Summer Sermon Series based on: The Souls Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Spiritual Practices for Seeking the Sacred, by Christine Valters Paintner

Six years ago, Angie and I found ourselves driving in unfamiliar places on the left side of the road, and if not for the grace of God, we would still be circling counterclockwise in a never-ending roundabout that eventually spit us out somewhere in Scotland. We had both wanted to visit Scotland for different reasons – my family tree says I descended from Mary, Queen of Scots and Angie wanted to return to the little village near St. Andrews where she attended 3rd grade after her father died. So we toured the castles of Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart, where we had a photo op with Nessie, the Loch Ness monster; we went back in time traipsing across the remains of St. Andrews Cathedral and touched the famous golf course; we visited the summer house for Downton Abbey; got a photo of the train that fictional character Harry Potter rode on; and then at Oban, we embarked on a day long journey across land and sea to the tiny little isle off the western coast of Scotland called IONA. It has been a place of spiritual pilgrimage since the 6th century when St. Columba first landed there.

Columba, is one of three patron saints of Ireland, along with St Patrick and St. Brigid.  He came from a family of kings but was sent to a monastery where he gave up royalty, became a priest, and founded many monasteries across Ireland. He was baptized Colum, meaning Dove, in 521 and was later given the name Columcille, meaning Dove of the Church. Columba benefitted from the ministry of St. Patrick before him, with monastic schools emerging throughout Ireland. His love of learning led to a skirmish with the Bishop when he attempted to copy the Vulgate version of the gospels. Columba was excommunicated. Although the sentence was revoked, he went into a self-imposed exile by setting sail on what was known as a peregrinatio journey.

The discipline of pergrinatio (which roughly translates as wandering or pilgrimage) was common. For the Celtic monastic tradition, wandering was a powerful practice, shaping much of their spiritual life.

Perigrinatio pro Christo – the call to wander for the love of Christ.

It was a spiritual journey  known as seeking the place of one’s resurrection led by none other than the Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit, the Wild Goose.  The wandering Christian Celts set forth without destination – getting into small boats called coracles with no oars or rudders and trusted themselves to sail the currents of divine love. Surrendering themselves to elements of wind and ocean, they would find themselves in places of rest they had not chosen themselves. The impulse was to simply and always love and follow.

So in 563 Columba traveled with 12 monks in a coracle and landed on the isle of Iona, which through out the centuries has became a heart center for Celtic Christianity.  Curiously, the name Iona means Dove in Hebrew.  So Columcille, the Dove of the Church lands on the Dove of an island.

Hospitality was a sacred monastic obligation, and Columba reportedly had an uncanny ability to sense when a guest was about to arrive. One day during a storm, he gave orders:

        “Prepare the guest chamber quickly and draw water to wash the stranger’s feet.”
       One of the monks said:
“Who can cross safely on so perilous and stormy a day!

That same day, a ship arrived through the storm with those in search of Iona and hospitality from the storm. Hospitality was considered sacred because they believed that Christ was in the stranger.

A famous Gaelinc Rune of Hospitality goes like this:

I saw a stranger yestereen; I put food in the eating place;
Drink in the drinking place, Music  in the listening place;
And, in the sacred name of the Triune,
He blessed myself and my house, My cattle and my dear ones,
And the lark said in her song,
Often, often, often, Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.
Often, often, often, Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.

Apparently hospitality was not limited to the human species. Legend has it that one day a crane arrived at Iona exhausted and hungry. Birds were considered divine messengers in the Celtic world. Columba told his monks to nurse it back to strength and health. The bird was a stranger seeking refuge and hospitality. It took three days for the crane to be restored, symbolic with Christ’s resurrection.

Sometimes we are called to seek solace and nourishment and hospitality in a strange place and simply rest and renew. And when we are stronger we might hear the call of the Wild Goose beckoning to us like it did Columba. Not satisfied with just staying on this island of rest, he and his monks became known as the Peregrini – the wanderers – going out to share the gospel with others. On one such journey, he and his monks were sailing up Loch Ness.  There were reports of a monster having just killed a man and then turned on one of Columba’s monks. Columba raised his holy hand. Invoking the name of God, he formed the sign of the cross, commanding the ferocious Loch Ness Monster:

Thou shall go no further nor touch the man! Go back at all speed!”

At the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified and rushed away.

Scripture is filled with peregrinatio – journey & pilgrimage. Abraham & Sarah were  called to leave home and wandered most of their lives. Hebrews recounts: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place not knowing where he was going.

Moses leads the Israelites for 40 years, wandering in the desert, seeking the land flowing with milk & honey. Every year at Passover, our Jewish friends recite Deuteronomy 26:

My ancestor Jacob, was a wandering Aramean; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien; he became a great nation.”

Elisha flees Jezebel into a forsaken desert when he hears the call of God on his heart. Mary & Joseph flee/journey to Egypt after Jesus is born. The life of Jesus is filled with a sense of journey. He never stays put very long. Two disciples travel the road to Emmaus when an unexpected guest starts walking with them. Jesus was a pedestrian – he walked wherever he went, except apparently on Palm Sunday when apparently he rode a donkey.

The practice of pilgrimage flourished in the Middle Ages and has made a resurgence as people of all religions connect with sacred spiritual sites.  While we think of pilgrimage as walking to a sacred site, pilgrimage/peregrinatio is also about the inner journey of our hearts as we seek the Place of Our Resurrection. Irenaeus of Lyons, 2nd century, wrote,

“The glory of God is a human fully alive.”

While the meaning isn’t exactly clear, I think it is in alignment with finding the place where we feel the most fully alive. Perhaps the Irish monks who set out as peregrini on the Irish Sea in their little coracles had a deeper sense that finding the “place of their resurrection” meant finding their ultimate destination, purpose and meaning in this life.

The goal was always to surrender to God’s direction and be led to the place of resurrection – A place of harmony and unity with all things. The journey always involves crossing thresholds into the unknown.

God is calling, life is calling us to a place where our work can be nourished in ways we can’t always imagine, and for our souls to slowly ripen and unfold. It is. a journey of trust and yielding to currents carrying you forward.

St. Augustine: ”People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.”

How much do you contemplate or wonder about the tapestry of your life; the unfolding journey. Let us summon the courage for peregrinatio because the longest journey is the journey inward. And may we seek the place of our resurrection.

I offer this poem that I wrote while on retreat with Christine – the format is in a
French Pontoum that remarkably turns simple journaling phrases into poetry

Time to awaken the Peregrine – the pilgrim
Listening to the Spirit
Building the mystic energy within
The Wanderer who desires Freedom
Listening to the Spirit
Gratitude for this moment
The Wanderer who desires Freedom
Sacred Spaces invite us to rest to let go
Gratitude for this moment
Building the mystic energy within
Sacred Spaces invite us to rest to let go
Time to awaken the Peregrine – the pilgrim

A Prayer for the Journey – From the Pilgrim’s Mass
O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, protecting him in his wanderings, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, we ask that you watch over us, your servants, as we walk in the love of your name.
Be for us our companion on the walk,  Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,  Our protection in danger,
Our refuge on the road,  Our shade in the heat,   Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements, And our strength in our intentions.
So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and enriched with grace and virtue we return safely to our homes filled with joy. Amen.

A Prayer for the Journey—Miriam Therese Winter
Inhabit my heart, O God, as you have inhabited human flesh.
Be here among us with all of your wisdom, all of your power, all of your mercy, all of your love, that we might learn to be like you from Jesus who came to be like us.Holy are you. Holy are we who are called to become like Jesus. Amen.

A Prayer for the Journey—Michael Leunig
Dear God, we pray for another way of being; another way of knowing.
Across the difficult terrain of our existence we have attempted to build a highway and in doing so have lost our footpath.God lead us to our foot path: lead us where in simplicity we may move at the speed of natural creatures and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet. Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel the movement of creation in our hearts. And lead us there where side-by-side we may feel the embrace of the common soul. Nothing can be loved at speed. God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights of the pilgrims; another way of knowing; another way of being. Amen.