Category Archives: celtic christianity

How to make a demon

The concept of demons, djinns, or general ‘evil’ spirits is common to many belief systems.

But less clear is the question of whether we humans construct demons, or do they pre-exist  their own discovery, and patiently wait for opportunities to manifest themselves?

I’ve whittered on enough about Celts, Celtic beliefs, and so on before, but there is something very important and helpful about the way that the best of the Celtic Christians interacted with the Paganism they found around them.

I’m particularly interested in the way that they and the Anglo Saxons seemed not as keen to demonise the people and belief systems they found around them, something which seemed to change with the onset of predominant Roman Christianity. I suspect that this may have something to do with the fact that they came from the ‘desert’ traditions, which recognised the power and reality of evil, but saw it as an internal struggle for each believer (e.g. Anthony of Egypt).

This may be something I go on to develop in other posts, but my basic point is that I see something very dangerous in the way that many of us automatically ascribe ‘demonic’ power to other people’s objects of worship. This is, I suspect an instinctive dualistic reaction to their ‘otherness’.

As far as I can tell, the word ‘demon’ comes from ‘daimone’ which was the word for Roman household Gods, which were thought by early Christians to exercise malign power over their devotees.

I think that this way of thinking stems, ironically, from a kind of Manichean dualism – which has remained at the heart of spiritual warfare based Christian thinking. It can drive some to great acts of mercy and kindness, and others to bloody crusades.

But it’s strangely still reserved for the almost abstract concept of an ‘other’ deity or system of religious belief, it is rarely applied to more common material objects of worship, technological gadgets, or more concepts such as celebrity, self-image and so on. It is a useful exercise to question that, and then to go back to the spiritual beliefs of others, and ask if they are the most obvious ‘demons’ in our world.

What, we might ask, exercises the most malign power, a household shrine, or a devotion to conspicuous consumption? Which of the two is more likely to see a child go hungry, a partner become neglectful or violent, or serious mental illness develop? Which of the two, in our society, is generally more likely to contribute to destruction of the environment, or to war, famine and death (the ‘horsemen’ of the apocalypse)?

When we read the story of the ‘Legion’ of Demons cast into the swine, do we miss something by not reflecting on the fact that the word ‘Legion’ would immediately have summoned up, to Jesus’ followers, ideas of Roman militarism?

By the way, Ruth Valerio is almost certainly not a pagan, although she may be a heretic, which is nearly as bad – after all, she does go to Spring Harvest, well known as a hotbed of heresy.  Sorry Ruth, I don’t really think you’re a heretic.

However, her hereticism notwithstanding, she’s written an interesting post about Christianity and Paganism here.

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St David

Today is St David’s day.

I you live in Wales you will know all about it, kids going to school in Welsh costume, plates full of welsh cakes everywhere you go, and so on.

It’s good to dress up, and it’s nice to eat Welsh Cakes.

And Wales has done a half decent job at retaining or regaining some of its cultural heritage by making a noise about days like today.

But perhaps a more fitting tribute to the somewhat hardcore vegetarian saint would be to forgo meat for the day, and recall a saintly life which had nothing to do with Nationalism, and everything to do with self sacrifice and hard work.

His much repeated maxim ‘Do the little things that you have seen me do’ should be a constant reminder to those of us who get so caught up in our own self importance that we forget to do those very little things which are seemingly insignificant.

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Totally Devoted – extract seven

The second part of the book is based upon interviews and research which looks at a range of residential (and other) communities and movements – one of which is the small prayer house of Ffald-Y-Brenin in West Wales.

The prayer and retreat centre of Ffald-Y-Brenin, which means sheepfold of the King, is a house of prayer in rural Pembrokeshire, which belongs as much in a section on places of prayer and hospitality as it does here.

It was established during the 1980s as a Christian retreat centre, but had no real identity or driving vision until, in 1999, Roy and Daphne Godwin arrived to take on the running of the centre and began to see it fulfil its potential as a house of prayer.

Since their arrival, one of the most significant steps taken by the Godwins and their team at Ffald-Y-Brenin is the adoption of rhythm of prayer as a key part of the daily life of the house. After initially inviting a small group of people to commit to regular praying of a blessing for Wales, they now report that thousands of people are regularly praying with them. Looking around for a model which would most comfortably fit with the way their life

was developing, they began to learn and understand more about early Celtic Monasticism.

They found that what became important to them was to reorder their lives around a rhythm of prayer which centred thoughts upon the work of the Holy Spirit. They began to live according to a pattern of life which prioritized prayer, and found hospitality and  relationship a natural expression of a lifestyle based upon God’s love, in which they found echoes of the Celtic spiritual heritage which is very rich in the area.

Certainly the feeling of remoteness and isolation inherent in the location is a powerful reminder of the rich legacy of the Celtic monks. The Celtic notion of ‘thin places’ – locations where the ‘veil’ between heaven and earth is particularly thin – is one they and others identify with…

Extract taken from ‘Totally Devoted, the challenge of new monasticism’ by Simon Cross. Copyright 2010 Authentic Media.  ISBN-13: 978-1850788683  Available Online via Amazon.co.uk or Eden.co.uk.

See previous extracts:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

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Totally Devoted – Extract Four

I’m blogging short extracts from Totally Devoted, an exploration of new monasticism, up until the book is launched on September 10th.

Today we’ve got a short extract about one of the heroes of monastic legend. In fact I spend a bit of time in the book looking at some of these ancient ones, looking back into the Bible and then in more recent history to the early part of the first millennium AD.

So of course I touch on the ‘Celts’ and their various hagiographies – one of my favourites being what we’re talking about now – the story of Brendan of Clonfert, who most of us will know for the tale of his perilous voyage across the world in a pimped up coracle.

Adventurousness is an important lesson we can take from the stories of the lives of many of the Celtic saints, a reckless willingness to follow Christ wherever he leads us.

The classic picture of this is to be found in the scarcely credible story of Brendan, who set off with a small group of brother monks, and apparently sailed off across the Atlantic in a little boat.

Again, questions are raised over the literal veracity of this legend, and it can never be answered for sure, although experiments have shown that it might have been technically possible.

However, in many ways factual veracity is not the point; it is the moral of the story that counts, and one can draw many lessons from it, whether relating to the monastic withdrawal from the world, or the constancy of God to those who devote themselves to him. These points, rather than the factual accuracy of the hagiography are surely what matters…

Extract taken from ‘Totally Devoted, the challenge of new monasticism’ by Simon Cross. Copyright 2010 Authentic Media.  ISBN-13: 978-1850788683  Available Online via Amazon.co.uk or Eden.co.uk.

See the first extract here, the second here, and the third here.

If you are interested in Saint Brendan, you may like to read some of the other things I’ve written about him in the past: Perhaps this one, which I wrote for his feast day, and where I propose him as a patron saint of extreme sports, or if you’re looking for a way of incorporating the Brendan story into a corporate worship setting, have a look at this.  Someone else who has a lot to say about Brendan, all of which is worth reading/listening to – is Mark Berry (who coincidentally, also features in the book.)

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Totally Devoted – Extract Two

So carrying on from the first extract I posted yesterday, this is another excerpt from my forthcoming book: Totally Devoted. In this piece I begin to explain how we found ourselves walking in a kind of new monastic path during our time in Wales…

Just as the Celtic saints had done hundreds of years before, we as a movement were living, worshipping, working and, most importantly, praying together. It was in our time at the Llanelli base that I first began to understand the value of a rhythm of life, and while none of us were taking vows, we came to realize that for us, the commitment we felt to those around us in the movement went beyond that of work colleagues…

…The legacy of training and sending Jesus’ disciples for cross-cultural work in countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia was being carried on in the twenty-first century in ways which, although they probably would not have been recognizable to the learned monks and others who trained and sent disciples from the same part of the world 1,500 years before, were nonetheless aimed at achieving the same task.

We came to see it as no coincidence that saints like David, Illtyd and Samson had walked the same coastline as we did…

Extract taken from ‘Totally Devoted, the challenge of new monasticism’ by Simon Cross. Copyright 2010 Authentic Media.  ISBN-13: 978-1850788683  Available Online via Amazon.co.uk or Eden.co.uk.

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Book review: The Vertical Self

The Vertical Self

Mark Sayers latest book takes an analytical approach to the current state of the church, calling for a return to a way of life which he characterises as ‘vertical’ – removed from the fame chasing, image obsessed ‘horizontal’ way of conventional living.

Essentially Sayers is calling for a return to discipleship and holiness, and all that these concepts entail. He bemoans the widespread practise of duplicity, people living different lifestyles according to whom they are with at any one time.

But as well as calling for individuals to reclaim their roles as disciples, he calls the church as a whole to account, pointing out the futility of trying to make Jesus ‘cool’ – as if finding out how to do so will somehow fill our churches, and stop us being picked on in the playgrounds. This is what Sayers describes as ‘The mistaken belief that millions of non-Christians are waiting for Christianity to get hip enough, and then they will convert.’

Sayers writes with insight and intelligence, coolly picking over contemporary culture and providing a helpful tonic to all of us who are too easily drawn into a way of living which has all the depth of a teaspoon.

He combines engaging stories with a canny ability to explain the spirit of the times. His writing comes has been born out of years of experience as a pastor and cultural commentator, and The Vertical Self is a welcome addition to the growing body of contemporary literature which is advocating a rediscovery of a deeper way.

His solutions for our present maladies are drawn from ancient sources, from Judaism and early Christianity. He points out the need for us to engage with one another in accountability and comradeship, and provides practical suggestions for ways to do so. This is a book which individuals, small groups and larger churches can absorb and use with ease, and with great profit.

Disclaimer: I received ‘The Vertical Self’ free from Thomas Nelson, as part of the Booksneeze.com blogger review program.

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Polycarp – God is not an airbag.

Yesterday was the saints day of a very ancient character, well he would be very ancient if he were still alive, but he isn’t – alive that is.

Anyway, his name was Polycarp, which is a good name isnt it. Better than many other saints names I cant help thinking, even if it does contain a slightly unfortunate anagram within it.

Why do I mention Polycarp?

He is just a superb figure. In the first place he was one of the very early Christians, only second generation, having been a disciple of John the Apostle – the favoured Apostle of the Celtic church.

Secondly, he was clearly a man of straightforward opinions, apparently when asked by the leader of the Marcionite sect to recognise him – he replied ‘I recognise you, yes, I recognise the son of Satan.’ Which is fairly straight talking as straight talking goes.

But despite his forthright views, he wasnt one particularly to cause divisions, although in later years the disagreement between eastern and western tradtions about liturgy, tonsure and perhaps most importantly the religious calendar would cause great strife, Polycarp who obviously followed the John/eastern tradition managed to get along just fine with the Bishop of Rome, who insisted his church follow the western/Catholic dates.

Polycarp was eventually martyred, aged in his eighties, when he was burned at the stake and stabbed.The accounts of his death tell that the flames did not harm him rather they made him glow, so instead the soldiers stabbed him to death. While God may be credited with saving him from the flames, he didnt save him from the knife.

He is a good example of how Christians cannot always expect to be saved from suffering and hardship, for any of us being stabbed to death while stood in the middle of a fire is not a terribly pleasant way to go, and Polycarp bore it with remarkable dignity, and stoicism for want of a better word.

I think he reminds us that we cannot expect to go through life with no suffering, we cannot expect to live and die in luxury and happiness just because we follow Jesus, rather we should perhaps expect the opposite.

Bad stuff happens to good people, God doesnt always rescue us from hardship, he is not an airbag. Yeah, I said it, God is not an airbag. My new motto.

Thanks for your example Polycarp, here’s to all those who are suffering today, may you know peace just as Polycarp did.

Read more about the old boy here.

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Dewi Sant and the lure of the big project

This is an article for any big head like me, about how Saint David and the desert fathers teach us the value of humiliation.

I’ve just got back from a day spent in beautiful south Wales, in the lovely town of Llanelli. I was there visiting the base of World Horizons, the movement of which Kel and I are a part, and who are in many ways another family for us.

Of course when you meet up with people who you havent seen for a few months, one question that often gets asked is along the lines of: ‘so how are things going for you’ or similar. And I found my aggregated reply quite telling – I found myself saying that things were ‘bitty’. By which I mean that I seem to be doing lots of little things, a number of bits and pieces, rather than any one ‘big’ or ‘significant’ project. This troubles me because I find great self worth in being involved in something big, I also find I can lose myself in a project and let it take over my life for a while.

But in considering this on the return journey and again this morning, I realise that in fact a big project is as much a trap as a blessing. The first clue is that I derive so much self worth from bigness. I shouldnt be getting self worth from accomplishment, I shouldnt be looking to acheivements for my self esteem, surely that should come from the secure knowledge of being loved by others, and by God, and by being at peace with myself – not by acheivements.

I am often encouraged by the wisdom of our forerunners, many of whom have been elevated to saint-hood, one of them being that radical vegetarian – Dewi Sant, or Saint David. I dont just like him because he didnt eat meat by the way, although that’s a good start.

Saint David died in about 589 AD, his last recorded words were from a talk he gave in which he instructed his followers: ‘Gwnewch y pethau bychain’ or ‘to do the little things’ they had seen him do. For David the key to living a righteous and good life was not to involve oneself in a uber project, but to continue to do small things with great love.

What this comes down to I think, is humility.

I was struck recently by the link between humility, and humiliation. The latter, I realised can be the process of the forming of humilty. So often we look upon humiliation, the process by which we are brought low, to the ground in fact, as a negative process. For me, at times, to have to admit that in fact right now, as I speak, I have no grand project, no big scheme underway or taking off is a bit humiliating. I am brought low by my own admission. But rather than be downcast by this, the best thing to do is to recognise the importance of being willing to accept my own unimportance, my own insignificance, and to learn to be loved and be at peace in that situation.

Very often I hear preachers or other Christians saying: ‘God’s got big things for you,’ or ‘you are important’. Perhaps instead of trying to base our feelings of self worth in the notion that we are important or have significant tasks to acheive, we should accept that we may only have little things to do, but these little unimportant things are weirdly as important as anything else we can be given.

I think it was the legendary Antony of Egypt (if I’m wrong I apologise) who is credited as saying:

“I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said: ‘What can get through from such snares?’

“Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.'”

So often we get caught up in the need for recongition and acceptance through our acheivements or accomplishments that we lose that elemental need for humility. We need instead to accept that our lives are full of often insignificant, even inconsequential actions. In learning to be at peace with our own unimportance we can become the people we should be.

So yeah, my life at the moment is bitty, yes I will continue to struggle with that, but I also recognise the great personal value that such a life can hold. It will keep me from pride, and from having too high an opinion of my abilities and myself.

In a way I suppose, its a bit like fasting, it requires an element of self control. But sometimes the act or process of fasting itself can be a ‘big project’ in and of itself, so perhaps we need to heed the words of John Cassian who taught that control over the stomach, which in many ways is the very physical counterpart of the soul, is less to do with fasting and more to do with simple self control:

“A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.”

Maybe this needs to be applied not just to food, but to everything we involve ourselves in.

Rob Bell, Saint Aidan, and the milk of less solid doctrine

Apparently there has been a bit of a fuss on the net about some comments that Rob Bell made in a newspaper where he was questioned about Evangelicalism. See here for instance.

I must admit I missed the furore until now, must have been doing something other than reading blog feeds… shock horror. But I do want to make a quick point which will doubtless be ignored by those involved but is important anyhow (I think).

Rob Bell is being criticised in fairly sharp terms for his ‘easy gospel’, a charge which I dont quite follow, seems to me there’s a lot of easy gospel going around, and at least Rob does seem to want people to challenge their lives and consider whether they are really following Jesus. It seems like people want him to use the word Jesus more, and talk about the environment less, seems to me they really think he’s a universalist and cant quite get him to say so.

But here’s the thing, the old story about how England received the good news (ignoring the anglo Saxon church which everyone does – LOL) goes a little like this, the king of Northumberland asked the abbot of Iona, an old warrior called Columba, to send a missionary to his people. He sent a guy who came back fairly quickly with his tail between his legs, complaining that there was no hope for these recalcitrant Northumbrians. A bloke called Aidan spoke up (according to Bede) and suggested that what they should do was take the ‘milk of less solid doctrine’. To cut a long one short, he did it, it worked, mucho conversions, Christianity reaches England… etc etc.

Aidan then was the archetypal cross cultural missionary, using the language which he knew would get him heard. I think that this is perhaps the best way to look at what Rob Bell does, those who prefer a bit of hell fire and brimstone wont like it, but that’s not really the issue, he’s being true to his calling.

Aidan is a hero now, I bet people moaned about him then. One thing I do hold against you though Mr Bell, what was the whole bodyguard thing at Greenbelt all about?

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the call of the wild

Two interesting meditations on the call of the wild today, first the news that a TV ‘adventurer’ had to be airlifted out of the Canadian wilderness after succumbing to starvation.

Ed Wardle, an outdoors enthusiast, who has previously filmed up Everest and other really extreme places, had been filming a programme for Channel 4, where he attempted to survive in the Yukon with only a camera, rifle and fishing rod. It had been a truly solo expedition, not one of your Bear Grylls jobs, where a team of half a dozen people are camped a few meters from the intrepid explorer. Instead Wardle had to live on his own, hunting for his own food, and leaving messages and tapes for his production crew via a satellite phone and a dead letter box.

Wardle it transpires was not a survival expert, and perhaps had not received suitable training for his ordeal, five weeks before the end of his filming period, he called in a helicopter, having gotten to weak to carry on.

It’s no reflection on him, there are few people who would survive in such a place under such conditions, I know I’m not one of them.

The story is sadly reminiscent of the tragic tale of Christopher McCandless, whose tale is told so beautifully in the film ‘Into the Wild.’ Upon graduation Chris donated his savings to charity, and adopted the life of a vagrant, or vagabond, travelling America in a canoe, on foot, or by hobo railroad. If you havent seen the film, you should, its superb.

McCandless, who adopted the subriquet Alexander Supertramp, ended his life in Alaska, where he was attempting to live a solitary life, armed like Wardle, with only basic provisions. McCandless was motivated by his reading of writers like Jack London and Leo Tolstoy, these and other books have thrilled me too, although I am in no danger of disappearing into the outback, I do love the wild and ‘inhospitable’ places of our country and our planet, and can understand the draw to find one’s own place in them.

Sadly Chris McCandless died after apparently eating a poisonous plant, a mistake that might have not been fatal had he been able to get medical attention.

[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LAuzT_x8Ek]

These same places were home to many of the early monastics, who found in their rugged isolation ‘thin places’ where the veil between heaven and earth was thin. The monastics  and many of the early Christians were people of the margins and the wild places, ironically the church has become the bastion of the centre and the comfortable classes.

The other story catching my eye on this same subject is George Monbiot’s essay on his adventures with a kayak and a fishing rod. Its a lovely piece of writing, painting a fascinating picture of one man’s yearning for the wild and the untamed, and his attempts to live in a way that is at one with nature. I admire and respect him more having read this essay. Once again it chimes with my own desires for a life which includes episodes of wildness, and self sufficiency. The small fishing rod which sits just behind me at this moment, waiting for a chance to be let loose on a quiet stretch of water bears witness to this.

In common with many others I love the risk, adventure, peace, solitude and sense of humanity that an encounter with the wild provides, we all need wildness in our lives, whether that is in a spiritual sense, or an every day sense (what is the difference anyway?)

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