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14th Week in Ordinary Time: Thursday

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Celtic Spirituality

Celtic Spirituality is a rich and deep Christian tradition developed over many centuries. That means that there many different ways you could begin to look at it. For example, there are many prayers in the Celtic tradition which were passed down from generation to generation without being written down. Lots of those prayers have now been collected over the past hundred years or so and published. Partly so that those prayers wouldn’t be lost, partly to make them available to a wider audience. You could certainly begin looking at Celtic Spirituality by looking at some of those prayers. What I’m going to do though, is to follow the lead of a Catholic writer on Celtic Spirituality and begin by looking at the theme of Journeying.

There are moments in our lives when we look for excitement, for something different to happen, for a change. Most of the time though, what we long for is permanence. For stability and the feeling that the ground beneath our feet is solid. We want to know that there is some certainty in life. And yet, permanence in this life is an illusion. The world is constantly changing around us, and we are constantly changing. A major starting point in Celtic Christianity then, is not only to acknowledge the fact of change, but to embrace it. Make the most of it, you might say. The reality is, we’re making a journey whether we like it or not. The permanence that we’re seeking comes from making that journey with Jesus. He is our permanence in life.

St. Paul on The Way

“According to the Way ... I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the Law or written in the Prophets.”
Acts of the Apostles 24:14

The focus on journeying is not something that’s unique to Celtic Spirituality of course. Jesus himself tells us that he is the Way. And before the followers of Jesus became known as Christians they referred to themselves as the Way. Very much acknowledging where the permanence in life is to be found.

The Celtic tradition doesn’t simply focus on the positive side of journeying though. In fact it never just focusses on the positive side of anything. Our spiritual life doesn’t disappear when the difficult things of life are present. So the Celtic tradition stresses the costly nature of the journey with Jesus. But it also stresses the surprising nature of it.

If you think about journeying in the Christian tradition as a whole, the dominant way of thinking about it is that of pilgrimage. If you go on a pilgrimage you have a definite destination, a particular holy place to get to, and along the way the choices that you make are all focussed on getting to that holy place. The Celtic way of thinking is a bit different, and that different approach can be seen in a story from the 9th century. Three Irishmen leave Ireland in a small round boat (a coracle), with no oars and no sails. They’re at sea for seven days before they land on the coast of Cornwall. Eventually they are brought to the court of King Alfred the Great. They’re asked where they have come from and where they are going. ‘We stole away because we wanted, for the love of God, to be on pilgrimage. We cared not where.’

The pilgrimage, in Celtic thought, is the journey inward. The destination is definite: we are seeking our resurrected self - the place of our resurrection, our true selves in Christ, our true home. The journey is undertaken for the love of Christ, and the route is the one that he guides us on. We’re encouraged to think of ourselves like Abraham, seeking the place that God will show us. Not a restless wandering, but always with the underlying purpose of finding our true selves in Christ.

Does this sound all a bit abstract? It isn’t. Celtic Spirituality is always grounded in reality. This inward journey that we make takes place in and through the ordinary things of life. You can see that reflected in the prayers that exist on the theme of journeying (A Journey Prayer, A Welsh Journey Prayer). And of course the famous ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’. In the parts that are concerned with the journey ahead the prayer is completely realistic about all that we face.

To make this concrete for ourselves we need to ask the Lord to shine a light on our own journey with him. The journey we have already made as well as the next steps.

Deacon Mark Howe

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