Wow. My short little notice of John O’Donohue’s death keeps getting the hits, a week after his passing. Welcome to everyone who has found my blog through that posting, and I hope you’ll stick around.

Lately I’ve really been writing a lot more about Christian mysticism in general rather than Celtic Christianity in particular, which is a reflection not only of where I’ve been spiritually in recent months, but also the fact that I’m currently writing a book on Christian mysticism. But I am convinced that the uniquely Celtic expression of the Christian faith remains a vitally important source for healthy and creative spiritual wisdom.

In many ways, “Christian mysticism” and “Celtic Christianity” are at odds. Mysticism is grounded in the encounter between Christianity and Greek philosophy, particularly Neoplatonism. Celtic Christianity is grounded in the encounter between Christianity and indigenous Celtic wisdom: for lack of a better word, Druidism.

Neoplatonism is highly abstract and philosophical, otherworldly if not dualistic, and contemplative; ancient Druidism (as best we can tell from the limited and corrupt written records we have) by contrast was animistic, shamanic, deeply immersed in love for the natural world, and ecstatic. To use Greek categories as a simple way of distinguishing between the two: Neoplatonism is Apollonian, while Druidism is Dionysian. Think of the difference between Gregorian chant and a rip-snorting Irish jig, and you get the picture.

Ironically, the “greatest” mystic Ireland has ever produced is John Scotus Eriugena, who was condemned as a heretic for being too Neoplatonic. So I think we have to be wary of overstating the Neoplatonic/Celtic distinction. I for one love both Gregorian chant and Celtic folk music, and I think we have to remember that the earliest Celtic Christians were monastics who drew their inspiration from the desert fathers and mothers, just like the continental monastics did.

Ireland, Scotland, Wales or the other Celtic lands don’t have any equivalents to Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross, probably for political or cultural as much as spiritual reasons. But this is not to say that the Celtic world is bereft of mystics. George MacDonald, George MacLeod, as well as John O’Donohue all have at least some mystical tendencies in their writing. Meanwhile, Celtic folklore (such as that collected by Alexander Carmichael in the Carmina Gadelica) is heavy-laden with mystical sensibility.

Can we find a rapprochement between Greece and Glastonbury, between Athens and Anglesey? Is Christianity a viable nexus where two great European wisdom traditions can find unity, even if one is worldly and the other otherworldly, one cataphatic and the other apophatic, one Apollonian and the other Dionysian?

Stay tuned. For these are exactly the kinds of questions at which I’d like to chip away.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

    I look forward to reading you chipping away at this, Carl. It’s fascinating stuff.

  • zoecarnate

    Yeah, Carl. Popular consciousness (even semi-informed thinking like my own) tends to lump Celtic Christians and Contemplative Christians in the same corner, whether as an admirer (like myself) or a detractor. But even though there are points of commonality–that of ‘thin places’ and contemplative states of awareness–there are real differences as well. Do write more.