Morning Worship Column: Newell Urges the Church to Reweave Spirituality to Include the Natural

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“Everything came into being through the Word. Everything is the expression of the One; you are the unique expression of the One and the world needs the unique expression of God in the heart of your being, the action you alone offer from the heart of your being,” said the Rev. John Philip Newell at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater.

His sermon title was “In the beginning was the Sound,” and the Scripture reading was the Wisdom of Solomon 11:23-12:1.

In the Celtic Christian tradition, the image of John, the Beloved Disciple, is revered. He is often shown at the Last Supper with his head leaning toward Jesus and it is said he heard the heartbeat of God.

“He is a symbol of listening in ourselves, in one another, in the body of the Earth for the beat of the sacred,” Newell said. “When we gather at a place like Chautauqua we come to be fed, but also to do the deep listening to the wisdom of [the natural order], of art, music and science and for the pains of the world so we are more deeply equipped for the work of transformation.”

The prologue of the Gospel of John starts with, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Everything came into being through the Word.”

Newell quoted “Roses” by the poet Mary Oliver and said there is, in the rose, a huge willingness to give from the small self to the entirety of the world.

“We are invited to renew that huge willingness,” he said.

He said the Celtic tradition loves paraphrases of John’s Gospel. One of his professors, the Rev. Noel O’Donoghue, said, “In the beginning was the Gift, and the Gift was with God and the Gift was God.”

O’Donoghue said everything was essentially gift and there were two gifts. The first gift is like the breath of a new day, and the second gift is shrouded in pain. In the aimless world of deep pain, we remember the sacredness and yet never take our eyes off the pain and brokenness.

Newell quoted Hildegard of Bingen, who said that we fly on the wing of life’s sacredness and the wing of life’s brokenness. We need both wings of awareness in order to fly.

“In the beginning was the Word, the Gift, the Sound,” Newell said. “The Sound, or vibrating of the presence of the One, is the sound of the beginning still vibrating within the universe. Scientists have said that it is B-flat and the bagpipes are tuned to B-flat. There is a convergence of the new science and the ancient wisdom.”

John Scotus Eriugena, a ninth-century Irish theologian, said sound of the One was deep in everything and that if it was extracted, everything would cease to exist.

“This is the essence of our being,” Newell said. “Eriugena loved to play with words and he noted that the Greek word for God, theos, comes from theo, meaning ‘flow.’ ”

Newell said God flows in all things.

“Kenneth White, a Scots poet, said that if God is flow, we can see the glow flow deep within, the flow of light deep in everything,” Newell said. “Look in your neighbor’s eyes and see it shining. I love to play [with words] even further and say, ‘Let go to the glow flow.’ You are invited to let go to the glow flow. We don’t create the flow, but everything we need is right here, right now.”

We need to do the holy work of subtraction, he said. The ego claims to be the center but the ego was given to serve the center. The work of subtraction of the ego needs to happen in individuals, nations, religions, even the human species that puts itself at the center of creation.

“Eriugena said there were two books we need to read: the little book of Scripture and the big book of the cosmos. God is speaking now, and now, and now. We have to listen in stereo,” Newell said. “If we only listen to the little book and neglect the big book, we are in danger of missing the vastness of the Sound; if we listen only to the big book and neglect the little book, we are in danger of missing the intimacy of the Voice.”

Columbanus, the Irish teacher, said, “If we wish to know the Creator, we must come to know the creatures.”

“This is obvious, but we missed it. We have missed the radical immanence of the One,” Newell said. “We need to listen to what the creatures know, [listen to] what is their suffering, if we are going to be part of the great work of healing.”

Newell shared a story of having dinner with a woman in her 70s who had come to Iona on a pilgrimage. She said one Sunday when she was about 20, she was in church with her family when a dog wandered in, sauntered up to the altar and sniffed around.

“He did not do what you think I am going to say,” Newell said. “He left. He did not like what he smelled; it did not smell natural.”

The woman followed the dog out and had never been back to church.

On one level that is her story, he said, but on another level it is the story of millions of brothers and sisters who don’t come back because it doesn’t smell right or natural. She told her story with sadness because she had lived without community for over half a century.

“She is not alone; so many who don’t come back are lonely. Many of them are us,” Newell said. “We have a diaspora of brothers and sisters looking for a new ancient vision to make a profound connection to the One.”

He urged the congregation to reweave their spirituality with the sacredness of the natural.

“We need to dream new rituals, bring people together to access the strength of the One for healing and transformation,” Newell said. “We are invited to listen, to hear the yearning for new birthing. For your immortal spirit is in all things. You detest nothing, you detest nothing. Your immortal spirit is in all things.”

The congregation waited in expectant silence.

Mother Virginia Carr presided. Nancy Waasdorp, a year-round Chautauquan who volunteered in a prison ministry at Attica Prison for 25 years, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, sang “Be Thou a Smooth Way,” by Ralph M. Johnson. The Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy and the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.