Place and the Holy

A few weeks ago, Lena and I attended a workshop/retreat facilitated by a Scottish man named John Philip Newell. It was called The Memory of the Sacred: Earth, Body and Soul in Celtic Wisdom. Newell walked us through an understanding of Celtic Spirituality and Christianity. It is a spirituality with a number of themes, highlighting things like the awareness and valuing of the body, the importance of women as leaders, the presence of God in all creation, and the casting aside of the idea of “original sin.” While these ideas are not all new to me, Newell gave me some new windows into how I think about the sacred in life. He also reminded me how much of our ways of thinking about God are connected to particular geographic places and their histories. Views of God and life that come from of Ireland and Scotland have their own unique flavor. Having recently been to those lands, I have a bit better sense of the connections that Newell pointed out.

Last year when we were in Ireland, we also spent some time in the Connemara region of that country. This area has a deep history and being there is an amazing glimpse of the Celtic psyche. We spent a day in the Burren Region, a place with a rocky, desolate landscape, in the town of Ballyvaughan. This area is near the ancestral home of author John O’Donahue, another person who gives insight into the Celtic outlook on the holy. I remember being in that town, stealing away for a bit of time on my own, sipping a good cup of coffee and reading the early pages of his book Anam Cara (Soul Friend). In the prologue of the book, he writes these words, “A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world.” For the Celts, God is not a head trip or intellectual exercise, but the experience of all creation. In Celtic thinking and living, the inner and outer worlds are deeply connected. Our understanding of the holy comes from experience of the places we both reside and travel. 

In my mind, place has everything to do with how we think about God. The places we were born and raised have everything to do with how we see the world. When we travel, it is wise to remember that we take our home—our personal place—with us. What is wonderful is the magic that comes when one place visits another place. In this alchemy, something new is often created. What gets created in this act is a pretty good reason to travel.

Spiritual Practice: Poetic Inspiration

Before you go anywhere, find some ways to be inspired by a writer from where you might be traveling. Here is a blessing called “For the Traveler” from John O’Donahue:

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

– John O’Donohue

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