In this post I’ll wrap up my review of Frank MacEowen’s The Mist-Filled Path, lay out some of my ruminations on the mixing and matching of disparate spiritual paths in the modern world, and give the interpretation of the dream I described in the previous post.
Frank MacEowen’s The Mist-Filled Path lays out a few general principles of Celtic spirituality. Each of these elements is essential to a path that is truly Celtic in character.
In the oldest times, the hearth was at the physical center of the Celtic home. The houses were circular, yurt-like structures, with a sod fire at the center directly under a hole to allow the smoke to escape. Nowadays, the hearth is usually in a wall; but it is still the center of the spiritual home. The hearth should be a place where pictures of family are placed, where stories are told and cares are forgotten.
MacEowen relates a story from when he was young, when he awakened suddenly in the middle of the night and wandered into the living room, where the fireplace was. There sat his grandmother, also unaccountably awake, sitting by the long-dead fire. She was watching the ghost of a girl standing at the hearth. Almost as soon as MacEowen came in, the ghost disappeared.
“You saw it?” asked his grandmother. MacEowen nodded, and she nodded in turn. They never spoke of it again; in a Christian family such as MacEowen’s, seeing ghosts was not encouraged. We’ll come back to that a little later. But the important thing was that the ghostly child had appeared by the hearth — a place her heart was evidently drawn to.
For MacEowen, “heart” is compassion, courtesy, and hospitality. He tells stories of times when the Mississippi flooded when he was young, and his father went out into the rising waters to help save lives and property, while his mother stayed home and opened her house to those whose homes were gone. The Celtic peoples have always been famous for their hospitality to strangers: tales are told of Irish families during the Famine who would take in any visitor and offer them a portion of what little they had, and a place by the meagre fire. Compassion, at its root, is the recognition of the kinship of all humanity, and is at the root of all the greatest spiritual paths.
You can’t get away from nature if you’re going to call yourself a Druid. For MacEowen, nature is the greatest spirit guide there is. When he wants guidance in a decision, contact with his soul or the souls of his ancestors, or solace in suffering, he wanders the hills and forests, finding inspiration in the patterns of tree bark, the arrangement of stones in a river, and drifting mist. For him, it is a meditation with the living earth.
The Celts and Christianity
These three characteristics of Celtic spirituality made for an interesting result when it was mixed with Christianity. The oldest, original Christianity — the Christianity you get if you actually read the gospels — is based on compassion and divine inspiration. Jesus, in common with other spiritual teachers of Asia, emphasized the relationship between the individual and divinity. Each of us should seek out God in our hearts, and make peace with Him there. He also, of course, taught compassion for all — to love your neighbor.
This is not the form of Christianity that reached the British Isles. By that time, Christianity had been transformed by its incorporation into the power structure of the Roman Empire. Christianity was patriarchal, heirarchical, and a creature of institution. But the Celts recognized the roots of Christianity, revived them, and lay them over their home-grown spirituality. Celtic Christianity was marked by extraordinary good works (heart), by the ordination of women and allowing priests to marry (hearth), and the remarkable ability of practitioners to find God in nature (earth). Reams of religious poetry written by Celtic Christian monks in the middle ages testify to the great love they had for small creatures, rocks and rivers, and trees. And of course, the most beloved pagan gods and holy sites were converted into saints and churches.
As the power of the Roman Church grew, they cracked down on the irregular practices of the Celtic Church, especially regarding the status of women. Some of the most insightful of the Celtic religious thinkers were labeled heretics (see, for example, Eriugena). But the core of Celtic spirituality always remained among the people, even if the church itself was bound to the patriarchy in Rome.
Silent Paths Crossing in the Woods
Celtic spirituality has had good times and bad times with Christianity. The Celtic path meshed well with the original spirit of Christianity — possibly because of the similarities they both share with the mysticism of Asia. But it didn’t play nice with Roman Christianity.
MacEowen himself has had trouble fitting his brand of Celtic shamanistic mysticism into the mold of modern Protestantism, despite the fact that his father was a pastor. (Note that, in MacEowen’s case at least, it really was despite the fact, not because of the fact.) Modern Christians sometimes have trouble with spirit flights, talking directly with ancestors, and finding God out in the woods rather than confined safely to His house.
But as MacEowen found, just because two paths are pagan doesn’t mean they’re compatible. He tried to adopt the American Indian path, but found himself led back to the paganism of his ancestors. There are many similarities between European paganism and the religion of the American Indians — the focus on nature, the animism, the shamanistic elements, the reverence for ancestors. But it was that last point that was the real problem. If you revere your ancestors, and receive guidance from them, your path cannot deviate too far from theirs. An American Indian shaman must revere American Indian ancestors, and a European shaman must revere European ancestors.
Interpreting the Dream
Now we return to the dream I described in the last post.
For weeks I could make no sense at all of it. Finally I asked Adam Alexander at adamspeace.com, who had said some kind things about my meditation concerning the eagle and the mouse and who, on his site, indicated a willingness to answer questions of any sort. Before Adam could reply, an interpretation suddenly came to me while I was driving home. Then Adam sent me his interpretation, and it matched mine exactly (with a little more detail). I suspect the interpretation is correct. Here it is:
The chief’s wife represents the American Indian spiritual path. The chief, representing the surviving American Indians, love her; and I do too, even though I am not married to her and never can be.
For all my life, I have been drawn to American Indian spirituality, but I am not an American Indian. I may have some blood from them on my father’s side (there is a tradition that Pocahontas was among our ancestors, and certainly the Lilly’s were in southern Virginia at the right time) but not much. In the dream, I loved the cheif’s wife, but could never consummate that love; in reality, I love the American Indian path, but cannot walk it.
In the dream, the chief’s wife was shot and killed. In a similar way, American Indian spirituality has suffered terribly from the European occupation. But the wife was revived via the love that I and the chief shared for her. The interpretation of the dream is now clear: the spiritual path of the American Indians can be revived if both Indians and Europeans love it enough. The love of just one or the other is not sufficient.
But even when she was reborn, she was still the chief’s wife, not mine. In the same way, if the tradition of the American Indians comes back into full flower, it will still be the path of the Indians, not of the Europeans. But that doesn’t mean that the love is worthless or misguided. On the contrary — as long as the love is pure and not mixed with envy, it’s healthy, and necessary for the survival of those traditions.
And recalling the discussion above, it’s easy to see why. The American Indian path is one of reverence for ancestors, and Europeans simply do not have American Indian ancestors. It’s as simple as that. I have read more than once that this advice is frequently given by Indians to European-descended Americans who want to learn the Indian way: go back and learn about your own ancestors, learn your own old ways, and then we can talk. Even though it might seem easier to link in with the Indian traditions, as weak as they are, than to try to go all the way back to a healthy pagan European religion — you just can’t do it.
Paths for Europeans
Many people in the Western world have lost contact with their ancestry — especially in the former colonies of Great Britain, where people of European descent live on stolen land far away from the ground their ancestors hallowed. On top of that, most of these descendants of Europeans are a mixture of different flavors of European. Most of us don’t even know what our mixtures are. My own ancestry is probably something like one quarter Celtic (Welsh), one quarter English (with American Indian, French and Scandanavian mixed in — my Y chromosome comes from Scandanavia) and the rest German. If I seek guidance from my ancestors, which ones do I choose? Will they all get into a huge argument, as Europeans were once wont to do? Do I have to try to synthesize their beliefs, as my genes are synthesized from theirs?
And suppose that some kind of synthesis of European pagan beliefs is possible. (Wicca can be seen as an attempt at that.) Does that mean that those of us with European ancestors are stuck with Christianity or neopaganism?
Not at all. Many spiritual paths are not remotely tied to ancestors — in fact, that is one of the defining characteristics of a “world religion”. Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, “New Age”: these systems teach that regardless of ancestry, anyone can reach peace by simply following their tenets. (And then there’s Mormonism — in which it doesn’t matter who your ancestors are, because (a) you can join anyway, and (b) you can get your ancestors to join, too.)
The fact is that, even though not all paths are open to everyone, there are more paths to choose from than ever before. But the essential thing to remember is that you must choose it for yourself.
In the old days, you could simply adopt the religion of your parents and community, and feel good about it. This is no longer possible. As I mentioned in On Pluto, every modern path requires passage through a time of doubt; and you can only come out of doubt by yourself, alone. If you don’t do it by yourself — if you grab hold of some other sojourners, hoping that they can lead you out, forcing yourself to have faith in them — you’ll find yourself back in doubt again. These days, all the paths have room for only one pair of feet at a time.