Anne Howard: A Word in Time: Celtic Grace and Politics



A Summer Reading Series Recommendation:

John Philip Newell's Listening for the Heartbeat of God (Paulist, 1997)

Ancient Celtic Christians based their spiritual practice upon John, the beloved disciple who leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper. He was listening, they believed, for the heartbeat of God. God was to be found at the heart of life.

This early brand of Christianity was pushed to the far edges of Christendom in the 7th century by the Roman version of Christianity, which looked not to John but to Peter, the "rock" on whom the church was to be built. God was to be located within the institution, within the teaching of the official church and its clergy. And we western Christians have been impoverished ever since.

But the riches of the early wisdom of the Celts are available to us once again, thanks to the scholarship and witness of a new John-a new evangelist, one could say-for our century, John Philip Newell.  

Listening for the Heartbeat of God is not one of Newell's newest books, but I've chosen to recommend this small book because it is such fine introduction to Celtic spirituality, to the Celtic way of praying, and to the Celtic Christian theologians who taught the essential goodness of creation.

My favorite of these theologians is Pelagius, who all seminarians learn is the heretic who founded "Pelagianism," a heresy that says "we save ourselves." I was always rather attracted to Pelagius, but I didn't really know why until I read this book. He said such heinous things as: "Look at the birds flying across the sky: God's spirit dwells within them . . . Look at the fish in the river and the sea: God's spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent . . . The presence of God's spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God's eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly." (11)

Heresy? I think the early church had an agenda that he must have threatened. Pelagius deserves a re-reading, and I'm grateful for this re-introduction to his work.

Patrick has faired better in the church's estimation than Pelagius. In the hymn attributed to Patrick, we see the hallmarks of Celtic spirituality: "the intertwining of the spiritual and the material, heaven and earth, time and eternity." The elements of the natural world are graces, "invoked in a way that suggests that the spiritual exists within the matter of creation and that God's healing and restoring powers are to be found in the goodness of the earth." (p.24)

Just as heaven and earth are not separate realms, the political and the spiritual are not separated. George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community, was an exponent of both a more mystical and a more political spirituality.  Newell quotes MacLeod saying that the true mark of Christian spirituality "is to get one's teeth into things . . . Painstaking service to humankind's most material needs is the essence of Christianity spirituality."

"Going mystical," in MacLeod's view is not to turn away from the affairs of the world, but rather "to go more deeply into life, to find God at the heart of life, deeper than any wrong, and to liberate God's goodness within us and in our relationship, both individually and collectively."

It is this liberation that characterizes all of Newell's writing, especially his 2001 A New Harmony in which he continues the Celtic theme of unity and presents a vision of the unity of all religions and races. All of his books are gifts from the Celtic Christian household for the healing of the world. We need John Philip Newell.

Echoes from the Edge

Summer Reading Series

By Adam Rao, 2012-13 Beatitudes Fellow -


Adam recommends:  

Mancini, Will. Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement. Jossey-Bass, 2008.

  • This is, by far, the best book on creating and casting vision I've ever read. Highly recommended. 

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House, 2007.

  • Though not specifically geared towards preaching, the principles of communication presented here are extremely useful for understanding how and why people connect to ideas. Useful for understanding marketing and vision-casting strategies as well. 

Stanley, Andy, and Lane Jones. Communicating for a Change. Multnomah Books, 2006.

  • Stanley's preaching methodology is where my own Me-We-Text-You-We framework comes from. For a shorter version of the principles contained in the book, see Stanley's two-part article, "My Formula for Preaching" (Link, Part 1) (Link, Part 2). 

Kinnaman, David, and Gabe Lyons. unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity... and Why It Matters. Baker Books, 2007.

  • A helpful data summary is also available. (Link) This is the research that led us to start SafeHouse Church. 

Kinnaman, David. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church... and Rethinking Faith. Baker Books, 2011.

  • An important follow-up to the unChristian study. We're doing a six-week teaching series in 2014 based on the findings of this research. 

Adam Rao is Lead Pastor at SafeHouse Church in Minneapolis.

Finally, the Poet

Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith

By Mary Oliver - August 12th, 2013

Every summer

        I listen and look

                 under the sun's brass and even

                         in the moonlight, but I can't hear

anything, I can't see anything-

        not the pale roots digging down, nor the green stalks muscling up,

                 nor the leaves

                         deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,

        nor the shucks, nor the cobs.

                 And still,

                         every day,

the leafy fields

        grow taller and thicker-

                 green gowns lifting up in the night,

                         showered with silk.

And so, every summer,

        I fail as a witness, seeing nothing-

                 I am deaf too

                         to the tick of the leaves,

the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet-

        all of it


                         beyond all seeable proof, or hearable hum.

And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.

        Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.

                 Let the wind turn in the trees,

                         and the mystery hidden in dirt

swing through the air.

        How could I look at anything in this world

                 and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?

                         What should I fear?

One morning

  in the leafy green ocean

                 the honeycomb of the corn's beautiful body

                         is sure to be there.


(from West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems)

Taken with permission from the Beatitudes Society Blog