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Celtic Saints and Quaker Paradigm

April, 2001

r Like all of us, some things that seem perfectly understandable to my thinking might be seen as discrepant to others. I hold Friends' testimony on equality close to the heart. I thoroughly enjoy my Celtic background. And I approached the opportunity of being in Philadelphia to spend two Sundays in a row celebrating saints with delight, without sensing even the slightest conflict between the saints being celebrated and that each of us is an equal child of God. On the first Sunday in March, I was the sole Quaker at a belated service in celebration of Saint David; a week later I was one of the throng at an early Saint Patrick's Day Parade.

The Saint David's Day commemoration, on a snowy sleety winter afternoon, consisted of a religious service in the Capel Dewi Sant at the Arch Street Presbyterian Church with Welsh cakes and tea after. Given the weather, a fairly large congregation gathered to sing Welsh hymns and share the word of God. There was a touch of gentle humor and a lightness in words spoken, perhaps a bit of false pride in the Welsh language and, if the English were the brunt of a joke or two, the jokes were gentle. Singing was clearly the main point of the gathering for all. These folks personified the stereotype of Welsh love of music. Their pleasure in belting out the hymns was palatable--sometimes they would sing the final chorus two or three extra times just for the pure joy it brought. The favorite of the gathered was a classic Welsh hymn, "Cwm Rhonnda" and I found it as inspiring from the back bench as those in the front did: "Open now the crystal fountain / Whence the healing waters flow / Let the fiery, cloudy pillar / Lead me all my journey through. / Strong Deliv'rer, Strong Deliv'rer / Be Thou still my strength and shield / Be Thou still my strength and shield."

Saint Paddy's parade was held the next Sunday. The sunshine and brisk breeze blowing created a classic March spring day. With the exception of a modest contingent of the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fantama calling the world to stop offending God and holding out the promise of world peace in return, the parade was as secular as Saint David's service was religious. Oh, there was a small group of seminarians marching and a number of Catholic Schools represented but it was a most worldly event. A dozen Saint Patricks passed out candy, ranging from a slight woman folk-dancer to a large retired fire-fighter, each in a costume easily recognizable: Bishop's miter, shepherd's crook, green mantel, and white beard. The streets were strung with every combination of families with children and strollers, women with claddagh earrings and green sweaters, and revelers with beer bottles and flasks. Thirty-five Irish step dancing schools performed as did a number of Philadelphia's famous string bands. There were unions of police and firemen and electrical workers marching. The theme of the parade, honoring those who've given their lives for Irish freedom, had a surprising hard edge to it. The smallest trace of humor in the anti-English sentiment of several groups of marchers could not be found.

Saint David and Saint Patrick are both credited with bringing Christianity to corners of the world--Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall--where the Celts had been pushed by the hoard of Anglo and Saxon tribes and the precision of the Roman legions. Saint David, an ascetic vegetarian nicknamed Dewi Ddyfrwr (David the Water Drinker) is remembered as frugal humble and sincere. If he had a few quirks, like standing in water up to his neck reciting scripture for long periods of time as a self-imposed penance, he managed them with a grace that seems to have won the affection of many. Saint Patrick, born Maewyn Succat, the son of a Romanized Welsh minor noble, was kidnapped and poorly treated as a slave in Ireland. He was eventually lead out of captivity by Divine intervention, only later to be called back to teach the Irish the joy of God's presence. Much of what I've read about both these folk is conjecture at best, and possibly the result of the daydreams of some medieval monk. But, whether from oral tradition or fantasy, threads emerge from each of them. Both were teachers and built communities of faith combining past understandings with new revelations. Both were compassionate and served all in need they came across. David lead people to Truth through a being a model of righteousness himself, through making wells spring from the dry land for the thirsty and from pointing away from the past to the future. Patrick lead people to Truth through interaction--adapting beliefs where they were similar to beliefs of Christianity and entering dangerous situations trusting in God's protection in meeting challenges face to face, and than in showing his bested challengers love and compassion.

Two people of great faith, one secular and Americanized, the other religious and marginalized. Both able to engender great affection lasting generation after generation. What do these idealized partially real, partially fictionalized, souls have to do with me today, a Quaker of the (ahem...) twenty-first century? Welsh hymns bring back an ethereal nostalgia. Saint Patrick Day memories of my childhood are less pleasant but anyone who changes their name from Maewyn to Patrick has my understanding and affection. Pleasant diversions--interesting, and great fun as historical trivia but what does it have to do with living a life full of seeking, a daily life of faith and love?

One of the underpinnings of early Friends that I still hear whispering today is the certain knowledge that the entire world is ready to be made over. Those first Friends lived in the intimate knowledge that the realm of God was at hand. They were seekers who had found the answer. They lived with willingness to experience small and large miracles in every day life, eagerness to see God's hand, and certainty that it was there. They--and hopefully we as it is our heritage--found completeness and wholeness in a life worshipfully lived. In one of the greatest paradoxes of the experience of God, the Divine realm is both in the future and it is now, and they rejoiced in that apparent contradiction.

Whatever our ethnic background, there is a universality of the myth of Celtic whimsy, of holding dear the promise of better times while being defeated and pushed aside (or as often is the case today overwhelmed with mediocrity) that resonates with many people of faith I've come to know. We are all strangers in a strange land, both seekers and finders. We are all exposed to commercials that sound innocent but carry evil and exploitation as unspoken reality, and assumptions that our goal is unending acquisition. Our language and the music of our hearts sometimes seems stolen from us for some misuse or another. Many of us have found ourselves standing on the outside of group, held from participation with people we love because of conscience or faith. Like the Welsh we populate a world where we sometimes feel unwelcome, trying our best to stand firm over time. Like the Irish we come to understand that sometimes hardship is the road to comfort.

Day to day life is a challenge to people endeavoring to live a life of faith. (Now there's an understatement!) The delicate flower of faith can be bruised easily with the pitfalls and traps inherent in day to day life. Each day, according to legend Patrick arose to his Lorica, his breast plate, his armor, that protected him from the world. There are many versions of it:

"I arise today Through God's strength to pilot me; God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me, God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me, God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me, God's hosts to save me From snares of the devil, From temptations of vices, From every one who desires me ill, Afar and anear, Alone or in a multitude."

We--seekers and finders both--can wrap ourselves in God's abiding love and wisdom to start each day. It isn't especially easy though, even wearing your faith around your shoulders to keep away the cold harshness of the world, and the slide toward apathy, that can fill what sometimes feels like a daily grind. The world can wear you down. There is so much to be done. There is so much hate and need. It's easy to forget to smile and laugh. Its easy to become dogmatic and self-righteous. It's easy to fall into the habit of wearing a cloak of faith not so much for its warmth but to keep others out. It's hard to keep balance, to know how to face those pressures and those little decisions that often have consequences far beyond their intent. It's impossible to know what to do about the big issues that face the world and each of us each and every day.

David's last words, whether created by a monk with imagination or passed through oral tradition are potent. They speak across centuries, "Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us."

It's odd--or maybe it's not really--that those two Sunday afternoons of thinking about times and people past unite to remind me about living in the present. I was born with Celtic ancestors, I had no choice in the matter. I have chosen the world of Friends for all it's warts and bumps and near misses. It defines my life in small ways and in large ways. It challenges me and nurtures me. I embrace it from choice. It is my heritage.

"Gwnewch y pethau bychain"--"Do the little things." Get up each morning and wrap yourself in the understanding of Divine presence in your life, and proceed forward doing the little things that are laid out before each of us to accomplish. Good advice!

All contents of this page -- Copyright 2001 Carl Williams, All Rights Reserved