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Universal Christ Mystics

Unveiling the Universal Christ

Universal Christ Mystics
Friday, August 27, 2021

Perhaps because the Romans never occupied Ireland and parts of Scotland, the Celtic Christianity that developed there retained its connection to the natural world. The writer John Philip Newell explains how Pelagius (c. 354–418), an early and frequently misunderstood Celtic Christian theologian, saw creation as good and a revelation of God’s very being. Much of Christian history wrongly interpreted this as Pelagius saying we did not need grace to be saved, whereas he was simply saying that nature was precisely created to receive grace! It is all grace from beginning to end! Newell comments:

The most typical mark of the spirituality of the Celtic tradition apparent in Pelagius’ writings is his strong sense of the goodness of creation, in which the life of God can be glimpsed. Everywhere, he says, ‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth.’ [1] To a friend he wrote:

Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. . . . Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly. [2]

Because Pelagius saw God as present within all that has life, he understood Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourself to mean loving not only our human neighbor but all the life forms that surround us. ‘So when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree,’ he wrote, ‘we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.’ [3] [4]

Thomas Berry (1914–2009), a modern mystic who shares similar insights, was a Catholic priest of the Passionist order as well as a cultural historian and eco-theologian. I have been very impressed with his writings and his call to participate in what he calls “The Great Work” of our time, which “is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.” [5] Berry writes:

In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human. In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity. Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe. Every being enters into communion with other beings. This capacity for relatedness, for presence to other beings, for spontaneity in action, is a capacity possessed by every mode of being throughout the entire universe. [6]

References:
[1] The Letters of Pelagius: Celtic Soul Friend, ed. Robert Van de Weyer (Arthur James: 1995), 36.

[2] Pelagius, 71.

[3] Pelagius, 72.

[4] J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Paulist Press: 1997), 10–11.

[5] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Bell Tower: 1999), 3.

[6] Berry, 4.

Story from Our Community:
My book club and I have studied The Universal Christ this past year. Listening to Fr. Richard explain how he communes with the Lord has been very encouraging. As a 70-year-old I love to sit on my porch and listen to the owls. They sound like God’s voice saying I love you. I said thank you out loud and my daughter said who are you talking to? I sheepishly said God. Thank you, Richard and the CAC for the hope you give us. —Fran H.

Image credit: Charles O’Rear, Grasses After Spring Rain (detail), 1973, photograph, Nebraska, National Archives.
Image inspiration: Each blade of dew-graced grass is part of a larger braided design, just as each person is part of a larger whole. The extraordinary glistens in the most ordinary.
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