Twenty-five years ago I was working as a nationally certified hospital chaplain. The work I treasured most was time I spent with dying people, and I wanted to apply for a regional chaplaincy position with Hospice – which required a masters degree that I didn’t have. My husband of 33 years had died several months earlier, so I figured “Why not?”
I chose, and was accepted by, the Jesuit School of Theology (I thought that sounded impressive) at Berkeley (which to me meant “perpetual offbeat distractions” off campus) to work for a Master of Theological Studies Degree.
During my studies a classmate mentioned a book about Celtic spirituality, called Listening for the Heartbeat of God by J. Philip Newell. With so much else to read, I could only skim through the book, but I did learn about the Synod of Whitby held in 664AD. Various leaders of the Christian Church met that year to concretize some “official” practices of the Church. This pitted the Celtic Christian traditions against the Roman Christian traditions.
There were great debates about such trivial things as whether a monk’s hair should be tonsured at the crown or at the sides, and the actual date of Easter. But more importantly, the choices made by ecclesial authorities in this Synod would gradually define the underlying spirituality of the Christian Church from that point on.
Would the Church rely on the Authority of St. John, whom Jesus called his “beloved disciple” and whose spirituality informed the Celtic Church? Or would they look to St. Peter, whom Jesus called “the rock” and whose spirituality informed the Roman Church? I’m not going to recount the tedious arguments of contemporary scholars about all this – those kinds of discussions are what nearly made me give up on earning my degree (I got the degree, but that pretty much finished off my career as a Christian).
As a poet I am far more interested in rich metaphors than academic minutiae. Is God immediately available to us (John, leaning in at the Last Supper to listen for the heartbeat of God)? Or is God distant, accessible only through intermediaries (Peter, holding and guarding the keys to the Kingdom)?
A few weeks ago I read the phrase “Celtic spirituality” in a book of poetry, which sent me rooting around on my bookshelves, looking for Newell’s book again. I found it, blew the dust off the top, and started reading; I became fascinated with Pelagius, a Celtic Christian monk born two centuries before the Synod of Whitby.
I wanted to read more, not just about Pelagius, but by him. I was able to borrow an old copy of The Letters of Pelagius through an interlibrary loan from a theological college library in Texas (I LOVE our library system!). If I wanted to own a copy of the book, The Letters of Pelagius now costs from $74 to $244 used, and from $259 up for a new copy. Wouldn’t a fourth century monk vowed to poverty be astonished at that?
Pelagius was the son of a Welsh bard, steeped in the nature mysticism that preceded Christianity in Britain. As a Christian monk he travelled to Rome where he became a teacher, a writer, and a spiritual guide. Church, for him, was more a community than an institution. He counseled that we should look for our spiritual truths not in an organized Church, but with an anamchara, a soul friend, what we might today call a spiritual counsellor or spiritual director – someone whose spiritual life we admire, to whom we can speak to honestly about our spiritual wonderings. We can better understand what we think in our hearts by saying it out loud to someone who will honor it in confidence.
Pelagius preached the goodness of creation: “If we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.” That goodness includes people, who are born not in sin but in goodness, what Matthew Fox in our own time would come to call “original blessing.” Yes, humans do evil things, but any darkness in them is less than the divine Light in them, which the darkness “cannot overcome,” according to St. John.
Pelagius called for the redistribution of wealth (even from the Church and its leaders), taught women to read Scripture, preached equality of male and female. In one of Pelagius’ letters he said, “You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. You will realize the Scripture itself is the work of human minds, recording the example and teaching of Jesus. Thus it is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him.”
No wonder Pelagius was excommunicated from the Church, banished from Rome, and labeled a heretic! We cannot have Christians actually following the teachings of Jesus, actually acting as he did! Distributing wealth? Caring for the marginalized? Renouncing power-over? Listening within our own hearts for the wisdom that we seek? Blasphemy! This is why one almost never hears the name Pelagius without an accompanying word: heresy. Pelagius returned from Rome to the Celtic world, probably Ireland, where he worked “underground,” writing anonymously, serving the Celtic faithful, and continuing to praise the deep goodness of creation.
In my own spiritual life, I’ve decided to correct the regrettable decisions made at the Synod of Whitby. I choose the open-heartedness of John rather than the tight-fistedness of Peter.
Furthermore, seeing how well Pelagius’ teachings align with my own theology, I’ve chosen to change the conventional phrase “Pelagian Heresy” to “Pelagian Heritage.”
And I’m delighted to go even one step further: I’ve decided to elevate him (because I can) to “Saint Pelagius.” I think I’ll make September 26 his feast day, and the white oak leaf his symbol, standing for generosity, inherent wisdom, and rebirth.
“Saint Pelagius.” It has a nice, Celtic, old-time-religion ring to it.