Tag Archives: Celts

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Betwixt and Between (Epilogue)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson called Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.

(Please note that this is the Epilogue – follow the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4)

It is hard to recognise the kindness and mercy of Providence when your soul seems to convulse with heartache …

Only hindsight provides us with that perspective …

Now I can say that it was mercy that led me to the shadows and the margins.

C.S. Lewis writes, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. God shatters it. God is the great Iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence?” (A Grief Observed). My carefully constructed ideas of God and church lay shattered. I looked at the pieces and knew there was no rebuilding – I had to let go. How hard it is to trust that letting go process. David Foster sums it up beautifully, “Everything I’ve ever let go has claw marks on it.” Faith communities provide an instantaneous essential ingredient of what it means to be human: belonging. To leave is never easy.

Liminality is the ultimate life lesson in trust. It sounds very noble to say that we ‘choose’ to trust. I have found that I trust because I have no other options. No one throws themselves down some random rabbit hole in order to experience trust. Rather, the rabbit hole finds us, often through crisis or suffering, ushered in through our questions, or when our theological ideas no longer match our life experience. Liminality introduces us to trust.

For over two decades I had kept the oceans of mystery and paradox at bay. Suddenly the niggling doubts, the contradictions, the many questions that I used to wave to from a far and safe distance away, loomed like a tidal wave above me.

The ocean was no longer friendly. It had invaded my life and turned my world upside down.

This poem was helpful through that flood-filled time:

Breathing Underwater

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you,
Not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.

A strong house
By a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbours.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance
But looking at our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always the fence of sand our barrier,
Always the sand between.

And then one day
(and I still don’t know how it happened)
The sea came.
Without warning.

Without welcome even.
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine.
Less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowning, and I thought of death.
But while I thought, the sea crept higher till it reached my door.
And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly from a distance neighbours.
And you give your house for a coral castle
And you learn to breathe under water.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ (from an unpublished work)

I felt like I was drifting in an endless ocean with no shore in sight.

It was the observation of a friend that brought me back from the house of sadness. “Nic, I don’t even pretend to understand what this must all feel like, but as your friend, I can tell you that the world and religious structure you were part of is really, really small. I know you think it’s the centre of the universe, but it’s not. Your world is about to get so much bigger.” He was right. Falling into liminality was about letting go of so much. I do not want to downplay the grief associated with the loss I experienced. It felt as if I was saying goodbye to something or someone else nearly every day. But I was also saying hello – to a new world, to new friends, and to a whole new way of being and seeing.

A few years have passed since saying goodbye to so much of life the way I knew it. These days I find myself quite removed from this first half of life with its overtures of religious zealotry. It has been a time of healing, detoxifying, learning to breathe again, and acclimatising to a very different world. There is a sense of standing on a threshold, “betwixt and between,” as Victor Turner once described liminality. According to Turner, it is temporal space – the midpoint between a starting point and an ending point. It holds the idea of temporarily having fallen between the cracks of social structure. However, I would agree with the wisdom of a friend who remarked that our whole life is a liminal space. It is a way of holding ourselves in this world – with an open hand, instead of tightly clutching.

Liminality, presented to me wrapped in pain, exile, and humiliation, was and is a gift. It highlighted to me the bars of my ideological and structural prison of fear, all dressed up in religious morality.

I also experienced a reunion with old friends I had left behind when entering my version of religious absolutism all those years ago. One of them was the joy of not knowing, and the other was the delight of wonder. That most ignored and banished exile of fundamentalism, wonder, has returned to me. Tentative at first, and then, detecting a safe place, she brought her suitcases and moved in …
… Every day she delights me with her songs …
… Every day she teaches me to return her gaze and open my eyes …

Liminality has also changed my taste for music. There is a new rhythm: an unforced rhythm of grace that is now free from being reduced to a necessary tick on my doctrinal boxes of orthodoxy. A rhythm that is tangible, warm, comforting, strong, and relentless.

All is grace!

So, dear Liminal Traveler, I offer you my story in the hope it will bring you a sense of connection to the many others who, like you, may have fallen down the rabbit hole. For me, liminality is the ‘thin space’ of which the Celts have spoken, the rabbit hole where the door between this world and the next is cracked open for a moment, a most uncomfortable place that not everyone will care to hear about or understand.

May you be present in it, for it is indeed a most confusing and liberating gift. Holy.

Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deeply.
Let it ferment and season you
As few humans
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.

Hafiz

 

Who were the Celts?

“Their aspect is terrifying … their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse’s mane. Some of them are cleanshaven, but others … shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve, trapping particles of food … The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured, and embroidered shirts, with trousers, called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours. They wear bronze helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns … while others cover themselves with breast-armour made out of chains. But most content themselves with the weapons nature gave them: they go naked into battle … where weird, discordant horns were sounded, deep and harsh voices, they beat their swords rhythmically against their shields.”

Diodorus, Roman Historian

 

The Romans and Greeks called the Celts ‘barbarians’. The Celts were a collection of tribes with origins in central Europe who were loosely tied together because of similar language, religious beliefs, traditions, and culture. The Gaels, Gauls, Britons, Irish and Gallations were all Celtic people. They were already in Britain by the 5th century B.C., and in Ireland by the 2nd. Although they were not centrally governed and consisted of diverse tribes that were quite happy to kill each other (!), they maintained the same artistic tradition which is characterised by the use of distinctive flowing lines and forms. They also introduced iron working to the British Isles.

The concept of a ‘Celtic’ people is somewhat of a modern romanticised idea. The ‘Celts’ themselves would probably define themselves slightly different to our understanding and definition of them today. And the Roman writings on the Celts was often a means of political propaganda. It was expedient for the Romans to paint the Celts as ‘barbarians’ and themselves as ‘civilised’ … not much has changed looking at our world leaders today… but I digress!!!

The Celts lived in clans, who were loosely bound together into tribes. These tribes all had distinct social structures and customs, their own coinage and deities. They lived in huts that were gathered in hamlets. When they were not fighting, they were farming – and one of their contributions to Britain was the iron plough. Art was very important to the Celts, and they were also master storytellers. Bards and poets played a central role in passing culture and tradition to the next generation.

The curious Druids were important to the Celts. They were a form of ‘super priest,’ who also became political advisors, teachers, and healers. They were revered and could interrupt a king as they held more authority. The druids also played an important part in the rich oral tradition.

And the Celtic women? Well, you wouldn’t want to mess with them. Boudicca, King Prasutagas’ widow, did not take kindly to the Romans’ attempt at taking over Iceni lands when her husband died. She raised the Trinivantes tribe in revolt … and the Romans? … They were terrified. Boudicca provides an insight into the life of Celtic women – they could be war leaders, choose their own husbands, and own land. Very different from the treatment of women by other societies around them.

The Celts loved a good fight. If there wasn’t one, they started one! As Diodorus points out, they took great care in ensuring their appearance would provoke fear in the hearts of their enemies. They took a liking to the heads of their enemies, which they considered had great spiritual powers. So they adorned themselves and their homes with their enemies’ heads as if they were Christmas ornaments.

Christianity was introduced in Ireland around A.D. 431 with Pope Celestine sending out Palladius to some Irish believers (in all probability this community evolved through contact with Christians of Western Britain) as their first bishop. We often hear about the radical changes that Christianity and people like Palladius or Patrick brought to the Celts, but that is actually not the case. Celts and their sacred places and practices simply made room for Christianity. Many druids became Christian, and many of the churches and monasteries had some pre-Christian connection. The Celts were not ‘revolutionised’ by Christianity; instead, it was so readily accepted because there were so many similarities.

Hundreds of years later there is a romanticism around Celts and Celtic Christianity. We need to recognise the danger of putting words in the mouth of history. However, there are many things about the Celts and their connection to faith and spirituality that can inform us today. Here are a few:

1. Their love and respect for nature and God’s creation.
2. Their love for hospitality and welcome.
3. Their recognition of women as equal.
4. Their spiritual disciplines that included solitude and service to the community.
5. Their love for art and poetry – illuminating the Gospel with their creative genius.

I am personally drawn to the Celts spirituality and how they expressed this connection with God. There is a verse in Colossians 1:17 that to me sums up their understanding of the person of Christ – “He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.”

In May 2019, Mark and I are planning to lead a group of people who are also interested in the story of the Celts through Ireland, Scotland, and England. We can’t wait. Maybe you’d like to join us? Please see this link for information.

I will finish this post with a quote from Ray Simpson … whom you will meet if you decide to join us:

“Contemplative prayer is natural, unprogrammed; it is a perpetual openness to God so that in the openness God’s concerns can flow in and out of our minds as God wills.” Ray Simpson, from Exploring Celtic Spirituality.

 

Thin Places: Where Heaven and Earth Embrace

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Exodus 3:5

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Last year I visited Elk, or Lyck as it was known to my family. The town of my ancestors. I stood on the shores of the lake that held so many of my childhood fantasies. Fantasies that were fed by my grandmother’s mesmerising stories. I walked through the vibrant forest, up a hill, overlooking that magical place of a thousand lakes. I could hear whispers from the past, a distinct sense of the closeness of another dimension. It hit me. I was again standing amidst a Thin Place.

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The Celts coined the term ‘Thin Place’ for spaces and moments where the distance between heaven and earth seems almost non-existent. There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the Thin Places the distance is even smaller. My guess would be that the first person to utter the term probably did so in an Irish brogue, as they stood in wonder, looking at the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick.

Thin Places confuse our senses. We suddenly see the world in a different light. Our perceptions change. With breathless wonder we encounter the Divine and it changes us. For people who hold to a faith, Thin Places are those places where we feel most strongly connected to God’s presence.

“Thin Places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.”

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As I stood looking around by the lake at Elk, memories came flooding back. I was familiar with Thin Places. I remember the moment I stepped onto the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, that holy hush that descends as all words fall short in the face of such beauty. Or as I watched the sea eagles swoop through pristine Norwegian fjords. I recall the Thin Place moment as I trudged through the dark, cold catacombs along the via Appia in Rome, sensing that I was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And then there are those Thin Places of life and death. The moment when I took my newborn into my arms and marvelled at the wonder of life. Or when I held the hand of my dying mother on one warm and balmy December evening, and watched her pass over to another dimension filled with light.

So what makes a Thin Place ‘thin’? Not every beautiful place we encounter is a ‘Thin Place’ and it is not necessarily marked because of its tranquility. Perhaps a Thin Place can best be identified through how it effects us, changes us, strips us, and transforms us. We can’t really plan day trips to Thin Places. Rather, it seems, that Thin Places find us. Those mindful moments when suddenly we catch a glimpse of heaven and earth, unencumbered. It is that moment of recognition that Jacob experienced and exclaimed: “God is in this place — truly. And I didn’t even know it!”

It is the moment we passionately wake up:

“Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies towards the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope.” John O’Donohue

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As I stand on the threshold of a new and different tomorrow, I also sense this is a Thin Place. I feel like the last few decades, lived in a blur of hurry and productivity, have given way to a rhythm of grace, and of seeing and hearing with an ever increasing sense of wonder. It has not been a comfortable place. I don’t think Thin Places are intended to be. Rather, it has been a place of irrevocable change of the way I view and relate to the world and who I am.

What about you? Can you identify some Thin Places in your life? What was it about them that made them Thin Places? How are you different because of those moments?

You only have one life to live and it’s not as long as we’d like to imagine. May you resist the temptation to live it in the way others expect of you. May you live deeply and not be asleep when the sun rises. May your very life be the sacrament of a Thin Place for you.

“A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time which you can see through to something deep inside time … you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.” Frederick Buechner

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