It takes a great darkness to produce a great light; and Europe slid into a great darkness beginning around 500 AD. Eventually, the Renaissance – beginning around the 14th century – led to the re-flowering of culture and science; and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century challenged the despotic hypocrisy of the Vatican hegemony. But both the “Dark Ages” and Puritanical Protestantism had large shadow sides. Celtic spirituality provided the remedy for both of these dips into darkness.
After the fall of Rome and the end of the “Pax Romana”, European culture fell into an economic and intellectual decline. The study of History and Literature also suffered. And then came the Celtic monks from Ireland.
Again, when an over-zealous Puritanical Protestantism sucked all the joy and spontaneity out of spirituality, the Irish Celtic Church became the living archives of a brighter and happier cosmology.
There were three special areas in which these archives proved vital: Mariology, Monasticism and Mysticism.
The Celts had taken very easily to the veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was the quintessential goddess, the feminine face of the Divine, the archetype, par excellence, of Mother Nature – conceiver, carrier, birth-er and nurturer of Life.
“The Infancy Gospel of James” is a Gnostic text of the early 2nd century, in which Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the central character. It tells of her own miraculous conception by Anna, her mother; of her “internship” in the Jerusalem Temple from childhood to puberty; of her being assigned to the protection of the old man Joseph; of her own miraculous conception of Jesus; and of her perpetual virginity.
This gospel was translated, early on, into many languages including Irish! As a child, I never heard any priest mention this gospel in a homily, nor did I even know of its existence during eight years of seminary training, yet I regularly heard my great-grandmother, who lived until I was almost ten years old, tell these stories. They continued to exist in the “underground” oral Celtic spirituality of my boyhood. I was in my 50’s before I read this gospel and realized that my own great-grandmother had been a living branch of this ancient vine.
By the 9th and 10th centuries, Christianity had become so dour and fear-filled that even Jesus had been reduced to a terrible judge – of baleful visage – who separated the sheep from the goats and sent the latter into the bowels of hell to be tortured by Satan and his merry pranksters for all of E-T-E-R-N-I-T-Y. God the Father had long ago been turned into a Distant Demanding Deity, but now even Jesus had become a merciless monster.
So, European Christians, under the influence of the Celts, did the sensible thing – they turned to Mary, the compassionate, loving, forgiving, and understanding Mother. The Rosary – a concatenation of mantras told on beads, while meditating on great events in the life of Mary – became the refuge of the little people. One hundred and fifty “Hail Mary’s” counted off on the beads accompanied the monks who, in Gregorian Chant, sang the 150 psalms; Mary, mysticism and monasticism side by side.
The great cathedrals of Europe were built towards the end of this period and dedicated to Mary. Many were erected on “Thin Places” that had been sacred to the earth goddesses in pre-Christian times.
In spite of Jesus and behind the Father’s back, Mary was smuggling souls into heaven. And so we sang her praises in Marian hymnologies that brazenly told of her role in salvation history. In a great Irish hymn that I learned as a child, one verse says,
Is maith an bhean í Muire Mhór,
mathair árd-rí na slua síor;
bean is díon do ar gach cath,
bean le gcoisctear fearg an rí.
(She is a good woman, Mary the Great
the mother of the high king of the eternal hosts;
the woman who is a roof over me in all battles,
the woman who protects me from the anger of the king.)
And the angry king is Jesus!
When the Protestant Reformation accused Roman Catholicism of idolatry because of its devotion to Mary, it backed its own spirituality Quixotically into patriarchal quicksand. And the Celts of Ireland, once again, protected Mary, even as she protected them.
St. Anthony, an Egyptian born in 251 AD, was the father of Christian monasticism. He sought out a remote place in order to devote himself completely to the contemplation of God. It must have been a really healthy lifestyle because he lived to be 105 years of age. The idea caught fire and soon he was followed by other would-be hermits who became known collectively as the “Desert Fathers and Mothers.” That was the first phase of Christian monasticism.
St. Pachomius was born in 292 AD, and he advocated a variation of the remote hermit, in which these silent ones – living semi-isolated lives, Monday through Friday – would come together each Saturday and Sunday for religious ceremonies. This may have been tougher on the health because Pachomius died at age 56.
The third phase was initiated by St. Benedict, born in 480 AD. He created full-time, communities that lived silent lives (only using their voices to sing God’s praises) around the axis of prayer, study and manual labor. They were totally self-sufficient, building their own monasteries, making their own furniture, sewing their own clothes, growing their own food and medically treating their ill.
All three kinds of monasticism were found in the Irish Celtic Church. As I mentioned in the second essay in this series, I believe there is incontrovertible evidence that the Celtic Catholic Church was founded by some of these Desert Fathers and Mothers who thought Egypt too crowded for the hermit’s life and escaped across the Mediterranean, out through the straits of Gibraltar and up the west coast of Europe, landing in (a then very heavily forested) Ireland. This “Pereginatio pro Dei Amore” (Journey for the Love of God) was taken to extremes by the Celts who loved nothing better than confronting death and laughing at it.
From the 6th to the 13th centuries a band of monks (12 at any one time) lived on Sceilig Mhichíl, a craggy island lying seven miles west of the Dingle Peninsula. It looks like a broken tooth, with two roots jutting into the air – the highest one reaches 715 feet. A monastery consisting of small cells clung to the cliff face, and the monks dined elegantly on seagulls’ eggs and fish; drinking rainwater trapped in a simple canal system.
In the 13th century, however, European weather deteriorated significantly – colder and stormier – and those hardy souls were forced to abandon it and move their monastery to the mainland. Sceilig would remain unoccupied until the 1970’s when my own father, Paddy O’Leary, an archeologist, became the first person, in 700 years, to live on it. He spent several months there, having food supplies delivered once a month – weather permitting – and did the first set of archeological drawings and plans.
In the late 1980’s it came to the attention of the faculty of archeology at UC Berkeley and a team led by Prof. Walter Horn – that also included my father – did a more extensive survey, using aircraft. They discovered a one-person hermitage on the 715 feet high pinnacle! Some really, really hardy soul spent his days in contemplation on this needle point peak. Don’t mess with Celtic monks.
I believe that once Homo Sapiens Sapiens developed language 50,000 years ago and began to wrestle with the great existential issues, they started their love affair with God. It has gone through five stages: First, is the phase of the theologians, where they spoke ABOUT God; next came the era of the priests where, in sacrifice, prayer and ceremony, the spoke TO God; thirdly came the era of the prophets where they purported to speak ON BEHALF OF God; then came the phase of the mystics where they spoke AS God; and, finally, came the era of the non-dual mystics who DON’T SPEAK AT ALL! They live in a radical, bliss-filled silence in which the experience of the numinous is beyond any language.
I must hasten to add, however, that since we Celts love the taste of words, these mystics must have regularly broken their silence, if only to say, “Wow!”
From its inception, Celtic spirituality was based on the mystical experience of God’s love – in Nature and elsewhere – rather than on dogma, creedal formulations or orthodoxy. While Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin dominated both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Pelagius’s doctrine of Original Blessing was the water in which Celtic Christians were baptized and the Holy Oils in which they were marinated.
Conclusion – The Celtic Diaspora
The vicissitudes of the Celts, culminating in the Penal Laws, the Great “Famine” and mass Emigration, led to a million starving people crossing, not the Mediterranean but the Atlantic, in a more recent “Peregrinatio pro Dei Amore.” Like displaced Tibetan Buddhism and like vanquished Native American wisdom, both of which are seeding a revival of deep spirituality, I believe that the gaunt, starving, hounded Irish carried a “virus” across the ocean. Hidden in the cells of their “Roman Catholicism” lay the mitochondria of the ancient spirituality. It has been fallow for over a century, but it has recently begun sending up green tendrils, coaxing the soil of culture to allow it safe passage, and smilingly greeting the Sun of God that has long awaited its arrival. God’s tears are raining upon it, while Her breath whispers, “Long have I waited for your coming.”
It carries in it fruit the antidote to a soul-less materialistic science that desecrates Nature as a mere resource, and an antidote to a heart-less, fundamentalist religion that reduces awe at the Mother’s love down to fear at the Father’s wrath.
The mysticism of my great-grandmother and the druidry of my grandfather have convinced me that:
Life is a dream that the Ego is having;
the Ego is a dream that the Soul is having;
the Soul is a dream that Spirit is having
and that Spirit is a dream that Source is having.
As a Celt, I know that all of creation is simply God-in-drag.
Níl a thuile le rá agam! (That’s all I have to say!)