Christ of the Celts
by J. Philip Newell
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008
Reviewed by Mary C. Earle
Newell offers us a reflected, seasoned, and integrated spirituality. He is ever mindful of the cultural temptations to split matter from spirit, individual from community, prayer from practice. Looking back historically, he notes the teachings of Pelagius (a native Briton from the sixth century) and John Scotus Eriugena (an Irish theologian and philosopher from the eighth century). In these teachers Newell discovers confirmation and affirmation of the soul’s awareness: creation is marvelous, good, and intricate. The human person is an integral part of the creation; our interdependence is a truth that has been obscured and denied in recent history. As we recover this sense of being a part of rather than apart from, our way of beholding the created order, from the microscopic to the cosmic, is altered and expanded. We discover anew that “Wholeness does not come in isolation. It comes in relationship to the whole” (xvii).
Following in the footsteps of John the Evangelist, Newell restates his insights from his earlier works, reminding us to “listen for the heartbeat of God” in and through all of creation. He teaches us that everything comes from the same Center. The body of this book is filled with metaphors of music, sound, memory, and silence—metaphors that spring from contemplative prayer and practice. Newell’s own listening leads him to incorporate insights from Irenaeus of Lyon, Julian of Norwich, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Christ of the Celts is a work that draws us ever more deeply into lived prayer, prayer that translates into everyday action and embodied compassion. Newell takes great care with leading us to attend to connections we have overlooked, longings we have ignored, and hopes we have chosen to discourage. Newell’s writing has always spoken to me as a spiritual director because it is work that is birthed in prayer and practice. His prayer books—Celtic Benediction, Celtic Treasure, Celtic Prayers from Iona, and so forth—reveal much about his willingness to listen deeply, to be open continually to transformation, even when said transformation will be painful. This is not an author who overlooks the violence, inequity, and desecration all around us. He looks straight at it, listening for Presence in and through what may be horrific. He writes, “To pay attention to our tears is to hear the deepest longings of the human soul. It is to hear again the ancient yearning for well-being and harmony” (xix).
Christ of the Celts has proved to be a book that focuses my own practice, opens my eyes, ears, and heart, and leads to deeper listening.
Mary C. Earle is an Episcopal priest, writer, spiritual director, and retreat leader. Her most recent book is Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings Annotated and Explained.