A Celtic pilgrim who lights the way

by
02 September 2016

Alastair McIntosh relishes anecdotes and Celtic and biblical tales in The Awesome Journey by David Adam

Guiding light: the author, Canon David Adam

Guiding light: the author, Canon David Adam

DAVID ADAM will be familiar to many readers as a former Vicar of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, and a leading teacher in the Celtic spiritual tradition.

“For Pilgrimage to be real,” his intro­duction begins, “it has to be a moving experience in more than simply a physical sense.” Pilgrimage is more about the heart than the feet. It is not as much about the distance travelled as about “the discovery that we are walking on holy ground”.

Each step is but a station on the pilgrimage of life, and, in this book, “life’s pilgrimage” is walked more in an inner than an outer sense. “We do not possess a soul,” his opening chapter states. “We are a soul — body, mind, and spirit. . . we are the icon of God.” God comes to us in the breeze of the evening, and asks: “Where are you?”

Such a question is a seeking-out of relation­ship. It doubles as the heading for the first chapter of the book. From there, Adam leads into a sequence of similarly reflective themes over ten short chapters. Others ad­­dress such topics as “divine discontent” (how God dis­turbs com­placency), “liminal places” (where the boundary be­­tween the mat­erial and the spiritual thins out), and “hearts on fire” (stilling our busyness, so that the God might be found).

Any selection of these chapters can offer rich mat­er­ial for faith-based reading groups. Each ends with pas­sages, prayers, and themes for meditation. Typ­ically, Adam weaves his own anec­dotes with material from both the Celtic trad­ition and stories from the Bible.

Reading groups may want to reflect not only on how this enriches their own experience of faith, but also on how it might it sit with en­­quirers. We are living in a time of fast-declining Chris­tian literacy; stories that once lent social discourse a common framework of meaning are losing recog­nition and traction. The need of many people is for a deinstitu­tionalised spiritu­ality. In his poem “The Moon in Lleyn”, R. S. Thomas puts it like this:

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In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits.

 

Groups might ask how Adam’s approach sits with such a spirit of the times. For example, he invokes Abraham as an arche­typal expression of the pilgrim, “called into the unknown”. Can that still reach a genera­tion raised on Richard Dawkins?

The Welsh bard would have stood by Adam. Referring to the Celtic saints, he continues: “These very seas are baptized. . . You must remain kneeling.”

On the one hand, the vine of life — our spirituality — needs to run free and wild along the ground on which we kneel. On the other hand, we will kneel on narcissistic ground if the inner life becomes reduced to just “me” and “my spirituality”, devoid of any deeper grounding in the divine.

Jesus, it is worth remembering, went many times alone to the wilderness, to the lake, or up the mountain. But he did so to walk with God, and always brought that sense of God’s immanence back down to the people in the marketplace. Good religion should be the collective expression of spiritual­ity: as being all about love, and about commun­ity. It should be the socially held trellis up which our vines of life can grow towards the light, sweeten­ing sour grapes, turning water into wine, and setting our feet dancing to the very rhythm of being.

Such can be the power of Adam’s approach, if used with sensitivity. In such ways, The Awesome Journey opens doors through which a shared religious literacy can be rekindled. Literacy of this kind matters, because these cask-conditioned stories, — like the teaching stories of many faiths — can, properly sa­voured, be portals to the flow of spiritual life back into wounded communities.

I saw just such a portal open the other day. It was in the workshop of a group with which I am involved in Glasgow. It tries to tackle poverty. There had been some sectarian whistling on the shop floor. William, an elderly man with little formal education, rose to his feet, and surprised everybody in such a secular context. He told a simplified version of the story of the woman taken in adultery.

”So how can any of us”, he concluded, “go about the workshop, casting stones?”

There you glimpse it: the living power, de­­scribed by Walter Brueggemann as “texts that linger, words that explode”. This is the literacy that Adam invites us to relearn.

What makes The Awesome Journey a Celtic way? It is the people, places, and traditions from which he draws inspiration. It is the connection backwards — and forwards — in time to the underlying, undivided Church. It is his favourite Hebridean prayers, such as this fragment recorded by the Revd Alistair Maclean:

 

Though the dawn breaks cheerless on this isle today,
My spirit walks in a path of light.

 

Alastair McIntosh is the author of Spiritual Activism (Green Books, 2015) and Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An island journey (Birlinn, 2016).

The Awesome Journey: Life’s pilgrimage by David Adam is published by SPCK at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-28107-294-1.

 

THE AWESOME JOURNEY — SOME QUESTIONS

 

  • Which of David Adam’s biblical examples did you find most useful, and why?

 

  • How helpful did you find the spiritual exercises at the end of each chapter? Did you find it easy to picture the scenes that Adam described?

 

  • What do you think the author’s grounding in the Celtic tradition brought to the book?

 

  • Adam writes that the Bible is about encounters, not just stories. How might this affect the way you read scripture?

 

  • How does The Awesome Journey make you reflect on “dislocation”, and how it affects you and the world around you?

 

  • In one meditation, Adam states that “analysis is less relevant here than wonder and awe.” How do you respond to this statement, and does it reflect the book as a whole?

 

  • In The Awesome Journey, David Adam attempts to describe our relationship with God, all the while noting that God is beyond description. How well do you think his book dealt with this issue?

 

  • What might it look like to treat all places as “holy ground”?

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 October, we will print extra information about our next book. This is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is published by Penguin at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-0-141-04372-2.

 

Book notes

How did an inexperienced Congres­sman and lawyer rise to become one of the greatest leaders in the history of the United States of America? Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book follows Abraham Lincoln’s presidential career, arguing that he saved the Union through his ability to work with his fiercest oppo­nents. President Obama named Team of Rivals as the one book he would want on a desert island, calling it “a remarkable study in leadership”. Team of Rivals has sold more than a million copies, and inspired Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, which was released in 2012.

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Author notes

Born in New York in 1943, Doris Kearns Goodwin has been called “America’s historian-in-chief”. Throughout her long career, she has won prizes and plaudits for her biographies of presidents and politicians, including Lyndon Johnson (with whom she worked as a White House Fellow), Theodore Roosevelt, and the Kennedys. Her book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, No Ordinary Time, won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Goodwin is currently working on a new book about presidential leadership, and is lecturing on the historical context of the 2016 presidential campaign. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts.

 

Books for the next two months:

November: The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

December: The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

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