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EHE Process/Spiritual Path ,Spirituality
Record Type: Review   ID: 302

Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality

Newell, J. Philip

 This jewel of a book traces the thread of creation spirituality within Christianity to the Celtic form of Christian spirituality, which goes back to St. John the Evangelist and before that to "the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. It was a spirituality characterized by a listening within all things for the life of God" (p. 7). Newell describes the form and shape of Celtic spirituality in this slim volume. Reading it gave me a sense of homecoming. In the introduction he traces its history. Chapter 1 is about the teachings of Pelagius (who was excommunicated) who honored the goodness in every human being. The next chapter continues the history of Celtic Christianity emphasizing the teachings of the great Celtic Christian theologian John Scotus Eriugena. He held that "God has not created everything out of nothing, but out of his own essence, out of his very life. This is the light that is in all things" (p. 35). When a Benedictine monastery was built on the Celtic isle of Iona in the 13th century, it marked the end of official Celtic spirituality. But it was still alive among the common people, and in the mid 19th century Alexander Carmichael began to "record the prayers that had been passed down for centuries in the oral tradition of the Hebrides and the West Coast of Scotland" (p. 40). Newell says these prayers were not said in church but were sung or chanted in the midst of daily life. He says their most striking quality is "the celebration of the goodness of creation" (p. 41). The prayers Carmichael collected became known as the Carmina Gadelica. Newell quotes several and explicates them. Next he turns to George MacDonald, a contemporary of Carmichael’s, who found "a new channel of expression for this ancient stream of spirituality and communicating it in the form of short stories and novels" (p. 61). One of his best known is The Princess and the Goblin with its vision of the eternal mother. He felt "the grandmother figure, who represents the presence of God, is within our house, always near, whether we are aware of her or not" (p. 62). He was influenced by Alexander John Scott, who was labeled a heretic by the Church of Scotland for believing that signs of God’s presence are everywhere. The goblins in MacDonald’s story represent the encroachments and threat of materialism that was taking over, promoting the concept of the thingness of nature. Scott continued his teachings, including that God loves all peoples and that God "is the Life within all human life" (p. 70). Scott and MacDonald took the Celtic spiritual stream into education and politics as well as literature during this period when it was "a spirituality without a church" (p. 72). Next comes Norman MacLeod and then his grandson George, who taught that spirituality should be sought in the world and in daily life. They played an important role in getting British Christianity to rediscover the stream of Celtic spirituality. The latter taught that there was a thorn in the Garden of Earth, the thorn of violence, and so he taught nonviolence. He also believed that "death is not a departing from life but a returning to its Heart" (p. 93). In the closing chapter he describes the two ways of listening to God; the ways of the two disciples, John and Peter. We need both to fructify Earth and ourselves—one to see God in everything and the other to make us aware of our propensity to sin, or, in effect; malign creation and ourselves.
Publisher Information:Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997. Pp. xi + 112. Chapnotes: 109-112
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