Daily Reading for August 30

Pelagius, born in the latter half of the fourth century, was a Celtic Briton. Tradition has it that he was the son of a Welsh bard, which would help to explain his breadth of learning. He was a big, enthusiastic man; even his physical appearance became subject to adverse comment. Augustine’s friend Orosius describes him as a huge, proud Goliath, over-confident in his own strength, and even criticizes Pelagius’ hair-style, which may well have been an early example of the Celtic monastic style modeled on the pre-Christian Druidic tonsure (long but shaved around the sides and back), as opposed to the traditional Roman cut (shaved at the crown of the head). This same issue was to draw attention a few centuries later, at the Synod of Whitby, and of course was much more than a mere disagreement about hair-style. It signaled an unease about the Celtic mission’s readiness to incorporate aspects of the thought and symbolism of the nature mysticism and religious practice that preceded Christianity in Celtic Britain.

The early writings of Pelagius contain themes that would develop into some of the main characteristics of the Celtic tradition over the following centuries. Pelagius even makes reference, for example, to the practice of finding an anamchara or ‘soul friend’, a well-known feature of the spiritual discipline within the Celtic Church in later centuries. Typically, he focuses less on looking to the organized Church for spiritual counsel than on finding in life a ‘friend of the soul’, one to whom the inner self can be opened, ‘hiding nothing’, as Pelagius says, ‘revealing everything’ in order to know and further explore what is in one’s own heart.

From Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality by J. Philip Newell (Paulist Press, 1997).

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