Sunday, November 30, 2014

Celtic Spirituality

"And now for something completely different"! 

Yours truly has agreed to review several of the books in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. This provides a great opportunity to discuss some of the great spiritual traditions which surrounded the Celtic tradition including the Benedictine, Augustinian and Dominican to name just a few! So stay turned for some Continental overviews as we step out of the Celtic world for a bit. 

But as you would expect, I must begin these reviews with the book on the Celtic tradition. 

Journeys on the Edges (2000) is part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series by Orbis books. As indicated in other reviews in this series, the overall aim is to reveal the breadth and depth of Christian spirituality. Journey on the Edges (JOE) highlights the unique contribution of the Celtic tradition and primarily focuses on Ireland although readers will be aware that the Celtic tradition extended throughout Britain and into Europe, making headway even into Italy.

The title is appropriately selected, for as I read and re-read JOE I felt as if I was on a journey and the book moves at a fast pace. First, the author dispels some of the popular misconceptions surrounding Celtic spirituality. JOE debunks the notion that there was ever a unique Celtic spirituality or even a unique “Celtic Church’ which some writers believed grew apart from the Roman Catholic Church. Then O’Loughlin discusses some of the key elements to the Celtic point of view. From St.Augustine the Celts received a sacramental view of the earth and universe. From Eucherius they learned of monastic model of tranquility and from Cassian they learned principles of desert spirituality. Clearly, these monastic, desert values fit in well to the rural calm throughout most of Ireland and the model flourished. 

The book then moves on to discuss how many Celtic writers thought of themselves as living of the edge of the world, and of time itself, far away from Rome, the then center of the known world. Anyone who has travelled in Ireland or the Scottish Highlands or islands even today, can understand this sense, of remoteness and timelessness. Try and what that sense of remoteness was like over 1500 years ago!

Other sections of the book discuss key figures and subjects such as the medieval philosopher Eriugena; St. Patrick; St. Brendan; the contribution of penance to Catholic theology; and a discussion of some sermons to assist us to understand the mind of that time. O’Loughlin remarks; “we see a particular vision of the Christian life coming into focus. It is one which finds echoes of the divine order in the human body and external world, and it sees a pattern for life in the earthly life of Jesus. Here the sacramentalism found in learned monastic texts has been brought into the common currency of preaching to women, men and children on a Sunday” (131). What is particularly surprising here-and in contrast to Latin Christianity-is that the divine order is linked with both the human body and the physical world. And here I think lies some of the major contributions of the Celtic spirituality-a spirituality of the body and the physical world-not just of the mind and intellect!

I like this book, it surprises me as I turn the pages and touches on subjects I do not see cited in other books on Celtic spirituality. JOE is not what I expected but I say that in a good sense for I feel it tried to fill in some of gaps which exist in Celtic studies.That being said, JOE has the feel of an academic book, and is a probably best fitted for college or graduate students. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

"Awake: The Life of Yogananda" Film Review

AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda

This past weekend, my wife and I went to see a new film about
Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder of the Life Realization Fellowship. The film, AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda, is a well produced and colorful film, lasting about an hour and a half and provides an overview of the life and work of Paramahansa Yogananda.

You might be wondering what this has to do with Celtic Christianity? No, Yogananda was not born in Cork, Ireland, nor did he speak any Gaelic! However, as this is a blog about spirituality, and as someone interested in learning more about the practice of meditation, Yogananda is an important spiritual figure that one should know. Millions of people, including myself have read Yogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi"(1946) and benefitted from reading it.  "Autobiography of a Yogi" is a funny and entertaining read, which describes Yogananda's encounters with spiritual men and women, and his coming to America. Not many people in the West were familiar with eastern spirituality in the 1930's but even then, there was an appetite for things Eastern. Yogananda gave thousands of lectures in America and started several communities across America, the main house being in Mount Washington near Los Angeles, California.  Yogananda's broad message was that self-realization was possible through yogic control of the mind and body which anyone could learn and practice.

If you've never read "Autobiography of a Yogi" then seeing this movie provides a fine introduction. The book is ranked as one of the top 100 religious books of the last century. Overall, I felt the film made some great points. Notably, that many Americans remain interested in spiritual practices, and in spiritual practices which include a deep sense of mystery (mysticism) and a kind of spirituality which embraces all aspects of one's self-not just the mind. Translation-many people find meditation and yoga so helpful, attractive and restorative because it is a mind PLUS body spiritually, which adds up to wholeness!

Moviegoers, I would also advise you to take the time to read the book which can be found in almost every second hand book shop. One sees it everywhere! The book provides a nice introduction to Hindu spiritual literature-the Vedas, Upanishads and the Mahabarata. And the book also has those fascinating and hilarious accounts of  holy saints; the Perfume Saint, who could conger scents at will; the Tiger Swami, who wrestled and defeated tigers; and the Levitating saint. You will also want to read about Yogananda's meeting with the Catholic Saint, Therese Newmann, who ate nothing but a communion wafer daily for years. And of course, you will learn about Yogananda's great teachers; Lahiri Mahasaya and Swami Sri Yukteswar. Much of this is passed over in AWAKE!

To be honest, having read the book, I was disappointed by the movie-which came off like a long ad for the Self-Realization Fellowship. I did enjoy aspects of the movie such as the old videoclips of Yogananda interspersed with comments by Steve Jobs, George Harrison and Deepak Chopra.  I also appreciated learning more about Yogananda's meeting with Gandhi.

Surprisingly, you can also learn something more about the Bible by encountering Yogananda.
Yogananda was well read in the Bible and expressed a reverence for Jesus, who he referred to as "the Galilean Master". Yogananda also wrote a commentary on the Gospels (something I wish I knew about when I was in seminary) called "The Second Coming of Christ" which many have find to be a fascinating blend of Western and Eastern thought. It's unlike any biblical commentary I have ever read and I found many of the interpretations to be fresh and new. For example, Yogananda interprets the second coming of Christ, as Christians living in the world and being Christ in the world. This seems to me a needed compliment to interpretations focused on a literal return of Christ.

A trailer for the film can be found here.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Number 5: The Carmina Gadelica

Coming in at number five on my top five books on Celtic Christianity is the Carmina Gadelica!

If you'd like to know why so many people are attracted to Celtic Christianity and spirituality this book is for you. Carmina Gadelica, "the songs of the Gales", is a massive collection or prayers and songs in the oral tradition by Alexander Carmichael from way back in the 1800s. Fearing that much of the oral tradition of prayers would be lost, Carmichael travelled throughout Scotland and wrote them down. And what Carmichael collected was simply amazing stuff!

Reading these prayers, one sees that the Celtic mind was God-intoxicated, and God was present and felt everywhere and was "behind" every event. With each page and prayer, one realizes God consciousness at every turn and event, from getting up at sunrise, till sunset, and everything in between! Theologically we would call the Celtic mindset panentheistic-God was in everything.

Fast forward to today, and consider that for most contemporary Christians, prayers are limited to church or the home and typically formal. Frankly, such common prayer seems quite canned and overly formalistic.

Carmina Gadelica is how true Christian prayer was meant to be; spontaneous, lively, of the moment, and in every place. We can thank our Celtic brothers and sisters for reminding us that Christianity and the church is not something linked to buildings and similarly that prayers and not just linked to formal readings each Sunday. 

This volume is a must for any serious student of Celtic Christianity. Read, savor, and be proud of the Celtic tradition of prayer

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Number 4: The Wisdom of the Celtic Saints

Ed Sellner's "Wisdom of the Celtic Saints" (2008) pulls in as number four on my list of top five books on Celtic Christianity. I give it this ranking for "chronological reasons"! After having some of the history, and primary sources under your belt (books 1-3), you are now ready to launch into the great hagiography (lives of the saints) which makes up so much of Celtic Christianity.

And here Sellner delivers the proverbial home run-slams it out!

I love this book! Several features about "Wisdom of the Celtic Saints" keep drawing me back to the book.  First, the book is beautifully laid out with cool maps and drawings of the saints. These remind the reader these accounts are about real people who had real struggles and that we can learn important lessons from them even though they lived centuries ago.

Second, the introduction provides of one the best and most concise introductions to Celtic Christianity I have ever read. Right out nails it!

And third-and this is the meat of the book-Sellner provides you with lively sketches of the lives and wisdom of 27 Celtic saints. Some of these saints you will have heard of: Aidan of Lindisfarne, Brendan of Clonfert, Bridit of Kildare, Columban of Luxeuil, Columcille of Iona, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, David of Wales, Gall of St. Gallen, Hild of Whitby, Kevin of Glendalough, Ninian of Whithorn, Patrick of Armagh. Others, Canair of Bantry Bay just to name one, probably not. Nonetheless, these will be people you'll be glad you know something about.

By the time you finish "Wisdom of the Celtic Saints" you will be amazed of the deep, deep spirituality of Celtic Christianity and realize that this is a "brand" of spirituality that has sharp contrasts to our own lazy and fat "brand" of Christianity lite! How many of us would leave where we live, jump in a small boat, let it take us where ever the wind blows and start life anew? And even better, you will be able to look to the Celtic saints as "soul friends" who can teach you important lessons and even inspire you.

In the introduction, Mr. Seller notes "Thomas Merton, wrote in a journal a few years before his death in 1968: "I am reading about Celtic monasticism, the hermits, the lyric poets, the pilgrims, the sea travelers, etc. A whole new world that has wait until now is opening up for me". (pg. 15).

In "Wisdom of the Celtic Saints" a whole new Celtic world will open up for you. Grab a pint of Guinness, sit down and read this book!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Number 3: An Introduction to Celtic Christianity

Book number three on the top five books on Celtic Christianity is "An Introduction to Celtic Christianity".

I have to admit it, that I only bought this book because I studied with several of the authors when I was a divinity student at New College, University of Edinburgh-some nostalgia yes!  I recall Dr. James Mackey and Fr. Noel O'Donoghue lecturing on Celtic Christianity back in the late 1980's but honestly did not appreciate their efforts at the time. And FYI, the book is a festschrift in honor of Fr. Noel, who lectured for many years at New College, and was the embodiment of the Celtic monk/scholar. 

That being said, I am very glad to have purchased this book and to have read this fine but choppy work on Celtic Christianity. Several essays in the work stand out for me, including; Professor Mackey, "Is There A Celtic Christianity?"; R.P. Hanson, "The Mission of St. Patrick"; Noel O'Donoghue, "St. Patrick's Breastplate"; M. Nicolson, "Celtic Theology: Pelagius". These essays are worth the price of the book alone and provide wonderful overviews and footholds for the aspiring Celtic student.

A major strength of the book is in the effortless way it transports the reader to the past, and provides one with the tastes, smells, and noises of the Celtic world. As I finished the book, I felt like I do with most good books that I have read. Something in me had been touched and changed, and I felt like I knew and appreciated the Celtic point of view in a new and different way.

One piece of information I found in the book which was particularly fascinating to me and had never encountered before. In the essay on Pelagius, the writer commented that Pelagius's emphasis on the importance of good works, and striving to live a good life, resulted in the founding of new schools, monasteries, and churches throughout Europe. In a sense, it was "Catholic guilt" which caused people to leave the comforts of their own homes, and to build something greater and more significant. And for that the world is a better place. So perhaps some guilt every now and then is not so bad after all! And what a contrast to the lazy, spineless, mindless  "brands" of Christianity one sees advertised on the radio and television. 

A difficult, challenging and satisfying book. Fr. Noel would be proud of the essays included in this work!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Number 2: Celtic Spirituality, Classics of Western Spirituality

My number two book on Celtic Christianity is "Celtic Spirituality" (1999) from the Classics of Western Spirituality series.

The book provides a fantastic overview of the key Celtic texts and sources-no small task! This book literally has it all! It's a one stop shop of original texts which also includes an excellent essay introducing Celtic Spirituality. The latter alone is worth the price of the book. The work is a collaboration of Celtic scholars James Mackey, Oliver Davies and Thomas O'Loughlin. And with these heavy hitters, the book delivers.

"Celtic Spirituality" is neatly divided into several sections, highlighting different aspects of the rich and varied Celtic tradition. It's a Celtic smorgasbord (forgive the close reference to those damned Vikings) so the reader never gets bored. The hagiography section introduces the reader to the traditions of Patrick, Brigit, Brendan, David, Beuno, and Melangell. Great stories and wonderful people! Then the book turns to key monastic texts such as the Preface of Gildas on Penance, the Penitential of Cummean, and the Rule for Monks by Columbanus. Here, you will learn just how rigorous and strict the Celtic rule was and how much a Christian spiritual tradition of the past actually cost people (in a worldly sense). Another section includes a wide range of Irish and Welsh poetry. There are also devotional texts, liturgies, apocrypha, exegesis and homilies. The theology section includes writings by Pelagius, Columba and John Scottus Eriugena.

The collection of texts is breathtaking and magnificent! For Celtic lovers this volume is a keeper and not to be missed. There is so much "good stuff" inside, you will find yourself returning to "Celtic Spirituality" again and again with joy and delight. If you could only have one volume on Celtic Christianity and spirituality on your bookshelf, this may well be the one. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Celtic things.