One of the greatest teachers in the Celtic world, John Scotus Eriugena in ninth-century Ireland, taught that Christ is our memory. In Christ we remember how we are designed to be in relationship with the cosmos, humanity and the more than human world. However, we suffer from the “soul’s forgetfulness,” he says as our anthropocentric religions hierarchical structure push to the side our communion with creation.
Christ then comes to reawaken us to our true nature, how we are meant to be, a meant-for-ness that is interconnected with the more-than-human world.
This deep remembering brings us back into an integral relationship with the whole assembly of the natural world.
This past January, I went to Healdsburg, California to the sun-soaked, grape-growing soils of Bishop's Ranch to learn from theologian, author, and Celtic scholar John Philip Newell in the context of his newly forming School of Celtic Consciousness. While I have studied and practiced in the Celtic way for over twenty years, learning directly from this prophetic voice caused even deeper parts of my soul to awaken to the profound truth this tradition carries.
The vision of the Celtic School of Consciousness is three-part and interrelated. There is an intentional direction to seek the sacred wisdom that comes through the Celtic spirituality stream. The hope is to provide relational access to this stream through collective spiritual practices that remind us of our interconnectedness through interfaith relationship and dialogue. Lastly, the vision of the school meets its mission in how its working to translate the rediscovered wisdom and spiritual practice within this Celtic tradition into compassionate and meaningful action. The vision and mission for this school makes it extremely exciting and relevant for our current times.
I talk often about an eco-centered spirituality, and our need to move away from Western informed theologies and doctrines that are ego-centric, ways that maintain a separate and self-focused understanding of the divine presence. My experience of John Philip's teachings, and the Celtic spiritual tradition as a whole, is the inherent understanding of our interrelated being. There is sacredness within all of nature, including human nature; and to perpetuate mindsets that affirm otherwise will continue the degradation that we are seeing globally on this planet. In his book, The Sacred Universe, theologian and cosmologist, Thomas Berry writes that we must aim at
“overcoming our human and religious alienation from the larger, more comprehensive sacred community of the natural world...Our challenge is to move from a purely human-oriented or personal-salvation focus in our religious concerns to one that embraces the universe in all its forms. This will require an immense shift in orientation.”
The gift of the Celtic Christian spiritual stream is that of its broad and inclusive embrace of the whole and its ability to shift one's orientation to include that of the integral and sacred subjectivity of everything in creation.
By understanding an inspirited natural world, we move into the categories of resistance. The wisdom within this way of seeing demands a way of presencing ourselves on this planet that is in solidarity with the other. When we move into a role of solidarity with the other, we move in opposition to those that would power-over, in a word, we move in resistance against Empire. It was very interesting to be reminded of how the Celtic Mission was born on the wild-edges of Empire and grew its distinctive characteristics in response to the Roman Empire's power-overing posture. The Celtic way still invites this contrary opposition today in that the more we identify with the more-than-human world, the more we understand that Divine Presence is here, surrounding us and within us, the more likely we will resist political policies that see the wild as a resource to dominate.
The Celtic way emerged on the edges of the 5th century; however, its value doesn't stay in the past. A modern Celtic prophet whose life had profound impact on the body politic as well as shifting awareness to our need for the more than human world was John Muir (1838-1914), the Scottish-born, American naturalist whose writings and advocacy led to the preservation of Yosemite and other national parks, and, through his founding of the Sierra Club, helped ignite the modern environmental movement. Muir understood that when we are solely engaged in human relationships without emersion in the natural world, we lose the right relationship with nature. This understanding expanded beyond a proper accord with the outside world, but understood that this affair was needed to properly understand God. Muir's Celtic consciousness inherently understood this interrelationship that was articulated by Eriugena,
"Christ wears "two shoes" in the world: Scripture and nature. Both are necessary to understand the Lord, and at no stage can creation be seen as a separation of things from God."
I love Muir's iteration of this truth, "The universe is a Bible that will one day be read by all." The whole of the natural world is a sacred script that we must remember to read and listen to again. This "Wildness is a necessity," stated Muir, for a deeper kind of knowing.
This was the kind of truth that I had been personally engaged with for years. I have been involved in a decades-long forest restoration project that fundamentally believed in making the urban wild more accessible to increase the potential of exposure and experience with wonder and awe. However; in spite of this stewardship work, and recent encounters and engagements with Native indigenous elders, a question began to gnaw at the edges of my work. Could I, one who has benefited from the supremacy of her settler heritage, truly read the text of my natural surroundings; could I hear the Spirit of Place? Through the wisdom of the Celtic tradition, could I gain access to the sacred presence that was imminent in the lands where I made my home?
I was able to have lunch with John Philip where I could ask him this question, truly hoping for a way to emerge through the rugged and murky soul-terrain this question had brought me. He said,
"We each have access to the world soul, to the heartbeat of the sacred within the earth, to this subterranean stream of God. That doesn’t disregard the particular stream of how indigenous cultures have translated that voice in particular places. It does invite us to do the work of learning how to listen."
The Celtic way doesn't provide a way through; it provides a way to the spirit of a place. It provides the insight into understanding an inspirited natural world, and then it demands that in this remembered relationship of solidarity, we speak truth to the powers that would subdue and dominate it. This demands that we, that I, acknowledged my Whiteness, my complicity with Empire, and the ways that I turned a blind-eye to when an other was objectified into a resource serving solely Power's ends.
The way into Celtic Consciousness is an invitation to a journey that will take one to high and sacred wild places, but also will require interfaith relationships, including those with the land, so that together we can work towards compassionate activism on behalf of the other and a flourishing future.
These are pictures I took of stained glass windows with the Chapel of St. George. Created by glass artist Irmi Steding, the windows follow the theme of the song-prayer of St. Francis, the Canticle of the Sun.