Celtic pilgrim John Philip Newell closes week with reflection on nature’s grace

Pull out a map and travel with John Philip Newell; on the western coast of Scotland, there’s a small island named Iona, where Newell, pilgrim and former minister, takes people who are looking to connect with their faith on pilgrimages at least four times a year.

Newell, who visited Chautauqua Institution as a chaplain-in-residence and lecturer in 2016, will give his lecture “The Grace of Nature” at 2 p.m. Friday, July 8, in the Hall of Philosophy to finish the Interfaith Lecture Series Week Two theme, “Reconnecting with the Natural World.”

“(I’m going to) particularly look at Celtic wisdom that celebrates the essential sacredness of Earth, the sacredness of every human being, and looks at that as having a radical impact on how we see and view and handle one another,” Newell said, “… (and) how we live in a sort of interrelationship with all things as part of our well-being, as part of our healing.”

Iona is referred to as Scotland’s “holy island,” and Newell said in the sixth century, Christianity began in Scotland. He said Iona has been a place for pilgrimages for people from all over the world for hundreds of years.

“At least four times a year, I lead pilgrimage weeks on Iona,” Newell said. “People come from all over the world to reflect together; to enter times of meditation and prayer together; to have times of hiking on the island; to have times of very intentional study and reflection; times of very simple spiritual practice (and) the practice of sharing meals together.”

Newell said he wants his Hall of Philosophy audience to take away “a renewed sense of sacredness” and to appreciate everything, from life to breathing to the sunrise. 

He hopes attendees will use the sacredness and appreciation to reflect on how they’re going to live with one another with these views toward nature.

“We need to change how we are relating to the Earth, specifically, and to one another if there’s to be a future path for humanity on this planet,” Newell said. “I came away (from the most recent pilgrimage) with a strong sense of the challenge ahead of us. But, I came away once again with hope that people are wanting to access this vision. … So once again, Iona produced a note of hope.”

Newell said he always makes sure to take a day of solitude for himself on the island once everyone else has left.

“That’s what the vision of Iona has always been,” Newell said. “It’s not a place to go and stay forever, so much as a place to be renewed so that one can reenter the challenging places.”

In addition to being a former minister of the Celtic Christian faith, Newell was a teacher within the faith. At one point in his life, he said he started to reflect on his own integrity and decided to step down from ministry.

“I realized what I had signed up to do as a young man, in terms of the doctrinal and creedal statements of the Church of Scotland, simply did not reflect what my passion of belief is,” Newell said. “It was important for my own integrity to say that it doesn’t reflect what I’m teaching.”

Newell said he still has respect for those still practicing within the four walls of a church, but that he sees it now as more of a disconnect between faith and life.

“I’m aware that we’re in a transition time in Western Christianity,” Newell said. “My decision to relinquish ordination was to stand much more clearly and emphatically with those outside of the walls of religion as a way of saying we’re hungry for change; we want more than what has historically and traditionally been presented within our church inheritance.”

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The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.