St Columbanus referred to life as ‘the great peregrinatio‘, yet what strikes me as so powerful about the Celtic saints, such as Columbanus, was that their story was not just about extraordinary travels and exploits and their mastery of the seas and the mountains, but also their rigorous personal spiritual disciplines that measured the quality of the internal journey. This axis of internal and external journey, although in no way unique to Celtic Spirituality, did manifest itself in a quite remarkable fashion through those who were indigenous to the British Isles.
In my personal journey with and towards Christ, this very axis has become the biggest point of contention and opportunity in my walk with God. There is no doubt in my mind that the current state of Christianity in the British Isles is out of sync with the heartbeat of God. The heart of the British church is beating certainly, but not in its natural rhythm. I also recognise that in my own life I suffer from an irregular spiritual heartbeat, my condition a perplexing mix of my own shortcomings as a person and the pollution that exists in the atmosphere around me. How does a fish define water?
With so little attention paid in modern life to the internal journey, the feeding of the soul and the formation of Christ in the internal world has become a priority for me. The words of St Paul, ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’ (Romans vii, 16) has taken on new meaning as I explore the question ‘what is a regular healthy spiritual heartbeat?’
This question disturbs me as I find myself engaging in a process of ‘apophatic thinking‘, or ‘negative thinking’ to find my way forward. I know what I do not want to do, I know how I do not want to behave, I know what in society I do not like, yet I remain at the mercy of the very atmosphere I despise. I know for example that the pervasive religion of ‘material capitalism’ impregnates every aspect of our lives and its destructive and ungodly forces shape our behaviour and are being felt across the world, creating untold misery for millions on every continent, yet I also know I am not free of the disease and the problem is internal as well as external. Therefore Christs’ salvation in my life is incomplete.
It is to the Celtic saints and their spiritual practices, I find myself turning more and more as I seek a daily rhythm, perhaps cure is a better word, for my liberation. More specifically to the Rule of Columba, and an exploration of his contemporary meaning and application. This is for me no mere intellectual exercise. If it was I would have failed at the first hurdle on the journey, as intellectual rationalism and the disconnect it creates between thought and practice is one of the very foundation stones of the amorality that exists within the very fabric of our society.
The ascetic disciplines and practices of the Celts are very foreign to our modern culture, yet I believe they offer us a route towards a new future. The current rise of ‘post-modern monastic’ expressions of lifestyle and community give testimony to the fact that the ancient ways are no longer ancient, but are in fact timeless and eternal and are attempting to find a way of breaking into our prison cells of individualism and materialism and setting us free.
Having settled in the indigenous British spirituality of the Celtic Church, I discover a vast panorama of potential right outside my doorstep and the challenge before me now is to allow The Holy Trinity – the perfect community – to harness me to that potential and help me move away from ‘negative thinking’ towards positive practice.
The Columban rule outlines a daily rhythm of ‘prayers, work and reading’ (rule 15), of ‘regular vigils from eve to eve’ (rule 14), offers direction on silence and solitude (rules 1, 5, 21), in fact covers a multitude of disciplines that engage not only the internal world of devotion and intimacy with Christ, but also the external world of ‘alms giving & work’ (rule 18 & 16) and how in simple ways to interact with others (rules 5, 6, 21). In the few years I have been working with this rule I have found its true wisdom rests in its power to re-orientate the inner life in a direction that is contrary to the course of the world. It echoes St Paul again when he cries;
all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are Children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Romans viii, 14-17a)
These rules act as guide to lifestyle and behaviour that in turn assist in attuning me to the course of the flow of the Spirit in life. Rather like a river that flows through the landscape of our lives. If the virtue of following an external rule is building those rules into your life and this very act in turn builds discipline that brings stillness and receptivity to the presence of God, then the building of the river banks is a sacred pursuit. On reflection the only form that the Spirit of Christ desires to dwell in and upon is the natural one that was created by God in the first place. The skin I am in and the land I walk on is the only home I have that God can dwell in naturally so I must become the vessel we journey together in.
What I am enjoying about the exploration of the Rule of Columba, is it takes place in the land from which it was born. In this world of homogenous global culture, of which Britain, as a historical empire and an eminent financial and military power has helped to shape, I am rediscovering the indigenous Spirit of the Creator in the beauty of this land that is being liberated into a new and emerging story. I know it to be a story that began with the ‘believing diaspora’ who fled the Roman Caesar’s persecution of the ‘followers of the way’ as they landed on these shores seeking safety. A story that blended and filled out the native culture that in the words of the Welsh bard Taliessin ‘we always new Christ as Creator, but never knew his name’.
It will again be a story that in the pagan barbarianism of unfettered materialism that is now the dominant culture, can find its voice, a discipline and a power to connect the Christ of all creation ‘to all who would receive him‘ (John i, v12).