Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers, and Seekersby Frank MacEowen
In The Mist-Filled Path, Frank MacEowen, a preeminent teacher of Celtic spirituality, shows how embracing the indigenous wisdom of Scotland and Ireland can lead to healing and transcendence. Using his own travels and teachings along with Celtic stories and myths, he explores ancient traditions, eco-psychology, the ancient mother, altars and hearths, Oran Mor (the
In The Mist-Filled Path, Frank MacEowen, a preeminent teacher of Celtic spirituality, shows how embracing the indigenous wisdom of Scotland and Ireland can lead to healing and transcendence. Using his own travels and teachings along with Celtic stories and myths, he explores ancient traditions, eco-psychology, the ancient mother, altars and hearths, Oran Mor (the Great Song), contemplation, and mysticism. The book tells how to draw on ancestral roots to find a personal spirituality that also works for the greater good.
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The Mist-Filled Path
Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers, and Seekers
By Frank MacEowen
New World LibraryCopyright © 2002 Frank MacEowen
All rights reserved.
The Threshold of the Mist
* * *
The Celts believed that there was another dividing line that all
people could straddle, if only they stretched themselves a bit.
And that's the divide between the world and the otherworld.
— Steve Rabery, In the House of Memory
The mist called to me when I was a child. In the early mornings, and sometimes at dusk, I would look out the window into the thick woods behind our Georgia home, and a deep longing would fill my soul. The Cymru, the Celts of Wales, would say I had been consumed by the spirit of hiraeth, the longing for something my soul had known once upon a time.
Just beyond the mossy stone wall, just past the clusters of fern, I would often see the eerie gray-green mist swirling in the trees. It would hang there like a gull in the wind, as if searching for something. It seemed to capture something of my own quest, a deep childhood search for an experience of the mystery of the sacred world.
Some mornings I went outside to see the mist, up close and personal, and just as I would arrive at its edge, it would suddenly disappear from view, almost as if it had never been there. A strange shadowy afterimage would remain. At other times, I would look on with astonished eyes as the mist changed directions and moved away from me, visibly retreating from my presence. It would glide along the tree line, withdrawing itself from my overly analytical stare. In truth, my precocious and unrefined piercing gaze was exiling me from the teachings of the mist. I am reminded of the words of the beloved Irish mystic, Connemara poet, and nature-priest John O'Donohue, who states:
There is an unprecedented spiritual hunger in our times. More and more people are awakening to the inner world. A thirst and hunger for the eternal is coming alive in their souls; this is a new form of consciousness. Yet one of the damaging aspects of this spiritual hunger is the way it sees everything in such a severe and insistent light. The light of modern consciousness is not gentle or reverent; it lacks graciousness in the presence of mystery.... When the spiritual search is too intense and hungry, the soul stays hidden. The soul was never meant to be seen completely.
The soul possesses an ineffable intelligence that cannot be controlled. Like the mist, the soul, we might say, has a mind of its own. It cannot be forced, directed, or squeezed into a box where it does not belong. It cannot even be fully seen or perceived, for the soul is a timeless, feathered thing that flies in more worlds than one.
We can see, in tangible ways, the choices that the soul makes in service of itself. When a person is treated horribly, physically or emotionally assaulted, for instance, a fragment of his or her soul may slink off to a hidden unseen place where it cannot be harmed. In shamanist traditions this phenomenon is called soul loss. The soul knows what is needed for survival and returns, again, only when conditions are right or when someone engages in the work of inviting its fullness home. In this way the soul preserves itself. The soul's brilliance has allowed for this useful mechanism to ensure the continuity of the consciousness of the living person during his or her life, and sometimes even between lives.
All too often, however, when the soul elects to hide part of itself, it does not return very easily. When this happens we can say that although some external survival has been ensured, a condition of exile has also been created. It is an exile from the flowing awareness of peace that is our birthright. Our lives are meant to be steeped in peace, yet when we are living within a state of soul loss our destined unfoldment toward a life of peace is postponed until we have become whole again. We feel "beside ourselves" until we are reintegrated after a harsh experience or trauma. This is as true for whole groups that have survived a trauma as it is for individuals.
A Word about Exile
Exile is that undeniable sensation of being cordoned off from what is most essential to our souls. Perhaps we have become exiled from our childhood memories because of things that happened when we were young. We may be exiles from a basic sense of joy in our lives. Sometimes our exile is characterized by our sense of being a stranger in our own families, not able truly to share who and what we are without being criticized or judged. Family, in the Celtic sense, is meant to feel like a warm hearth fire, a downy nest of repose, and yet all too often our families contain the fiercest of blades that slash at the peace of our souls.
For many of us a kind of exile may lie at the very heart of our lives. It is an exile many people feel in the twenty-first century. It may express itself as an exile from nature, from ancestral traditions, from cultural homelands, or from spiritual lineages. Sometimes these lineages and traditions appear to be lost forever without the potential of reclamation, so the exile feels even more poignant.
In a very similar fashion, many people feel a dynamic sense of exile from an even closer domain than cultural homelands. They feel that they have been exiled from the interior lands and borderlands of their own spirit. No longer knowing the entrance to this realm or the routes of navigation once inside, they become exiled from the holy realm of the inner worlds. This is a profoundly sacred world in the Celtic tradition, one that those on Celtic spiritual paths actively seek to work with daily, because it is understood that our inner landscape is one entryway to the spiritscape of the Otherworld.
An old therapeutic axiom in Gestalt psychology, which also lies at the very heart of shamanism and contemplative mysticism worldwide, suggests that the healing of a wound must come from the blood of the wound itself. In other words, the healing of an emotional or psychospiritual wound is brought about precisely by entering into its terrain, not by avoiding it. In this way, healing our exile from our inner world comes from entering that inner world in search of the healing life force we need (the blood within the wound). The healing of our exile from the life-affirming expressions of our ancestral traditions comes from opening ourselves to these traditions of primacy in the same way that our ancestors did, whoever our particular ancestors were and whatever unique spiritual traditions may have shaped and sculpted them. And, last but not least, the healing of our exile from the natural world is linked with the practice of entering into a full and loving embrace of her and, once again, acknowledging the healing power of the primal land.
The healing of the soul of the earth and our relationship with her does not come about by closing ourselves off or by separating ourselves through our definitions, categorizations, and Latin nomenclature but rather by opening ourselves, dynamically, to the mysteries of the spiritscape of nature in a soulful and experiential way. To rediscover the sacred world we must reenter it, with wakeful physical and spiritual senses.
I sometimes think that when we experience soul loss or soul exile it is as if we have had our ancient citizenship revoked. We no longer have diplomatic status to travel freely into the inner sanctum of our own deeper senses or our deepest levels of knowing about the world around us. When we are in this condition, we sometimes need to do what friend and African shaman Malidoma Somé calls "setting up a squawk." We must set up a squawk and call the soul parts home.
Mist As a Trickster–Teacher
Although we sometimes can call or sing exiled soul parts home, many times it is we who are living in a state of exile, not pieces of our souls. We are the ones who feel hidden from the soul of life, from the Soul of the World. We begin to have the sneaking suspicion that we are the part of our ancient soul's memory that has forgotten our place in the grand scheme of things.
In cases like these, sometimes the spirits, or sometimes the forces within nature (such as the faery folk, as perceived of in Celtic seership), will conspire to "trick" us through synchronicity, dreams, or outward events. Then it is almost as if we stumble into a process of learning a path that will lead us home. This path, at once illuminative yet seemingly hidden, is a road marked by a distinctive vibration. Its energy is of primal forces inhabiting a primal landscape that yearn for us to remember.
My initial experience of the mist was like this. It played tricks on me. It attempted to reveal a deeper phenomenon that was all around me but to which I was, in effect, blind. I did not have the eyes with which to perceive the teachings of the mist when I first encountered them. Nonetheless, the mist got my attention in various ways, alerting me to the fact that to find the sacred within life I must cultivate the proper eyes with which to see the world. Cultivating sacred eyes is what Celtic spirituality holds as a silent wish for each of us.
My childhood tutelage with the mist began, in earnest, only after I loosened my soul and softened my piercing gaze. Until then my eyes did not allow me to see the magic of life around me. In time, however, I slowly came to understand that when approaching nature and spirit, one must enter these realms with a gentle openness of heart. We cannot make demands when encountering the sacred world. It is the overly analytical perception of reality, as well as the belief that we are somehow owed an experience, that immediately exiles us from the richness of the numinous power around us, within us, and within the earth. We have to be open. We must be, as the eloquent Zen tradition tells us, "empty cups," ready to be filled, without preconceived notions of what awaits us.
In time I experienced a gradual settling in my evolving childhood mysticism. It was a settling of my striving. This settling informed me that the sacred was all around me, and that, in addition to developing the proper eyes with which to see, I must also cultivate the proper feet with which to walk the path. One gains the proper eyes and proper feet, I have found, by slowing down. A verse from the rediscovered Gospel of Thomas comes to mind, which states: "His followers said to him, 'When will the kingdom come?' He replied, 'It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, Look, here it is, or Look, there it is. Rather the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it'" (verse 113).
As a little boy I came to associate the mist with special times that I would take for myself. Though at the time I was too young to have a working concept of spirituality or spiritual practice, at the mere age of six I was becoming aware of the delicious sensation of experiencing the Soul of Place. I would curl up for hours in one of my sitting places in the forest behind our house. A large oak tree behind me, an old holly tree beside me, I would be quiet, I would be still, and, with a soft gaze, I would watch the unfettered flow of a patch of ground that grew to love me. I was developing the soft eyes of my ancestors.
Several years later I would have a conversation with an Anishinabe (Ojibway) man from Canada, and I would hear him speak about the necessity of hunting or walking in nature with a soft gaze. He explained:
The Four-Leggeds and the Winged Ones live to a different rhythm. Theirs is the rhythm of soft eyes and soft feet; Two-Leggeds have hard eyes and hard feet. When most humans go into the forest they enter with so much of the world on them that any possibility of feeling the sacred is removed. When we go into the forest we must become soft like the animal people and the tree people.
This rhythm of softness is something the mist taught me in the woods of Georgia. I sometimes think back on these childhood experiences and find myself laughing with delight at the name still held for the forested area where we lived: Druid Hills. Many of the trees are now gone, owing to the incessant influence of development. The old house is now gone. The landscape of this mysterious place of childhood awakening has now been taken over by ticky-tacky houses that seemed to go up over night. Nonetheless, the old oak still stands tall there, along with the holly and the stone I used to sit on, and those magical druid hills remain a reliquary of spiritual memory for me.
The Mist and the Shimmering Peace of Things
We gave ourselves up in old times to mythology, and saw the
Gods everywhere. We talked to them face to face....
Even today our country people speak with
the dead and with some who perhaps have never died as we understand death;
and even our educated people pass without great difficulty
into the condition of quiet that is the condition of vision.
— William Butler Yeats
During my times of walking the Mist-Filled Path as a child, I was always filled with a blend of awe and the jitters. A sense of expectancy pulsed with each heartbeat, with each moving shadow in the shaded wood, as if at any moment a door might open up beside me. This amazing energy had an uncanny presence. When I look back on those times, with the eyes I have now, I see that the holiness of my childhood in nature was inseparably linked to the trees. I loved them, I love them now, and through them ancient unseen doors open.
We Celts are lovers of trees. In fact, the religion of our primal ancestors is one truly rooted in the mysticism of the trees. From old Celtic tales that speak of First Man being an alder tree, and First Woman being a rowan tree, to the ancient Roman accounts of the druids in the groves of old Gaul, trees play a central role in the ancient Celtic way of seeing. As world-renowned Celtic scholar and poet Jean Markale shares, "The yew is a sacred tree in Ireland. It is the druidic tree, the preeminent magic tree." As a descendant of the clan MacEwen, a Scottish clan with Irish roots, I contemplate the origins of our name in this light. In Gaelic the name MacEoghainn translates as "son of the yew tree." I discovered these threads of etymology later in life, but my relationship with the trees is one that hails from a mist-filled childhood.
On one day in particular when I was out in the trees, something happened. I had a sudden and shocking remembrance of the trees as guardians, allies, and as conduits for activating memory. Images flashed in my mind. The images were hauntingly familiar, achingly so. Like in Carl Jung's formative childhood mystical experience of merging with a stone he was sitting on, in that moment the trees suddenly told me that they were my ancient home, that I had known them intimately before, and that one day I would live among them again.
I was deeply stirred, and in the midst of this experience I realized that the spirit of the mist did not retreat from my presence that day. It moved in around me, encompassing me like a cool blanket. Slowly I began to feel at one with the forest, at one with the mist, and at one with myself in a way I never had before. I was suddenly self-aware, profoundly conscious that life is a path that we walk from the time of birth to the time of death. It was an old memory returned.
I wept with an emotion I can only describe as a feeling of being accepted by the sacred world. Woven within this moment of reawakening was a familiarity with something extremely old that stood just on the periphery of my awareness. Though it felt like a person, I saw no one. I imagined the face of an old man. I did not have words to put to this flow of experiences, but as a good Scots brother of mine says in one of his poems, "I felt watched and watching."
The mist is an ancient initiator and sacred reminder in the Celtic traditions. In the old tales of Britain, just beyond the mist lies the realm of Avalon. Likewise, in the primal Irish tradition we learn of the once-lost tale called the Tain and how this eclipsed strand of the tradition was rekindled, remembered, and bestowed on a single poet who sat, fasting, for three days and nights on the hillside grave of a great bard. This young poet, for these three days and nights, was completely enveloped within a mist.
A similar process stirred for me in my childhood, of having old things awakened within me. I was shown that the very fabric of reality shifts and changes in what the Celtic tradition thinks of as "thin places," or threshold places. Thin places are potent doorways within our sacred world, which includes the natural world (and aspects of the human world) and also domains that permeate and lie beneath our world. It is where the ordinary and non-ordinary come to rest in each other's arms. These places might be in-between places or particular in-between times, such as twilight. Celtic thin places are crossroads where the world of the spirits and the world of the embodied mingle. It is where the realms of human and faery touch. It is where living descendants and the ancestors commune. It is where the unseen and the seen share one ground.
Excerpted from The Mist-Filled Path by Frank MacEowen. Copyright © 2002 Frank MacEowen. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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