(Christian Courier column, August 26, 2013)
I found a small package stuffed in my church mailbox. The gift bag contained three rolls of candy, some Droste chocolates and a folded paper on which was printed: “Thank you for taking such good care of our precious little ones. It is greatly appreciated. Michelle and Brenda.” I’d served in the nursery during VBS. Their thoughtful gesture struck me as emblematic of my recent reading.
I’d just finished In Search of Sacred Places: Looking for Wisdom on Celtic Holy Lands by Daniel Taylor. In this gem of a book Taylor explores the physical and metaphysical dimensions of pilgrimage. He visits such sacred sites as Iona, Lindisfarne and Skellig Michael. Along with Taylor, who admits he wasn’t well acquainted with Celtic contributions to Christianity, I learned a lot about St. Patrick, Columba, Brigid, Aiden and Dewi the Waterman (St. David of Wales). Taylor ponders their legacy and finds his own religious fervour lacking in comparison. Thankfully he avoids the temptation to idolize these spiritual ancestors but, instead, uses his discomfort as a measuring rod for the prospects of devotional life in our own time. He concludes, “I didn’t need to go to Iona to find the holy, and in fact I didn’t find it, because I didn’t bring it with me. What I did find was more about the possibilities of living attentively, about how one might structure a life – and I don’t mean the monastic rule itself – to increase the potential for giving that life meaning and purpose” (156). Why do pilgrims perennially seek out sacred spaces? Because, says Taylor, they’re looking for the city that has no foundations, putting physical steps to a religious yearning for home, a home that can finally be found only in a right relationship with God.
Contrasting Taylor’s examination of the communal life of ancient Celtic monks was an article I’d read recently by David Brooks of The New York Times who reports on a study that could only have been conceived and executed in our digital age. Based on a Google database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008, the study indicates that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases. In the space of about a half a century, words relating to “I” and “self” and “personalized” outpaced words like “community,” “united” or “common good.”
Using the same search engine evaluation, further studies demonstrate that words relating to moral virtue like “bravery” and “fortitude” are on the decrease and social science words like “preference” and “information” are on the upswing. Brooks concludes, “So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.”
Set next to the society Brooks describes – a splintering culture increasingly less able to make room for anyone other than “me” – the Celtic monastic life, a life that strove for togetherness by way of solemn vow, seems somehow less antiquated and naïve. Taylor notes that the monks often built a vallum around their monasteries, a low mound that served no defensive purpose and was intended simply to delineate the grounds as a “holy place,” terrain set apart for a community bound by fidelity to one another and to God. That cute little gift bag of treats suddenly seemed to me to be a similar kind of sign, a portable vallum denoting my own sacred space. My holy place is that steepled white building down the street where VBS coordinators, volunteer teachers, nursery attendants and neighbourhood kids cobble together a “we” by the grace of God-With-Us, who is, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Not the God-Up-There who answers our prayers by lifting us out of our lives, but the God who comes to us in the midst of them . . .” (24).
Yes, I’ve moved on – from one Taylor to another. Now I’m reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Home by Another Way. In a chapter called “The Company of Strangers,” she outlines this hope: “In the church, we are dared to believe that it is God who makes us a community and not we ourselves, and that our differences are God’s best tools for opening us up to the truth that is bigger than we are” (46). The gift bag on my kitchen table speaks to me of that kind of hope – that the church of our time can be a force to help renew public life, that it can function as a clearly visible inukshuk in a barren tundra of individualism and isolationism, standing up in Christ’s name for the sacredness of linked arms and connected lives.