Life is not so cruel that it leaves us without guidance. Consider the air we breathe. It is exactly 21% oxygen. Not 19% in which we would suffocate; not 25% in which everything would become flammable. Life itself maintains 21% oxygen in our atmosphere.
So too with our inner life. Life does not leave us without resources and guidance. One of the main forms of assistance comes in the form of ancient spirituality such as that practiced by Celtic Peoples prior to the Romanisation in the 5th Century.
The Roman Church came under the standard of Mary (a figure familiar to those who revered an earth Mother) who they seem to have just as quickly forgotten when the conquest was complete: At Tara at that fateful hour/ (Patrick) place all heaven with its Power/ and the snow with its whiteness/and the cliffs with their steepness/ the rocks with their hardness....
Patrick cheated you see. He invoked these images for what we might term "political spin". As soon as the serpent (ancient container of earth knowledge as in Hippocratic Standard, the Caduceus) was banished (i.e. old knowledge of Matrona and sky god) the Roman Church resorted to unilateral control starting with a quick official relegation of Mary, to merely a Blessed. Rome forgot about the grass with its sweetness; the thighs with their mystery; and did what Rome did, develop strictly controlled celibate monasteries which gave us the Book Of Kells.
In this essay I wish to explore in simple terms the basis of Celtic practice. It is rising in consciousness because we have need of it. (Those familiar with, for instance Bréhon Law will understand that the topic could become very arcane and difficult and while I wish to take pains in being scholarly and accurate I do want to use simple language).
First and foremost the Celts lived within a Matristic organisation. This means that the Feminine principle was viewed as central to all life as all life emerges from the Feminine. This is not to say it was Matriarchal although certain inheritances were indeed passed through the female lineage. So in Celtic life the Feminine principle was cherished and honoured as the font of life. This aspect is shown more generally in early European cultures by the use of red ochre around domicile entrances.
One important aspect of this principle is that it is reciprocal, a feature grossly lacking in today’s Corporatised world where most transactions are unilateral. Also this principle is based on nourishment and care, features again not apparent in today’s culture wherein large and complex eco-systems are "Man – aged" not "Nourished or Cared For".
A second understanding was the acceptance of rebirth or reincarnation. Rome was to discover the implications of this belief firstly, when Gallic forces occupied the outskirts of Rome for some seven months (c 390 BCE according to Livy or 386/87 according to Polybius). In various clashes the Romans discovered that Celts were not afraid to die. Then after the year AD the early Christians, who also believed in re-incarnation, proved a thorn to the Romans who could not instill obedience by punishment. Rome was taken aback by the willingness of early Christians to become martyrs. This practice was removed in the 3rd century by Constantine.
Celtic Spirituality recognised the Cycle of Nature. Thus a full moon was balanced by no moon; summer’s warmth by winter’s coolness; life by death. (This point about understanding unity as distinct from polarity is also made here).
Thus the four elements were in continual cycle. Air, Earth, Water and Fire. Sunrise, Sunset, Noon and Midnight. Samhain, Beltinne, Lughnasadh and Imbolc. So we see in a 9th century manuscript, "I have walked through the Samhain fire, I have stood in the wind on the mountaintop, I have dwelt in the dark places of the Earth, and sailed upon the western Sea." Also we see it in a Scottish Prayer of thanksgiving, "I praise God who gave me Seven senses made of the Four Elements to guide me in the world: Instinct, Feeling, Speech, Taste, Sight, Smell and Hearing". And also in the great invocation, "Fire of the Heart, Water of Life, Air of the Senses, Earth of the Bone, Give us strength."
What then was the goal of Celtic Spirituality? It was to become free of the need to be reborn (reincarnated). And how was this achieved? By developing unity, or non resistance, with the elements of nature. This is a grand insight because today we recognise that we actually are already dwelling in Unity Consciousness but are held back by our own resistance. Also it is no different from the message of human ecology that we are structurally linked to, and inseparable from, our environment.
(This resistance, by the way, is what Buddhists would name as becoming attached, or clinging to not just materialism but also to pride, self aggrandisement, greed and a false identification of who we actually are.)
The history of the early settlement of Eire is well documented elsewhere (Leabhar Gabhaea – The Book Of Invasions) but what I wish to draw attention to here comes from the misty early dreaming time when Bith after being refused a place in Noah’s Ark (he was a son of Noah not mentioned in the Bible) set sail with Ladrak and Fintan along with 51 women. After seven years of sailing they reached Eire but after dividing the land and the women, all were destroyed by the Flood with the exception of Fintan. He survived for over 5,000 years by learning to shape shift into a Salmon, an Eagle and a Hawk. He gained enormous knowledge which he passed on to those who came 300 years after Bith.
In the second arrival, Patholon (a distant relative of Fintan)
a descendent of Noah’s son, Japheth, the traditional ancestor
of Europeans, arrived in Eire with 24 couples. Alas for him a
plague killed all the descendents with the exception of Tuan who
was left to wander Eire for over 20 years. He grew old but learned
to shape shift into a Stag, a Boar, an Eagle and finally a Salmon
(ancient symbol of Christ consciousness).
In the fourth Invasion (the third does not concern us here) the Children of the Earth Goddess, Danu, arrived from the "Northern Isles". The source of the Tuath de Danaan in the ‘Northern Isles’ is important because from these Isles the Tuath brought the great gifts of the Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil) from Falias; the Invincible Sword from Gorias; the magic Spear from Finias and the Unemptying Cauldron from Murias (like Australia’s magic pudding the Cauldron would feed whoever was present). Also they were semi godlike beings who carried the Celtic gifts of Music and Craft (see e.g. gold filigree work from La Táine Period).
In the final Invasion (this was well before the Invasion of the Normans after 1066 and the Tudors under Cromwell) the Milesians (sons of Mil) fought the Tuath at the Battle of Moytraya and the outcome was that the Milesians (modern Irish) would rule the Visible World and the Tuath the Invisible World. Today we might say the world of consensus reality and the world of non-consensus reality (the Nagual of don Juan in Castenada’s novels). Thus from the outset of modern Ireland there was an understanding of non-consensus reality, a matter only now being investigated by western psychology.
The purpose of relating these little bits of pre-history is to draw attention to the themes of shape-shifting and knowledge of the world gained over thousands of years.
Thus Celtic Spirituality was imbued with a deep understanding of the forces of nature, the elements. It is those same forces to which we now have to learn non resistance in order to escape the inevitable outcome if our consumption and production, in short our way of being on the earth, fail to change.
This sounds all very well and good but what does it mean in practical terms. How do you and I learn non resistance to the Elements? Our lives in modern cities, governed by human constructs (laws, customs and materialism), are so cut off from the Elements. When it is hot we can turn on air conditioning. When it is cold we can switch on a heater. When events are threatened by rain we can cover a stadium with a moveable roof. When we are hungry we can go to the supermarket. So how can we find a practical way to open up to the Elements?
We may return to the major themes of this site, those of inter-connectivity and non separation. Imagine the following conversation:
"But I'm a separate being ... look! I am over here, quite apart from you."
"Oh ok, perhaps you can go without inhaling or exhaling for the next 10 minutes?"
"I can't do that, I have to keep breathing."
"So you're not separate from the air then?"
"Well, no. But I'm separate from water, look my body is solid, nothing like water."
"So how long do you imagine you can last without drinking water?"
"Hmm maybe a few days. Yes, now you remind me I've read that the body's cells are 75% water."
"You're not separate from water then?"
"No I guess not. But I'm separate from the earth, I mean I walk on it and can remove myself by flying in a plane."
"Do you mean you can survive without eating things which have come directly out of the earth, like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and trace elements and minerals?"
"I guess not, I have to eat don't I? So I'm not separate from the earth."
We might further reflect on the fact that the same twenty eight salts in the ocean are also the tissue salts in our bloodstream. All of these are so obvious and constant that it is easy to become unaware so, as a start, we only need to do the work of raising awareness about this direct and physical interdependence with the elements.
As the collective gradually changes to embrace the reality of non separation so mankind may gain respect for the large and complex eco-systems which he currently takes for granted and assumes the right to unilaterally exploit. At present not one of the great rivers you learned about in primary school is free from major pollution. And few seem to be aware that less than 3% of the earth’s fresh water is available for our human consumption. As the collective expands consciousness this situation can be reversed. Likewise with fish stocks which have been wantonly run down; forests which have been, often needlessly, raised and atmosphere which may be carrying too much carbon and greenhouse gases. If humankind is to avoid war over water, limited oil stocks and fresh food then we collectively need an urgent shift in consciousness.
While as individuals there is a limit to what can be done about the big issues of these critical times there exists a constant invitation to becoming conscious, or to wake up. I remember our struggle as students of Zen when the Abbot would come out and say. ‘Oh what a beautiful day!" We struggled because sometimes the day was grey, overcast, cold, rainy, stormy, or bleak, so we wondered how our teacher could say this was such a beautiful day. After much hard work we slowly came to realise that everyday is beautiful when one remembers the invitation of Life. For then even on the most dark of days there is still our life, our consciousness. So we came to also see that everyday is beautiful because we are alive and able to open to consciousness. In this way of being the circumstances of one's life are no longer so important (or oppressive) so in many ways being become easier.
Ancient Celtic spirituality gave a clear guide to escaping the cycle of rebirth. It is to harmonise with and cease to resist what is already reality expressed as the elements of nature. It is fitting that we rediscover this deep understanding and an emergent human ecology is a fitting means to practice. Through this we may indeed make our earth home life secure and safe.
Now I leave you with an ancient Celtic prayer which translates as:
"May the All be with us,
May the All comfort us,
May the All be with us, Now and forever.
Help us in our work,
Guide us in our dreams,
Keep us safe In times of danger".
Peace be with you.
Yours in the glory of our lives."