The Celtic Way of Embodied Prayer: Mary, Maewyn and MEYG

Compline Outdoors 2

Listen to Sermon Here: St Patrick Sermon

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year C):

Isaiah 43:16-21

Psalm 126

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on St. Patrick’s Day 2013.

Before England was called England, when it was just an island “at the outermost edge of the known world,” populated by various tribes known as keltoi,[1] there lived a teenager named Maewyn. Maewyn grew up in the church, enjoyed playing games, hanging out with his friends and occasionally looking for trouble. When he was 16, however, trouble came looking for him and found him. Pirates from Ireland raided Maewyn’s hometown, kidnapped him, brought him to Ireland and sold him into slavery. A druid priest named Milchu bought Maewyn as his slave and forced him to take care of his animals, alone on Mount Slemish, miles away from his family and friends. The rest of Maewyn’s life looked bleak and miserable and terribly lonely. Yet instead of brooding in hate and anger, he began to do something that transformed his life forever. As he watched his breath in the cold Irish winter, he began to pray to the “One who gives breath to all.”[2] As he looked into the night sky, he began to pray to the “One who appointed the stars to serve the greater lights.”[3] And as he felt the earth beneath his feet and the warmth of the sun on his face, he began to feel the presence of Christ shielding and covering his body, beneath him, above him, inside him, around him.[4] He felt Christ in his own body when he would lie down to sleep, when he woke up from rest, when he walked and when he sat down. He wrote, “When I came to Ireland I spent each day tending sheep and I prayed many times during the day. Thus I grew more and more in the love of God. And as the fear of God increased in me so did my faith, so that in a single day I would pray up to one hundred times and in the course of the night I would pray nearly as many times again. When I was tending the sheep on the mountains and in woods and in the dark before the dawn I would awaken and pray in the snow, in the frost and in the rain…for my spirit was always fervent.”[5] His prayers connected him with his body, with the land, and with the people of the land, the very same people who kidnapped and enslaved him. His prayers grounded him in the earthy and dirty reality of each day and helped him to see God everywhere, in the wind, in the water, in the poor wanderers who traveled by his mountain, and in everyday acts like napping and bathing and stretching.

In today’s Gospel, Mary prays like Maewyn by praying with her whole body, arousing multiple senses, and leaning into the earthy dirtiness of everyday life. She pours a pound of pure nard all over Jesus’ feet, making a wonderful oily mess and filling the entire house with the fragrance of her perfume. Now, in the ancient Near East, people did not wear shoes or socks and the roads were very dusty and sometimes covered in camel dung. So the feet of a peripatetic rabbi like Jesus would have been extremely dry, dirty and probably a little stinky. And Mary kneels down and pours valuable oily perfume all over these dry and dirty feet. And just when the onlookers thought that this act of extravagance could not get anymore excessive, she then starts wiping the oil on his feet with her hair! It was rare for Jewish women, at the time, to even unbind their hair, much less to wipe a man’s dirty feet with it. Mary prays with her knees, with her hands, with her expensive perfume and with her hair. Her prayer becomes a multi-sensory experience for everyone watching as the oil glistens and gushes for their eyes and ears and as the fragrance overwhelms their nostrils so much that they can almost taste it. The act is so human and sensual that it actually scandalizes and horrifies some of the onlookers. According to Luke’s version of the anointing, the onlookers called the woman a “sinner.”

Mary anoints Jesus

Judas Iscariot especially did not approve of this extravagance and asks, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 300 denarii would be equivalent to about $60,000 today. So that is certainly some expensive perfume. Judas suggested that the money earned from selling the perfume could be given to the poor, which actually sounds like a pretty good suggestion, right? I think so.

The mission statement of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group is “To encounter Christ in prayer and in service to the poor.” We have made service to the poor and the needy a central part of our ministry. We started out simple with gathering candy from our Halloween stashes and sending them to young people in the east coast who could not celebrate Halloween due to Hurricane Sandy. Then we gathered stuffed animals and matchbox cars that we are no longer using and sent them to orphans in Vietnam. And tonight we are gathering canned foods to distributed to the hungry and homeless through the Ritter Center.

So although the Gospel is clear that Judas Iscariot has no interest in serving the poor and simply wanted to fatten the common purse in order to steal from it, I am still bothered by Jesus’ response, “You always have the poor with you.” He sounds rather dismissive of the plight of the poor. It sounds like he’s saying, “There will always be poor people around no matter what you try to do about it. So you should probably be focusing on something else instead of wasting your time with them.”

Fortunately, a closer look reveals that Jesus is saying something very different than that. In fact, Jesus is quoting Torah. Any Jewish person hearing Jesus would know that Jesus is referencing the book of Deuteronomy, which says “There will always be poor people in the land” (15:11) a verse that is sandwiched between two commandments to serve the poor. The prior verse is “Give generously to the needy and do so without a grudging heart” (15:10). And the following verse is “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” So by saying “You always have the poor with you” Jesus is, in fact, invoking the divine command to be generous to the poor.

However, even with this understanding, Jesus still seems to give special preference to Mary’s act of devotion over and above service to the poor. So what is going on here? What do you think?

Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” By saying this, Jesus is stressing the importance of his physical body, his embodied presence, which allowed Jesus to be present to his first disciples in a way that we today can only imagine. Today, we cannot touch or be touched by the physical and historical Jesus of Nazareth who lived 2000 years ago. If we had the chance to travel back to any historical time period, many of us would choose to visit the land of Palestine at the time of Jesus so that we might see him in the flesh. I know that I would. Jesus is inviting his disciples to appreciate how God is being made manifest to them at that moment in his physical body. Many people think that Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John, has a low opinion of the body and the flesh, but here Jesus is inviting his disciples to appreciate his flesh. And by doing so, Jesus invites us to appreciate our own flesh, to get out of our heads and into our bodies. Jesus is inviting us to pray like Mary and Maewyn, with all of our senses.

And how do we do that? We can do that by simply feeling our bodies, noticing them, acknowledging them. We can do that by kneeling, standing, dancing, praying in the orans position, doing yoga, meditating, walking the labyrinth, or even by simply breathing mindfully, appreciating each breath. These are ways of praying with the body, like Mary and like Maewyn. The Gospel today invites us to do this: to pray not only with our head but with our whole body, with our flesh. When we get stuck in our heads (as I often do), we fail to be fully present to ourselves and to others. In the Gospel, Judas Iscariot gets stuck in his head. His wheels start turning as he tries to figure out ways that he can benefit from the situation. When we get stuck in our heads, we can easily fall into the kind of “charity” that Judas Iscariot fell into, one which is more concerned with how it will benefit us, how it will make us feel special and generous and holy. A charity that gives to the poor from a distance without getting too close to them, without getting dirty, in order to make us feel extra clean and special.

When we pray with our bodies, our ministry to the poor is enhanced as we bring our whole selves into our ministry and learn to practice an incarnational ministry of physical presence. As much as I am proud of all the work that the Marin Episcopal Youth Group has done in helping the poor and needy, I am also aware of how those acts of charity can easily become ego boosts for us and for me, showing off how generous and holy and wonderful we are. That is why it is so important for the Marin Episcopal Youth Group to be steeped in prayer, especially embodied prayer. That is why we always conclude our meetings with Compline. Every Sunday night, the youth group gathers in our worship space to pray, sing, sit in silence and light candles for each other and our friends. Before we begin, I always invite us to simply notice our breath, to feel our bodies and to occasionally listen to the crickets chirping outside. Last Sunday, we prayed Compline outdoors, as the wind caressed our skin and the soft earth served as a cushioned seat and the sunset dazzled our eyes. By praying with our bodies in nature, we are praying like Mary and Maewyn. And we therefore learn how to serve the poor more effectively.

One way that the embodied prayer of the youth group has contributed to our incarnational ministry is in our work with the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy. Not only do we bring homemade cookies and help with the set up and clean up of the weekly meal, we sit and eat with the people in transition and be present to them, listening to their stories with open ears. We are present to them in a way that we cannot be present if we only send them food from a distance. In doing so, we become a physical manifestation of Christ to them just as they become Christ to us. This is the ministry that Street Chaplain Paul Gaffney advocates and it is also the ministry that Jesus, in today’s Gospel, is inviting us into: an embodied prayer life that leads to an incarnational ministry.

Maewyn, who continued to pray a hundred times a day, eventually heard a voice from heaven tell him to escape and travel to the coast, where he discovered a ship that brought him back home. Back at home, Maewyn continued to pray with his whole body as he studied Scripture and trained to become a priest. After becoming a priest and then a bishop, Maewyn’s embodied prayers led him to an embodied ministry in Ireland, where he returned to share the Gospel with the Irish people. Maewyn, who changed his name to Patrick, became responsible for bringing Christianity to Ireland and is celebrated today (specifically today) as the Apostle and patron saint of Ireland. Because of his embodied prayers on Mt Slemish, St. Patrick was able to bring the people who kidnapped him to Christ and convert the very land where he worked as a slave. From St. Patrick’s embodied ministry, Celtic Christianity grew and eventually returned to England through the embodied ministry of St. Patrick’s spiritual heir St. Aidan. And this Celtic Christianity includes some of the most corporeal, fleshy and nature-oriented prayers in all of church history. They have prayers for lighting fires, for washing hair, for enjoying the sun, and for seeing the Trinity in trees and plants, especially the shamrock. This Celtic Christianity, which fused with Roman Christianity makes up the spiritual heritage that we inherit as Western Christians, and specifically as Anglican Christians. So as spiritual heirs of this embodied ministry of St. Patrick, let us learn to pray with our whole bodies, so that we can be empowered in our own embodied ministry to see Christ in the world around us and to be and embody Christ to others, especially the poor. Amen.

photo copy 2

[1] “In some ways the word “Celtic” is misleading. It leads us to assume that the traditions found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, the Isle of Man, and Galicia are uniform. In fact, each country does have its own emphasis. The word “Celtic” is a linguistic term; it signals languages in a particular grouping. For our purposes, “Celtic” signifies both the areas where Celtic languages were and are spoken and the culturally formed spiritualities, historical and contemporary, that are linked to those languages. It is derived from the Greek word keltoi, which was used to name the people who lived on the fringes of Europe in ancient times” Mary C. Earle, Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings—Annotated & Explained (Woodstock NY: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2011), 3.

[2] Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue, St. Patrick: His Confession and Other Works (New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing Co, 2009), 57.

[3] Ibid, 58.

[4] Ibid, 88.

[5] Ibid, 16.


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