The theologian in me enjoys creative challenges. Like how to craft a cohesive sermon weaving together themes of Celtic spirituality in light of the appointed Sunday readings, with specific focus on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 and Luke 13:31-35, and with an awareness of significant world events. Esther de Waal, Thomas Merton, Celtic prayers and saints (Brigid, Patrick, Columba), the horrific attacks on the New Zealand mosques, the Celtic cross. Read on for the full text of the sermon that I offered over the weekend.
We begin tonight through a mighty strength,
the invocation of the Trinity +,
through belief in the Threeness,
through confession of the Oneness,
of the Creator of Creation. Amen.
These words are attributed to Patrick, the great fifth century missionary to Ireland, confessing the Three in One and the One in Three, in his familiar breastplate, or lorica, his prayer of protection.
Happy Eve of St. Patrick’s Day, culturally. There’s always excitement in my home around this holiday, as St. Patrick’s Day cards arrive in the mail, and we read a children’s book of Patrick’s legends, and as if by bonus last night, are gifted with a double rainbow following the rainstorm. Some of you without children at home may have – other – St. Patrick’s Day traditions.
This interest in Celtic traditions and spirituality is a current of our culture for various reasons, I suspect. Thomas Merton, seeking to reconnect with his roots, discovered Celtic spirituality towards the end of his life. In a correspondence, Merton described “a whole new world that has waited until this time to open up.”
Esther de Waal, an Anglican scholar in Benedictine and Celtic traditions, has said that the Celtic world will open to us if we ask questions of it with reverence and humility. Our women’s gathering group already began this holy work when they prayed through a compilation of meditations on the lives of several Celtic saints from the fourth through seventh centuries, written by Episcopal priest and retreat leader Mary Earle.
So tonight we continue in this spirit of reverence and humility as we wonder a bit, not about everything, but about a few themes – in scripture and tradition, in the cosmos and our lives – with the communion of saints and angels and Christ as our guides.
Beginning, as it were, with the stars in the sky.
Pilgrimage: A Celtic Way of Prayer
With Abram we stand beneath the starry sky, to find God in the cosmos and God in the revealed word.
Journeying, being on pilgrimage, is a theme found in the Celtic way of prayer. Coincidently, and lucky for me, our first reading and our gospel are stories of journeys. In Luke we are reminded that Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem, and us with him this Lent, as Jesus today foreshadows and looks to Palm Sunday with his phrase “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35b).
But let’s spend more time in the desert with Abram for now and see how this story captivated the religious imagination of Celtic saints and what riches it might hold for us along the way.
Fifteen-hundred years ago St. Columba of Iona heard the vision that we heard tonight in Genesis 15: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield…Look toward heaven and count the stars…so shall your descendants be…I am the Lord who brought you from Ur…” And St. Columba recognized in the journey of Abraham and Sarah the journey that each of us makes.
From St. Columba, as given by oral tradition:
“God counseled Abraham to leave his own country and go in pilgrimage into the land which God had shown him, to wit the “Land of Promise” – Now the good counsel which God enjoined here on the father of the faithful is incumbent on all the faithful; that is to leave their country and their land, their wealth and their worldly delight for the sake of the Lord of the Elements, and go in perfect pilgrimage in imitation of God.”
So we go as we are sent and find the necessity to go from one place to another. But the way of pilgrimage, as many of us know, is not easy always. Confusion, uncertainty, fear, longing, rejection, unwelcome, and violence – all can be part of the experience. Abram, in his confusion and doubt, says, “Thank you, God, for the promise of descendants. Are you aware that I have no children?” St. Columba, who left Ireland for Iona, writes this poem of longing for his home.
Were all Alba mine
From its center to its border,
I would rather have the site of a house
In the middle of fair Derry.
It is for this I love Derry,
For its smoothness, for its purity;
All full of angels
Is every leaf on the oaks of Derry…
Of places we have loved and left! Of places brimming with angels and saints, made holy by their prayerful presence and ours in the unity of the cosmos! Where God comes close to us, and we come close to God. “Thin spaces,” to borrow a Celtic phrase.
I resonate with this, having lived in five cities in four states over the past two decades. I am not sure where your thin spaces are along this journey, or even thin times. For me I would write of Appalachia, whose mountains console me each time I return.
If all of Lancaster County were mine, I might write,
In all its beauty,
I still would rather live in a small house
on a mountain in Appalachia,
In nature’s cathedral where:
“misty mountain haze is holy incense,
tall tree trunks are temple pillars,
sun-splashed leaves are stained glass,
and song-birds are angelic choirs.”
Yet we go, as we are called by God, as we hear the words, Be not afraid, knowing as Columba knew, that “The path I walk, Christ walks it.” Christ – Emmanuel – Christ who would, as in today’s gospel, with the closeness of a mother hen, gather us under her wings (Luke 13:34b).
Pilgrimage: Journey to the True Self
In Celtic spirituality, ultimately, the journey is not so much from one physical end point to the next, in the way we think of going on a pilgrimage to a particular holy site. Rather, it is the path towards the resurrected self, the true self in Christ, my self healed, integrated and made whole, and my shadow side befriended…the place of my resurrection.
Along this journey we pray to have, as St. Brigid suggests, soul friends – anamchara – people to know us and to love and to advise us and to help us hear the truth of our lives into speech. People who will listen with us and help us to discern: God in the cosmos and God in the revealed word.
Things do open for us, if we ask questions with reverence and humility. Sometimes symbols align “in such a way that they throw new light on each other and on everything around them.” And with our religious imagination, we are able “to discover unique present meaning in a given moment of our life,” perhaps with the guidance of a soul friend, or a spiritual director.
The new moon aligned with Ash Wednesday last week, for instance. In our gospel that day Jesus enjoined us to give alms, to pray, to fast, and to do all of this in secret so none of it could be seen by others. Year after year, I hear this as simply, do not be like the hypocrites.
But this year I came home and, like Abram, I looked up to the clear night sky. And I saw the new moon, which is to say, I saw no moon that night, for the new moon is the secret moon, the hidden moon. And thus what I observed were constellations of stars, always there but not always as visible. And I wonder about the gospel and the stars. I wondered, on the canvas of my life, what in me needs to rescind, at least for a time, so that other parts of me, already there, may be seen.
I am not sure what this means for me on this point of journey to the place of my resurrection, but I know that it holds something. In so many ways we are, in the words of Merton, “living as listeners, with hearts attending to skies we cannot understand.”
The Breastplate and the Celtic Cross
Returning to Patrick’s breastplate, this prayer of protection for our pilgrimage…
The prayer begins, as we began, by invoking the mighty power of the Trinity; then the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of Jesus’ incarnational life; all the angels and saints, patriarchs, matriarchs and ancestors; the elements of nature: sun, moon, fire, lightning, wind, sea, earth, rock; all of this against the forces of evil.
I find consolation and strength in the summoning of the Creator and all of creation in protection against the forces of evil. But the prayer does not suggest naively that we will be spared all evil and harm in body, mind and spirit.
The prayer is not suggesting that prayers said faithfully in community can spare us all evil, as our siblings in the Abrahamic faith – they are us – dutifully at prayer on Friday in mosques in New Zealand, know painfully well. Evil exists. Praying and working for evil’s eradication in this life is necessary. Whether it be things named or unnamed, whether things hidden, or as in yesterday, evil broadcast live…evil aware of itself and boasting of it for the world to see.
Perhaps all the more important that our gospel today foreshadows Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and thus his triumph on the cross – Christus victor – the cross in tension with the world – symbolically shown in image in the Celtic cross, like the two on top of our bell tower and our chapel…the arms cross and the circle of the world around it, held in creative tension, and at the center of both, Christ victorious over violence and evil.
The Path We Walk…
We continue our communal journey to the day of the Resurrection and our personal journeys to the resurrected life, trusting that “The path I walk, Christ walks it.” We pray this moment, calling to mind the unity of communion of holy things and of holy people. Praying in the familiar words that end the prayer attributed to Patrick:
Christ to shield me this day,
So that there come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me.
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I arise.
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
For my shield this day I call:
A mighty power, the Holy Trinity!
In the making of all – through love.
[Domini est salus, Domini est salus, Christi est salus.]
Sermon given on March 16, 2019 on the Eve of the Second Sunday in Lent at Saint James Episcopal Church.
 I am indebted in this sermon to the scholarship of Esther de Waal, particularly as found in the first chapter of her book The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination (New York: Doubleday, 1997). This specific reference to Thomas Merton is found in a presentation given by de Waal at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London: Esther de Waal, “An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality,” filmed February 2, 2014, YouTube Video, 57:52, posted February 10, 2014 by StPaulsLondon, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCstQYrcREI. Merton read the work of scholar Nora Chadwick on The Age of the Saints in the Early Celtic Church. The correspondence I referenced was with Chadwick.
 The specific book is called Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints by Mary C. Earle and Sylvia Maddox, (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004).
 Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, 5.
 Ibid., 6.
 At Home in the Web of Life: A Pastoral Message on Sustainable Communities in Appalachia Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of This Land Is Home to Me from the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, (Catholic Committee of Appalachia, 1995). See: https://ccappal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/CCAbook040307-2.pdf.
 Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, 6.
 Ibid, xiv. Here de Waal is quoting Thomas Merton’s Contemplation in a World of Action.
 Ibid., 7.
 See Ibid., 17-27 for de Waal’s beautiful description of the breastplate legend and prayer.
 “They are us” are words spoken by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in reference to the fifty victims of the terrorist attacks on the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, 2019. The Episcopal House of Bishops met that same day and prayed, borrowing her phrase. From the Rt. Rev. David Rice, Bishop of San Joaquin and native of New Zealand: “Our immigrant and refugee sisters and brothers, say it with me, they are us….Our Palestinian sisters and brothers, say it with me, they are us. Those who even lose their way and do harm, say it with me, they are us. Amen.” See The Episcopal Church, Facebook, March 15, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/episcopalian/photos/a.430733387924/10158708102627925/?type=3&theater.