Origin Story continued
On a typical blustery day for the Isle of Iona, I stood facing the west, toward the one thing I always keep my eye out for; a bookstore. The Community of the Wild Goose is an inspiration to Christian communities world wide and was founded by a Christian soldier, George MacLeod, in 1938. While I had chosen the image of the centurion to represent the military experience he and I shared, he had chosen another image to symbolize the community he started after returning from WWI as a pacifist. Like me, had had returned from war unwilling to believe what Wilfred Owen had insisted was the oldest lie, dulce et decrum est pro patria mori (it is sweet and right to die for your country). The symbol of the Iona community is a wild goose, the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit. Like Centurions Guild, members of the community are called milites Christi, soldiers of Christ.
With the Wild Goose publications bookstore before me, I had another symbol of Celtic Christianity at my back, namely the beautiful stone high crosses. The particular cross at my back was noteworthy because it is the oldest and longest standing cross like it in the entire world, having been erected by the community in the 8th century. The cross’ namesake, Saint Martin, was also a Christian soldier, and the first to admit it openly before a Roman emperor without being martyred. Sometime in the 4th century, although he had willingly defended the life of Caesar for many years, he would refuse to participate in the violence of battle, saying miles Christi ego sum, pugnare mihi non licet (I am a soldier of Christ, I will not fight).
Saint Martin is my patron saint and I took his name upon my confirmation in the Episcopal Church in 2013, the year before I would study overseas and take the chance to visit Iona. He is also the patron of Centurions Guild and a reminder to the church that we cannot rely on biases and stereotypes to define Christian soldiers, since he was neither a pacifist nor a patriot, but rested somewhere in the middle. Expecting to be killed upon his insubordinate confession, he went on living, at times reluctantly, dealing with the mundane and at times excruciating superficiality of Christians as a bishop in a wealthy urban center in France.
When I think about my narrative and the story of Centurions Guild, my mind returns to this moment on Iona. The short visit reminds me that I want to return, I keep coming back in my mind to the torturous moment, months later, when I learned that hours-long respite would be my only visit to the incredible place in which I found so much inspiration and rest. More importantly, I remember those two symbols, of the Wild Goose and the milites Christi of the Iona community on the one hand, and the high Celtic cross of St Martin on the other.
The Celtic Wild Goose is a stark contrast to the Latin church’s preference, of a quiet dove. A feral goose is loud, boisterous and impossible to contain. God swoops in at times, strong and hard to ignore, nipping at your heels insisting you get off your ass and MOVE. The Guild, or at least I, have openly criticized weak theology and nonsensical public assumptions about Christian soldiers and I have little patience for theologians or ministers who go on about war almost entirely as an abstract phenomenon, with zero experience of it’s reality.
However, like my worries and concerns about the Guild, the Wild Goose can seem fickle, sporadic, fleeting. It can be tiring and frustrating watching it run off right when you think you have it in your grasp. The fowl bird abhors company and runs off anyone not like itself. Try long enough to get one in your hands and it can draw blood and leave scars. Geese flock together only with birds of a feather, they do not play nicely or hold friendships for very long with those unlike themselves. Like veterans, geese tend toward group self-isolation and have strong aversion toward ecumenism or collaboration. Despite all this, the goose is a symbol of God’s grace shared in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Saint Martin’s cross, however, counters the transient and rowdy side of grace by it’s solemn watch over the island for over twelve centuries. Erected within a few generations of Martin’s death, it stands as a memorial not only to his influence over over my life but also within the church. From his story we get the word chaplain and chapel, from his capella, or cape, issued by Caesar as a sign of his prestige but cut in half by Martin to warm a freezing beggar. The original chaplain was the monk on duty that guarded the relic of his cape until the chapel in which it was housed was burned by invading armies. As the chief of all chaplains, Martin rests between church and world, between patriot and pacifist, between God and country. I don’t have to make anything up, for his example gives me all the inspiration I need. Whenever I feel alone or like I am having to find new paths to cut through old rhetoric or biased stereotypes, I remember he has already paved a way for me, for Christian soldiers everywhere and of every time.
I mention these two symbols because they connect me to my original narrative about the fits and starts the Guild has endured because it was how it was born. Grace gave birth to this community I helm, even if I frequently feel like giving up and saving my strength for other things. The wildness of geese and the wonder of Iona help me remember that I may never feel finished or at rest, but maybe that is okay. After all, tension helps us grow while too much rest makes us rot. The rambunctiousness of the Wild Goose stands in stark contrast to the high Celtic cross of St Martin, guarding, even anchoring it as it runs thither and yon, hard to contain and impossible to tame. One does not exist without the other, Spirit is lost without Father and Son.
The practice that has helped make this connection is gratitude, a derivative of grace. Gratitude, one of the practices Christine Pohl emphasizes in her book Living Into Community, is not one which I normally would have applied to my vocation or to the story of Centurions Guild. But insofar as it relates to grace, as long as gratitude is a response thereto, I can reconsider how I interpret the Guild as a community and an organization. Almost out of the gate, Pohl reminds me that gratitude and grace has been woven into the DNA of the Guild;
Good communities and life giving congregations emerge at the intersection of divine grace and steady human effort. (3)
Despite our frenetic genesis and the way we’ve always lived right on the edge of nonexistence, the relationships that make up the Guild remain in place, like Martin’s cross. I can call up any number of former ‘members’ and pick up where we left off. We have survived as a hodgepodge network of loyalties and commitments that center on the image of being a Christian soldier, and of helping the Church see the rich diversity inherent in that identity. Gratitude is based on grace, which I have sometimes provided to soldiers, but often also I have failed to show to civilians. I have deconstructed what I’ve seen as bad theology and harmful biases and stereotypes, but haven’t always created positive, constructive proposals for how the church ought to think, speak, and practice. Many times I have brought prophetic cynicism without prophetic hope. It has not been by my own steady effort that the Guild has survived either, but the support of others, however unpredictable and intermittent. I am grateful for them all, and it is no coincidence that the acknowledgement sections of my two books are so long,,, I have so many friends to be thankful for that have made my own work, however arduous and seemingly endless, both possible and life giving. They have been there the whole time, coming and helping as they are able and leaving as they have need. There’s a saying amongst paratroopers, that old ones never die, they “just slip away.” After all, maybe they’ll swoop back in your direction. Maybe I’ll get to see Iona again. Maybe the story isn’t over…