Thursday, August 07, 2008

On the mountain

Those who have read my book Climbing Brandon will know that I spend my summers near the foot of Ireland's second highest mountain and have climbed it more than a hundred times. It is a magnificent mountain, not least because of the way it sits on a peninsula that juts out into the sea; the views in every direction are spectacular. It is known as one of Ireland's holy mountains, and every year on the Sunday closest to the feast of Saint Brendan pilgrims make their way to the top for the celebration of Mass.

Each year my ascents to the summit take a little bit longer. My climbing buddy Maurice, who is my age, waltzes up and down like a mountain goat. I feel my gathering decrepitude with every step.

In his book The Mountain Behind the Mountain: Aspects of the Celtic Tradition, Noel Dermot O'Donoghue writes of another Kerry mountain in whose shadow he grew up, and by extension the generic mountain that is the source of Celtic spirituality:
The mountain behind or within the mountain is not the perfect or ideal mountain in some Platonic sense. Neither is it that mythical Mount of Parnassus on which the Muses dwell. Nor yet is it the Holy Mountain in which God reveals himself in theophany or transfiguration...No, it is a very ordinary, very physical, very material mountain, a place of sheep and kine, of peat, and of streams that one might fish in or bathe in on a summer's day. It is an elemental mountain, of earth and air and water and fire, of sun and moon and wind and rain. What makes it special for me and for the people from which I come is that it is a place of Presence and a place of presences. Only those who can perceive this in its ordinariness can encounter the mountain behind the mountain.
Religious naturalism has deep roots in Celtic tradition. It begins with a wholehearted embrace of the ordinary world that presents itself to the senses -- the world of earth and air and water and fire, of sun and moon and wind and rain -- and opens to the mysteries and to the Mystery encountered there, what the Irish call Neart, not something supernatural, but a deeper and still hidden aspect of nature itself. My climb up the mountain does not take me closer to heaven; it does take me deeper into encounter with the world. As I wrote in a previous post, 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.