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"What Esther has written is superb, because the combination of Esther's own spirituality and early Celtic spirituality is bound to be superb...I have read every word slowly, carefully, enjoying, being nourished. It isn't just that Celtic spirituality with its loving immediacy is appealing, it is that it is necessary at this time of violence and indifference and greed in the Western world. It can, indeed, be our salvation."
"Esther de Waal's unique contribution to Celtic Christian studies is that she is never outside her subject. Her constant ability to apply the life of those earlier centuries to her own devotional life makes it possible for those of us who read her to encounter those people in such a way that their Christian journey can become food and drink for us in the hunger and thirst of our own century."
—Herbert O'Driscoll, author of A Doorway in Time
"A rich tapestry of learning, personal experience of prayer, empathy with monastic endeavor and a real understanding of what inspiration is needed by so many of the laity also in their journey of Christian prayer today."
—Patrick Barry, OSB, Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey
The Father created the world by a miracle;
it is difficult to express its measure.
Letters cannot contain it, letters cannot comprehend it.4
Imagination is the creative task of making symbols, joining things together in such a way that they throw new light on each other and on everything around them. The imagination is a discovering faculty, a faculty for seeing relationships, for seeing meanings that are special and even quite new. The imagination is something which enables us to discover unique present meaning in a given moment of our life. Without imagination the contemplative life can be extremely dull and fruitless.5
So I have been brought face-to-face with a world at once very familiar and very mysterious, for I have found in the Celtic a worldview that touches on much that is common, shared, perhaps archetypal, in all human experience. I have become aware of how this way of seeing the world is common to all early peoples, to the traditional and aboriginal peoples throughout the world. Although I do not develop it here, I am sure that the exploration of this Celtic world will be prophetic for the future as we try to break down the barriers so that we may reach out to one another. This discovery of my own Celtic roots has meant that I have also become more aware of the riches of many other traditional peoples. I have found that much in the African or Native American experience speaks the same language as the Celtic, has a shared and common resonance. For I have found in Celtic understanding nothing of the highly individualistic, competitive, inward-looking approach common in today's society. Here, instead, everyone sees themselves in relation to one another, and that extends beyond human beings to the wild creatures, the birds and the animals, the earth itself.6 This has brought a sense of being a part of the whole web of being. There is something here of "the breathing together of all things" as Teilhard de Chardin put it, something of the mystery of coinherence of which Charles Williams writes in his novels. The new science speaks much the same language, of mutual interdependence. Here is the promise of a more holistic approach to the world, of healing of the many fractures that maim and corrupt each of us and the world in which we live.
The Celtic world touches all of this but yet remains totally unique, earthy, and mysterious, knowing darkness and pain but equally rejoicing in light, full of poetry and song and celebration, showing me the depths of penitence and the heights of praise, touching me in the secret hidden parts of my own self and yet connecting me with others. So although each of us is in the end solitary (and that is something that Celtic Christianity knows well), I am reminded that I travel in company with those who have made this peregrinatio before me, by the whole company of heaven, the saints and the angels, a "cloud of witnesses," who surround me and who hold me up as I go.
1. It is essential to use this term and not to speak of the "Celtic Church," which can be misleading if it suggests that there ever was a Celtic Church as opposed to a "Roman Church." Any such idea would have been totally inimical to the Celtic people, who never regarded themselves as being in some different church, and for whom the Bishop of Rome always remained important.
2. See Patrick Barry OSB, Saint Benedict and Christianity in England (Ampleforth Abbey Press, 1995).
3. The six volumes of the Carmina Gadelica, songs, prayers, and blessings from the oral tradition of the western Highlands and islands of Scotland, were originally collected and edited by Alexander Carmichael at the end of the last century and published by the Scottish Academic Press as Carmina Gadelica, Hymns and Incantations Orally Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Translated into English. There will be many subsequent references in the rest of the book to the Carmina Gadelica, since these poems, prayers, songs, and blessings (it is impossible to fit them into any neat categories) have been a source of enjoyment, inspiration, and practical prayer ever since I first discovered them. Although the six original volumes were published under a variety of editors between 1900 and 1928, in order to make them more easily accessible I edited them in 1988 as Celtic Vision, Prayers and Blessings from the Outer Hebrides (St. Bede's Publications, Petersham, Massachusetts). There is in addition a very short introduction God Under My Roof (Paraclete Press). They have now been made easily available in a single volume, a new edition published in 1992 with a preface by John MacInnes from Floris Books, and have inspired the prolific output of David Adam, who has taken their format and produced modern versions which, however attractive, I feel lack much of the depth and the sense of harsh reality that make the original prayers so powerful. To sentimentalize or to sanitize is tempting, but it is a betrayal of this way of praying.
4. From a ninth-century Welsh poem, in Oliver Davies and Fiona Bowie, Celtic Christian Spirituality, an Anthology of Medieval and Modern Sources (Continuum), p. 27.
5. Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Image Books, 1973), p. 357.
6. This is one of the reasons I edited the translations by Helen Waddell of the stories of the friendships between the Desert Fathers and the Celtic saints and the wild creatures who played such an important role in their lives, Beasts and Saints (Eerdmans, 1996).
|2||Image and Song||28|
|5||The Presence of God||69|