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Searching for the Celtic Spirit – Part 2

Stepping out along the way

Stephen and I meant to start our journey in Ireland but close to the departure date I fell off a ladder and had to spend two weeks flat on my back (painfully pondering what it meant). We cut some parts of the trip, tagged Ireland onto the end, and flew to Scotland to begin there. From vigorous Glasgow we drove north around idyllic Loch Lomond, every roadside resplendent with late summer wildflowers – cow parsley, cowslip and rosebay willowherb – to the rugged Island of Mull. Then along winding single-lane roads where cars often have to back up or you needed to dodge a darting deer, and by ferry across to the mystical island of Iona.

Although it’s a tourist spot, there’s a pervading stillness across the island with folk meditating in the renovated open-faith abbey and wandering among ruins. Some people visit every year. Some came and stayed, like our landlord from New Zealand. The locals don’t mind the ferry crossing and the slow drive across Mull for school and shopping. They are so proudly in love with their island.

This is the ‘thin place’ where the border between the physical and spiritual worlds wavers and sometimes disappears altogether.

In previous ages the boundary between the physical and metaphysical was not so defined. Very occasionally, we can still experience this. This island of pilgrims certainly had an effect on me. Mostly I had only subliminal awareness of the mingling of spiritual and physical, felt in the austere beauty of the place, except for one moment. I stood above the abbey, looking down on the tall Celtic cross and the sea beyond. I experienced something of what those ancient people would have known as normal – that there was no break between the worlds, none at all. It was only for a short while yet timeless, and its impact endured. As we departed and the ferry crossed the water, unexpectedly I began to weep. I wanted to remain on that magic island in that other consciousness. It’s not possible, yet I don’t think these kinds of experiences are exceptional. All we need is openness to what is different.

We didn’t set out for Europe in a tiny boat like the Irish monk Columbanus and the other brave venturers (see part 1). We headed east and took the train through the ‘chunnel’ under the English Channel. But we did try to follow his route through Burgundy and on to Lake Constance, with Paris as an essential first stop – I had only ever spent a day and a half there. This time it was a week taking in the delights of this city. But the ‘quest’ began in Burgundy.

I think I was looking for something ephemeral, like resonances or echoes. What follows is impressionistic – brush strokes made up of selected moments that somehow come together as the picture I want to paint.

Summer was fading into autumn as we puttered slowly along the Canal du Nivernais in a barge called L’Art de Vivre, with plenty of time to walk ahead to the next lock. In this ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ the air shimmered and sometimes bit down sharply under the ‘maturing sun’. Yes, it brought on the urge to quote Keats and other poets.

I’m sure I experienced something of the Celtic spirit working in the beautiful countryside. And then there was the feminine. Parisian women are known for their natural elegance and ‘cool’. The women in the Burgundian towns and villages we visited were different, yet still with a strong presence, a vivacity that seemed to come from an innate surety of knowing who they are in this land of Joan of Arc. I experienced this as coming from a place deep in the belly, to sound out in the warmth of their speaking – so unlike the more strident/defensive tones I’ve been accustomed to (Australia, England, the USA). Some schoolchildren playing also set me wondering. There’s a school next to my townhouse in Melbourne. I see boys playing their ball games while girls cartwheel and skip around the perimeter. Role separation so early, even in this inner urban leftist-feminist part of my city. In the French playground, those boys and girls played together, and it was quite rough and tumble, but you couldn’t define the play as boys’ or girls’. In my imagination I heard a hidden echo, the influence of Celtic goddesses, still embedded in the culture.

To Switzerland and Dornach, a village near Basel. There’s nothing to see in Dornach. Why ever go there? we were asked. And really there isn’t much to see apart from the Goetheanum, begun by esoteric philosopher, seer and visionary Rudolf Steiner. Stephen and I were stunned by our first impressions: It’s like something from the age of megaliths, we said; or an ancient Egyptian tomb; it’s a kind of Noah’s ark; it’s a spaceship!

Man and monument – Stephen at the Goetheanum

Steiner designed this extraordinary building (the second – the first in wood was destroyed by arsonists). Constructed with strong reinforced concrete, the more sculptural lines were truly innovative when building began in 1925. Within there are some meditative spaces where photography isn’t encouraged and overall there’s an un-touristy quietness.

In part the Goetheanum is a teaching centre – lectures and performances are held there. In part it was built to preserve profound spiritual truths for when the world is ready to hear and see. It draws on wisdom from the time of the megaliths and further back into ages unknowable to ordinary consciousness – to when the spiritual was experienced as clearly as we now experience our senses. And Steiner’s teaching reveals the path called spiritual science, which covers ecology, education, human society and the evolution of consciousness leading far into the future. Inside the shapes are all feminine curves and soft transitioning colours, offering the promise of a humanity that will come to terms once more with its neglected wisdom – the goddess Sophia – to give birth to the true individual. And really, this is the holistic message of esoteric Christianity, that could be carried as inspiration in the Celtic soul while the Roman world was turning the church into an exoteric institution.

Curving colour transitions - stairwell leading to the room housing a larger-than-life sculpture called

‘The Representative of Humanity’ by Rudolf Steiner and Edith Maryon

The Goetheanum is indeed an ark of safekeeping, and a space-time ship to take us forward. The archives are stored underground and are being digitalised. The dedicated Anthroposophists who work there are like custodians. Many live in organic-looking dwellings around the central one. Renovation work was going on when we visited. It’s an ongoing activity, and this felt appropriate for a humanity that is also unfinished.

The island of Reichenau, on the German side of Lake Constance was once a centre of Celtic Christianity, and Columbanus spent time there, hence our visit. Long ago tamed; now it’s a world heritage site of churches and neat market gardens. Was I expecting some Celtic wildness and passion? Well, in a church with 1000-year-old frescoes based on John’s gospel, discovered beneath centuries of whitewash, Stephen was so involved in photographing them, he stepped out into space at the top of the stone altar steps. Amazingly he kept his footing as he spiralled down to crash into the front pew. The camera was destroyed; he was only bruised. Surrender the camera; then you might hear the old stories.

As creatures of the here and now, we continued to take photos with our mobile phones, maybe just not as many. And we whipped north in the modern fast train, on to Cologne.

We walked out of the station into an anti-immigration rally that blocked off the cathedral square and meant our hotel’s staff dared not go home until the following morning. Cologne’s immense, brooding, crowded cathedral was built above Roman ruins – displayed now in a splendid archaeological museum. In the streets beggar women crouched like mounds on the ground, only their hands protruding and clasped around plastic cups. Other beggars, thin young men who said thank you in perfect English, displayed cardboard notes requesting money for a hostel or lunch. Sadly, there are all kinds of beggars in Europe and more sadly it’s nothing new. Cultures past and present bundle together somewhat brutally here. Yet in a quiet park strewn with autumn leaves we found a beautiful domed church dedicated to the martyr Saint Gereon, with contemporary stained glass windows all glowing colours. We spoke with the one other person there. He told us he came often for the peace he found.

A legend recounts how Gereon, a soldier in Rome’s Theban Legion, and a Christian, was beheaded because he refused to sacrifice to the emperor Maximus to ensure victory - the sculpture lies in the park beside his church

Then Aachen: In the ninth century this town was the Emperor Charlemagne’s seat of power and where he built his royal chapel, an octagonal design – eight being a number symbolic of initiation into a new creation. Now Aachen’s Cathedral, its glorious redecoration in the nineteenth century with many Celtic motifs was a re-imagining of the lost original mosaics.

Charlemagne never mastered reading and writing (too busy waging wars) but he encouraged learning and so began what is known as the Carolingian Renaissance. In the reign of his grandson Charles the Bald, the Irish scholar John Scotus Eriugina was at the court in a last effort to gain Celtic Christianity’s acceptance. He wrote from the understanding that all life holds a something of the Divine, of God, and that we are threefold, with body, soul and spirit. We can achieve personal knowledge of our divine part. The only hell is ignorance of this reality. His views would increasingly be opposed by the establishment church, which tried to ban his work. A dualistic concept of sin or redemption better facilitated its efforts to maintain power and impose unity. The church’s earthly representatives had to be the only conduits away from damnation and towards God and heaven. They were, until Martin Luther set alight the protestant revolution, which was followed by the eighteenth century scientific enlightenment.

Despite all the achievements of these new understandings, one outcome was worship robbed of any sense of mystery. I thought of this as we were guided through Charlemagne’s church by a dedicated young student. These philosophical issues don’t engage minds as they once did. People want to tick off the sights, and perhaps gain enrichment from the sheer beauty of these sacred places.

In the late night we met a dancer, joyfully swirling like a gypsy on the chill street, accompanied by her friend on the guitar. Performing for their supper, she was all smiles, the happiest beggar we encountered.

In a way this was a kind of preparation for Ireland, land of music and storytellers. It’s true. Everyone has stories and if they only have one, they tell it twice. They strive to delight their listeners, like our taxi driver from the airport, and our student guide around Trinity College. She certainly made us smile with her droll secrets about famous former scholars and masters. Or our passionate guide on a walking tour of Dublin, whose grandfather had been imprisoned during the Troubles. The Irish turn language itself into music. We searched touristy Dublin for authentic Irish music but found it in a pub in the far west, in Dingle on the same-named peninsula. They don’t serve food at these pubs. It’s Guinness and guitars, pipes, drums and bones; singers too. When a new musician arrives he or she has a drink or two and then joins in, and room is made for beginners.

Music, liquid refreshment and Gaelic in this Dingle pub

Irish history has been one of struggle. Rival kings fought to become High King. Vikings and Normans invaded, and England long sought complete power. King Henry VIII finally stamped control over Ireland and its people. Protestant landlords displaced the Irish Catholics and forced them into centuries of poverty. Relations reached their nadir during the potato famine of the 1840s, when the landlords on their estates exported food while Irish families starved and died in ditches and byways or migrated en masse. From then on, rebellion and suppression became the norm – the years of the Troubles. Ireland was split in two. The Catholic church added its own repressive dictates.

Alongside the pain came the nineteenth century Celtic revival movement.

‘The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper,’ wrote poet William Butler Yeats, a driving force in Ireland’s literary revival. Poems were written, plays performed, songs sung. Old folk who remembered the legends and told the stories in Gaelic, they were recorded. Ireland’s heart mood and dreams were again being honoured. Yeats wrote in The Wind Among the Reeds:

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

There has been healing. After all the dark history, there’s still warmth and generosity alive in the people right across this land we passed through; in lively Dublin; the B&B hospitality in Kerry and around the Atlantic coast; in Renvyle Hotel, Connemara with its peat fires where we could have stayed for months. The ancient sites and dry stonework no mortar needed, the quiet winding roads, the cliffs and lakes and windy moors – all this is part of the haunting landscape that seeps in as a kind of knowing.

People still make pilgrimages to old sites and walk the paths from shrine to sacred place across the British Isles. There are Christian groups in these old Celtic lands that give voice to this spirituality and its nature traditions in their places of worship. The abbey on Iona is one; St Mary’s church on Holy Island (Lindisfarne) off England’s north-east coast is another. On the opposite side of the world amidst a regenerated eucalyptus forest near Castlemaine in central Victoria, our Australian friends honour the land and the sacred feminine in their Johannine community. When I see this this happening I’m enormously thankful.

And then we come home to the truth: as co-creator with the Logos light of the spiritual sun, the wisdom of the feminine, of Sophia, may be hidden, has too often been ignored to the world’s detriment, but has not been abandoned. The ‘Celtic spirit’, by definition one that treasures the freedom to be who we are, that values Mother Earth and the living world in all its hues and voices, that lovingly seeks deep connection and longs to share this from the music of the heart, it’s really a universal spirit with more to offer, wherever we are, however we listen, if we allow it to resonate in our souls. We find it inwardly, and whether this spirit comes to life in us, that’s our choice.

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