Paddy O’Brien was driving down the street in a sweat because he had an important meeting and couldn't find a parking place. Looking up to heaven he said, "Lord take pity on me. If you find me a parking place, I will go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of me life and give up Irish Whiskey"
Miraculously, a parking place appeared. Paddy looked up again and said, "Never mind, I found one."
There is nothing like Irish humor but we Christians have received a lot more than funny stories from our Gaelic ancestors. One of the healthiest, oldest, and theologically sound brands of spirituality is Celtic Christianity, that form held by much of the population of the British Isles from the fifth through the ninth centuries, in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany.
Celtic Christianity was characterized by a love of God and all God’s creation, and wanderlust from the need to bring the light of Christ to the world. Many of the issues that the Celtic Christians dealt with are amazingly contemporary like the position of women in the Church, our environmental surroundings, and dealing with people whose customs and beliefs were other than Christian. Celtic Christians were warmly welcoming communities for all.
And the Irish are great story tellers. Can you imagine how fast a story like the event we hear in the Gospel would be shared. Yet Peter, James and John remained silent after witnessing the transfiguration and it floated around for years until it made it into Luke’s Gospel.
I’d like us to enter the world of our Celtic ancestors today because I think it is the best way to get perspective on the feast we are celebrating, the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Bible is full of such mystical and mysterious events which are really like a door that is left ajar allowing the observer a glimpse of another world beyond ours. Truth be told, there are few people who are not in hot pursuit of that kind of experience—an experience of the living God.
When all is said and done, we don’t want more theological explanations or doctrines or analyses of the event about which we just heard told in the Gospel. We want to come face to face with the real thing. The Transfiguration is not just about how Jesus appeared before his disciples, bathed in dazzling light, flanked by two major prophets of the Old Testament.
It is also about us and what we are looking for here in our worship experience. When we leave to go back into the world, a world that can be a frightening place, don’t we hope to find evidence of God’s presence there as well, even in, especially in mystical and unexpected ways?
If we could get on a magic carpet right now and travel through Ireland, as the ancient
pilgrims would have, we would encounter one of the other major themes of Celtic spirituality: the immanent presence of God, which means that God is everywhere. For Celtic Christians, God was a key part of all things natural and beautiful.
Whereas the ancient Celts worshiped pagan gods for nearly every natural setting, Celtic Christians praised God’s design and creation of all things natural. The hills, the sky, the sea, the forests were not God, but their spiritual qualities revealed God and were connected to God.
In our pilgrimage to Ireland, we would find holy trees, holy wells, holy mountains, places where people feel most strongly connected with God’s presence. The Irish call them “thin places,” places where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that it is easy to step through; places where the seen and unseen worlds are most closely connected and inhabitants of both worlds can momentarily touch the other; a place where it is possible to touch and be touched by God, as well as the angels, saints and those who have died and gone before us, an aspect of the Celtic Christians’ natural disposition for community. The kinship they felt with the angels and saints was completed by their kinship with one another.
The land of Ireland seems to have endless “thin places.” Author Steve Rabey says in his book, In the House of Memory: Ancient Celtic Wisdom for Everyday Life, thin places for the ancient Celts could be sacred natural landscapes or “holy places of human construction.” The abundance of beauty makes it easy to recognize God’s imprint and presence.
The Transfiguration brought Peter, James, and John to a “thin place” where the veil between this world and the next was so sheer that it was easy to step through. On a mountain top, in the clouds, the sun shining brightly, they experienced the glory of God.
But, if the kingdom of God is truly among us here—and that is what Jesus has told us—should it be any wonder that some of its uniqueness will occasionally filter through in the midst of our everyday experience, even on a planet besieged by chaos and conflict, reminding us of another world beyond ours?
So, pay attention, fellow pilgrims on this life’s journey. The abundance of beauty around us makes it easy to recognize God’s imprint and presence. You never know when the door between this world and the next will be cracked open—even if only for a few moments.
Eyes wide open! And when that veil lifts for you and the “thin place” has done its work, unlike the three disciples, don’t keep silent. We all need to hear about it. We all need to share the stories. Be on the lookout. One never knows. God may even help us find the best parking place not only here but in another world beyond ours.