Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My spiritual beliefs as a Christian Bard

Hello all! I hope you enjoyed my initial post. Bardry, and Celtic wisdom in general, have long been a major inspiration in my life, and this blog’s purpose is to help me apply my Celtic leanings to my daily life. I welcome any and all comments regarding my blog and what I post here. It is my hope and desire that I am not the only one who finds use from what I am doing here, but that others may find some of the same inspiration that I have.
Now, on to today’s topic! To the bards of ancient Britain, their vocation was much more than mere performance. The path of bardry was just as much a spiritual path as it was a role within the tribe. The all of the tales, songs, and poems that bards memorized and performed held much wisdom, and so the bard was as much a custodian of wisdom as he was a writer of song or poetry. Also, the bards saw the inspiration for their compositions not as coming from within themselves, but as coming directly from a divine source. The source was different from the gods or goddesses that most of the ancient Celts venerated. It did not have a face and was much more mysterious in nature. This spirit of inspiration was called Awen (Welsh) or Imbas (Irish). The old bards called to Awen to fill them with inspiration for their works and performances and would go through many different rituals to do so, some more elaborate than others. One example from Ireland tells of the filidh (Irish bards that focused upon prophetic poems) secluding themselves within pitch dark huts for hours until Imbas would grant them the inspiration for a poem.
Without going into too much detail about the ancient bardic practices, I want to get into my main point for today, which is my own spiritual beliefs and how they feed into my bardic path. I will offer advanced warning that I am about to touch upon things of a religious and spiritual nature. Knowing full well that there are few ways to offend someone as efficient as discussing politics or religion, I want to say that what will follow only reflects my own personal beliefs. This is not meant to be dogmatic in anyway, or to condemn others for their own beliefs. Having said that, any who still feel they would rather skip this particular entry are advised to do so. With that out of the way, I will proceed.
I have been raised and brought up as a Christian my entire life. As I have gone through my life, I have always loved God and wanted to please him, but I have never felt quite at home at church, or with some of the beliefs or practices that I saw there. One that I particularly remember was that I was told (by a party who shall remain nameless) that I should not question God or his commandments. This never sat well with me. I did not want to just blindly accept anything that was fed to me. I wanted to understand. I needed answers to my spiritual questions.
There have been numerous such examples of things within a religious or church context through the years that have put me off, but I believe what has gotten me the most is the tendency for the church to condemn the people who probably need help the most, just because they are “sinners”. Because of behaviors, acts, or what have you, the church, its members, and even its leaders, who one would think should be looked to for help, have shut out, disregarded, and occasionally openly condemned those who would come for guidance. I DO NOT believe that this represents how Christ would have interacted with these people, nor with anyone.
I have seen this time and time again. A few have hit very close to home. One of my very best friends (who shall also remain nameless) had been a member of a church for many years. After meeting his now wife, the two of them moved in together before they were married. Many factors went into this decision, not the least of which was my friend’s very unhealthy and dysfunctional home life. Moving in with his then fiancé was an escape to something healthier. Yet, when my friend went to his church leaders for advice, he was turned away for “living in sin” with his fiancé. Again this happened when he returned to them for advice on his relationship with his fiancé. He went to the church for advice and was spurned. The behavior of these church leaders hurt my friend deeply and for many years he struggled with his faith. He is only just now beginning to reconcile these events with his spiritual life.
Again and again I have seen this behavior. An in-law of mine was mocked and chastised by people who called themselves Christians, and to this very day is very bitter and torn in relation to virtually anything religious. I have met countless other people with the same story. Really, it would seem from the actions of these so called followers of Jesus, that the love of God is only for a very select few and that He has nothing but hatred and mockery for everyone else.
As is quite obvious by this point, I do not believe that this truly reflects the heart of God. I never have. As I have studied more and more about Celtic wisdom and spirituality, I ran across something that changed my life forever. That is Celtic Christianity. At first, I was merely fascinated with it in a superficial sense, simply because it was part of my beloved Celtic world, but the more I have learned about it, the more I see how this brand of Celtic Christian spirituality reflects my own deepest beliefs and feelings, and the more I feel that it holds within it an aspect of God that too many Christians have forgotten.
I will first give a very brief history. Christianity was brought to Western Europe by the Roman Empire. Some speculate it may have arrived earlier, but primarily the largest presence of Christianity came with the Romans, and was sustained by the Roman churches, as well as led and taught by them. Now, as I mentioned in my last post, the druids were the primary religious teachers of the Celtic world at this time, so one may wonder how they reacted to the arrival of a new religion, particularly one that only revered one god. Well, surprisingly, they took to it rather well. While there is some evidence of isolated resistance, as a whole, the Celts took to Christianity very naturally, like birds to the sky. Many scholars on the subject believe this comes from the druids beliefs being very similar to Christianity. In fact, as I mentioned previously, many druids actually became leaders within the Christian church.
Now around the year 410 C.E., the Roman Empire pulled out of the British Isles to deal with conflict elsewhere. This left the Christian churches that had been established in Britain to fend for themselves. And so they did. For nearly 200 years! During this time, without any outside influence from Rome or any other part of the world, the Christian church in the Celtic world began to form it owns unique identity and spiritualty. Influenced by the previous spiritual beliefs of the druids, this Celtic Christianity saw spiritual life everywhere. This view influenced many of their practices and the Celtic church began to be very distinct in the Christian world. The Celts even ordained women as clergy, and allowed their priests to marry, instead of requiring celibacy!
Now, when the Roman Christian influence returned, in the form of the Catholic Church based in Rome, Celtic Christian practice began to die down, and “orthodox” Christian practices became the standard. However, Celtic spirituality did not die out. It has survived to this very day, thanks to certain spiritual leaders and the folk practices and prayers of the Celtic people. In the past few years, Celtic Christianity has seen a resurgence and is once again gaining prominence.
What draws me to this Celtic flavor of Christianity is that it focuses on the omnipresence of God within creation. This simple belief leads to numerous other distinctions in Celtic spirituality that marks it as unique. Celtic Christianity is very optimistic, very mystical, and values nature very highly.
The Celts, all the way back to the druids, have always believed that nature and all that is in it contains a spark of the divine. Everything had a spirit. When Christianity arrived, this spark of the divine that indwelled all of nature was seen to be the Spirit of God. Indeed, some modern commenters have come to call Celtic Christianity as “the green Christianity”. This quote from an early Celtic theologian name Pelagius showcases this particularly Celtic reverence for nature.
"Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the fish in the river and sea: God’s spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent… When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that His hand fashioned every creature; it was that His breath had brought every creature to life. Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly." – The Letters of Pelagius 71

This view of God’s spirit living within all of creation lead to a deep mysticism. The Celts looked for God within their daily lives. If God was everywhere, then God could be sensed and experienced everywhere. Nowhere is this concept better reflected than within the prayers of the common Celtic people. Many of these daily prayers were collected for future generations by Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912) in a book called the Carmina Gadelica, which translates to “the songs and poems of the Gaels.” The prayers that are found within practically ring out with the eternal presence of the Spirit of God. Here is just one example:
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 mine ever-living soul,
God in mine eternity. –Carmina Gadelica III, p. 53
What attracts me the most to Celtic Christianity is the reverence that it holds for the essential goodness and dignity of humanity. God is present within all of nature, and that includes us most of all. Celtic Christianity does not believe in the doctrine of original sin. This is perhaps what caused much of the conflict that it had with the church authorities in Rome. Rather than viewing humans as essentially evil at our very cores, Celtic Christianity holds that, while we are indeed corrupted by sin, underneath that, at our very deepest point, we still bear the mark of God and His image. Pelagius said that sin was like an occupying army, suppressing the good people of the land. To use a contemporary example, I will cite Anakin Skywalker of Star Wars. He is a good, heroic character, but his noble intentions are corrupted by Emperor Palpatine. Anakin is so overcome with corruption that he essentially forgets who he is, and becomes Darth Vader, one of the most famous movie villains of all time. Now, as any who have seen Return of the Jedi know, Luke Skywalker manages to redeem his father, Anakin, by pleading to the goodness that still lived within him, buried beneath the machinery and malice of Vader. I believe, just as Pelagius and Celtic spirituality believe, that we are very much like Anakin Skywalker. We have become so overcome with sin and selfish desire, that we have all essentially forgotten who we really are. We are children of God. As children of God, we have His image stamped on our souls and we have His spirit living within us. Deeper than any sin, more powerful than any evil, is the love of God.
This, of course means that we should treat everyone with love. We need to look for that good within people, rather than writing them off as sinner, not to be interacted with. This is not how Christ, our living example for Godly behavior, would have treated ANYONE. From dining with sinners and tax collectors, to caring for the woman at the well, Jesus, shows us, time and time again in the Gospels that NO ONE is apart from the love of God. Pelagius, writing advice to a woman named Demetrias, asks her if we have not all met someone that was good and kind, but also not a Christian. He says, “From whence, I ask you, do these good qualities pleasing to God come, unless it be from the good of nature? (Letter to Demetrias 3.3) ” A contemporary Celtic Christian, and my personal favorite spiritual author, John Philip Newell, says in his book Christ of the Celts:
A number of years ago, I delivered a talk in Ottawa, Canada, on some of these themes. I referred especially to the prologue of the gospel of John and his words concerning “the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world” (John 1:9). I was inviting us to watch for that Light within ourselves, in the whole of the being, and to expect to glimpse that Light at the heart of one another and deep within the wisdom of other traditions. At the end of the talk, a Mohawk elder, who had been invited to comment on the common ground between Celtic spirituality and the native spirituality of his people, stood with tears in his eyes. He said “As I have listened to these themes, I have been wondering where I would be today. I have been wondering where my people would be today. And I have been wondering where we would be as a Western world today if the mission that came to us from Europe centuries ago had come expecting to find Light in us.”
I feel this more deeply than any desire I have in my whole being. I want the whole of the world to know of the Light of God within them and the love that God has for them. As I begin to train as a bard, I want my central message within all of my work to be the love of God, for everyone, no exceptions. To me, the Holy Spirit is like Awen or Imbas was to the bards of old. May God’s Holy Spirit give me the inspiration I need to successfully bring His message of love and peace to everyone. If you are reading this, know that you are a child of God, regardless of whatever you may have done in your life. Know that regardless of whether you are a man, woman, young, old, black, white, straight, gay, or, yes, even a non-Christian, you are still a child of God. Know that you have his Light within you. Know that he loves you. And know that I love you too.

If you are interested in learning more about Celtic Christianity, here are some of my favorite links on the subject: