Celtic retreat centers on rebirth, compassion

by Sharon Abercrombie

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John Philip Newell, the Celtic spirituality scholar and interspirituality disciple, served up a pre-Thanksgiving spiritual banquet in mid-November here at First Community Church.

Newell, author of 15 books including Praying with the Earth and his latest The Rebirthing of God: Dreaming the Way Forward, was the latest presenter in this local United Church of Christ congregation’s 25-year-old ongoing Spiritual Searcher series. The program seeks to “unite mind, heart and body in the spiritual quest.”

Mission accomplished. I will be basking in the sumptuousness of his offerings for a very long time. Newell’s weekend presentation (Nov. 14-16) included prophetic storytelling, meditation, body prayer, chanting and quiet time -- all ingredients for the perfect retreat.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Newell is a Church of Scotland clergyman who served for a time as warden of Iona Abbey, the sixth century seat of St. Columba’s monastic community in Scotland’s Western Isles. In addition to books, he has published several albums of prayer and chant collections, and he is currently a companion theologian for the American Spirituality Center of Casa del Sol at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. He also co-founded Heartbeat: A Journey Toward Earth’s Well-being, an ecospirituality/interfaith organization that provides pilgrimage scholarships for young adults to Iona, Scotland.

At the retreat Newell asked us to imagine what new birth would look like in our lives, both individually and collectively. He challenged us to dream together and bring forth a reborn Christianity that could bless the earth and her creatures with well-being once again.

We are the point people, he said, the designated doers, the midwives. Quoting from Julian of Norwich, Newell said, “We are made of God, born from the very womb of the Divine.” Within that original enclosure of creation-becoming, we heard God’s heartbeat.  Celtic spirituality calls for us to keep listening, to heed its sound, to remember that it beats within each one of us. We are all interconnected by it.

Presenting a bit of Celtic spirituality’s background, Newell said that in this particular world, John the Beloved (the Evangelist) is revered as the disciple who leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper, listening for the heartbeat of God within all things. Inspired to research further, Newell discovered that the Acts of John features a story about “all things moving in relationship.”

In this apocryphal text, Jesus concludes the Last Supper with a Hebrew circle dance. As the dance leader standing in the middle, Jesus says, “The whole universe takes part in the dancing.” Newell viewed that episode as a lesson about everything moving in harmony with one another.

Newell then called up another image from Celtic spirituality, one that invites us to see the light of the Divine glimmering in every created thing. But in the fourth century, when the church became entwined with empire, creation was regarded as coming “from nothing,” instead of from an ever-present loving Creator. The “ex-nihilo” belief has given us permission to establish a power-over dominator model over everything instead of acting from compassion, Newell said.

To demonstrate how far off the track we’ve wandered, he related an experience that Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, had as a young boy. A frightening image emerged in his unconscious as he walked by the Cathedral of Basel in Switzerland one afternoon on his way home from school. For days, he fought off the thought from his consciousness, until one night he succumbed, as Jung described in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

“I gathered all my courage, as though I were about to leap forthwith into hell-fire, and let the thought come. I saw before me the cathedral, the blue sky. God sits on His golden throne, high above the world -- and from under the throne an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls of the cathedral asunder.”

Newell regards Jung’s vision as a portent of things that have come to pass in western Christianity. The church has suffered a “seismic collapse,” Newell said, resulting in crumbling walls and empty pews.

To bring about resurrection and new birth, Newell spoke of eight things we must do:  

  • Align once again with the sacredness of the earth.
  • Embrace compassion.
  • Reconnect with the light that is at the heart of all life.
  • Connect with the great wisdom traditions of the world.
  • Engage in contemplation and meditation.
  • Practice nonviolence. 
  • Listen to our dreams.
  • Free ourselves from ego preoccupations, so that we can once more embrace the love that is the essence of the universe.

Throughout the weekend, Newell told many stories. All were noteworthy, but one in particular shines forth as an exemplary example of compassion: that of Aung San Suu Kyi, known affectionately as “Daw” (“The Lady”) and the leader of the ongoing nonviolent movement for democracy in Burma -- a project she calls a “revolution of the spirit.”

Suu Kyi spent a majority of the last two decades under house arrest (until her release in 2010) and could understandably harbor resentment and anger. But not “Daw.”

Newell prefaced her story with a brief lesson in etymology. The word “compassion,” he explained, shares an etymological root with the word “compass” -- the two-pronged kind used by many grade schoolers in their math classes to measure the distance between two points and see their relationship. Compassion, Newell stated, means honoring the relationship between two people, or between one group and another, and remembering those who suffer.

Suu Kyi, a daily meditator, has been able to extend compassion not only to her people who suffered from the Burmese military but to the soldiers, as well. In The Voice of Hope, a series of conversations between writer Alan Clements and her, Clements asked whether the military regime ever captured her emotionally or mentally, she replied that she never learned to hate them. “If I had really started hating my captors … I would have defeated myself,” she said.

When asked in 2012 how one copes when there is chaos and brokenness everywhere, she offered the metaphor of a pressure cooker filled with soup that has exploded all over the kitchen. Don’t be overwhelmed by the mess that is everywhere, she advised, just start cleaning wherever you can.

Another memory from the banquet table of Newell’s retreat was a Saturday afternoon body prayer. He taught us some basic Tai Chi movements, which included turning gracefully and making eye contact with those around us.

The background music was a Buddhist chant to Green Tara, one of the deities of compassion who has cultivated the powers and attributes within herself to save all sentient beings.

So how can we be Taras of compassion in this world, dance leaders who move the circle to step in harmony with Jesus’ “dance of the universe”? John Philip Newell invites us to ponder these questions.

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