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 cross every sea: Swiftly they leap in one bound from earth to heaven. They run - not a course of great wisdom - near, far: Following paths of great foolishness they reach their home. Though one should try to bind them or put shackles on their feet, they are neither constant nor inclined to rest a while. Neither the edge of a sword nor the stripe of lash will subdue then; slippery as an eel’s tail they elude my grasp. […]
Rule this heart of mine, O swift God of the elements, that you may be my love, and that I may do your will! That I may reach Christ with his chosen companions, that we may be together: They are neither fickle nor inconstant - they are not as I am.
This poem, coming from the Old Irish (Davies 262), shows us that despite our intentions, our scattered, fragmented thinking can quickly take us all over the place. And especially to the wrong places. The request to God is to be focused, single minded: ‘Rule this heart of mine, O swift God of the elements, that you may be my love, and that I may do your will!’ In this poem we hear that even what we think matters in our personal relationship with God. Sin here is when a thread of the delicately wrought, finely tuned relationship we have with God has broken. And Celtic Christians acknowledge that we break these threads all the time and it’s all too human to become fragmented in our thoughts and actions. It seems to be intrinsic to our very nature. Even with the best of intentions, our thoughts ‘one moment they follow the ways of loveliness, and the next ways of riotous shame.’
We reach up to God and ask for help so we can be steadied. As the cross has a centre where the two axes meet, we have an inner ground we can be drawn back to. ‘All alone in my little hut’ begins the poem of one Old Irish hermit. Our inner ground is like that place alone in our little hut; it is a place we can come to again and again, in prayer, in meditation, in stillness. Here we seek and find a more balanced, integrated self. In the poetry of the early Celtic Christians sometimes they lament and feel anguish for their manifold sins. But in reaching up in their longing to be in God’s dwelling and feasting from God’s table, they are able to draw down the love of God down into their hearts.
SIN AND FINDING OUR WAY HOME TO GOD
It may seem a strange place to begin this day of retreat, my talking about ‘sin.’ But it’s very much a recurring theme in the poetry and stories of the Celtic Christians. They teach us that this breaking apart from God is a valid starting point for a much more mature human relationship with God. Owning this place of our humanity is a beginning to learn what the depths of a loving relationship really entails - not only with God, but with each other.
How do we find the bridge back to God, to our inner ground and that place with Christ and his chosen companions? In the Celtic Penitentials, this need for our continual realignment toward God in our lives is fundamental. From around the 6th century each monastery formulated its own book of Penitentials. They listed there, with punctilious detail, penances for sins ranging from how to handle issues such as failing to guard the host carefully so that a mouse eats it, or giving someone a beverage in which a mouse or weasel is found dead, to penances for all sorts of sexual transgressions. Some of these books, such as the Penitential of Columbanus, were very austere. However, underlying all of them are very practical and pastoral concerns for a person and a community’s health and wellbeing. The need for a soul friend or spiritual guide, an anam cara, is emphasised. The Penitential of Cummean emphasises that personal considerations too be taken into account and concludes that it is imperative after any penance that there is teaching and instruction and the penitent knows that he is forgiven, and is once more favourable to God.
Essential here is this knowledge that it’s not only us who build the bridge back to God. God calls us and Love comes to meet us. We are called constantly through these challenges to know that we are being drawn into deeper relationship with God. It’s not simply about breaking a thread of connection with God, then repenting and getting on with life. Broken threads are the call to know even stronger, deeper, more worthwhile and life-giving bonds with God. This is an ongoing process throughout our lives.
BEING CALLED BY GOD
So, how does God’s love call us into life?
A book that I’ve enjoyed dipping into preparing these addresses has been David Adam’s : Fire of the North: The illustrated Life of St Cuthbert. He has based it on many sources, including the Venerable Bede. The story here of this saint’s life really begins with the death of St Aidan, described as that ‘heroic monk’ who founded Lindisfarne. The death of St Aidan inspired Cuthbert to follow a call. At that time Cuthbert was shepherd in Northumbria and one night had a weird waking dream. He didn’t really know what it meant and when he described it to his friends, he knew they didn’t get it at all. But he did instinctively know that he was being called to do something.
Cuthbert did not know which way to turn. He thought of visiting Kenswith or of going to Lindisfarne - both were easy journeys. He was not sure anyone would understand what was calling him out from following the sheep. He was sure it was not a ‘what’ but Who’. This was not the fates, or destiny, this was a personal call from a personal God. Cuthbert was sure that being a person mattered. Who you are influences what you say - it speaks louder than words. You cannot give yourself to God until you have become someone. This sort of conversation with himself made up his mind. If Aidan had still been alive, Cuthbert would have gone straight to the island of Lindisfarne. He needed no one to convince him that he was being called. With Aidan dead, he would go to Melrose. There were still many holy men who could instruct him by example and in book work on Lindisfarne, but at Melrose was Boisil, a man already famous for his learning and sanctity. Cuthbert made up his mind. Then he realised that, though he sought the kingdom of God, he must first return to his home. Kenswith must be told of his decision and of his whereabouts, or she would have the whole area searched for him.
Looked at carefully, this story (Adam 26) shows us that Cuthbert knows four things:
It’s a “Who” that calls, not a “what”. There’s the invitation for a relationship. Secondly, this relationship is personal and unique. Only he and the One calling can work on this relationship. Thirdly, Cuthbert must listen. And listen with discernment. And fourth, this personal relationship in God, by virtue of the grace of listening, will mean change. It will set the ground of a new relationship for him with other people and the world which he inhabits. But, there are actually five things: fifth, he must immediately go home and tell Kenswith, his foster mother and teacher. In all this we are asked to hear the call and meditate, but the response starts from the place where we are at. Stay in and be faithful to the commitments of the present moment.
‘With the drawing of this Love, and the voice of this calling’ wrote TS Eliot in Four Quartets. Love draws us toward Love’s very self; and this drawing into Love then gives each of us our particular voice. In many stories of the saints’ lives in the Celtic Christian tradition, there is this sense of God calling and drawing a person into their very own personhood. And this is something that is happening in God’s time, not ours. We can’t make it happen. We can only stay open. But, there is the hearing of a call, and then a unique response. A person is invited to have a very real coherency and integrity when in relationship with God. And this calling is being continually renewed. Columbanus became a white martyr in choosing to leave Ireland and found monastic houses in Europe. Columba was sent into exile from Ireland as penance, but he went on to found the Abbey on Iona. Though there are poems that show his longing to return to Ireland, his inner personhood very much became that ‘little dove’ his name signifies. St Bridget, foundress of a monastery in Kildare, became also a healer and miracle worker. St Brendan became the sea-faring navigator travelling around many islands with his Brothers to seek the promised Land of the Saints. The stories of all these saints’ lives have a shape and an identity that changed and developed as they responded to Love’s call. For them, how you act and what you choose to do arise from who you are, and they show us that a preparedness to walk the path in faith toward whom you are being called to be, is to journey toward God. Only as you walk in the present wake of this call, and walk with awareness, do you begin to see the unfolding of your own becoming in life.
KNOWING OUR FORM
But we can’t follow a call if we don’t have some sense of who we are. We need to know ourselves before we can begin to give expression of our self in the world. We need to know this character stuff, this clay, of which each of us is made. Otherwise we become at risk of living in dislocation, co-dependence, or absurdity. In St Patrick’s Confession, or the Declaration of the Great Works of God, a work by Murchu in the 6th century about the life of St Patrick, before Patrick tells of the ‘many blessings and great grace which the Lord saw fit to give me in the land of my captivity’ (i.e. Ireland), he opens with the words: ‘I am Patrick. I am a sinner…I am the son of the deacon Calpornius…’ He knows from the beginning who he is. I am Patrick. But later in the text he goes on to show that there are very real times in life where he just had to sit in the present confusion of not knowing what he is called to do. When he went back home from Ireland to his parents in Wales, they wanted him to stay. And he describes himself going through anguish. He doesn’t know what to do. It’s not until he has really worked through this, by means of dreams and prayer and a felt sense of the spirit in him, that he found the calling, that right desire, to go back to Ireland.
For St Patrick, whilst leaving Wales a second time meant heartbreaking loss and leaving behind primary family groups, it also meant deeper understanding of the possibilities of who he was called to become. And this meant a terrible risk and facing really big fears. The Brothers likewise with St Brendan are frequently quaking with fear at the sea creatures they are encountering. But it also meant trust. St Brendan knows this when he tells them to quieten down: trusting themselves and trusting the process of life in God is imperative on their way to The Land of Promise. Staying true to their commitment to God was most important. Columba went into exile for two reasons, the main one being having caused a battle over a psalter he copied from St Finnian. It’s the first known copyright dispute. His exile was a penance premised on his need to re-forge a new relationship in God, the need to find reconciliation with God for the many men who died in a battle he was responsible for. Celtic Christians teach us that the truth of our identity and subsequently all relationships in the world with friend or stranger, in known lands or foreign, are drawn from this one source only - God’s calling.
FUSION OF TWO NEW FORMS WITH CELTIC CHRISTIANS: TRIUNE GOD & CELTIC CROSS TO MAKE NEW FORMS
What I have always loved about Celtic Christianity is that during these centuries identifiable streams of Christianity - Roman, as well as the Desert Mothers and Fathers from Egypt (whose influence reached Ireland by sea) - creatively moved into a culture based on cultic practices and possessors of a rich separate mythology. I’ll talk a little more about this in my third address. This movement reveals a much bigger process of God’s calling for groups of people to stretch and grow spiritually into each other. It certainly wasn’t always easy or as smooth as we may like to think. And this type of reaching out, whilst simultaneously welcoming in, is something we struggle with very much in our contemporary world. But I’ll finish this first address with two examples where some of these forms came together for the Celtic Christians.
For the early Celts, the theology of a Triune God was one that they could resonate with. Being primarily an oral culture, the Celts believed the number 3 was a useful number for remembering in teaching. There was a very popular form of poetry called the Triad which blended well with Christian teaching: Three keys that unlock thoughts: drunkenness, trustfulness, love. Three coffers whose depth is not known: the coffers of a chieftain, of the Church, of a privileged poet. Three things that ruin wisdom: ignorance, inaccurate knowledge, forgetfulness.
St Columba’s Monastic Rule is based on this form of the Triad (Adam 31):
Three labours in the day - prayers, work and reading. Take not food until you are hungry. Sleep not till you feel the desire. Speak not, except on business.
So the Trinity itself was a triune form of God that the Celts could understand. For them the earth had three mothers. This richness of understanding concerning the beginnings of creation and wisdom in terms of triads, could be brought into a new learning of a God of Love being three persons in one.
Secondly, the Christian God who calls us also asks us to know the form of the cross. For an image that primarily consists of two lines crossing, there are many different ways that Christian communities have come to depict this cross. It doesn’t “stand still”. There are also a number of different Irish crosses, including St Bridget’s cross, which was made out of reeds. But the most well-known one is the Cross with the circle in the centre:
“The great O of creation … the circle of the world and the cross of redemption brought together into one whole”. (De Waal 9)
Whatever reason the Celtic Christians chose to depict the cross this way - whether it was an inheritance from the Celt’s image of the circle meaning Unity in life or the infinity of the sun - there is something very distinctive about this cross. The geometry and the compass of a circle is such that the middle point is equidistant from all other points. The circle on the cross depicts a God whose circumference is nowhere and centre is everywhere. And at the centre of the cross, at the very centre of suffering, is the cross point of God’s love holding us.
Father of all affection, hear my poems and my speech says our 12th century monastic poet, quoted at the beginning of this address. This monk is comfortable enough in his relationship with God to ask Him to come down and listen to his own response to God’s call. Love calls and the monk responds with his own craft. And it’s this listening response as we take up our cross with Jesus and sit in the space of silence, that I will talk about in my second address.
Adam, David. Fire of the North: The illustrated life of St Cuthbert, with photographs and drawing by Jean Freer. SPCK, 1993
Davies, Oliver. Celtic spirituality. (Classics of Western Spirituality) Paulist Press, 1999
De Waal, Esther. A world made whole : rediscovering the Celtic tradition. Fount, 1991
Williams, Rowan. God with us: SPCK, 2017