The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
St. Pelagius (Ca 350?-418 AD) Feast Day - August 28th
A Sermon for All Saints Sunday By the Rev. Daniel W. Hinkle
I want to remember an unlikely saint on this All Saints Sunday. He's a Celtic saint who's been maligned as a heretic by the Western Imperial Church for 1600 years. A heresy was named after him. But, his teachings and spirituality have been seriously misrepresented over the centuries. For this reason, you won't find him listed in the calendar of saints in our Prayer Books. He's a favourite of mine, however, and well worth redeeming from the history books.
Pelagius is the name of this unlikely saint. He was born in Britain in the middle of the 4th Century, a century that saw the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. He was the first prominent British theologian, a teacher, writer and soul friend who settled in Rome. He wandered around a bit and ended up in Palestine before eventually heading back home to Britain. His early writings contain themes that would develop into some of the main characteristics of the Celtic Christian tradition over the next few centuries.
Pelagius was highly spoken of at first – even by Augustine, the most important theologian of the Western Church and a powerful bishop in North Africa. Pelagius taught the value of a "soul friend" or Anamchara, a well known feature of the Celtic Church in the years to come. Typically, he focuses less on the organized church for spiritual counsel than on finding in life a "friend of the soul," a mentor, one to whom the inner self can be opened, "hiding nothing," Pelagius says, "revealing everything," in order to know and further explore what's in one's own heart so that we can better imitate Jesus.
In addition, the most typical mark of Celtic spirituality apparent in Pelagius' writings is his strong sense of the goodness of creation, in which the life of God can be glimpsed, for "narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth." To a friend Pelagius wrote: "Look at the animals roaming the forrest: God's spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God's spirit dwells within them. Look at the fish in the river and sea: God's spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent.... 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. Look, too, at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God's spirit is present within all plants as well. 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."
Because Pelagius saw God as present within all that has life, he understood Jesus' command to love our neighbor as ourself to mean loving not only our human neighbors but all the life forms that surround us. "So when our love is directed toward an animal or even a tree," he wrote, "we are participating in the fulness of God's love." Pelagius was an early ecologist and naturalist. And in many ways, his spirituality is akin to that of Native Americans, (and I believe he would be standing with the water protectors in North Dakota.)
Much of Pelagius' teachings stem from the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. He saw Christ as the fulfillment of that tradition, as the perfect exemplar of wisdom and humility. His Celtic emphasis was not so much on religious belief and the doctrines of the Church, as important as these are, as on living a life of wisdom. By this he meant such things as loving all people, friends and enemies alike, and doing good in return for evil.
Pelagius wrote this to a new Christian: "You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. You will realize that Scripture itself is the work of human minds, recording the example and teaching of Jesus. Thus it is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him." I like that. Actions speak louder than words.
Although Pelagius was often accused of teaching that we can perfectly achieve the imitation of Christ, in his letters he frequently remarks how hard it is to follow Jesus and reveals how he personally is still falling far short of Jesus' simple teachings. But this doesn't excuse us from setting Jesus' standards as our goal for living. He was very critical of those who tried to distinguish between major and minor sins. Refraining from murder and theft didn't give one license to speak harsh and hurtful words to one another, for example. And restraining ourselves from wrong deeds is only of relative value if we do not also do good deeds. Our Prayer Book reflects this teaching in the Confession of Sin where we ask forgiveness for "things done and things left undone..." "A person who is rich," Pelagius said, "and yet refuses to give food to the hungry may cause far more deaths than even the cruelest murderer." Hmmm....there’s food for thought.
Pelagius would surely be unpopular with most of our politicians today, wouldn't he, who want to balance our national budget on the backs of the poor. It’s shameful that among all the developed countries, America is the world leader in child poverty, even as the income gap between the poor and the very wealthy is the widest it's been in more than a century.
Pelagius' passion for justice wasn't mentioned by those who would condemn him. And he went so far as to call for the redistribution of wealth. One wonders how far he had lost the support of the Church's leadership in Rome, where bishops and other church dignitaries had considerable wealth and power now that Christianity was the official religion of the empire rather than the faith of a persecuted minority.
Pelagius was soon criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. But he didn't deny the reality of evil, its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin.
Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil and polluted by the sexual activity which brings about conception. Augustine saw our essential nature as sinful. Pelagius, however, saw our essential nature as being created in the image of God and therefore very good, even if flawed.
Augustine tried twice in the year 415 to have him convicted of heresy, but on both occasions Pelagius was exonerated. In 416 Augustine and the African bishops convened two diocesan councils to condemn him and Celestius, his Celtic companion. In 417 the Bishop of Rome called a synod to consider the conflict, declared Pelagius’ teachings entirely true, and urged the African bishops to "love peace, prize love and seek after harmony." They ignored this, and in 418 persuaded the state to intervene and banish Pelagius from Rome for "disturbing the peace." These sound like trumped up charges to me. The Church was then obliged to uphold the Emperor’s judgement, and excommunicated and banished Pelagius, though no reasons were made clear. He returned to Wales, probably to the monastery of Bangor in Britain.
History is written by the victors, so most reports of what Pelagius said are given from Augustine’s point of view, not in his own balanced and sensible words. He was also criticized for being a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating Scotts porridge (oatmeal), over-confident in his own strength, and for wearing his hair in an inappropriate style! Imagine that.
Nevertheless, two centuries later all the same ideas that Pelagius first taught were still to be found in Celtic Christianity:
1st - the importance of finding an Anamchara, a soul friend and mentor;
2nd - a strong sense of the goodness of creation, in which the life of God can be glimpsed;
3rd - an understanding that Jesus' command to love our neighbor as ourself means loving not only our human neighbors but all the life forms that surround us;
4th - an emphasis not so much on religious belief and the doctrines of the Church as on living a life of wisdom, meaning to live a life that imitates Jesus in such things as loving all people, friends and enemies alike, and doing good in return for evil;
5th - a passion for justice;
6th - And, finally, treating women with more dignity, if not total equality, than typically found in the Greco-Roman world.
To this day Episcopalians and Anglicans are accused of being rather Pelagian in our spirituality (Barth). I take that as a compliment. For instance: as much as I love the hymn "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound," I refuse to sing the words "that saved a wretch like me." For as Pelagius taught, I am no wretch. Sin does not define me. I am a child of God, created in God's image and very good indeed, even if I am flawed.
So, Saint Pelagius is worthy of our remembrance and imitation on this All Saints Sunday. Amen?!
(Let us pray. Grant us, Lord, to understand the value of soul friendship, to celebrate your goodness seen in all creation, and to cherish every human being as made in your own image. Help us to love peace, to prize love and to seek after harmony in every part of our lives. Help us to imitate Jesus, your beloved Son as exemplified by St. Pelagius. Amen.)
"The Celtic Prayerbook" of Northumbria Community
"Listening for the Heartbeat of God" by J. Philip Newell,
Chapter 1 Listening for the Goodness: Pelagius