John Philip Newell
—From Listening for the Heartbeat of God
The stream of Celtic spirituality, from Pelagius in the fourth century to George MacLeod in the twentieth, is characterized by the expectation of finding God within, of hearing the living voice of God speaking from the very heart of life, within creation and within ourselves. It is a spirituality that recognizes the authority of Saint John and reflects his way of looking and listening for God. At the decisive Synod of Whitby in 664, where two distinct ways of seeing, represented by the Celtic and Roman missions, came into conflict, the former allied itself to John. Coleman of Lindisfarne argued that the Celtic tradition originated from Saint John, the disciple who was, he said, “especially loved by our Lord.” Wilfrid, on the other hand, argued for the Roman mission, which, he claimed, was based on the authority of Saint Peter, whom he called “the most blessed Prince of the Apostles.” The tragic outcome of the synod was not that it chose the Roman mission but that it neither made room within the church for both ways of seeing or declared that both were firmly rooted in the gospel tradition.
The practice of listening for God within the whole of life was based on the perspective of Saint John’s Gospel; it is therefore not limited to the Celtic tradition, but found in various mystical traditions in the history of the church. Celtic spirituality is, however, unique in the way in which it developed and cherished John’s vision. It is important always to remember that Christianity is not confined to a single perspective; rather, it comprises a rich interweaving of approaches to God. It is not a question of choosing between the John and Peter traditions, but of attempting to hold them together. We need to ask how we can celebrate both and merge them into a spirituality for ourselves and the church today.
The great Celtic theologian of the ninth century, John Scotus Eriugena, although sharing the mystical tradition of Saint John and its listening for God in all things, understood the need to make room for both John and Peter. The former, he believed represents the way of contemplation, the latter, faithful action. Both disciples ran to the empty tomb of Jesus and both witnessed his resurrection. In a sense, they can be regarded as the male equivalents of Mary and Martha and as symbols of the tension between the contemplative and the active. This tension has always existed in the church and we experience it ourselves in trying to find a balance between the inner and the outer. In this intensely materialistic busy age, which sets great store by outward appearance and possessions and by activity, what is the balance that we need to recover in our spirituality, if we are to integrate the inner and the outer, and to allow the spiritual to shape our lives? If both the way of John and the way of Peter are to have a place in our spirituality, what are their distinct strengths and weaknesses?
In the New Testament the John tradition is of course best reflected by the Gospel according to Saint John. The Peter tradition, on the other hand, finds its clearest expression in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, which includes the reference to Peter as the rock on which Christ will build his church. By comparing these gospels we can understand the conflict of Whitby and its aftermath and the tensions and complementarities between these two ways of seeing.
John’s Gospel begins with the Word that was in the beginning: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3) The perspective is a universal one. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, begins with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) Here the perspective is particular. The tendency in the John tradition is always to see God in relation to the whole of creation, in relation to “all things.” It refers, for instance, to the light “that enlightens every person coming into the world.” (John 1:9) John’s canvas is the whole cosmos. Like his symbol, the eagle in flight, he sees as from a height the whole of life, its beginning and its end. His perspective is infinite. In looking at one thing, the life of Christ, his vision includes all things, for Christ is the life of all life. The tendency in the Peter tradition, however, is to see God in relation to a particular people. In Matthew’s Gospel God brings salvation to the world through a specific line of descent. Thus the first chapter reads like the record of a family tree. The symbol associated with his gospel is that of a man of Earth, so Matthew describes what is immediately in his line of vision, the details of a particular family and heritage. In writing about Jesus, he paints a vivid picture of a human family, its history, and prophetic tradition.
The strength of the John tradition is that it produces a spirituality that sees God in the whole of life and regards all things as inter-related. In all creation, and in all the people of creation, the light of God is there to be glimpsed, in the rising of the morning sun, in the moon at night, and at the heart of the life of any person, even if that person is of an entirely different religious tradition or of no religious tradition. John’s way of seeing makes room for an open encounter with the light of life wherever it is to be found. As the history of Celtic spirituality shows, it is a tradition that can stand free of the four walls of the church, for the sanctuary of God is not separate from but contained within the whole of creation. The strength of the Peter tradition is precisely that it does have four walls, as it were. It enshrines the light of truth within the church and its traditions and sacraments. It is a rock, a place of security and shelter, especially in the midst of stormy change. It allows us, even in our times of personal confusion, to turn with faith to the familiar house of prayer where our mothers and fathers and those before them have for centuries found truth and guidance.
These ways of seeing can combine to create a spirituality that is simultaneously well-rooted in a specific tradition and open to God in the whole of life. Together they can provide access to the ancient treasury of the house of faith, while at the same time equipping us to discern God’s presence in all life. If they are not held together, however, the result will be a spirituality in part cut off from the world and, in its religious constraints, separated from life, from the Earth and its people. It may fear creation as an essentially threatening and even godless place, doubting those of other faiths, or imagine that the church’s buildings and tradition contain the holy rather than simply symbolizing the holiness that is everywhere present. Alternatively, the division might produce a spirituality that, in an attempt to broaden its vision, is no longer connected to any church and becomes cut off from the truths and mysteries traditionally protected by the walls of the church. While retaining a strong sense of the inter-relatedness of all people and of the whole of creation, it may cease to learn from the great corpus of the church’s wisdom and become an individualistic spirituality. The two traditions have often been pulled apart, but they are much stronger together. The truth of “God with us” that is celebrated by particular people in particular places need not be an exclusive celebration; it applies to every person and every form of life, because God is with and in all that has life.
The creative tension between these two ways of seeing is symbolized on Iona. Outside the main entrance to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, on the island, stand the great Celtic crosses of Saint John and Saint Martin. There need be no discontinuity in worshipping at the foot of these crosses and then moving inside to continue worship within the stone walls of the Benedictine Abbey. Rather, the one experience can enrich the other. Being part of the song of creation and, as members of the church, of the living communion of saints, are two aspects of the one mystery. Teilhard de Chardin, who was a scientist, a priest, and one of the twentieth century’s great Christian mystics, saw, for instance, that when the priest raises his hands in consecration over the bread and wine at the churches altar he is declaring all matter, all life, to be Christ’s body and blood.
Most of us will have had the experience of walking to church in the light of the morning or evening and feeling reluctant to leave the freshness of the wind or the colors of the sky to enter an enclosed building, sometimes terribly stifling or cluttered and unimaginative in design. Sometimes we need not the busyness of a church but the solitude of a hill to be still and attentive to God. On the other hand, most of us have also experienced in the words, silence, and sacraments of church liturgy an opening of our inner vision, so that on our return home we see the elements of creation around us with fresh eyes. And at times we can feel isolated in creation. As Coleridge wrote:
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ‘twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part VII, lines 598-600)
In times of trouble and loneliness, have we not all drawn comfort from singing hymns and saying prayers in a congregation of men and women who, like us, have known temptation, loss and emptiness?
Occasionally it is not the open air or the church that we desire, but both. My memory of an evening on the Isle of Wight is, I am sure, a universal sort of memory. Towards sunset, I was out walking, with open fields on one side and trees lining the path. The air was clear and calm and I was hearing the birds’ closing song for the day. For a long time I stood under a great pine, looking at its height and feeling its ancient life, aware that all was being enfolded by the sun’s last light. I did not have to move; I was alone. I could have had another ten minutes, but I chose to move and a minute later was standing in the chapel of Quarr Abbey listening to the monks chanting and allowing my prayers to rise with the incense. I knew that in two different ways I had experienced one continuous act of worship.
This does not mean that it is only in the beautiful, in the glorious rays of the sunset and the fine singing of Benedictine monks, that the connection can be made between the bounded walls of a church sanctuary and the life around it. Equally, in times of confusion, betrayal or failure, when from our depths we are calling out for help, we often find that the words of a church service give voice to our yearnings. We may even discover that traditional prayers more truly express our despair than we can ourselves. Similarly, the church can guide our longings for justice in the world. The words of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, for instance, will sometimes sharpen our sense of urgency and passion for justice in society.
An aspect of life that the church has often found difficult to express is the passion for life that is within us and the delight in life’s sensuousness. Certain traditions have wonderfully developed the use of the senses in worship. To experience the divine liturgy in Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, is to know a full religious incorporation of the senses, through light and color, touch, sound, and scent, but Western religious traditions have tended to stop short in approaching sensuality, especially where it relates to relationship and sexuality. The way in which the church has so often either ignored or allegorized the Song of Songs and its clear delight in the goodness and God-giveness of sexual attraction and intimacy typifies religious inhibition, with its fear of passion and the sensual.
Early in Augustine of Canterbury’s Roman mission to Britain at the end of the sixth century, there were signs of this fear and of a determination to enforce clerical celibacy. In a series of questions addressed to the Pope, Augustine had expressed concern about common practices he had discovered in the British church. For instance, women took communion while they were menstruating, as did men who had recently had sexual intercourse with their wives. “These uncouth English people,” wrote Augustine, “require guidance on all these matters.” In response, Pope Gregory indicated that although it was not forbidden for women to receive communion during menstruation it was “commendable” for them to refrain from doing so during their period of “defilement,” as he called it. Also, a man who had “approached” his wife should not enter a church before washing and should even wait until his “heated desires cool in the mind.” The Pope added that, although the physical union of married people was not sinful, husbands and wives should have intercourse only in order to procreate and never “for mere pleasure.”
The Gospels of John and Matthew reflect different perspectives in relation to pleasure and the senses. Their accounts of the woman who anointed Jesus with oil, for example, describe what was probably the same event in very different ways. In John’s Gospel, the woman, Mary, takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’s feet and wipes them with her hair. “The house,” says John, “was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (John 12:3) In Matthew’s version, on the other hand, an unnamed woman is described simply as coming to Jesus and pouring oil on his head as he sits at table. (Matthew 26:7) The fragrance of the perfume and the intimacy of the anointing and drying of Jesus’s feet are entirely absent from this account. In John’s Gospel there is a readiness to delight in the sensory and in the closeness of affection. Matthew is more cautious. John’s spirituality accentuates the light that is within all life, revealing a passion for life in its fullness. The body is regarded as good and intimacy becomes an expression of God’s love. In the spirituality of the Peter tradition there is an awareness of the dangers of delighting in the senses. In time this awareness led to the extreme belief, shared by both Augustine of Hippo and his namesake in Canterbury, that sexual love is merely concupiscence.
In the modern age, with its obsession with the sexual, it is important to allow John’s vision to help shape our spirituality. “I have come that you may have life,” says Jesus in Saint John’s Gospel, “and that you may have it in abundance.” (John 10:10) We need to regain confidence in the goodness of creation and thus of the body and of our sexuality, whether we are celibate, single, or committed in relationship. This entails recovering a sense of the goodness of the creativity that is fundamental to creation’s fruitfulness and continuity. We will not be able to address the perversity of our generation’s fascination with sex by denying the essential goodness of our sexuality, but rather by declaring that it is deeply sacred, an essential part of who we are, and therefore reflecting the goodness of God’s image in us. The John tradition encourages us to honor and delight in our sexual identity. This is where the two perspectives need to be held together. The John tradition encourages us to acknowledge the goodness of our physicalness and to understand that the sensual has a place in spirituality and can express God’s love and creativity. The Peter tradition, on the other hand, can set boundaries to help us answer questions like, With whom should we be intimate? and, How does the goodness of the sensual relate to commitment in relationship, or to the demands of community life and society’s well-being? Yes, let us passionately and uninhibitedly taste the goodness and delightfulness of creation, but let us also be alert to the laws that protect sustainability and wholeness in our relationships.
Another tension between the two ways of seeing is created by their distinct approaches to wrongdoing. How should we view our failures in relationship, for instance? John’s Gospel includes the story of the woman taken in adultery (a story that today raises questions of adultery). Jesus tells those who want to stone the woman, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When no one condemns her, Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:7-11) In Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, we find these words: “I say to you that every one who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:28-30) John’s tradition, espoused by Pelagius and others in the Celtic tradition, recognizes our capacity for goodness; even when we fail we are seen as essentially good, as capable of not failing. Christ is portrayed as forgiving and “full of grace.” God’s goodness is at the heart of the human and humanity is graced with the profound desire to be holy, as God is holy. In repenting of sin we are not turning away in order to be someone else, but re-turning to our true selves, made in the loveliness and goodness of the image of God.
The Peter tradition, on the other hand, underlines our capacity for sin and warns us to be on our guard against this tendency in ourselves and others. It sees Christ as the fulfillment of the law, a corrective to our sinfulness. It approaches our behavior with a caution that may be as wise as a serpent’s, but can overlook the intrinsic good at the heart of each life. With Augustine this way of seeing led to the extreme conviction that the essential goodness in humanity was totally erased with Adam’s fall.
In this area, perhaps above all others, we must recover a balance in our spirituality, believing and hoping in our God-given goodness on the one hand and being wise and alert to sinful leanings on the other. Is it not always necessary to pursue two approaches to our failings, the transformative and the surgical? We should be able to cut out deep-seated wrongs and provide at the same time the right conditions for goodness to flourish. Is this not how the body operates? The aim of medicine, therapy, rest, and surgery is always to enable the healthy energy deep within us to assert itself against any disease or malaise that is threatening our essential well-being. In the same way, are we not to be liberating the image of God that is within us? If we do not, how will we deal with ourselves and others in the midst of terrible failure? How, for instance, will we deal with a young teenager who helped kick to death a young man because he was homosexual? Are we to say that she is evil at the core of her being and should be locked away for the rest of her life, unless she can become something totally other than what she is? The conviction of Celtic spirituality is that her evil behavior sprang not from the very heart of her life but from a deep confusion and loss; if she is given the grace to recover some of the goodness that was hers in infancy she will gradually be transformed into her true self. In the process, of course, she will need to be protected from her tendency to evil. However, punishment and watchfulness cannot in themselves restore people’s goodness; this can be done only by releasing their true essence, made in the image of God.
In the John tradition transformation occurs through love. “I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) Change will come through love. John’s spirituality is guided above all else by a sense of the welling up of love from life’s deepest springs, the place of God’s abiding. In the Peter tradition, on the other hand, great confidence is placed in the outward strength and rightness of the law handed down by religious tradition. Following God’s law will bring about change for the good in our lives, both individually and collectively. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” says Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until Heaven and Earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18) Part of this tradition are social justice and charity, including the practices, set forth in Matthew 25, of feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, caring for the sick, and attending to those in prison. The love of others is to be combined with the law of righteousness. Otherwise, at one extreme there may be a vague, unproductive enthusiasm for the sacredness of all life and, at the other, a joyless moral dutifulness. On its own, neither approach can bring about the profound changes that are needed in our lives and in the wider relationships of the world.
In the New Testament, not only are their different perspectives generally united, but John and Peter themselves often appear together. At the Last Supper, for example, they are next to one another and after Jesus’s arrest they are the two who follow him. Separated at the crucifixion, they later run together to Jesus’s empty tomb. In the Acts of the Apostles they are referred to as sharing the experience of imprisonment. One of their greatest shared experiences, however, is the transfiguration, described in Matthew’s Gospel. On the mountain they see Christ as the light of God and are instructed to “listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5)
John and Peter did listen, in different ways, and this is why it is important to bring together their distinct perspectives and draw on the complementary gospel traditions. The brief historical sketches in this book have shown how the church has been weakened over the centuries by its rejection of Celtic spirituality and the latter’s development of the mysticism of Saint John. The church would have been infinitely richer if it had embraced both Pelagius and Augustine, affirming the essential goodness in every life while remaining alert to the evils that can destroy us. This would have provided surer foundations for integrating our spirituality with the whole of life and with what is most natural. At the Synod of Whitby, why could the way of John not have been held together with the way of Peter? The Celtic mission, which acknowledged the light present even in those who have not heard the gospel, complemented the Roman mission, with its emphatic claims of the uniqueness of the gospel. The two were not mutually exclusive. The church was the poorer for forcing Celtic spirituality underground, so that for centuries it survived primarily on the Celtic fringes of Britain, among people unsupported in their spirituality by clergy. Would not the church and the world have been better prepared to meet the challenges of the modern world – including ecological crises – if they had learned from Celtic spirituality instead of rejecting it? Would they not have been enriched by the awareness that God’s light is within creation as well as transcending it? Why was the church so frightened when, in the nineteenth century, men like Scott and MacDonald taught that we are a reflection of God’s image, the divine being inextricably interwoven with the human? Would it not have been enlarged in its spirit by affirming that our creativity, sexuality, and passion for life can be expressions of the life of God?
Finally, in the twentieth century, when the John tradition was reflected in George MacLeod and others, why did their conviction that God is the light of the world (rather than just a religious aspect of it) not burst open the doors of the church to the world? If it had more wholeheartedly accepted this belief, the church would surely have avoided many of the dangers of irrelevance, which often characterize it today. Could it not have redefined its boundaries? Instead of being shut off behind its four walls, upholding a spirituality that too often looks away from life, could it not have transformed itself into a kind of side chapel for the world? Our churches might then have become places where we could more easily step into and out of daily life and be reminded that the real cathedral of God is the whole of creation. If the church’s symbols and rituals pointed more clearly to the world as God’s dwelling-place, we might then more fully rediscover that God’s heartbeat can be heard in the whole of life and at the heart of our own lives, if we will only listen.