‘Pray without Ceasing’
1 Thessalonians 5 v1
Any attempt to understand Celtic spirituality begins and ends with the practice of prayer. This may sound overly obvious to you and understandably you may ask, ‘why are you not heralding the well documented creational aspects of Celtic Christianity?’ After all creation and liminal location was a very important aspect of the Celtic Churches identity and we would be right to point this out. Yet the centrality of Celtic Christian monastic practice was subordinate to the foundational practice of prayer. I deliberately want to refer to prayer as a practice, as an academic approach to prayer is as ludicrous an idea as a butterfly building a Ferrari. You cannot understand prayer, until you practice it, and it is here that Columban spirituality begins.
Prayer is the primary way of expressing and building a relationship with God. It is a living manifestation of the quality of our relationship with God. For many of us we intuitively understand this, we aspire to it, sweat under the weight of obligation to pray, live with the guilt of not praying, practice it as a way of absolving ourselves from repeated sins and weaknesses, or curse the very God who loves us because we cannot seem to find him when we need him. Prayer is often made complicated to our overly busy minds. Yet In my experience it is in the mind were we lose our way when it comes to praying.
So what is prayer and is there a unique way of praying that is Celtic? Prayer is the language of love between two people. At its most potent it is a private intimate and hidden affair between The Creator and that which has been created. It is an honest exchange that requires nothing more than ‘being available’ to the other person. There are no rules when it comes to communicating with God, apart from a willingness to turn up and to listen. We lose our language that speaks to God, if we forget to turn up. This I believe is where prayer begins and ends – we turn up.
If there is anything uniquely Celtic about prayer, it would be that it is essentially an indigenous ascetic monastic rhythm that was inspired by stories from the Desert Fathers of Egypt. St. Columba was a monk and priest, and to that end was dedicated vocationally to pray and the activity of building a Holy community that prayed.
There are numerous stories recorded for us of him stealing away in the middle of the night to be alone with God, undertaking nightly vigils to petition God on behalf of others and dramatic stories of him being visited by angels and surrounded by Divine light. All of this is fantastical to read and something we would all love to encounter at least once in our life. Yet I wonder that in reading these stories we may be distracted from the essence of what prayer meant to Columba.
Reading the Rule of St. Columba gives us a little insight into what fueled this burning passion and importantly what sustained it.
Location – ‘Let a fast place with one door enclose thee’ (Rule IV). For most of us location creates the context in which we do something. The kitchen for cooking, the office where we work, bedroom for sleeping as an example, and prayer is no different. Where do we go to be alone with God? I have found that going to a location to pray has been very helpful. For the monks of Iona, they would have had their ‘cell’. One room with one door in which they would have spent time alone with God. Finding our own personal location and time to pray is a very helpful way of building that vital rhythm into ours lives. Repetition in prayer is considered by some to be a sign of dead religion. For the contemplative it is the life blood of the Divine encounter and having a special place in which to outwork the discipline of ‘turning up’ can be very helpful.
Rhythm – The communal rhythm of prayer for St. Columba would have been straight forward. As a monk he practiced the seven offices of the day (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline). Additionally he would have undertaken fasts, vigils and extended periods away in isolated retreat. As a Holy man, St. Columba’s life was built around being available to encounter God on a daily basis. Also each day was punctuated with an hourly focus on worship, prayer and praise. This is perhaps the essence of holiness, the will to put the conversation with God front and central in your life, to the subordination of all else. These rhythms of prayer take time to build up, a life time in fact, but they lay the foundation of what will become our eternal conversation with our heavenly Father. An eternal rhythm of Divine conversation is something I can get excited about.
What is clear from the Life of St. Columba is that prayer was not a concept. It was a vocational calling around which the rest of his life was built. For the Society of St. Columba this call to prayer, contemplation and focusing on investing into this Divine relationship is the heart around which we gather. We invite you to join us on this most exciting adventure.