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A Sermon from Sherborne
The fourth of five addresses for Compline at Sherborne Abbey on the Mondays of Lent 2020, due to be given on 23 March 2020 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods. In the event, the address was not delivered as all public services had by then been suspended on the instructions of the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the duration of the coronavirus epidemic.
Philippians 4.4-9: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
I said a couple of Mondays ago that I wanted to spend one of these talks on Celtic spirituality. As an Anglo-Saxon through and through – all my forbears as far back as I can go are South Saxons from East Anglia – I have nevertheless always been fascinated by the Celtic Church which has a good claim to be the original church of these islands, long before the arrival of St Augustine and his group of emissaries from Rome in AD 596.
You see, although the Christian faith had undoubtedly been brought to Britain by Roman soldiers and others in the train of the Roman army, it had also come from Byzantium via the trade route from the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar. And I think it is true to say that in Ireland, first, and then in Iona and across Scotland and northern England to Lindisfarne, and into Wales and south west England, that more Eastern-flavoured Christianity had put down deeper roots than the more Latin version in the south east and east and midlands. So it was the Celtic Christian tradition that best survived the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. Celtic Bishops, like those in the east, wore crowns rather than mitres. They used an ancient, although anachronistic, Greek system for calculating Easter, and their monks wore the Greek rather than the Latin tonsure. So when Augustine and his followers arrived in Kent in AD 596, bringing with them the latest understandings of these things fresh from Rome, it was inevitable that sooner or later the old traditions and what seemed to be the new would collide. The famous Synod of Whitby in 664, presided over by the formidable Abbess, Hilda, sought to adjudicate between the Celtic Church and the Roman mission. And yes, the decisions did go Rome’s way. The Bishop of Lindisfarne, Colman, refused to accept the changes and withdrew with many of his followers to Iona. But from then on the controlling influence in British religious development was to be that of Rome to which, after all, all Christians in Britain ultimately owed allegiance.
But what we might loosely term ‘Celtic spirituality’ survived in all sorts of ways, not least in the western and northern extremities of these islands. The particular rhythms and emphases of the Celt survived the Saxon and Norman invasions, the Protestant Reformation, Cromwell’s Ulster plantations and even the great wave of continental Roman Catholic triumphalism which swept these shores in the nineteenth century. Gradually, however, it became so eroded that it is only the patient recovery of Celtic books and prayers and poems and songs which has helped us to realise what a rich treasury of devotion was very nearly destroyed altogether. It has come to mean much to me, and I want to share some of its principal themes with you.
First, the Celt was not frightened to be penitent. We are too proud today, too reluctant to admit that we are sinners, to examine our consciences and our words and our deeds. The Celts had a greater humility, and knew their need of God’s grace and God’s forgiveness. And by living penitentially, the Celts were always prepared spiritually and psychologically to kneel at God’s feet and to receive that grace and forgiveness. I confess to you, my Lord God, that I have sinned in heaven and earth, before you and your angels, and before the face of all your saints.
Then, second, the Celts truly wanted to grow as Christians, to learn more about God and prayer and faith. To help them, they would choose an anmchara, a ‘soul-friend’, to be their counsellor, their guide, their confessor. The soul-friend could be a priest or a layperson, a man or a woman – just someone wise and patient, someone who would listen and would share, and would help to deepen faith, to deepen prayer. I wonder how many of you have a soul-friend? I know that most clergy would far rather be employed in this way than in being administrators and managers: it is what we were called to do and what we are trained to do. To talk about God and the things of God, to share and explore them with other people: this is the essence of Christian growth, and our growth simply as human beings. How pale and shallow our highly private and privatised, narrowly individualistic and self-centred religion looks, compared with the joy of the Celts in sharing their spiritual lives and experiences.
Then, third, the Celtic Christians had an intense sense of the presence of God. They have been described as ‘God-intoxicated’: people whose lives were embraced on every side by the divine Being. They saw God’s hand in all of creation; he was always very close; they could almost reach out and touch him. God was close at every point on life’s journey: the big moments of birth and marriage and settling into a new home and being ill and dying and being buried. And God was very close at every point on the journey of each day. The morning would begin with a prayer of consecration: Consecrate us heart and body, Thou King of kings, Thou God of all. Each heart and body, each day to Thyself, each night accordingly, Thou King of kings, Thou God of all. As the men went off to work in the fields they would use a journey prayer: Bless to me, O God, the earth beneath my feet; bless to me, O God, the path whereon I go.
Each season had its special awareness of the presence of God in the work, in the land: I will go out to sow the seed in the name of Him who gives it growth. Or God bless Thou Thyself my reaping, each ridge and plain and field, each sickle curved, shapely, hard, each ear and handful on the sheaf, each ear and handful on the sheaf.
Meanwhile at home the wife would have used special prayers as she kindled the fire and milked the cow, churned the butter, kneaded the dough and worked at her loom. And finally as night fell she would place three last squares of peat on the fire, to keep it in for the night: the first square for the God of Life, the second for the God of Peace, the third for the God of Grace. And as she laid the squares she would softly intone another special prayer: The Sacred Three, to save, to shield, this eve, this night, and every night, each single night. Amen.
A penitential life, a life of steady deepening in faith and prayer and the things of God, and a God-intoxication, a great and constant sense of God’s presence and protection in everything and everywhere: these were the hallmarks of Christian life and discipleship formed in the Celtic tradition. No-one could be more Anglo-Saxon than I, but I can see what we have lost – and what we could so easily regain if we were prepared to attune our lives more closely to those Celtic rhythms and spend our moments and our days practising an awareness of God’s presence with us in all things:
God to enfold me, God to surround me, God in my speaking, God in my thinking,
God in my sleeping, God in my waking, God in my watching, God in my hoping.
God in my life, God in my lips, God in my soul, God in my heart.
God in my sufficing, God in my slumber, God in my ever-living soul, God in my eternity. Amen