The following principles have been guiding my thinking about sacred place—in Ireland, the Driftless, anywhere. They are related to Ireland’s Celtic past, although they are not exclusively Celtic. Nonetheless, they give me a new lens through which to view my own landscape.
- The landscape is spiritual. I speak with a woman who has witnessed the winter solstice sunrise as it lit up the interior of Newgrange, a Neolithic tomb near Dublin. A no-nonsense historian who had previously viewed the structure simply as an astronomical site, she says, “But when you get in there and it actually happens…you begin to see the power of the sun and your connection to it. You realize this is your moment with the sun, individual and personal.” - In the Driftless I walk about the Effigy Mounds near Marquette, IA, with bear and bird-shaped ceremonial and burial mounds above the Mississippi, and I feel the earth nearly bursting with meaning, even if the precise intent of the mound builders has been lost to time.
- The Creation is good. While many a theologian has tried to drive a wedge between the spiritual and the physical universe, the Judeo-Christian tradition begins, unequivocally, with the Genesis story of God acknowledging each day that the creation is “good.” So in the River Shannon the salmon bring both knowledge and sustenance. - The Mississippi River knows no salmon, but it is the most important migratory flyway of North America. We have polluted and strapped down both rivers, but they retain a wildness despite our vain attempts at controlling them. (But if the creation is “good,” how then to explain natural disasters? While the creation is often good to us and for us, it is nonetheless a good unto itself and to its creator. The good of creation is not defined solely in human terms.)
- The Holy may be found in ordinary, bountiful places. The most peaceful place on earth (I have decided) is the monastic ruin of Glendalough, set in a lush, beautiful valley in the Wicklow mountains, whose twin lakes no doubt presented the 6th century monks with plenty of fish and whose mountain flanks offered deer and wild boars. - Sticking with religious houses for the moment, the Driftless offers similarly peaceful and holy sites at Sinsinawa, Mississippi Abbey, and New Melleray Abbey, each set amid land of plenty and ordinary beauty. But other landscapes are holy as well. The prairie, too, is an ordinary place of holiness, where beauty and the sacred is found in a tiny patch of ground as opposed to the grand and overwhelming.
- The Holy may be found in austere, remote places. But sometimes one must go to the ends of the earth and to the rocky outpost to encounter the Holy. The Aran Islands combine the rocky barrenness of the Burren with the remoteness of islands just visible from the mainland. To these islands flocked Ireland’s early Christian monastics, particularly as they began their spiritual journeys. They needed to find themselves before they could found monasteries. The remote places include the personal interior encountered in stark silence. - Trempealeau, Wisconsin, with its deep summer green along the Upper Mississippi may seem neither austere nor remote, but imagine it in winter as an outpost colony of the Cahokian civilization near present-day St. Louis in 1100 A.D. What compelled these people to travel 500 miles upstream and establish a village, and to build huge ceremonial platform mounds on the river bluffs? What austerity did these people find in their first Driftless winters?
- Animals are Fellow Companions. In the Celtic tradition, animals were messengers from the gods and even from the Christian God. People could shape-shift into animals and then return to human form. Even a St. Patrick legend tells of the missionary and his band appearing as a herd of deer as they pass by the army of a local king opposed to Patrick’s Christian evangelizing. Pope Francis in Laudato Sí, writes, “Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things.” And so I wander about Connemara, Ireland, in the National Park that is plentiful with living things—butterflies, birds, sheep, cattle, rabbits, foxes—no snakes! But there are carnivorous plants!—even in places like the bog that at first glance appear lifeless. - In the Driftless I accompany ornithologist Jon Stravers as he studies red-shouldered hawks and cerulean warblers, and builds his own stone effigy of a hawk on a Yellow River State Forest cliff overlook.
- Time is elastic and cyclical in the Thin Places. “Thin Places” is the name for those places in Celtic mythology where the veil between our world and the otherworld is thin and transparent, and may even be crossed. In such places our usual sense of time is distorted. In the Thin Places we may see time from nature’s viewpoint, not from the human’s. So in the rocky Burren time stretches out across the stony limestone pavements, and lakes (turloughs) disappear overnight like magic when the water table drops. In between the barren limestone blocks grow a vast assortment of wildflowers. Everything seems “off” and timeless—abundant life amid the barren rocks; marine fossils exposed to the present-day sun; Neolithic tombs amid this April’s most tender wildflowers. – At the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in the Driftless another kind of timelessness prevails in a bluff-surrounded valley of rare plant and animal species and Native American artifacts that were intended to be flooded by an ill-fated plan to dam the valley. The past and present continue simultaneously, having dodged the dam construction that would have reduced all to no-time.
- The landscape is storied. In certain places, one can’t help but feel the story of what has transpired at that location. In the Wicklow Mountains on a solitary bike ride I encounter—at some distance from the road—a memorial to a civil war victim murdered at that place, and I likewise think of the long tradition of Irish rebels hiding from the British in the Wicklow Mountains. At the Doo Lough Pass in Connemara, the story of famine victims dying alongside the beautiful Doo Lough (Lake) haunts the path if you get out of your car long enough to feel its presence. - In the Driftless the concluding massacre of the Black Hawk War hangs in the air at the battle site between Prairie du Chien and La Crosse. From the battle bluff and the river shore and even from a steamboat, the U.S. Army and militia mowed down Sauk warrior and civilian alike, with accounts of women with children on their backs being shot as they attempted to swim the Mississippi to safety. You cannot visit this place without feeling the weight of its past.
- Poets summon the stories from the land. The land may be storied, but it requires humans to give shape to its tales. At the top of Knocknarea sits a Neolithic passage tomb that Celtic tradition transformed into the legendary Queen Maeve’s grave, giving a home in the landscape to the colorful if problematic queen of the Tain, Celtic Ireland’s key epic story. Poets occupied one of the key positions of respect in Celtic Ireland, and writers are still held in high esteem there. – At the edge of the Driftless (just beyond its technical boundaries) lies the Leopold Shack, the humble summer and weekend dwelling of America’s most influential nature writer, Aldo Leopold, and his family. Leopold interpreted the earth’s story, sounded warning against the abuse of the landscape, and called upon us to develop a “land ethic.”
These principles no doubt raise the question of just what kind of spirituality am I engaging in here. My Christian friends may see me as consorting a little too closely with indigenous and New Age beliefs. New Agers may find my fascination with Christian monks hopelessly dated and irrelevant to the current times. Non-believers may not get much beyond my discussions of geology and the glacial periods.
But I tend to see more similarity than difference among all of these.
Understand, I am not saying they are all the same. I am a Christian, an active Catholic. My personal beliefs are more idiosyncratic than dogmatic, but I’m not important enough for anyone to have held my feet to the fire (so to speak, in the modern era at least). But the knowledge and curiosity about pre-, non-, and-post Christians hasn’t made me any less fond of the Jesus who told his followers that if his Father so loved the lilies and the sparrows, is not his love for us even greater.
But spirituality is not dogma. Spirituality of the landscape across all of these traditions invokes a sense of awe, wonder, and sense of something both deeper and greater than the physical universe (itself a marvel and a great, good thing).
Neolithic man marking the solstices and equinoxes for practicality’s sake but most likely with something grander in mind—otherwise why not just line up two rocks with the sunrise and call it a day? Pre-Christian Celts—and their indigenous brothers and sisters everywhere—assigning the powers of nature to the gods and goddesses. The early Christian Celts interpreting these beliefs in ways consistent with Christianity (rather than denouncing, forbidding, and denigrating indigenous beliefs, as has been all too often the custom of Christian evangelizers). The geologist, who looks at a landscape and imagines (and theorizes) what succession of natural forces created it. The New Ager, who splices an eclectic contemporary belief out of ribbons of ancient and world-wide faiths. The nonbeliever standing in awe and wonder at the forces of nature and the deep tradition of humans who have walked upon the earth.
Awe and wonder. That’s the spirituality that links all of these. Just how was this world—no, this particular hilltop on which I stand—shaped? What is the nature of nature? Who are our forebears who stood on this plot of land and perhaps died here, and what does it mean that I can almost feel their story in the rocks and trees and bog?
The rest is dogma: polytheism, monotheism, atheism. You go your way and I’ll go mine.
Perhaps it’s best to remember the etymological roots of three words related to spirituality: 1) Regardless of how the word is commonly used today, “agnostic” originally meant “not knowing.” May we all remain a little agnostic within our beliefs, so that we don’t lose our sense of awe and wonder due to our unfailing certainty. Saying this is nothing more (or less) radical than what the Christian mystics have told us all along. 2) “Religion” etymologically means to “bind together again.” Let this be a bonding that unites us rather than enslaves us or others. “Religion” is also related to the word “ligament,” which allows movement even as it binds bone to bone. And 3) speaking of bone, the word “sacred” is linked to the word “sacrum,” the bone at the base of the spinal cord. The sacred arises amid the earthy physicality of the earth. If you don’t also seek the sacred in the earth you will find only its shadow in the heavens.
Just prior to Christianization, the Irish Celts developed their own version of the Roman alphabet, called Ogham, in response to their interaction with the Romans entrenched in Britain (the Romans never attempted to enter Ireland, but traded with the Irish). Each letter of the Ogham alphabet was named for a particular tree: A was called Ailm, or Fir; B, Beithe, or Birch; C, Coll, or Hazel; D, Dair, or Oak. And so forth, with Alder, Hawthorn, Yew, Ash, and Willow standing as names for Ogham alphabet letters.
Christianization of the Celts soon followed, and the Ogham alphabet remained in use for yet a few centuries. “In the beginning was the Word,” the Christian evangelists surely told the Irish Celts, “and the Word was God.”
But for the ancient Celts, the alphabet was the trees.