Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition
By Esther De Waal
Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999
Review by Carl McColman
I’m going to get a bit more personal in this review than I normally do when writing about books. Considering the subject matter — Celtic spirituality — it seems fitting, not only because Celtic wisdom has been so instrumental in my own spiritual life, but because the Celtic tradition honors intimacy and relatedness; in other words, it’s not really a tradition that puts much store in such qualities as “objectivity” or “neutrality.” To write authentically about the Celtic tradition requires being engaged with that tradition. Therefore, I can only review a book like this by sharing with my readers how it speaks to me in a personal and intimate way.
So; there’s a level on which I’m surprised that I’m reviewing this book at all. When I closed the door on my practice of neopagan Celtic spirituality in early 2005 and chose to embrace the Catholic faith, I found solace in directing my attention to riches outside of the “Celtic” world. I dove deep into the spirituality of the English and Spanish mystics, I explored Benedictine and Cistercian monasticism; I discovered a newfound interest in Greek/Eastern Orthodox theology, particularly the doctrine of deification. For a good two years, I basically ignored Celtic Christianity, probably because it was too painfully close to the Celtic paganism that I had consciously set aside.
But of course, the Celtic spirit flows in my veins. The soul-searching I did in the wake of my decision to seek the Catholic sacraments of Christian initiation led me to reaffirm the books I had written on Celtic spirituality: perhaps the old Irish and Welsh paganism no longer defined my path, but I could honor all that was good and true and beautiful within it even as a Catholic; and therefore I could remain proud of the books I had written, and in good conscience continue to recommend them to anyone interested in learning more about the old Celtic ways. In the dimensions of Catholicism that sung to me — particularly the wisdom of the Benedictine, Cistercian, Trappist lineage — I found a celebration of hospitality that echoes the Celtic commitment to hospitality, and that obviously was shaping my experience as a newfound Catholic. Unlike so many Christian converts who feel the need to demonize and renounce whatever they have left behind, I found instead that a spirit of hospitality, directly related to the blessings I had received from the Celtic wisdom tradition, not only enabled me to find peace in how I understood my own journey, but also enabled me to integrate what was truly nurturing about my pagan experience with the new adventure I had embraced by becoming a Catholic.
So I suppose it was only a matter of time before I would rediscover Celtic Christianity. I first developed an interest in the topic nearly twenty years ago when I was still an Episcopalian; at that time I read a few books on the Christian experience in the Celtic lands. Then I became a neopagan and dismissed the Celtic saints as little more than vestigial pagans in Christian dress. Now, finally, it seems I am ready to encounter Celtic Christianity from a position of seeking deep integrity: not only my own personal integration of Christian mysticism with the earth-positive blessings of Celtic wisdom, but a wider integrity in which I seek to find a deep reconciliation of the earth and the transcendent, the masculine and the feminine, the material and the spiritual. Celtic Christianity, it seems to me, can truly function as a postmodern laboratory where a deeply earth- and body-positive Christianity might be forged. I’m not trying to suggest that the ancient Celtic saints had this, only to lose it as Rome asserted more and more control over Ireland and the other Celtic lands. No, such a view would be overly romantic. Rather, I think we need to recognize that, just as postmodern Christianity in general is an emerging reality, so too a postmodern spirituality that emerges out of the Celtic tradition will be something radically new. In other words, I see the ancient Celts as providing an inspirational ground from which the Holy Spirit can inspire truly new and visionary expressions of Christianity, radically integral and unitive, to manifest.
Ok. Now, back to Every Earthly Blessing. Esther De Waal seems to be an ideal person to write about Celtic spirituality, because she is also the author of several books on the Benedictine and Cistercian heritage. In other words, she has clearly devoted herself to unpacking the treasures of the hospitality tradition within the church. Her writing is limpid, accessible, and gently poetic, and she uses her stylistic talent to great effect in this splendid introduction to Celtic Christianity. Indeed, in reading this, I felt not only that I was renewing an old acquaintance, but that I was discovering plenty of new information about that old friend at the same time. Introductory books on the Celtic tradition seem to fail, as I see it, by either providing too much or too little in the way of quotations from the writings of the Celtic saints; I think De Waal has found the ideal balance, quoting liberally from the ancient texts but also providing ample commentary of her own.
She covers all the bases, examining Celtic Christianity as a wisdom path of monastics and pilgrims, with a deep love of nature and a fervent devotion to the Gospel. While it’s clear that she adores the Celtic saints, I don’t believe she romanticizes them. For example, she writes frankly about their uncompromising and profoundly penitential rejection of sin — a topic that often gets little airtime in the polite, sanitized, psychotherapeutic world of contemporary mainstream-to-liberal Christian discourse. She makes the world of the Celtic saints appear attractive and appealing, which I suppose is the most important thing any introductory book on any topic should do. After finishing Every Earthly Blessing, I wanted to read more about the Celtic saints. Not bad for someone who once had written the topic off.
If you’re looking for an introductory survey of the Christian dimension of Celtic wisdom, this book is ideal. Read it with an open heart and you will likely fall in love with the Celts and their distinctive spirituality.