Friday, September 3, 2010

Peace and the Celtic Spirit: Excerpts from a Journal (5)

In August 2010, just past the waxing quarter moon, I attended a retreat on Celtic spirituality and peacemaking in Northern Ireland. The hosts of the retreat asked us to respect the safe and sacred space created by the community, and refrain from attributing direct quotes to any of the attendants or speakers. With that in mind, the following are excerpts from the journal I kept.

Day Five — Brigid, Patrick and the Pub

I read something interesting in Thomas Berry this morning, connecting the Eastern religious traditions with a focus on the spatial, and Western religious traditions with a focus on the temporal. (p. 42, The Sacred Universe) The search and process of true-self authenticity, as he claims is the purpose of any religion, is located in the ever-present moment of wholeness and interconnection, and is in this way spatial, in Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism; whereas Western religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, conceive of the authentic self as a work-in-process, a being-becoming, so that at any given moment we are only a fragment of our whole selves along a linear journey towards an ultimate end. What we need, he says then, is a balance between the two, and more specifically to restore the balance in a Western society too overly focused on the temporal and linear, which has sacrificed the sacredness of the here-now immediate moment for the sake of some indefinite, idealized future.

I've heard of this distinction before, though not precisely in these terms. What strikes me as particularly interesting is the relationship between a spatial approach to self that conceives of it as whole and complete (and infinitely interconnected) in the here-now of the holy present — and an emphasis on the sacredness of landscape and nature, the natural world, the turning of the seasons as cyclical rather than linear, as repeating and creating a sacred whole in their turning.

Perhaps the modern Pagan emphasis on the land as sacred is not only a response to an overemphasis on disembodiment and transcendence in the Western traditions, not only a response to environmental destruction and devastation, but also a response to or rejection of this overemphasis on time. Time rushes on — progress becomes too quick for our poor physical bodies — space and landscape become mere blurs that we leap over with our iPhones and airplanes — everything has become a way of escaping or overcoming or taming time. We have completed the circle. Jesus claimed to have overcome the world; we have overcome time and have returned to find the world, the land, the sacred nature of our physical beings, all continue to persist. We are whole. Our feet touch sacred ground.

Is there something Celtic in this? A blending of East and West? A connection between Hinduism and Celtic Paganism — Indo-European roots?


Conversation over breakfast about language and scholarship. C. said he's been reading over his seven-year-old text on Celtic wisdom and sees in it now a decidedly pro-Catholic/Republic bent to the writing. G. weighed in on the question I raised about academic scholarship having a kind of inherent bias in considering "Celtic culture" to be defined by the language family, though Irish Gaelic is not commonly taught in schools in Northern Ireland. An argument against Alexei Kondratiev's approach to defining "Celtic."


Select Notes from C.'s Talk on the History of Celtic Spirituality

"Cardiac Celt" - Celtic at heart

Keltoi - in the ancient Greeks' conception, focus on "otherness"
- the Celts did not personify the gods in anthropomorphic terms
- Celtic sense of the divine as embedded in the natural world (animism? pantheism? polytheism?)
Celtic Christianity seen as "other" from the continental Christianity

**C.'s personal theory: by destroying the center of learning in Wales, the Romans dealt a killing blow to the Pagan religion in Ireland and Scotland as well — which is why later Christianity met so little resistance

"eating the dog soup"

Ireland as the end of the world; Ireland as a land of invasion
- the first place in Europe outside the Roman Empire to be Christianized, outside the culture of imperial Rome

holy wells — waters of the goddess rising up from the underworld
- Patrick "caiming" the wells, claiming the wells for Christianity — not purifying them but bringing in new Christian influence to blend with the old

St. Brigid as liminal/threshold presence
- Brigid the goddess as Queen, link between Tuatha de and Fomorians (light and dark, order and chaos), sorrowing mother (keening for lost son) — sorrow and the sound of it led to laying weapons down
- St. Brigid: story of giving away the sword: the martial impulse must be subjugated to the impulse of charity
- social justice comes before war

"salvation/wholeness as the free gift of God" — translation into Pagan terms? how does this reflect on thoughts from this morning about spatial v. temporal focus?


This afternoon — the St. Patrick Centre, with a brief guided tour through a rather sad little museum. The life of St. Patrick, as told in video. I am so cynical at times — it was difficult, for instance, not to snark about the visions of a young Patrick oppressed by a heavy darkness... having eaten half-cooked boar after twenty-eight days of starving. Are we sure this wasn't just indigestion? And the old Pagan sailors with their wild eyes and crazy hair.... well. When the narrator of the IMAX movie at the end of the tour made comments about "pagan Ireland" (or an acquaintance of Patrick being "naturally good, even though a pagan") with such a clearly negative, sneering connotation — I think plenty of people in our group winced or giggled on my behalf. Being the token Pagan, I'm making in-roads it would seem. J. told me she didn't need to know much about Paganism to be able to "get me" and understand what I was saying.


We went to the pub.

I had two pints of Guinness. There was amazing Irish music — a guitarist, fiddler, and someone playing the recorder. Towards the end of the evening, after last call they invited others up to play or sing, and C. and G. volunteered ("Brown Eyed Girl" — sha la la la &c.). The guy running the show then insisted I get up and sing one, but I was unsteadily tipsy and my mind an echoing, sloshy blank — making eye contact with S. across the room, she mouthed a few words that I latched onto with relief. So we ended up doing an a cappella version of "Down to the River to Pray" — apparently a hymn, here? (Thank the gods I watch movies.)

I think I sang pretty well actually, from what I can remember — but deeper in the chest than I ever remember singing before. As though I was hauling a voice out of me that wasn't exactly my own. Sometimes I closed my eyes.



  1. My understanding from F. was that the "pagan Ireland" comments during the film were made by Ian Paisley which may shed some light on more than one issue dealt with on this trip. Oh and I was thrown by the "hymn" comment too though I must say your chest voice was magical for all present. thank you for these elegant posts... S.

  2. Ah... see, I thought the mention of Ian Paisley was a joke of some kind, so I'm just generally quite confused about it. ;)

    I'm glad my singing voice wasn't so awful! As I mentioned in this blog in the past, experiences of group singing and such have always been really meaningful and powerful for me (of course, I was a band geek in high school and have always loved that experience of playing/singing "in concert" with others). Which is one reason why the mystical concept of the "Song of the World" in Druidry has always really spoken to me.