Pictured here: John Philip Newell and Cami Twilling, Executive Director or Earth and Soul
In many respects, the Fourth Century decision by the Roman Emperor Constantine to embrace Christianity, a monotheistic faith, was an attempt to strengthen and expand the Roman Empire’s control and influence. At the same time, faith leaders of the time’s decision to abet and embrace that effort as means of expanding the church’s influence, has led to an evolution of the faith that a growing number of scholars feel is divorced from the original message of Jesus. This decision led to global antisemitism, slavery embraced by the West, the desecration of the environment, and support for the control of the many by the few.
According to the Celtic spiritual teacher John Philip Newell, who led a retreat in Keene Valley July 14-15, what is needed is a reborn church, one that conveys the message that God is within all of us, all life on earth, and, within all aspects of the cosmos. His message is that each of us is made from the substance of God and that our challenge and opportunity is to hear the inner voice within ourselves and one another.
“Julian of Norwich of the 14th Century puts it so simply when she says, ‘We are not just made by God, we are made of God, we have come forth from the womb of the divine,’ because she sees us coming out of the very essence of the divine,” said Newell. “One of the first historically recorded Celtic teachers, from the Second Century, Irenaeus of Lyon, said, ‘We come out of the substance of God,’ which is to say the human body is sacred, how we handle one another in relationships, how we care for the physical needs for those who are hungry, homeless, seeking sanctuary, refuge; these are sacred matters.”
“It is also to say that the stuff of earth is sacred, and how we handle the earth’s resources,” said Newell. “How we handle them with a view toward equity and justice, and well-being for every nation, every person; these are sacred matters. What does it mean to say that we are made out of God, the substance of God? It is to say that the wisdom of God is deep within us. It is to say that the creativity of God, something of the creativity that’s part of the forever unfolding and expanding universe, is deep within us.”
Newell asked those present to look into the eyes of another, into the eyes of any animal, and you can see the energy deep within. Sit by a brook, hear the rustle of the leaves, smell the perfume of the moss, touch the bark of a tree, taste the water, and you’ll experience God’s presence.
Newell said that facts alone cannot help us address racism, societal inequities, climate change, and combat plagues like COVID as people will dismiss or ignore facts, as so many are doing. Instead, what is needed is an awakening to the sacred in people, plants and fish, air, rocks, and water.
“Newell subtitles his most recent book, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul; Reawakening to what we already know and healing the world,” said the Rev. Susie Allen. “My deepest prayer and hope is that in some way, we can begin to heal a world that is so traumatized, so damaged, that is so violent. Newell’s message brings something that can open us to the divine within each other and all the world around us. What might it be like if we could commit ourselves to going out into the world and opening our eyes to the divine presence within one another?”
Newell’s message is not new; it is one that many Celtic spiritual leaders have sought to raise from the Fourth Century onward. He said it’s embedded within the philosophies and values of many indigenous societies and voiced by scholars within all the world’s major religions, voices that those in power have constantly tried to silence.
Hosting John Phillip Newell has long been a desire of the Keene Valley Congregational Church. A year ago, after KVCC’s Faith and Issues’ latest reading of a John Phillip Newell book, Rev Susie Allen reached out to Cami Twilling, Executive Director of Newell’s organization, Earth and Soul, to determine if, post-pandemic, his annual trip to the US would be renewed and, if so, would they would be willing to lead a retreat in Keene Valley. Allen learned that they were available and that the Rev. Naomi Kelly of the Nicolls Memorial Presbyterian Church in Old Forge had made a similar ask when she was on Iona last August. KVCC’s Allen reached out to Kelly, and a partnership and a planning team were formed, with KVCC as designated host.
“I am so thrilled that people came from far and wide to listen to this teacher and were engaged with his message and each other,” said the Rev. Susie Allen. “I hope that, as a result, we will find ways to keep disseminating the message that he was bringing to us and that we now know we have a community and can build on that community. I hope we can do that with John Phillip Newell and Cami Twilling.”
Nearly one hundred people attended, some coming from as far away as Illinois and Georgia. Newell and Twilling provided moments of deep silence for reflection, techniques for listening from the heart, and many opportunities for interaction. Participants broke bread together and were provided time to walk in the woods, sit by streams, or gather with new friends over coffee and tea. They also saw a documentary on how the arts can be used to effectively convey the Celtic message and the story of its growing presence over the centuries.
“Part of me wonders why I have not been here before,” said Newell. “It is such a beautiful land, and we have received such a depth of welcome. I feel very blessed to have been here. And we appreciate and welcome people saying, let’s see if we can continue this more regularly. It’s also an exciting time of convergence that includes recent scientific insights on the interrelatedness of all things, which is this ancient spiritual wisdom. I think this convergence will enable us to be better equipped to meet the challenge of this moment.”
“I love how the people who came are so engaged,” said Cami Twilling. “Even though we were here for such a short time, people went deep with us. I heard from so many people that this is what I knew already within me, and now it’s been set free. People have deep wisdom; it’s not something coming from outside of us but from deep within; it is inherent to our being.”
“I love the way people ask questions, lean into one another with their hands on their hearts in that practice of sacred listening, and do the same outside when listening to the earth, a tree, or a stone. We desperately need this if we are going to survive if we are going to care for the earth. We are living in a world where everyone wants to be heard. We need to sit with one another and listen, truly listen; whether it is someone we agree with or don’t agree with, we need to listen. It’s not about getting the other to agree to think or see the way we do; it’s about really hearing one another and moving out from that place.”
“I’m exhausted and exhilarated,” said Rev. Naomi Kelly of Old Forge. “I am so inspired and filled with ideas for bringing this form of Celtic spirituality to more people, to life, to embody it, and to work for it.”