A NATION AND PEOPLE CHANGED
Recently, one of Ireland’s few exorcists, Fr Pat Collins, has charged that the hierarchy of his church is out of touch with the reality of Irish conditions. Despite or because of the decline of faith (he calls it “apostasy”) there has been an exponential increase in troubled people seeking and not finding deliverance from states they rightly or wrongly believe to be demonic possession. Exorcists and their ministry are lacking in Ireland. https://goo.gl/owAZN8
There is no question that the whole face of religion in Ireland has changed in the last two to three decades in the wake of the combined effect of disillusioning revelations of severe, often sexual, child abuse among the once revered clerical class and the Celtic Tiger years in which Ireland enjoyed levels of economic prosperity alien to long national experience. Multiculturalism which has brought in a variety of faiths has also added to what can sometimes seem like chaotic change. Who would ever have imagined the day would come that Ireland would be debating the legality of such as female genital mutilation favoured by some Irish Muslims?
Though many do still attend mass, one in ten no longer adhere to any faith, but what has emerged is less pure secularism than a kind of new ageism or neo-paganism some of which may still be quasi-Catholic in its way. It is very evident in the case of bestselling Lorna Byrne (Angels in my Hair – she sees helping angels everywhere all the time and she forecasts that Christians will eventually worship at Mecca) and Joe Cassidy the much in demand diviner.
Celtic and especially Irish religion is a rare and special phenomenon that takes some understanding, but here I am going to try to diagnose its strange ills. Historically and positively there is no question about the service Ireland and the Celts gave to religion and western civilisation itself which they helped preserve during the early dark ages.
There is no question either that there is some kind of, mystical, psychic and imaginative talent that the Irish bring to religion, but there is also an underlying darkness and repression and now, under western secularism, a new malaise. Can we hope to explain, diagnose and cure this? In one essay obviously not, but I can offer a few pointers and I feel this should be done especially as there is something amid all the change that takes us right back to origins, to the beginning of an era now ending and even the often overlooked contact of St Paul with one version of the Celtic mind and culture.
THE JOHN O’ DONOHUE INPUT
One of the classier and for its implications more significant expressions of the new outlook, is found in the bestselling works of onetime priest, philosopher and poet, John O’Donohue (1956-2008). He is most celebrated for Anam Cara (Soul Friend) which I wouldn’t consider his best work but which struck a chord in and out of Ireland, perhaps most for reassuring people there is nothing to fear in death and that much in modern life distracts from essentials. One person who knew O’Donohue , was strongly influenced by him and has helped popularize him and with it ideas of spirit helpers, past lives together, conversations with angels, etc is Ireland’s best selling novelist, Patricia Scanlan (see her recent inquiry Bringing Death to Life), a point I mention in support of my view that to read and interpret O’Donohue in any notably Christian way is to distort him and misunderstand his influence at a time of change.
Raised in the Gaeltacht and the austere landscape of Co Clare’s Burren region that he nevertheless loved, O’Donohue was a pleasing personality with a wonderful Irish voice that graced his poetry and statements with a sort of oracular profundity not always due them. His fluent prose can moreover be more poetic than his poetry.
O’Donohue was almost prototypically Irish, a one man guide to the Celtic mind itself, a reason to explore his work. Significantly too, belatedly he brings German figures, especially Hegel and Goethe, into the orbit of Irish thought where they long needed to be because German culture has a lot to say about development, nature and “culture”, themes with affinity for the Celtic legacy in a way the many Latin influences upon Ireland from Dante to Proust don’t necessarily support.
O’Donohue regards the Celts as a nature people. He himself perceives landscape as “full of soul” and animate which recalls assumptions of the theosophist poet seer of the Irish Renaissance, AE, and even the bible, especially Ezekiel 36, though he doesn’t seem familiar with either source on this. He nevertheless calls landscape “the first born of creation” which seems to be a misremembering of a biblical dictum “Christ is the first born] [or preeminent] of creation” (Col 1:15).
Following seminary and studies at Maynooth, O’Donohue pursued philosophy (especially Hegel’s) at Tubingen perhaps most famous for its liberal theology, Bultmann and “demythologizing”. In some respects O’Donohue is himself a demythologizer of things Catholic but under the influence not of modern scholarship but medieval Meister Eckhart’s quirky, ultimately heretical mysticism beloved of new agers. Eckhart opines and O’ Donohue concurs, that nothing is so like God as silence, a denial of deity as the Creative Word/Logos that calls forth creation. O’Donohue has no real sense of the Creator. It’s worth noting that Ireland’s extensive mythic legacy lacks creation myths.
So…..while O’Donohue has described and expressed many elements of Irish character, its social spontaneity and capacity for solitude, its “wildness and serenity” – what’s Irish emerges if anything as a set of seeming contradictions and paradoxes – one may still question the new age drift of his interpretations and the mystic balm he offers the Irish and many others who nowadays draw inspiration from Celtica.
Although O’Donohue had the right to believe and teach whatever he liked, I still baulk at quite how much from his quasi-Catholic position ( Anam Cara is itself a concept of Early Celtic Christianities) he misreads where religion is concerned. Trained and practicing as a priest for much of his life, he seems more biblically illiterate than laypersons (like Edna O’Brien’s Co Clare mother to gather from O’Brien’s autobiography) and scarcely to have grasped what Christianity was about short of sending out hopefully successful blessings.
He assumes God and Death are probably the same thing and that’s what contemplative mysticism has discovered (DB p, 225) Really?….Whatever happened to “I am the resurrection and the life”? But no; hearing people talk of heaven as a response to death, O’ Donohue thinks it only sounds unrealistic, though he allows souls slip off somewhere but their heaven is more state than place and maintains that eternal life is simply eternal memory (DBy p. 171). By contrast heaven and salvation were what Celtic Christianity, especially the early kind, were almost obsessively about.
Bordering on Christian atheism, O’Donohue’s God is the God of Eckhart “who has no why” and whose intention is simply to be. This gets justified by a misunderstanding of Yahweh’s declaration to Moses of “I am who I am” which was noticeably delivered from the fire which of the elements is the most distancing and unapproachable. A major biblical theme is that even though God fills everything (Jer 23:24) humanity is still separated from God, especially by iniquities (Is 59:2), making barriers hard for both humanity and deity to overcome. (Even in most world myth the Creator withdraws, but recall Irish myth has a significant gap re creation). Given the withdrawal, wisdom accordingly begins with a degree of fear or respect of the Lord who it is advised to fear as a being with power to commit to hell (Luk 12:5), a notion O’Donohue won’t even countenance..
For O’ Donohue there is no barrier between us and whatever constitutes deity. This is one reason why soul knows no fear including of death – he cites the ancient world atheist philosopher, Lucretius to lend support. Accordingly prayer is just sending out your light rather than communing with God, while holiness is hearing your own voice or even being at home. One could go on and on about with the quotes and self-reflective claims, but does any of this matter beyond to say O’Donohue was a trendy writer somewhat apostate from his role of priest? I will suggest a certain pattern emerges with deep roots in the history and complexes of Celtic faith we need to understand.
ST PAUL AND THE CELTS
O’Donohue represents two things. First, and perhaps as long ago anticipated by St Paul, he belongs among those who especially in the last times (we’re necessarily in them if the St Malachy prophecy is to be believed!) will have “a form of godliness but denying the power of it” (2 Tim 3:5), an interesting idea I will return to in citing a few of the philosopher’s more controversial statements. But second and importantly, O’Donohue is an aspect of and clue to the problem of Celtic psychology and religion over the centuries, one that harks right back to, once again, St Paul who appears to have clashed directly with tendencies of the Celtic mind in the realm of spirituality.
Two millennia ago the Celts were still quite strongly represented across Europe from Ireland to modern day Turkey where Galatia was in effect a province of the Gauls or Celts. The Roman poet Catullus identifies himself as one of the Cisalpine Celts of North Italy; and supportive of the ancient view that the Celtic character was uniformly distinctive, his poetry with its violent satire, its Maud Gonne type syndrome around his ill fated love for Lesbia, the rushing hysterical golliambics of Poem LX111, virtually unique in Latin poetry, betray the relevant character. So we may assume Celtic character and attitudes in Galatia and they seem to have been present.
On the positive side the apostle commends the at least originally enthusiastic spirituality he’d witnessed and in what sounds like its visionary nature (Gal 3:1). And it is to the Galatians that Paul declares the famous oneness in Christ that abolishes distinctions of Jew and Greek (Gentile), slave and free, male and female (Gal 3:28). To be realistic about this, in the extremely class ridden, hierarchal, patriarchal society of the Roman empire, it would be those of Celtic culture who would be more open than most to receiving this kind of radical message.
On the negative side Paul has two linked complaints. The Galatians have quickly become obsessed and enchanted with the Jewish Law in a manner that gets in the way of faith and grace itself (Gal 3:2). He also complains of something almost its opposite, a return or submission to elemental spirits (Gal 4:8) and through an obsessive ritualism and observance of festivals, a kind of paganising as opposed to a Judaizing tendency.
Again this is interesting because earliest Irish religion (and plenty existed before and after St Patrick fed by various influences from abroad as far away as Egypt), shows a distinct interest in Jewish law and/or a way of works. The Celtic monk Pelagius, from whence the Pelagian heresy, regarded Christ as the supreme example to follow, but essentially on a path which obtains salvation without his intervention, a way of works without a redeemer.
There is an affinity of sorts between Irish and Jews – James Joyce explored it and the association of Irish and Jews in America gives some evidence of it. Accordingly one might have imagined the liberating and poetic Hebrew prophetic tradition that supports so much in the gospels might have been of greater interest. I can only assume it was the importance of the brehons and the lawyer class that supported a more legalistic trend. There would thus develop St Paul’s two poles: Judaistic tendencies among the elite and paganish ones (holy wells and cults of the saints) among the hoi polloi! Or perhaps women. The Irish American but very Irish radical feminist Mary Daly whose occult voyage I consider in Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency, virtually curses St Paul in her Pure Lust riposte to Galatians and her quest for “The Elemental Powers of Be-ing”. What it seems everyone needs is those elementals.
But we also find something of this in the more rationalist and male O’Donohue who while he airily and academically speaks of “the notion of God”, “the concept of a God”, “the concept of resurrection” not only believes that all our inspirations come from “angels”, but is strangely tolerant of, even favourable to, stories of ghosts and house spirits in western Ireland and not upsetting them.
Perhaps they never got upset enough and are even returning with a vengeance to trouble the likes of Fr Collins. It’s not as though Irish myth and faery lore however dreamily beautiful was ever particularly benign and conducive to living “happily ever after” – even leprechauns can turn nasty. Neo-Pagan author Lora O’Brien admits that while her visualizations for god contacts are almost always safe, if you run into problems there’s always “therapy” can help. Or Fr Collins if he can collect enough experts?
A LEGALISM AND ELEMENTALS CURSE?
St Paul warns there is a curse upon both legalism and what he regards as the paganish “bewitchment” of his Celtic believers, basically because they subject the person to what he calls “the flesh”. As indicated in my last blog, “flesh” is not necessarily, certainly not always, what people imagine. It can mean soul as opposed to organizing spirit whether personal or divine, which last is supposed to be the foundation of true liberation. (O’Donohue is absolutely obsessed with soul but seems in a total muddle when it comes to human spirit and/or Holy Spirit).
I think in effect the apostle is suggesting that to work well or at all, there is a certain technique in accepting even the gospel…..We had better not ask the question whether he meant more and that people who mismanage the gospel destroy themselves and others, since with so many shadows and misfortunes across Irish history one could almost wonder if something like a curse was involved!
Be that as it may, the curse of Celtic legalism soon emerged in the early Irish penitentials. If they prove anything at all, it is that the Irish religious spirit (so busy as in St Patrick’s Breastplate in blessing and protecting itself against sundry ills) was never especially open to ideas and beliefs of the “Amazing Grace” variety such as Paul advocates in Galatians and writes to defend. Instead, believers were required to punish themselves and earn their way to divine forgiveness, favour and salvation. Some of the penances could last years or half a lifetime and highjack all normal existence. (One wonders how much they were actually practiced, but the attitude they express was intimidating and repressive).
It is commonly said Irish Puritanism or “Jansenism” entered with some French priests over two centuries ago. The fact is it was present long before with brutally unforgiving, salvation-earning Irish missionaries to Europe like the efficient but ill tempered St Columbanus who couldn’t bring himself to bless and baptize a child born out of wedlock even if it was royal. Much that has been most typical of western Catholicism in terms of so called priestly power (priestcraft) and penance is a consequence of Irish/ Celtic missions which, regrettably, as much imprisoned Europe as saved its civilisation. (Admittedly Italy’s Pope Gregory the Great has his share in what developed). For more on curses and lack of forgiveness and medieval Ireland see Staging Sweeney Frenzy: Irish Parable or Problem? https://wp.me/p2v96G-1b2
Above all the penitentials and their attitude were repressive of the image of deity itself. There were two ways of getting round this: either asking saints and angels to approach the unapproachable God on your behalf…..or subtly dissolving the image of God altogether.
The Irish were expert in and preserved Greek sources and so under the influence of neo-Platonism, perhaps especially Pseudo-Dionysius, the ninth century Irish philosopher John Scotus Erigena developed a whole “negative” philosophy which renders God ultimately unnameable and indescribable unless in precisely negatives. (God is not good because beyond good, not love because above and beyond love and so on). This sort of thing allows you, if you wish, to join Mary Daly in going “Beyond God the Father” if via less magical, occult means then Daly who finishes up with wicca. Erigena’s effort towards salvation got swallowed up in a doctrine of universalism.
A more literalist version of faith overtook Ireland and/or its intellectual class when in the twelfth century the reformist St Malachy of Armagh helped (along with English interventions ) to bring the island under the western Catholic rule to which it had never fully previously adhered. The Catholic change imposed images of a more definable, “masculine” form of deity while with Malachy as friend of the pioneeringly Marian St Bernard – Mary had fed him breast milk – over against God, Mary came increasingly to symbolize the principle of grace and mercy through Christ in a way the St Paul of Galatians would not have recognized.
Interesting, another medieval philosopher the Irish or Scotch, Duns Scotus, spilled much ink in the thirteenth century promoting the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which at the time was not believed or even thought heretical. However, Ireland’s absorption to western Catholicism gradually turned the country, for psychological as much as theological reasons, into a species of one large Legion of Mary that until the twenty first century it would considerably remain. Dia is Muire duit (“God and Mary to you” ) was a common Irish greeting. All this had and has consequences.
MARY AND THE GREAT MOTHER
Attitudes and beliefs as regards Mary have effect, spiritual and/or psychological in a variety of ways, which those like Fr Collins keen to augment Ireland’s exorcism services might need to absorb given that Catholic exorcism falls under Marian patronage. In Italy where exorcism has made a major comeback, rather noticeably as I point out in Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency, goo.gl/se5qBn the rite tends to be more like an ongoing therapy session (sometimes across years!). It rarely supplies the outright deliverance the early church was famous for and which find more duplication in some Protestant circles where there is no invocation of Mary, saints or angels but Christ only. (In early Christianity any believer was supposed to be able if necessary to exorcize. There was certainly no need to obtain prior permission from bishops). There is unavoidably something aggressive in exorcism and even in some elements of Christian proclamation like the original opposition to paganism – as though St Patrick never challenged the druids, O’Donohue imagines Ireland knew no conflict between Christianity and Paganism! Anyway, I andt follows that when Christ is not centre of both grace and power, a measure of aggression falls to the image and role of Mary. The devouring Great Mother may emerge and even while superficially she may be presented as sweet to the point of plaster saint saccharine. There are even quaint Irish appeals to Mary to go box an enemy’s ears, though this oddity is nothing to the so-called wars of Christianity which are effectively wars of Mary. (Shock-jock queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid correctly enough defined the conquest of Latin America as something performed for Mary or at her visionary behest) 
The Great Mother, or Mary psychologically substituting for her, is a problematic figure for the Celts. The Celtic male risks being drowned or castrated by her and basically because, like O’Donohue, he is so full of “soul” and imagination she attracts and repels as the possibility of an organizing factor upon an artistic receptivity that borders on passivity. Catullus learned her power first by falling for the insatiable Lesbia, a woman apparently older than himself, then fearfully trying to banish her power and influence in his anti Great Mother as Cybele (Poem, LX111). It is a significant piece not notably duplicated elsewhere among the Celts.
CUCHULAINN AND THE PUER ARCHETYPE
Although like most ancient peoples Europe’s Celts were theoretically patriarchal, they were less so than many others and not least in Ireland’s west. It’s from the West’s Connaught region that myth’s clearly matriarchal, Queen Maeve originates and from a place associated with entrance to the Celtic Otherworld. It is Maeve who precipitates the war recounted in the epic The Tain, a war in which Connaught is defeated by Ulster but chiefly the Ulsterman, Cuchulainn.
The latter is a strange, one of a kind figure, violent, multi-talented, magical youth who can transform in ways recalling hindu gods (possibly reflecting Ireland marks the furthest west, and north India the furthest east, of an Indo-Aryan expansion whose extremities retained the most traditional elements of myth and law). To the extent Cuchulainn reflects human over otherworldly traits, he might today be compared to the explosive but intellectual Milo Yiannopoulos who is actually Milo Hanrahan born in Athens but with some Irish and Jewish blood and arguably more Irish impulse than anything. Regardless, to us today Cuchulainn in his violence will seem as unattractive as Maeve is in her selfish cruelty. That’s if we read the myth very literally and/or as some oblique guide to early Irish life.
If we think more in terms of ruling archetypes and symbols, we may find it unsatisfactory that Cuchulainn’s death is anticipated by the goddess Morrigan alighting on the warrior’s shoulder as in the famous sculpture in Dublin’s Post Office. She is after all, related to, or even part of,the triple goddess of Ireland. She or they (the myth is fluid ) hold its “sovereignty” as beings who meet and give the island to the founder druid Amergin. The latter chants his magical, pantheistic identity with the land in what O’Donohue, who I think misses the point, calls a poetry of presence. But then, though not neo-pagan per se, our philosopher reminds us Ireland was seen as the body of a goddess (AC p.116)…… in which case the goddess will represent nothing so much as what’s fixed and static which could be bad news if the principle involved is unhealthy. Almost everyone would agree that despite its many positives, some traditional Irish culture could be a bit too stuck in a bog traditional altogether.
Morrigan is a dark, death and war (but also land and fertility) associated figure whom at least early Irish monks identified with Lilith, Hebrew myth’s wife of Adam who became an ally of the Satan and queen of the demons. (Lilith retains potent mauvaise reputation to this day. Any continental astrologer will tell you that the Lilith point in the heavens that they use, is regularly associated with misfortune and upset of all kinds).
WHO OWNS THE SOVEREIGNTY OF IRELAND?
What I see in musing on Irish mythic/cultural themes, is that Cuchulainn and ancient patriarchal Ulster only nominally win the battle. The sovereignty remains with the goddess or goddesses. She is able besides to oversee the death of what or who, archetypally, is less a typical mythic hero or warrior figure than a less predictable, more independent puer type figure, whose sparking, explosive nature symbolizes something within Irish character more generally. There will be problems where this originality-serving aspect of psyche is only suppressed or ignored as I think it has been again and again.
I find some significance, and even an unintended addition to the current spiritual confusion, that Irish paganist Lory O’Brien ( A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality) seeks not only to reclaim Maeve who reigned from Cruachan in Roscommon, but the goddess Morrigan from the same region. O’Brien even regards herself as specially devoted to and a priestess of Morrigan whose dwelling was near Maeve’s at Rathcroghan in Roscommon, site of a, or the, entrance to the Celtic Otherworld. It was called during medieval times “The Gate of Hell” (see pic above) which plainly makes the Otherworld to be more an Underworld or Hades. Though O’Brien, who was long a tour guide at Rathcroghan, doesn’t come across like certain female occultists and/or radical feminists a la Daly – indeed O’Brien has even described her gender as “plural” – it is still an essentially matriarchal side of the Celtic world she is reclaiming. And this belongs with a larger cultural complex and misreading of the past that any concerned psychologist or exorcist might wish to see banished as surely as (mythically) St Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland and Catullus refused the cult of Cybele.
I detect that it concerned even the radical Mary Daly that paganism’s triple goddess risked being insufficiently dynamic as a form of trinity. As maiden, mother and crone there is something passive, nature-subordinate and fate ridden about her – rather, one might say, like Ireland itself that too often seems to accept and/or invoke disaster!
Nature presents us with an oscillating Ying/Yang theoretically equal. However, no amount of feminist reform and egalitarian urges will ever quite abolish the fact that, though not an invariable rule, initiatory action is predominantly Yang while Ying is more action as reaction, a correction and modification of given situations. Problems, resentments and repressions arise where this datum is insufficiently recognized and spirituality encounters difficulty too.
Like it or not, I think it has to be accepted that there is an impulse to religion (and one may find it even in so passive a religion as Buddhism), that is in a broadest sense “phallic”/aspirational/initiatory and that the often negatively applied term “patriarchal” is insufficient to cover. This Yang force is certainly present in Judaism. (I try to suggest this and how in my poem Jeremiah’s Loincloth )  The Yang input does not automatically cancel out the Yin – another prophet Isaiah has God speak as a Mother – but it refuses the Yin a certain primacy for reasons which become clearer as the tradition reveals itself. In short I suggest a lot of spirituality, not least in Judaeo-Christianity is simply not properly lived or understood where Yin leads the way.
ABSENT THE OLD TESTAMENT
One reason Catholicism, but especially its Celtic and Marian expression, can finish at once so saccharine but also violent (one can’t forget some of those remarkably bullying nuns exposed by modern inquiries!) is because it owns and appreciates the Old Testament legacy so little, especially its prophetic traditions, that aspect of the OT I mentioned the Celts seemed to have overlooked in favour of law and tradition from the time of St Paul’s Galatians onwards.
Superficially and sometimes actually, the OT is a violent work, but when that’s so it may need to be worked with and contextually understood. There’s often more than meets the eye and at least some of us would maintain the OT narrative anyway presents the face of God and divine “anger” through the lens of its era, the fiery one of Aries – Yahweh even manifests in a burning bush and a mountain volcano. The age was a militaristic, distinctly patriarchal one but many things begin with fire which is (spiritually and psychologically) the strongest element as O’Brien concedes but O’Donohue in his essays on the four elements doesn’t quite get. It is surely relevant that St Patrick’s conflict with the druids which opens a whole new chapter in the life of the nation, breaks the druid’s power spell over the island over the question of lighting of an Easter fire. Patrick wins and Ulster subsequently grows to become the centre of an organized, rather political form of Christianity, but arguably Patrick has, like Ulster in the Tain, only partially or politically won. The actual dark sovereignty of Ireland has not been confronted and I would even suggest it never has been.
The New Testament, whose record emerges with the (watery) age of Pisces. is inadequately appreciated without like the first Christians dialoguing with the whole Hebrew legacy, especially prophetic which it varies upon and fulfils. Catholicism only tenuously belongs with the “Judaeo-Christian” tradition due to a one-sidedness, sometimes bordering anti-Semitism where the Hebrew legacy is concerned…… Writer and academic Denis MacEoin is one of those who has been drawing attention to certain recent anti-Semitic strains developing in Irish academic circles  though this also chimes with any Catholicism that follows Pope Francis. This pontiff’s credo is so alien to any prophetic sense of Israel’s destiny and those of our times it even agrees over Jerusalem with Erdogan of Turkey while the latter goes about demolishing the last vestiges of democracy in his country! Churches interested in blessing and being blessed – persons like O’Donohue is obsessed with the subject and devotes a whole book to blessings – might need to be more aware of the rule (Gen 12:3) that Israel is to be blessed and not cursed.
I find interesting, and it’s almost like some Jungian shadow principle at work, that “unbiblical” Erin should be so long challenged and in conflict with a dour, aggressive Presbyterianism almost a parody of all things Protestant and itself ancestor to some of the odder corners of American religion. Both parties to this struggle have perhaps always needed on the psychological plane some species of suitably symbolic, dreamlike working out of their problems along the lines of Spenser’s flawed, but still important and Irish influenced visioning in The Fairie Queen. (Elizabeth 1 was no good fairy for Erin and Spenser’s recommendation to ban Irish language was execrable, but he offers a masterpiece with insights all the same).
ABSENT SOMETHING ELSE…FIRE AND PHALLOS?
Even without the complication of Ulster in recent centuries, as already intimated, I should say that what Ireland needs (though it might take many essays to convey the full meaning) is more fire and phallos. By the latter I mean something more psychological and spiritual rather than purely sexual. Elements of the current spiritual confusion, the outcome of longstanding untreated conditions, are linked to over-emphasis on, or misreading of, what O’Donohue offers as virtual panacea for Ireland and the world, namely realization and acceptance of a sweetness and light cure-all “soul” life that is still refusing fundamental life energies.
O’Donohue enlarges, lives and breathes within “soul”, spreading it over everything like a druid mist, identifying it with beauty, peace and virtually with God – about the closest he gets to describing God is as an artist, in short an image of O’Donoghue himself! He’s caught in Amergin’s bind. That druid as it were claims all the territory of Ireland mentally by his sense of pantheistic soul presence, but the fate and sovereignty of the land still reside elsewhere; he doesn’t own what he sympathetically imagines which is forever under threat. He and Ireland are left open to whatever death and destruction the gods without the slightest explanation care to send or allow.
If one puts aside for one moment the possible religious meaning of statements like “the soul (Heb Nephesh /animal soul) that sins will surely die (Ez 18:20), one may absorb the more purely psychological implications. It will mean soul as the state of pure being O’Dononue tends to make it, is not autonomous and supreme but rather manageable, even dispensable because life can emanate from elsewhere. Outside, above and beyond it is active organizing spirit. Whether or not specifically religion will mediate organization, fire and in the broadest sense “phallic” consciousness can promote action and place some direction upon existence.
SOUL AND FACE
The more whacky side of O’Donoghue’s message whether humanly or more theologically, is well represented by his claim the face always reveals the soul’; it is where “the divinity of the inner life finds an echo and an image” (A.C. p.53). Always? If at all? The claim will be news to many, while theologically it ignores Yahweh’s rebuke to the prophet Samuel: “Do not look at his appearance…..for the Lord does not see as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).
Yet O’Donohue’s weird assertion is key to a whole dimension of his work. It betrays how his faith amounts to a divinization of soul in the anthropology of the self approximating to biblical Hebrew nephesh or animal soul. It is this which as opposed to spirit (i.e. ruach – that O’Donoghue seems to think is a regular OT name of God) is what we share with the animals and which links us to nature and which is creative and sexual. You can tell that esoteric and biblical anthropology’s soul factor is the real focus because O’Donohue even proposes that relaxing into the body is a new prayer (A.C. p.74), that we should re-imagine God as Eros (A.C. p. 56) and that the senses are our guide to the soul (A.C. p.82).
Of course O’Donohue doesn’t realize the identification he is making. If he did he wouldn’t say other biblically illiterate things like animals knowing nothing of Jesus. (A.C.p.79). It happens that the early church and many theologians since have understood appearances of the OT’s mysterious “Angel of the Lord” to be appearances of the pre-existent Christ. In Numbers 22 this figure intervenes against the false prophet Balaam who abuses his ass. The ass, because animals have nephesh, is able to recognize the Angel though Balaam in his spiritual blindness can’t .
There is a Spirit of God and a Soul of God which last we may assume Jesus is., This status renders him among other things a sort of Lord of the Animals. But just as Christ as Soul and in some respects divine Yin – he is called the feminine Sophia/ Wisdom for a reason – will do nothing major until the Spirit falls upon him, so neither can or will human soul that O’Donohue and some mystics divinize at the expense of all else.
The soul without organizing human and/or divine Spirit will accordingly possess, as O’Donohue assumes, no fixed form which means there is no plan to our lives either (AC.p.82). The latter assumption can be questioned on various grounds and not just biblically though it is a decidedly unbiblical idea opposed to statements like “in your book were written all the days that were formed for me (Ps 139:16). Since however our existence still seems at once improbable yet potentially meaningful, O’Donohue is left to assure readers (in what is itself an implicit rejection of any Pauline notions of divine elect predestination), to be born is to be “chosen” ( AC p. 112) whatever that means.
In the end one is left with a soul of sublime or at least artistic potential that dwells in Beauty, whether visible or more invisible as per Pseudo-Dionysius, and this Beauty is then the nearest expression and definition of God. Yet paradoxically (but from hidden psychological necessity which abhors a vacuum and requires there will be an organizing factor) this beauty that we glimpse comes to us not from the spirit and realms above but if anything from below. Celtic myth according to O’Donohue understands that the underworld (where dwell the Irish gods who he believes describe the Celtic psyche) is the world of spirit (AC p. 124).
Since O’Donohue (in DB p.211) even cites the atheist poet Wallace Stevens to the effect death is the Mother of Beauty and associates the world of the spirit with what’s “below” rather than “above”, I feel one is indeed justified to identify O’Donohue’s soul and divinity image with the animal soul (nephesh) that the bible says must die and which belongs in effect and by default to Hades short of divine intervention, election or whatever. It may not be irrelevant that all of Lory O’Brien’s visualizations in Irish Spirituality, take the practitioner through the blackness, surely an indication that the organization source of power is an underground, a realm of shadows, a species of Hades, which might mean she is seeing more clearly or honestly than O’Donohue for whom theoretically everything would make for light..
I don’t seek to decry the value and insights of Irish “soul” It’s a precious place and all can share in its inspirations and beauties to a degree, (though I agree with Lora O’Brien it’s something ultimately ethnic which you either have or don’t), but I dissent from what O’Donohue has made of it as philosophy of beauty. What this finishes up as is something surruptiously akin to the devotion to elementals among St Paul’s Galatians and still more to end of era “religion denying the power of it” as far as deity is concerned.
O’Donohue’s philosophical meditations are a version of the new age, interfaith vanishing trick in relation to the distinctive claims of many systems, especially Christianity’s today. These systems stand against just making up doctrines as you go along rather as one might compose a painting, at the same time as you call the exercise harmonious and identical with all other paintings (beliefs). It isn’t, but you can make it seem so by focussing on one aspect of being, namely the feeling, life or the imaginative soul as the whole item in an anthropology of the self and map of the psyche.
Despite all I’ve said, I agree with one of O’Donohue’s readers that reading him was like a trip to Ireland itself. He is representative in many respects but not enough and he ignores too many difficulties.
Ireland is a small country with a relatively newly established national independence. Given its comparatively small population now challenged by high immigration and multicultural values favoured under secularist but Islam shadowed EU globalism, it is questionable whether it can hope to retain much that’s most distinctive about it. But whatever happens, it may still need some input from the likes of the concerned Fr Collins.
St Patrick did light Easter fire at Slane, and centring the spiritual battles of and for Ireland over specifically fire was correct in many ways – so correct it was even possibly one of the reasons his version of Christianity gained traction over the other versions present in the background which might have suited the culture and people better. But even the saint’s win was not permanent because no victory until apocalypse and the end of time ever is, and in the case of Ireland there is something that St Patrick and Irish Christianity missed. Archetypally it is the great and oppressive ill luck and darkness represented by the so called “sovereignty” of Ireland and the black crow of Morrigan. The darkness is pervasive – even Dublin means Black Pool in Gaelic and modern Irish freedom was achieved there at the Post Office in which a statue commemorates the victory with an image of Cuchulainn but with the black crow on his shoulder. Never ignore the guide of symbols to spirit and soul. I sense Fr Collins has more than even the out-of-touch attitudes of his Irish hierarchy to think about and more than a few distressed people to exorcise.
For more on Ireland see “Real Irish” and Irish Reality (Symbols, Archetypes, Fate ) https://wp.me/p2v96G-17D
On Irish literature, Why Ireland Needs Yeats 2015 and more https://wp.me/p2v96G-xA
On prophecy: Ireland’s Apocalyptic Puzzles https://wp.me/p2v96G-19s
 On the Virgin and violence in Indecent Theology, pp. 56-61
 Jeremiah’s Loincloth: A Poem of Faith and Phallos. Explores the prophet’s strange male business or homoerotic given sign https://wp.me/p2v96G-Hm
 Denis McEoin, Uncorked: Ireland’s Pseudo-Academic Anti–Israel Hate Fest https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/9701/ireland-conference-israel