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Celtic Spirituality in Robin Hood Country

May 14, 2010

Mountain biking in the woods - a spiritual discipline?

I took these pictures last sunday 9th May 2010 while cycling in woods in North Nottinghamshire, which in medieval times used to be part of Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood fame. The pictures reflect different aspects of these woods – the sun dappling the ground through the leafy canope of trees; the sandy, mulchy, humus rich soil of this part of the world; the fresh, verdancy of new leaves and the winsome, tender splendour of wild flowers. They also reflect part of my life story. Riding in the woods on Sunday reminded me of a writer and how his eloquent words helped my healing and recovery from a period of illness over five years ago. 

In the spring of 2005, I began to take my first breaths of newness and to taste life afresh while emerging from a season of quite bleak alienation and personal pain. Later that year in the summer, I happened to visit a local bookshop and glimpsed the spine of a book with an intriguing title – Eternal Echoes – Exploring Our Hunger to Belong. I picked it up and began carefully leafing through it. I read with interest the gentle, peaceful words which described the enchanting landscape of Ireland and a perspective on Christianity that I had never really met before – Irish Celtic Christianity. Yet, John O’Donohue was clearly not writing a history book, but a sensitive, welcoming invitation to modern people to participate in an ancient spirituality of harmony with nature and land. I felt calmed and refreshed just flicking through it…I bought it and took it home.   

Several months later I was on holiday in Greece, staying in a splendid, small self-catering resort and enveloped in the sunny warmth, sandy beaches, warm, clean swimming pools and salty sea of the Peloponnese. At that time, I had been working for nearly five years in a brute, physical job at a warehouse and I was growing increasingly weary in body and soul of the grueling labour and repetition. My holiday in Greece was a blissful interlude, refreshing, spellbindingly beautiful, richly sensuous and a perfect opportunity to rest from activity and delve into this mysterious book.  

In Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue made alive the temperate climes of the Irish countryside and coast – grassy mountains, blue lakes and moss-covered, weathered stones half-buried, half-exposed in the green hills. He described the echoes of the wind in the hills. He suggested that we busy, stressed, media and consumption driven modern people needed to rediscover, listen and hear for ourselves an echo from Beyond. A voice of transcendence that whispered to human souls through the ancient, natural landscapes. I was enthralled. Reading O’Donohue my own alienation and isolation from the natural world became apparent to me. I sensed the Spirit of God desiring to speak to me through nature. A feeling of release gradually welled up inside me. In those ‘sacred’ moments, the writer and his book Eternal Echoes, gently prized me free from the shackles of my suffocating, industrialised, technological and consumerist lifestyle.  

One short chapter spoke to me at the time that reminded me of the woods that I frequent so often now. That have become for me a natural sanctuary. John O’Donohue writes of ‘Our Longing for Nature’:  

‘Celtic spirituality reminds us that we do not live simply in our thoughts, feelings or relationships. We belong to the earth. The rhythm of the clay and its seasons sings within our hearts. The sun warms the clay and fosters life. The moon blesses the night. In the uncluttered world of Celtic spirituality there is a clear view of the sacrament of nature as it brings forth visible presence.’  

'We belong to the earth' John O' Donohue

 ‘The Celts worshipped in groves in nature and attended to the silent divinity of wild places. Certain wells, trees, animals and birds were sacred to them. Where and what a people worship always offers a clue to where they understand the source of life to be. Most of our experience of religion happens within the walled frame of a church or temple. Our God is approached through thought, word and ritual. The Celts had no walls around their worship. Being in nature was already to be in the Divine Presence. Nature was the theatre of the diverse dramaturgies of the Divine Imagination.’  

Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue, Pages 19-20  

I love those words:  

‘We belong to the earth.’  

‘The Celts had no walls around their worship.’ 

‘ Being in nature was already to be in the Divine Presence.’

 

Sweet chestnut leaves burst into life - 9th May 2010, North Notts, England

Riding my bike at the weekend, I remembered John O’Donohue’s words and how they inspired me to get out my bike again and venture out into the woods. For many years I lived a divided life. Now I feel that I can live a much more holistic life. I enjoy and revere the sense of Beyond  and receive the life-giving generosity of the Universe wherever I may be. Quietly drinking in the spiritual balance of nature in the woods. Celebrating the vibrancy and plurality of human cultural expressions in the city. It’s good to be whole again.  

'See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.' ( Pictured - Bluebells, North Notts, 9th May 2010)

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