Celtic Spirituality and the BMW Factor
In my books Glamoury and Celtic Tree Mysteries, I attempt to explain the many aspects of the Celtic spiritual tradition as I know and understand it. Due to the limitations of space in these books, and in my other writings, I have had to shorten explanations which I had hoped to give in full. Now, thanks to the Llewellyn Journal, I am able to give more background and argument which I feel will be valuable to the student of the Celtic way.
First though, I should explain who I am and why I claim any sort of authority on this subject. I was born in the West of Scotland where the Celtic and Gaelic traditions are still strong. I have therefore been aware of this tradition all of my life, and I have been practicing and teaching it for many years. I now live in America but before I moved there I was living on the little Scottish Isle of Arran, nestled in the Firth of Clyde. Arran is an extremely important place in the Celtic spiritual tradition, but for the time being all I want you to understand is that what I am about to tell you did not just come from books or academic research. It comes from a lifetime of actually living the tradition, with my family and friends, and being aware that we are carrying on a practice that comes from a very ancient source. My knowledge and understanding comes from hearing the old legends and stories from my family, listening to the songs and music that have been handed down over countless generations, and by close observation of that part of the world in which I was born and raised.
I realized long ago how fortunate I was to have been raised in such a special place and I was aware that a great deal of ancient lore and tradition was being revealed to me all the time by virtue of where I lived. As I grew older I spent much time adding to my knowledge by researching in books and listening to other peoples' comments and observations on my birthright. I found much of great value there and I learned a lot from these sources and have adopted some ideas and practices set out by others. But I also found a lot that I did not recognize or which went against the very grain of what I had been raised to believe and understand. Very often these dubious comments or statements were not fully explained by the writer and often they did not bear any source reference or comment but were simply laid out in print as fact. This was disturbing to me.
When you are born and raised into a tradition as I was, you develop an instinctive sense of what is right and what is wrong regarding that tradition. During some of my studies, my intuitive alarm bells went off as I could sense my ancient tradition being tampered with and altered, innocently in most cases I am sure, but changed nonetheless by people writing and commenting on it. Most of the things I am referring to were minor but to me it was potentially the start of an erosion which one day could become so damaging as to change my tradition in irreparable ways. One thing you need to know about the Celtic character is that we are persistent. Some may even say obstinate. But when we see an injustice or a thing which is wrong and needs to be corrected, we hang on and don't let go until it is straightened out. My desire to set the record straight was the motivating force behind what I do now—teaching the Celtic spiritual tradition as I know it.
I must stress and emphasize strongly that under no circumstances am I claiming that I have the one and only true way, assuming that there is such a thing in the first place. I am opening my heart and soul and giving you a glimpse of who I am and the beliefs that have shaped me. If these insights are useful to you, then well and good. If not, then I make no apologies. You will find your heart's desire soon enough. You always have the choice. You can accept or reject anything or everything that follows. All I ask is that you read on with an open heart and mind and feel and think over what I say before accepting or rejecting it. It is not the only way, it is not the "right" way—it is merely one way. But it is one way that has worked admirably for me.
As a final comment to this introduction you will find that I pull material from many, many sources, not just books, myths, or legends. The Celtic spiritual tradition is encapsulated in music, poem, story, song, dance, art, the people and the very landscape itself. I shall be using all of these sources wherever possible in order to explain things as fully as I can and also in order to place as many images and stimuli in your minds as possible. These will work their way into your unconsciousness via your consciousness and help make the whole tradition come alive and integrate fully into your whole being. Mere books, quotations, references and cross references can never do that.
A Forgotten Writer
With that in mind I am going to start in an unusual place. I am not going to talk about the soul, spiritual development, gods and goddesses, or anything of that nature, at least not yet. First I want you to read a short poem. It is by a much-neglected Scottish Victorian writer under the name of Fiona Macleod. Fiona Macleod was actually a man, William Sharp, who was among the Celtic revivalists at the end of the 19th century and early years of the 20th century. He was a friend of many of the other Celtic revivalists of the day, W. B. Yeats, George Russell, Lady Gregory, MacGregor Mathers, etc., and he may have been an initiate of the original Order of the Golden Dawn. However, he never wrote anything under either his own name or as Fiona Macleod that was openly magical or occult. You will not find any direct instruction on the Celtic spiritual tradition in any of his writings, but in the writings of Fiona Macleod he did succeed in capturing better than anyone else the outward expression of the soul of the Celtic people. It is within the pages of her works that you will find all the instruction you will ever need to understand the deep spiritual beliefs of the Celtic people. I believe this is crucial. Without a firm grasp on the spiritual motivations of the Celtic people you can never fully understand the intricacies of Celtic society or the workings of Celtic magical practices.
It has never ceased to amaze me that Fiona Macleod is not better known today amongst the Celtophiles of the world. Her short stories, plays, prose, and poetry are a wealth of information for those able to read with an open heart and allow the words, ideas and scenarios to slip into the mind and germinate there. To fill this enormous gap in the body of Celtic studies my new book, tentatively titled The Little Book of the Great Enchantment, will be a biography of William Sharp with an in-depth examination of the things that motivated him to write such wonderful spiritual material under the name Fiona Macleod.
For the moment though, just read the words of this short poem.
Dim face of Beauty haunting all the world,
Fair face of Beauty all too fair to see,
Where the lost stars adown the heavens are hurled,
There, there alone for thee
May white peace be.
For here where all the dreams of men are whirled
Like sere torn leaves of autumn to and fro,
There is no place for thee in all the world,
Who driftest as a star,
Beauty, sad face of Beauty, Mystery, Wonder,
What are these dreams to foolish babbling men —
Who cry with little noises 'neath the thunder
Of ages ground to sand,
To a little sand.
("Poems & Dramas," Fiona Macleod, 1895)
Applying the BMW Factor
This short piece contains nothing overtly spiritual or instructive but it does contain what I consider to be the underlying principle and basis upon which the whole Celtic spiritual tradition is solidly built. I call it the "BMW Factor:" Beauty, Mystery, and Wonder. Without these three things there would be no Celtic spiritual tradition. Indeed, without these three things there would be no spiritual traditions at all. But how often are we asked to stop and contemplate them? How many spiritual text books, even the world's great holy books, ask you to simply acknowledge and appreciate the beauty, mystery and wonder of just being alive? It is such a simple thing, but it is another one of the simplicities we have forgotten. I am asking you now to remember and to bring the BMW Factor back into your life.
One of the world's great spiritual traditions says that we must become as little children in order to understand the deeper mysteries of the soul. How very true. Children live in a world that is filled with beauty, mystery, and wonder. They smile at it and with it and it brings them deep joy and contentment. We, the mature adults of this world, teach our children to "develop" and "progress" away from childhood, to rampage quickly through adolescence and to fly headlong into full-blown adulthood. We tell them to forget the BMW Factor. Yes, it is cute to behave this way while we are babies. It can be fun to see the world this way while we are still in primary or elementary school. But things change dramatically once hair starts growing in odd places. If we try to take our BMW Factor through high school and college, we are very quickly made the subject of ridicule. As developing adults, we suppress and bury it even more quickly in order to be accepted and respected by our fellow peers, who have all done exactly the same thing!
The simplicity and total acceptance of the BMW Factor becomes replaced by the convention of asking questions and expecting answers to everything. Pure acceptance and joy have gone. Questions, answers, more questions, and more puzzling answers become the normal way of life. Is this the way you are? No longer a child and asking endless questions and demanding consistently accurate answers from others when you cannot figure out the answers for yourself? This is probably what many of you expect from this article—clear-cut, comprehensible answers to the deep questions of the soul. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you.
What I am asking of you is to suspend your curiosity and to quiet your questioning mind. Open yourself to the ideas and images I am giving and simply receive them as they are. There will be time for questions, reasoning and logic later. But for the moment, develop your intuition.
This is a major key to understanding the Celtic spiritual tradition and to unlocking the BMW Factor within you.
Intuition Before Logic
By giving priority to your intuition as opposed to your logic, you will be able to let the mass of ideas and concepts you are about to be exposed to settle deep within your consciousness. There, unhindered and unhampered by intruding questions and reasonings, these seed of beauty will take root and will eventually work their way to your consciousness from within. Then they can be examined and questioned as much as you like, but only once they have become an integral part of your deeper being.
This may at first sound difficult or, paradoxically, too simplistic. How can you understand or appreciate anything by not questioning it? Well, consider what you do when you listen to your favorite piece of music. In this scenario you are relaxed, quiet in thought and totally receptive to the sound of the music coming alive within your consciousness. You don't stop and try to examine each and every note, discern each and every instrument that is playing, or attempt to interpret the "meaning" the composer had in mind when writing the piece. You enjoy it by just letting it be. It is very simple. So, too, with the ideas and concepts I am about to give you. Let them come in unhindered, enjoy them if you can, and let them take deep root before digging them up later for closer examination. Just as you listen to that favourite piece of music over and over again and it always seems fresh, you can mull over the beauty, mystery and wonder of the Celtic spiritual tradition time and time again and appreciate its inherent simplicity.
Having said all that, it will be necessary for me to go against the grain of my belief somewhat from time to time. I do need to split this tradition into component parts which you can take apart, examine, understand and, where possible, find answers. This is the way we expect to learn and the way most people find easiest to learn. I'm prepared to compromise with that! I don't want to make things more difficult than they already appear to be. But as we are doing this I ask you to keep in the back of your mind at all times the BMW Factor.
I am asking you to begin remembering these long-forgotten simplicities.
Approaching Life with the BMW Factor
I would like to make a suggestion. From now on in your day-to-day life make a deliberate effort several times each day to look through the eyes of your Inner Child at the ordinary, regular, and mundane world in which we live. Become aware of the BMW Factor that surrounds you and is aching to be acknowledged by you. Stop and look at the real beauty of your surroundings. Look at the sky, at the trees and flowers. If you live in the city look at the architecture of the buildings, look at people you pass in the street or on the bus, look at your own home. Have you not made an effort to place beautiful things there? Pictures of loved ones, paintings, music, incense, and soft furnishings are all there to add beauty to your living space. Why did you choose these particular things? Look at them anew and appreciate their innate beauty. Turn on your TV. There are many beautiful images to be seen there if you look for them. Go to a movie. Not all films today are about violence or alien invaders and even here deep beauty cannot be hidden. Open your eyes and let beauty fill your soul. Another simple step.
Next try pondering a little mystery every day. Why is the sky blue and water wet? Why do cats hesitate in doorways? Why do swans have black feet? Don't try to answer these questions. Just mull them over and be aware of the mysteries of life that surround you constantly. They are mysteries—let them stay that way.
Along with the B and the M factors we need the W factor—Wonder. True wonder is when you intuitively know that there is no answer; that the wonder you are witnessing and feeling is beyond the limits of logic and answers. Take some time each day to truly wonder at things. Make yourself aware of how literally wonder-full the world is. I am not going to make suggestions as to what will invoke a sense of wonder in you. You are a mature adult—find out for yourself!
Learn to enjoy the experience as you go through your daily routine opening up to the constant beauty, mystery and wonder of your world. Don't fall into the trap of thinking, "OK, this is important. This is practical spiritual development so I need to be focused and serious about it. I must not get light-hearted or too happy as that is not being spiritual." Nonsense. Get as light-hearted as you want. Enjoy the experience like a child with unrestrained laughter, giggles, smiles and the occasional open-mouthed, wide-eyed stare. And anyway, do you really want all the answers? Would you really be happy giving up the BMW Factor of life in return for nothing but scientific data and technical explanations? What kind of a world would that be? Certainly not one that this particular Celt would like to live in!
These are very joyful experiences but inevitably they will become very humbling experiences. Sooner or later your intuition will help you realize that you too, in your own physical body, are also an object of beauty, mystery and wonder. The ancient Celts were well known for their love of art and self-decoration. Jewelry, flamboyant clothes, tattoos, elaborate hair styles, and intricately carved and painted utensils for the home were all part and parcel of being a Celt. And there is nothing wrong in being that way today.
Unfortunately, many of us raised in the West under even an open-minded Judaic, Christian, or Islamic spiritual tradition we have been given an unconscious guilt feeling which inhibits our recognition of self-beauty and our desire to surround ourselves with beautiful objects. In our western society today amongst those who profess spirituality it is often implied, if not openly stated, that it is wrong or "sinful" to pay attention to such things. Do away with these feelings! They are nothing more than a heavy emotional burden you can now well and truly dump off. Go out and get a new hair-do. Buy some outrageous new clothes. Take a walk in the park and quack along with the ducks in the pond. Show your old self that the new beautiful, mysterious and wonderful self is coming through.
It sounds easy, but I know it can be deceptively difficult. It is a hard thing to get over that guilt feeling and to acknowledge the BMW Factor which is your birth-right. But really, it is OK for you to do so. Friends, family and even total strangers have already recognized it in you many, many times throughout your life. Just think on this—it is not only the other person who is beautiful, mysterious or wonderful. You are too. Right now you are all of these things to someone. I assure you that the more you progress through this tradition of forgotten simplicities the more attractive, mysterious and wonderful you will become to everyone, including yourself.
Now a sudden change of tack but something you need to consider and deal with. I cannot do any of this for you. I cannot make you more beautiful, mysterious, wonderful or spiritual any more than I can make you lose weight or lower your cholesterol level. The onus for any and all of these things lies fairly and squarely on your own shoulders. I am not a crutch to lean on nor am I a leader to show you the one, true way. But I can guide you. I can make suggestions and perhaps make you aware of things you were previously oblivious to. But that is all. It is up to you to make what you will of the things I tell you.
If you look to the great corpus of ancient Celtic legends you will find that this motif appears time and time again (my book Glamoury has specific examples of this). Very often in these old allegories a teacher or way-shower appears to help the hero or heroine of the tale. But they never take on the role of the hero or heroine and they never shoulder any of his or her responsibility. And any hero or heroine who tries to off-load some of their cares or responsibilities onto such a way-shower is doomed to failure.
There are no priests or priestesses within this spiritual tradition. There are no Holy Men or Women who take on the responsibility for the spiritual development of their people. There are no churches, mosques or synagogues with ministers, rabbis or teachers that you can visit once a week in order to be spiritual. Ask your developing intuition and your time-honored logic the question, "Can any other person be spiritual for me?" For once intuition and logic should both come up with the same answer—a resounding, "NO!"
Well, now that I have just talked myself out of a job, I shall continue. (There's another Celtic trait—speaking in contradictions!) One thing I have noticed throughout the years I have been talking about this subject is the way many people become interested in the Celts and all things Celtic, read all the legends and books on mythology, learn Celtic history and, generally, become totally absorbed in the whole subject. This is a fine thing and an approach I would certainly encourage. However I would strongly caution against leaving things there. What I mean by this is that very often such dedicated seekers after the Celtic way get stuck in a knotwork-laden time warp. Yes, they know all about the gods and goddesses, they can tell you all about the Fire Festivals and their significance and so on—but they haven't moved on. They are limiting their interest and researches to the long gone Celtic past and ignoring contemporary Celtic society and spirituality. We, the Celts, are still here! There is no need to talk about us and our beliefs in the past tense as if we had disappeared into some gloomy twilight. We, the Celtic people, are still strong in our heartlands and still resolute wherever we may now be found spread across the entire planet.
"Good point, but what of it?" you may well ask. My point is that because we are still here and are still identifiable as a distinct culture and linguistic group, we have clearly successfully progressed through history from our earliest Celtic forebears to be 21st century citizens of planet Earth. We have carried the bags and baggage of our beliefs with us along the hard roads of the weary centuries and still have them intact and safe in our possession. But we have changed and so has our baggage. Although I am a Celt by birth, family and nationality, I am very different from my Bronze Age and Medieval ancestors. The world in which I live bears no resemblance to the world in which they lived. What, then, is the point in trying to live by a spiritual discipline which is based on a modern interpretation of an ancient society which no longer exists? There is none.
It is crucial that you clearly understand that what I wish to convey here is definitely based on a very ancient tradition but it has adapted, evolved and changed over the millennia, just as human beings have. It is therefore as relevant for you today as it was to our ancestors thousands of years ago. But in a different fashion. Many of the practices which our ancestors observed are no longer necessary. The world in which they lived bears almost no comparison with ours. So, conversely, many things which modern followers of the Celtic spiritual tradition practice and believe today would be strange and foreign to our forebears.
Through science we know more of the intricate workings of our physical environment than any other people have in the history of the human race. We have developed means of heating and lighting our homes without needing to gather fuel, we can eat without ever having to hunt, we do not live in constant fear of attack from hostile neighbors, we have even been to the Moon and sent machines to the very stars! All of these things mean that many of the beliefs and much of the world-view known to the ancient Celts are no longer relevant. But new needs and necessities have replaced the old and outworn ones. These new adaptations though have not just been plucked from the air but have been skillfully grafted to the core of the ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. Indeed, if there were no such links to the past we could hardly call this a "tradition," could we?
Gods and Goddesses
An example of a facet of the old tradition that is still important to the modern tradition is the whole subject of the gods and goddesses. I am sure that many of you are already familiar with the Celtic pantheon (I cover this subject in depth in Glamoury and Celtic Tree Mysteries). Here, though, I need to say a few words about the terms "god" and "goddess." Personally I don't like using these words but unfortunately we are stuck with them. The reason I dislike using them is because they convey totally the wrong image. To the modern mind the concepts encapsulated in the words god and goddess are not the same as the ones that would have been understood by an ancient Celt. Today these words unconsciously evoke a sense of distance and separation thanks mainly to the heavy influence of the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Most of us have been raised amongst dominant religious traditions which are based on the fundamental belief that deity, in whatever shape, size, form, or sex, is separate and physically remote from humans, is more powerful than we are, and needs to be acknowledged, listened to, and obeyed. Indeed some religions go so far as to say that the gods need to be feared. What happens today is that when the terms god or goddess are used, very often the unconscious reaction is for the listener to distance him or herself from what should be the very source of their spiritual nurturing. This is not the way that we should relate to deity. It is definitely not the way we should go about forging a lasting and symbiotic relationship with the gods and goddesses of the Celtic spiritual tradition in order to develop spiritually.
To me, my gods and goddesses are always close,and they are very, very real. They walk with me wherever I go and I can reach out and touch them when I need to. They are my very good friends. They care about me, they respond to my calls for assistance and I confide in them and play with them. They are not the watered-down psychological archetypes that the modern mind tends to favor. They are individual entities in their own right as much as you and I. To consider them as some sort of unconscious symbol or archetype is a denigration of their true status and is a great insult. I would not like to be considered as no more than the archetype of The Teacher, even though, for the moment, I am teaching. Such a concept gives no credence or credit to my other facets and accomplishments or individuality. So too with the gods and goddesses. They are much, much more than archetypes, categories, classifications, or symbols. They are sentient, feeling beings, and as individual as you and I and they deserve recognition and respect as such.
Another Celtic concept of deity is that it is fallible. The gods and goddesses are not always right and they don't necessarily have the answer to your question. As the legends show time and time again, they are definitely not all-knowing and they are certainly not all-powerful. Very often they come to us for help just as much as we go to them. This is a vital point to accept and understand. How often in the dominant religions do we hear of God coming to a mere mortal and saying, "Excuse me, can you give me a hand for a moment please?" It doesn't happen. But don't be surprised when it does happen along the Celtic spiritual path.
Don't Worship Celtic Gods?
This brings up the whole question of worship and the giving of thanks. Because they are not omnipotent and because they are our dear friends, we should feel no obligation to worship them or to perform acts of placation or veneration. Many books dealing with the history and archaeology of the ancient Celts talk glibly about the Celtic "fear of the Gods" or their "need to placate and pacify the terrifying forces of Nature." Even some modern writers on the more spiritual and magical aspects of the tradition have fallen into this trap and similarly give details of elaborate rituals the purpose of which is simply to worship the remote and all-powerful Celtic gods. Both of these viewpoints, fear and placation, are wrong and totally miss the point. These are not things we would do with regard to our human friends. We do not worship or venerate them. We do not perform acts of sacrifice or elaborate rituals to placate them when we feel we have offended them. You'll probably find that a simple but honest, "Sorry" is sufficient. Why then behave like this towards our non-human friends? There is no need and, indeed, such behavior is more likely to estrange them from you than it is to curry favor or garner support from them. Certainly we may wish to give thanks for assistance, or simply acknowledge the pleasure our mutual friendship gives us, but this is a far cry from an act of worship.
This may lead the more knowledgeable of you to ask what is the purpose then of the Four Fire Festivals? These are not religious festivals in the sense that you probably understand the word. They are celebrations, for sure, but they are not acts of worship. I deal with this in detail in Glamoury but for the moment, just get used to the idea that the Celtic gods and goddess are a small group of people who have been around for a very long time, who care about you and your world and who want to get to know you better. Please keep this in mind. It is very simple but it is also very important. The ideal relationship is a symbiotic one where both parties, human and deity, rely on each other, trust one another and can work together in harmony and common purpose for the betterment of both and for the advancement of the planetary being.
I shall have more to say on the Celtic spiritual tradition in future articles and in my forthcoming book on William Sharp. For the time being please remember that the BMW Factor is a deceptively important factor in any spiritual progress. Coupling this with the correct attitude to our non-human allies and friends lays a solid foundation for steady progress along the Celtic spiritual path. Let us jointly remember these forgotten simplicities and bring them back into our everyday way of life.
Oh, by the way, if anyone can tell me why swans have black feet, I'd be very pleased to hear from you!