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Spirit: The Sharing of Love

This is the third 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.


Esther de Waal, in A World Made Whole, emphasises that the early Celtic Christian community saw the cross as a place to perform liturgy. Originally the crosses would have been wooden and used for processional purposes, kept in place in the centre of the monastery. In the 8th century there were the large stone crosses, standing as high as 15 or 20 feet. The great high crosses were decorated, originally with abstract interlacing spiral designs, and later with panels presenting the story of God’s work of salvation. There were crosses, too, which depicted the life of the eremitical desert fathers and mothers.

I began my first address with words by Rowan Williams: ‘theology itself is not a great block of granite stone around which we wander.’ The cross too is not simply a stone around which we wander; it is not an end in itself. Today, we’ve contemplated the cross as an icon that is always pointing to something else. The life of Jesus doesn’t finish at the Crucifixion. We are not asked to pick up our cross simply for the sake of it; not asked to embrace suffering simply for the sake of suffering. The image of the cross beckons us to move through this suffering and find the fullness of life in the garden of resurrection and God’s compassion. The cross is a window, a passageway through to a reversed way of beholding the world and our movement in it. Its direction always points us towards a living relationship with God. We cannot hold on to anything beyond its proper season and fruitfulness in us.

In my first address, I talked about the movement of the cross stretching upward. This is a movement that also invokes God down to be amongst us. In my second address, I focussed on the downward movement of the cross. Here the cross calls us to be earthed, encourages us to go down into a deep space of silent listening and draw up the energy of the Word into our centre. Here we recognise God’s Incarnation in Jesus, and celebrate Christ’s presence with us in the world.

My three points here focus on the movement of the arms of the cross in relation to God’s Spirit and the Trinity.

Firstly, like the Beatitudes, the arms of the cross encourage us to live life a different way from how the world would normally teach us. In stretching out from a circled centre they ask that life not be held on to, but given generously. They are arms of offering.

Secondly, the arms reach out, but - because they have physical form - they stop at a certain point. This is obvious, of course. Physical form can only exist in space, in air. In ‘In Praise of Air’, John O’Donohue writes: ‘Air along whose unseen path / Presence builds its quiet procession’ and ‘Air: kingdom of the spirit’, ‘eternal breath.’ (O’Donohue 31) The physical form of the cross ends but the work of the spirit goes on into the future. On this earth we are a pilgrim people who travel in the hope of the promise given to us by God. We walk through life in the faith of this ‘eternal breath.’ We are so used to thinking of absence or space as meaning nothing. Like silence, air is invisible; it looks like absence. But what if air means the continuation of form, in a yet to be formed way? It’s the place of the ‘yet to be.’ That is, potential for the Holy Spirit in our lives to really get a look-in and make a difference. It allows unseen paths to unfold.

And thirdly, the arms of the cross stretch out and call us to embrace others and creation into God’s encircling centre. In other words, they ask of us to have arms of invitation, arms of hospitality, willing to be inclusive, to bring in. We are asked to embrace one another not on our terms, but God’s terms: God’s cross and God’s compassion.


Here are words from the Carmina Gadelica (De Waal 77):

I am giving Thee worship with my whole life, I am giving Thee assent with my whole power, I am giving Thee praise with my whole tongue, I am giving Thee honour with my whole utterance... I am giving Thee affection with my whole sense; I am giving Thee my existence with my whole mind, I am giving Thee my soul, O God of all gods.

Like the Beatitudes, these lines are not person-centred, but God-centred. The emphasis is Thee, not I. It’s a praise poem. And underlying this praise is the recognition that I want to give, because I have been given to so much. There is gratitude here, a recognition of God’s generosity.

Sometimes in the Church the tradition of Celtic Christianity is dismissed because it has been picked up and distorted by New Age Movements. Its interests also appear to be localised, based on far too many miracles and parallel Irish narratives. Hagiographies and apocryphal texts abound. There seem to be at least three Bridgets, and several St Patricks. I wonder too if it’s dismissed because it’s thought the Celtic Christians lacked a systematic and sophisticated theology. During this period of nearly 600 years the peoples weren’t so hooked on the debates happening on the continent or in Rome, because they lived in groups on the fringes of the Empire. There were various Synods, such as the Synod of Whitby in 664 determining the date of Easter. but mostly they concentrated on their own local preoccupations.

What if there’s another way of looking at this? What if during these centuries Christianity was moving by the work of the spirit into a pre-existing culture that was very grounded and possessed a strong identity? The spirit of the Gospel moved slowly into these lands, and so flourished uniquely. The heads of ruling Irish dynasties came to be the Abbots of monasteries; they presided over settlements that were autonomous units. In this way, the structure of the monasteries remained similar to the pre-existing culture - they were walled townships. And each of these monasteries created their own Monastic Rule. As I mentioned in my first address, over time many forms from both cultures fused: the triad and the Trinity, the circle and the cross. There is also the Celtic Goddess, Bride goddess of poetry and the hearth, who becomes St Bridget.

This fusion was not always harmonious. The formation of ecclesiastical structures alongside the monastic townships was generally okay, but monasteries would sometimes go into battle with other monasteries. But that this fusion happened at all tells us something not just about the pre-existing Celtic culture that had received Christianity, but much about those first Christians coming to these lands. They teach us that how the Gospel is presented and shared, is as integral to its actual message. The first Christians coming to Ireland, Scotland and Wales were soaked in the Christian Gospels, full of patristic and classical scholarship, but were - for the most part - people who wanted to share the message, not hit people over the head with it. These are saints with generosity. Brendan, Patrick, Columba, even Columbanus - who must have been the most tiresome of saints - for all their humanity, moved with the Gospels in a grounded way, a faithful way, and a living way.

And this is Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes: ‘how’ a person turns toward the Kingdom of God is as essential as to ‘what’ the Kingdom of God is. In fact, the kingdom is this movement. ‘Blessed’, that is, you are oriented toward God or close to God when…. I have chosen the Eugene Peterson translation (Peterson 1434) to help us re-hear just how radical this ‘how’ we turn is: ‘you are blessed when you lose that which is most dear to you.’

When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

’You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. ‘You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. ‘You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are - no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. ‘You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. ‘You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full’, you find yourselves cared for. ‘You’re blessed when you get your inside world - your mind and heart - put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. ‘You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. ‘You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. ‘Not only that - count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens - give a cheer, even! - for thought they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.’

The Beatitudes aren’t about making everyone think exactly as you think. They’re about when you lose everything, then you start finding God. Because it’s only really then that you can begin to see just how generous God is. You begin to see how much is being offered. You are blessed, Columba, being sent into exile? What? Well, it was only then, at the very end of his rope, that he learned as a monk, that turning toward God was not waging a war over a missal. Turning toward God was about facing the unknown with faith and founding a community grounded in God.

In the lives of the Celtic Christian saints we often witness people who feel they don’t need to defend the Bible; who don’t need to even defend God. Maybe this is because they recognised the work of the Spirit changing their very own arms as they stretched out in the sort of way St Kevin does. In Heaney’s poem (Heaney 20), St Kevin stretches out his arms in prayer. The cell is small so his arms have to stretch outside. A blackbird decides to nest there in his hand, lays an egg, so St Kevin keeps his arms outstretched for a long time. He didn’t fight the blackbird or try to reason with her that nesting in his hand was an absurd or potentially hazardous action. This is a story about the spirit at work in Kevin. It wasn’t the blackbird who changed him but his opening to let the spirit of prayer work in him. How often do we feel we need to win the argument or make other people see reason? How often do we fail to let in the spirit in to change our own arms simply because we see it as a sign of weakness? Heaney goes to some trouble to tell us that in this stretching St Kevin is not being weak, but really strong - it’s the work in him of divine restraint. In God, in prayer, Kevin is able to be bigger than his own very self for the love of a blackbird.

St Kevin and the Blackbird by Seamus Heaney

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.

The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside

His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff

As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands

And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,

Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?

Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?

Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,

‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the riverbank, forgotten the river’s name.

The Beatitudes divest us of our ego driven agendas. They tell us that when we get our ‘inside world’, our mind and heart, put right, then we see God in the outside world. They call us to be ‘full of care’ as we relate to one another in the world. In other words they ask us to stretch out our arms to others, and keep holding our arms out even when the truth makes us, or others, really uncomfortable. This is about living with compassion. Many of these early Christian monks moving into these Celtic lands at this time, it seems to me, were prepared to stretch out their own Christian imagination. God affirms and sustains all cultures in new ways when arms are prepared to stretch out. In the little scribbled marginalia poems of Latin Primers or the richly illustrated Illuminated Gospels, are priceless glimpses into the language of the spirit itself at work with these early Celtic Christian lands. Their legacy shows us a people who knew how to walk in the kingdom of God.

This takes me to my second point:


The arms of the cross end because they point to the future:

Air: reservoir of the future

Out of which our days flow,

Ferrying their shadowed nights,

The invisible generosity,

That brings us future friends

And sometimes stones of sorrow

On which our minds refine.

(O’Donohue 31)

Here is my final story about St Cuthbert. Soon after he died in 687 his body had to be moved from Lindisfarne because of the invasion of the Danish Vikings. During the next 300 years his body was moved several times to different places because of these invasions. David Adam retells the story about these moves, including this episode in 995 (Adam 119-120) when he was moved from Yorkshire. The company of monks accompanying the shrine carrying the carriage numbered about 500, and at one point the carriage became stuck in mud…..

The bishop commanded that the great travelling company should stay where they were, and spend their time in fasting and prayer, that they might get some indication of where they should go next. Towards the end of this time a monk named Eadmer said that he had received a vision and that Cuthbert wanted them to go to Dunholm. Almost as soon as this was mentioned it was discovered that the carriage with coffin and relics could be moved without much effort. But now where was this place Cuthbert wanted to rest? As they were not sure of the direction, they were delighted to see ahead of them two women. One was calling to the other, ‘Have you seen my dun cow? It has gone missing.’ The other replied, ‘Aye, I have seen it, it is at Dunholm - I’ll show you where I mean.’ Once again everyone was satisfied, those who did not know where to go and those who had an idea. All of the monks decided to follow the women. It was a strange procession, with a woman at the front calling her cow, a bishop and monks and the holy relics of Cuthbert and other saints following. The last part of the journey was again difficult, for the place was thick with trees and thorn bushes. Yet on the top of the near island there was a grass-covered plateau where the dun cow was grazing.

This was to be the new home for the Cuthbert Folk. The bishop ordered prayers of thanksgiving to be said immediately.

This is a depiction of at a point when the pilgrimage has become a bit of a schemozzle. Depicted here is a mixture of visions, superstitions, hunches, practicalities figured out; women’s instinct and feminine intuition are just as vital in the decision-making process as the Bishop’s mandate and blessing. It’s a story contextualised within a larger framework of violence, by this stage going back 300 years. But here is God’s story as well, which is much bigger. As soon as the group arrive at Dunholm (Durham, I take it, where Cuthbert remains today under the High Altar) they recognise the place as the one, they all know it. Theirs has been a journey undertaken in faith that eventually they would find their way, no matter how long it took. We so often want life to be neat and ordered. To be dualistic is about as complicated as we would like things to be. But the spirit doesn’t work that way.

In the pilgrimage stories of St Brendan, Columba, and Columbanus, they journeyed with the Gospels, but they recognised that they only knew half the story. None of them seemed to know eventually where they would end up, though Brendan had faith he would come home. But they all trusted in the spirit to lead them, they had an openness to life’s new challenges, and a sense of an inner knowledge of the workings of the human heart.

No journey is without need of markers, especially one in the spirit. Dag Hammarsjköld, who was Secretary General of the United Nations in the 1950s and 60s, used to climb mountains and he wrote about how a climber puts down physical markings, stone cairns, as he or she journeys up mountains covered in snow, so they would know their way back. He called his personal journal his Markings. As well as climbing the Swiss Alps he traversed his own inner landscape, writing out ‘his negotiations with God’. Every pilgrim in the spirit needs a marker. That’s what the cross is: a marker on our inner landscape, that reminds us of the importance of the God of the cross in our lives. There are many High Crosses, of all different sorts, in different places around Ireland, in townships, on the outskirts of towns, as well as in cemeteries. We still don’t really know why they were placed in some areas. But perhaps they too, performed this very same ‘marking’ role for the Celtic Christian pilgrims: solid reminders as to what they were on about. As they pilgrimed through strange towns, these crosses told them not only that the people in this town shared their same story, God’s story, but also reminded them of their own inner spiritual identity.


This coming into our inner spiritual identity, takes me to my third point: the arms that stretch out to embrace in. I began this address with the words: ‘The image of the cross beckons us to move through suffering and find the fullness of life in the garden of resurrection and God’s compassion.’

If we are to learn to embrace life and others as truly as the Beatitudes, I believe, asks us to do then first we must learn the embrace of Christ within ourselves for each of us. This is about being very real in acknowledging our pain