Environment, Spirituality

Pagan/Celtic Reflections # 2

May 2, 2012

I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking since my last post, because it seemed to ring bells with people, both through comments that were left on the blog and private emails/FB messages that people left me.

Two things have prompted me particularly this week. The one is that I started writing this post on Beltaine (May 1st): an old Celtic celebration marking the mid-way point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In the calendar it stands opposite Samhain (or Halloween, on October 31st). When, in my last post, I referred to a pagan ritual that had resonated with me, it was a Beltaine celebration that I was talking about.

The second prompt is that the day before Beltaine I taught on ‘Transforming the Environment’ to third year ordinand trainees at St Mellitus in London. St Mellitus was Bishop of London in the early seventh century and was part of the move to convert paganism to Christianity. I’m struck by a letter to St Mellitus by Pope Gregory 1, encouraging him to undertake the conversion gradually and in a way that integrated the pagan rituals and customs (although I’m very aware that the actual history is not this simple). To be speaking at something dedicated to the legacy of St Mellitus, on creational transformation, seemed very apt.

The Beltaine celebration I read about took place not far from me, in a wooded area with a cave.  It had four main elements. Firstly, the group stood in a circle, saying words from a liturgy that welcomed everyone and drew them together. Secondly, the group then said words that welcomed the spirits of the North, South, East and West to their celebration and asked them to be present. The third, main, element focused on the cave. Each person was asked to take into the cave something that represented the darkness of the past year. They went into the cave and said some words about that and took time in silence to reflect on what they were wanting to leave behind. Then, when they were ready, they walked out of the cave into the light, leaving behind the object they had brought with them. Finally, they joined back together to say a liturgy about going out from there, leaving the darkness of the past year behind, walking into the new life and light of the year ahead.

I probably hardly need say how familiar this sounds to the kind of thing that might be done by those of us reading this who are Christians. Certainly I can think of responses in the Big Top at Spring Harvest that would be very similar! It even struck me with the second element that had the spirits of the N, S, E and West been substituted with ‘the Holy Spirit’ in the words of the invocation, I would have been happy with what was said.

Before I’m hounded out of the Christian world and forever labelled with the word ‘heretic’, let me highlight two key differences (among others). Firstly, there is a crucial difference between my faith and that of modern pagans, and that is the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Jesus (and so, a similar response at Spring Harvest would see people bringing their objects – or, more likely, bits of paper – to a big cross and leaving them there). Thus, while there are similarities, I am not being naïve or overly simplistic: without Jesus taking a central place, I see these celebrations as being at best misguided, at worst deceptive. Whilst this particular Beltaine celebration resonated with me, there are others that would not.

A second crucial difference is that, as a follower of Jesus, I worship the Creator and Lord of all creation, rather than the creation itself. Some of the comments on my previous post showed that this has sometimes been a problem, and the response from ‘David’ was really helpful in stating that Celtic Christianity has always been Christ-centred and has never seen any part of the created order as a god.

So, I am not advocating paganism and I write this post with some trepidation, aware of how the blogosphere can misrepresent what a person says and raise hysteria all too quickly. Nonetheless, having experienced a friend’s involvement with paganism (having previously been a very committed Christian), I have learnt that it is not something to be scared of and we need not always take an adversarial and hostile position towards it. We may even be humble enough to ask if there are things we can learn from them.

I have my own ideas on that but will leave them to my next post as this is already too long and I want to hear other people’s comments first, so over to you…!

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  • Reply niallcooper May 2, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Excellent and courageous piece Ruth! I don’t carry and brief for paganism, but as an associate of the Iona Community am a big fan of Celtic Christianity, and its positive engagement with the creation and nature. Too often Christianity and theology has been antipathetic, not to say hostile to any understanding that God is to be found in nature. We should celebrate nature and the physical world around us far more in worship, without necessarily worshipping nature itself.

    • Reply Júlio Reis May 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      I agree us Christians have been hostile to other understandings of (the Christian) God other than those who can be arrived at through logic and reasoning. This is to our own detriment. [Someone might interject here some mention to the influence of Greek philosophy.] I’m not saying that we should be irrational, but only that being fastidiously correct can be a tiresome business, and not fun for most of us except the most argumentative.
      And so, we often don’t really listen to people of other faiths, including pagans—we look for a flaw in their logic, and wait for for them to catch their breath so we can quickly correct them. Not a sound application of the “be prepared to witness” bit in 1 Peter, I think.
      Also, since creation can’t really speak with real words and human intelligence—there’s no reasoning with it—we might be tempted to think it has nothing to say to us. So we dismiss it with a shrug.
      Not everyone, not always. 🙂

  • Reply Nathan May 2, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Another excellent and thought-provoking post – thanks. I’ve been learning a lot recently about how we, as Christians, tend to reject out of hand the practices of other faiths or even different strains of Christianity because we disagree with parts of them or simply don’t understand them. A good example of this is the Protestant (almost) rejection of Mary as a reaction against the Catholic veneration of Mary.

    • Reply Júlio Reis May 2, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      Rejection of Mary? Certainly not… if Protestants can preach about Mary’s example of faith, there’s no rejection taking place. Now if you hear a preach about Mary you’ll always hear an admonition that she’s not to be worshiped. (In my Portuguese neck of the woods, anyway.) I find this normal; if you were in a pantheistic setting and the preacher said, “God is everywhere”, he’d naturally complement it with “but not in that way”.

      • Reply Nathan May 2, 2012 at 5:25 pm

        which is why there is the (almost)…

  • Reply malc garda May 3, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Works for me Ruth – As Columba would say – Jesus is my cheif druid! To my mind our modern version of church and Christianity seems very far removed from the more earthy bits and practices of the past. We fear being associated with the ‘New age’ or Pagan practices. Even Jesus himself was accused of being a ‘New Ager’………… it is a simple equation to me – Worship the Creator – Thank the Creator for creation………. provided this order is preserved, any amount of meaningful/creative and most importantly ‘inspired’ symbolism can only be a good thing? God has not withdrawn from his creation and neither should we – I think we could learn a great deal from the Pagans in terms of a connection with the elements. M x

  • Reply simoncross May 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    While I think its a bit too easy to talk about Celtic Christians as if we really know what they were like, I do find the little snippets we can read about them very interesting.

    I find particularly inspiring the notion that Aidan went to Northumberland (after previous unsuccessful missionaries returned) with ‘the milk of less solid doctrine’ – at least so Bede tells us.

    There’s certainly a lot to be said for taking a sympathetic rather than antagonistic approach to other beliefs, basically I think we’ve been a bit too busy building the devil in our own image over the last 2000+ years, by demonising anyone whose beliefs diverge from our own.

  • Reply Colin Bell May 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks for these ideas, Ruth. I’ve always thought it a bit odd that we frequently thank God for his creation while hiding from it inside stone buildings of our own construction! The rare time I’ve worshipped outside has had a very different feel.

    Which leads me onto a couple of other things to throw into the picture. If you look at the descriptions of the Tabernacle and Temple, you find a lot of nature imagery, so although the Jews were inside too, at least they had that link.

    And of course many of the Psalms mention nature, although it’s nature worshipping God along with us, never us worshipping nature or coming close to it.

    • Reply ruthvalerio May 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm

      Thanks Colin. I want to pick up on the temple and tabernacle descriptions in my next blog post actually, so good you’ve brought it in already.

  • Reply Stuart Pascall May 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Hey Ruth – thanks for your as always thought provoking writings….the resonance I feel with them, and many of my own reflections, leads me to reflect on how far I have travelled of recent years, and challenges me as to how far I still need to journey! I have a feeling that there are several folks in BCC who think that I am becoming a heretic anyway – and maybe I am. Although such labels usually are a last ditch defence against the challenges of thinking outside of the boxes that we feel safe within! And as for concrete boxes – well we do at least have windows but rarely face them! Time for a change of 90 degrees I think………
    As a matter of personal reminder – I used to cycle to Chanctonbury ring wen I were but a lad – all the way from Guildford. Couldn’t do it now – but must perhaps revisit! Great place…..
    Keep up the good and insightful blogging! Sx

    • Reply ruthvalerio May 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      Thanks, Stuart, nice to see you here 🙂

      • Reply ruthvalerio May 4, 2012 at 5:11 pm

        BTW love the idea of turning 90 degrees!

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