The Fire of Truth Among the Old Celts

In the process of cleaning out my study, I came across a store of Celtic books, and found a number of prayers from the old Celtic church, the primal and indigenous form of Christianity in the British Isles, predating by many centuries the Roman Catholicism gradually more and more enforced by the Anglo-Saxons. Celtic Christianity teaches many things that Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican/Episcopalian types of Christianity abandoned, or never knew. This is partly because the old Celtic Shamanism and Celtic Christianity melded together in a creative synthesis= thus in the Celtic Christian Tradition there is a Shamanic relationship with nature. But the other reason for this synthesis was because Celtic Shamanism contained not only the Wounded Healer, but more importantly, the King-Warrior who sacrifices himself for his people. It is the old Celtic heroic tradition, celebrated by the bards in epic poetry, that was transferred onto Christ, even more than the Mystic and Prophet and Wise Sage constituted by the Druid.

It is the understanding, and the living out, of Christ as the sacrificial King-Warrior, the warrior chief, that all forms of Christianity, West and East, have betrayed. This has entailed that Christianity has no heart for its true mission to the world. Christianity has abandoned Christ’s Passion as the challenge to and redemption of the world. The world, not the ascetic desert nor the worshipping temple, is where the Cross stands; Christ is called to the terrible place in the world where the good road and the bad road cross. This is the place of sacrifice. This is the place of existential decision and existential drama. This is make or break. This is it. In this place is death and the life only won from death. In this place is the final Reversal. Here, everything is turned upside down– defeat is victory, and victory is defeat. Only here is something ultimate tested and something ultimate proved. Here is where the Spirit of God tests and proves the deep things of God and the deep things of humanity.

This Celtic Christian prayer has a direct bearing on Christ as the fulfilment of the ancient heroic Passion-Bearer, the Fire-Bearer.

“It is a flame of fire from midmost heaven that came down into the world, fire that will kindle my stubborn nature, fire that will fill my whole life; it will not fail while God remains in being.

I shall never be able to declare.. how sweet, how strong, his love is: it is an endless flame that came from midmost heaven to earth.

Thou hast kindled fire in me– the most perfect fire of heaven, which the great seas cannot quench at all.

O, a passionate, powerful, strong flame of fire has been kindled in everlasting heaven; everlasting love it is, that has made a union between God and me.”

[From ‘Threshold of Light, Prayers and Praises from the Celtic Tradition’, ed. A.M. Allchin and Esther de Waal.]

The fire coming from heaven to earth, to unite heaven and earth, indeed to make an earthy heaven and a heavenly earth, is ‘passion.’ We are made of earth, light, water, fire. The earth gives solidity to possibility. The light brings forth all beings and things, they “come to light” means they are unhidden and revealed. Light makes present. The water nourishes, connects, transforms. Water holds possibility before it becomes real. But the fire stakes itself to the ground, to kindle everything. Its burden and its honour is redemption.

This fire is truth, and it dwells in and works through the heart. Because of this fire, God is united not only with ‘me’, but with all of us as a community, and in fact, with the whole world process, from beginning, through middle, to end. Redemption is greater than any kind of mysticism. The fire’s staking to the ground declares it will suffer a great wound, bear a great weight, pay a great cost. This deed — and the mysterious paradox and dangerous risk it embraces — is the truth. Truth is what is, and what God will do about it. Truth is what is, and what redeems what is.

For the ancient Celts, truth was not some abstract proposition, to be debated by academics. Nor was it something to be altered to suit one’s needs, or taken up and put down as a matter of convenience; nor was it just morally desirable= it was not merely one virtue among many other virtues. Rather, it was a sacred quality with a spiritual power. S. Eddy and C. Hamilton [p 70] point out= “The.. weight of Celtic belief in the power of truth is summed up in the words= ‘By Truth the earth endures’.” In the old Gaelic, the root for the word ‘truth’ and the root for the word ‘holiness’ are the same. In the old tradition, it was said of people who had died, “They have gone to the place of Truth.”

By Truth the earth endures.

This truth has to be planted in the earth of the heart, so that it can then be planted in the earth of the world. In the former we sweat white beads, like Bodidharma, but in the latter we sweat blood, like Christ. Truth is the pillar. Truth is the fire. Truth is the despair in the heart that no ascetic desert and no worshipping temple can remove, because it is the despair in the human heart toward the world, and thus toward the deepest purpose God had in creating the world and placing human destiny squarely and inescapably in it. Only in the world can this despair be fully embraced, and only in the world can this despair be fully overcome. Redemption will plunge us into and it will plumb the deepest despair, because only in that place can the turnaround come. Hell is coming, for all of us, in the deep heart, because only in hell can heaven really come to earth, stake itself to the ground, and go into the abyss on which the heart—world axis rests. Christ is the warrior of the abyss, the one foretold by the Chinese book the ‘I Ching’ when it says, “God toils in the sign of the abysmal.” The heart, given to and wholly bound up with the fate of the world, is where God and humanity really meet, and here both God and humanity toil in the abysmal.

God will not give up, or give in, toiling in the abysmal, and what Christ’s Passion tells us is that it is possible for us to do the same. A battle is being fought, in the world, for the world.

Truth is action, not words. Truth is struggle, not accomplishment. Truth knows the despair in the heart that the fight in the abyss is all over and has been lost. Truth lives in the black inexplicable pain in the heart, but is kindling fire in the dark depth. Truth is a fire born of great tears, great sweat, great blood, poured into the earth. Truth is a fire still flickering under a crust of dead ash, which one day will leap into raging flame.

By Truth the earth endures.

This truth steps into the gap of what is not yet, what can be lost as well as won, what can ‘go either way’, to stand firm, to remain strong. Truth bears what cannot be borne, truth endures what cannot be endured, to stay in the journey and to stay in the fight. Even when the journey is over, and the fight is lost, truth remains in despair without despairing of it. This is the heart’s doing, this is done by heart passion in search of heart truth. The heart cannot give in, even when it wants to, because the heart cannot give up on the truth that moves it, that causes its grieving and its hope, and for the sake of which it sheds its tears, expends its sweat, gives its blood. Truth is the Daemonic fate that befalls the heart, and it is the heart’s honour that it continues to serve truth, no matter what. Honour reminds the heart of its destiny.

Honour has been confused, and degraded, by many persons and by many cultures, as a kind of glory seeking, as a kind of superman. The ancient Celts, like many Shamanic peoples such as the Red Indians, knew it had nothing to do with this. Thus, the old Celts said, “the basis of honour is truth.”

This is exemplified in an exacting way by the heroic King-Warrior, but it applies to every man and every woman whose heart hungers for truth in its depth, and lives by truth in the world. A human being of heart, as distinct from mind or soul, has to be true to God, to all their promises, and to their own spark. Truth is a sword that cuts the heart, but only when thus penetrated can the heart wield the sword of truth in the world. This sword signifies a promise. The heart is called to be true, and it promises that it will be true. In being true, it upholds the honour of the fire that acts through the engine of the heart; and in keeping its promise, it fulfils that honour. Truth vows the heart to a hard road– truth stakes fire to the ground, where it will suffer, grieve, lose, make sacrifice. This suffering and rapture of fire, as it struggles and contends, as it wins over and kindles, is the Truth– the Truth of who and what God is, the Truth of who and what we are meant to become. God is, and we will be, the heart on fire with Truth– the heart that will give away and endure anything and everything for the sake of what it loves.

By Truth the earth endures, because Truth is the vow, the promise, God makes to see it through, and never abandon it, even when the going gets tough and even when all is lost. Truth is given, truth is sacrificed, but nothing holds it to this. It is a free give away. By honour is this vow, this promise, of God kept. I give my word, and I commit my spirit: this is the action of God’s Truth, which is the pillar and is the fire, on which everything rests. To ‘give your word and commit your spirit’ is passion, and it is by honour that passion lives.

God is a mystery of Fire= not an abstract, impersonal spirit, into which we will safely disappear. Fire coming to earth, staking itself to the ground, taking on any and every pain, including the humiliating of that which is the supreme honour– this is the deepest heaven, because it risks the deepest of the earth.