Here I came to the very edge, where nothing at all needs saying,
everything is absorbed through weather and the sea,
and the moon swam back its rays all silvered,
and time and again the darkness would be broken, by the crash of a wave
and everyday on the balcony of the sea, wings open, fire is born
and everything is blue again like morning.
Perhaps it is a fit of nationalist nostalgia that sweeps through me as my plane crosses the coastline of the British Isles. It is hard to tell as I have no love of monarchy, imperialism, empire or wars engaged in the name of ‘national security’. However I cannot deny my soul sings as I view the deep green islands that I live on when returning from an overseas trip. These tiny islands on the furthest edge of Europe, the subject of so much political interpretation, have for centuries captivated the hearts and minds of some of the finest poets, social reformers, Churchmen and women and spiritual journeyman our world has produced. I guess I am very much a product of their collective legacy. That heady mixture of idealism, mysticism and pragmatism rooted in the righteousness of God. A quality I believe that is at the heart of the prophetic tradition.
This is a post about the Rule of St Columba. One of the indigenous apostles and fathers of the British Isles. A towering figure of a man who for many students of Celtic Spirituality will view as one of the archetypes who embodied the essence of what it meant to be a Celtic saint. It is also a post about myself and how I came to discover Columba’s rule and how it transformed my walk with Christ in the light of my personal journey through charismatic protestant Christianity and my vocational calling as a jeweller and activist. My story is still unfolding as I write, or perhaps more accurately I am still unfolding as I learn to yield the illusion of control and peregrinate with the Holy Spirit as the breath of God blows.
I like many in the new churches in the UK during the late 80′s and 90′s lived with a deep sense of disconnect in many areas of life. The dialectic logic and politicised discourse that shapes our modern culture and church life, left me with a sense of being pulled in many directions. One foot in the church, one foot in the world and a profound sense of being out of step with the church as a whole. I never seemed to be on message as the continual pull to serve Christ in the poor led me into confrontation with the conformist culture and theological orthodoxy of British evangelicalism (an important point to note that at the time I was not clear what evangelicalism was). This vocational calling to ‘seek justice for the poor’ led me to start Christian Relief Education & Development (CRED), the creation of a company CRED Jewellery as an economic response to the plight of the poor and then logically into becoming an advocate for Fairtrade, human rights, environmental justice and indigenous rights. Exhaustive travel to some of the worlds most remote locations became common place as the development of partnerships that reflected Gods deep moral passion for righteousness and justice began to emerge in response to the voice of the Spirit.
Yet the outward journey as exotic as it seemed was not mirrored by the internal one. The food of the soul, the true resting place of my humanity, was being severely undernourished. This lack of sustenance I was fully aware of yet ill equipped to respond to. I found the project orientated language and subsequent spirituality draining with seemingly no way of plugging the hole.
Finding the Rule of Columba, I can only describe as moment of being found. As I digested the opening statements I felt as though I had arrived at a destination and point of departure all at the same time.
Be alone in a separate place, but near a chief city, if your conscious will not permit you to be in common with the crowd.
There is only so long that you can spend wearing your clothes inside out until the stupidity of how you look becomes apparent to yourself. This simple opening was a revolutionary worldview changer for me. I found that the orientation of my walk with God was principally facing in the wrong direction. Be alone became a quest for ‘our space’. Before anything I needed to find my location to encounter the Trinity. Secretly I had always been drawn to the contemplative, the hermit, the isolation of the mystic, the desert. That deep need to be alone with God.
For the Celtic church (like its earlier influence the near eastern Egyptian and Syrian Monastic fathers) spirituality was set in the location of creation. Creation was the cathedral of worship and Columba opened the way for me to move from the addiction of buildings, to the open space of water and wood. This in and of itself is not especially radical, but as I discovered, it had never been the automatic default of my history with Christ. In being embraced by Columba, it was almost as though permission was given to go native, indigenous. To allow the green grass and the rolling downland to open up and embrace me. Being alone (not lonely) in a separate place, was the normal state expected by God of me now.
But near a chief city, became the remedy for isolationism and irrelevancy. When Christ first called me, the simple words that came to me at Turnham Green Tube Station were ‘Come follow me, I have a specific job for you to do’. I came to understand that stillness in Christ, did not mean inactivity, it meant dynamic creativity. The City became the sphere of influence that God called me to – in my case the world of jewellery and the call for greater levels of transparency and traceability in the most polluting industry in the world, namely Extractions Industries. If I was to rest in God – the dynamic Creator – the Holy Trinity – the source of the eternal river – the ancient fire of righteousness and justice, I could not be inactive. The fire always burns, the river always runs, the Holy Community continues to love eternally. To be still and alone in the Godhead was in fact the most explosive place to reside.
Unless your conscious will permit you to be in common with the crowd. For me this was the voice of the bloody obvious and I kicked myself that I had not seen it before. The natural state for the ‘peregrinus’ is to be alone with God and moving from that place to influence the ‘city’ as directed and called. I was after all in the world, but not of it. In my early impressionable years as a Christian I had been led to believe that the key to effectiveness for the Kingdom was to be ‘culturally relevant’ to ape society but to have a different message. In short immerse yourself in the world and stand against the tide where ever possible. It seemed that Columba was saying, no. To be immersed in the world, to assume the looks, the smells, the noises and postures of society was a specific act of conscious. A dispensation given to some but not everyone, not the norm for the follower of Christ. I began to understand why the British Isles became so populated with radical monks and monastic communities during the post Roman period of British history. Why the deserts of Egypt began to fill up with aesthetics. Their conscious no longer allowed them to draw from the benefits and seductions of a world immersed in power, politics, greed, violence and consumerism. The open plains of God’s love drew them to the margins, where they encountered the truly divine hospitality of Christ.
Yet the aspect of my journey towards embracing Columban Spirituality that I have come to value most has been the new friends I have found. I have discovered Columba, John the Baptist, the captain of heavenly host Michael and The Apostle John in a new way. The great company of heaven on whose shoulders we stand are not dead, but very much alive. There words, their tone, their poetry, their confrontations, their very breath has become a refuge I seek. I knew from my personal reading that the Celts had a close relationship to the two John’s, their words and actions were to be meditated on and imitated. The voice of one crying in the wilderness was a reality for Columba given his location on the very edge of the known world. They have become companions on a road that has not been trodden by many at this time.
Being alone in a separate place is the door through which I have walked, drawn by the warmth of an ancient fire burning in the land I walk on. The sound of the indigenous spirituality of these beautiful islands I have been given time to explore. The place I sit and discover that the light of the sun is the mirror of The Son. That the evening birdsong is the chorus of heavens opera and where the voices of angels and creation are calling us through to our true destiny of being agents of the liberation of our world.