Power and Presence
We begin today with a story about St Kevin of Ireland:
‘Kevin devoted part of each day to reading the Scriptures, sitting in his hut, with his arms stretched out through the window reaching up to heaven. One day, while he was reading, a blackbird, thinking the arm was a branch, settled on Kevin’s open hand. There it made a nest and laid some eggs. When Kevin saw what was happening he was so filled with love for the bird that he did not move. Instead he remained in that same position until the eggs were hatched and the young birds could fly.’
Remember this story, for I intend to use it as a key to unlock a number of aspects of today’s subject, because for me it epitomises the understanding the early Celtic Christians had of God at work in the happenings of nature and their appropriate response. To them the natural world demonstrated His power, and manifests His presence, and tells us that He is immediate in His concern.
If we think of the three great areas of temptation, the world, the flesh and the devil, it is the first of these three species we are addressing for the temptation is to exploit the natural world and spend it unfairly, or to acknowledge the creation but ignore the Creator. This is why Jesus taught his disciples to consider the wild flowers, and watch the birds – the early Celtic saints were foolish enough to take Him at His word. They had no illusions about the world; they knew mankind had fallen and the original creation had also been damaged and tainted; they reckoned there to be a real and malevolent spirit at work in the world, but they sought to work in harmony with the hand of God, and around their ingenuousness we see time and time again a harmony restored an a patch of heaven blossoms around them.
Even people become less argumentative!
A cow who sneaks off from the herd for a few moments daily to make friends with Kevin immediately gives more milk! No wonder the blackbird found his hands a secure place to rest.
Another hermit who had a blackbird for a friend reckoned the bird to be a far more spiritual being than himself – without calculating the time to know when to pray the blackbird ‘sings God’s praises all day long. I need to beg forgiveness,’ says the hermit, ‘to make myself pure and fit for God. But the blackbird who drinks with me from the stream sheds no tears of contrition: he is as God made him, with no stain of sin.’
A World in Tension
‘I do not trust myself as long as I am in the body of this death, because he is strong who daily endeavours to turn me away from the faith … the flesh, the enemy, is ever dragging us unto death, that is, to enticements to do that which is forbidden.’
Cuthbert continued with the same awareness of ongoing conflict when he said,
‘If I could live in a tiny dwelling on a rock in the ocean, surrounded by the swelling waves, cut off from the knowledge and the sight of all, I would still not be free from the cares of this fleeting world nor from the fear that somehow the love of money might snatch away.’
A sentence from W Stringfellow is relevant here, which sums up the struggle the Celtic saints engaged in by their lives, as well as the tension evident in the cruelties of nature:
‘Incarnational theology regards the world in the fullness of its fallen estate as simultaneously disclosing the ecumenical, militant, triumphant presence of God.’
The natural world is somehow twisted and distorted because of the rebellion of Satan and the fall of man, and we can only imagine what it will be like for all the distortion to be gone and the time to come again when the lion and the lamb can lie down safely together.
One curious story is of a brother called Colman who corresponded with Columba of Iona. Colman had as a companion a fly that would walk down the page at whatever pace he was reading the lines. What is more, if Colman was called away on business, or even if he looked up from the page to reflect on what he had read, then the fly stayed at the line, keeping his place for him until he could continue. As some of you will be aware, the Lord of the Flies is the literal translation of Beelzebub, a name ascribed in the Scriptures to the devil! So having a fly for a friend, assisting his study of the Scriptures is doubly remarkable.
Responsibility – Off-setting the Fallenness
Kevin’s hands support the blackbird and stop the nest from falling and the risk of the eggs smashing. His action, his decision to co-operate with the creative process and not to work against it is significant. As Pelagius’ teaching stressed, the moral choices of an individual can make a life and death difference. This is true even if we cannot measure or comprehend the consequences.
Cuthbert could be on the island in the ocean he would eventually come to as a hermit ‘cut off from the knowledge and the sight of all’, yet even there his choices would affect other people in a significant way. He is responsible. We see other signs of his care and the sense of responsibility he feels for the people and creatures that surround him. Going out to preach one day Cuthbert took a boy with him for company. He assures the boy that God can provide a meal for them and could even use the eagle flying above them to do it. When the same eagle brings them a large fish, he insists that the bird be given half as a ‘servant’s share’ then had the rest cooked for them by a family with whom they shared the meal.
He had concern for the brothers who came to spend Christmas with him, and continued to warn them to watch and pray, sensing real danger ahead for them. They return to find that the plague has broken out again on Lindisfarne. He knew as little as they what the danger was to be, but sensed the urgency to prepare them for any eventuality, and to die unprepared was something he would not wish on anyone. Quietly, in the face of all the horror that is to face them, he does what he can to help them.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said that we must reckon humanity to have ‘come of age’, and accept our share of responsibility for the world’s future. Perhaps God has rather left us to get on with it, or perhaps His desired initiatives come to nothing too often precisely because it takes no initiatives to bring about in real terms the very things He has commanded already, not least in the Scriptures.
In the life of Patrick we see just such a determination to make a difference especially in the land where years before he had been held prisoner. He considers himself ‘an Epistle of Christ for salvation to the ends of the earth,’ and tells how God in him withstood all the discouragement and pleadings and reservations of others, anything that would keep him from fulfilling his part in the fulfilling of the great commission given to the church in the scriptures, prepared to ‘endure many persecutions’, ready to give his life ‘for His name’s sake unhesitatingly and very gladly.’
Patrick was inspired by the promise in Scripture that ‘they shall come from the east and west, and from the south and from the north’ and sit down with the saints of old in the Kingdom of God. And when these words were fulfilled he wanted to know that some who would meet there would do so precisely because he had obeyed Christ’s command to, ‘Go, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’
Another of his favourite passages was from Hosea where the prophet changes the names of his children. Those called ‘Not my people’ would he call ‘my people’; she who was written off with the name ‘Have no mercy’ would be known as the ‘one’ who received mercy,’ and where it was said ‘You are not my people’, there they will be called children of the Living God. How true these words became of pagan Ireland which slowly became known for a people who served and loved God! Words like these from scripture continued to be an inspiration to those who followed Patrick’s teaching and example.
Patrick’s first experiences on his return to Ireland were perhaps pivotal in forming his strategy for further mission, for he was brought before the king and his druids and required to give an account of himself and defence of his action in lighting a fire in defiance of the druids. From then on, he deliberately prospered the course of the gospel by seeking out rulers and leaders, kings and tribal chiefs. Demanding and audience as the ambassador of the High King over all kings, the Lord of Lords, he was given a serious hearing and would then preach tirelessly until his witness bore fruit. Systematically training his converts, and using their testimony first-hand before others of similar rank and status in neighbouring territories, within twenty-five years the result was that most of the country was converted and it was dotted with churches.
Amongst the Celts in general is a suspicion of riches and their subtle power to corrupt or imprison, but this is more often expressed in concern than judgementalism. The inside of the soul of a rich man without love we are told is like the darkest night, the coldest winter, the bleakest mountain and ‘you would rather have your body hacked in pieces than present such a soul as this; you would rather be boiled or burned alive than suffer such inward torment!’ Hear the overwhelming sense of responsibility in these words, and the over-all view is this, that man is crucially involved in the outworking of God’s plans, that in the face of overwhelming need it is his own task to take initiatives.
It is in the light of this we must see Aidan’s choice of Lindisfarne as his base of operations, a place cut off enough to open on heaven, but close enough also to Bamburgh to be never far from the concerns of secular life and influence. There is something remarkably modern and authentic about Aidan’s decision to customarily go on foot in order to meet people more effectively. For us the alternative way may not be horse-back, but we too take steps not to isolate ourselves from people at large; we too make deliberate choices to embrace a particular lifestyle, one that may be opposite in its goals and values to that which people expect us to pursue. Aidan’s integrity was such that he did not value wealth at all, never looked for any worldly possessions, and loved to give away to the poor whatever he received from kings or wealthy folk. He spoke to whoever he met, and would rebuke wealthy people just as outspokenly as he did those who had nothing. He was only concerned for their spiritual health, and we are told that ‘the highest recommendation of his teaching’ to everybody was that ‘he and his followers lived as they taught’. He never used money as a way of influencing people, although he freely offered hospitality.
These words are close to Aidan’s way of life:
‘Remember the poor when you eat fine meat and drink fine ale, at your fine carved table.. The poor have no food except what you feed them, no shelter except your house when you welcome them, no warmth except your glowing fire.’
If Aidan had power to make a difference for someone he used it, poor families, slaves or kings.
Do you remember the story of King Edwin listening to Paulinus? Coift, the pagan chief-priest said that human life is like a sparrows flight through the king’s dining-hall, brief and meaningless with no knowledge of what has happened before it flew in through the open window or what will happen when it flies out of the window opposite. The challenge Coift threw to Paulinus was that this new faith make more sense of it all. For him there was already nothing in their own worship as pagans, and the more he had sought for truth in the old religion the less he had found there. Now, convinced of the truth of the gospel instead, he demanded that all their previous altars be cursed and put to flame. He rode out to the temple near York and to the great interest of the crowds arrived armed, by stallion, already in defiance of the taboos which insisted on priests riding only on a mare and always unarmed. Hurling his spear in the open door of the temple he called on his friends to set fire to the place and destroy it.
Someone needed to take action if truth were really truth – talk was not enough.
Education would be enough to change a person’s status; some of Aidan’s disciples were initially redeemed from slavery. The Christian way counted everyone as of equal importance, but it seemed natural for those of noble or royal birth to emerge as leaders also in the monastic or religious life, and often this was the case.
Columba was one of these who had to learn the principles of involvement on politics and matters of state without compromising his position as representative of the Church. The principle largely was this: diplomacy may be of value and a legitimate area of involvement, but any killing was directly in contravention of the sacred Commandments. After the alleged blood-battle he had brought about over his secretly copied psalter, he had presumably learnt not to use his rank and breeding to just get his own way. His authority was now more clearly proceeding from his knowledge of Christ.
Adomnan gives us the first written account of a water-beast of some sort in Loch Ness which had bitten a man swimming there. Columba allows his friend Lugne to swim across the Loch to fetch a boat, and when the monster appears calmly makes the sign of the cross and commands it not to touch the man, but instead to quickly turn around. Of course, it obeyed him, in the name of God. King Brude’s castle doors and gates similarly refused to remain closed when Columba and Comgall made the sign of the Cross, having been shut out. It becomes natural for us to believe that natural laws will be broken or things thrown into harmony to glorify God as God’s representatives appear on the scene.
Finding A Forgotten Rhythm
It is very easy for us to become swept away by the ways everything tends to happen and the way everyone else behaves. Society shows a way of life more and more reflecting fallenness and removed from the rhythm still inherent in much of nature. A primitive way of life makes us more aware of those rhythms – with no electricity we become very conscious of daylight hours; limited resources make us aware of the cost of heating in winter, and with less frozen and prepackaged food, we would return to eating things only when they are in season. I am not advocating that we stop using electricity any more than try to undiscover the wheel, but only pointing out that for many people life is further and further removed from the rhythms inherent in nature.
Anyone living on Holy Island is immediately aware of how the tide to arrange our life around the tide; it will not arrange itself around our plans or preferences.
One way or another it is desirable for us to find rhythm again in our lives, a rhythm of prayer and rest and work, an integration of ourselves with the created order and with the Creator Himself. The rhythm is important bringing a genuine sensation of oneness with much of our surrounding, and an order and continuity. The Celtic style of monasticism captures this spirit even with its variety of expressions, and rules of life. So we see Columba even to the last day of his life sharing in humble labour, and completing an appropriate portion of the scripture-copying that was his task in hand. That same day he sat down to catch his breath and the white horse who used to transport the milk churns came over and laid his head in Columba’s breast and began to weep and be upset. Columba refused to have the horse sent away “Let him alone” he said, “for he loves me. Let him pour out his tears of grief here in my bosom.”
McNeill’s History of Iona quotes someone by the name of Troup who says,
‘The secret of the early Celts lay in this, that they linked sacrament with service, altar with hearth, worship with work.’
The account of Columba’s last day exemplifies this. Also in remarkable harmony with the spirit of it are the words of the so-called ‘weeping scholar’ who writes,
‘When I eat I continue praying, and when I sleep my snores are songs of praise.’
Columba sees the caring presence of God equally involved in the worship and prayer and in the troubles between his friend Lugne and his wife. Her suggestion that she abandon her husband to become a nun is something Columba prays against. Such a course of action Columba views as contrary to nature, contrary to God’s will. But Columba keeps vigil in prayer, his friend’s wife changes her mind, and all is restored to equilibrium. We sense that Columba smiles at this with amusement as well as just relief.
Is it too much to argue that in choosing to travel by foot unless in exceptional circumstances Aidan was more in touch with God’s rhythm? Certainly they were more open to chance encounters, but also by travelling more slowly he and his companions could rehearse the Scriptures as they went. His choice of Lindisfarne for their home protected their solitude and put them constantly in touch with the rhythm of the tide with its ebb and flow, even as a rhythm of prayer dominated their lives daily. At Whitby Caedmon worked looking after the beasts in the stable. It was there he retreated during a ceilidh feast because the harp passed from person to person was approaching him. In his dream, a man stood beside him urging him to sing, addressing him by name. Despite his protestations the man insisted he would sing especially for him. “What should I sing about?” said Caedmon. “Sing about the Creation of all things,” said the man. And, as is possible in dreams, Caedmon immediately burst into song, verse after verse of praises to God the Creator. When he awoke, the song was still with him and he could remember it perfectly.
If the man in his dream was God or His angel, then we should accept that God encouraged the Celts at least to focus yet again on the created order and on the One it pointed towards. It also appeals to our sense of poetic justice that the Mighty God chooses to visit a stable with a miracle again. It demonstrates His concern with the ordinary things of life. That same ordinariness is still to be found in the Gaelic prayers and blessings preserved in the ‘Poems of the Western Highlanders’. Listen to this one:
‘Be blessing, O God, my little cow,
and be blessing, O God, my intent;
O God, my partnership blessing thou
and my hands that to milking are sent’
Another one transfers God’s attention to the loom instead:
‘My Chief of generous heroes,
bless my loom and all things near to me,
Bless me in all my busy-ness,
keep me for life safe-dear to Thee’
Could there be a more appropriate prayer for us today than that? that God would bless all things near to us, and bless us in all busy-ness?
A third prayer asks God to cover our souls with the shadow of His wing even as we clothe our bodies. The chief importance of this prayer is that it can be often remembered since we put clothes on our bodies every day. Patrick’s breastplate prayer was often used in a similar way – other are Celtic prayers, and more modern Gaelic ones, associated with many every-day activities, laying a peat-fire, dressing, rocking a cradle, walking to work, rowing a boat, tilling the fields. Each is a place to remember, to recollect God’s presence, to meet Him there. God is to be met at every turn, but especially in the natural things, the elements that mediate His character.
For Brendan, about to begin his voyage, setting his face towards the sea is to put himself wholly at the mercy of God. His prayer, and sense of being open to God, inter-acts with his excitement at the journey ahead with glowing descriptiveness.
‘Shall I take my tiny coracle across the wide, sparking ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven….. O Christ, will you help me on the wild waves?’
Without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on, he was to throw himself ‘wholly on the King of kings,’ more properly and completely part of that rhythm, in an exhilaration of abandon that entranced as well as frightened him. No wonder the call of the peregrinati, that call to wandering journeys which was a ways an ingredient in Celtic Christian culture fascinated and inspired so many!
For Columba, standing on a rock, gazing on the face of the sea, all his thoughts and hopes and prayers and memories and regrets break and crash on the rocks before him.
‘I hear the heaving waves chanting a tune to God in heaven ….
I hear the waves breaking, crashing on rocks,
like thunder in heaven…..
Contrition fills my heart as I hear the sea;
it chants my sins, sins too numerous to confess …
I watch the ebb and flow of the ocean tide;
it holds my secret, my mournful flight from Eire.’
Rhythm and music like silence are there already; it is for us to enter in. St Paul says, ‘There is a rest that remains for the people of God.’ That sabbath of rest awaits our participation.
There is a lovely tale about a monk at Glendalough known for his holiness, a brother by the name of Moliny. He fasted several days a week, and would never allow himself the indulgence of hearing music. These practices were not his boast, but are pertinent to the story. A young man with a harp arrived at the monastery, shared a meal with the brothers, and prayed for them. Enquiring after Moliny he is directed to the church where he began to play. Moliny put wax in his ears to block out the sound. It melted to Moliny’s amazement. Just then the young man scraped a small stone over the strings producing horrible screeching noises, and Moliny writhed in agony. As suddenly, he played sweetly on the harp, throwing the stone away and Moliny was soothed, and began to feel greater joy than ever he had known before.
When he finished Moliny asked, “Are you then a devil sent to tempt me, or an angel sent to bless me?” “Judge that for yourself,” said the young man. “When I scraped my harp with a stone, it made the noise of a devil, and when I played it with my fingers it made the sound of an angel. Music, like food and drink, can be and agent of evil, or a source of goodness.” Then he got up and left.
From that time Moliny welcomed all musicians to the monastery to play, and gave up fasting extra days to the others, and his brothers noticed he became more gentle and kind from that moment on and even acquired a sense of humour. He had more properly tuned in to the rhythm!
Meanwhile, let us return to Kevin who began the foundation at Glendalough a full generation before. He probably has scarcely breathed – out of love for the bird and the eggs that would hatch in his hands. He would look on prayerfully till the new generation could fly!
Care for the creatures, and authority over the elements.
It is as if the saints are reverting to a pre-existent rhythm, becoming part of the very song of creation itself or resuming the custodial role that Adam had over the creatures in the Garden. Kevin holds himself very still and continues to pray and the blackbird thinks no more of it than if a tree supported the nest.
But Alistair Maclean says in ‘Hebridean Altars’
‘As the hand is made for holding and the eye for seeing Thou hast fashioned me for joy.’
He goes on to pray:
‘Share with me the vision that shall find it everywhere’ Adomnan tells a lovely story of Columba prophesying the coming of a storm-tossed crane from Ireland, which would fall exhausted on the shore. One of the brothers he instructed to lift it tenderly when it arrived, and be its guestmaster in the house nearby, feeding and caring for it for three days before flying back to Ireland. All of it happened as he foretold and Columba was able to commend the brother for “tending well the pilgrim guest.”
Cuthbert showed the sane concern for the eagle who brought it food to him and his companion when he told the boy to cut the fish in half quickly so the eagle could have its share.
These saints not only cared for the creatures, but had authority over them too when necessary. Listen to Columba rebuking the water beast at Loch Ness; “You will go no further. Do not touch the man; turn backward speedily.” At this the monster fled terrified in swift retreat as if being pulled by ropes! What is not clear is whether the creature found itself pulled back and was terrified by the experience or whether Columba’s rebuke so frightened it that it was eager to get away! When doors open, and gates do the same, we are clear that material things are not responding out of fear, but nonetheless submitting to the relentless authority of one empowered by the presence of Christ within. He has authority over all nature, all matter, and is able to rebuke winds and waves and still them with only one word. When the time for His passion comes, He chooses not to exercise that authority.
‘At his death no fire came upon his captors to burn them, no great flood rose to sweep them away, the earth did not open to swallow them up, the sky did not fall to crush them.’
He has the power to bring about any of these things.
One of the most remarkable pieces of Celtic poetry is the section of Patrick’s ‘Deer’s-cry’ known as the Rune of St Patrick. The same authority is claimed on the name of Christ over the whole elemental realm and everything is ordered to conic to assist the pray-er. None of them are seen as good or evil in themselves, but as Moliny discovered with the music of the harp can be made to serve good or evil. Listen carefully to Patrick as he claims protection when his life and the future of his mission in Ireland are in danger:
‘At Tara, in this fateful hour, I place all heaven with its power, and the sun with its brightness, and the snow with its whiteness and the fire with all the strength it hath, and the lightening with its rapid wrath, and the winds with their swiftness along their path and the sea with its deepness, and the rocks with their steepness and the earth with its starkness, all these I place by God’s almighty help and grace between myself and the powers of darkness.’
Power, Presence and Poetry
Greek and Roman ways of thinking seemed to tend towards analysing and legislating, but in contrast the Celtic branch of the church always seemed predisposed to sense and experience, and awareness of natural surroundings, and of the immanence of God’s presence.
Columba standing on his rock observes:
‘I see the golden beaches, their sands sparkling;
I hear the joyous shrieks of the swooping gulls.
I hear the waves breaking, crashing on rocks,
like thunder in heaven …
Let me bless almighty God whose power extends over sea and land, whose angels watch over all …
Let me do my daily work, gathering seaweed, catching fish, giving food to the poor.
Let me say my daily prayers, sometimes chanting, sometimes quiet, always thanking God.’
Columba sent a copy of his best poem, ‘The Glories of Creation’ to the Bishop of Rome as a present. In those days Rome was a powerful centre, but far from being the undisputed centre of power in church affairs. The Bishop of Rome acknowledged the genius of the poem, but would not put it in the Vatican Library because it only made reference to the salvation wrought on Calvary in one verse.
Columba wrote another poem, his great ‘Redemption Hymn’ in response to this challenge, so we should be grateful for the criticism, perhaps, but is it is essential for every piece of Christian art to preach in a self-conscious way?
John Noble, teaching in London, recalls that when the Jesus movement was at its height there was a craze of putting stickers on everything. Once, driving near a rally, he saw a tree with bright orange stickers plastered on to the low hanging leaves by some enthusiast. If the tree couldn’t say ‘Jesus Saves’ by itself, then a sticker wasn’t going to help!
The Celtic prayers use ordinary things to express spiritual ideas, just as Jesus spoke in parables about sheep and coins and yeast, so easily will Columbanus pray, ‘do thou enrich my lantern with the light, I pray thee, Jesus mine’ and ask God’s affection to so fill our senses that it may be in us impossible of quenching by the many waters of this air and sea and land,’ and it is not surprising that they are particularly drawn to such images in scripture as that in Song of Solomon which says
‘Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it’
God cares enough to take an ordinary man like Caedmon who avoids the ceilidhs and teach him to sing the glory of creation, to wake to still know the wonder and sing a song beyond his learning. This song finally led to his vocation to religious life. While the Celtic monasteries fostered learning, reading writing of all kinds God also bypasses that which is learnt and gifts who He wills with the gift of wonder. Both were to be enjoyed, and encouraged. When Caedmon became one of the monks at Whitby he spent his time in studying the Scriptures and composing verses upon them so that these might be sung in churches for the better instruction of the people. Caedmon’s poems were the first ever written in the English language as far as me know.
The descriptiveness of the Celtic writings speak vividly and pointedly, not in some flowery, self-indulgent way. They are not abstract or sensational. Hear again the description of the inside of the soul of a rich man without love, a wealthy man with no friends:
‘The darkest night, with neither moon nor stars, is like the brightest day compared with the darkness of this soul. The coldest winter, with thick snow and hard ice, is like the warmest summer compared to the coldness of this soul. The bleakest mountain, bare and swept by gales, is like the lushest meadow compared with the bleakness of this soul.’
Even Bede uses a powerful image when he describes Oswald’s impromptu cross being planted in the ground at Heavenfield before the battle that realised his sovereignty and a free course for the gospel. The cross stood like a root out of dry ground, the Calvary tree, the Waymark for God’s highway.