The Celts: the people “at the end of the world”
May 11, 2017—The Celts are the people of the end of the world.
Visit the tip of the Cornwall peninsula and you will find a rocky placed called Land’s End, where the thundering surf of the Atlantic pounds mercilessly against the ancient rocks. But once upon a time, it was Ireland — at least in the imagination of mainland Europeans — where you made your last stop before the vast, boundless ocean.
The end of the world.
All that lay beyond formed the stuff of myths and legends. A few hardy voyagers ventured out into the deep, and came back with tales of lands like Tír na nÓg, the island of eternal youth. But except for those heroic wanderers, for most people the west coast of Ireland represented the edge of mystery, the gateway into an unknown and unseeable world.
Today we have lost that sense of the wondrous mystery just beyond the edge of the ocean. A traveler leaving the British Isles heading west arrives not at Tír na nÓg but rather comes to Boston or New York. So it may be difficult for us to appreciate that sense of mystery that informed the poetry and stories and spirituality of the Celts long ago.
Perhaps the end of world is not so much a place on the map as it is a place in the heart. Perhaps, even today, in our time hedged in by materialistic thinking and a culture besotted with entertainment and noise, we mortals are being invited into a spiritual “otherworld” as foreign and fearsome to us as the beach must have been to the first prehistoric creature who dared to crawl out of the ocean some 530 million years ago.
And perhaps because the Celts of old were so conscious of living at the end of the word, their wisdom and spirituality remains helpful to anyone today who seeks to enter the uncharted realms of mystery and Spirit. Scotland, Wales and Ireland may no longer represent the ends of the physical earth, but they — or at least, the poets and saints, seers and wise ones who lived there — can still symbolize for us a final stopping place before that immense and mysterious journey to the mystical world that lies just beyond the reach of the senses.
Celtic spirituality is a spirituality of hospitality, of welcoming and invitation, of coming-together. It’s not particularly interested in what separates us off from one another. The Celtic character is marked by kinship and convivial fellowship. It’s a spirituality of stories and adventures, of conflicts fearlessly fought and love passionately shared. In other words, the Celtic people are a people of loyalty and relationship, characterized not by the ideas in their heads but by the fire in their hearts.
Celtic spirituality represents the wisdom of a people who never were conquered by the Roman Empire, so they preserved an ancient way of seeing and knowing that was lost elsewhere. When the Celts embraced Christianity, they embraced a way of following Jesus that had not been compromised by the worldly power of the urban elites of Rome or Alexandria or Constantinople.
Living as they did on the very end of the world, the Celts forged an identity anchored in a deep sense of nature, a love of their land, a passion for kinship, and a love for the Spirit that embraced beauty and silence, solitude and self-forgetfulness, deep peace and deep listening.
So let us tell the stories, and sing the songs, and enjoy the dance. Let us stand before the roar of the ancient ocean and climb the crags of the desolate high places. And most of all, let us listen to the silence between every beat of the drum that is our hearts. For in that silence we find something even deeper than a language that has been lost or a myth barely remembered. In the silence, we find our souls, and in our souls, we find the presence of God. For God is not elsewhere. God hides in the silence in our hearts.
Carl McColman is a contemplative writer, speaker, retreat leader and spiritual companion. He is the author of several books, including Befriending Silence, Answering the Contemplative Call, and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. His writing appears in the Huffington Post, Contemplative Journal, Patheos, as well as his own blog on Christian spirituality and contemplative living, www.carlmccolman.net.
Learn more about Carl McColman’s upcoming online course Living Prayer: The Spirituality of Everday Liturgy.