Shepherd’s Heart and Celtic Christianity

Here is a letter composed by the Abbot-Bishop of our Order several years ago. One can get a feel for our Order and ministry from it.

December 1, 2005
Feast of Saint Tudwal

Dear Folks,

As we reform our newly renamed Order I think there are some things of importance to address and things to keep in mind while we move forward. I think it important to discover the depths of where God is leading us now as a group and the ramifications of those depths in our ministries and relationships to one another. I feel it’s also important to acknowledge who we’ve been as a group and who God is calling us to be, defining ourselves and our ministry. Already we are seeing some blooms blossom in our “new meadow.” There are new opportunities and blessings just waiting to be discovered. The grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence, our meadow is pretty green already. However, let us not forget our center and our focus both in the past and present.

Our center has always been our Trinitarian God and His call on our lives. Our focus has always been on the redemptive works of Jesus Christ, and the implications of those gifts in our lives individually and collectively and how we might witness those in a broken world. We have always been open to the “Wild Goose” or Holy Spirit and the winds of change and God’s continued revelation amongst us. We are still about those things. They still serve as “the tail of our kite that guides us into the wind.”

We have always been a Celtic community looking to those ancient Celtic saints of long ago for wisdom, strength and courage, to answer our own calling in a modern and yet ancient world. We have always embraced the wisdom of the early Church brought, albeit in legend, to the Celts by St. Joseph of Arimathea, their prayers, liturgies, and conceptual constructs. We still embrace and hold dear these very things! We are still in many and most ways a Celtic Christian religious community. However, our Celtic distinctive instead of being integral to who we are, as they were before, are now simply incidental to who we are. They become the aromatic “spices” of the mixture that makes up our “soup” but they are not the “soup” itself, simply a distinct flavoring. It is through this blending that we will be able to reach out to more people than ever before on whatever spiritual path they might be.

As many of you have heard me say, I don’t believe the Celts ever saw themselves as a distinctively different church from that of the universal church but rather simply a part of it. There was never a separate church in existence. They saw themselves as part of a large ecumenical catholic communion, free of distant governance and or control. I have always felt and still feel that they embrace very strongly the notions of the early Celts in their understanding of church and today best exemplify those notions and understandings amid many “self stylized would be” Celtic churches. For the record, our change or “reformation”, as it were, has no bearing on our relationship with our beloved Visitor, Bishop Larry Cameron, OAC and his role in our lives.

I want to talk a little about our new name, Shepherd’s Heart and how truly Celtic Christian it really is. Among the many Celtic saints that we know about, shepherds were a proportionately large, heavy archetypal image. (St. Cuthbert, St. Brigid, St. Patrick, St. Melangell, St. Ciaran, St. David, St. Aedh Mac Bric, St. Samthann, St. Brannoc, St. Caedmon, St. Gobnet, St. Nectan, just to name a few.) The Celts obviously identified closely with the relationship between shepherd and sheep and this became a strong influence on how the Celts responded to ministry. I think this is why they held such an emphasis on a monastic structure rather than on a diocesan structure in regards to church governance. They were a tribal people and as we all know herds have always been an important element to the tribe. It was an interaction that was intrinsic to their very way of life. It is not surprising that this transferred so strongly into their faith as well.

Of course for Christians everywhere the image of shepherd and sheep is intrinsically ordered in our collective conscious. The person of Jesus the Christ becomes for every one of us, at the moment of our baptism, our Great Shepherd. We willingly turn ourselves over to him in this Sacrament and surrender our very lives to His care. In the water of baptism we are washed “white as snow” and He pastures us in green meadows. There are countless allusions, metaphors, and comparisons throughout Scripture in regards to shepherds and sheep and I needn’t recount them here. Suffice it to say, it becomes imagery not only important to us as Celts but also to us as Christians.

This is exactly where we are folks. We are as much a Celtic Christian religious order as ever, but rather than being contrived, I think it was become intrinsic. Admittedly it has taken me a while to come to terms with what we are doing because of the fact that I, much like most everyone, am resistant to change but I really do think we’re evolving into something deeper and richer than we were before. Be that as it may, like all growth, it is, and will be, painful until we settle in. I would invite you all into this dialogue and hope that you would begin to help flavor our Order with your own distinctive spice.

Let me share with you the gist of a conversation I had with a sister about the OSH and Celtic Christianity…

Over the years I’ve come to understand Celtic Christianity differently than I did at the beginning of this journey. Once upon a time, due mostly to the wistful teaching of an earlier church affiliation that saw themselves as a physical and direct continuation of the church of the Celts, I saw the Celtic Church as something “set aside” from the universal Church, something “uniquely other” and I took great delight in that. After much study, thought, reflection, and prayer, I’ve been led to a different conclusion. There was never such a thing as a separate Celtic church but rather that great Celtic witness was more of a distinctive within the Church Catholic. The Celts always saw themselves as part of the universal church or part of the Catholic Church and not as a separate entity. It’s a modern fantasy to try and recreate something that never existed. Let me explain. Celtic Christianity does most certainly exist and is a natural outpouring or reflection of a particular approach and fundamental understanding to our Christian faith, but we are always Christians first and Celts only by approach and flavor. The Celi De for example existed as a movement within the Church as a whole to restore some of the basic tenants of a Celtic Christian world view. It was primarily a movement of individuals rather than of a concerted group the way we define a group today. Saint Samthann was to play an important part in the Celi De “reformation”, if you will, while being an abbess of her own community but she wasn’t set outside the Catholic Church rather she attempted reform from within. Much like the Protestant Reformation and it’s many faces and reformers, it was a movement rather than a group. And such also was the Celtic Church, a movement but never a separate or isolated historical group no matter what modern fancy may suggest.

This leads me to the Order of the Shepherd’s Heart. I am only now coming into an awareness that we just stepped into a perhaps more authentic brand of Celtic Christianity. Like our spiritual Celtic ancestors in the church we are becoming more fully universal perhaps while at the same time maintaining our Celtic distinction. At least those of us who were Celts are, we have just, in the spirit of true Celtic Christian hospitality, opened the door to everyone else so that they may join us. Under our former banner and Rule you really had to be a Celt, and because of that it was hard for people who had little interest in Celts, but a deep interest in us as a group to develop an on going dialogue. Hopefully we have removed that stumbling block.

I’ve been doing some intense research over the last few days looking for wisdom from the Celtic saints through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and I have continued to be drawn to Celtic Shepherd Saints. Do you know there are actually a proportionately heavy concentration of them? St. Cuthbert, St. Brigid, St. Patrick, St. Melangell, St. Ciaran, St. David, St. Aedh Mac Bric, St. Samthann, St. Brannoc, St. Caedmon, St. Gobnet, St. Nectan, just to name a few. All of these were either herd shepherds or shepherds of a different kind of critter, but shepherding is a strong image running through Celtic Christianity. I think that embracing that image or calling, one of the Shepherd’s Heart we are embracing our true roots and Celtic calling just as assuredly as if we called ourselves the “Order of the Ancient Celtic Gaelic Wode Wearing, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Briton Descendants of St. Joseph of Arimathea Guardians of the Holy Grail.”

As we begin to redefine, or perhaps a better phrase might be, fine-tune who we are as a group I expect our Celtic leanings and callings to become stronger but in a much different and natural way. I am beginning to see this as metamorphosis rather than an abrupt change. We haven’t ceased being what we are or were, but we have been called to be even more of the same thing.

I think we may have just been freed to be who God has called us to be in an authentic and original way and not in a re-creationist sense. It will take a great deal of time to grow and develop and there will be pain along the way but I trust we will do it together.

The Rt. Rev. Brian E. Brown, OSH
Abbot-Bishop of the Order of the Shepherd’s Heart