This past weekend, February 7-9, 2014, Ted Dodd was privileged to attend a guided retreat on Celtic Spirituality, with the highly regarded preacher, author, and hymn lyricist, Herbert O’Driscoll. These are Ted’s reflections on the event…
O’Driscoll cast a magic spell as he explored the topic with grace and a poet’s soul. With a breadth of scholastic knowledge and the spirit of an Irish storyteller, O’Driscoll mesmerized the participants with depth and tenderness of insight.
Even the title of the retreat — Patrick’s Song, Brigid’s Well and Columba’s Island – sang with lyrical grace. Throughout his talks, O’Driscoll shared a wide range of evocative poetry; within worship times we sang his hymns –contemporary, yet rooted in tradition. He claimed that the Celtic expression of the faith invited us toward a greening of our imagination. From the prosaic and linear we are called to creativity. A paraphrase of one of his thoughts “When an old world is dying, a new one is being reborn. We have the choice to be mourners or midwives.”
O’Driscoll enlivened the history of the Celts with a far-reaching grasp of this chapter of our Christian story. With a living sense of the community of time, O’Driscoll firmly presented the case that by visiting the past we illuminate the present. The Celtic cloud of witnesses shared many of the same struggles we face and they have precious spiritual treasures they can share with us. Celtic history was hugely affected by the (almost) all-consuming rise, and society-shattering fall, of the Roman Empire. They lived in a time of massive change, as do we.
Celtic Christianity coped with a disintegrating world with a powerful, living faith which O’Driscoll contrasted with the theology that emerged in a more intellectual, doctrinal, “built in stone” Mediterranean/Roman Christianity. The Atlantic/Celtic Christianity was impregnated with a sense of the divine and more strongly connected to creation. Father Sky and Mother Earth met in the Celtic cosmos, where the material and spiritual are not divided. Community, not individualism, was valued for relationships, and certainly not as monolithic institution. Beauty and the arts supplied wisdom and discernment, alongside scripture. Mystery was explored rather than dogma imposed, in a theology of journey that emphasized searching and seeking.
Throughout this experience, O’Driscoll led with the humble confidence of a very experienced speaker. He side-tracked us off the main roads of the narrative onto delightful off ramps of character development, remembered movie motifs, a bit of biblical memory work, or yet another snippet of evocative poetry. He ended on Sunday, by reminding us to step into the journey of faith that:
- calls us to maturely keep on growing and experiencing life as a quest
- lives in community and sees the church as a wonderful, sacred mystery
- strives for Jesus’s vision of a peaceful and just kingdom
- reads scripture as a compass not a map
- enters into worship and prayer as sources of grace that take us beyond our own egos
- shares a sacred meal that models equality and connection to creation
- says yes to a sense of vocation and calling that brings meaning in life
- embodies a way that is invitational and not coercive.
Visually, I will remember that his grand mix of intellect, and orator’s ease were punctuated – not with overly-dramatic vocal gymnastics or highly crafted linguistic construction – but with the gentle sweep of his hands matching his images. Like he could not help himself, his hands followed the pictures and thoughts in his head like he was conducting an idea up and out, or musically shaping a description for his audience. His hands, his ideas, his prayerful reflectiveness embody an integrated man of deep heart-felt faith.