Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
Today is the Feast of St. Patrick, a national holiday here in Ireland, and quite a time of celebration. I admit that I have some mixed feelings about Patrick, in part because the celebrating is often an excuse to drink heavily, and because there are so many amazing Irish Saints, but Patrick gets most of the focus (and he wasn't even Irish), and there is much evidence Christianity was already being practiced here before his arrival. Regardless, it is a perfect day to celebrate the many gifts of Ireland.
So it seemed appropriate that Marcy Hall would finish the next dancing monk icon in the series of one of my favorite Irish saints, Brendan the Navigator, a monk of the 5th-6th centuries who went on an extensive journey by sea in search of the Garden of Eden. One of the legends say that he celebrated Easter Mass on the back of a whale. Another legend says he was the first European to reach North America.
I watched the movie "Gravity" the other night (with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney – spoiler alert!) If you aren't familiar with it, it is the story of astronauts who encounter disaster on a routine spacewalk and find themselves hurtling through space, untethered. It was well done and many touching moments where the two main characters confront their own mortality again and again. Perhaps most moving to me was the very end, when Dr. Stone's capsule lands in a body of water. She swims to shore and when she reaches land, she is overcome with the joy of being on solid ground again.
I was reminded of another film, "Wings of Desire" by German director Wim Wenders about two invisible, immortal angels offering comfort on the streets of Berlin. One of the angels finds himself longing for an embodied life of getting newsprint on his fingers and experiencing the many sensory delights of being human. The lightness of angelic life has become unbearable. He longs to feel the weight of things.
Then I imagine St. Brendan and his long voyages by sea, riding the waves and storms, and feeling the rise and fall of the ocean. I wonder how he felt reaching solid ground again. I wonder if he fell to the ground and sang praise for the beauty of being able to walk on the earth.
One of the many things I love about Celtic spirituality is its earthiness. The spiritual life can become too much about seeking the spiritualization of all things, of seeking to be lifted from the ordinariness of daily life. What the Celtic monks teach us is that our earthiness is so very good. They wrote blessings for all the tasks of daily life, so that waking, and milking cows, and leaving on journeys, are all celebrated as gifts of our humanity.
This season of Lent might tempt us to seek lofty goals and rise above the very ordinary life we find ourselves in. But then we are called to remember once again the ashes marked on our foreheads, the dust and earth from which we emerge and to which we shall return, and we might discover that the grace of this season isn't so much a sublime encounter with angelic beings, or being lifted from our lives into a state of endless rapture, as it is seeing our lives with new eyes.
The return to God called forth from us for this season doesn't demand a long journey to the heavens. It is perhaps even more demanding than that. It invites us to plunge ourselves right into the heart of our lives here and now and to bless this as holy: the dog having an accident on the rug, the child up sick in the night, the terrible ache and exhaustion we feel from so many hours working, another dawn and dusk, bouquets of spring tulips, a warm embrace just when we needed one, this fragile earth upon which we stand.
This is the call of the monk in the world, a phrase which arises from the belief that the holiness of the monk's path comes precisely from this wonder and awe we might open ourselves to right in this moment, whatever this moment might bring.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Art by Marcy Hall: Dancing St. Brendan