Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life Written by Kenneth McIntosh Anamchara Books, New York, 2012 Book Review Upon reading the title I was excited to embark upon Kenneth McIntosh’s latest book Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life. Two chapters “The Circle of Strength” and “The Gift of Imagination” are excellent. His chapters on community and the spirituality of arts are well written and add to the body of knowledge that already exists regarding Celtic spirituality. His presentation of the circle as the overarching uniting force throughout the three Abrahamic faiths is thoughtful and evidently has impacted how he leads a spiritual community. The chapter on art was lacking only in practical application—he could have added a page on mandalas. McIntosh’s adaptations of several ancient stories are well done and worth the time to read and enjoy. He had one story of Saint Brigid I had not read, which is exciting. Unfortunately, the overall writing has to be considered just above mediocre. I suspect a proficient editor would have helped him reorganize several of the chapters, which would have dramatically improved the quality of his book. He also should have provided footnotes for his work within the text. The first ten chapters read like lengthy sermons preached to an evangelical congregation who the preacher is trying to convince there is value in the Celtic Christian perspective. McIntosh works hard to construct arguments for the strength of Celtic spirituality and its implications in the post-modern world. He does an admirable job for eco-theology, was shallow on the mystical aspect of the thin place, and misses the mark on panentheism. He avoided any mention of the traits of universalism found within Celtic spirituality. McIntosh seems to think the pre-Christian Celtic peoples of the Isles were of one spiritual accord, evidence of tribal difference strongly suggest they were not. Then he draws a straight line from the various ancient faiths to an Evangelical understanding of Christianity. He makes this connection without mentioning the pre-Christian importance of The Hill of Tara, Newgrange, Knowth, and the stone circle at Lough Gur. He also avoids the crippling effect of The Synod of Whitby of 664 CE on the Celtic way of Christianity, which, to no surprise, nailed the final coffin in the excommunication of Pelagius and Erigena and their most healthy perspectives of Christianity. Celtic spirituality has been an infusion of 7,000 years of the human inhabitation of the ancient isle of the stones, mystical dark forests, natural holy wells, and illusive oracle animals. The ancient practices of the people of the Hill of Tara and Newgrange were syncretized into a primordial emergence of the people of the Way (early Christians) who had wondered onto the British Isles during the first century. Later, Augustine of Canterbury and Patrick made their way to these islands to find an infant Christian naturalism already in existence. Wisely Augustine of Canterbury, who McIntosh never mentions, and Patrick enfolded Christian practices into the lives of existent faith practices of 5,000 years. The Celts did not come to see the Christian light as McIntosh insists. Instead, the Celts who were baptized by their tribal kings, kept their religion, thereby influencing the creation spirituality already present in the Hebraic story. The major disappointment of this book was the chapter on pilgrimage. Giving only a few meager paragraphs to the pilgrimage of death misses the vital ethos of Celtic spirituality. If possible, before McIntosh writes another book on Celtic spirituality, he needs to walk across Ireland. I would commend this book to anyone who has a newfound interest in Celtic spirituality, especially if they are in or have recently left an Evangelical church. Otherwise, I would recommend one of the books McIntosh quotes by Philip Newell or someone he missed, Esther de Waal.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
59 is only a number, but 59 is a number, a marker, an indication of some thing, some moment, some time— as in 59 could be minutes before my wonderful son whom I love so much arrives with his blessed wife the mother of our holy grandchild. 59 could be the cost of something as in 59 cents (what really cost 59 cents, didn’t realize there’s not a cents symbol on my computer until I realized little of anything costs 59 cents, wait, really bad beer on sale, but you have to buy the whole six-pack, never mind, I only drink Guinness). 59 could be the weight of something, but my dog only weighs 20 pounds, a bit less than my holy grandson, trust me I don’t weigh 59 pounds. 59 could be the number my beloved and I have been together, but not yet—we have been friends for 50 years and lovers for 41, those are divine numbers. 59 is the number of years my dad has watched over me, cared for me and loved me. He told me so today, and that is the best gift I could imagine. That leads me to today—59 is the number of years I have been on this earth, 21,550 days. Yes, that is correct an even number of days when including 15 leap years. There’s an odd thought. What did I do with all those days? Don’t ask. Best not to think about it. I know I wasted too many of them. How do I feel about being 59? Not sure. I don’t mind being 59, it doesn’t bother me or make me feel old, I guess. My sister who has Prader-Willi Syndrome still called me to sing happy birthday. She calls me her bother—I tell myself this is because she can’t say brother, but there are times I wonder if she doesn’t mean I am actually her bother. My daughter called me to sing the happy birthday song version, “You look like a monkey and you smell like one too.” Did I shower this morning? Now this is a sign of being 59—asking a non-redundant question. I pray to God the question is not redundant and that I can remember what redundant means and that I did take a shower. Maybe I should go take one before the tricker-treaters arrive, just to be on the safe side. Ah yes, there is the small factor that I was born on All Hollows Eve, the feast day of Samhain, the day that almost cost my mother her life. My mother nearly bled to death giving me birth. I am intensely thankful she survived. And I am deeply sad she can’t call me today, though I may hear her voice before the day is over or see her in my dream tonight (I do so much hope so). I’m okay with the number 59. I know I don’t have 59 more years to live, maybe 30, maybe 20, maybe 20 minutes. The question is what I will do the next whatever I have to live, move, and have my being on Mother Earth. I’m working on it. Give me another 59 minutes, at least. Slainte.
Monday, September 24, 2012
Saturday was the Southern Equinox and I was hopeful for the sake of the seen, I could let pass such a day without notice. Not to be so. Since returning from a six-week pilgrimage in Ireland I have been asked way too times if I have “returned to normal,” or “settled in,” or “gotten back in my routine.” Truthfully, the return has been bumpy at best. I have come to realize return to the way “it was” is not very likely. The only undertaking to transpire is my negotiation of how I will now live in this world into which I have been unceremoniously re-thrown, a time and space now so foreign. The internal struggle has been painful. I have accepted the continuing transformational soul shaping work of taking a spiritual walk of 360 miles across the holy filled land of Erie. Walking alone, in near silence, in God’s cathedral of creation, the virgin dark forests, where creatures of the unseen walk and fly—all of this experience has opened my being to the Spirit of the divine in soul natures I could never have imagined. Soulshifting, I have discovered, is possible—anamorphoses, the transformation of the character of self, the being, the holistic nature of ideas, thoughts, behaviors, and imagination, my very spirit of spirituality, have relocated into some ancient yet futuristic habitation of…well…this my new and now rediscovered conscious/unconsciousness. How do I translate a new “third-eye seeing” into a world expecting to see ipictures and videos? This disturbance of my core essence was to be expected—every demon of limping hip be known and now freshly emerging so I might have a face to face in confrontation. Must I French kiss my old “friends” once again? Seems to be….ahhhhhhh! And now these old pains have been joined by some new legions. To be primordial at times is to admit humanity…therein is buried another haunting avoidance waiting to claw its way to the surface of expression in order to be encountered in the nightmare of the night. Joy oh joy! And so? He says with a more than annoying scratching felt beneath the flesh—enough to reach for, what—medication? Were it so easy, toying simply with the seen. No, this battle requires the warrior poet to make peace with the steel-wielding ego of the self. This soul has accepted the soulshifting. The hardest reality is in the necessity of smiling at others who need to know I have “returned to normal.” Sorry, not possible…but I will tell you for your comfort—all is well. Well enough I guess?
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Pilgrimage is a way of life, meaning the peregrine must be attentive to every possible subtle paradox of the walk. However, sometimes the juxtapositions are so obvious even the cosmically blind could “see” them. Attending Choral Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Dublin seemed the best way to bring a fitting conclusion to our forty-one days in Ireland. We were not disappointed. The beautifully restored Gothic cathedral of the Church of Ireland is a tribute to the majestic beauty of medieval worship space architecture. The worship was sublime. Angelic voices lifted sixteenth-century classical music in praise to God. The liturgy was straight from The Church of Ireland’s Book of Common Prayer (2004), a blend of traditional and contemporary prayers. Listening and participating in worship sitting in the Anglican gem of Ireland was a blissful worship experience. Receiving Eucharist in this holy preserve was a spiritually moving confirmation of God’s holiness found in Anglican sensitivities. After worship, well, we needed a late lunch—so we went to The Church for a pint and a meal. Built in 1700, the former Anglican St. Mary’s is now a postmodern restaurant. John Wesley preached his first Irish sermon there in 1741. Arthur Guinness was married at St. Mary’s 1761. (Yes, his beer is proudly drawn on tap at The Church.) And Handel regularly played the still intact organ at the Dublin parish no more than six blocks from Christ Church. The building, to this day, contains the entered remains of several famous parishioners. An exquisite bar right down “the center aisle” has replaced the ground floor church furniture. Comfortable pub furnishings seat customers were once pews boxes ushered the rich to the front. All I could think of during our excellent lunch was how cool it would be to invite young adults to meet me at The Church for Theology on Tap. My good friend Thad has been encouraging me to add a beer and conversation dialogue that does not include worship to our regular schedule. Our tag line is conversation not conversion. Maybe we could call our newest endeavor, “Philosophy on Tap” and make t-shirts with the slogan “Jesus drank Guinness,” on the front. Christ Church Cathedral had fewer people in worship than were having Sunday lunch at The Church. Sure, I wish all the houses of worship were packed on Sunday mornings, but that possibility died with the computer punch card. We don’t need to think outside the box, we need to be outside the box. Two years ago our daughter’s wedding was at Trinity Cathedral. Immediately after the wedding we had dinner in the church courtyard followed by the dance and party in the parish hall. More than a few of her young adult friends told me if church was like this they might consider attending. I’m not suggesting we turn Church Christ Cathedral, Trinity Cathedral, or any church into a pub. But we might start thinking of ways to make people feel as comfortable, at home, and welcomed as we did when we walked into The Church. I know we can do it—we’re a hospitable people and we like Guinness.
“If you tink about it, tousands of years ago, humans must have tought about the afterlife and here at Newgrange, we see the evidence of generations of tat tought,” said our brilliant young female Irish tour guide at the most well known burial site in the world. Newgrange is older than Stonehenge by at least five hundred years and protected by the United Nations for its worldwide historical significance. Two kilometers to the south stands Knowth, older still. The two temples were set aside for the cremains of clan leaders and holy men and women. Between the two sites are found thirty-three percent of the world’s Neolithic art. The artistic symbols were pecked into multi-ton stones that encircle the great burial mounds. Newgrange took over sixty years to construct. 5,000 years ago people floated ten-ton-stones down the Boyne River and then rolled them a mile and a half up hill. The people brought quartz, “The stone of the gods,” from the Wicklow Mountains fifty miles away to cover the eastern facing façade, reflecting the sunlight. They gathered perfectly rounded granite found twenty miles from the site. These people did not burrow into an already existing hill. Instead, they hauled the turf and rock from surrounding regions to construct their holy temple. Initially, from the ground up, they constructed the fifteen-foot high and twelve-foot interior cruciform shaped crypt. The burial room has not leaked one drop of water from its completion, an architectural feat rare in rare drenched Ireland. The crypt would eventually rest at the end of a thirty-foot low narrow, rock-lined path found under the 270,000-ton mound of layers of turf and rock. Newgrange’s light box sets the holy site apart as one of a kind. The opening of the tomb faces east. The light box was created to allow the rising sunlight of the winter solstice to cascade down the path and fill the western recess of the tomb with seventeen minutes of glory. This astrological moment only happens surrounding the six days of the shortest solstice. At our visit we were treated to a simulation. Entering the tomb in small groups the artificial light was turned off and we stood in absolute darkness for several minutes. Slowly, the “light of the rising sun” moved down the floor and up the recess to the crypt’s ceiling. For sure, a holy moment for the wise people of ancient’s past. For a postmodern people, this was a rare glimpse into an experience practiced 5,000 years ago, the ancient and the postmodern woven together as if millennia past were just yesterday. Who did the ancients worship? What was the meaning of their art? Why did they build these holy temples? Even experts only speculate. As I have walked across Ireland it has been a privilege to witness many glorious monuments of nature and man. Unfortunately, some of man’s testimonies to time and reverence are in penultimate decay. Ancient churches torched by Cromwell are overgrown with trees and shrubs. The Anglican Church of Ireland has more historic churches closed than open. The dying institution is not replacing the church communities and crumbling buildings. The only apparent reason the Church of Ireland can remain in practice is its vast land holdings. Though there is an obvious end to that resource because the Church continues to sell its property. Even the dominant Roman Catholic Church is in rapid decline in Ireland. Worldwide, Christian churches are, at varying rates, losing a grip on the hearts and minds of the people. We are living in the post-Christian era. Will tourist 5,000 years in the future visit Christian sites wondering what people of the past thought and why they practiced such a religion? Who can say? And what will it matter to us? If I dare purport to be a Christian, what is my responsibility to such a far away future? I do not know the answers to those mind numbing questions. I do know this, my experience is my experience and it is my reality. My experience of the divine and the ethereal continue to expand and build capacity. My soul is anamorphic. My heart is open to the cara in others. This I share as my experience of the God of the ancients and the God of the Present. This is all I can know and dare to share. It is enough, because this is all I have.
Saturday, August 18, 2012
Our time in Ireland is drawing to a close. I asked my spiritual director if there was some place he thought we would be interested in visiting on our trip from Clare in western Ireland to Dublin on the eastern coast. He suggested we visit the Hill of Tara, north of Dublin near the Newgrange burial mound. As we entered the holy grounds I was not prepared for what I would see and feel on this particular day. Mystical experiences arise to the attentive often unawares and without expectation. The Hill of Tara is one of the most important pre-Christian ceremonial sites known to man, older than Stonehenge. The 5,000 year-old ritual grounds are dominated by two raised ceremonial rings and a nearby burial mound. Pilgrims would travel days using the several spoke like roads leading to the hub of the revered site. Kings, clan leaders, holy men, and women gathered here at the hill offering an amazing 360-degree panoramic view spanning over fifty miles. Evidently, due to the historic eminence of the Hill of Tara in Neolithic worship, early Christians must have found the need to co-opt the site. A very large statue of St. Patrick stands outside the church grounds marking his legendary visit in the fifth century while the site was still in use by pre-Christians. The Anglican Church of Ireland conducts an annual worship service on March 17 in the now vacant parish. The three-century-old Christian cemetery is still in use today. I could not help but be reminded of my mother’s burial this past saint’s day. While Cathy was gathering some literature regarding the historical significance of the site, I was standing outside the church door breathing in the misty air. Shockingly, the name of a nearby headstone grabbed at my heart. My mother’s mother’s name was Allie Pauline Kellett. There on a nearby headstone was the family name. I have been to Ireland four times and visited hundreds of churches and graves and have yet to see the family name. There was the grave marker, including reference to the Irish form of the name, Gillett. I searched the site and found one other such marker. I have no idea if we are related, but it was simply stunning to see the name. Then we climbed the hill behind the church and walked the ancient ceremonial site. We could feel the waves and hear the voice of ancient rituals blowing over us. Standing atop the center of the grassy ritual platform, it was easy to imagine hundreds of people sprawling along the three rings carved like an amphitheater around the prominent mound elevation. Returning to the church I saw a standing stone, bearing an etching of the Sheila-na-gig, fifteen feet from the Kellett grave. Earlier, I was so caught up in the family headstone I had not noticed the four-foot standing stone. Gazing at the grave marker, I put my hand on the standing stone. Immediately, dozens of ravens swarmed the air. The centuries old majestic tree looming over the Kellett marker and the standing stone is a rookery. The deafening arrival of so many ravens at just that moment filled my very being with a spiritual emotion I had not felt before this day. The feeling was like being rooted, grounded, and deeply woven into the fabric of time. The confluence the most ancient standing stone of the Hill of Tara, St. Patrick’s Day and its significance in my life, the Anglican Church, my mother’s family name, and the raven, powerfully and positively overwhelmed my soul. Mystical moments do not happen because we will them into existence. They appear on the horizon of our lives because we are open to the possibility of the divine in a fresh and creative explosion of neo-reality into our soul lives—the anamorphic soul being shaped shifted into true cara.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
The ancient is commonplace across the Irish landscape. Children play in castles decaying in the backyard. Churches long ago torched by Cromwell stand on the village hill still receiving the dead. Tiny dwellings of rock piled together 500 years past, thatched roofs long ago fell to rot, now resting vacant by the road near the farm house of the Celtic Tiger. The ancient and the postmodern intertwined as if 5,000 years ago were yesterday. Our visit to Lough Gur was like a tourist in the jaunty car, observing today’s vision while riding the mode of yesterday. Standing among the Stone Circle at Grange erected over 4,000 years ago by souls seeking to connect to the gods of harvest and impending winter, affords a feeling of being in the midst of a unifying ache existing timeless in the human psyche. The longing to know the presence of God calls us all to our rituals. To ignore the Presence is to deny the existence of the circle of 113 stones standing eight feet above the floor and as well to ignore the houses we worship in our time. Indeed, man has built the cathedrals of time, yet still it is the inner instinct calling us to seek the face beyond the veil of the seen that beckons us to construct our palaces of worship. To touch the stones of the ancients is to be in tune with the vibration of the people who called upon Crom Dubh of the harvest (mid-summer solstice of August 1) and Samhain god of the winter night and all souls (November 1). What rituals these ancient Celtic people practiced are left to speculation and imagination. The standing stones, circle stones, wedge tombs, and burial mounds each visited are testimony to the worship of the Creator God, the force of the Sun dominating all washed in its life giving rays. In Ireland, the sun is still worshipped in some sorts. Cloudy, rainy, windy days fill the calendar, but let the sun’s summer warmth appear and observe the people parade out of their homes and shops to the beach and the park, wearing vestments of shorts, tank tops and swimming costumes. A modest people abandon their propriety to bathe in the rare life giving warmth of Father Sky. Consciously or otherwise, we worship what sustains us. The ancients looked to the sky and we join them still searching for the beyond. Even the atheist gives ascent to his own presumed existential omniscience, a kind of self-being “above the misguided.” Admittedly, although I am more comfortable on a miserable day of Samhain’s dark, cold, and rain, a little dawn sunlight among the clouds heartens my morning practice. Even if begrudgingly, in my case, we give some nod in acknowledgement of the god of light, or God of Light if you prefer. So, what is the attraction to these holy pre-Christian sites? What is the draw to these living stones, historical, archeological, curiosity, or odd marvel? Places have presence. Stones, while holding silence, are a keeper of memory. Holy stones are monuments to the thoughts and ideals of the humans who gathered them. These simple porous rocks retain the sweat of those who carefully with great planning moved them into the exact place they remain. The stones begin to take on divinity in the incarnation with the oil of human hands. In formation, the standing carrick is an altar of the spattering of blood, eat my body and drink my blood. Divination moves across the eons of human cries for recognition from the one of Oneness. The spiritually longing soul desires a union no different today than yesteryear. Recognizing now, my pilgrimage began at birth. The raven seen and the inner Raven of another world of imaginative contemplation have often guided this recent walk of Way markers. The Raven has been present each day of the walk, in flight nearby, casting shadow overhead, acknowledging a correct choice of path, leaving feathers as tokens, I have not walked alone. Even the specter of the majestic Ram was accompanied by a conversation with the old wise Raven of the woods. Here now, in the Circle of Stones, I am offered one more gift, the most beautiful perfectly curved onyx wisp of natures artistry from Raven’s quill. Do I know such as its meaning for this moment in life? I am not so presumptuous a postmodern seeker. The time of the ancient God may tease out the revelation, or not. I can only wait, like a stone in testimony to what I have experienced and observed.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Pilgrimage of tearful softened heart lures us three to this lonely seaside graveyard. Bog’s oak standing guard over the Bard’s tomb, his soul’s currack floating on bowl bent clouds hovering the blue still sea of Fanore Burren. Ravens in the rookery give announcement. Cows in abandonment moan in mourner’s wailing. Indeed this grave here rests Ireland’s too young lost voice— of spirituality he mystically found birthed in the Connemara primordial landscape eons steeped into the life of the rustic Gaelic being. Ancient church torched of Cromwell’s hell still in defiance sings spectral Mass from choirs of plots marked only by heaven’s rough stones, lying near the artist of the soul weaver of words, who offers his blessing to the sweet liturgy. Harp need pulled to hear not this day, for wispy breeze through sun shocked fields of glistening limestone give angelic muse to the Bard’s lusciousness. He who is nestled in the bosom of Mother Earth’s deepened green bed, he of the virgin soul of gods knew first favored love, did know of visions verse we can only ached to glimpse. Our grief is burdened from his silent voice—we too stare death’s fetching….reminding us all we are mere dust; save for the song filled day our heart leapt in hope filled rhythm fluttered by the Bard’s dream, for that day we too would feel the veil thin in which we sojourn.