The Celtic cross on my Anglican rosary.
In my sermon on Sunday, I referred to a “favorite theologian” who wrote that the problem with most of us pastors is that we go about our work as if God doesn’t exist. (That theologian was—surprise, surprise—Stanley Hauerwas, and I read it recently in his memoir, Hannah’s Child.
) I felt convicted when I read it. After all, when it comes to seeking God’s will, I’ve always been more of a shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of guy. I make a decision, then I pray. No, that’s not right… I make a decision, then—when something goes horribly wrong—I pray.
I wondered aloud in my sermon what it would be like if I weren’t like this. For example, as a pastor, I serve on many church committees. We always open committee meetings with prayer, of course. I am often asked to lead. How often do I pray as if prayer is a formality? As if prayer were something we have to do before we get down to the real business at hand?
But suppose prayer is the real business at hand?
A book I’m currently reading, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, by George Hunter III, gives voice to my longing for a better way of praying. He does so first by describing the way in which Celtic monastic communities lived out their Christian lives. They perceived life at three levels. The bottom level “deals with the features in life that our senses can directly apprehend. At this level, people learn to plant a crop, to clean a fish, to fix a water pump, to build a house, and to do a thousand other things.”1
The top level deals with the big and ultimate questions of life (which all religions answer)—for example, what happens to us after we die?
But there’s a middle level, too. This is where most of life takes place. The middle level deals with issues that affect us in the near future.
To be specific, the mother whose son faces a court trial, the laid-off father who cannot make the mortgage payment, the teen who experiences new hormones surging within him, and the woman who still struggles with the memory that a parent loved her sibling more are primarily driven at this middle level. Of these three dimensions—past, present, and near future—concerns about the near future hound many people much of the time.
Most of the problems of life, Hunter says, lie at this level, yet Western Christianity mostly ignores it. “Western Christian leaders usually focus on the ‘ultimate’ issues, as they define them, to the exclusion of the lesser issues; indeed, they often consider middle issues as beneath what they were educated and ordained to address!” In general, people go to church so they can go to heaven. For most other concerns in life, they seek answers elsewhere.
Isn’t Hunter mostly right? God and Christianity are for the Big Questions of life. Since we spend the vast majority of our lives dealing with lesser concerns, we don’t leave much room for God or faith. We have bills to pay, after all. Religion is all well and good in its place, but time’s a-wasting. Let’s get on with it.
Celtic Christianity, by contrast,
addressed life as a whole and may have addressed the middle level as specifically, comprehensively, and powerfully as any Christian movement ever has. A folk Christianity of, by, and for the people developed. It helped common people live and cope as Christians day by day in the face of poverty, enemies, evil forces, nature’s uncertainties, and frequent threats from many quarters.2
The way it did this, Hunter says, was mostly through short prayers and rituals for “directing their hearts, moment by moment, setting by setting.” The Celtic Christians learned prayers “to accompany getting up in the morning, dressing, starting the morning fire, bathing or washing clothes or dishes,… and going to bed at night.”
Here is a beautiful ancient Celtic prayer, for example, for starting the morning fire:
I will kindle my fire this morning
In presence of the holy angels of heaven,
God, kindle Thou in my heart within
A flame of love to my neighbor,
To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,
To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall.3
Isn’t that great? Imagine reminding yourself through continual prayer throughout the day that you are not alone: God is with you. God is loving you. God is helping you. Of course, we’re supposed to know that already as Christians—and maybe we do, intellectually. But this practice of prayer drives the point home.
Hunter refers to a book called Celtic Blessings: Prayers for Everyday Life, by an Anglican priest named Ray Simpson. Simpson has apparently written Celtic-style prayers and blessings for our contemporary world. I’ll let you know how it is. I ordered it off Amazon.com yesterday.
1. George G. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, 10th anniv. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 19-20.
2. Ibid., 20-21.
3. Ibid., 22.