he offers two important things I wish couples would learn so their conversation and experience of each other could get closer to the longing of their hearts.
If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us.
We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person or deed can still.
To be wholesome, we must remain truthful to our vulnerable complexity.
In order to keep our balance, we need to hold
the interior and exterior,
visible and invisible,
known and unknown,
temporal and eternal,
ancient and new,
No one else can undertake this task for you.
You are the one and only threshold of an inner world.
This wholesomeness is holiness.
To be holy is to be natural, to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.
Behind the façade of image and distraction,
each person is an artist in this primal and inescapable sense.
Each one of us is doomed and privileged
to be an inner artist who carries and shapes
a unique world.
Our “vulnerable complexity” takes time in silence and vulnerable dialogue to form an “interiority” that is fearless and pliable enough to connect with someone else. To have a better marriage, explore yourself.
Since we, unlike the Celts, generally live in an unfriendly world, we struggle to be friendly and struggle even more to get some friendliness. We’re very external these days: a picture on social media, a presentation at an interview, a constant smile (or fear of one) that is always looking for a safe place to land. All that energy pouring out leaves us accustomed to emptiness, but hungry.
I heard a person say once they broke up with a long-term dating partner because they both realized they just did not have enough substance to give to a relationship. They were both hungry, but they had no food to share, they were starving together. But their brilliant, honest analysis did not still their hearts. Being truthful about often being out of balance and hopeful about reality beyond our control often provides the stillness where we can be known to ourselves and others.
To have a good relationship, we need some wholesomeness to share. That holiness develops when we accept we are “doomed and privileged” to carry and shape the unique life we have been given. We are the thresholdinto the unique territory that is each of us. Holiness/wholeness is being formed in us – or not. No matter how many SUV commercials lure us to look for some rare wilderness where we will have an external experience that nourishes us, it will always be a false hope. The wilderness is in us.
People say the pandemic made everything that was getting bad get worse. I think one of the things it made worse was our fear. There is a lot of talk lately about how a child’s freedom to play has been declining since the 1980’s. You may have never been allowed to play on your own recognizance by your fearful parents and now you are not confident enough to goof around with your mate. You’re frustrated that what you think should come naturally just doesn’t. It feels difficult to welcome someone over the threshold.
The huge complex being built at Broad and Washington in Philadelphia is mostly studio and one bedroom apartments. We don’t even plan for families, partners or groups anymore. We’ve institutionalized fearful aloneness. Part of the reason we are so alone is we are conditioned to keep people on the other side of the threshold of our hearts. We could justly blame that attitude on the world around us, but when we do we are more likely to be subject to the unfriendly, unbalanced world within us. Acting in faith and friendship with God, ourselves and others is the beginning of being the artists we are created to be.
“Our interiority will haunt us” and “You are the one and only threshold of an inner world” could seem very threatening if we are committed to living alone, or just trying to survive an unfriendly world. It surprises me how many marriage partners feel resigned to their “sore and tormented separation.”
But O’Donohue inspires me by telling a truth I think we can feel. We bring beautiful things together in ourselves. We create wonder alongside God when we love others. The world is on our side, providing for and encouraging my wholeness.
When I bring that view of myself and my partner to our dialogue our “sense” of “ontological friendship” brings us together. It might even allow us to play. It would undoubtedly improve the depth and pleasure of sex. And it will eat away at the fear that is eating away at us.
The Celtic church folk seem like family when you get to know them — inspiring spiritual ancestors! Some people think it is a little weird to get to know them — they are long gone, after all. But when we are trying so hard to represent Jesus as a radical, missional community, I’ve got to say a few words in honor of Columba. He stokes my fire. He’s right in the middle of re-creation, and we aspire to be as meaningful to our corner of the world as he was to his.
Re-creation is an earthy, sweaty process of creative suffering. Columba learned a lot about being reborn — about the kind of suffering-like-Jesus that pushes into the light from the dark. He knew about rebirthing — about the suffering-like-Jesus that pushes from the light into the dark. From both angles, he proved that the pain of getting deeply involved with God’s re-creation was worth it. As I tell you part of his story in honor of his death day, you’ll probably be considering what God is teaching you about being born into your own fullness.
Columba (521-97) might be more famous than you know. He is one of the three “patron saints” of Ireland, with Patrick and Brigid. He founded many communities of radical disciples of Jesus in Ireland before he went to Iona for the last 30 years of his life. From Iona he masterminded the mission to the great tribe called the Picts in Scotland. The community he founded on the edge of the world became the mother for hundreds of other communities all over Scotland and the world. It was a missionary factory for centuries. And it is known for being the place where the Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s artistic treasures, was written.
Columba was born a to an aristocratic family, the son of a king. When he was at Finnian’s great school in Clonard, Columba’s hut was in a favored place nearer the chapel, because he had brought so much with him when he came to join the community. Quite a bit was written about him, and some of it makes him look a little imperious, maybe overly ambitious, like he took himself quite seriously, especially as a young man. He was a leader. He did rash things but he made up for them and went on. He was intense, so intense, disciplined and austere that a lot of people could not keep up with his example. But all these attributes made him someone who could be followed.
He was a big, tall, handsome man. So the icon on this page does not do him justice. He’s old in it. He’s got his Celtic tonsure on (shaved up to a line from ear to ear). And he does have his book. Columba had a big voice too — you could hear him from far away. He often used it to sing. People loved to hear him sing. He wrote songs. He also loved to write poetry, and is known for having written one of the earliest known poems by an Irish native.
To get the full idea of his song, you have to pretend you are hearing it in some echo-y, house made of rock, a dark place with candles in the 500’s. This is just a bit of the very long piece:
Ancient exalted seed scatterer whom time gave no progenitor: he knew no moment of creation in his primordial foundation he is and will be all places in all time and all ages with Christ his first-born only-born and the Holy Spirit — borne throughout the high eternity of glorious divinity: three gods we do not promulgate one God we share and intimate salvific faith victorious: three persons very glorious.
Altus prosator, vetustus dierum et ingenitus erat absque origine primordii et crepidine est et erit in sæcula sæculorum infinita; cui est unigenitus Xristus et sanctus spiritus coæternus in gloria deitatis perpetua. Non tres deos depropimus sed unum Deum dicimus, salva fide in personis tribus gloriosissimis.
This artistic son of a King turned to Jesus and went about making new Christians where there were very few in his big, dramatic, creative, radical way.
From dark into light
Columba’s introduction to creative suffering began with a shock to his system when he was about 40 years old. You may have experienced a similar situation that meant life or death for your faith. The Spirit of God does not let us rest in the dark; almost-involuntary birth pangs begin, and we have to push toward the light, even though the opening seems kind of small and we seem kind of weak. We have to repent, change and move along to our fullness.
Columba’s biographers aren’t quite clear on just what exactly happened, but here is the watershed moment. Finnian of Molville had a very famous rare book. It was a copy of the Jerome’s Vulgate, the first Bible translated into Latin. Columba went to stay with this other Finnian and every night he secretly went to the library and made a copy of this precious book for himself. One night Finnian caught him in the act. He told him to hand over the copy, which by rights belonged to him. Columba refused to do it, even though he was in the wrong. Finnian took his case to the high king of Ireland at Tara. The king ruled in his favor. He said: “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy” — the first copyright law.
Then the history gets kind of mixed. However it got going, there was a war over this incident. Columba’s clan, whose members were mostly Christians, took up for him against the high king at Tara, whose followers were still mostly pagan. 3000 people died in a huge battle. Columba’s side won but Columba was mortified. The battle over his misdeed was a shame to Jesus. He was given a great penance. Radical that he was, a person who did big things, he put himself in permanent exile. He said, “I will never look on Ireland again.” And he vowed to go win as many people to Jesus as were killed in the battle on his behalf. That is creative suffering! — a radical pushing out of his darkness into the light.
He ended up on Iona, which was the first place he could get to where he could not see Ireland anymore. Columba turned away from what was wrong and literally went a new direction toward what is next. It cost him. He loved Ireland. He lost family and power. But he did something in line with what he was given to be and responded in faith to the mess he had made. He didn’t go on stealing and fighting. And it hurt. He took what Paul said seriously. “My present suffering are nothing compared to what is prepared for God’s children” (Romans 8). He got the message. If you fear what has been or you fear what is next, get into your boat and do something.
From light into dark
Columba looked for what was prepared for him. As a result, he had a great success in what he did for Jesus. He was soon crossing the strait from Iona to Scotland to try to convert the Pictish king. He took his great light and he pushed into the spiritual darkness with it.
To get to the city of the king, Columba and his comrades had to cross the river that goes out of Loch Ness. He asked one of his helpers to swim over and get a boat he saw on the other side that could carry him and the rest of the crew over the river. About halfway over, disturbed by all that splashing, a gigantic beast rose up out of the water. With a roar, it tried to devour the swimmer. Columba stood on the bank and said, “You shall go no further. Do not touch the man.” It was like ropes pulled the monster back. It was dragged back into Loch Ness. I don’t know if that is totally true. But they thought a monster was in Loch Ness way back in the day.
People don’t tell these stories for nothing. Whether you believe the history or not, the truth behind the story remains. Jesus will turn away our foes as well. What seeks to devour us feeds on our fear. But if we follow Christ we are God’s heirs and our destiny is secure. We’ve got to suffer through the work to get though to our destiny. But it is worth it. We’ve got to face the monster. God is on our side. Push your light into the darkness.
Not all of Columba’s creative suffering was as a result of his sin and poor judgment and neither is yours. We don’t just suffer just because we are fools. There is a positive side to how we suffer. Our pain often has more of the suffering of the artist to it. It is creative suffering like the trouble of giving birth to something. Trying to find a way to express our hope and convictions is an art. Trying to push the beauty of our relationship with God into the dark – how to say it, how to express it, how to get it out there – is creative.
The Celts were good at evangelistic art. They spread the gospel more by infiltration than by arguments, more by osmosis than by domination. They brought Jesus by art, by incarnation, by relating, by singing it. They let people experience their lives in Christ — feel what was in their hearts, trusting in the light to penetrate the darkness.
We are often pushing from the darkness into the light, but we are also pushing from our light into the darkness and they are both beautiful expressions of this groaning creativity of the Spirit in us. Our suffering is often a good thing. We need creative suffering. The example of the Lord and the message of the Bible is that suffering is part of creation. God can be creatively involved in our pain.
It took suffering to create us and recreate us. If you are broken and trying to push into the light, don’t let anyone steal that from you with a pill or a false promise. If you are trying to push some light into the dark through your art — whether it is setting the table or painting the Mona Lisa, singing, speaking, writing, conversing, even if you think you are a terrible artist and should just quit — don’t give up on that; die trying to do something. Whatever God gave you to do to express that creative suffering — push out of the dark into the light; push out of the light into the dark. In that you will be like Columba — and Jesus.
Today is St. Kevin’s Day, so I thought I would post a piece I shared in 2008 after I got back from my Celtic pilgrimage. For those who have time for quite a bit of reading, enjoy!
One Sunday at our meeting I met a nice woman who said that she used to live in South Philly but felt that God released her to go live in the burbs. Now she just loves going out her kitchen door and hearing the creek running through her backyard.
That’s nice. When she meditates out there and meets God, she’s probably having the same kind of experience as the writer of Psalm 104.
God’s trees are well-watered—
the Lebanon cedars he planted.
Birds build their nests in those trees;
look—the stork at home in the treetop.
Mountain goats climb about the cliffs;
badgers burrow among the rocks.
The moon keeps track of the seasons,
the sun is in charge of each day.
When it’s dark and night takes over,
all the forest creatures come out.
The young lions roar for their prey,
clamoring to God for their supper.
When the sun comes up, they vanish,
lazily stretched out in their dens.
Meanwhile, men and women go out to work,
busy at their jobs until evening.
What a wildly wonderful world, God!
You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,
made earth overflow with your wonderful creations. (Psalm 104:14-24, The Message)
What a wildly wonderful world! I honor all the people, past and present, who want to preserve it! I don’t have a creek in my backyard, but I know many places that have made praise well up in me, too.
Finding a thin place
The desert has been a wildly wonderful place where I have seen God revealed in memorable ways during my life. I often talk about the first time I ever went to the Anza Borrego area in the California desert as a young teen. I had one unforgettable night under the stars. …
I was terrified of the snakes in the desert to begin with, and then they told me not to get out of my cot if I wanted to sleep outside with my friend. If I put my foot down there might be a rattler, because they came out at night. So I was shivering alone in my bed from fear and from the desert cold. Then I looked up and felt an even deeper kind of shiver. I was alone in the universe staring up into a crystal clear sky with huge stars, huge moon and utter silence. I began to feel what I later named the glory of God in an inarticulate, visceral way. I felt some kind of excitement and joy well up in me to meet whatever was calling to me. Something that had always been in me was meeting something that had always been calling me. You have probably had experiences like that when you found yourself surprised by God being revealed in creation.
Our ancestors in faith among the Celts were especially good at finding the “thin places” in creation where so many of us meet God. Some places in the world seem like there is a thinner gap or thinner barrier between heaven and earth. The so-called New Age people talk about spiritual vortexes all the time, I’m not going with their interpretation of the power they feel, but they might be on to something. One of John McCain’s houses is in Sedona, Arizona, where we discovered a lot of pilgrims to such a vortex on one of our trips. Go figure. The Celtic believers thought and many other people have thought that there seem to be natural places where God’s dimension and ours meet.
Turning toward a thin place
In some places people might even create a thin place because they have gone to a particular place to seek God repeatedly – it’s almost like they’ve been digging through the walls of the prison and now the wall is so thin you can hear through it.
We do things like that, here. For instance, a Celtic Christian would often light a fire, like we do, and expect people to let the fire mark a time and place as a sacred, thin place where we would meet God. They would expect seekers to see and feel God in the fire, to assume the fire to have some kind of spiritual life in it, to receive the fire as full of some gift from God. The place where Circle of Hope meets is just a wilderness of chairs and walls before we come in and name it a place where we will meet God — then it has the possibility of being a thin place — like we called the place away from being folding chairs and drywall and it repented and became a place where God dwells — like we repented of seeing the room as just another room and saw it as a place to meet God. That’s how thin places — where God’s dimension and ours meet — are shaped.
To go searching for God in the thin places that seem built into nature is a repentant thing to do. It is an act of turning away from the suppression of God’s glory under human-made things, and turning back to the Creator. Like the woman who fled to the suburbs wanted to escape the suppression of creation under the asphalt and hear God in the creek, sometimes we are given that very luxurious choice. Sometimes, of course, we just bump into these places instead of finding them when we are seeking God and they are just as transforming.
The Apostle Paul says that everyone has a soul equipped with and for these feelings of knowing God as a creature who is part of creation. Everyone has some kind of knowledge of God somewhere inside, or at least we have to have a very hard heart not to have some of instinct for meeting the Creator in creation somewhere. The Celts assumed that everyone has a place in them that could make a connection with God and was in fact connected, if only by breathing the air God made. Our wanton disregard for creation, seeing it as a means to our own ends, would seem like blasphemy to them. For instance, I’m sure they could not fathom anyone being so committed to automobiles that they would rather poison the air and change the climate than walk.
Polluted places of connection
It think Paul is similarly appalled in the following piece of the scripture. He sounds kind of tough. But He is not just mad about godlessness. He is feeling it. His tone is more prophetic, than merely angry. He’s trying to excite that place in us where God is or can be known, but which is quite polluted — the spiritual trees have been uprooted, the relationship has been eroded, and the spiritual landscape needs to be restored.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that everyone is are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)
This is my paraphrase of that, with some help from Eugene Peterson:
Acts of human mistrust, wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth. That grieves God and makes him justifiably angry — like you get mad at your beloved dog because he never seems to be able to stop chewing up your throw pillows.
One would think that people would be aware and respectful of God, since his presence and value are as presented rather clearly in the world around us. By taking a long, thoughtful, and unself-centered look at what God has created, people have always been able to see beyond what their physical eyes can see. The power and mystery of God are behind the power and mystery of that lightning or any light. Nobody has a good excuse for ignoring God.
There is no good excuse, but there is a good reason behind not recognizing and honoring God. People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into dishonor and confusion so that the light of sense and direction in their lives went dark.
What the Celtic Jesus followers and I think is that this darkness Paul is talking about, that you probably know about quite intimately, can be dispelled in the thin places. There is no magic about thin places like Irish people became known for thinking — like fairies live there and some magical thing will happen if you stumble across one. But the thin places can be used to seek God and you might even make one for yourself to use.
The spirit behind what I am saying is in this prayer from the collection of prayers and sayings of the old school Celts that were collected in Carmina Gadelica. This prayer may be is a bit much for some of you, so let’s not say it aloud, because then you might feel coerced to pray it. Just move your lips in silence or make the faintest whisper if you want to take part in it. I’ll read it out loud. When we get to the part about our warp, that is a term from weaving, like God is knitting us.
I believe, O God of all
That You are the Father of life;
I believe O God of all.
That You are the eternal Father of love.
I believe, O Lord and God of all the peoples,
That you are the creator of the high heavens,
That You are the creator of the skies above,
That You are the creator of the ocean below.
I believe , O Lord and God of all the peoples,
That You are the One who created my being and set its warp.
Who created my body from dust and from ashes,
Who gave to my body breath, and to my being consciousness.
I am giving You worship with my whole life…
I am giving You honor with my whole utterance
I am giving You reverence with my whole understanding
I am giving You humility in the blood of the Lamb.
I am giving You love with my whole devotion
I am giving You affection with my whole sense
I am giving You my existence with my whole mind
I am giving You my soul O God of all.
Kevin in his thin place
The person English speakers call St. Kevin may have prayed this very prayer in the place he found called Glendalough, the Glen of the two lakes. He was especially good among the notable Celtic ancestors in the faith at using the thin places. They say he lived for 120 years, all the way through the 500s. He was a son of the aristocracy who fled the power and wealth of his family to seek God as a hermit in this place that came to be known as Glendalough, which is just south of present-day Dublin. We don’t have a lot of factual evidence about him, just a few stories and the elaborate ruins of the city that grew up when people came to follow his example and live with him, until he felt obligated to lead them.
Gwen thought this was a pretty shot of the place when we visited. The big round tower is just visible over the hill. This would have been the view a lot of pilgrims saw to let them know they were almost at this famous thin place called Glendalough.
Probably the most famous story about Kevin is about the time a bird made a nest in his hand. If you ever see a statue of him, it will probably look like the picture below. Kevin was known for spreading himself out flat on his back on some big rock in the middle of nowhere. He was all about being one with the rest of creation and experiencing God from the sky down and from the ground up. One time he spent such a long time in this contemplation that a blackbird made a nest in his hand. When he came out of his reverie he realized what the bird had done. Despite the pain of doing so, he kept his hand still for mother blackbird until her children were hatched and gone.
You’ve got to wonder how these stories get going! I would say this one got going because we all have a yearning in us to be so still, so in touch, that life would be given into our hands, and we would be able to handle it without wrecking it.
In his later years Kevin went off to his desert again. He’d interrupted being a hermit to lead the community, but then he went off again. The lower lake, where the main compound is, is pretty lush. But the upper lake is quite a bit higher in elevation and starts getting kind of scrubby at the top. Kevin went and lived in a small cave up there to be alone. At one point Kevin did go back for a while to straighten some things out, especially when he heard about the otter.
Here’s the story about the otter. One day Kevin was praying on the porch of his cave, and he dropped his precious psalter into the water. While he was lamenting his great loss, an otter he had befriended retrieved the book from the bottom of the lake. Miraculously none of the pages were ruined, or even smudged.
As the story goes, this same otter also helped feed the brothers and sisters in Kevin’s community and brought salmon to them from time to time. One of the monks got the idea that this otter would be easy to catch and he could use his pelt. The otter saw that he was going to be trapped and stopped delivering salmon. Some monks went hungry and some left the monastery altogether because they were hungry. When Kevin noticed that his otter friend was gone, he prayed to discern the disappearance. Before long he was visited by the brother who had plotted to kill the animal. That sent him back to exercise some direct leadership of the community for a while.
Find the everyday thin places
Is this story too simple for you? Maybe you have never had an animal who was a friend. That is to your loss. The Celtic church had a very lively sense of the interdependence of humans and nature, animals and trees and air and such. Long before we had to convince people that “Drill baby drill” might not solve all the ruin we had visited on the planet, the Celtic Christians thought that living in respectful symbiosis with the rest of creation was a basic act of faith. We have to teach people, even convince them, that the body of Christ is an organism, not just an organization of thoughts and pieces of data and material. But Kevin had a oneness with creation and thus with the Creator.
It is hard for a lot of us, like it was my suburban friend, to find a thin place in the city. But it is possible. I have tried to refine this art over the years. Here is what I did lately, maybe it will give you some ideas for how to practice the discipline:
I was running along Kelly Drive the other day and I was irritated by the wind making my run harder. Then I felt guilty about being irritated by the wind and decided to feel it instead. The wind teaches me, to push through, sometimes it blows things in me away, sometimes it delivers the Spirit of God.
Kelly Drive is a great resource. It is always good for becoming one with the river. Letting it take you somewhere, wash things away, be as ever-changing as you are.
The other night when I came up out of the subway at City Hall the birds were in Dilworth Plaza again. Quite often there is a whole mess of birds that roost in the branches of the trees there. I stopped and listened. I like their joy. I like how they are always keeping track of each other and protecting each other with their songs. Stop for birds.
The other day I had a minute to check in on the news, which I like, and which I can hardly wait to be over. I went into my den and the autumn sun was warming a section on my couch. My cat knows all about these sun places. Before I flipped on the TV I decided to spend a minute having a Sabbath in that sun and let it warm me. The sun made me feel better. The heat somehow made be feel more secure.
A week or so ago I was tempted to just dash through my backyard to the car, but I decided to stop and enjoy this lonely rose that caught my eye. It was the last rose of summer. I had to make a detour from my schedule and make a special event of bringing in that final blessing. I like how beautiful and fragrant roses are. So I put it in a vase. It is encouraging to see the roses who have some last strength stored up to bloom before the cold comes. It is expected in spring, but not so expected in fall.
Kevin seems to have been more interested in otters and blackbirds and roses than with people. Nonetheless, God drew together a vibrant community around him. Apparently, God rarely calls people to retreat to the boondocks and contemplate in the bosom of untrammeled creation. Even if you do, a city might build itself around you. So we need to bring respect for creation with us as we go — notice every bit that keeps popping into view. By doing so much to honor it, we encourage people to be hopeful with us that it will be all be restored. Let’s give thanks for it, so our hearts don’t go dark.
February 1 is Ibolc. It marks the first stirrings of spring in Ireland. St. Brigid’s Dayis attached to it. Candlemas is also attached to it, marking the 40 days after Christmas when Mary went to the Temple, with baby Jesus in tow, to honor the rules for being ritually purified after giving birth, and thus meeting Simeon and Anna. It’s the Candle Mass in the old days because everyone in Ireland brought their special, home-use beeswax candle to the meeting for a blessing. Those candles symbolized the presence of God, the flame of the Spirit with them. As with all the big days of the Christian year, Brigid’s Day is all mixed up with legend, the seasons of paganism, and arguments over what is the best way to honor her memory.
I’m not bothering with the controversies too much. I feel free to strain out good things from not-so-good things whenever I can. I’m into “testing everything and holding on to what is good” as Paul instructs the Thessalonians to do. Using Jesus’ metaphor another way, I think we should strain out the gnat of good and not swallow the camel of nonsense when we need to.
I like to remember the Brigids of my own era on Brigid’s Day. As the church was first forming, brilliantly, in Ireland, Brigid was a great leader (see last year’s blog about it, if you like). At the site of the community she founded and lead in Kildare, we visited the enclosure for the perpetual flame that Brigid tended and which burned for over a thousand years before Protestants doused it. The flame was a sign of the presence of Jesus in the heart of Ireland. The guide told us that the flame’s keepers were on a twenty-day cycle. Nineteen women were selected to keep the fire going and on the twentieth night Brigid kept it herself.
I like the idea of nineteen women keeping the flame of faith going. I know several sets of those kind of women, and so do you. They are keeping faith alive in a time when there are a lot more than Protestants trying to douse it! I collected my own roster, just to celebrate the idea that women are still courageously tending the flame. I listed the first nineteen who randomly came to my mind, below, and resisted listing nineteen more. I know many women who keep the flame burning among the Circle of Hope. I thought you might like to add one or two to the list, as well.
Brigid’s Day is a good day to celebrate what burns with the fire of Jesus. It is a good day to celebrate faithful women who tend the flame and to imagine all the good they are causing to stir up springtime in the winter of the world. By selecting nineteen I did not mean to deselect all the rest, of course — this is not the Grammy Awards of spirituality! I just want us to look around on Brigid’s Day and note the spark of the perpetual flame in each one, celebrate what God has done, and anticipate what God might do.
Here’s my random nineteen.
Gwen – spiritual director, promoter of mental health, flame-builder in children
Sarah – leader of cells and cell leaders and network builder
Rachel – pastor to many and group leader for those in need
Marquita – homemaker, daring leader, student
Aubrey –vision keeper, compassionate teacher
Jen – risk taker, church planter
Martha – business maker, fearless leader
Tracey – tenacious servant, overcomer
Megan – hardworking environment maker
Katie – hospitable faith builder
Christina – business builder, evangelist, mother to many
Kelly – ambitious talent user, seeker of the deep
Angie – teacher in song, empath
Missy – missional organizer, persistent servant
Mimi – peacemaker, missional educator and fire builder
Emily – visionary organizer, risk taker, networker
Melissa – consistent caregiver, safety net sewer
Brittney – visionary outreacher, passionate leader
Courtney – multi-talented creator, brave life developer
If you feel like contributing to the formation of another nineteen flame-tenders (or more!), add a comment!
[In honor of Hild Day, Nov. 17, and in honor of the good women leaders among the Circle of Hope, I thought I’d re-do a piece written in 2008 and share it with you]
Leadership makes a difference
When I say that, a good 90% of us probably automatically tune out. As far as the organizations we understand and the church as it is, we already have a lot of leaders over us and we don’t see room for many more, certainly not ME.
We don’t imagine Jesus calling us to lead any time soon, either.
When Jesus talks about his claim to lead the people of God he pictures himself as a good shepherd, as opposed to all those false shepherds that lead everyone into misery. Very few of us would sign up to be a shepherd like that, good or false.
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:27-30.
Most of us don’t feel like we need to be in the shepherd role. I call that leadership on the “macro level,” sometimes. Not everyone is given that role. And I think that makes sense, since we don’t really need that many of those catalysts and guides.
But all of us are leading, in one way or another on what we might call the “micro level.” God has given each of us the capacity to make a difference. You count. You are in the father’s hand. You are carrying eternal life. So what you do means something. What you do leads me. You are like an undershepherd looking out for my interests.
I was arguing this out with a person the other day and telling him that his immoral life was leading me. He was presenting me a direction for how I should follow Jesus. I had to think, “Should I do it his way, or another way?” He wasn’t happy to hear me thinking about this. He wanted to make no difference. He said, “I live my life and you live yours.” But I told him that was impossible. We get a common life from Jesus, that doesn’t belong to either of us exclusively. We are tied together — if you just live whatever you think your life is, doesn’t that lead me to exercise the same illusion? Besides, we are tied by love. I love you. I cannot make you not make a difference to me. Where you are going, in some way, is where I am going too. The question is, “Where are you leading me?”
In some major ways you can tell where a people is going by where their macro leaders are going. But that is not the whole story. Especially in the church, you can tell where the church is going by what the preponderance of the individuals are doing, where the microleaders are going. If we are mostly passionate, visionary, loving, faithful people, things will go that direction. If we are not responsive to the Spirit of God’s leadership, nothing I or another macroleader tries to catalyze will get too far.
I know this is not true of quite a few people who read this blog, but I would say that many of us probably take ourselves much too lightly. You are not leading us where you think we should be going. As a result, you are more like one of the thieves or hired hands that Jesus is fighting than you might like to think.
Hild can help us think this through. In the era in which the New Testament was written, and in the era that saw the flowering of the Celtic Church, our spiritual ancestors had the very same challenges we do. The work of Jesus always faces challenges to find its place and find a voice in every culture. And it always takes Spirit-empowered people to lead the way. Leadership makes a difference. There are always the thieves and the hired hands, and we pray that there are always the undershepherds listening to Jesus, the good shepherd, and following.
So I want to re-tell the story about how it worked out a long time ago with Hild. I think this makes sense because we are a lot like the Celtic church. They were planting the church in a place like Center City Philadelphia, where so many people do not have faith and do not have a clear picture of Jesus at all. Our cells and our congregations are remarkably like the communities that the Celts formed to help people work out a way to live the abundant life Jesus promises and be a part of calling people who can hear the voice of Jesus into the fold to share that life.
Hild’s story center’s on Whitby, on the East coast of Northumbria. She became the famous leader of the Whitby Community about the year 650. That’s nearly 300 years after Patrick’s pioneering work in Ireland. A vibrant faith had spread from there to Scotland and down to Northumbria, and it had also moved up from Kent in the south. At this point the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northern England were the most vibrant on the islands. And Hilda was in the middle of it.
The story of Hilda’s leadership in the church begins with King Oswald, who became a follower of Jesus. King Oswald decided to help his people know the Lord so he sent off to the great community on Iona, where he had once lived in exile, to recruit a person who could help people come to faith.
The history of Oswald’s recruiting looks a bit like the last U.S. presidential election. The first man Iona sent was too hot and people did not like him. Oswald sent him back. The next man sent was Aidan, who was gentler and more politically savvy. Aidan found a lot of success.
It was Aidan who spotted Hilda. Hilda was a distant member of a royal family who decided to become part of an intentional community at age 33. There were no communities exclusively for women in Northumbria at the time, so she was about ready to leave for France to join one there when Aidan persuaded her to stay. He trained her himself and gave her leadership of a household. She eventually moved to Whitby and founded a community where she was the leader for the last 23 years of her life. Unlike many of the Christian communities at the time, there were men and women at Whitby — Hild lead them all. They began what became a famous school. The community had a lot of influence in the surrounding area for hundreds of years. Hilda became so well-known that many people came to her for practical counsel and spiritual direction. If you have recently gotten close to the age when Jesus began his ministry and are feeling a little nervous about what is next, Hild demonstrates that the best is probably yet to come. If forty was the new thirty for you, don’t fret.
Unlike many of the women of her time, Hilda ended up a macroleader. Aidan noticed her gifts and she responded to the call. There is a great picture of her at a present-day community near Whitby where she is seated at a round table leading, as she did in the tense and foundational discussion that happened at the Council of Whitby. We are still feeling the after-effects of that meeting.
I think Hilda followed the example of Jesus well. A good macroleader sees herself as a gate – an opportunity for people to enter into life, a way in to the community of faith. They are also a protector — they lay their lives down for the people and the cause. They are the servants lifting up the enterprise. They see the wolves circling. The also see who and what is next — like how Jesus talks about the sheep not of the present fold. The macroleader works at maintaining a vision that is beyond the present to help us get where we are going.
Our Cell Leaders, Cell Leader Coordinators, team leaders, and pastors are all doing their best to exercise this kind of transforming leadership. We are blessed with an astounding number of sincere, teachable and faithful leaders! Either they gain and exercise the audacity of Jesus and Hilda, or we make less of a difference, as a people, than we hope to make. When I made a speech at a conference of the BIC last year, I was surprised to find out that they look to us, as a body, to provide some leadership for the whole denomination! They asked, “What have you learned in Philly that we could all apply? How do we live out the gospel these days?” I think I felt a bit like Hilda might have felt when she was being recruited by Aidan — I had a much smaller idea of who I was. We have something to bring; we need to bring it.
Hilda was also a notable microleader. Not that all women do this, but they are often better at not missing the trees for the forest. So many men cut down all the trees and pave things over so they can build something new in the name of their domination which they then call “safety!” Women can often lead with better empathy that starts with the trees there are and nurtures the true forest out of them.
This is well represented in the most famous story about Hilda that has to do with the cowherd named Caedmon, one of the workmen on Whitby’s large landholdings. Caedmon was at the opposite end of the social scale from Hilda. He was an illiterate farmhand. He seems to have been content with his lot except for one thing. Whenever the guys passed around the harp at the end of the day before bed, Caedmon headed for the door if he saw it coming his way. Songs and stories were valued and he was a tone-deaf guy. He wanted to get into the mix but soon everyone knew how embarrassed he was about his lack of ability.
One night he felt especially ashamed of himself and went back out to the cows, lonely and miserable. He ended up sleeping in the barn. There he had a dream. A man came to him and called him by name,
“Caedmon, sing me a song.”
“I can’t.” he said. “It is because I can’t sing that I am out here instead of with everyone else at table.“
”Can’t sing?” the voice said. “You can and you must.” ‘
“What must I sing about?”
“Sing about the creation of all things.” And Caedmon composed and song, right there in his dream — a poem of praise of Creation. When he woke up, he discovered the dream was true. He sang his song to the cows. In the morning, he told his boss what happened. The boss thought the story was weird enough to tell Hilda. .
Hilda got excited. She and the senior brothers and sisters gave Caedmon a little test. They chose a passage from the Bible and read it to him. He was to go make it a song. He took a whole day, but came back with an excellent song. At that Hilda invited him into the community. They didn’t bother to teach him to read Latin, they wanted him to make songs in English for people to sing as they ploughed and did their spinning. Caedmon is the first known English Christian poet.
In this Hilda was encouraging microleadership like Jesus also describes in the passage about being the good shepherd. Obviously Caedmon becomes the good cowherd in a whole new way. Each of us are encouraged, I think, to see ourselves as someone with something to give. We get fed in the fold so we can grow into who we are meant to be. We count. Jesus knows us, Hilda knows Caedmon. We are not inconsequential. As it often goes, the least are often given the most because God loves using the least. He likes being the least.
Again, what you do good or bad, is going to cause something. It is sort of a sin to think of yourself as having no responsibility and leaving it all to Hilda. It is not Hilda’s job to be you! Caedmon heard God’s call directly. The leaders didn’t even know who he was. The sheep hear the voice of Jesus and follow. The following makes a difference. The one flock is people of all sorts following Jesus, and that gives it its beauty and power.
Hilda was ready to go to France. She ended up at home leading a community. Before long she was engaged in one of the leading communities of her area, hosting a synod that included people from Ireland, Scotland, and the South of England. Jesus is always looking for leaders like that who expand his fold and nurture and protect those in it. I’m not sure how Hilda felt about her responsibility. I know our president wondered how he got into his responsibility. Someone was testing him when he got started and asked him if he felt ready to be the leader of the free world. He said, “Who would?” I think many of us feel the same awe, like we just got an unusual song to sing, when Jesus calls us to make a difference.
Every one of us, whether we just entered the circle or not, has an opportunity to make a difference by what God has made us and given us to do. I don’t care if you are a big sinner right now, or if you are a women, or if you can sing or not. What you do starts good things and unlocks God’s capacity to transform.
We need our macro leaders to have energy, or like Oswald, we’ll have to go looking for someone who has some.
We need our microleaders to listen to their dreams. Sometimes the movement of God starts with your disappointment about what you can’t do. Please don’t give in to the disappointment and think you are useless. Please don’t let the wolf get you. The Good Shepherd is on our side and will keep working for us to have an abundant life – each of us and all of us.
This is St. Aidan’s day. He came from his comfortable, focused community on the island of Iona to Lindisfarne in 635 and had a long, productive ministry of church planting in Northumbria. He is a good example for us, since we are an island, ourselves, offering an alternative to the people of our age. I saw his name on the wall, first on the list, on the roll of bishops in the old island church, last summer.
As a result of the infighting of the royal families in Northumbria, Prince Oswald had been exiled and lived with Aidan’s community on the island of Iona, off Scotland. He became a passionate Christian there. Oswald’s name came up in the line of succession and he returned as king.
The new king brought a leader with him from Iona to install as his bishop. The man was hard and demanding. No one would listen to him. He ended up returning to Iona resentful. When Aidan heard the story of his failed mission, he was moved. He asked him why he did not feed the people the truth like feeding milk to a baby.
The community sent Aidan to Oswald, even though he could not speak the language of Northumbria. Oswald installed him on Lindisfarne, which came to be known and is still named on the road map today, as the Holy Island. Aidan’s first forays into the community found him accompanied by the king, who interpreted for him. The passion and humility of both leaders had a huge impact.
Today, as I honor the memory of Aidan, I am longing to live with a missional community coming from their Holy Island. Lindisfarne has the unique character of being an island for only part of the day, when the tide is in. The rest of the time you can walk to it. It is a good symbol for people who want to make a huge impact, like we do. We must live on an “island,” in that we nurture our relationship with God and His people and feel our dignity as ones called out and set apart; being God’s people is our only hope and our great strength. But we must not stay on our “island.” There is a rhythm to life in Christ that is as natural and cleansing as the tide. We must spend half the day, at least, accessible to the mainland and crossing over to create new islands of grace.
So many believers I know live on the mainland and visit the island. They love the idea of the Holy Island, but they just vacation there. They even love the vacation. But they have not bought property. They haven’t settled there. As a result, they don’t even know the tide schedule. They can end up living so far away that they find life in Christ to be a memory.
In honor of Aidan, I want to walk with humility among the hungry people of Philadelphia. I will need an interpreter, since I am like an alien to a lot of them — I will rely on my King. If I say or do something wrong, I know he will find another way to express his grace. If I successfully share the limited grace I am carrying, I know he will make more of it than I might expect. If I continue to contribute to building something of a Holy Island of our own, I hope it makes a lasting impact, as well.
When Gwen and I were on the Dingle Peninsula last summer, we did not expect a new grandson to end up with the name Brendan! It is a good name. On May 16, when we remember St. Brendan the Navigator (484-577) I would love to help launch the next generation of daring souls looking for the fullness of their life in Christ. Maybe our own family’s Brendan will be among them.
Each generation has a boatload of people who will set off into the “deep,” looking for God in all the places the Lord can be found. I don’t think it is such a coincidence that Jesus looked for fishermen to be his first disciples. The Lord found another good disciples when he met Brendan near Tralee in Ireland. St. Brendan’s voyage was an inspiration for hundreds of years for seafaring and church planting daredevils. When Brendan got back from his journey of discovering himself in Jesus (and discovering America!) he founded several communities that added to the missionary fervor of the Celtic Church.
I want to be like him, so I ended up on pilgrimage to the place where his daring journey began…
…and where it ended.
In the devotional book, Celtic Daily Prayer I have been using, there is a nice prayer in honor of Brendan. The Northumbria Community suggests we use it on this day. I offer it to you.
Today is St. Teilo’s Day. When we went to Llandaff Cathedral, outside Cardiff, Wales, last summer, the docent said we could open the cupboard that was around back, behind the altar, and get a peek at Teilo’s head. The great church planter’s skull was preserved there, as a relic of a life admirably lived. He died sometime after 560, which was not an easy time to live.
I think his story might encourage a few of the people I have been talking to who think their time to live is pretty challenging, too — especially the people who either need to get their head into the game of church planting again, or who feel like the church has their head stuffed in a cupboard and they don’t like it.
We’ve had some dialogue and a meeting about Circle of Hope Broad and Washington, lately, and one of the words that has risen to the surface is that we need some revival and reformation. We need to get back to basics and give our gifts. As a result, some patterns that people have established in relationships and mission are getting disrupted; people are feeling challenged, and things are changing for the better (already!). Some people feel excited; some people don’t feel so good. Especially for the people who have been giving it their all, it feels like a bit of an insult – “I give my gifts and resources already. I can’t do more.”
What I have been saying to a few of the stalwarts, where it fits, is, “The problem is not that you don’t do things, the problem is that you just do your things. You might not be a church planter, but you need to concern yourself about whether the church gets planted. You might not have time to care for the children but your love has to be great enough to care about whether they are cared for. And if you do lead the worship, or care for kids, or lead a cell or do the limited thing you can do, you need to fill it with enough love, and let it be filled with God’s Spirit, so that it can make an impact beyond the borders of your smallness.”
Maybe this is what the famous story of Teilo is about. One day his settlement was attacked and they were robbed of all their stores of fuel. In the cold, Wales winter, that meant they had to immediately go to the woods and cut down more trees. Their work was made easier when a great stag came to help them by delivering the wood with his antlers. Teilo is often pictured riding a stag. Life gets hard. Irritating things must be done. God shows up.
It will be great when you and creation are in such harmony that you can ride stags. Maybe that won’t happen. That’s no big deal. You can be in harmony with God’s own Spirit. The challenges of this day can be met. And even the small things you can do will probably end up magnified, if you allow them to be in the hands of Jesus. Let’s keep our heads in the game — it’s bigger than our incapability.
We were in St. Brigid’s home place, Kildare, on the first day we left Dublin last summer. It is a beautiful, green, country town where people go to see the horse races. But there is definitely a sense of spiritual mystery about the place, whose name means “the church of the oak.” When Brigid became a Christian in the 400’s the ancient earth-religion had a watch-fire keeping spring alive on the special hill and a feeling for the spirit in the oak tree. Brigid claimed it all for Jesus and identified the fire’s true source. 1600 years later I could still feel her influence.
I am happy to honor the memory of a great leader among the faithful today — especially because she is a woman. I have three reasons.
1) Some flame keepers will be in my dining room in a little while planning the women’s retreat. Circle of Hope is blessed with some strong leaders who, like Brigid, don’t mind taking responsibility for their gifts.
2) At our spectacular Love Feast last night (265 attending! 30 making a covenant!), I had to murmur a bit when “Holy Holy Holy” had us sing “though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see.” I tried to get “sinful ones” in the archive a long time ago, and the original keeps getting back in. This is not the most egregious example of patriarchal language, since it obviously means “humankind,” and it might be just as well to sing “sinful men” if you were a woman. Nevertheless, I think not making the women (and men) who are sensitive to language-that-doesn’t-include-everyone sing things that leave people out is the leader’s responsibility (and it is just the right thing to do).
3) The prayer book I use (Celtic Daily Prayer) included a great poem about Brigid, today, which matches the spirit of our own great feast, last night. Perhaps we should have acknowledged her as our spiritual host when we met, since she was so famous for her hospitality and it was St. Brigid’s Eve!
I should like a great lake of the finest ale
for the King of Kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
for the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith
and the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast
for they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast
for they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus in the highest place
and the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
God bless the human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink;
All homes, O God, embrace.
(Yes, I know it is Superbowl Sunday, too. Please do not kick me out of mankind).