Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition, by Esther De Waal (LentBook #19)

As with Julian of Norwich, this is a book I’d been planning to read for a long time.  I’m very attracted to the idea of “Celtic Christianity,” even though I know it’ a vague concept into which people tend to toss whatever ideas they like about early Christianity in the British Isles (including the prevailing Seventh-day Adventist belief, tenacious though hard to document, that many Celtic Christians worshipped on the seventh day).

I wear a Celtic cross because the little I do know about Celtic practices within early Christianity suggest that Ireland, particularly, was one of the few places where Christianity blended into the culture by adopting and “baptizing,” rather than condemning and abolishing, existing pagan practices.  I don’t mean pagan practices such as human sacrifice, which the early Celtic Christians were rather strongly opposed to and with good reason.  I mean that many of the attitudes, the artwork, even the local gods (transformed into saints) of pagan Ireland were included in Celtic Christianity.  It seems a much better model of how to evangelize than the traditional Christian “missionary” model which says “Your culture is all wrong; here, take ours instead!”

These are the ideas I’ve picked up about Celtic practices from general reading and from attending a workshop on the subject a couple of years ago.  A lot of those ideas were popularized by Esther De Waal in this book and others, as she has made something of a career of uncovering the history of Celtic Christian practices in Great Britain and Ireland.  She describes a Christianity very much in harmony with traditional culture, very closely tied to the earth, and very affirming of the goodness of God’s creation.

In many ways the things I read about Celtic Christian practices in this book reminded me of what I found in Julian of Norwich, though she was an English Roman Catholic who lived about 1000 years after St. Patrick.  In both I found the same affirmation of the goodness of God’s creation co-existing alongside a harsh asceticism with a strong emphasis on suffering and penitence.  I think it’s hard for our modern minds to put those two ideas together (it may get easier, as our minds get more postmodern).  I tend to think that people who live in tiny hermitages and stand in icy-cold water to pray probably view God as a harsh and punitive God, this earth as a bad and sinful place, and the body as something to be mortified and denied.  But that’s not true, either of the Celtic Christians such as St. Columba, or of Julian of Norwich.

This is very interesting to me, given that so much of my reading and thinking this Lent has been about desire and self-denial, about living simply, about what we can and should give up, and why.  I’m seeking a balance, I guess — the same balance Elizabeth Gilbert sought when she went on her journey to explore pleasure, prayer, and how to harmonize the two. Hints along the way — such as Every Earthly Blessing — suggest that such a harmony is far from impossible, perhaps even essential.  That we need to know that God is good and the world is good before we can begin ordering our desires, disciplining ourselves to lay aside some pleasures for the greater good.  I have a lot of thinking yet to do on this issue, but Esther De Waal’s explorations of Celtic practices have helped me along the way, and provided a nice endpoint to this year’s Lenten reading and reflection.  At the very least, I have a new list of questions to start asking myself in the year ahead.



Filed under LentBooks, Nonfiction -- general

2 responses to “Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition, by Esther De Waal (LentBook #19)

  1. Helen Kamadulski

    I enjoyed your blog entry. I am currently reading Every Earthly Blessing, loaned to me by the Rector at my church. I find so much that rings true in Ms. De Waal’s writings on the subject of Celtic Christianity and appreciate your perspective as well. I’m glad i stumbled upon your blog and look forward to reading more of your entries.


    Bob Todd
    For Liturgical Press

    Esther de Waal on Baptism and the Rule of Saint Benedict

    Collegeville, MN (May 30, 2009)

     In “Seeking Life: The Baptismal Invitation of the Rule of St. Benedict”, renowned author Esther de Waal returns to the Rule of Saint Benedict—the inspiration for Seeking God, her classic book published twenty-five years ago.

    In “Seeking Life”, de Waal focuses on the prologue to the Rule and shows how it contains the clues we need to understand and live by the vows made at our baptism. Yet how well do we understand the spirit and depth of those vows? How much do they shape our daily lives?

    With her characteristic insight and wisdom, Esther de Waal draws out enduring spiritual teaching on how to live when reborn “of water and the spirit.”

    “. . . . At a time when both the church and the culture seem to be bereft of memory, the perspective of a rigorous historian who is also a committed pilgrim comes as water in the desert. This book is, indeed, ‘a deep look at the deep past.’ . . . .The reader will find in these pages a spirit celebrating an immense and intelligent charity—a charity which rescues us from the entanglements of our own narrow and ultimately joyless psycho-drama. This book, which includes a deeply valuable anthology, will help the church recover its memory and thus revive a heart-centered spirituality for which the world longs.”
    Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

    Esther de Waal is one of today’s most popular authors writing in the field of spirituality. She lives in Herefordshire, close to the border between England and Wales. She spends two months each winter in Washington DC as the Senior Fellow of the Cathedral College, where her teaching centers on the development of the religious imagination. She will be speaking about Seeking Life in the United States in early summer of 2008.

    “Seeking Life: The Baptismal Invitation of the Rule of St. Benedict”
    By Esther de Waal
    Hardcover, 160 pp, 5 x 7 1/2

    “Seeking Life” is part of the series Rule of Saint Benedict from Liturgical Press.

    To receive an electronic media kit, a gratis exam copy (for professors), a gratis review copy (for media), or to discuss speaking opportunities or interviews contact Bob Todd at bt@bobtoddpublicity.com.

    To order call Liturgical Press at (800) 854-5450 or visit http://www.litpress.org

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