I am excited to share my interview with Justin Coutts.
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.
Now on to the interview!
Why did you create In Search of a New Eden?
Last year I spent a week in retreat at a local Jesuit retreat center almost immediately after Easter. While I was there, I started working on my plans for my Lenten Office for the year to come. While I was there I ended up starting a book about the primeval history of Genesis, I titled it In Search of a New Eden. The story of Eden has always compelled me – it’s such a beautiful allegory for the human condition and during that time God opened my eyes so that I could see what the story is really teaching.
The writing of that book consumed me for many months to come until this October past when I decided to start a blog to engage with people around the general topics of the book in the hopes that one day when the book is finished (I feel like I’m about half way there) there might be some people who were actually interested in reading it. I honestly had no idea that my blog and Facebook page would take off the way it has – it was kinda one of those divine accidents.
How do you pray?
I wish I knew lol I try to keep up a daily practice of silence. I grew up in the Quaker tradition so silent worship feels like home for me. I used to talk to God verbally a great deal, though as of late I find I have to force out the words which used to flow so freely. I have been coming more and more to accept that core teaching my elder told me over and over again – that life itself is prayer, whether we realize it or not. I am feeling more and more that everyday actions are my prayer and I am trying to walk in the way of Christ in all that I do. I still have daily time set aside for silence and reading every morning before work though.
How do you define Contemplative Prayer for those not familiar with it?
I love language and so I like to pull apart words and discover the cultural wisdom of those who came before us hidden inside them. Con-templa-tion means to make a sacred space. It really means to co-create a sacred space. The root word templum is the same as in the word temple. For me, contemplation is the act of co-creating a temple with God inside my own being. It is to become a temple where God dwells.
I think that there are many paths to contemplation besides silence, though I still maintain that silence is the most simple and therefore the most reliable and consistent. But one can come to a place of contemplation through other means as well. One may find themselves engaged in contemplation entirely by surprise and without any effort at all! (but most of us have to work at it)
You mention Celtic Christianity on your site. For those not familiar with it, how would you describe it? Why are you attracted to Celtic Christianity?
I actually had a vision many years ago which lead me to discover my Celtic roots. I was in a sweat lodge praying to my ancestors (which is a normal routine sort of thing to be doing) but this time instead of just asking for health for those I love and praying for the earth I received a vision, a visit from my ancestors. They stood before me in confusion as they reminded me that they are real people and that I needed to learn something about them. I spent a good number of years trying to find a living tradition of Celtic pagan religion but never actually did. Years later I discovered that Celtic Christianity held what I was looking for.
My upbringing is pagan, I grew up in a Quaker community but my mom always told me we were a family of witches and taught me Wicca in secret. I started attending indigenous ceremony when I was 12 and studied with as an apprentice to an Ojibwe elder from when I was 19 until my late twenties. I feel an ironic sort of affinity for my Celtic ancestors as they tried to integrate their new found Christianity with their pagan roots and understandings.
Who are some of your favorite author(s) and why?
For modern stuff Thomas Merton is the best. I’m reading The Inner Experience right now which is great. He pierces the human condition and our relationship with God with a clarity like no one else. I believe he will go down in history as one of the great mystical teachers. I also love Richard Rohr. His books are good, of course, but I especially appreciate him for his recorded talks.
I am very much an oral learner. When I was studying with my elder I was not allowed to write anything, everything had to be conveyed mouth to ear and I grew accustomed to learning that way. So I very much appreciate Richard Rohr’s ability and willingness to convey his teaching orally. There are a few on YouTube I have easily listened to 30 times over!
How have you been influenced by contemporary or past mystics?
I love the old stuff. I’ve been delving into Pelagius and Eriugena lately. I find they balance each other well as I try to come to a balanced understanding of Celtic teaching. Pelagius so strongly represents the path of right action and speaks to my condition very profoundly. Eriguena speaks of philosophy and knowledge and has so much depth that I am still just beginning to grasp what he teaches.
As for the path of the contemplative, I love the Cloud of Unknowing. It’s a book which has become the foundation of my prayer life since I first discovered it a few years ago. Between those three I am trying to create for myself a modern way of life rooted in the ancient Celtic spirit. Pelagius teaching an embodied way of life, Eriugena teaching philospohy which expands and corrects the mind, and the Cloud teaching the spiritual path of prayer. I try to engage mind body and spirit in everything I do.
What future projects do you wish to share?
One day I will have my book In Search of a New Eden available, though I’m not really sure how far off that is right now. It relates modern philosophical concepts of time which arose from Einstein’s relativity with the primeval history of Genesis and describes the relationship of creator and creation and the evolution of creation towards divinity. I honestly think it’s pretty wicked good, but I may be biased lol
I am also working on setting up some space for in real life teaching and ritual. I used to be the minister at a local liberal Protestant church and while I had difficulties seeing eye to eye with my superiors I very much feel called to pastoral ministry and preaching. So, over the next few years my partner and I are saving money to hopefully start our own church and retreat center. I want to take people into the wilderness so they can find themselves in the trees and rocks like my elder showed me.
Thanks for the interview Justin and for the great work you do!
Justin now has a new course out!
“In this retreat we will be taking a deeper look at the sacred around us and within us and how we can create spaces for both. If you are seeking more of what is sacred in your life, then this is a great place to start.
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.”
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Celtic Spirituality At the Edge of Mystery by Carl McColman: Consider it a pilgrimage into one of the best examples of everyday spirituality. Celtic wisdom and poetry encourages us to recognize the holy all around us, honors and protects the sacred earth, gives inspiration to free our creative voice, and presents a holistic path that links the quest for holiness with an embodied sense of Divine love.
The Gift of Life by Thomas Keating, Mary Anne Best, Susan Rush: This course will explore the gift of life in all its phases, even those of diminishment and death, as phrases of evolution and transformation in and through Christ. It is based on the recent DVD series with Fr. Thomas Keating, The Gift of Life: Death & Dying, Life & Living.
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