Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality
By J. Philip Newell
Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997
Review by Carl McColman
“Celtic Christianity” is the name given to a distinctive expression of the Christian faith that emerged in the lands where Celtic languages were spoken — Ireland, Scotland, and Wales in particular — during the 250 years following the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the early years of the fifth century. Essentially abandoned to fate and located far away from the center of declining Roman power, the church in the British isles basically made its own way during that quarter of a millennium, combining the mystical theology of early Christendom with the unique sensibility of the Celtic peoples. Although some critics dismiss the idea that “Celtic Christianity” is anything other than a modern romanticized view of the church in the British Isles during that period, many others see in this expression of the faith a path to follow as the church of the third millennium seeks to embrace a more earth-friendly, holistic view of creation, while also deconstructing the compromises made particularly in the west as the church became entangled with imperial and later forms of political power.
J. Philip Newell’s brief introduction the Celtic spirituality is a powerful argument for the reality and vitality of this alternative tradition within the church. He provides a historical sketch of Celtic Christianity, tracing its roots back to the evangelist John, considering its glory years from approximately 410 to 664 CE, and then highlighting key figures in subsequent history who kept Celtic spirituality alive, all the way down to the twentieth century and the revival of a faith community on the Scottish island of Iona (where Columcille established a monastery in the sixth century and where Newell himself ministered in our time as a warden of the abbey). In telling this story, the author takes us beyond merely the lives of the saints in Ireland, Scotland and Wales; he looks at the tragic conflict between the Celtic theologian Pelagius and his archrival, Augustine of Hippo, whose free will vs. predestination argument eerily foreshadows a similar split between John Calvin and Jacob Arminius a millennium later. But while Protestantism has managed to embrace the uneasy tension between these Calvinism and Arminianism, the Catholic faith of the fifth century apparently was not so congenial to the idea of spiritual paradox and ambiguity and so Augustine emerged as a clear “winner,” with Pelagius (and his more optimistic if less transcendent theology) dismissed as a heretic.
If the condemnation of Pelagius is the first great tragedy of Celtic Christianity, the other came in 664, when a synod was convened by a Northumbrian King to sort out the differences between the teachings of missionaries from Ireland and others from Rome, both of whom were active in England at that time. Today the arguments might seem silly to us: the Celts followed the eastern method of calculating the date of Easter, and wore their hair according to traditional druidic customs; while the Roman missionaries adhered to their own calendar and tonsure. But beneath this spat over a haircut loomed an essential theological conflict: is Christianity meant to embrace the world, or turn away from it? I don’t mean to oversimplify matters, but Celtic spirituality allowed for the embracing, while the theology of Rome favored the turning away. Again, not allowing any kind of spiritual paradox, the king sided with the Roman faction, since they argued that they were heirs of the apostle Peter, to whom Christ gave the keys of heaven. The Celts had pointed out that their traditions were inherited from John, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” and who rested his head on Christ’s chest during the last supper (John 21:20). As the Celts saw it, John was listening for the heartbeat of God, and this was a key to the Christian life — in which all of us are called to listen for that same heartbeat, within creation as well as beyond.
After the loss of influence in Northumbria, Celtic missionaries retreated back to Ireland and their optimistic, non-dualistic theology has unfortunately remained marginal within Christendom ever since. But Newell points out how the Celtic tradition reappears throughout history, in figures like the medieval philosopher John Scotus Eriugena, the nineteenth century novelist George MacDonald, and George MacLeod, who founded the Iona Community in 1938. Like Pelagius, others who have championed Celtic spirituality have been rejected by mainstream Christianity, but not always — MacLeod, in particular, enjoyed enough acclaim from the Church in Scotland that it led him to remark that this proved he never was a real prophet!
Along the way, Newell treats the reader to selections of prayers and writings from the Celtic tradition and thoughtful theological reflection on how the Celtic spirit has been distinctive in the past and can bring healing to the church and the world today. He summarizes his brief survey of Celtic Christian history with a call for the church to reconcile the split between John and Peter, integrating the unique but differing gifts of mystical and institutional Christianity to forge a more holistic way for Christians to do church — and be Christ — for now and the future.
Listening for the Heartbeat of God is, perhaps most of all, an encouraging book. Those with an interest in the distinctive Celtic voice within Christianity will find inspiration in the thread of Celtic sensibility that can be traced back not only to the early church of Ireland and Britain but even to John. And while the condemnation of Pelagius and Eriugena might make it seem that Celtic Christianity will forever be out of step with the church’s mainstream, Newell’s book carries its own optimistic sense that the time has finally come for Celtic spirituality to emerge from the margins and reassert itself as a healthy corrective to all that has gone wrong in the church over the centuries.
Is it a realistic vision? Perhaps. But it’s up to us who love the Celtic way to make it so.