This is the first of three addresses by Carol O’Connor given at a Quiet Day, directed by Carol and musician and spiritual director Cath Connelly, for the Institute for Spiritual Studies.
The title of the Quiet Day was from Psalm 72: ‘Put your ear to the ground and listen.’ The Day was held at St James Anglican Church, Point Lonsdale, on Saturday the 25th of March 2017.
My speech - may it praise you without flaw: May my heart love you, King of heaven and earth.
My speech - may it praise you without flaw: Make it easy for me, pure Lord, to do you all service and to adore you.
My speech - may it praise you without flaw: Father of all affection, hear my poems and my speech.
Irish poem, 12th century or later (Davies 260)
In his latest book God With Us, Rowan Williams writes:
Christian theology is not a set of granite monuments that you walk around with your guidebook, ticking them off one by one as you see the great blocks of Sound Teaching. Christian theology is a more fluid, constantly moving, constantly shifting process. When you look very hard at one set of meanings they dissolve into another. And so it continues, around and around in the opposite of a vicious circle. The cross is a sign, but never just a sign because it makes a difference, whether we know it or not. The cross is a sacrifice, but a sacrifice performed by God, not by us, a sacrifice that changes our hearts. The cross is a victory, but a victory that cannot be understood except as worldly defeat. The cross, you could say, doesn’t stand still. Our understanding, our absorption of its meaning, is always a living process in which one image, one category, again and again moves us into another. (Williams 54-55)
Theology is very important, the church can’t function effectively without it, but Rowan Williams is reminding us here that theology is not an end in itself - that good theology helps bring us closer into God’s living reality. For me, the legacy of the early Celtic Christians also reveals to us that the theology of the cross is a ‘fluid’ and ‘living process.’ They too invite us to see the cross of Jesus as a sign, as a sacrifice, as victory in the ways that Rowan Williams mentions here. I hope that today Cath and I can help all of us think a little bit more about the meaning of the cross as something that, though steeped in theology, “does not stand still”. We have stone crosses, but the cross of Jesus, if it’s to mean anything, is a ‘living process’.
CROSS AS AN ICON
In these three addresses, I will be looking at the cross as an icon: an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible meaning. The implications of the cross of Jesus, for Christians, is actually quite a challenging one. And that’s as it should be. When Jesus says in the synoptic Gospels, take up your cross and follow me, he is not only saying that we need to die to the self, but we die to the self in him. It’s not a very comfortable image this, taking up my own cross, in other words, not running away from my particular pain. But what seems to matter here to Jesus is how you ‘take up’ this cross, how you carry your suffering, whom you follow, and where you take it. And in Cath’s music, and in my words today, I invite us to try and ponder how the cross lives in us, how it manifests in our thinking, actions, our emotions, our bodies. The cross is an outward and visible sign, of an inward and invisible meaning. When we try to look at the Cross through the eyes of the early Celtic Christians, what do they show us? How did they pick up the cross, this Celtic Cross of theirs, and follow Jesus? What can they perhaps teach us about how to carry our suffering and where to take it?
GOD’S CALL TO STRETCH
I’ve titled this first address: God - the Calling of Love. God’s call is always a call to stretch. At one point when in utter despair St Cuthbert - prior, bishop and hermit at Lindisfarne in the 7th century - is described as stretching his whole body out on the ground in the form of a cross. The God Jesus points us to, is not there to domesticate or possess. Celtic Christians were very aware of God’s call for us continually to broaden our horizons.
Looking through the window of cross in the early Celtic Christian world there can be seen three types of ways we are called to stretch spiritually. In each of these addresses I will look at a different way. In this first address, I want to focus on the top part of the cross, which reaches upward. It reminds us that we can stretch up to God, towards the heavens, and ask God to come down to us. ‘May my Creator visit me, my Lord, my King; may my spirit seek him in the everlasting kingdom where he dwells’ (Davies 261) muses an Old Irish hermit dwelling in his small hut. We can be a people who are open to asking for God’s life to be with us here on earth.
STRETCHING UPWARD TO GOD & INVOKING GOD DOWN
Nowhere do we see this reaching up and supplicating God to come down to us quite like in the form of the Lorica or Breastplate tradition of prayer, which came into being predominantly in Ireland in the late 8th century. These prayers have their origin in texts such as Ephesians 6, are partly private and devotional but also liturgical: morning prayer designed to inspire continuous prayer throughout the day. There are many prayers in this tradition where God’s power and protection is invoked down into a person’s life. The earliest one we have is the Breastplate of Laidcenn (Davies 289-292). In this long poem the poet calls up all the High Powers of Heaven to protect each carefully named part of his body:
Deliver my skull, hair-covered head and eyes,
Mouth, tongue, teeth, and nostrils,
Neck, breast, side, and limbs,
Joints, fat, and two hands.
he says in just one verse; and he finishes the long poem with these words:
So that leaving the flesh I may escape the depths,
And be able to fly to the heights,
And by the mercy of God be borne with joy
To be made anew in his kingdom on high.
The Lorica most of us know is the Breastplate of St Patrick: ‘I bind unto myself this day….’ So each verse begins in one of many translations. Not only here is the poet shown to be invoking the Trinity to give him wisdom and power and guidance, not only too the glory of creation itself (the moon, the lightning, the wind) to encircle him, but he contextualises his own life’s story in God’s story, the story of Jesus, and the apostles and patriarchs. The Breastplate of St Patrick is an incantation. A kind of Christian-Druidic spell is being bound around the poet, and in turn as we sing it, us, to ward off evil.
The tone of these Lorica poems has always struck me as heroic. Audacious, even. Whether these battles were inner spiritual ones or outer in the world, these prayers cannot fail to stir the soul. It feels like the monk is setting off on a great Celtic saga. Unlike Celtic cultic religion however, this is not now a God who resides in a localised natural place and whose domicile is underground; heaven is placed in the upper realm. Also, although God is King in heaven, God can be appealed to personally to give us a mantle of protection. In Celtic mythology, Gods could always interfere in people’s lives. But here now is a Christian God who is personable to the point of investing interest in every little detail of a person. We each have a relationship with God and there is no part of our body the monk wants left exposed to ‘foul demons’, no part that God too would want to leave vulnerable to wounding.
Not all monks thought themselves quite so elegantly heroic in their relationship with God. The perils of life and the need for God’s help weren’t always imagined on such a grand scale. Human flaws too were openly acknowledged in many poems.
On the Flightiness of Thought
Shame on my thoughts, how they stray from me! I fear great danger from this on the Day of eternal Judgment.
During the Psalms they wander on a path that is not right: they run, they distract, they misbehave before the eyes of the great God.
Through eager assemblies, through companies of lewd women, through woods, through cities - swifter they are than the wind.
One moment they follow ways of loveliness, and the next ways of riotous shame - no lie!
Without a ferry or a false step they cros