Paula Northwood July 30, 2017
Scripture Job 12:7–12
A meditation does not allow enough time for one to discover and explore all the complexities of Celtic Christianity, but I will give a brief overview and then focus on an aspect I think is rather humorous and fascinating: the wild goose.
The name Celtic refers to an ancient European people who shared a family of languages now represented mainly by Gaelic, Irish and Welsh. In the centuries before Christ, the Celts inhabited a broad band across central Europe, extending into Spain and Turkey. The Romans succeeded in conquering the Celtic peoples throughout Europe and were established in Britain by the time Jesus was born. But the Romans never got as far as Ireland or the Highlands and outer islands of Scotland, and the pagan Celtic cultures flourished there during the centuries that Romans were in Britain. What makes the Celtic experience different is the simple fact that no sooner had the Romans brought Christianity to this far-flung outpost than the Roman Empire started to diminish, leaving the fledgling church to blossom in the midst of a pagan culture. Nowhere in the history of Christianity is there so clear an instance of the Christian transformation of a pagan culture with so little influence by the culture that brought the Christian message.
Roman Christianity tended to be authoritarian, hierarchical, male-dominated, rational and strongly legalistic. In contrast, the Celtic church celebrated grace and nature as good gifts from God and recognized the sacredness of all creation. The Celts had, before the coming of Christianity, believed that the divine pervaded every aspect of life and that spirits were everywhere—in ancient trees and sacred groves, mountaintops and rock formations, rivers, streams and holy wells. They experienced certain places as thin places, where the veil between this world and the other was luminous. The earth was regarded as the source of all fertility, and the great forces of nature (moon, ocean, sun and wind) were worshipped as manifestations of the divine. When exposed to Christianity, they combined the ancient circle of the sun with the cross of the son Jesus to create what we know as the Celtic cross. They had a deep appreciation for mysticism and poetry. Celtic society was rural, family-based and tribal in nature, and it included women in its leadership.
The intense interest today in Celtic spirituality is based on the belief that in those centuries of isolation, Celtic Christians developed a culture that was in many respects closer to the early church and to “true Christianity” than any of the forms of institutionalized Christianity that replaced it. One gets the impression that if Celtic Christianity were practiced, our world might be less materialistic and less steeped in consumerism. Our waters might be less polluted, our rain forests and ozone layer might still be intact, and our fellow creatures might be less endangered. Life might be simpler, less frantic and happier. Worship would be more meaningful and women and men would practice equality. Communities would nurture radical discipleship and be passionate about peace and justice. There would be no divide between sacred and secular. The church would be engaged critically with contemporary culture and be rooted in mission, not maintenance. Frankly, it sounds magically delicious.
Unfortunately, we have little direct information about the actual practice of the early Celtic Christians. There is evidence instead of a great deal of wishful reconstruction, according to some scholars. As it is with most things, I suppose, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Be that as it may, there has been a revival of sorts in recent years, and many people resonate with what is thought to be Celtic Christianity.
One such aspect that captures my imagination is the wild goose. Many Christian traditions employ the dove as the primary symbol of the Holy Spirit, and for good reason: It is a dove, after all, that descended upon Jesus during his baptism. The dove also represents “peace” or “shalom,” which are essential tenets of Christian identity. At Plymouth, we don’t talk much about the Trinity. We often say we worship God and follow Jesus, but we make no reference to the Holy Spirit except during baptisms. Well, that warrants another sermon for another time. For our purposes this morning, I understand the Spirit to be the animating life force of God within and around each of us. So we could say we worship God, follow Jesus and we are filled with the Spirit. As the Indian mystic poet Kabir says, “[The Spirit of] God is the breath within the breath.” Your Spirit is what drives your passion, energizes you and gives you purpose.
Rather than the symbol of the dove, Celtic Christians chose the wild goose as a way to talk about the Spirit. Celtic Christians often forged their symbols out of the ordinary, daily things that they saw in front of them. For them, the untamed, uncontrollable, erratic nature of the wild goose more closely characterized the movement of the Spirit than did a peaceful, tranquil dove. Maybe for Minnesotans it would be a loon; I don’t know. A wild goose is always on the move, always doing unexpected things; it can be loud, passionate, sometimes frightening and certainly unsettling. Maybe for you, this has been more like your experience of the Spirit than the peaceful, tranquil dove. Or maybe you have never thought about it at all.
Have you ever encountered a goose at close range? When I was young, the creek that flowed through our farmland regularly flooded. Once after the flood receded, my younger brother Mark found a large egg. As an experiment, he put the egg under a hen in the chicken house. He checked on it every day for about 20 days, when the chicks hatched but not the large egg. The mother hen gave up on this egg but not my brother. He put a heat lamp on the egg and turned it frequently. A few days later, he saw some movement, and eventually the shell cracked open and there emerged a gosling. The gosling had a little kink in his neck that made him look like he was interested in what you were saying or doing. The little goose matured into what we know as a Canada goose, who thought my brother was his mother. This wild goose followed him around the farm as Mark did his chores. He was so tame that my brother walked the goose in our small town Memorial Day parade.
This goose had a wide embrace—a wing span of almost five feet—and it could seem loving or intimidating, depending on your treatment of my brother. This goose was very protective! We loved to chase it, and, if a goose can be affectionate, it was. The beauty of that wild goose that sometimes would turn around and nip and chase you into places that you had not planned to go was that it also could stop and offer an embracing love. It was an embracing love that encouraged, pushed and prodded. An embracing love that built up in every moment such a fiercely protective love that even the most overwhelmed child, who felt that he had nothing to offer (and who lives in many of us), knew that he was loved and was chosen in some way. Not everyone had a pet goose. Using our metaphor, we too are chosen by this loving God, and we are loved and challenged, even nipped at sometimes. This is how the Spirit of God, this wild goose, is released in the life of the world. I can understand the Celtic choice of the goose.
Jesus said that those who were led by the Spirit were like the wind—you don’t know where it comes from and you don’t know where it’s going—but anyone who follows it or is filled with the Spirit is free, irrepressible and tenacious. They have lives that are less than predictable. They live life to the fullest. They are untamable either by a society that would bind them with lies or by a religion that would chain them with duty and obligation. They are like the wild goose.
A life following in the tailwind of the wild goose is the kind of life that calls to our innermost being and awakens the lethargic longings within. The problem is we know few, if any, who have discovered the flight path. We chase the wild goose, whether we know it or not, searching for a stronger connection with the sacred, hoping for a life of deeper meaning and always wanting more.
I think we miss this connection with our spirits because we are either focused on a feeling (we say, “We just can’t feel it”), or we see the Spirit as thing more distant or nonexistent. I wish I could tell you that there were seven simple steps to catching the wild goose or experiencing the Spirit, but that’s not the way it works. Maybe chasing the wild goose is simply to learn a different kind of life. It is learning faith and trust and how to let go. It is letting God explore the nooks and crannies of your heart, not with a candle but with a miner’s light so God can crawl down into those hidden caverns beneath our shame to excavate and alleviate the wounds. It is healing those hidden wounds and realizing they’re not shameful, but that they’re scars worthy of a receiving a medal, because we got those wounds doing battle for our soul. They’re only shameful in the dark. In the light of day, they are what make us strong. It is, as the Celts knew, opening our eyes and our hearts to the glorious world around us and drinking in the beauty of creation and contemplating its mystery. It is arriving at the threshold of perfect love, the love of God that casts out fear. The Spirit is not a goal to be achieved but a presence to be recognized and received.
A migrating flock of Canada geese landed in our small pond by the creek and stayed for a few days, and when they left, our pet goose joined them . . . for you cannot tame the wild goose. We come full circle from chasing the wild goose to finding the Spirit without effort, for it is within us. It is here in this place. Look around.
And as we read from the book of Job earlier:
But ask the animals what they think—let them teach you;
let the birds tell you what’s going on.
Put your ear to the earth—learn the basics.
Listen—the fish in the ocean will tell you their stories.
Isn’t it clear that they all know and agree
that God is pure love, that all things are held in God’s hands?
And by simply receiving the gift of love, we can know the power that gives our souls wings. May it be so. Amen.