The Sun Behind the Sun
August 21, 2016

The Sun Behind the Sun



Frank Shirbroun, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Gig Harbor, Sep. 21, 2016


INTRODUCTION:  Teresa and I are highly honored to be here this morning.  When Father Eric approached us about doing this series, we jumped at the chance to share with you something that is near and dear to our hearts:  Celtic Christian Spirituality.  You already know that Father Eric is going on pilgrimage with us to Britain next month, where we will visit several ancient Celtic Christian sites.  We are impressed that he wants to bring you into this experience by setting up this series of four Sundays when we focus intently on the unique spiritual vision and practices of early Celtic Christians.  What Teresa and I want to do during our time together is to lift up several Celtic Christian saints who are identified with the distinctive themes of Celtic Christian Spirituality in such a way that we are all led to ponder our own Christian pilgrimage through life.

“Celtic Christian Spirituality” may be a new term for you, so, perhaps I should begin by saying something about the meaning of this term as we shall use it during this series.  We are talking about a unique way of being Christian found in lands around the Irish Sea:  Scotland, Northern Britain, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland.  It is an early form of Christianity that flourished mainly from the fifth to the ninth centuries, up to the Viking raids in the 800s, which sacked and destroyed many Celtic Christian communities.

Now, I am being careful to use the term “Celtic Christian Spirituality” because we are not talking about a Celtic church in the sense of an institution with a central organization, a hierarchy, a uniform set of practices, etc.  It is primarily a different way of being Christian, a way that also had much in common with other strands of Christianity.  A rough analogy would be the differences between Christian beliefs and practices in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches.  There is only one body of Christ with different ways of understanding and living out what that means, Teresa and I believe that Celtic Christian Spirituality offers us gifts that will enrich our own Christian pilgrimages, as well as corrections for things we and other Christians have lost, or tended to overlook.


Parenthetically, I may say that we Episcopalians are heirs primarily of Roman Catholic Christianity mediated to us through the Protestant Reformation.  Therefore, there is a strong tendency for us to think in terms of dichotomies--between mind and matter, between body and spirit, between nature and humanity, between heaven and earth—as well as a tendency to view the body and sex and the world in primarily negative terms.  We tend to deny that there is another unseen world, an unseen reality that touches our world.  As a good friend of mine used to say, “When I turn out the lights, I expect them to stay out!”   Because of the pre-Christian Celtic culture, Celtic Christians honored the unseen world and welcomed connections with it, in part because they rejected most of these dichotomies.

PELAGIUS:  The most distinctive feature of Celtic Christian Spirituality is the strong affirmation of the goodness of the whole created order, including each and every human being.   There are two Celtic Christians who emphasized especially the goodness of creation:  Pelagius and Eriugena.  Never heard of them, you say!  Well, that’s why we are here!

Pelagius lived in Britain in the 4th century.  He is the first prominent Celtic Christian theologian and his early writings contain themes that would develop into some of the main characteristics of Celtic Christian spirituality over the following centuries. The most typical mark of the spirituality of the Celtic tradition apparent in Pelagius’s writings is his strong sense of the goodness of creation, in which the very life of God can be glimpsed.  “Everywhere,” he says, “narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from Earth.”  He wrote to a friend, “Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s Spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s Spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s Spirit dwells within them. Look at the fish in the river and sea: God’s Spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent…. When God pronounced his creation good, it was...[because] his breath had brought every creature to life. Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wildflowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s Spirit--God’s life--is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s Spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful, and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on earth is ugly.”  Because Pelagius saw God as present within all that has life, he understood Jesus’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves to mean loving not only our human neighbor but all the life forms that surround us. “So when our love is directed toward an animal or even a tree,” he wrote, “we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.”  This recognition that the life of God dwells in everything God has made led Celtic Christians to honor the living water of a river, to take special care for birds and animals, to make wells sacred, and to offer prayers for the ordinary things of life, like kindling a fire, or milking a cow, or lying down to sleep.

Pelagius emphasized especially the essential goodness of human beings because they are part of God’s creation, which is good, and because they are created in the image of God, Who is good!  If we are created in God’s image, we can exercise the free will that God has to behave in ways that honor God’s image in us and conform us ever more closely to God’s image.

When Pelagius went to Rome, he found himself in opposition to Augustine of Hippo, who had a quite different understanding of humanity—one which we recognize clearly.  Augustine formulated the doctrine of original sin, which suggests that God’s image was lost in the fall of Adam and Eve, that their sin is inherited by us, that we are, in fact, born evil, and are therefore not free to choose the good.  Alas, for us, Augustine’s view carried the day and became the source of much of the negative valuation of humanity, sexuality, and the natural world.  And, alas, for Pelagius, he was excommunicated as a heretic!  But that is another story.

These affirmations of the goodness and sacredness of the whole created order are so refreshing to me, so freeing!  They tend to overcome the dichotomy between body and spirit, between heaven and earth, between humanity and nature and they counter the tendency to view our bodies, our sexuality, and our world in negative terms.

ERIUGENA:  These positive affirmations of the goodness of creation and the essential goodness of every human being are echoed by the 9th century Celtic Christian theologian, Eriugena.  Eriugena wrote homilies on John’s Gospel which tells us God is in all things, the essence of life in all things.  He says that God has not created out of nothing, but out of God’s own essence, out of God’s very own life.  Thus, everything that exists participates somehow in the life of God.  This is the life and light that is in all things, “the light which is the light of angels, the light of the created universe, the light indeed of all visible and invisible existence”, as Eriugena writes in one of his homilies. [Homily XI].  Thus, for Eriugena the whole creation is a theophany, a visible manifestation of God.  Those who have eyes to see may see God in everything and in everyone.

In contrast to Augustine’s view of human nature as fallen and as having lost the light and life of God, Eriugena taught that grace is not opposed to nature, but co-operates with nature, restoring it and releasing its essential goodness.  For Eriugena and Celtic Christians, what humanity has lost is not the light that is within all life, for, according to John’s Gospel, “the darkness has never overcome the light”; rather, what has been lost is “the true beholding of the light from the inner eyes.”  The grace of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit help us recover “the true beholding of the light from the inner eyes” and help us live into the image of our Creator.

What make the affirmations of Pelagius and Eriugena ring true to me is the Incarnation described in our Gospel lesson for this morning:  “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”   That the Word of God—God, Godself—would take on human flesh and be joined irrevocably with the material world is the strongest possible affirmation of the goodness of creation.  Matter matters, something every Celtic Christian could affirm.

PATRICK:  The reading from “St. Patrick’s Declaration of the Great Works of God” that Teresa read to you earlier is an excellent example of an even deeper insight into the goodness of creation, the absolute certainty that the life of God dwells in all that exists.  Patrick, a 5th century British missionary to Ireland, was in a very dark and desperate place when he says, “I saw the sun rise in the sky and, while I called out ‘Helia, Helia” with all my strength, behold the sun’s splendor fell on me and dispelled immediately all the heaviness from upon me. And I believe that Christ, my Lord, assisted me.”

Commenting on this typical Celtic understanding of the Sun [capital “S”] behind the sun [small “s”], Noel Dermot O’Donoghue says, “From the beginning…Celtic Christianity has been at home in the world of nature and has taken the pre-Christian nature worship, including sun worship into itself. When Saint Patrick tells us that Christ is the true sun he is not dismissing the natural sun as merely providing a metaphor for the shining glory and nurturing presence of Christ…  For Patrick and Celtic Christians the sun is…rather a medium through which Christ shines.  That same sun which we see physically is but the outward appearance of that light which enlightens every man and woman, as St. John the evangelist tells us. We are here in that region between spirit and matter which is sometimes called the imaginal world and which is central to Celtic religion.”

This all came home to me in a new and forceful way a few days ago when Teresa and I were returning from vacation.  We were listening to a CD of religious music when the hymn “Amazing Grace” came on.  I have sung this hymn since I was a boy, but I had never made this connection before.  Verse four, my father’s favorite verse, goes like this, as you know, too!  “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”  There it is!  The Sun (capital “S”) behind the sun (small “s”), whose brightness is and will be our brightness, “the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world”, Jesus our true Sun.

SO WHAT?  I think it is clear by now what Pelagius, Eriugena and Patrick have to offer us as gifts and correctives.  At St. Augustine’s in-the-Woods, our home parish, Teresa and I often hear these words spoken during the Eucharist:  “You formed us in your image and called us to dwell in your infinite love.  But we failed to honor your image in one another and in ourselves; we would not see your goodness in the world around us, and so we violated your creation, abused one another, and rejected your love.  Yet you never ceased to care for us, and prepared the way of salvation for all people.”  This is why we come to this table this morning:  to ask for forgiveness for our willful blindness to the goodness of creation and to the goodness of each one around us, to ask for forgiveness for persisting in our embrace of the dichotomies that distort the truth.  And we come to ask for the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our seeing so that we can truly behold the light and life of God that dwells in all the things that God has made.  As we come, we are surrounded by a great cloud of Celtic Christians, including Pelagius and Eriugena and Patrick, who have born faithful witness to the goodness of all creation.                                 AMEN


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