Tag Archives: celtic

god/body map

SELF

I was raised to be a good soul trapped in an inconsequential body.

The soul was what mattered. It lived on forever, it was judged by a white guy up in the sky, it journeyed to some far-away paradise after death.

The body was merely an imprisonment. “This life is only to determine where you’ll spend eternity,” my father was fond of stating with certainty. After the decision was made, all that’s left is to wait for the body’s expiration date, and perhaps help move that date closer. Breakfast in my house was a giant class of diet Coke and a chocolate-iced doughnut.

“If it tastes good, it’s bad for you,” another favorite phrase from my parents. I remember the first time I bit into a fresh pear, handed to me by a friend’s mother. I was overwhelmed with the sweetness, surprised by the juice and the contrast of soft flesh within tough skin. A few years later, when I tried to lose weight, I ate toast, thinking the bland taste meant it was good for me. All the things my body and taste buds craved—crisp broccoli, fresh berries, raw almonds—had been deemed ‘bad for me’ by my parents’ rule.

It was difficult to reach down to tie my shoes.

In college, my violin instructor banned dairy from my diet and demanded protein (a foreign word I had to research) at each meal. Post-college I began a weekly yoga practiced and, for what felt like the first time, felt my body.

As my body taught me about my self,

As my body changed and my self along with it,

As I changed and the body reflected the difference,

I had to rethink the way I understood my self.

Obviously, everything was so much more interconnected than I had been taught. When I began eating food designed by the Creator rather than the corporation, my relationship with the environment around me changed. As I began to taste food in its particularity instead of as a means to fullness, I also found each person to hold a particularity that had previously gone unnoticed. As my soul moved into my body, I stopped barricading myself so strongly within my intellect. I allowed myself to feel, even when feeling hurt. I stopped being a soul and a body. I became one person.

Which is not to deny my complexity. I don’t think of myself as nothing more than an accumulation of cells. I am a body, but when I slice open my arm there is no confusion that it’s my intelligence seeping out. When I confer within myself, there’s no confusion at hearing multiple voices. I am in relationship with myself. Understanding myself as an integrated unity opened up more freedom within me to be in such a relationship. There are no clearly-defined borders of mind, body, soul; there is only relationships, on-going, ever-building in complexity, differentiating, integrating, including, transcending.

Don’t be misled by my frame. I am a big self.

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THE DIVINE. DIV(I)N(THRE)E.

I’m wary of using the word ‘God’. No one means the same thing by it. It’s often used (and capitalized) as though it’s a name, proper noun. It’s not. It’s a description, just as ‘Spirit,’ ‘Divine,’ or ‘Be-ing’, is. That said, I will use the word, but please, just as I do not want you to put your preconceived stereotypes about ‘white’, ‘women’, or ‘Michigander’ onto me, I do not want you to think you know the essence of this God Being.

Everything is included in God. Everything is transcended, surpassed, gone beyond by God. There is nothing that is not God. Just as your body includes organs such as your lungs, heart, and brain, you are more than the accumulation of your organs. You include all of them, but you also transcend all of them. God includes everything, but also transcends, and from that beyond-place, God calls creation to be more than it is, calls humanity to be more than we are. Why do we cringe to think of the way scripture was used to justify slavery but continue to use it to justify domestic violence, gender inequality, ethnocentrism and exceptionalism?

In some way, a first-century Jewish man embodied everything it was to be human while also embodying everything it is to be God. I do not pretend to understand this. What I do know is that this man prayed, and God responded. Which can be confusing. God responding to God’s own self?

Oh, whispers a warm internal voice, you know what that’s like.

That’s different, another I responds. We aren’t God. 

Well then what do you do with imago Dei? Chimes in that snobby theological intellectual that won’t go away, no matter how much the rest of us shun him.

On some level, I’m aware I might be making God into my own image, but I’m not without tradition in doing so, and the company isn’t terrible.

Or maybe it really is the other way around, and my inner relationality reflects something of God’s inner workings. Not that it helps; I still can’t claim any solid understanding of God nor of the way my inner self works.

So I put words to it as best I can with a giant shrug. We could be wrong, the voices agree.

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SELF AND DIVINITY

The best image I have to begin describing any of this is not an image at all. It was something that was barely understood to exist until just a few centuries ago: air.

We tell ourselves that air is all around us, it’s the thing in which we live. What we forget is that there are times the air believes humans to be the thing around it, that we are the thing in which it exists. Which is to say: we inhale.

I had a pastor who once explained that the reason the tetragrammaton—the four-letter Hebrew name for God that we lamely translate as Lord—is unsayable is that it’s actually unpronounceable. “They’re breathing sounds,” he says. He talks about pneuma meaning both breath and spirit. Another friend, also a pastor, likes to say that the answer to the question “Where is God?” is only an inhale and exhale away.

Inside me, that affirming voice resonates warmly. Breath and spirit are connected. God is in all people, even when they aren’t aware of it. Each inhale, the spirit is being lent to us, and with each exhale we return it to the creation. With breath, God is in everyone. And the animals, they breathe. Plants, too, in their way. All the green plants, all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground–everything that has the breath of life in it—holds a piece of God.

At times, God feels far away; I try to get close. I recite from prayer books, I force myself out of bed to church, I taste the bread dipped in the cup. This is all a chasing after the wind, only to eventually discover the wind is held in my own lungs.

I must take care of the spirit that is lent to me with each inhale. To do otherwise, to waste this fragile life breath by breath, is to take the LORD’s name in vain 28,000 times a day.

I have questions about how breathing works. Is my diaphragm pulling air in, or does the air enter thus move my diaphragm? Put theologically, it’s a question of who is initiating: am I inviting God in, or is God entering into me? The answer, as it often seems to be in God matters, might be: Yes.

But I could be wrong.

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SELF AND EVERYTHING ELSE

If God is in others, I must be kind to them. I must see them in their particularity. They carry a piece of God, and I can only have eyes to see if I forget God and any other notions I have of what lies behind the face in front of me.

Animals are included in God, too. I’m not sure what to do with that, but I do have the sense that we are are to take care of them. Genesis agrees with me: ruling over the creatures is God’s first commandment to humanity. I also have the sense that raising them on food they weren’t meant to eat, in group sizes they don’t naturally live in, for the purpose of slaughter and consumption, all does not fall under the category of ‘taking care’.

The rest of the environment, as well. God includes and transcends all. Nothing is an accident; everything is beloved. I share air, breath, and therefore spirit with the tree that blocks my view of the harbor. The tree is inside me: I have no more health to despise it than I do to despise my own breath.

Which brings us back to where we started, as seems to happen when discussing relationships that inter-connect in the dizzying trail of a celtic knot. It’s hard to remember, but my lungs, too, contain breath, hold spirit. I have a hard time remembering this, but I must remember, I must remember: I carry images of the divine.

In ragged breaths,

In tearful sobs,

In shallow panting,

the name of God.

Intentional inhales,

lungs are broad,

Mindful exhales,

the name of God.

This was written for Theology I in Fall 2012. Students were asked to consider the way they understand themselves in relationship to God and others.

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a prayer for difficult transitions

I often forget to pray. Especially the last few days, I have been struggling through both physical pain and emotional hurt. The most prayer I’ve offered in the last week is tears, and although these, too, are acceptable to God as prayer, I know more is desired. The best way to move through such difficulties is to begin to find language to specifically name what is happening. I’ve written only a couple Celtic-style prayers, both prompted by classes. Although I struggled with the assignments, I find that a part of myself is released as the words are formed and repetition enacted. So I decided to write a quick one with the hope that reading and rereading it will release some of the emotional hurt. Here’s a short prayer for difficult transitions.

As it was,

Is not.

As it is,

Will not always be.

O eternal outpouring of grace!

O eternal offering of peace!

O eternal triune of love!

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finding the church’s mother: feminism and a pauline appalling a johannine

In describing the revival of Celtic spirituality within the modern Church, Tom Cashman uses the metaphor of a child with an absent parent. The child has been raised only by a father, the Catholic Church as originated in Rome, and is now “encountering the Mother we have not known.” His imagery is appropriate: the Celtic spirituality that we’ve been missing is indeed a mother, a female figure, for the Celts valued women both in society and the Church in ways that greatly differ from the mainstream tradition. The treatment of women in the Celtic Church greatly contrasts with that of the Church in America today, a difference that can be traced to the theological conflict between Pelagius and Augustine.

One of the clearest ways in which women are viewed differently in the historic Celtic and contemporary churches is the vastly different views and acceptance of women’s leadership roles. Today, many churches prohibit the ordination of women and even prohibit their leadership in lay positions over males of a certain age. In a 2009 study, 26% of churches exclude women in volunteer leadership positions; 13% do not allow women to teach a class of adult men. Even in churches that profess equal rights and have no rules barring women’s ordination, pastorship it is still a male-dominated field. Some pastors in my home church refer to the common phenomenon as “attractive white male syndrome”. They want to hire women, but even when they do, the women realize what a minority they are and leave, underwhelmed with the space allotted female voices or overwhelmed with the disrespect.

In both the Celtic community and the Celtic Church, on the other hand, women were treated as equals. Women were not restrained in the tasks they could perform, being allowed to follow God’s calling just as a man would. Many women even served as warriors, a privilege denied females in many societies. Cashman notes that they “went on missions, were educated and involved in academic and legal worlds.” Women were granted the same titles as their male counterparts, including the title of abbess of monastic communities and sainthood, such as Hilda and Ita. A woman’s value came not through her ability to act and think as a man does, but inherently as a woman. As Cashman states, the “feminine process of intuition was honored” in the right-brained culture of the Celts. The gifts were acknowledged as different from men’s, and were viewed as a necessary and vital voice within the church and for the world.

Today’s Church would be wise to learn from our Celtic ancestors in the area of women in leadership roles. Women may approach relationships and the world with a lens that is different from that of a man, but no less valuable (whether that lens is socially constructed or biologically inherent is irrelevant; it’s there). We bring a skill set of communication and connection for which men are less trained in today’s society. Arguably, such skills are an essential asset in the church because, as George Hunter notes, “most people experience the faith through relationships.” By keeping them out of leadership, women are getting the message that their skills and voice are worth less than a man’s, that their being is worth less than a man’s. In America, where less than five percent of churchgoers in 2009 attended a congregation led by a woman, where are women being empowered to do God’s work? We must uphold women within the Church so that they may effect the world within and without the Church, and uphold them as women, not merely as females encouraged to function as males. The starting point includes not only the ordination of women and encouragement of women to publicly lead, but also through including women in the church’s memory. We hear much of Peter, Paul, and Patrick, but rarely remember Ita, Ia, and Hilda. It is important for the church to remember the mothers who helped form our identity, and for young women to gain strength from such memory.

Why such a vast discrepancy concerning the treatment of women between these two churches? Much of the theology that placed women as lower beings than men goes back to the theological conflict between Augustine and Pelagius, reflecting the opposition of Roman and Celtic theologies.

Augustine believed that the soul was the most important aspect of a person; the body was secondary, merely something in which the soul is confined for this life, an abhorred prison. Far from helping others experience faith through relationships, faith was set-up primarily as a logic problem to be solved through confession and baptism.  The worldview that condemns bodies also condemned women, as they were the ones whose work was devoted to the daily tasks of bodily sustenance: food preparation, household chores, child birthing and rearing. Women’s lives were enmeshed with bodyliness, and therefore, by this theology, women’s souls are trapped in the lower realm of the senses as well.

The doctrine of original sin contributed to misogyny. Augustine believed that original sin was inherited at conception, because, as Newell summarizes, sex is “associated with lustful desire.” When desire is enough to damn an unbaptized soul, certainly the figures who provoke such lustful desire in a theologian are viewed with suspicion at best. In collapsing a simplified view of Augustine’s argument for original sin (a woman’s beauty leads to lustful desire, which leads to sex and conception, which leads to original sin), we could state that women are indirectly responsible for original sin.

Perhaps as a result of his suspicion of the female form’s power, Augustine believed teaching women to be entirely unacceptable. However, the way to salvation is entirely rooted in orthodoxy, the emphasis of importance on right beliefs. Women become trapped in their condemnation: their lives revolve around the nurturing and sustenance of bodies, and the education that could free their souls from consumption of the senses is denied them on the basis of their sex.

Augustine believed in predestination as the only correct doctrine. Cashman summarizes: “God, arbitrarily, through His grace has selected the elect (and therefore the condemned).” Augustine’s theology not only excludes, but ultimately condemns women. We still see this doctrine played out today in some of the largest churches in America. For example, Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, states that his target demographic is young men: “I want to see young guys meet Jesus.” Women in such a church are discouraged from working outside their home, as they exist largely to manage household and child-rearing to help support their men. Denied the education and roles that could free them of the physical aspects of the world, they are confined to it, and thus condemned to eternal hell. Meanwhile, the men are both allowed to learn and have time to do so (since the home efforts are taken care of by their supportive women), and have a chance at salvation.

On the other hand there is Pelagius, who believed that the body is an important part of being human. His emphasis was on orthopraxy, the choosing of right actions as the most important aspect of Christian living. This understanding brings God into the senses, the tasks of daily living that nurture bodies, including the otherwise mundane aspects of life. The Celts saw “God in the ordinary and everyday instead of exclusively in the Church.” Women were not only included by such a theology, but became a central player within it. As managers of the home and those who raise children, it was women who introduced spirituality into the home and thus into many aspects of a child’s formation. Because they were “listening within all things for the life of God,” they found such life in all things. One example is the nightly prayer for the smooring of the fire. The fire was central to the home: it provided heat and was used in the preparation of food. This is the  quintessential place of tending to the needs of the body, the perfect symbol of sensual, embodied living. It was here that the woman of the house would recite the evening prayer as she smoored the fire. It is the woman who recognizes God’s presence and invokes Her protection in this place of embodiment.

It is little surprise, then, that Pelagius did not object to teaching women, and in fact regularly taught them himself. Newell quotes Pelagius as stating, “there is no creature on earth in whom God is absent,” and he clearly meant all creatures, not merely the male forms. Through Pelagius we see the Celtic faith’s support and encouragement of women: they are supported in the work of attending to nurturing the body, and are encouraged beyond such work into the realm of the mind, of understanding and education. Whereas Augustine doubly condemned women, Pelagius doubly desires their involvement with the God of All. Pelagius began to receive explicit criticism for this practice of teaching women, and also for his denial of original sin as sound doctrine.

The doctrine of original sin appalled Pelagius, who had a positive view of sex and sexuality. He was convinced that the newborn child carried the image of God, and that “creation is essentially good and that the sexual dimension of life is God-given.” Again, the Celtic theology within Pelagius leaves no room for misogyny. If women are viewed differently at all, it is with more respect, as they are the carriers, deliverers, and nurturers of the imago Dei within their children.

An example of Augustine’s influence on the Church; Pelagius has been marked a heretic for his assertion that people are good.

Augustine’s doctrine of predestination was also upsetting to Pelagius, who believed “the work of the Holy Spirit supports all who seek righteousness.” Although God, in Her omniscience, may know ahead of time what an individual will choose to do with his life and where he will end up in the afterlife, Pelagius did not hold that God would determine such fate for us in advance, as predestinarianism argues. Here again we see the open and inviting God of Pelagius, not only welcoming but actively working and supporting those who seek a life of righteousness.

“Pelagius understood that God loved mankind and acknowledged God’s continuing work of grace in every holy life.”

Rather than Augustine’s God who lords over humanity in judgment, Pelagius’ God is working for us and with us. Pelagius worked to set free or release the imago Dei that humans carry within, and “was concerned that Augustine’s emphasis on human depravity leads to a loss of confidence in what we most essentially are.”  His fears were well founded, for that is what we see in the Church today. Many congregations are driven by guilt, condemnation, and concerns over who’s in and who’s out. We often worship doctrine more than we worship the living God.

It is hard to say whether each theologian’s pre-existing cultural view of women influenced his theology, or if his theology influenced his view and treatment of women. What is clear is the heavy influence of Augustine on today’s Church and culture. Women are often treated with the same suspicion and exclusion as was originally set up by his theology. In many communities, the theology not only excludes but actively damages women, telling them they are inferior and sinful for the lust they provoke. The Church would be wise to turn toward our forgotten Mother, found in Celtic spirituality, and listen to her love and wisdom.

This piece was originally written as an assignment for Celtic Spirituality with Tom Cashman, writing on what today’s church could learn from the Celtic church.

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another celtic-style prayer

Today in Prayer, Presence, & Practice, the professor asked us to take a few minutes to write a prayer in celtic style around a mundane daily activity. I decided to write a circle prayer to set aside study space and time. As a graduate student I have to do a lot of studying, reading and writing. As a person very active in multiple areas of my community, I am often distracted, which quickly leads to frustration.  This prayer might be a prayer to be read aloud, as much for my sake and God’s ears as it is for the ears of those around me.

Circle Prayer for Studying

Circle this space, Lord. Keep serenity near and drive away distraction.

Circle this time, Lord. Keep focus near and drive away despair.

Circle this study, Lord. Keep wisdom near and drive away folly.

May the meditations of my heart and the words I deliver be pleasing to You.

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celtic evangelism

In the Roman form of evangelism, an individual is presented with a logical argument, asked to believe, and is then required to learn the behaviors of the existing church before s/he is accepted as a member, before belonging. The strategy sidesteps relationship and, unfortunately, has been the predominant form of evangelizing for centuries. The Celtic way of evangelism, on the other hand, values community and relationship. It is through belonging and practiced behaviors that individuals begin to believe. The church today has much to learn from the Celtic model, as this paper will attest to through my personal experience as well as contrasting examples of mission organizations.

The church in which I grew up operated in the Roman way. The logical argument was largely concerned with the afterlife, the presentation based on Pascal’s wager: whether or not there is a God, if you believe in Him, you come out on top at death. But if you don’t believe, you risk that God exists and will condemn you to Hell for the remainder of linear time. Belief was to be professed before an individual was permitted to take part in behaviors such as Communion, before an individual truly belonged in the community. For many, this type of church has its appeal: it requires simply a statement and a tithe, without any need for actually living as though God exists.

I left the church as a young adult, or perhaps the church left me. It wasn’t until college that I was casually invited to another. I declined at first, but eventually started listening to the podcast, then attending sporadically. It was when I joined a small group that I really began to transform. I felt I belonged with this group, which led to a change in behavior (going to church every Sunday; prayer, kindness, and honesty; participation in Communion), which formed beliefs. My involvement in the church community escalated at that point: I led small groups for young adults and mentored girls in the youth program. I became the evangelizer, but had adopted the Celtic model from the church. I was already friends with many un- or ex-churched individuals and began to regularly invite them to come to church and/or Sunday brunch. Humans really are natural evangelizers, when we find something life-giving we just want to share it with everyone we love. When friends came to both service and brunch, the meal was an opportunity to connect the teaching to their lives. Often, nonbelievers already have Christ and it’s a matter of pointing him out in their lives. Other times, they have problems that are addressed by Christ and our God, it’s a matter of making the connection. Those who hadn’t come to the service easily noticed the difference it made in all areas of our lives.

American interaction with other countries through mission trips have much to learn from the Celtic model. Today there are multiple medical missions that know the level of care they provide is insufficient—one visit and one bottle of pills isn’t going to help anyone they see—but they use it as a lure so that their volunteers may present the “gospel” and convince as many individuals as possible to pray the prayer. They believe themselves to be aligned with the Celtic practice of giving away information and medicine for the purpose of loving neighbor, but they miss the mark in that for these organizations, such charity is only a means to an end. That’s not good news, and it sends conflicting messages about who God is and what the church is about.

Marc of First-Hand Aid with the son of a close Cuban friend

On the other hand, there are also medical organizations who function with a Celtic model. I’ve traveled twice with First-Hand Aid from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Havana, Cuba, working as a translator. The same man, Marc, has been running this organization for over a decade, establishing medical programs in the same hospitals and communities, and working with many of the same people throughout that time. Although the organization isn’t Christian, Marc is, and the relationship and trust he has established with many individuals has opened the door to conversations about what it means for him to follow Christ and who his God is. In a culture where religion is at best a joke, Marc has loved people in such a way that they can’t help but be intrigued about his God.

God’s command was to love one another, and Jesus reaffirmed it as the second most important to follow. Presenting logic arguments, pressuring for conversion, or using medical care as a trap to get a prayer from a non-Christian are not ways to love another. Love requires relationship, trust, community, the mess of interaction and knowing one another. As George Hunter reminds us, “There is no shortcut to understanding the people.”

This piece was originally written as an assignment for Celtic Spirituality with Tom Cashman. Students were asked to write on a way that Celtic values are applicable today using personal examples.

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