I am excited to share my interview with Justin Coutts, the instructor of Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.
Justin Coutts is a contemplative teacher living on the beautiful and mysterious Manitoulin Island. While his practice is primarily Celtic Christian today his religious life has been very diverse. He spent many years as an apprentice to an Ojibwe elder helping people on vision quests deep in the Canadian wilderness. He was also raised in a traditional rural Quaker community which is still an important part of his contemplative practice.
Today, Justin is the author of In Search of a New Eden and is working to find the intersection of these traditions and lineages. Through Celtic Christianity he hopes to bring people closer to the natural world and closer to their own souls – that we all may return to Eden like the Prodigal Son and live once more in harmony with the wind and waves, the trees and moss, the rocks and stars.
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Now on to the interview.
Why did you create Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit ?
There’s a few reasons actually. For one, I did it for myself, as a means to hash out and better understand Celtic Christianity. I wanted to have a framework for a way of life and belief which reflected the leadings of the Spirit in my heart and also followed in the footsteps of my Celtic ancestors.
I also wanted to make the experience of being on retreat in the wilderness available to people who are not as blessed as I am to be surrounded by bush and wildlife. It’s never quite the same as being in the actual forest, but we hope it brings a little spirit of the wild to those who are surrounded by concrete.
We also hope it will become a talking piece and tool for spiritual deepening within our growing online community. As we explore the ways virtual community can take place, we are hoping this will be one of many pieces that make social media enriching instead of mind numbing.
What are some of the topics you will explore in this online retreat?
As the name hints, we talk about contemplation from a Celtic perspective. In the Celtic tradition action and contemplation are fully entwined and so we talk about centering prayer but also ways to connect to the divine through nature and how to understand our place within creation and what makes humanity unique.
David Cole was generous enough to contribute the text from his book 40 Days With the Celtic Saints which we turned into guided meditations based on the lives of 9 prominent Celtic saints. They are set to sacred harp music and share the beautiful wild scenery of Manitoulin Island.
What is Celtic spirituality?
That’s a great question and it is one with many different answers. Unlike many other religious traditions, Celtic Christianity has no central authority which decides what is in and what is out. Essentially, it is the version of Christianity which evolved in Ireland and Britain. Because this was considered a very remote area in the early years of the Church there was less oversight from Rome and people were able to develop their own beliefs and practices.
Just as Roman Christianity inevitably incorporated elements from classical paganism (all the church fathers quote pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle) so did Celtic Christianity incorporate elements of its own pagan past. Things like reverence for nature, a belief in the inherent goodness of people, and an aversion to the ways of empire are some of the many things which make Celtic Christianity unique.
What is a thin place?
I’m glad you asked because this is one of my favourite subjects. I actually wrote a blog post about it which includes a sample video from the retreat called Thin Places: Where Heaven and Earth Meet. A thin place is sacred ground, like a holy mountain or healing well. The idea is that there is a veil which separates the material world from the physical world and there are certain places where this veil is thin. Almost every culture in the world has found and venerated holy sites and made pilgrimages to them. It was part of Cletic culture before Christianity came and the Celts were quick to see that it is prevalent in the scriptures as well.
What does nature have to teach us?
Everything! One of the main topics we address in this retreat is the way in which humanity has become separated from nature. When we gained the knowledge which made us no longer part of the community of Eden we lost something in the process. While we cannot return to the state of wild animals like Adam and Eve were, the task placed before humanity today is to regain our harmony with nature while being super clever little human creatures. This idea is the foundation upon which all the teachings in the retreat rest.
Why did you include The Cloud of Unknowing in this retreat?
The Cloud of Unknowing has been such an important book for me. It radically changed the way I understand what it means to be Christian and what it means to pray. I also believe it represents a continuation of Celtic teaching well into the late middle ages. I make my reasons for it being a Celtic text more fully in the retreat, but it has many similar themes to what Eriugena (perhaps the greatest Celtic philosopher) teaches, including the Celtic understanding of the dynamic between action and contemplation.
This is another subject which has a blog post and free sample video available, simply titled The Cloud of Unknowing. In the video I give an introduction to what we will be discussing and a little bit of my own personal story with The Cloud. This book is an amazing practical hand book for contemplative prayer as well as a text which discusses the nature of time and the spiritual progression of those who wish to be contemplatives.
What helpful tips or suggestions do you have for new enrollees as they begin your online retreat?
Don’t be overwhelmed or feel like it’s a huge commitment. The retreat is laid out simply for you and we’ve done everything we can to make it flexible to your needs. There are plenty of links to further reading for those who are voracious readers, but the videos are also presented in such a way as to be meaningful without doing any reading at all.
The retreat is completely self paced, you have unlimited access to the videos on any and all of your devices, there is a one month money back guarantee, and we have a vibrant and active online community for you to share the process with, if that’s something that interests you.
If you want to learn more you can check us out in The Virtual Chapel which is the central hub for our community. Feel free to post any questions and one of us will get back to you in short order. Hope to see you soon!
Thanks Justin for all the great work you do!