Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Anam Cara (Part 1)

Desert Roots 
Having started the month with a glimpse at the life of Bridgid i thought it would be fitting to address the topic of Anam Caram. Today we use terms such as spiriutal councilor, spiritual director and sometimes mentor. Before this role became primarily the exclusive domain of a perdominatly male clergy and more recently proffessionals this type of relationship called periglour or beriglour by the Welsh and Anam Caram by the Irish and the Scots meaning "friend of the soul" or simply "soul friend" was open to lay people and ordained, women and men alike to receive and give.

The following is a story from the life of St. Bridgid which sheds light on the importance the Celts placed on this kind of relationship.

A young cleric of the community of Ferns, a foster-son of Brigit's, used to come to her with dainties. He was often with her in the refectory to partake of food. Once after going to communion she struck a conversation. "Well, young cleric there", says Brigit, "do you have a soul friend?". "I have", replied the young man. "Let us sing his requiem", says Brigit. "Why so?" asks the young cleric. "For he has died", says Brigit. "When you had finished half your ration I saw that he was dead". "How did you know that?" "Easy to say, (Brigit replies) from the time that your soul friend was dead, I saw that your food was put (directly) in the trunk of your body, since you were without any head. Go forth and eat nothing until you get a soul friend, for anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head: is like the water of a polluted lake, neither good for drinking nor for washing. That is the person without a soul friend".

Set in the context of a meal with references to death and water, this story has symbolic, sacramental connotations that most Christians would recognise. It aluds to the fact Christian Celts believed that soul friends were crucial to the nourishment and spiritual growth of the individual. It presumes that such mentoring relationships were ultimately related to friendship with God.

To fully grasp the concept of soul friendship and its significance in the history of Christian spirituality it is important to understand that it emerged as a distinct form of spiritual mentoring. The lives and teachings of the Abbas and Ammas of the early desert, stories of the saints found in certain early Celtic hagiographies (In The Lives) and their writings affirm the value of friendly teachers, confessors, and guides for personal holiness and the sharing of wisdom grounded in deep friendships.

Scholars are in agreement that the early desert Christians had a major influence on the development of the celt apporach to mentoring friendship. Pioneers of monasticism in both the western and eastern churches, these desert christians were mostly laypeople who left their homes and travelled into the desert regions of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in the 3rd 4th and 5th centuries.

Desert elders such as Antony (251-356) and Pachomius (292-346) desired a simpler life-style where "the air was purer, the heavens more open, and God nearer". They began living alone as hermits or together in communities, eventually becoming valued as teachers of prayer and councilers of the spirit. These "Desert Fathers and Mothers", as they came to be lovingly called, instructed those who came to them not only with words of advice, but more importantly example. "Be an example, not a lawgiver" was one of their favorite sayings.

Two seemingly contradictory characteristics consistently appear: their great appreciation of friendship and an equally strong love of solitude. There is much evidence in the written works of the warmth, love, respect, and genuine affection the early desert Christians felt for each other. They warmly embraced on meeting and departing. They engage in friendly chit chat, yet also seriously discussed the spiritual progress each was attempting to make. They shared daily work and, at least once a week, celebrated Communion together. Most importantly, they called each other friend and rooted that friendship in Jesus' name and example.
Abba Theodore, taught "Let us each give his heart to the other, carrying the Cross of Christ". It is this capacity for deep friendships that attracted others to them. In their presence people felt safe opening their hearts sharing their struggles, confessing sins and seeking direction. This capacity for friendship and ability to read other people's hearts became the basis of the desert elders' effectiveness as spiritual guides.
Abba Helle is typical. Staying with his brothers for three days, he was so loved and trusted by them, we are told, that when he "revealed the secret counsels of each of them, saying that one was troubled by fornication, another by vanity, another by self-indulgence, and another by anger", they could only respond, "Yes, it is just as you say".
partially adapted from material by Edward Sneller and Ray Simpson.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

John Hyde, 1865-1912, Missionary to India
John Hyde was born in Carrollton, Illinois. His father was a Presbyterian minister. The prayer centered atmosphere in the family home growing up made an indelible impression on the life of young John.
John was graduated from Cathage College with such high honors that he was elected to a position on the faculty. He felt he heard a divine call to India. He resigned from Cathage, entered the Presbyterian seminary in Chicago, graduated in the spring of 1892 and sailed for India the following October.

In India during the next 20 years such was example of prayer that the natives referred to him as "the man who never sleeps." More familiarly he was known as "the praying Hyde." It is reported that he often he spent 30 days and nights in prayer, and many times was on his knees in deep intercession for 36 hours at a time.
His sacrifice, humility, commitment to the rural poor and example of intercession have inspired many. He died February 17, 1912.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Ash Wedensday (1)

Ash Wednesday
(the 1st day of Lent)

In the Western tradition Ash Wednesday is the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday and the first day of Lent. Lent is the period of forty days before Palm Sunday. Sundays are not figured into the caculation.

In those churches which follow the Byzantine tradition (e.g. Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics), the forty days of Lent are calculated differently: the fast begins on Clean Monday, Sundays are included in the count, and it ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday. (more on that at a later date)

Ash Wednesday gets it's name "dies cinerum" (day of ashes) from the ancient practice of followers placing ashes on their foreheads as a sign of humility before God. The ashes being a symbol of sorrow, mourning and repentence for sin. Not only does this action prefigure the death and ressurection of Christ but places the worshipper

Generally the forehead is marked with the sign of the cross while the words "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" or "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you shall return"(Gen 3:19) are said. Traditionally the ashes would come from palm branches that had been gathered and burned after their use during the previous year's Palm Sunday celibration.

In the early church it began as an individual practice. Eventualy only those wishing to make public confession of sin seeking restoration into fellowhip for the Easter celibration would make the mark. Over the years others began showing their identification with the penents and asked for the ashes. Finally the marking was extended to the whole community in services similar to those now observed in many churches on ash Wednesday.Ashes became symbolic of the attitude of penitence reflected in the Lord's Prayer " forgive us our sins as we forgive those whoin debted to us" Luke 11:4

The only two official days of fasting in theWestern Christian litugical year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The follower is asked to for go legitimate material satisfaction in order to open heart and spirit to the word and presence of God. Fasting can be accompanied by gestures of solidarity toward the suffering, in this way it can become an act of sharing with the needy and the marginalized. (more on fasting at a later date)

The use of ashes is found in the scripture and is tied to repentance.
* Job repented using ashes (Job 42:6)
* Daniel prayed with fasting and ashes (Dn 9:3)
* When Jonah preached God's coming judgment against Nineveh, the pagan king of Nineveh and his subjects repented with a fast, the king put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. (Jonah 3:5-10).
* When King Ahasuerus ordered all Jews to be killed, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. So did the Jews throughout the land (Esther 4:1-3)
* Jeremiah and Ezekiel mentioned mourning with ashes (Jer 6:26, Ez 27:30)
* Jesus mentioned ashes as a sign of repentance in the case of Tyre and Sidon (Mt 11:21)

more on Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday question & answer page
link to Ash Wednesady organization

Friday, February 1, 2008

Brigid (453-524)

Legends aside the fact of the matter is the historical Brigid a contemporary of St Patrick's is considered the spiritual midwife who helped bring to birth Christianity in Ireland.

A potent symbol for Christian womanhood Brigid was born to Leinster's pagan King Dubtach and his Christian bondservant Broicesch. His jealous wife convinced him to sell Broicesch as a slave to a druid priest. At a young age Brigid chose a life of service to God and the poor.

When older Brigid returned to her father's home where she exasperated him by constantly giving away his food and goods . Disparing of her generousity Dubtach tried to marry her off. Brigid refused and her father gave her permission to become a Nun.

As time went byBrigid led a company of woman who had decided to become nuns and requested Bishop Mel to bless their taking of the viel. Various accounts tell of Bishop Mel calling Brigid forward after wittnessing the the Spirit of God light on her. Laying hands on Brigid he ordained her as a Bishop. Others present protested that a woman receive these holy orders, Bishop Mel reportedly replied "I have no power in this matter. God has ordained Brigid". (* see foot note)

At Bishop Mel's request, Brigid founded a monestary at Ardagh. Thousands came to receive instruction in the Christian faith.

Curious to see if this success could be repeated she set out on a journey around the country accompanied by a group of sisters and her mentor Natfraioch. Brigid's approach to the establishment of new foundations was hands on. She over saw the building of the wattle huts for the sisters, the staffing of the convent then headed off to repeat the work elsewhere. Munster and Connacht. Many women of noble birth left their homes and flock to enter the shelter of her communites.

Brigid's most famous foundation was at Kildare. A double monestary housing both men and women that was established on a generous grant of land given by the king of Leinster. Double monasteries were a common practice in Celtic Christianty

The Kildare community was known as a remarkable place of learning for both men and women. Art and creativity were an important part of the mix. The illuminated manuscripts originating there were highly praised. The Book of Kildare was considered one of the finest of all illuminated Irish manuscripts before its disappearance three centuries ago.

In the pre-Christian period of Celtic history, Brighid (a derivation of the word Brig, meaning "valor" or "might") the goddesses, fertility, fire and poetry was one of the most beloved. The monastery at Kildare was built in an Oak grove set aside for her worship, where a sacred flame was kept alight. A fire maintained by Brigids community burned day and night for over a thousand years. Kildare means " Church of the Oak". There has been some speculation that Brigid herself served as the last high priestess of a community of druid women worshipping the goddess Brighid and by this action led that entire community into the Christian faith.
Brigid believed that the needs of the body and the needs of the spirit were intertwined. Her generosity in adult life was legendary. Many of the stories about her relate to the multiplication of food and drink. One in particular tells of a time that she changed her bath-water into beer to for a group of visitng monks.
She insisted that a vital component of the spiritual life is having a soul friend (anam cara/ mentor): "A person without a soul friend is like a body with out a head."

Known as Mary of the Gaels, Brigid is the patron of poets, dairymaids, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, fugitives, Irish nuns, midwives, and new-born babies. Christians and pagans a like celibrate Brigid's feast day also known as Imbolic. The cermonial 1st day of spring. Ever connecting Brigid with the renewal of the earth. The promise of abundance, and the eternal cycle of new life.
After a long and fruitful life in service to others Brigid passed away shortly after her 70th birthday. Her spirit lives on in the hospitality afforded by the nuns at Kildare. She is one of three of Irelands patron saints. The other two being Patrick and Columba of Iona.
for more about Brigid of Ireland

for all things Brigid

*Another possible interpretation of this story relates to the fact that the Roman diocesan system was unknown in Ireland. Monasteries formed the center of Christian life in the early Church of Ireland. Abbots and abbesses held the rank and function that a bishop would on the Continent. Evidence of this can also be seen at councils, such as the Synod of Whitby, convened by St. Hilda. Brigid, as a preeminent abbess, might have fulfilled some standard episcopal functions, such as preaching, hearing confessions, and serving as pastoral leader for a large geographical area.