17 December 2017

Hebrew & Celtic Parallels

Xploring our traditional roots

‘Lord of life, send my roots rain’. This line of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has become a frequent prayer on my lips. So much faith today is rootless. There are Christians who think everything started with the incarnation. There are Protestants who think that the history of Ireland started with the Battle of the Boyne. Predating both are the rich heritages of both the Hebraic and Celtic worlds, which share so much in common and have so much to teach the willing learner. Strikingly, the deeper we dig into the past the more we glean that is of use in the present. Though far apart, spatially, ancient Israel and Ireland share common ground spiritually. There are vital truths that bind the Hebraic and the Celtic minds. More than intellectual monuments these are vital building blocks in the rebuilding of broken lives today.

The bigness of God

In both ancient Israel and Celtic Christianity we find the sense of an awesome God. Unfortunately, in modern speech, ‘awesome’ has suffered from verbal inflation and, like the money in our pocket, it doesn’t go as far as it used to! However, in the days when words had value as currency we find an early Irish litany addresses ‘God, the Father Almighty, God of hosts, High God, Lord of the world, ineffable God, Creator of the elements, invisible, eternal, perfect, merciful, wondrous, dreadful.’ It is such a God whose very name is to be ‘blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised and lauded’ according to The Kaddish, a longstanding Jewish prayer. Both Hebrew and Celt were truly impressed by the ‘worth’-ship of The Almighty.

The wonder of creation

Built into the fabric of the Celtic worldview was the marvel of creation. The God of all gods was the creator of the peoples, the high heavens, the skies above and the oceans below. Life, love, material and spiritual worlds were all his handiwork. Such a profound and perpetual awareness of the sheer wonder of the surrounding world was part of the consciousness of both the Celt and the Jew. Today, we are being inundated with information. Facts are just a click away. Google seems as omniscient as God. However, as society is being inundated with information it is being apparently robbed of a sense of awe and wonder. For many, the virtual is more exciting than the actual. We are in danger of losing the sheer wonder of just ‘being’. Both Celt and Hebrew marvel at the view through both microscope and telescope. The creator’s glory is reflected in the insect’s eye and the cosmic system.

There’s nothing ordinary!

Hebrew and Celt alike shared Gerard Manley Hopkin’s perception that ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God’. While both worldviews would hold tenaciously to the utter transcendence and holiness of God, neither isolated him from the affairs of everyday life. In Irish life BC (Before Centralheating) even the setting of the fire provided an occasion to pray, that in both the hearth and heart of the householder, God would ignite a flame. The safety of the very cows lay within the scope of God’s protection and was not considered irreverent or irrelevant when praying. Indeed we find a wonderfully refreshing awareness that nothing in life lay outside the domain of God’s power or concern. It was an awareness of this fact that the Pharisaic tradition sought to heighten when Jews were encouraged to say at least one hundred blessings in the course of a day. Though hundreds of blessings covered the full range of life, every one of them began in precisely the same way, ‘Blessed are You the Lord our God, King of the universe…’ In other words, no matter what the situation the person was responding to, whether traumatic or ecstatic, good or bad news provided an occasion to affirm the Lord is King. Humanly the circumstances may be mysterious to us but in everything God is at work. As the old rabbi said in ‘Fiddler on the roof’ in response to the question about whether there was a blessing for the new sewing machine, “Of course, my son, there is a blessing for everything.” The fragrance of flower and fruit, the beauty of scenery, the taste of food, the sight of a rainbow, the rain or dew drop, the wind, the study of God’s word, the sip of water or even the proper functioning of the body in the bathroom. Such prayers in the course of the daily keep the insights of wonder and the sense of gratitude alive. Once announced to the world and accepted, a scientific theory does not need to be repeated a dozen times every day but as one great Jewish thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel, observes, ‘the insights of wonder must be kept alive and since there is a need for daily wonder, there is a need for daily worship.’

Work and worship

While the Greeks were reflecting on the intellectual and eternal, our Celtic and Hebraic forefathers were engaged in the practical and daily. God was not just for the life to come, but he was interested in the here and now. Yes, there were promises that gave hope for the future but there were responsibilities that presented challenges and opportunities for the present. While the heart is important, the Celt would also pray for the hands that milked cows, guided ploughs, sowed seed, wielded sickles and ground flour. Life was not divided into the material or spiritual, body or soul, personal or professional, secular or spiritual realms that reflect the Greek spirit of dualism so engrained in our western thought patterns. All of life was an opportunity for both work and worship. In fact, one of the most challenging things about the Hebrew word ‘avodah’ is that it means both work and worship. Both are embraced by the concept of service. Unfortunately, ‘service’, too, has suffered from verbal inflation. However, true spirituality is not simply other worldly but robustly practical in the service of God and other people. Indeed often our service to other people is the clearest expression of our service to God.

The home

Such service begins at home. There will be always some whose vision takes them abroad and some will chose to serve in church functions but all have the opportunity to serve at home. For both these traditions the home has a centripetal force. If we develop the analogy from the world of physics, most forces on the family today are centrifugal. Intense pressures are breaking apart family, tearing us away from the centre. One of the most powerful counter forces in the Hebraic world is the table spread for the Sabbath meal calling the family, flung apart during the week, to share in the best of food and fellowship. If the proverbial English man’s home was his castle then the Celt’s fortress was no less than the ‘Sacred Three’ guarding heart and hearth.

In good and bad times.

In an age of the trite and clichéd, perhaps one of the most helpful things about the Celt and Hebrew is the way that they respond to the difficult times. It is easy to respond to the good times but what about when the blows leave us bewildered. What is the best response when the circumstances cry out against the idea that God cares or even exists? Where do we turn when the evangelical thesaurus only affords meaningless clichés? Time after time I have turned to the ancient ‘encircling’ prayer. “Circle (insert a name), Lord. Keep hope within, keep despair without. Circle (name), Lord. Keep light near and darkness far. The Eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit shield (name) on every side. Amen.” No word has more than two syllables yet the prayer expresses such profound sympathy and realism. Similarly there is a Jewish blessing to be prayed on the reception of bad news. In keeping with every other blessing it begins with an affirmation of who God is and his eternal kingship but then declares he is “The True Judge”. In other words it takes us right back to stand beside Abraham puzzling over the future of Sodom and Gomorrah. He would never know if there were fifty, forty, thirty, twenty or even ten good people in the city but he could be confident the Judge of all the earth would do right. Circumstances may well confound us and there’s no harm in admitting that but even then we can declare we trust the King to know what he is doing.

If we have not reflected on these rich roots before, then perhaps St. Patrick’s Day will afford us an opportunity. Whether we climb Croagh Patrick, Slemish or walk his trail we can explore some timeless traditional roots.

Desi Maxwell

Why not take a few moments and enjoy watching a new video from Desi entitled, “It’s a long way from Broughshane to Bethlehem”. Type the following URL into your web browser and enjoy vimeo.com/espiritoproductions/desi