My Sisters and Brothers,
There’s a place on Iona known simply as Sliabh Meadhonach – the Great Loneliness. It is an actual place located towards the wild western side of the island… and yet it has no definable boundaries. You can’t look to any particular point and say, this is where the Great Loneliness starts, or this is where it ends.
But when you enter it, you know you’re in it!
It is a wild place of bog, and large rugged rock formations. But its most striking feature is its silence. All you hear is the north wind blowing, and maybe a bird singing far in the distance.
Right in the middle of this desert place is a small circle of stones, that once formed the base layer of an ancient hermit’s cell.
Every time I’ve visited this cell, I’ve wondered what it must have been like back in the time when the hermit lived there. Was it a completely isolated place suspended in the silence of the Great Loneliness? Or was there a steady stream of pilgrims that wound its way through the bog to visit, to confess their sins, to talk, to listen?
I think it may have been a bit of both. There were definitely times of complete isolation. But I also think this hermit had a total open-door policy… much like what existed with the desert monks of the east, or the Russian poustinikki.
In her book Poustinia (which means “desert”), Catherine Doherty describes these Russian desert dwellers:
“They were people who craved in their hearts to be alone with God and his immense silence. Why did they crave that silence, that solitude? For themselves? No. A hermit of this type, according to the Eastern spirituality, went into the poustinia for others.”
She goes on to describe what it was like to visit one of these “hermits”:
“There was a gracious hospitality about him, as if he were never disturbed by anyone who came to visit him. On the contrary, his face was a ‘welcome’ face. His eyes seemed to sparkle with the joy of receiving a guest. He seemed to be a listening person. A person of few words, but his listening was deep, and there was a feeling that he understood. In him St. Francis’ prayer seemed to become incarnate: he consoled, he understood, and he loved.”
This, I believe, is the model that the ancient Celtic hermits followed too. They withdrew from the world a bit… but they did so in order to become more available to the world!
In my last post, Beyond Time and Space, I wrote about us entering the spiritual realm, and going throughout the earth and the universe in prayer. But as we do that, let us never forget to keep our feet on the ground!
Like the Celtic saints of old, or the Russian poustinikki, let us live in the spiritual realm… but let us never forget to be totally present in the physical realm too! May we never get so caught up in being “spiritual” that we forget to be available to our neighbour!
One of the foundation stones of Celtic spirituality is hospitality. And if we desire to live as our Celtic Sisters and Brothers did, we need to embody this spirit of hospitality that so characterised them!
An old Celtic saying describes a Christian as one whose door is closed to no one, and whose food is offered to everyone!
If we desire to be like these Celts – if we desire to be Christian! – we must connect with our fellow man. Yes, we can withdraw from time to time – even Jesus did that! But let us always – ALWAYS! – be available! Let us connect and develop deep relationships with everyone whom God places upon our path! And let us never walk past another human without noticing them. Sometimes hospitality can be as simple as smiling at someone!
May the God who became flesh fill you with the desire to be wholly present to everyone! May His Light and Love fill you to overflowing so that you may take that Light and Love to all the corners of the world! Amen.