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.
PLACE OF THE CROSS
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.
STRETCHING OUT FROM CIRCLED CENTRE - GIVING & GOD-CENTERED
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,