#32 St. Stephen’s Celtic Service, Richmond VA Church


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Celtic Service

Celtic Service

I had several people recommend to me the 5:30 Celtic Service on Sunday’s at St. Stephen’s Episcopal church located at 6000 Grove Avenue in Richmond, VA.  My friend Jenny was visiting from out of town so she came with me to the service.  Visit St. Stephen's Site here for More Info.

First off, I have to mention that the building was just breathtaking.  Talk about detail.  I could feel the presence of God just approaching it.  It was so dramatic and beautiful, I couldn’t help but feel humbled and in holy awe just being on the same block! And when I entered it, the smallest carved designs that blanketed the interior walls continued to impress me.  I would recommend this service just because of the sheer beauty of this historic church!  I much prefer a simple white building with a couple of old school pews and white walls to the fancy stuff, but there was something about this church that really got me.

The entire sanctuary was dimly lit and there were candles everywhere.  And when I say everywhere, I mean it.  The experience was mystical, glowing and lively.  It felt as if I was in an ancient monastery.  There was that haunting horror movie music playing.  You know, like horror music in a good way; where it’s kinda creepy, but kinda holy at the same time.  I sang along quietly as a woman who appeared to be wearing a robe patterned after a monk approached the altar to lead the service. 

spooky ooky St. Stephen's

spooky ooky St. Stephen's

Then, people of the congregation got up one by one, lit a candle, bowed their head, and said a silent prayer.  I decided not to partake in this since I wasn’t sure exactly what the point was.  Instead, I just said my own prayers silently as I got into a meditative zone.  I was enjoying every bit of it.  The entire contemplative experience just made me feel holy.  The soft glow that fell upon everyone’s face was beautiful.  You couldn’t help but relax in God’s love and just be.

However, the entire experience was quickly ruined by an unfortunate turn of events.  The woman leading the service said that the church would now like to offer communion and everyone was invited to take it.  I don’t usually accept communion at a new church, but decided that this time I’d go out on a limb and join in.  I prayed that God would renew my heart and spirit, making me clean before Him, and prepared myself to eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of Him.

The church was fairly large so they invited folks up in sections.  The first 3 rows stood up in unison and headed toward the front.  Once they took the bread and drank the wine, many made the sign of the holy cross over their bodies and then existed toward the right. Then, the next 3 rows stood up together, then, another 3, but then, the strangest thing happened.  For some reason, they skipped like 4 rows and then started again.  I wondered why those 4 rows never got up?  I then wondered if I was supposed to make my way toward the front now or wait because only a couple of people from my pew had stood up. 

Being that I was in an unfamiliar place (and rarely take communion) I got a bit frantic and feared that somehow in this process I’d do something wrong. Regardless, I got up from my seat and made my way toward the front.  Okay, this is where it got really weird.  All of a sudden, the people I was walking with got into new pews in the middle of the church.  I had no clue what I was supposed to do at that point.  Did I get into just some random pew or keep going up front?  I looked around frantically to see if there was some clue as to where I was supposed to go and this got me even more confused.  Some people were entering pews, others were leaving, some exiting right, some entering from the right, some now praying in a pew, what was I supposed to do here? 

In a slight panic, I scooted myself into some new pew in the middle of the church just as like a pit stop until I could figure it all out.  I figured I could say a little prayer and just wait it out and then inconspicuously go back to my seat, without my bread and wine since I didn’t get what was going on.  So, I got on my knees and began (while smiling from ear to ear at the absurdity of confusion) praying to God.  I even joked to Him that if He could just show me what to do now, that’d be awfully nice. 

Then, the guy next to me taps me on the shoulder and says, “Ma’am, you’re in my pew.” 

I nervously looked up from my kneeling position and said, “Oh. Oh.  I’m sorry, sir.  I didn’t realize.  Um, do you know where I’m supposed to go?” 

No, I have no idea where you are supposed to go.  How would I know where you’re supposed to go?  All I know is you’re in my pew!  Get out of my pew!  Please.  Get out of my pew!” 

I was so embarrassed I wanted to get on my hands and knees, crawl underneath his personal pew and just die!  But instead, I politely apologized for crowding his pew space, gestured to Jenny that I was leaving by opening my eyes really wide and lifting up my chin toward the ceiling and then darted like a rabbit for the door.  There was probably a good half hour left of the service but I was so confused and so incredibly embarrassed, that I just wanted out of there.

 Looking back, I can’t help but laugh at the whole situation.  First off, why was I so grossly embarrassed?  So what? So I don’t know how to do the pew dance.  Who cares?  I was new to the church.  I think there are bigger problems in the universe.  But the guys’ reaction to me being in his pew and his eagerness to get me immediately out of it was just comical.  Needless to say, I probably won’t be back for the Celtic service, or maybe I will, but you can betcha’ life on this friends; I won’t be taking communion.

Since Celtic Christianity is such a broad term, it’s hard to define, but here are some traditions or things I found worthy to note:

Celtic Christianity is seen as being inherently distinct from – and generally opposed to – the Catholic Church as a result of Ireland being very isolated during Christianization of Europe.

A focus on monasticism -the practice of renouncing wordly pursuits to fully devote one's self to spiritual work is common among them

Another tradition common across the Celtic world was the concept of peregrinatio por Christo, or "exile for Christ”, the state of living away from one's homeland in the name of Jesus Christ.

There were 2 distinct ways for doing so: 

      In the first, there were prescribed permanent or temporary peregrinatio as penance for certain infractions.

      In the second, there was a tradition of undertaking a voluntary peregrinatio por Christo, in which individuals permanently left their homes and put themselves entirely in God's hands because they were seeking personal spiritual fulfillment.

Monks and most clergy kept a distinct Irish tonsure, a method of cutting a persons hair in the front (like Druids) so people knew in social circles that they were men of the cloth.

Celtic Christianity is closely rooted in love of nature and a passion for the wild and elemental as a reminder of God's gift.

Poetry and art are highly respected

Heavy emphasis on the Trinity, and a love and respect for Mary, the Incarnation of Christ, and Liturgy

Women had more equal footing in ancient Irish law, thus had more equal say in church government.

Adopted many pagan practices such as St.Stephen's Day, resorting to holy wells, and many monasteries were built on pagan sacred site (as evident in the names Derry, and Durrow).

Use of many symbols such as deer St.Patrick, salmon fish of knowledge, shamrock the Trinity, eagle St.John, fire new life, new fire of Easter, straw hand-woven cross St.Bridget, the eye of God

Prayers for the dead can assist in saving souls from hell.

Administers Sacraments

Saints are highly regarded

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  • Tony York

    Tony York October 02, 2010

    Oh.. my.. I am laughing.

    I wonder what would have happened if you were to have looked the guy in the eye and simply stated, “I can’t - God told me to sit here.”

  • Neil Spoonhower

    Neil Spoonhower October 04, 2010

    Wow, what an experience.  I looked at their website and what an interesting contradiction to what you witnessed.  I thought this was interesting:

    “All are welcome to receive Communion. In the pew rack there are instructions about receiving the bread and wine, but please do not worry about “doing it right.”  The important thing is simply that you know that God welcomes you, and there is no telling how God might reach you in Communion.  Just be open.”

  • Jessica

    Jessica October 08, 2010

    Sorry for replying so late.  Tony, my husband and I laughed for like 10 minutes reenacting me saying what you suggested:)

    @Neil, It seemed like everyone else was incredibly warm and welcoming.  I’m thinking this one guy must have snuck in the back or something. I think my experience was not a normal one.  Many people suggested this service to me.  I should give it another shot, but I’m scared now. HAHA!

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