Prayer – Communion with God.
What is striking about Celtic saints, such as St. Columba, was not just their extraordinary travels or their spiritual mastery of the wild and liminal places of Britain and Ireland. It was their rigorous spiritual disciplines that framed the quality of their internal pray journey. Prayer was the discipline that led to communion with God. How this spiritual axis of internal prayer and contemplation and external peregrinatio manifested itself is one of the hallmarks of the indigenous Apostolic activity of the British & Irish Monastic Church. This Monastic Church was an ecclesiology that both nurtured ascetic prayer alongside an intellectual and communitarian growth and development. Those dedicated to the exploration of a Celtic spiritual charism will know about these scholastic and artistic endeavors.These monastic settlements acted as wells of sustenance and prosperity to the communities that surrounded them. But all this activity was rooted in the primary call to ‘prayer as communion with God’.
This spiritual axis becomes the biggest point of contention and opportunity in our walk with God. There is little 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 certainly beating, but not in a natural rhythm. We suffer from an irregular heartbeat induced by a perplexing mix of; the greedy appropriation of entertainment religion, emotional gratification and runaway individualism. My own confession is that I am a product of the spiritual smog that exists in the atmosphere around me. How does a fish define water? Not easily as it’s very life depends on H2O, and if the water is polluted there is very little that a fish can do, but keep swimming and breathing. I sense the north Atlantic churches assimilation of the worlds symbols of success; platform, big is best, wealth as a sign of Gods blessing, the over reliance on the intellectual accumulation of knowledge, regurgitation of right doctrine and an alignment in supporting imperial military power as a means of achieving peace, has created an ecclesiology of comfort and conformity that is not ‘on balance’ reflective of St. Columba’s injunction to ‘Be naked in the imitation of Christ and the Evangelists’.
This a-rhythmic heartbeat disturbs me and I find myself engaging in a process of ‘apophatic thinking‘, to find my way through the smog. I know what I do not want to do, I know how I do not want to behave, I know what in my society I do not like, yet I remain at the mercy of the very atmosphere I despise. 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 7.16) has taken on new meaning as I explore the question, ‘what is a regular healthy spiritual heartbeat?’ The pervasive religion of ‘material capitalism & imperial militarism’ impregnates every aspect of our lives. Its destructive and ungodly force, shapes our behaviour and dominates the air waves. Its effects are being felt across the world, creating untold misery for millions of migrants and refugees and turning our nation into a political fortress of selfishness and racism.
I know I am not free of this disease and the problem originates internally, before it manifests itself external. Therefore Christs’ salvation in my life is incomplete. With so little attention paid in modern secular life to qualiative spiritual formation the feeding of the soul and the imitation of Christ through the discipline of prayer has become a priority for me.
It is to the Celtic saints and their spiritual practices, I find myself turning more and more as I seek a rhythm and practice, (perhaps cure is a better word) for my own irregular heart beat. Specifically to the Rule of Columba, and an exploration of its 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 creates a disconnect between thought and practice and is one of the foundation stones of the amorality that exists within the fabric of our society. Having settled in the indigenous British spirituality of the Celtic Church, I discover the challenge before me is to allow The Holy Trinity – the perfect community – to harness me to that potential and help me move me through’negative thinking’ towards positive practice.
The ascetic disciplines and practices of the Celts are 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. The Columban rule encourages a daily rhythm of ‘prayer, work and reading’ (rule 15), of ‘regular vigils from eve to eve’ (rule 14). It offers direction on silence and solitude (rules 1, 5, 21) and 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 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 8. 14-17a)
Rooting down to a lifestyle and prayerful behaviour is often more difficult than we imagine. In fact I have come to the conclusion that the vocation of holiness is the most difficult path in the modern world to walk. Attuning to the flow of the Spirit in life, is an aspiration that requires all the time in the world. If the virtue of following an external rule is building that principle of ‘taking back time’ into your life, this very act in turn requires discipline that brings stillness and a receptivity to the presence of God. On reflection the only form that the Spirit of Christ desires to dwell within, is the natural form created by God in the first place. The skin I am in and the land I walk upon is the only vessel I have available through which God can flow, rather like a river that flows through the landscape of our lives. The building of the river banks of prayer now becomes a sacred pursuit in the quest for communion with God.