Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life
Written by Kenneth McIntosh
Anamchara Books, New York, 2012
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.
Priest, pilgrim, writer, alchemist—living into the mystery, the knowledge, and the practice of sacred alchemy. I've walked across Ireland, almost 400 miles of mountains, valleys, forests, and magic. The pilgrimage was a mirror of my life's journey, coach, president, priest. Traveler of the life's struggles—from failure to re-imagination—still walking.