Celts to the Creche: Day 18
On this 18th day of our journey with the Celts to the Creche, we encounter the theologian and monk Pelagius who is either dismissed as a heretic or is considered a breath of fresh air to those of a more Celtic persuasion. He was not a proponent of original sin and he saw God in all of creation.
Pelagius declared so-called “heretical” things like: “Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them . . . Look at the fish in the river and the sea: God’s spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent . . . The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.” Pelagius wrote that the goodness of God shines out from all creation for “narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth.” He also taught about the value of soul friendship and that “the image of God can be seen in every newborn child and that, although obscured by sin, it exists at the heart of every person, waiting to be released through the grace of God.”1
A First Encounter with Pelagius. In theology classes in seminary, I was oddly attracted to the heretic Pelagius, but I didn’t really know why until I began to discover more about him. When I would read what Pelagius believed and wrote, I kept thinking, “I believe this too!” It wasn’t until later, that it dawned on me why his view of God and theology rang so true for me. Pelagius saw God and God’s kingdom through the lenses of a Celt who loved God’s world and knew deep in their soul that God’s Spirit, the ruah, the very breath of God was blown into all of creation. This view of God’s creation as good and sacred and holy was dramatically different than the Roman’s view of life in which all of humanity and creation are depraved.
What I also discovered is that when you are a heretic, there are not many pretty icons or stained glass windows or illuminated manuscripts with your picture. You become invisible. At least he wasn’t burned at the stake like the so-called heretics of the Inquisition or the fall-out of the Reformation.
Life: Pelagius, a Celtic monk, was born about 354 AD probably in Britain and was well educated there, which says something about the level of education available to British Christians in the 4th c. when the Romans abandoned Britain. He was fluent in both Greek and Latin and was a theological scholar. Pelagius spent time as an ascetic, which his teachings reflect.
He left his homeland and headed to Rome in the 380’s where he was well known in Rome, both for the harsh asceticism of his public life as well as the power and persuasiveness of his speech. His reputation in Rome earned him praise early in his career from St. Augustine of Hippo, who referred to him as late as 411 as a “saintly man.” But by 415, these two were in a vicious public conflict that was never resolved. Jerome criticized Pelagius saying that he was a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating porridge and over-confident in his strength. He was also criticized for wearing his hair in some fashion that seemed inappropriate by Jerome.
Pelagius was later condemned as a heretic by St. Augustine and the Council of Carthage and his teachings are the reason behind some of the early synods. He was particularly condemned for his denial of original sin. Even though Pope Zosimus supported Pelagius, the leaders of the African church including Augustine of Hippo sent “proof” of Pelagius being a heretic, so the Pope excommunicated Pelagius and sent him into exile in 418 AD.
Teaches Women: While in Rome he drew the scorn of not only Augustine, but also other leaders like St. Jerome who moved to Antioch and later to Jerusalem. They were offended by Pelagius’ practice of teaching women to read scripture. Pelagius’ desire to educate women was rooted in his conviction that God’s image is found in every person, male and female. He offended the powerful who complained that Pelagius was spending too much time talking indiscriminately in public squares and crossroads, and especially that he was discussing the scriptures with women.
In his Letter to Demetrias, a woman, Pelagius wrote: “Do not let your mind be seduced by theological speculation; the human mind can never grasp the supreme glory of God. Simply follow Jesus wherever he leads.” He also told her that “God is present in all things, great and small. God’s power is manifest in all events, great and small.”2
Letters to Friends and Followers: In a Letter to Celantia, he wrote, “…A society can only live if people love and serve one another. So when you are aware of hatred in your heart, do not suppress it, but transform it into love.”3
In his Letter to an Elderly Friend, he wrote: “When Jesus commands us to love our neighbours, he does not only mean our human neighbours, he means all the animals and birds, insects, and plants, amongst whom we live…we should love and cherish all God’s creation…Yet we should remember that all love comes from God, so when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree, we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.” 4
Also to that elderly friend Pelagius explained, “…When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature, it was that his breath had brought every creature to life…God’s spirit is in all the plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living beings is what makes them beautiful, and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.”5
His Teachings: Pelagius taught that human beings can achieve a state of spiritual perfection that is close to sinlessness. 6 He believed that sin and and evil are very real and dangerous, but he was “not at all comfortable with the grim notions of original sin and predestination to damnation”7 that was being taught by some of the leaders of North Africa like Augustine of Hippo. The North African leaders held several local councils that condemned his teachings and in 431, the Council of Ephesus condemned him also.8 Yet, it is very interesting that Pelagius’ doctrines were popular among the Celts including St. Patrick and Gildas.9
Not many extant writings: Much of his writings are not available as they were likely snuffed out and must be pieced together by what his opponents had to say about his so-called heretical teachings.
Two of the best explanations of Pelagius and his teachings from a Celtic point of view are from John Philip Newell in his book, Listening to the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality, pp. 14-17 and Ian Bradley’s, The Celtic Way, p. 62-69. Mary Earle’s book, Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings-Annotated and Explained has numerous interesting and important quotes of Pelagius.
Place of Resurrection: Pelagius ended up being a traveling pilgrim, journeying from Britain to Rome to Carthage to Jerusalem before being kicked out of Palestine.
He was invited to spend his last days in Egypt by St. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria. No one knows what happened to Pelagius after his arrival in Egypt, some speculate he returned to his Celtic homeland, perhaps to Bangor Monastery in Wales and died sometime after 418 AD.
Being different and speaking your own truth can be scary. It takes inner personal strength to bear the words, “heretic.” It takes courage to say what you believe even when you realize you are standing alone.
One day, Sister Mildred Barker (died 1990), one of the Shakers of Sabbath Day Lake, Maine was asked by a woman in a conference what would be her best piece of advice for her young daughter. Without hesitancy Sister Mildred quickly answered, “Never be afraid to stand alone.”
1 John Philip Newell. Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, p.40. “The image of God can be seen in every newborn child…”
2 Mary C. Earle, Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings-Annotated and Explained, p. 43.
3 Ibid., p. 119.
4 Ibid., p. 45.
5 Ibid, p. 43.
6 Richard J. Woods, The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints, p. 29.
8 Ibid, p. 30.
Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Bradley, Ian C. The Celtic Way. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd., new edition, 2003.
Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland. Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2006.
Dillon, Myles and Nora Chadwick. The Celtic Realms. Booksales, 2003.
Earle, Mary C. Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings-Annotated and Explained. Woodstock, Vt.: Skylight Paths, 2011.
Epperly, Bruce. Why Christianity Needs Celtic Spirituality. a good explanation of Pelagius’ beliefs and what they mean to us as Christians today.
Herren, Michael W. and Shirley Ann Brown. Christ in Celtic Christianity. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 2012. A scholarly look at Pelagius and how his teachings effected the Celtic monastic churches in Britain and Ireland.
Jennings, Daniel R., ed. Pelagius’ Letters to a Presbyter, Augustine of Hippo, and Pope Innocent I.
Library of Theology. (lots of info and some of Pelagius’ writings.) http://www.libraryoftheology.com/pelagianismwritings.html
Newell, John Philip. The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997. (the “Introduction” in this book is a great explanation of Pelagius and what he means to Celtic Spirituality)
___________. Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation. Hoboken, NJ.: Jossey-Bass, 2008.
___________. Listening to the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997.
___________. The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings. Woodstock, Vt.: Skylight Publishing, 2014.
“Pelagius.” Northumbria Community Trust. Celtic Daily Prayer: Book One, The Journey Begins. London: William Collins, 2015.
Pennick, Nigel. The Celtic Saints. London, UK: Godsfield Press, 1997.
Sims, Bennett J. Old Heresies Never Die and One Shouldn’t. http://www.aislingmagazine.com/aislingmagazine/articles/TAM23/OldHeresies.html
Toulson, Shirley. The Celtic Year: Celebration of Celtic Christian Saints, Sites and Festivals. Element Books, 1996.
Woods, Richard J. The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.