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Jesus: The Song of Love

This is the second 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 comes 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.

A hedge of trees surrounds me, a blackbird’s lay sighs to me, praise I shall not conceal,

Above my lined book the trilling of the birds sings to me.

A clear-voiced cuckoo sings to me in a gray cloak from the tops of bushes,

May the Lord save me from Judgment; well do I write under the greenwood.

This is one of the earliest extant Irish poems. (Davies 259-60)

In this second address, I want to focus more on our being earthed in God, and on the action of stretching down. The large Celtic stone crosses of Ireland are held steadfast upon the land on stone plinths. This tells us something about being held secure in God. Likewise, God himself has come down to us on earth in the Incarnation and walked amongst us as a person. God knows what it’s like to be one of us. And, like the well the Samaritan woman stood beside when she met Jesus, ours is a faith that we can go down into, to draw up God’s life. This being earthed and being able to go down inside ourselves and draw up, requires a real listening out for God’s presence at work in our lives and in the world. And for the Celtic Christians it meant also a faith that wherever we are on this Earth the Trinity is there encircling us:

The path I walk, Christ walks it. May the land in which I am, be without sorrow.

May the Trinity protect me wherever I stay, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Bright angels walk with me - dear Presence - in every dealing.

From a Prayer Book in the late 8th century (Davies 300)


Rowan Williams speaks about listening in Spirit in the Desert. In Sydney, in 2001, he gave a series of address on the Desert Fathers and Mothers for the John Main Seminar. These addresses became the basis of his book Silence and Honey Cakes. I have chosen to cite his spoken words from the actual address because the language here I find more visual, poetic and direct. It is worth noting, though, that when he makes this same this point in Silence and Honey Cakes he reflects that here he is borrowing an image of God that comes from ancient Hindu texts. In the address he says:

God speaks into darkness the word of creation and the word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonics of sounds in the world. And as we speak, or try to speak truthfully, perhaps what are doing is far less having to hang labels around the things of the world than to try and find these harmonics, to try and speak in tune with that world first spoken into silence and darkness. The image often comes to me of creation is of first God makes a great cave and then reaches into it, speaks into it a Word. And from the cave the echoes come back - differently pitched, differently aimed, a world of Word. And we find our place in that .…by listening for the harmonics, trying to speak in tune with them. Not to speak from our will and our passions to control, but almost as if to speak as if we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the music of the spheres.

There’s a resonance here I think in Williams description of the relationship between Word and harmonics, with the Celtic Christian understanding of our own relationship with God - in scripture and in Jesus in whom, we are called to listen. ‘My song is Love Unknown’ opens Samuel Crossman’s 17th century Passiontide hymn. Jesus is the song of love and with him and in him we can listen out for the dissonances and harmonies and silences of our own life and our lives together every day.


Listening to the music of the spheres here implies a willingness to develop a more finely attuned appreciation of our environment. And for the early Celtic Christians local environment or place was very important. Our bodies belong in a geographical landscape. In putting our ear to the ground and listening, we become aware of all sorts of nuances not perhaps even noticed before. Language itself has edges. In the act of listening there’s a drawing back of self, a holding back of thoughts and feelings, so that another sense can become attuned. There is withdrawal so something else is invited into the space. The Celtic Christians were so naturally at home in this type of attunement with their environment. Sensitivities to the world meant that edges and boundaries were as credible to them as any materiality; this is their inheritance from the nomadic Celts. These were a people familiar with the world not seen, at home in the blurry and the obscure. They knew that these liminal spaces were deeply creative places to be. Here, all sorts of crossovers and connections could be made.

This depth of understanding about the Celtic Christian tradition is written about particularly well by John O’Donohue; the importance of paying attention to the not visible, hearing in the silence, is an ongoing theme in his work. This is the place where prayer is born. Its natural movement is downwards. In his book Anam Cara O’Donohue says, ‘If there were a spiritual journey it would only be a ¼ inch long, though many miles deep. It would be a swerve into rhythm with your deeper nature and presence ...You do not have to go away outside yourself to come into real conversation with your soul and with the mysteries of the spiritual world. The eternal is at home - within you.’ (O’Donohue 120) This echoes to me of something Carl Jung in his seventies said to a student: ‘My journey has been to climb down 10 000 ladders so that now at the end of my life I can reach out the hand of friendship to this little clod of earth that I am.’ Conversations within the human soul happen in a very deep silent space. Anam Cara is the only book I know where the author in the prologue confesses to a ‘silent hidden seventh chapter which embraces the ancient namelessness at the heart of the human self.’ After the sixth chapter which is on Death, there is no chapter 7 because it is silent and hidden deep within ourselves.

Silence also has very real healing properties, not often acknowledged even today. It gives us the gap of reflection.


“This was a time of transition for the Church, and life was not easy within the community on Lindisfarne. There were dangers of continued divisions and factions over the Celtic and Roman usages. Cuthbert had to be a great diplomat and steer a very careful path. The rule of life that he introduced at this stage was a mixture of the best of both worlds, the Celtic and the Benedictine. If arguments amongst the monks over the old and new ways became too heated, Cuthbert would calmly arise from his chair and leave the room, thus dissolving the chapter. He would return the next day as though the wrangling had never happened, and the brethren would be given a chance to sort out their differences peaceably. If they again resorted to heated argument, again Cuthbert would dissolve the meeting. This would continue until a more peaceful settlement was found. Amid frequent and great difficulties, Cuthbert remained calm and cheerful. His humour was something that often helped to win the day.” (Adam 62)

These words aren’t only about St Cuthbert’s cheerful, calm, humourous temperament. They tell us something about a wise human temperament. Cuthbert knows how to handle disputes and arguments. When things get hot and impasse happens, we all need cooling off times. Cuthbert knows the hidden grace of silence. We all need this wisdom to know when to let go and let the spirit come in. The monks on Lindisfarne needed time together to air their differences. But they also needed time apart. How much time before a peaceful decision could be made? Cuthbert didn’t know. He trusted the process and knew that these periods were imperative to the finding of a truthful outcome for the community. For all his qualities of calmness, letting go of his own agenda, having a sense of humour, and listening widely and seeing more deeply, he recognised that he was not in charge, God was. At the same time, Cuthbert’s leadership needed to be dynamic and vital. In a recent sermon given by Bp Graeme Rutherford, I liked his inversion of the well-known expression from Let Go and Let God, to it actually needing to be: Let God and Get Going. We all need to be energised and engaged in the day-to-day rhythm of our lives; and, at the same time, pay due honour to the need for gaps, for silence. Let God and Get Going is a recognition that whilst God is overseer of the journey of life itself, we too need to fulfil our role as participatory and engaged.


Cuthbert is teaching us here about the value of time for engagement, and of time for silence. So much of our speech today (my speech) is quick and impulse-driven; we’re often in the pursuit of a rapid outcome. We fail to offer the gift of silence to one another. Or, the benefit of revisiting a conversation in a changed way, after time of reflection. Completing a list of tasks so easily becomes our only agenda. Even in conversation someone may tell us a personal problem and we feel it’s up to us to solve it now.

Misunderstandings can abound because we fail to take the necessary time to be silent and listen, to reflect upon the words we use; the possibilities concerning what other people are hearing; properly hearing what they are telling us; and even our own felt responses. Being caught up in the impetus of the next task, or driven by unquestioned assumptions, we fail to be mindful to one another. We forget to mind the gap, to mind the holy silence between one another.


St Bridget is a saint who is shown to have this type of holy silence about her, in a very earthy way. The figure St Bridget predates Christianity. The Celts honoured Bride, goddess of poetry and the hearth. Bride was also one of the Dagda’s daughters. In the Christian tradition she becomes a midwife to Jesus; full of light, ‘woman ever excellent, golden, radiant, flame’ leading us to the eternal kingdom, the brilliant, dazzling sun.’ In the different lives written about Bridget in the 7th & 8th century she is depicted as a saint who not only performs many miracles, but possesses a profound listening gaze on the world.

One day holy Bridget needed to attend a gathering of the people for a compelling practical reason, and she sat in her chariot, which was drawn by two horses. As she sat in the vehicle, she practiced on earth the life of heaven, as was her custom, by contemplative meditation, and prayed to her Lord. As they came down a slope, the second horse reared in fear and, out of all control, it wrenched itself free of the harness and took off in terror across the plain. But the hand of the Lord held up the yoke and prevented it from falling. She remained praying in her chariot, drawn by just a single horse, and, in full view of the crowd who had followed her after this sign of divine strength, she arrived unhurriedly and unharmed at the assembly of the people. Here she exhorted the people with teaching words of salvation seasoned with divine salt, which were amply confirmed by these signs and miracles. (Davies 128)

For Bridget, God is in the driver’s seat, and she has only to remain constantly mindful of this. She too is both, letting God and getting going. Like Cuthbert, she shows us that God is present right here even in the chaotic charging forward of life, and our task is to stay grounded in Him. Whatever is going on around her, she can stay present in this relational space with God. It’s from this place of listening meditation that she can subsequently teach and speak words of salvation to others.

Many of the works of Celtic Christians teach us about the importance of tuning in to God alone to help us navigate the known and the not known. They help us see that what we think are straight lines actually can be our own very bent human-driven agendas. They call us to see those dependencies we have that take us away from grounding our lives in God.

On the same Easter Sunday there came to her a certain leper who was losing his limbs, and asked for a cow: ‘For God’s sake, Bridget, give me a cow.’ ‘Leave me alone,’ said Bridget. ‘I would not let you alone even for a single day,’ he said. ‘My son, let us await the hand of God,’ said Bridget. ‘I will go away,’ said the leper. ‘I will get a cow from somewhere else.’ Bridget said: ‘…and if we were to pray to God for the removal of your leprosy, would you like that?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘I get more this way than if I were clean.’ ‘It is better,’ said Bridget, ‘…and you shall take a blessing and be cleansed.’ ‘All right then,’ he said, ‘for I am in much pain.’ ‘How will this man be cleansed?’ Bridget asked her virgins. ‘Nun, this is not a difficult question. You should bless a cup of water, and the leper would be washed in it.’ This is what they did, and the leper was completely cured. ‘I shall not leave the cup that has healed me,’ he said. ‘I shall be your servant and your woodman.’ And that is what happened. (Davies 146)

Initially, the leper would prefer to stay diseased, not because it brings life, but because he has learned how to make this dysfunction work for him. He would prefer to stay trapped in his cycle of dependent need. The risk of this cycle being broken is something that threatens his security and he doesn’t have the inner imaginative vision to understand this. Bridget has faith in God, and though she doesn’t know how it works or how the situation will play out, she just knows it works: healing will happen, and such healing will make this man’s life more worthwhile. So when she asks the leper and his answer is no, he doesn’t want healing, Bridget uses plain speech and tells him actually, he does want to be healed. His hearing of this and acceptance of it as the truth is actually the real miracle. Until this moment he didn’t know it. And once he is healed he immediately wishes to be St Bridget’s servant and woodcutter.

So, now, why does the leper stay on as woodcutter servant?


Perhaps, for the first time ever, he had found himself a soul friend, an anam cara. Suffering, particularly in terms of our emotions, is often referred to by us, till today, as a feeling that brings us downward: feeling low, depressed, down in the dumps. John O’Donohue’s book Anam Cara is about the gift of a soul friend who by their listening presence can help us experience inner healing. It is a friendship that enables us to draw up healing from the depths of our soul.

In everyone’s life, there is great need for an anam cara, a soul friend. In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of acquaintance fall away. You can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul … The anam cara is God’s gift. Friendship is the nature of God. The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of Otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. This perspective discloses the beautiful fulfilment of our immortal longings in the words of Jesus who said: ‘I call you friends.’ Jesus as the Son of God is the first Other in the universe; he is the prism of all difference. He is the secret anam cara of every individual. In friendship with him we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity. In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free. (O’Donohue 36-37)

For me, such soul friends are essential. Also I can be nothing if I don’t have the sense of the anam cara of Jesus walking beside me. I am not referring here to a sentimental or domesticated Incarnation, utilised for my own purposes. But a presence who encourages me to see the love in others; a soul friend who recognises long before I do, the fruits of the spirit in myself and in others. Jesus: a song whose love is unknown because it wells up out of unfathomable mystery. And there is nowhere I can go, we can go, no depths where Love Incarnate has not been. And there’s something about when I experience the deep listening truth of this, I also experience inner healing.


In the Carmina Gadelica, those orally collected prayers and blessings gathered by Alexander Carmichael from the Highlands, the Islands of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, there are many blessings which give us a sense of God’s soul friendship with us and in the world:

May the King shield you in the valleys,

May Christ aid you on the mountains,

May Spirit bathe you on the slopes,

In hollow, on hill, on plain,

Mountain, valley and plain.

And another, final verse of Columba’s Herding (Davies 58)

The peace of Columba be yours in the grazing,

The peace of Brigit be yours in the grazing,

The peace of Mary be yours in the grazing,

And may you return home safe-guarded


The poetry, the illuminations, the art work of the Celtic Christians reveal a faith that possesses an innate understanding of the world as God centred and yet also as a variety of interdependencies. There is nothing that cannot be in some way relational with God and in friendship with Jesus and the saints. Not only is God up in Heaven, but is right down here on earth moving amongst us all in a very personal way - in the friendship of Jesus, in the Spirit moving through the valleys and the mountains. The Trinity, the saints of God, are interested and involved each moment of the day in our lives. Like the base of the cross, which sits on its plinth, we too can base our lives on this faith, drawing upward the energy of God in the earth to our centre of stillness.

When we sit in silence we can hear all sorts of things: our fears, our desires, the list of things we need to do. But deeper than this, in stillness, is the contemplative space. The Word is the sound breathed by God into our world from which all other sounds are an echo. We are asked to listen to the Word, and pitch our own sound in resonance with it. We are invited to be one melody in a whole song. Like all melodies, the tune takes time to develop, it has its own tempo, it is open to variations and transcriptions, and needs silence to give space for other melodies. And like all melodies, it comes from our very depths.

Here now is that consciously spent time when a monk sits under the greenwood with his writing book and is suddenly able to really hear, as if for the first time, the tune of the blackbird and the cuckoo. Just as sitting listening in the stillness enables us to hear the music in Cath’s playing. In listening stillness, the very reason why we hear the plucked notes is because we are attuned to the space between each note. A listening presence invites a humble break in our own agenda-driven thoughts. Empty spaces can steady us, make real our life in action. And if this sitting in silence becomes a daily habit, then there is the real possibility for grace in our life, and those around us. Here is another very early Irish poem:

A hedge of trees surrounds me, a blackbird’s lay sighs to me, praise I shall not conceal,

Above my lined book the trilling of the birds sings to me.

A clear-voiced cuckoo sings to me in a gray cloak from the tops of bushes,

May the Lord save me from Judgment; well do I write under the greenwood. (Davies 259-60)


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

O’Donohue, John. Anam cara : spiritual wisdom from the Celtic world. Bantam, 1997

Williams, Rowan. Spirit in the Desert. Medio Media 2001

#CelticChristianity #StCuthbert #DavidAdam #AnamCara #StBridget #Silence #RowanWilliams