A few days ago I posted the transcript of a talk I gave at a Celtic spirituality conference at Southern Illinois University, way back on May 1, 1999. Today’s post comes from that same conference — this is a reflection I shared at the Catholic Mass that evening. It was, to the best of my knowledge, the first time I ever spoke in a Catholic setting. The readings were from 1 Peter 2:4-9 and John 14:1-12. We also read a following passage taken from the book Celtic Fire, edited by Robert Van de Weyer.
You can tell this reflection dates from 1999 — I begin by talking about what you might need to do to protect your VCR on Y2K (you probably have to be almost as old as I am to know what that means!); I also mention Donald Trump, totally clueless as to his long-term political ambitions. Ah, those were simpler days. Hope you enjoy the reflection.
A Celtic Perspective on Abundance
I recently received one of those chain-letter emails that circulates around the Internet. It involved the Y2K crisis, but in a very down-to-earth, homey way. It seems that someone out there in Internet land is worried that VCRs will not survive the Y2K transition. The author of this email suggests to VCR owners that on January 1, 2000, they set their VCR to January 1, 1972.
The idea is that 1972 and 2000 match each other perfectly—both are leap years beginning on a Saturday. According to the author of the email, we shouldn’t count on the VCR manufacturers to provide us with a fix to our VCR clock; they’ll want us to go out and buy a new VCR that is Y2K compliant!
Well, I don’t know if my VCR is going to go kaplooie on January 1 or not, but to be honest with you, I’ve owned it for almost two years already and haven’t yet set the date and the time on it. So I imagine it will still work fine next year. But I sure appreciate those vigilant souls out there in cyberspace who are working hard to help me manage the transition into the new millennium with the greatest of ease.
Actually, the more I thought about this little email, the more I thought it was symptomatic of our society. First of all, it assumes that everybody owns a VCR. I know I’m guilty as charged, and I imagine many of us in this room can boast of having our own personal VCR. Of course, we have our own personal TV to go along with it. We all have our own computers, our own printers, telephones, toasters, microwave ovens, automobiles and so forth. We Americans are slaphappy and punchdrunk with the ecstasy of our consumerism.
I speak for myself, but I suspect that many of my brothers and sisters here with me today share in my affluence. Oh, sure, maybe compared to Donald Trump and Bill Gates we are not so well off, but compared to the average person who lives in BanglaDesh, or Ethiopia, or the Rosebud Indian Reservation—then we recognize just how well off we all really are. In global terms, we are wealthy people indeed.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against abundance; in fact, I believe that it is a promise of the Christian life, that we will have abundance. After all, in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus promises that we will have an abundant life in him. The earth is an abundant place, and she freely gives us of her abundance; and I believe that is the natural order of things. But alas, we do not know how to receive the earth’s abundance very well, and so we are reduced to mistaking consumerism for abundance, with the end result being that we worry whether our VCR will still be working eight months from today.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” It’s interesting to consider how this verse has been rendered in different translations of the Bible. Here are just a few variations:
- New Revised Standard Version: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
- King James Version: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
- The Living Bible: “There are many homes up there where my Father lives.”
- New Jerusalme Bible: “In my Father’s house there are many places to live in.”
- New International Version: “In my Father’s house are many rooms.”
All these many different ways of translating the same verse, and yet I know I grew up with the idea that in my father’s house are many mansions. At first blush, that sounds like a wonderful thing. What abundance must await us in heaven, where each of us gets his or her very own mansion!
Sure, on the surface it sounds great. But underneath — maybe the King James translation has been a problem. For isn’t that what we’ve done as a society: we’ve created a huge middle class, where each of us has his or her own mansion. And as soon as we get that mansion, we set about to filling it up, with stuff. And once the mansion is filled up, then we go out and rent a storage unit for all the overflow. And on and on it goes.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon on a 50-acre tract of land called Salamander Springs, just outside of Macon, GA. Salamander Springs is owned by a 43-year old woman who lives there with her two teenaged children and four other adults. They are creating a genuine intentional community. It feels like a throwback to the 1960s — people live in tipis and army tents, all the gardening is 100% organic, and the house that is slowly being built is made entirely of salvage material and powered by solar energy.
Being something of an old hippie myself, it made me feel really good to see folks trying to live close to the earth and in community, here at the end of the millennium. The people of Salamander Springs are not too worried about Y2K, and they don’t even have a VCR to fiddle with. No, they’re worried about such things as erosion control, preserving the water table, and allowing a piece of land that was too recently clear cut to slowly heal.
And even though none of the people living there probably think very much about Celtic spirituality, it seems to me that their little community has a lot in common with the early monasteries of the Celtic saints. They have chosen an austere life, but not because of any desire to punish themselves. On the contrary, they find great beauty and joy in simplicity.
As the anonymous monk whose verse we heard put it, “Their pleasures are greater than any wealth could buy. A peaceful company surrounds them, riven by no quarrels or strife.” The music of the natural world is the soundtrack to their lives, and the playful presence of Mother Nature is their constand companion. They do not seek to live in a mansion, and instead they have found the abundance of God.
Okay, so not everyone can run off and live in a modern-day hippie commune, nor in a monastery. So how do we find a bit of the Celtic spirit in the midst of our busy day-to-day lives? Well, the Celts were great pilgrims, and anyone who travels soon realizes that the longest possible journey still begins with a single step. So each of us has this opportunity in our daily lives—the opportunity to take a single step toward a simpler, calmer, more natural way of living.
Maybe that means spending more time outdoors. Maybe it means being more diligent in recycling, or buying less things that need recycling to begin with. Maybe it means not flushing the toilet every time, or making sure our names are registered with the company that stops the flow of junkmail. For each of us, there may be one or two simple things we can do, both to re-connect our selves with the natural world, and to make a commitment to take care of the earth.
By doing so, we put ourselves in solidarity with the anonymous Celtic monk who had riches beyond compare, merely by listening to the birds sing outside his humble hut. We are about to gather around the table, and taste of the abundance of God’s mercy and love, through the bread and wine of the Eucharist. I want to invite each person here to take this communion as an opportunity to meditate on the goodness of God’s creation, and the abundance of Divine favor shown to us through this natural world we’ve been given. And as we meditate on this abundance, let’s also each think of a specific way we can deepen and improve our relationship with the natural world. It’s simply a way of responding to the love we’ve been shown. It’s the least we can do. Amen.
Here’s the passage that was taken from the book Celtic Fire: it’s an anonymous writing from an ancient monk (probably Irish) called “A Peaceful Company.”
I have a hut in the wood; no one knows of it except God.
An ash tree grows on one side, a hazelon the other, and a great oak tree overhangs it, sheltering it from wind and rain.
A honeysuckle climbs around its doorposts, and a blackbird nests in the roof, singing a sweet melody.
Around my hut are apple trees, yielding the richest fruit. Nearby is a spring, giving the purest water, and beside it watercress sprouts in abundance.
In the wood behind my hut swine, goats, boars and deer graze peacefully together, with a family of badgers alongside them. And foxes come to leap amongst them. Yes, I have the most noble princes for company.
God has sent hens to lay eggs for me, and bees to give me honey. He has planted wild onions around me, and the trees are heavy with succulent berries.
Countless birds come to visit me: wild geese, ducks, before the beginning of winter; fair white birds, cranes, seagulls, singing the songs of the waves; the thrush chanting sweet carols, and in summer the familiar cuckoo above my hut.
All around me the most beautiful music plays: the songs of the birds, the lowing of cattle, the leaves rustling in the wind, the cascade of the river. No king could hire such music with gold; it is the music of Christ himself, given freely.
My pleasures are greater than any wealth could buy. A peaceful company surrounds me, riven by no quarrels or strife, but united by Christ in our midst.
Featured photo: Poulnabrone Dolmen, The Burren, Ireland, 2002. Photo by Carl McColman.