I am sad to learn of the death of Isaac Bonewits yesterday, of cancer, at the age of 60. Isaac was probably the single most influential American in the revival of pagan druidism over the last forty years. He was the founder of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, the druid organization of which I was a member for several years. ADF had a sweeping vision not only for the revival of Celtic paganism, but indeed all of Indo-European paganism, and stressed sound scholarship, accountability, public worship, and democratically chosen leadership — all qualities that are hardly ubiquitous in the neopagan world. Isaac also wrote a number of books, the most famous being Real Magic, and was prominently featured in Margot Adler’s ground-breaking 1979 study of neopaganism, Drawing Down the Moon. He also appeared, briefly, in Robert Anton Wilson’s counterculture classic, The Cosmic Trigger.
I only met Isaac once, at a pagan gathering outside of Nashville some seven or eight years ago, shortly before I abandoned neopaganism to return to Christianity. But he and I also traded a few emails over the years, on topics ranging from Pagan-Christian relations to promoting each other’s books. I always enjoyed his writing, even when I disagreed with him: he had a confident, honest voice, sometimes biting in his satire and unrelenting in his criticism, but always imbued with a deep love for the earth, for the old gods and goddesses, and for his vision of an ecofeminist future.
Isaac was a true polytheist, and rejected monotheism as philosophically absurd. Ironically, it was reading about his beliefs in his book Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach that helped me to realize that I was a monotheist who found polytheism to be absurd! So, while this may not have pleased him on one level (but on another level it probably would have, since I have the sense that he would have encouraged everyone to follow their own conscience), he, through his writings, played a role in my return to Christianity.
Isaac and I first corresponded in early 1997, when I asked him to endorse my first book, Spirituality. He didn’t do so — I imagine it was too Christian for him, as this was written before I left the Episcopal Church. But when he found pagan-friendly writings on my old “House of Breathings” website, hosted at www.anamchara.com from 1996-2003, he very kindly posted a link to my website on his own, much more highly visited, website, and that link remained up for a number of years. Here is what he wrote (remember, he is describing me — and my work — circa 1998):
Anamchara is Carl McColman’s beautiful and interesting website about his and other’s approaches to a Neochristian-Neopagan-Neobuddhist-Neoceltic synthesis of spiritual pathways, and includes photos and text on Medieval British mystics, sacred sites, and The Images Project, an online magazine dedicated to exploring the spiritual implications of the Internet itself.
He went on to quote from the definition of anamchara I had posted on my site at the time:
“The roots of the anamchara — in the religious life of the pre-Christian Druids — makes this figure meaningful in our search today for creative and positive dialogue between Christians and members of other faiths, including contemporary Neopagans. The soul friend (anamchara) is a Christian figure with pre-Christian roots. A talented spiritual director understands that we live in a pluralistic world, and that interfaith encounters are normal and need to be approached positively, honestly, and with a spirit of openness and non-defensiveness. The spirituality of the anamchara is a spirituality deeply rooted in a specific mystical tradition, but with an attitude of good-will and openness toward other traditions.”
Isaac’s final comment about me and my work:
This kind of heretic we should encourage!
Coming from him, this was high praise indeed.
Of course, when I returned to Christian practice beginning in late 2004, the rationale for continued contact between me and Isaac faded away. I last heard from him in 2006, when he had his publisher send me a review copy of Bonewits’ Essential Guide to Druidism. But by then I was fully immersed in Catholicism and in discerning whether I had a vocation to the life of a Cistercian lay associate, and so I was pretty much out of the business of reviewing pagan books. I posted a brief blurb about the book when someone asked me to provide a list of the best books on druidism, but that was about all I did to promote it.
Still, as social networking rolled around, Isaac and I became Facebook friends (of course, he had thousands), and every now and then it was fun to check in on him, much like I check in on old high school buddies with whom I haven’t spoken in years but I nevertheless enjoy seeing on that site. And so it was sobering to learn that Isaac had cancer, although his posts were largely upbeat until recently. And then, a few days ago word was out that he only had hours to live. And yesterday morning he was gone. He would have been 61 in October.
So I prayed, to the Christian Trinity, for a peaceful death for a man whose life was dedicated to reviving a spiritual path that had been attacked and oppressed by Christians centuries ago. I hope, and trust, that he wouldn’t mind. After all, I still believe that “we live in a pluralistic world, and that interfaith encounters are normal and need to be approached positively, honestly, and with a spirit of openness and non-defensiveness.” And Isaac, apparently, agreed with me.
Rest in peace, druid scholar. May you find all you seek in Brigid’s embrace.