The Celtic Way of Seeing: Meditations on the Irish Spirit Wheel
By Frank MacEowen
Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
As I hinted a few days ago, I’ve really rather wandered away from the world of Celtic wisdom since becoming so engrossed in ancient Christian mysticism, Benedictine spirituality, and the postmodern emerging church movement. Indeed, I hadn’t even read a Celtic-themed book in months, when I picked up Frank MacEowen’s latest book, The Celtic Way of Seeing. But I’m glad I did pick this one up; it gives me hope that there is still much that the non-sectarian representatives of Celtic spirituality can offer us. Indeed, MacEowen himself is a wonderful example of Celtic spirituality expressed in a trans-religious manner: he brings the mindfulness of a Buddhist and the nature-sensitivities of Native American wisdom to his exploration of Irish myth, and thankfully, this syncretistic mix pays off. As a lifetime student of indigenous wisdom and earth-based healing practices, MacEowen naturally gravitates to the Celtic seer tradition; in this book, he avoids spiritual trendiness by simply recounting a traditional story while providing rich, layered, reflective prose in which his reflections on the inner meaning of the old tale becomes an invitation for his readers to embark on a similar journey of inner discovery.
The tale in question is “The Settling of the Manor of Tara,” one of the quasi-historical tales from the fourth branch of Irish mythology. Set toward the end of the Pagan era (i.e., just before the coming of Christianity), it tells of how a dispute over the partitioning of the lands of Ireland was settled by appealing to Fintan, an ancient figure said to have lived since before Noah’s flood. Fintan was summoned to Tara and explained to the king and his court how the land of Ireland had been divided into five provinces, each with a set of spiritual associations: the east represented agriculture and prosperity; the south music and harmony; the west learning and ancestral wisdom, the north conflict and battle, while the sacred center integrated the four directional provinces under the aegis of sovereignty.
MacEowen takes this “spiritual geography” of Ireland and uses it to unpack a corresponding set of inner relationships. Inviting us to walk the “Irish Spirit Wheel,” he guides us from the center to each of the directions in turn, offering meditative insights into how the wisdom attached to each of the five provinces speaks to the universal needs and longings of the human soul. In other words, while the tale of Fintan and the particular directional associations may be Irish, the universal principles addressed transcend all cultures. Indeed, for me this book provided a simple insight into how Ken Wilber’s integral life practice could be understood in a Celtic way: Wilber advocates a four-part practice of meditation, study, physical training and psychotherapy/shadow-work as a strategy for cultivating evolutionary growth in consciousness. How easily this fits in to the Irish spiritual geography: physical training can be linked to the eastern realm of material prosperity; meditation to the harmonious promise of the south; cognitive development to the wisdom of the west, and therapeutic growth to the northern path of the warrior (whose greatest foe will always be his own shadow self). The quantum leap of consciousness that is called forth by such an integrated spiritual practice, of course, corresponds to the sovereignty of the center.
It’s not easy to write a popular-oriented book on Celtic spirituality these days. Publishing executives, following the general public’s confusion over how foreign the Celtic mysteries are to our consumer society, keep trying to pigeonhole this wisdom tradition into an easy-to-market category. Thankfully, MacEowen avoids the trap of trying to reduce the riches of the tradition into a handy label like “Celtic shamanism” or “Celtic magic” (although having said that, I do think that the phrase “Irish spirit wheel” smells suspiciously like a capitulation to the marketers. But since to my knowledge there’s no better alternative phrase in the Irish tradition for the book’s subject matter, it’s a peccadillo I’m willing to overlook). But worse than marketing labels is the drivel that all too often gets published in the name of Celtic wisdom (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, pick up one of the Merlyn books by Douglas Monroe the next time you visit a bookstore). Too much so-called Celtic spirituality is little more than metaphysical speculation which is given a “Celtic imprimatur” by the inclusion of a bit of Irish, Welsh, or Arthurian mythology. Thankfully, MacEowen’s brief book is entirely devoid of such psychic silliness. It’s authentic in its Irish source material and thoughtful in how it unpacks that material in the light of world spirituality and modern psychology. Because it is both nonsectarian and down to earth, it could appeal even to Christians and others who do not think of themselves as walking the Celtic path. Yet its authentic grounding in the Celtic tradition ought to make it a valuable book even for the latter-day druids among us.