Friday, March 11, 2016


Irish poet, philosopher, and theological scholar John O'Donohue (1956-2008) wrote that the Celtic Christian and pre-Christian traditions are closely aligned, both rooted in the natural world.

"Celtic thought contributes magnificently to a philosophy of compassion deriving from its sense that everything belongs in one diverse, living unity. On an ontological level, the exercise of compassion is the transfiguration of dualism: the separation of matter and spirit, masculine and feminine, body and soul, human and divine, person and animal, and person and element. The beauty of the Celtic tradition was that it managed to think and articulate all of these presences together in a profound, intimate unity. So, if compassion is a praxis which tries to bring that unity into explicit activity and presentation, then Celtic philosophy of unity contributes strongly to compassion. The Celtic sense of no separating border between nature and humans allows us to have compassion with animals and with places in nature. For the Celts, nature wasn't a huge expanse of endless matter. Nature was an incredibly elemental and passionately individual presence, and that is why many gods and spirits are actually tied into very explicit places, and to the memory and history and narrative of the places.

"The predominant silence in which the animal world lives is very touching. As children on a farm, we were taught to respect animals. We were told that the dumb animals are blessed. They cannot say what they are feeling and we should have great compassion for them. They were tended to and looked after and people became upset if something happened to them. There was a great sense of solidarity between us and our older brothers and sisters, the animals.

"One of the tragedies in Western religion is the way that we have been so elitist in reserving the spiritual exclusively for the human. That is an awful, barbaric crime. When you subtract the notion of self from a presence, you objectify it and then that presence can be used and abused. It is a sin and blasphemy to say that animals have no spirits and souls. One of the cornerstones of contemplative life is going below the surface of the external and the negativity. The contemplative attends to the roots of wrong and violence. Because the animals live essentially what I call the contemplative life, maybe the most sacred prayer of the world actually happens within animal consciousness. Secondly, sometimes when you look into an animal's eyes, you see incredible pain. I think there are levels of suffering for which humans are not refined enough, and maybe our older, ancient brothers and sisters, the animals, carry some of that for us.

As you know, today is the anniversary of the calamity that struck Japan in 2011. Fukushima prefecture, a primary centre of agriculture, remains too contaminated for its inhabitants to occupy. One man, Naoto Matsumura, returned to look after the abandoned animals. That's his picture at the top and you can find more here.

"Self-compassion is paramount. When you are compassionate with yourself, you trust in your soul, which you let guide your life. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny better than you do."


Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan,
Thanks for an interesting post and subject matter. It was thought the early Celts were involved in head hunting and tribal warfare war just as it was the case for most groups then, so I am afraid I’m a tad skeptical over the claim Celtic thought contributes magnificently to a philosophy of compassion deriving from its sense that everything belongs in one diverse, living unity society.
Of course then there must have been far more affinity to the animal kingdom and to nature but possibly more by way of existential necessity. Certainly the idea of reverence for all life to underpin a more compassionate response as championed by Donohue has of course rather obvious merit, but I think his thoughts echo more modern philosophical underpinnings. But thank goodness we are not so quick to slit one another’s throats over differing beliefs as we have been in the past – with still some notable exceptions.
Best wishes

susan said...

Hi Lindsay,
Thanks so much for your interesting response. You might find the following article regarding Celtic barbarism as interesting as I did a little earlier:

Our knowledge of the pre-Christian Celtic world is based almost exclusively on two sources – the archaeological remnant of their civilization, and the writings of their Greek and Roman contemporaries. The former is frustratingly incomplete, the latter is full of biases, stereotypes, and romanticism reminiscent of the “noble savage” mythologies of more recent centuries. The popular Roman historians especially delighted in depicting the Celtic peoples of Gaul, Britain, Spain, and Northern Italy as barbarians, headhunting warriors who charged into battle drunk and naked, eager to harvest prisoners to sacrifice to their brutish forest-gods.

Thinking about Druidism, I have to wonder just how brutish the forest gods actually were and just how much of the story was propaganda spread by the Romans. Doubtless, those were brutal times that we wouldn't wish to return to.

However, considering what I read in the news regularly, I tend to doubt our race has become generally less barbaric over the course of history. It occurs to me that the people responsible for allowing the disaster of the nuclear power plants at Fukushima could certainly be described that way and it's best not to spend too much time thinking about other recent examples of atrocities. I wish it weren't so and I'm always glad to read more positive interpretations of a past we'll never really know.

All the best