Praying with the Earth

The ageless mountains are full of your glory
the vast seas swell with your might
the shining skies expand beyond our imagining
so we pause to praise
we wait in wonder
we listen to learn
of the mountain glory within us
of the sea force in our veins
of love’s shining infinity.
Grant us the grace, O God,
to serve this inner universe of soul among us.

-from Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace by John Philip Newell.

An ordained minister of the Church of Scotland, John Philip Newell received his Ph.D. in Ecclesiastical History from the University of Edinburgh. He has served as a spiritual teacher and retreat director in various capacities including Warden of Iona Abbey in Scotland, Scholar in Spirituality at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, and is currently Companion Theologian for Casa del Sol in New Mexico, a national education and retreat center owned by the Presbyterian Church. Last year, he delivered the 17th Annual Evelyn Underhill Lecture in Christian Spirituality at Boston College; a video of his talk is available.

One in a series of prayer books by Newell, Praying with the Earth (2011) offers morning and evening prayers for Sunday through Saturday interspersed with brief scriptural passages, in this case from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. The book’s dedication reads “To Nahum and Rahmah, my Jewish brother and Muslim sister, whose teachings feed my soul and whose souls feed my longings for peace.” Newell intends the work to be a contribution toward realizing peace; its twofold aim is for Christians “to learn from the wisdom of other parts of the family [i.e., Judaism and Islam], and to recover, or perhaps hear for the first time, some of the lost wisdom in our own branch of the family.” Like his previous prayer books, it’s a slim volume (72 pages) with artwork interwoven throughout, in this instance art from the three Abrahamic traditions.

Whenever I’ve turned to these prayers over the years, I’ve experienced them as poems rich in natural imagery expressing God’s presence within us and throughout the earth. In the book’s Preface, Newell describes a course he taught with a Jew and a Muslim that focused on teachings of peace in the three religions. These prayer-poems are Newell’s way of offering a spiritual practice that crosses traditional boundaries to bring people together. At the same time, he is continuing his long term effort “to recover . . . some of the lost wisdom of our own branch of the family” which I take to refer to Celtic Christianity, a topic he has written about in other works, e.g., Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (1997).  Many (including myself) have been attracted to Celtic spirituality because its path is one of forming an intimate relationship between spiritual and natural realms, between God and the human soul, a relationship if realized leads to peace.

At the setting of the sun
in the darkness of the night
with the whiteness of the moon in its splendour
we move with the earth as it turns
we are carried by the hours in their passing
we enter the dark with our years
to seek shelter in night’s sanctuary
to find strength for our souls
to know peace in our prayers and our resting.
At the setting of the sun
in the darkness of the night
with the whiteness of the moon in its splendour
we seek peace.

-from Praying With the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace by John Philip Newell.

Suggested readings:

Davies, Oliver, and Thomas O’Loughlin. Celtic Spirituality. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1999. An excellent introduction to Celtic Christianity in its earliest centuries.

Miller, Trevor. “Celtic Spirituality – A Beginner’s Guide.” Northumbria Community. Accessed August 15, 2018. An introduction by a member of a community committed to “embrace and express an ongoing exploration into a new way for living, through a new monasticism.”

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