Tuesday, July 03, 2007


When we bought our site here in the west of Ireland 30 years ago, some of the old people of the parish were surprised that we'd choose to live so high on the hill. Our unpaved lane was called "the Lover's Road" by day, and was at one time presumably a favorite walk for courting couples. By night it was "the Fairies' Road," and although by that time few people believed in "the little people," still the hillside where we built our cottage was not a place one chose to go in darkness. It is part of the ancient Celtic consciousness that there is a mysterious power afoot in the landscape, sometimes called neart, that can be used for good or bad, and the fairies were simply a way of giving an anthropomorphic face to a force that was otherwise beyond human knowing or control.

In Celtic thought, neart is everywhere -- in sky, Sun, Moon, earth, sea, animal, plant, stone. Even the gods, it seems, were caught up in the web of this mysterious power. Neart was not so much something one thought about as felt -- sensed as one sometimes senses a presence in a dark room at night. In certain places and at certain times the felt presence is especially strong, in forest glades, perhaps, or by deep clear mountain pools. Or while walking a high dark road at night under a canopy of stars.

I don't want to overly romanticize, as many do, the notion of Celtic spirituality. Nor do I want to suggest anything supernatural or New Agey mystical. But the idea of neart has a nice resonance for me, and is not so far removed from the faith of a religious naturalist. Imminent, yet mysterious. Not diminished by knowledge, but broadened. Addressed, if at all, by a kind of inarticulate awe. It is not enlightenment one feels in the presence of neart; rather, one is reminded of one's ignorance. Most of all, one feels caught up in something that reaches into (or out of) every part of one's being, not just the reason, or the will, or self-awareness, but the senses, the viscera, the lusts and longings, the stirrings and the windings in every cell of one's body.

There are no dogmas in the faith of a religious naturalist. No public liturgies. We have no bishops, rabbis or imans. We walk wary, as likely as not in solitude and silence. Neart is not something we read about in holy books, or hear about in sermons. In it, we live, and move, and have our being.