Having meditated with Thomas Merton the last three days, it seems appropriate to consider Celtic consciousness and the Ground of being.

“Looking down the hillside.” Elder walker, Powys, Wales, UK. Photo by Dave Goodman on Flickr.

Why?  Because Merton was explicit about his Celtic roots:

It is the Welsh in me that counts: that is what does the strange things, and writes the books, and drives me into the woods.  Thank God for the Welsh in me and for all those Birds, those Celts.

(Bird was the family name of Merton’s Welsh grandmother.)

Celtic spirituality is a spirituality of Creation, an awareness of our presence in the sacred grace of Creation. St. Patrick is said to have introduced goodness or blessings as the key element in Celtic spiritual consciousness.  As Thomas Cahill put it in his classic book, How the Irish Saved Civilization,

The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the Druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success…. All nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind’s good, teaching, succoring, and saving.*

Holy Well of St. Patrick, Belcoo, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, where legend says the saint exorcised the pagan entity Crom Cruach. Photo by Anelle Kloski on Flickr.

In a poem attributed to Patrick called “The Deer Cry,” or “Breastplate,” he repeats twice the key phrase, The Creator of Creation. This poem, probably birthed in the seventh or eighth century, offers “the first ringing assertion that the universe itself is the Great Sacrament.”

The natural world is no longer a place of dread. It is revelatory, speaking to us heart to heart.

This sense of the world as holy, as the Book of God—as a healing mystery fraught with divine messages—could never have risen out of Greco-Roman civilization, threaded with the profound pessimism of the ancients and their Platonic suspicion of the body as unholy.

The Celtic spirit resisted the fear-ridden sexual preoccupations of Jerome, Augustine and the dominant Western church, for in its view “all the world was holy, and so was all the body.” Its attitude is one of trust and expectations. 

The California Revels perform an arrangement of St. Patrick’s Breastplate at the César Chávez Memorial Solar Calendar in Berkeley, CA, as a plea for healing in time of COVID, March 17, 2021.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of the sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

Celtic theologian John Scotus Erigena, writing in the ninth century, says:

God is both above everything and in everything, since he, who alone truly is, is the Essence of everything and although he is whole in everything, he does not cease being whole outside of everything: whole in the world, whole around the world, whole in sensible creation; whole he makes the universe, whole he is made in the universe, whole in the whole of the universe; whole in its parts.

Studying astronomy and geometry at a medieval university. Artist unknown, public domain.

Erigena was the first philosopher to use the term universitas which played a big role in medieval thinking and in the invention of the university in the twelfth century. The term universitas included God and Creation. It bespeaks cosmology.  The university was a place you went to in order to find your place in the universe.

*Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1995), pp. 131. Other citations are from pp. 116, 133, 135, 117.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 251f. 

Also Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, pp.45f.

Banner Image: “Celtic Cross.” Photo by Jonathan Brennan on Flickr.

Do you see the universe as “the Great Sacrament”?  What follows from that?  Do you see the university as a place you go to find your place in the universe?  Why or why not?

Recommended Reading

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

Join Matthew Fox for a thought-provoking 7-week course: Answer the Call for an Uncommon Life Through the Mystical Teachings of St. Hildegard, Tuesdays, 6/15 to 7/27. While the course has begun, registration remains open, with recordings of past classes available. Learn more HERE.

Join Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Rev. Matthew Fox for a 1.5-day Virtual Teach-in on “Cosmic Wisdom and the Divine Feminine: Lost Insights for an Emerging World.” Friday, June 25, 4:00 PM to Saturday, June 26, 2:30 PM Pacific (GMT/UTC-7). Enroll HERE.

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11 thoughts on “Celtic Spirituality and the Ground of Being”

  1. Avatar

    What a gorgeous and powerful phrase “the first ringing assertion that the universe itself is the Great Sacrament.”
    I love today’s meditation.
    For me the universe in all its grandeur is the Temple, or “templum” meaning place of worship. It never locks its doors to anyone and is always open to all.
    Such a magnificent universe we have inherited…

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Thank you for your comment, Steve! Indeed, “the universes itself is the Great Sacrament!”

  2. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    I too see all of creation as a sacrament, the giving of the goodness of God offered to all as gifts, to be shared, cared for and tended to as a sacred blessing… to be received, accepted, acknowledged and responded to… with gratitude… deeply loved… each expression a beloved treasure to be valued. The experience of life given itself and all of creation I see as a kind of university… for each created thing teaches and learns from one another. Life experienced here in relationship with the all and the everything of creation itself is the greatest university, the great school of learning. I think of Thomas Aquinas and his revelatory words that all of nature, all of creation is the book written by God… which I never tire of gazing upon, listening to, observing and learning from. It’s a different kind of teaching and way of learning than what one encounters in a man made university institution… which we might do well to incorporate into these very institutions… getting our bodies and minds out from inside walls, books and computers… outside in the universal school of creation and nature, so that we can engage our hearts and souls as well… that opens us up into these new ways of learning and teaching one another… through relationship with, in a more engaging and intimate way.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, all of creation IS a sacrament and is a kind of university. As Eckhart wrote, “Every creature is a word of God. If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature–even a caterpillar–I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.” And you point out that Aquinas wrote that all creation is a book written by God. And I Once read a book by a theologian named Jack Provonsha titled, GOD IS WITH US which spoke of how God reveals Godself in our relationships with others. In other words, there are more ways to learn than in books and school…

  3. Avatar

    Oh ya Matt, “God” does speak our Universal Language. In visions and locutions God speaks through a person’s given religion, tradition or culture. When some people study about God as cosmic, God may communicate to them in a universal way through their given visions and locutions. Obviously it is all about God speaking through nature in every way possible, that is, in all ways. Thanks again for your illusion piercing insights!

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Gary, indeed God does speak through nature “in every way possible, that is in all ways!” That about sums it up!

  4. Avatar

    And here we have it, the ground of my own human origins, Clan O’HUaruisce. Patrick (Pádraig Watters) aka PatrIck Perching Eagle aka anonemoose monk }:- a.m.

    Celtic from the age of Dal Riada to Lakota of Dakota territory, and yet “en Christo” ultimately.

  5. Avatar

    Dear Matt..I have been joining your daily meditations on the Ground of Being. For me, the Ground of Being, which I try to stay in touch with moment to moment, contrasts with the Conditioned Self, which although it keeps a toe in this ground, is for the most part painted by culture (mediated initially through our families) on our outside and “off the Ground”. That is why we are compelled to “enact” the Self in order to experience ourselves as connected to others–it’s the cultural price of social membership that is indispensable to us since we are social beings completed through each other. But the cultural reciprocity of selves “floats on the outside of us” in our enactments (of gender, to take one small example). To be in touch with the Ground of Being beneath the Self, the Ground on which Being actually stands, is salvation, really.

    Many thanks for your multiple lenses into the presence of Being.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Peter, thank you for sharing your perspective on the “Ground of Being.” And I like your concluding statement: “To be in touch with the Ground of Being beneath the Self, the Ground on which Being actually stands, is salvation, really.”

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