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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Saoghal Nam Ban

A day spent among the ruins of an ancient Nunnery is a day well spent.

This place is known as Saoghal nam ban – translated to mean “World of Women”.

This ancient place was once the realm of Iona’s religious women, where a community of anywhere between 20-30 religious women worshipped in a strict round of services and private prayer.

They would gather in the Chapter Room first thing in the morning, where they would confess their sins, say their prayers, read scripture and then read aloud portions of the writings of St. Augustine before they would conduct the business of the community.

The part about reading portions of St. Augustine’s writing made me giggle. I mean, given what St. Augustine thought about women, it sort of makes me wonder if they didn’t just skip over those parts.

These were not ordinary nuns and this was no ordinary convent.

Many nuns came from noble families. The convent provided refuge for unmarried daughters, widows, girls born out of wedlock and estranged wives.

Far from leading lives of poverty and seclusion, these women lived well by the day’s standards and had daily contact with the outside world.

They supported themselves financially, living off income from nunnery lands on Iona and beyond – no doubt originally purchased for them by the fathers of young women as a dowry of sorts, or from the inheritance of rich widows, or possibly as alimony from their philandering husbands.

Being educated, literate women, they also no doubt bought and sold land as investment and were able to support themselves quite nicely.

Founded around 1200, the convent flourished for more than 350 years. Until the 1600s, the south shore of Mull’s Loch na Keal was known as “Leirnacalloch” meaning ‘hillside of the nuns’.

One of the fascinating aspects of the structure is evidence of the fact that these were Christian women of independent thought who treasured their Celtic history and lore.

If you go ‘round to the street between the convent and the community sheep-sheering center and look up at the outside of what was once the refectory, you will see the now very faint but unmistakable form of ‘Sheena-na-gig’ (naked woman with her legs apart) carved above one of the windows.

Common in Ireland, these symbols were meant to ward off evil. The name comes from the Gaelic, ‘Sile nan Cioch’ meaning, ‘Sheila of the Breasts’.

Imagine a convent today having a Sheena-na-gig carved anywhere where anyone could see it! I think that tells us a little something about these women that one might not find written up in any religious history book.

I like to think that one of the noble women who had become a nun commissioned that carving one morning after having heard just about enough of St. Augustine’s writings read in the Chapter Room.

Lots of people get very romantic about this place. It is enormously important to many women who describe it as the thinnest of thin places of this thin place island.

It is clearly a place where one is given just enough information as to tantalize the imagination and consider something about the women who once lived here, walking the grounds, tending the gardens, preparing the food, visiting with neighbors, welcoming the stranger, praying and living together.

Here’s what I’m coming to understand about Celtic Spirituality – and today’s time spent at the convent and contemplating the lives of the nuns who once lived here provided more insight and revelation about that for me.

Much of what passes for Celtic Spirituality in America is a very Westernized version which has been co-opted and modified from the original.

People read a few books or wear a Triqetra or Celtic knot or have them tattooed on their bodies and think, somehow, they’ve got it.

It makes me feel as uncomfortable as seeing folks co-opt Native American symbols like Dream Catchers or Smudge Sticks or Buddhist singing bowls and think they’ve got it.

Well, that’s fine, I suppose. If it makes you feel closer, somehow to God, it can’t be all bad. I just always wonder about the Buddhist or the Native American or the person who actually practices Celtic Spirituality and how they must feel when they see someone using their symbols of spirituality. 

If you ask an American about Celtic Spirituality they will probably respond that it’s “all about nature” and “sea and stars and sky and season” and “the Trinity”.

And, that wouldn’t be wrong. But, as I’m learning, it’s so much more than that. Indeed, it’s so very much more that the deeper you go the more humble you feel.

I am learning that a the very core of Celtic Spirituality is justice, which is all about making into reality the Jesus prayer which the disciples taught: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

That is justice – that is right-eouness - in Celtic Spirituality. It’s bringing about God’s realm here on earth as it is in heaven. The justice of Celtic Spirituality means that the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given drink, the naked are clothed, and the homeless are given shelter. 

Everyone works for the common weal – the common wealth (Commonwealth) – for peace on earth, good will towards all humankind.

It’s not that creation is not important to Celtic Spirituality. It’s that when we live in harmony with God’s creation, we live in harmony with each other.

Or, as one teacher of Celtic Spirituality says, “Creation is the first book of Revelation”.

Columbanus, an evangelist of Columba, taught, 
“Understand, if you want to know the Creator, created things.” 
Pelagius wrote: 
“Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells in them. Look at the fish in the river and sea: God’s spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent . . . .When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that her hand had fashioned every creature; it was that his breath had brought every creature to life. Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.”
You see, it’s not just the creation. It’s that if you can see God all around you, you can see through God’s eyes. And, if you see through God’s eyes, nothing on earth – not even other people – are ugly.

You see beauty everywhere.

And seeing beauty everywhere in every thing is the beginning of the work of justice.

I love this quote I found from Rev George MacLeod, the man who established the Iona Community. Reportedly, he said this to Esther de Waal:
“Everyone today keeps asking, ‘What is the matter?’ and the answer is MATTER is the matter. It is our view of matter, the extent to which the church has spiritualized faith and set it apart from the material world – that has brought us to where we are today.”
So, Celtic Spirituality is not a means unto itself. It does not exist for itself, for the satisfaction of the self; rather it is quite dead if it does not lead to a life of service which lifts the lives of others from their lowly status.

Celtic Spirituality is not about devotion to a life of prayer that leads only to the steps of a church or the private chapel in one’s home or garden. It is, rather, a life of prayer that leads to a devotion to achieving the justice of God here on earth.

It is not about the Triquetra as the symbol of the mystery of the Trinity; rather it is the welcome sign on the door post of a faith that is radically relational, that calls us into a community which loves the world that God has made so much that it works so that all of God’s creatures to live in peace and harmony.

I am deeply moved by this sense of justice at the heart of Celtic Spirituality. And, I must say, the closer I moved to that heart of justice, the more deeply I felt the joy which the mystics taught is at the center of Creation.

The spirit of the women of the ancient nunnery, Saoghal Nam Ban, came to visit me today as I came to visit them. They revealed much to me as I prayed among their ruins and graves.

The spirit of the sisters here helped me more deeply understand the spirituality which shaped and formed their lives. The spirit of ‘Sheena-na-gig’ opened herself to me to help me open myself to new life.

My prayer is that, with this understanding, I might better shape and form my life in the justice of God, beginning by being in better harmony with creation.

I understand this sort of thing happens in ‘thin places’.

I don’t know about that.

I only know that a day spent among the ruins of an ancient Nunnery is a day well spent.

I discovered things that have been hiding in plain sight.