A review of the lecture "Introduction to Celtic Spirituality" given by Esther de Waal, at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.
Ethan Ritter (HCCI Seminarian)
Feast of St. Columbanus, Ab.
I’m pleased to note that today is the Feast of Saint Columbanus, that old stalwart of the Hibernian missions who, in fact, was mentioned more than once in Mrs. de Waal’s lecture. I feel that perhaps it was meant that I chose Mrs. de Waal’s talk for the subject of my next assignment, as maudlin as that might sound. In any case I did not intend to listen to her talk to begin with — I own her book on Celtic spirituality in paperback and was going to use that — but figured that listening might, in the end, be more amenable. Given how much I enjoyed listening to this lecture I imagine I’ll be reading the book regardless.
Mrs. de Waal’s accent provided a bit of a stumbling block but I was able to persevere... albeit having to go back so many times to catch her words that a 40-minute lecture took over an hour to listen to. The lecture itself was delightful, and provided me with much food for thought. I appreciated her early comments on the distinctions between Benedictine and Celtic spirituality in the monasteries (touching upon the specifically-Roman influences picked up by St. Benedict) and how Celtic spirituality was marked by ‘connectedness’ and a sense of interpersonality. De Waal’s discussion of connectedness in Celtic praxis made me think of Martin Buber’s distinction between “I-and-it” and “I-and-Thou” relationships which posited God as the Eternal Thou, with whom a fulfilling relationship was the ultimate goal of relationships at all. I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that the Celtic Fathers honed in on this concept long before Buber.
One part that I had mixed feelings about was a lengthy metaphorical exposition of the Celtic Cross. I noticed something in a particular statement of Mrs. de Waal’s which I have seen particularly in ISM/Celtic/Liberal circles; namely a certain distance from the Suffering Christ. She comments that ‘at the heart of the Celtic Cross is Christ crucified — not the suffering Christ of medieval piety, the body in agony and suffering, but the Christ who speaks to early people: Christus Victor.’ I don’t wish to sound contrary but neither was I comfortable with what felt like a breezy dismissal of ‘the body in agony and suffering’. Liberal Catholicism’s distinctive rejection of crucifixes on the altar — which, if I recall correctly, stems from a desire to instead emphasise the Risen Christ — seems akin to this. Perhaps that’s a good thing given the HCCI’s dual Celtic and Liberal Catholic charisms but I confess it makes me uncomfortable sometimes. It seems to me that many people reject the crucifix and the general image of Christ suffering as counterproductive, or maybe just lesser significance, than the victory over Death which resulted from His suffering. Personally however I find deep significance in the suffering Son of God nailed to a cross for our (my!) sins. The knowledge of Christ’s suffering for me is a balm when I, too, so often feel bowed down by pain and anguish. To forget, disdain, or gloss over the Passion (none of which I’m accusing Mrs. de Waal of, it’s just her comment which prompted my reflection) in favour of the Resurrection is almost always meant without malice or impiety but nevertheless it is a trend which exists, and I am wary of it.
The rest of the talk was delightful and without blemish. To my happiness Mrs. de Waal mentioned the Saint John’s Bible of St. Vincent Archabbey here in the US, and the truly stunning artistry and beauty which has gone into it. I could not help but agree with her subsequent assertion that Christianity has been made ‘pallid’ and that we should recover the energy and beauty found in the Celtic tradition — which, given my unfailingly high-church proclivities, is hardly surprising. De Waal also spoke passionately and at-length against the othering of the Celtic church as at odds with Rome, and against the abuses and misunderstandings to which it is so frequently subjected; an issue which is no stranger to any communicant of the Holy Celtic Church and one we are vigilant against. I feel that it would be appropriate to quote from her remarks in a verbatim, if slightly abridged, manner:
"All sorts of expectations, particularly in America, are being put on the Celtic church by feminists, by people who are looking for ecological statements and so on, how shocking that would have been to St Columbanus ... the Celtic church loved Rome, the Celtic Church was part of the whole entiredom of Christianity in its day ... in its belief it was one with the orthodoxy of the whole of Christendom at that time."
This of course is a sentiment which could have been plucked directly from our webpage. So often these days people will pick and choose from their liking from the rich traditions of Christianity and justify gross innovations from their incomplete understandings. To stand against that trend is a worthy thing, because the fullness of the Christian tradition can only be completely found in concert with that faith once delivered to us — never in contrast with it.
Finally, Mrs. de Waal devoted a great deal of the talk’s end to discussing unity and diversity. She spoke of the various artistic and cultural influences evidenced in the Book of Kells and referred to the Book’s scribes as ‘consciously stating a unified position beyond divergent elements’ and, in closing, called upon us to recover the unity in diversity which could be found in the Celtic church of old. Personally I feel that the Holy Celtic Church International has been taking up that banner for some time now; planting a diverse set of charisms, liturgies, and spiritual approaches within a rich Celtic and monastic soil. So far my studies in St. Gall’s Seminary have only served to reinforce a deep affection and gratitude for our little jurisdiction and the riches it contains; I have no doubt that will continue to be the case.