Saturday, September 4, 2010

Peace and the Celtic Spirit: Excerpts from a Journal (6)

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 Six — The Wise Man in the Woods

It's about 10 PM, and our day of silence has technically begun. Which means I may actually have half a second to write and complete my thoughts.


We came to a bird lookout-hut, a small wooden hut with horizontal slits all along its walls giving a view of the shoreline of the lake. The weather was rainy and gray — my hair was damp and matted down from the walk there — wind whipping the blue-gray waters of the lake into whitecaps. Absolutely gorgeous.

T. told us some (admittedly rambling) stories about the sacredness of the land, standing with our feet on the land and standing before the burning bush, hearing our name called by God. Clearing a space — he moved his hands in a gesture, repeated several times, of clearing and opening a space. Moving and evocative, in a rambling, stumbling, cobblestone-path kind of way. Then he presented us, like a communion, with tiny white stones from the very shores of Northern Ireland (though I forget where exactly he said) and sang a prayer-song — that might have been Native American* — as we sat together in quiet contemplation inside the hut. Stamping his feet occasionally, loud and thumping, tumbling, trembling the wooden boards below us.

I felt deeply centered, and after the prayer I went down through the grasses all the way to the shore, the water's edge. By then the sun had come out as the rain-heavy clouds had blown on, and the field was full of tiny bugs and butterflies like little bits of paper, flitting through the grasses, drifting like the seeds from a dandelion. I stood on the shore letting the sun and wind bathe the white stone in my palm, then bent to wash the stone in the waters of the lake. Breath, blood, bone — wind, water, stone.

Walking back by myself, others ahead conversing and some lingering behind, I sang to myself a few awens, letting the notes tumble over themselves softly — noticing this time the breathless beauty of the forest, the foxgloves all purple and nodding, springing up everywhere among the trees along the path.


The experience was definitely a strange and interesting one — I'm not sure I can describe it exactly. They played a CD of an Irish man singing the "Our Father" prayer in Irish Gaelic, but to music that sounded distinctly Indian/Eastern in flavor and had this deeply resonant tone pulling through it the whole time. As the song played, I could almost feel — or no, I guess I could feel, or seemed to — the energies pooling and swirling around him in the center of the room. Even with my eyes open, it seemed I could see the movement, like a drag toward him. Like the way your eyes seem to drag across a still surface if you've been watching your feet as you walk for a while and then suddenly stop — the ground seems to keep drifting forward out of habit even though you can see at the same time that it's actually still. That was the sensation.

So I closed my eyes, and sank into that feeling of energy, and began to try to direct it in a gentle way of healing around him. After the song ended, several people each in turn spoke words of prayer as they laid hands on him. I didn't lay hands, as I felt slightly uncomfortable since they were not praying to my god, exactly. But as T. was finishing, I began to pray to Brigid as healer and guardian of the holy healing wells. Weirdly, just after this, when J. then began to pray, she immediately began speaking of the healing welling up from the earth to surround him, and using imagery of the sacred wells.


Coincidence upon coincidence. There are times I write things in here from my own reflections that are then brought up later in conversation, seemingly at random. J. was not with us the other morning when we spoke about Brigid and the holy wells that Patrick claimed. I wonder what exactly we are making, in our shared silences each morning. If we are to take the reality of the spiritual life seriously, is it possible we are making connections in our communal silence that we did not expect? I wonder what the others think of this...

And who says Christians don't do magic? I only worry that, not knowing that this is what they are doing, they may not always do it well. Yet they have such beautiful trust in God, so beautiful. To feel held and upheld that way, by the World, by the Word... My trust in the Song and Center is not always so strong, though I always want so much to believe.


And now, a day of silence that begins tonight. So much to think about and process. Oddly enough, I find myself missing the company of everyone. Already. I find myself wondering what the others are doing — did they go to bed early, are they taking advantage of the "grace" rule to go to the pub tonight before retiring, or are they in their rooms being silent as I am? I've left my door open, because I feel like I have to express some kind of receptivity or hospitality even in this silence. A shut door when a person cannot ask to enter (or call out an invitation to come in) is such a wall. Perhaps we do not have the structures or customs in place to sustain this kind of community silence for very long...



  1. And who says Christians don't do magic? I only worry that, not knowing that this is what they are doing, they may not always do it well.

    Oh... do I have stories. Not only about Christians, but also about Pagans not knowing what they're doing... but I'll save those for another day.

    In general, though, I think this is a very important question, one that a number of Christians are currently engaged in addressing. And while most (not all) Christians are allergic to the word "magic," many are very concerned about what pretty much all Pagans would recognize as such.

    If you want to read what I think is the best primer on Christian magic, get the anonymously written Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. It was endorsed by some heavy hitters in the Christian tradition, including Cardinal Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Thomas Keating, and M. Basil Pennington. Rumor has it that even Pope John Paul II admired this book...

  2. Carl,

    I have that book! It was one I bought several years ago, back when I was still very deep in my own struggle about whether or not to continue to call myself a Catholic. (Though I didn't know it was so well thought of in the Catholic community.) I haven't read the entire text, only about half, but what I did read has left definite echoes and influences in my own thoughts. It would be interesting to go back now, after the intervening years, and see how my understandings and reactions have changed. But then - there are so many books to read! Sigh...

    It's not even that I do much magic or spellwork of my own - in part because I have a similar worry about my own lack of knowledge and skill in the matter - but I feel as though I can recognize it fairly well when I see it! Early on I went through a phase of very deliberately trying to distinguish prayer from magic (because the description of magic as "prayer with props" annoyed me)... but more and more, that distinction seems too hasty and unsubtle.

    This is why the on-going Christian-Pagan conversation fascinates me so much. (And why you and I need to get together and write that book. ;)

  3. Once again, our paths mirror each other in curious ways: I read MOTT twice as part of my journey from Paganism back into contemplative Christianity. Like you, I'm interested in seeing how I would relate to the book now, five years after the second read-through. But for me, it is more likely that I actually will read it, since it had such an impact on me.

    Re. writing: the ball is in your court. No hurries, mind you, but lob it back to me whenever you wish...

  4. Ali, T. told me back at his house, after the ceremony, that he had been chanting "in deep Irish," whatever that is, and "moved by the spirit," meaning intuitive and spontaneous, almost trance-like. At least that's how I interpreted that. I thought his chant had a Native American sound to it, too.

  5. Kevin - Thanks for the clarification! I do wonder what "deep Irish" means... Hmm... I find the overlap and relationship among the languages so fascinating. :)

  6. P.S. I added your comment in as a footnote, so other folks see it, too.

  7. When Ti. and I spoke with Te. expressing exactly what you and Kevin remarked he seemed genuinely surprised and simultaneously pleased. I find connections between our communities 'here and there' (and with my friends in the Philippines) and believe that there is a cosmic connection [perhaps related to that connected silence which is more than just a "planned" experience but a sustained way of being] which I would not want to universalize but nonetheless acknowledge and allow myself to be open to... Also, I wonder if there were a number of us uncomfortable with Ti's prayer? although I knew his intentions and try to trust in that. S.

  8. "a cosmic connection which I would not want to universalize but nonetheless acknowledge and allow myself to be open to"

    I think that's a very good way of putting it. There are certainly issues of cultural (mis)appropriation and respect for diversity that are constant struggles, especially within modern Paganism as I've experienced it. Allowing ourselves to be open to the similarities, coincidences and connections among cultures without trying to reduce them to a single universal "-ism" or One True Way is, I think, a very healthy and respectful approach.

    And I wanted to add - I wasn't so much uncomfortable with Ti.'s prayer as I was unsure about how to respect the boundaries of Christianity as a community without taking for granted my own participation in it... if that makes sense. I have faced a similar dilemma when it comes to participating in the Catholic communion when I attend Mass while visiting my parents. Although I was confirmed as a Catholic myself when I was young, and I have participated in communion before, I am also aware that the communion is understood as a holy sacrament that involves, on a kind of spiritual level, the affirmation of the Church community as the Body of Christ - and so I have come to feel that it would be a violation of the trust of those present for me to participate in communion when I do not really consider myself part of that "Body" anymore. (Carl did a really excellent post on the complexity of this issue last year: "Communion and the Broken Body.")

    So my reaction to participating in the healing and prayer session was in part borne of my own desire to respect the boundaries and wishes of everyone else, some of whom might not have been comfortable with the idea of me invoking Pagan deities. My solution was to ask Brigid for help in a more personal way, as I tried to engage with the energies being raised and directed, rather than to participate in a more public, communal way. Like I said - it was an incredibly interesting and in some ways strange experience. But I'm glad for that, and I hope Ti. doesn't feel awkward about his own role in that experience!

  9. I haven't talked to Ti about his thoughts so I'll have to get him to tune into the blog :-)
    In the meantime thanks for clarifying and for the article. As far as the "Body" goes my theology tends towards the sense that it's God's decision who is "in". So I respect each persons desire to discern this with God. (I don't even want to consider anyone would be out but that's another conversation) Much as I tend toward a cosmology such as evinced in Diarmuid O’Murchu and Thomas Berry I also must admit that to say that Christ as incarnated in Jesus is only one manifestation of God probably still sounds arrogant because of the language used and presumptions built in. I do not want to but probably cannot help offending others. However to say it also may clarify my own position at this point in my spiritual life. All these words are a desire on my part to have made the Christians (myself included) in the room more welcoming of alternative forms of worship/prayer/healing energy so you could have invoked Brigid out loud if you wished. Sadly I am not sure how to do that...but I wonder if it would have been C's choice to make if he had been presented with a choice? hmm this is complicated isn't it?

  10. Yes, it is certainly complicated! And of course, there was also the issue that I had just stepped out of the room to use the bathroom, and returned in the middle of things being negotiated and set up.... so I don't even know whose suggestion it was or what exactly it all entailed!

    Like I said, though, certainly don't fret - I am by nature a somewhat reserved person anyway, so the question of invocation out loud or to myself is at least partly to do with how shy I feel around groups. :) Even had I been surrounded by other Pagans invoking all sorts of other deities, I'm not sure I would have said anything!

    I would love to hear Ti.'s thoughts on all of this, too, so if you do get him to read, I hope he decides to share a comment or two.