Can We Still Feel The Rhythm Of The Celts?

Posted by Roger Ellis & Chris Seaton on 1 April 2013

The Celtic Christians had a richly holistic spirituality which challenges the dualism and one-dimensional spirituality of our age. There was a balanced concern for scholarship, the Bible and spirituality. It was led by a strong Trinitarian theology and a wonderfully holistic approach to worship and art. Their worship included many different facets and was rich in symbolism.
We highlight these aspects not to endorse superstition, but to exhort us towards greater depths in our walk with God. We're saddened that in our noisy, relentless lifestyle as Christians we're at times afraid to be quiet, to meditate and to experience God's truth as we focus on him.
As evangelicals and charismatics, often our meetings reflect the frenetic and one-dimensional aspects of society rather than leading people to be fed in an encounter with the living God.
We are whole human beings, so in order to perceive God fully it's not a case of us encountering him only with our minds - or even just with minds and emotions. There are other senses like smell and taste which can further adorn the body of God's truth.
If this were not so, the 'breaking of bread' would not need to be participated in, merely talked about! Furthermore, there's no particular need to retreat into dead expressions of form and tradition that often have plenty of symbolism, but whose symbols have died in the eyes of many.
We believe that in this generation and culture, many churches will have to reassess their attitude towards liturgy and symbolism.
In this vein, what we're looking for is not necessarily a regression into past liturgies but an expression of new liturgies and symbols which engage dynamically with contemporary culture - while at the same time drawing people to encounter the living and dynamic power of God's Spirit.
As we begin to explore these areas we will open ourselves to both cynicism and misrepresentation. For example, in our own situation a couple of years ago, people began to carry sticks in the context of their worship.
For Roger, his own coloured stick of red, white and blue originated from his studies relating to the Celtic Christian movement. He became impressed with the way they used colours symbolically. He encountered the fact that often red, for them, was the colour of blood martyrdom - the laying down of one's very life and life-blood to follow Jesus.
Following on, the colour white symbolised the denial of one's own agenda and lifestyle in order to be fully taken up with following Jesus. The colour blue for them symbolised the crucifying of the sinful nature and 'dying to self'.
This symbolism seemed especially poignant to Roger. So he made a stick of the three colours which he carried around in the context of worship. As he prayed, observing and touching the various colours, he could be engaging and focusing on the cross of Jesus, his shed blood and other aspects of the symbolism. For a period the carrying of the stick symbolised some key things that God was impressing upon Roger's heart and life.
At times we've overheard a measure of cynicism relating to 'sticks', and criticism at the assumed shallowness of such symbols. Our view is that a symbol is merely a symbol. There are perhaps as many sticks in scripture as there are candles!
A stick has the potential to be both profound and vacuous, as can a candle or any other form of symbolism. In fact, sticks aren't the issue. We were stunned to find various people across the body of Christ having theological discussions over sticks and their nature.
The fact is that months afterwards people were still talking about sticks when in actual fact by that time you'd be hard pushed to find so much as a twig in any of our meetings!
Sticks were not the issue. It was the beginning for us of finding new and often transitory symbols (more in keeping with the post-modern mindset) to help us as churches and individuals to engage more deeply with God.
As the prophetic times and seasons of the Church ebb and flow alongside the changes in our communities, so our symbols need to be remixed, changed and often reinterpreted. So in our everyday lives we need to be looking at fashion, clothing and other areas of symbolism to help people reflect on God's truth on an ongoing basis. Rather than wearing sackcloth and ashes, perhaps contemporary clothing and jewellery could be designed which symbolises devotion to God. Then when, for example, our people go out into clubland they will carry some symbols which not only provide them with a reminder of God's hand upon their lives, but also with some potential conversation starters.
Celtic Christians appear to have had a rich appreciation of culture and art. To them work was sacred. As they walked they prayed. They crossed themselves. They symbolically drew circles around as they prayed for protection. Their prayers encompassed the rhythm of life and were very earthy. They had prayers for getting up, dressing, working, resting, meeting friends, cooking, tidying the house, undressing and going to bed.
They were deeply influenced by scripture, as well as being Christ- centred. But symbolism was part of their lives. We find this profoundly challenging. Every aspect of life, every day, filled with a sense of spiritual significance and also lived in a way that is conscious of God's love and provision. More liturgical expressions of Christianity try to incorporate this by having various offices and services throughout the day. It would be fair to say that while we appreciate the heart behind this approach, this is alien to our culture and ecclesiology.
Furthermore, the last thing we'd want to end up with is a kind of ritual-bound religiosity. For example, there's something strange about saying prayers of grace before meals after we've been praying for two hours together, and are actually in an environment of thankfulness! Or, indeed, prayers of thanksgiving before meals when actually people are completely traumatised because the food they're about to eat looks more like a cremated ferret than something which inspires praise to the living God! In fact a prayer for mercy - rather than thanksgiving - may be more appropriate!
We are greatly attracted to the table grace that is traditionally associated with Brigid and her community which was famous for its hospitality:
I should like a great lake of finest ale For the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith, And the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God's children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God's joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place, And the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God, embrace.
How do we bring a sense of thanksgiving and wholeness into our lifestyle? How do we bring a sense of thanksgiving and prayer into the everyday and mundane areas of life?
How do we help people encounter the living presence of God in an ongoing way? How do we help people express a Jesus-centred and scripturally orientated sense of lifestyle in all they are doing?
These are questions that we need to be asking at this moment in time if we are really going to help our people towards an experience of the living God in everyday life. The Celtic Christians' prayer life shows a balance through many different approaches. It would appear that charismatic, ecstatic and aggressive noisy battle prayers were usual. There was also a clear emphasis on silence and stillness.
At times their lives were very austere with fasting and prayer. The Celts went to remote places for spiritual retreat, sometimes for short periods, sometimes for years. We believe there is much we can learn from this. If we can encourage a healthy rhythm of aggression and activity contrasted with silence and stillness; of fasting contrasted with feasting; and spiritual service and exertion contrasted with retreat and soaking in God's presence, then we believe we'd be far more whole and less impoverished in our spirituality.
Rather like the post-modern age the Celtic church had many symbols. It had a way of converting or reinterpreting pagan symbols. For example, the knot which was the pagan symbol for the endless cycle of existence became the symbol for eternity. Within this symbolism was a great deal of scholarly and biblical research. The Celts had many great Old and New Testament biblical scholars and some notable theologians.
This symbolism gave a rich dynamic to their spirituality. And it gave them many vehicles through which to engage the broader culture around them. Within this symbolism there was a tremendous sense of imagination.  They perceived God with all of their senses and appeared not to degrade either the intellect or the emotions. Much of their communication came through symbols. Many of their statements of faith were expressed in carvings as well as within written manuscripts. Drawings and symbols were used rather than concepts.
The Trinity has often been described as like ice, steam and water.  Patrick's famous illustration was to explain the Trinity by using the shamrock. They planted crosses all over the place, situating them on pagan sites to describe symbolically the power of the gospel. We would strongly emphasise that Christianity is not a 'mystery religion'. The Book of Colossians reveals that Christ is in fact the 'mystery' and we, through salvation, are in on the secrets.
However, God's ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Is 55:9). As finite human beings it's impossible for us fully to understand and perceive everything about God with our rational minds. We must continue rationally to formulate, teach and emphasise the importance of engaging the brain to grasp God's objective truth.  However, if our spirituality is restricted to an intellectual exercise and the living Lord is boxed into our particular systematic theology, then we cease to do him justice.
The love, grace and authority of the living God are at the same time understandable and also beautiful mysteries which can be further encountered through the creative, the symbolic and through our senses. Often as evangelicals we 'kill off' worship by ensuring everything is defined, controlled, scripted and boxed in. We seem afraid to express that we neither know everything nor understand everything.
Confessing and celebrating this fact doesn't make the living God any less real. In fact it comes as a relief to many believers who, while they have an intimate relationship with the Lord on one hand, find many aspects of his glory hard to perceive and contain. And quite rightly so, for they are only human!
In this culture we believe we'll again need to use the poetic and the visual. We are encouraging many people to begin to explore and demonstrate their spirituality through the use of the creative arts. As we have done this in the context of the church we've been aware of different people involved in sculpture, pottery, various forms of artwork, fashion and other areas of creativity.
We've encouraged them to use these idioms to portray their faith and to stimulate a questioning hunger. In these areas the last things we're looking for are pictures of doves flying all over the place and dramas where people get saved at the end! We are looking to stimulate a more challenging and indigenous grassroots expression of our hunger for God portraying different aspects of his glory.
Also, at times, within the context of our worship meetings, we've encouraged artists to come and draw what they feel is happening as the church worships together.
We've also had sculptors and even potters working to one side of the meeting. Sometimes, in the process of the worship the artists are encouraged to interpret what it is they're portraying.
At other times the work is left to stand in its own right and people are invited to go and view it at the end and ask the Holy Spirit to speak to them. These experiments have been well received by visitors, who've been stimulated and challenged as well as surprised by the creativity. Furthermore, some of our church members who aren't particularly turned on by singing or engaged by some of the more monochrome expressions of worship have found a fresh stimulation and outlet for their Jesus- inspired creativity.
There has been fresh vision and edge among the creative and more prophetic people in the church community who've now been allowed to come to the forefront. As a result, on a good day, our corporate worship expression as a church reflects the heart and gifts of people right across the community - and also has a greater level of creativity and depth about it.
[This article is taken from Chris and Roger's book 'New Celts: Following Jesus Into Millennium 3' published by Kingsway (1998)]

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