Friday, 3 October 2008

Celtic Prayer

The Path of Celtic Prayer
by Calvin Miller, IVP 978-0-8308-3504-1, 2007

I have just read this book which I borrowed from a friend. I made quite a few notes, but realised much of what was doing was just copying directly from the book. So, in order to respect copyright, I have re-written my notes in more of my own words with my own thoughts added. Some text is retained as written in the book, in quote marks. It may be a bit disjointed as I only picked out the parts that I feel spoke to me. It was very good book exploring Celtic Christianity and the author was, I felt, discovering it from a fairly charismatic evangelical viewpoint which at times felt a bit claustrophobic. But the underlying sense of discovering a more ancient and creation based spirituality was very strong and I liked the style of writing and the sense of discovery and journey within nature. The book was an easy read and so didn't always present a greater depth of exploration where I would have liked. If it had been my copy I would have been writing things and underlining bits all over the place.


The Celts (Greek keltos for stranger or alien) are a people of somewhat unknown origin, possibly from middle Europe, who found their way to our land somewhere between 1500 and 500 BC. The Romans drove most of them to the outer western edges of the British Isles where remnants of their ancient languages can still be found. Various missionaries such as Patrick and Columba then bought the gospel to them and so Christianisation of the Celts began.

Like most people the Celts prayed in ways that were appropriate to their lives and the context of their society, environment and culture. Their gods were drawn from the natural world which was to be expected. They were outdoor people, a concept probably that was meaningless in their time, as that is what everyone was. Nature was too big for them to grasp and so they naturally sought help from the gods from the land and sea and sought to manipulate them through prayers and incantations. When Christianity was bought to this pagan landscape so the Christian God became the King of Nature. The Celts may have confused their Christian God with nature but for most Christians, God is always greater than and separate from His creation. Nature can therefore be allowed to inform spirituality but you couldn't say God IS nature. I have a sneaking feeling that there is an alternative view. God is present in nature, it is His creation, in it He is constantly creating and evolving and thus there need be no separation.

At the heart of Celtic devotion there is a force called neart or nirt which is the Divine spiritual and creative energy behind all living things and it comes from the Trinity. Prayer is a way of tapping into this energy and the triune God. In praying to the Trinity we are praying to the full Godhead that creates and pervades the natural world and thus there is no separation of God, Son and Holy Spirit. As the Celts only knew the natural world they worshipped and prayed to a God who surrounded them just as the natural world did. Very Psalm like. God was not an icon fixed in a temple, but could be found amongst the rocks and bushes. "YHWH was the breath of the God of storms, whose wind (ruach) created, threatened and gave life."

Christians often pray to one part of the Trinity. God deals with all the big stuff; Jesus the personal; and the Holy Spirit just makes them feel good. The Trinity is expressed in the knotworks of neverending patterns of sovereignty and foreverness. In praying to the Trinity we can truly commune with it - we are taking God in His completeness and therefore we are complete. God has given us the earth's resources to meet our needs, but the whole Trinity is invloved in both our creation and sustenance.

The Celts were poetic people using ornate phrases of praise direct from the heart that weren't spontaneous but carefully formed. In "Megachurch 'entertainment evangelism' Jesus can be trivialised as a congenial host who smiles alot". The spoken word was believed to be more powerful that words frozen to a page. "They saw the Bible not just as God's word that should be applied, but as literature born on the high ledges between this world and the next".

The author warns about taking the Bible and fitting it to meet our own needs and something about needing to be careful about confusing the important biblical and doctrinal distinctions of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No further expansion on this was given and, although I think I know exactly what he meant, I am not sure I agree with his frame of thinking.

Praying scriptures out of doors is to be encouraged as then we are surrounded by the grandeur of God as exhibited and enhanced by nature. Try these passages:
Outdoors - last chapter of Job, Psalm 19, 23, 46, 90 : Mountains - Isaiah 40 : Harvest John 4 : Christmas - nativity : Epiphany - Matthew 28, Luke 1 : Seashore : Jonah, Galilean passages beginning at Matthew 4 : Sheep - John 10 : Evening - Passion narratives : Mid-morning - Sermon on the Mount : End of day - Romans 8, Philippians 2


The word Lorica is often used for 'breastplate' prayers: prayers that ask for protection as they journeyed to an unknown future. The cross is a bridge between this world where we live temporarily and the higher world where God reigns. We can never rest in a place of faith. In it we travel and learn of heaven and hell, life and death, sin and the gospel and the triune God. Each adventure we have becomes a metaphor, a new way to teach us about nature, the power of the Trinity and the gospel of Christ. When we live on the edge then pilgrimages are born.

I wonder if nature worship encourages a less self centered desire to pray and worship?

To the Celts, the forces or evil and death were very real with sickness, pestilence and enemies part of Satan's weapons. Lorica/breastplate prayers were their protection. Do people who look out for the work of the evil one actually attract it to themselves...? I personally have yet to be convinced fully of the presence of Satan (or even Jesus if I dare say it!), even after 20 years of being in an evangelical Christian environment, though I will acknowledge a 'dark side'. But that is a discussion for elsewhere.

The Celts took confession seriously because they took God seriously. If you believe in God then you see yourself as both sinful and needy and confession gives us the ability to escape all false opinions of ourselves. It is about a desperate longing for God, agreeing with God that our sin is sin, and serving God in the world. Yes, I agree to a point, but I could see things from a different perspective if persuaded...

Creation and redemption go hand in hand and at the end of the age He will recreate heaven and earth. Well, again, it depends how you see things...

Nature Prayer
This was the juiciest part of the book and I have saved this bit until last.
Nature encompasses a far greater world than can be observed and it is the place where mere mortals become God's servant of praise. With the Spirit flowing naturally though the entirity of life it must therefore permeate the worship of church. With God sustaining creation, in order to know the Creator you must seek him though creation. The Eucharist can be an excellent example of the concentrate of God's presence in all things. When in nature we automatically want to praise and if we allow our environment to deteriorate we have not only disobeyed God but we will have no place in which to praise and worship. "We can easily paste nature over supernature so that it becomes mere scenary. We so separate nature and faith that it can seem that would be essentially unchanged if creation were to cease to exist. Not so with the Celts (or the Bible)." Everywhere the Celts looked they saw creative love and the almighty nature of the holy Trinity. "...we must break through the cold, hard walls of our institutionalized worship and reach for the soft, warm reality of God that is found outdoors. It is impossible to imprison God within the walls of a church and yet claim that Christianity brings light, growth and life. We need to open the windows of our souls to admit God's creative energy..."

"Nature must not forget the Christ that died to redeem it from its great destroyer - Satan". To me, I feel that it is us humans who are ultimately nature's great destroyer. Perhaps... is there a 'satan' within us all that creates the dark side of humanity. Perhaps we are our own evil. We create it from with our own psychology. We are nature's satan. Not sure, don't know.....

The Celts had an holistic worldview, a world where faith and reason wound seamlessly together as the natural and supernatural worlds are intwined in their artwork.

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