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Celtic Christianity delights in nature, human goodness

By Virginia de Leon

For the Rev. Elaine Breckenridge, the sacred can be found and experienced everywhere—in the goodness of people, the beauty of creation, even the most ordinary moments of life.  Twice a month, she shares this faith expression that delights in nature, believes in humanity’s goodness and seeks God in everyone and everything through the Celtic Creation Celebration at St. David’s Episcopal Church at 7315 N. Wall St. in Spokane.

Elaine Breckenridge
The Rev. Elain Breckenridge

Celtic Christianity is “a way of seeing the world,” said Elaine, the rector at St. David’s since 2004. “In a liturgy with theological and artistic integrity, the Celtic Creation Eucharist at St. David’s celebrates the love of God and creation, the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus and the Spirit who is above, below, among and within us.”

Instead of sitting in pews in the sanctuary, people who attend the Thursday night meditation and liturgy gather in the church’s social hall—a space in the basement illuminated by candles and decorative lights strung around the room. Instead of being elevated on a platform, the altar is located at the center, surrounded by chairs arranged in a circle.

In this informal and communal setting, members of St. David’s as well as people from other churches and denominations experience a worship service that engages all their senses.  While some sit in silence during the entire liturgy, others sing along, chant or dance as musicians play flute, mandolin, violin, bells and other instruments.  The gatherings also include prayers, discussions and communion.  After each service, people stay for a potluck meal and fellowship.

For each service, Elaine focuses on topics such as the web of life, St. Francis of Assisi and silence.  During a gathering in September, the theme was “thin places”—sacred places where the eternal world and the present appear to mix and an individual feels God’s presence.  After a meditation, which began with the ringing of a bell to create sacred space, the rest of the service included a reading from the Gospel of Mark followed by an excerpt from biblical scholar Marcus Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity” and a few paragraphs on thin places by writer Mindie Burgoyne.

The worship service usually draws about 35 to 50 people from around the area.  Many are Episcopalians but regulars also include Catholics, Presbyterians and people from other Christian denominations.  While some consider the Celtic celebration as a supplement to their spiritual journey, others see it as central to their faith.

“The Celtic service feeds me in a way that Sunday morning doesn’t,” said Elaine. “It’s my Sabbath.”

The Thursday night service is simpler and feels more natural to her, she said.  It also engages the community on a more visceral level.  The worship style is “flexible and evolving” and is much more participatory compared to Sunday services, she said.

Celtic spirituality resonates with people who care about the planet’s sustainability.  It also appeals to individuals who seek equality instead of hierarchy in the structure of the church.  Many are especially drawn to the prayers, the belief in creation’s goodness, and the belief that image of God lies within each person.

“Liturgy becomes personal transformation,” Elaine said. “It engages both head and heart as we experience the presence of God.”

Celtic spirituality stems from the Christianity practiced by the peoples of the British Isles during the early Middle Ages.  While the creation celebrations at St. David’s don’t mimic the prayers and liturgies of that time, it honors the tradition of these ancient, indigenous Christians and others who also valued their teachings.

“We believe that God’s revelation is ongoing and not confined to Holy Scripture, and so other voices from the Christian tradition are heard with the proclamation of the Gospel,” wrote Elaine, describing the readings during the Celtic creation celebration.

Those other voices have included theologian Matthew Fox, Chief Seattle and Murray Bodo, a Franciscan friar and author.

Elaine became interested in Celtic spirituality three years ago after reading the works of Esther De Waal and J. Phillip Newell, two authors who have devoted their studies and writing to Celtic spirituality.  The books were recommended by her spiritual adviser, Sister Jane Comerford, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph who has taken people from the Inland Northwest on tours of the Celtic lands to deepen their understanding of the region’s history and spirituality.

 “It was a spirituality that spoke to my soul in new ways,” said Elaine, who was ordained a priest in 1987 and whose father is also an Episcopal priest.

She was especially drawn to Celtic spirituality’s reverence for nature, its emphasis on original blessing instead of original sin, and its rich tradition that includes prayers for daily chores and activities.

 “It is a spirituality that connects with every day,” she said.  “The prayers for everyday activities cultivate God’s presence so everything we do becomes sacred.”

“The mindfulness that’s part of Celtic spirituality can be applied to our ordinary, everyday actions,” Elaine said.  “It changes the way we see mundane tasks and encourages people to live with intention.”

Soon after reading more books on the topic, Elaine began to share her interest in Celtic spirituality by writing reflections in St. David’s newsletters, through her preaching and by incorporating Celtic elements and teachings into the weekday services.

During a trip to Ireland in 2007, she realized how much Celtic traditions and teachings were a part of her spirituality and her own personal philosophy.

While listening to a guide on the Island of Inish Mor, she gained some insight on her leadership style and the need to take a more “Celtic missionary approach” to ministry.

Unlike the Roman method of evangelism, which focuses on preaching and teaching and then asks people to consider baptism followed by fellowship and Eucharist, the Celtic missionary would move into a community, live a Christian life and then invite people to participate, Elaine wrote in a reflection, “A Celtic Journey.”  By caring for people in the village—feeding the poor, providing education for children, inviting others to worship—the Celtic missionary’s work “led not only to conversions based on believing, but wholesale transformation of life.”

Through her journey, there were moments including the time she visited the ancient monastic village of Clonmacnoise where she felt God’s presence.  “You can feel the presence of saints who lived there,” Elaine said.  “It was a place of pilgrimage, a thin place.”

Since her trip to Ireland, Elaine has offered a Celtic-style Eucharist at St. David’s.  At first, the special service took place once a month.  Earlier this year, she and others involved decided to increase the frequency to every other week.

“Theologically, Celtic Christianity was and is a ‘way of seeing,’ which teaches that God may be found, heard and experienced everywhere and in all things,” Elaine wrote in another reflection.  “Therefore, a true worship of God, can neither be contained within the four walls of a sacred building nor restricted to the boundaries of a religious tradition.”

The next Celtic Creation Celebration will take place at 7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 18 and the service includes a celebration of the winter solstice. 

For information, call 466-3100 or visit www.stdavidspokane.org.



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