Keeping House Among the Cloud of Witnesses

by the Rev. Mary Earle

old man wales for webIn 1994, I made my first pilgrimage to Wales. While our group was staying at St.David’s, we visited St. Non’s Well on the starkly beautiful headlands above the sea. I was so moved by that place, I returned by myself several times. I was drawn to that well, with its clear water erupting from rock, and its various votive offerings — flowers, ribbons, photos — left by many who had come to ask for St. Non’s prayers for healing.

The last time I walked to the well, it was late in the day, and a man with a Welsh corgi was there also. In a gently gregarious fashion, he struck up a conversation and began to speak of St. Non. “She’s dear to me,” he said. “She’s walked with me through many a tough patch.” I was struck by the ease with which he spoke of this saint, whose name I was just beginning to learn.

St. Non was a friend to him, a companion in the way, a living presence in Christ who offers her prayers for him, his family, his life, his creatures. He clearly had a relationship with St. Non — a relationship not unlike those I have with friends with whom I share my prayer life.

From the perspective of the traditions from Celtic Christianity, the communion of saints is downright homey. Following the witness of the early church, the stories and prayers from the churches of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, and Cornwall offer us a sense of the nearness and familiarity of the saints. Many of the saints from the Celtic tradition were revered locally and never were recognized abroad in the larger church. Yet they are tenderly invoked today, often in ways that are distinctly non-pious or saccharine. A community both heavenly and earthly is held together by “love as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6). As members of that vast community, the saints are welcomed in a tenderly familial way.

Local saints are those known to the community, those whose lives and examples continue to shape the Christian family. A local saint is bound to place, and his or her shrine or church serves as a place for gathering, remembering, and praying. The life of the saint, though lived in history, takes on an eternal dimension as the stories of that saint extend through time. The saint’s presence is known “here, now and always,” in the famous phrase of the poet T.S. Eliot.

These are holy presences who walk with us, guide us, befriend us, pray for us. We are never alone. We are never without the intercession of the saints in Christ. We are never without their company. We are continually within a reality in which the saints are close at hand. A strong web of relationships transcends the grave, linked by indissoluble bonds of Christ’s love. In the words of Esther de Waal, “Celtic saints are approachable, close at hand, woven quite naturally into life just as would be any other member of an extended family” (The Celtic Way of Prayer, New York: Doubleday, 1997, p. 162).

The extended family is made up of all who are Christ’s brothers and sisters by his gracious invitation. Far from an image of heaven ruled by a god who is a solitary, cranky old man in the sky, the Celtic tradition perceives the life of the communion of saints as a great feast, a vast company celebrating with the Risen Lord. One traditional prayer from the Outer Hebrides evokes festive celebration among the company of heaven:

“I would like to have the men of Heaven In my own house: With vats of good cheer Laid out for them.

I would like to have the three Marys, Their fame is so great. I would like people From every corner of Heaven.

I would like them to be cheerful In their drinking, I would like to have Jesus too Here amongst them.

I would like a great lake of beer For the King of Kings, I would like to be watching Heaven’s family Drinking it through all eternity.”

(In Threshold of Light, ed. By A.M. Allchin and Esther de Waal, Dartmon, Longman and Todd: London, 1986, p. 40.)

As this poem intimates, the Celtic peoples perceive that eternity and this world are woven together. Just as the famous Celtic knots demonstrate, heavenly life and earthly life are linked and form a unified whole. A family dinner is an occasion for welcoming the saints; a family tragedy is occasion for imploring their intercession, presence, and support as members of the extended family of Christ.

Following the proclamation of the author of the letter to the Hebrews (“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” Heb. 12:1), the Welsh poet Waldo Williams observed that we are “keeping house in a cloud of witnesses.” The rounds of daily life are lived out with this company. As we go through our regular chores and work, the saints are with us. These saints, alive in the eternal life of the Risen Christ, are not ghosts. Nor are they merely the product of our imaginations. The communion of saints is the astoundingly diverse and rich family of the Christ “in whom all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

The Celtic saints are perceived to be anamchairde or “soul friends.” In the Celtic tradition, it is understood that a soul friend is a spiritual necessity. Every person needs someone with whom to be completely undefended, to be vulnerable and honest. A soul friend is the person whose presence allows us to be real and transparent, to seek continual transformation and growth in faith, hope,love. In the presence of your anamchara (singular form of the noun) you know the safety and assurance of one who will do no harm and one who will call forth your truest self. The tradition is emphatic that this work of formation cannot be done alone. While soul friends are usually earthly friends, they may also be particular saints whose lives speak to us, challenge us, evoke in us a desire to participate in Christ’s work of making the creation new.

The tradition invites us to befriend the saints as we befriend our earthly friends and exemplars, and to learn from their lives and their teachings. The heavenly presence of the saints presents no difficulties for this tradition. In the words of Welsh scholar Patrick Thomas, “Barriers of time, space and continuity have rarely presented problems for the Celtic imagination” (Candle in the Darkness, Gomer Press: Llandysul, Dyfed, Wales, 1993, p. 110).

The Celtic tradition is marked by a great love of “kith and kin” ― and that love includes the saints. They keep house with us, work with us, walk with us, pray for us. Their company is vast and their intercession is steady.

_________________________________________

The Rev. Mary Earle is a retired priest, author, and retreat leader. Her latest book is Marvelously Made: Gratefulness and the Body,  available from Church Publishing, from Viva Bookstore in San Antonio, and from Amazon. Reach Mary at mcearle48@gmail.com

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