Matter matters

Daily Reading for November 18 • Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, 680

This question of the Benedictine and the Celtic traditions is a fascinating subject to explore, for it would seem at first glance so apparent that here we have two traditions that are extremely unalike. We have the Benedictine tradition, nurtured within the confines of the Roman Empire—even though it was in its demise, the great Roman concepts are still there: gravitas, stabilitas, ordo—while the Celtic flowers in those countries on the fringes of the Roman Empire were essentially untouched by its cultural and social infrastructure. The Celtic world has saints, peregrini, who go wandering in coracles without oars, wherever the spirit will take them; it has monastic rules which vary from monastery to monastery, and are written in poetry. . . .

It is this sense of being earthed in place, in the landscape, being rooted and grounded that I take as the first thread of this canvas which these two traditions give us. For both are deeply incarnational. Of course, everyone immediately associates Celtic spirituality with creation, with being close to the ground, bonded with the earth and with nature. This is the end of that disastrous split which has so damaged and twisted the way in which many of us first received our Christian faith, believing that it was really about being spiritual, going to church, saying prayers, being good. As a result we grew up finding a divorce between the material and the spiritual—something which George McLeod himself put his finger on so memorably on that day when I met him at Iona and walked round the cloisters with him, and he said, “Everyone is saying what is the matter with the church, the world today. The Matter is MATTER. The way in which we have spiritualised the faith, and set it apart from matter, whereas if we had remembered what the Celtic people always knew and still know, we should not be where we are today. . . .”

But then this is also St. Benedict’s gift. I can still remember the delight and amazement when I read that small phrase in the Rule where he told me that I could handle the things of the kitchen or the pantry or the garden with as much reverence and respect as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. Handling with reverence and respect essentially means recognizing matter as God-given, seeing the tools of daily life, the times of the day, the light and dark, the stones and wood and glass of the monastery itself as things which can lead to God.

From “Where Celtic and Benedictine Traditions Meet” by Esther de Waal, in Christ is the Morning Star: When Celtic Spirituality Meets Benedictine Rule, edited by Linda Burton and Alex Whitehead (Dublin: Lindisfarne Books, 1999).

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