Because the Celtic Church was never infected with a dualistic outlook on creation, they did not see matter as evil, nor the spiritual world as divorced from the material. They looked on Creation around them as one great hymn of praise to its Creator, reflecting God’s nature and character. Because they lived in a rural world, life was lived in rhythm with creation and was made up of work, worship and rest, with everything cloaked in prayer. Thus, many Celtic prayers are associated with simple events such as rising in the morning, lying down at night, cleaning a hearth or baking bread.
Following the Wild Goose
For 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 have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that 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—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Roman 8: 14-17
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. John 14:8-17
Our ancient story of God’s interaction with creation is filled with evidences of the Spirit at work in the world and in salvation history, beginning as early as creation itself and as recent as this morning. The traditional text for Pentecost is of course Acts 11. It is a picture of reconciliation and restoration. In Genesis’ pre-history we have the story of the tower of Babel when the languages of humanity were confused, bringing about separation and alienation. But the story of the Holy Spirit being poured out on Jesus’ followers in Acts turns that all around – when people could understand one another and offered reconciliation.
On the Patheos website there is a posting of short statements about the meaning of Pentecost by a broad range of Christian voices and then there is a series of responses from its readers. It reminded me how much the world of theology has changed from the days of Fox, Penington, Naylor and Barclay. Back then both leaders of the Reformed Church and Roman Catholicism approached Pentecost and the idea of unmediated and continuing revelation out of fear and suspicion. Uniformly the institutional church decided that the era of revelation had abruptly ended with the Apostles and that the church was the broker through whom the Spirit could work. It would lead to chaos they feared to allow the believers to think that they too could be directed by the Holy Spirit. So here were new voices of faith expressing their own experience of life encounters with the Spirit of Christ. But these were all new voices. I began to look to find an older expression of Spirituality that might have something to share with us that could change our contemporary views of what it means to be Spirit filled, Spirit led. I wasn’t disappointed.
The term `Celtic Church’ is used to describe the earliest native form of Christianity in the islands of Britain and Ireland. Christianity reached Britain by the third century. Evangelism intensified with the legalization of the religion under Constantine in the early 4th century but in 407 the Roman Empire withdrew its legions from the province to defend Italy from Visigothic attacks. After the sacking of Rome, the legions did not return. With the decline of Roman imperial influence an insular expression of Christianity developed with distinct traditions and practices. Though our knowledge of this period is limited a monastery-centred structure seems to have developed. This is quite distinct from the European feudal model which centered on the control of a geographic area under the a Bishop. The Celtic Church established itself as the most successful evangelistic movement Britain has ever seen.
Because the Celtic Church was never infected with a dualistic outlook on creation, they did not see matter as evil, nor the spiritual world as divorced from the material. They looked on Creation around them as one great hymn of praise to its Creator, reflecting God’s nature and character. Because they lived in a rural world, life was lived in rhythm with creation and was made up of work, worship and rest, with everything cloaked in prayer. Thus, many Celtic prayers are associated with simple events such as rising in the morning, lying down at night, cleaning a hearth or baking bread. Celtic Spirituality portrays life as a pilgrimage, uses earthy yet poetic prayers, and has a vivid sense of saints, angels and the unseen world. They believe that what is deepest in us is the image of God. Sin has distorted but not erased it. Scripture memorization, praying daily following the natural rhythm of the sun and the seasons, and working with a soul friend to overcome destructive passions became important practices.
The early Celtic churches were communities of work, prayer and hospitality at the heart of local life. The Celtic way of mission was to plant the experience of Christ within the natural patterns of people, to be friendly towards all people of good will and respect other faiths. They saw the creatures around them as fellow servants of God. Creation is an outward expression of God’s nature and character, sustained by His upholding Word, and declaring God’s visible glory. It is not seen as a decaying, disposable utility to be exploited by humanity.
What I found most exciting is that in the Celtic tradition the Holy Spirit is represented as a bird, but not the peaceful and serene dove landing on Jesus at his baptism. Their symbol of the Holy Spirit was the wild goose. What is it about a wild goose that spoke to those ancient Celtic Christians? To begin with, wild geese aren’t controllable. You can’t restrain a wild goose and bend it to your will. They’re raucous and loud. Unlike the sweet and calming cooing of a dove. A goose’s honk is strong, challenging, strident and unnerving – and just a bit scary.
In much the same way the Spirit of God can be demanding and unsettling. Think about the story of Pentecost in Acts and the impression the disciples made on the crowd. People thought they were drunk and disorderly! Its one thing for a gentle dove to descend peacefully on Jesus – it’s something all together different when the Spirit descends on a community like a wild, noisy goose!
Some folk say that the picture of Celtic Christianity we are given today is soft and rather romantic, others claim it to be a false spirituality, more pagan than Christian. I am not going to argue that here. I’m simply suggesting that this undomesticated image of the Holy Spirit as a wild goose can shake us loose from a meek, mild and ineffectual faith. It reawakens in us a sense of God’s presence and encourages us to build bridges to others not like ourselves and even to creation? For too long we have simply swallowed without question a mindset that separates the spiritual and physical worlds. It has often led us in unconscious ways to simply compartmentalize our lives. Our task is to make connections rather than raise barriers, and to tear down old barriers in order to move forward to a more positive place. You can’t restrain a wild goose and bend it to your will. In much the same way the Spirit of God can’t be domesticated. It is demanding and unsettling. Being adopted by God is a glorious thing, but not by standards most folks—then or now—would recognize as glorious. Throughout this Romans passage the pronouns are plural; “we” not “I” and “you” is plural rather than singular. And repeatedly the language is that of reception: “you received” rather than “you achieved.” Far from being our possession or an individual personality trait, Paul’s understanding of the coming of the Spirit upon us is a gift, a gift to the community, and a gift that does not exempt believers but plunges us right back into the world’s sufferings and pains, empowered and confident in the future God is bringing about. This is no meek and mild dove at work in us – it’s a wild goose leading us into a future only God can imagine.