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 Celtic Spirituality, Healing & Dance


Dancing to your Shadow


a Celtic Reflection on the Healing of Broken-heartedness


by Alastair McIntosh


This article was very loosely based on the Liverpool Schumacher Lecture that the author gave on the theme, "Soil & Soul," together with Helena Norberg-Hodge and Fitjof Capra in 1999. What follows was commissioned by the lecture co-organisers, The Journal of Contemporary Health, at the Institute for Health, Liverpool John Moores University, Issue 8, 58-60, 2000. It was reprinted in the USA in PanGaia, Port Arena, CA., No. 23, 41-45, 2000.  


In this article I want to look at heartbrokenness. In particular, I want to look at the place of creativity and service in healing such suffering. But because I come from the Scottish Hebrides I want to approach it by the scenic route. I want to set it in a wider context of health as seen through changes in relatively recent Hebridean history. Then I want to widen out the points being made so that they might speak to peoples far beyond those of Celtic culture alone.


At the end of the nineteenth century a remarkable Highlander called Alexander Carmichael set about documenting the blessings, charms and incantations of the Gaelic-speaking people of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.


His “Carmina Gadelica” was originally published in six volumes, bilingually, in Gaelic and English. The English of this is now available in a single paperback volume (Floris, Edinburgh, 1994, £13.99).


Like many students of Celtic cultures, I find this to be a remarkable record of an almost-lost cultural understanding. Indeed, it might be seen as a “remnant” in that sense of the word that is both Biblical and ecological, meaning the last embers of a fire that has not quite died out, but which might, once again, be fanned back into life.


Of equal importance to the material that Carmichael has collected from the oral tradition are his extensive endnotes on the worldview of the people who provided it. This, I can testify, is a worldview that has still not completely died out. To those who say, “There never was such a thing as ‘Celtic’ spirituality,” this book gives the lie. Nearly every page is resplendent with that triple unity of God, nature and community which is the distinctive hallmark of the Celtic soul. Of course, as St Francis reminds us, it ought also be the hallmark of Christianity as a whole. Too often the politically manipulated institutional churches have ensured otherwise ... but that is another story.


Here I want to give a brief insight into the Carmina, one that might be of interest to those associated with this Journal and the holistic understanding that the Institute of Health pursues.


I want to do this by quoting a couple of items about the wellbeing, respectively, of body and soul. What links these items is the way in which they show cultural change impacting upon health in the fullest sense of that word. The passages speak strongly for themselves and so require little commentary from me.


The first (from p. 633 in the Floris edition) was collected from Catherine MacPhee of the Isle of Uist, which is to the south of Lewis and Roman Catholic in its southern half. Here she speaks about the times before the Highland Clearances - that era in history, which arrived late on Uist, where ruthless landlords forced people off the land to make way for the conquest of greed over authentic human need. Catherine testified as follows, and note how closely self-sufficiency from nature’s providence is interwoven with concern about social structures and a spirituality that emphasises feminine expressions of the face of God:


 ... But the people of that day [she told Carmichael] were strong and healthy, active and industrious, in a way that those of today are not, whether men or women. They are not, my dear; I myself draw your notice to that. A great change of life has come into the countryside - everyone observes that. Much tea is drunk and much flour eaten nowadays. There was nothing of that in my own time or in my mother's time. There was nothing but butter and cheese and crowdie, dairy-produce and milk, and beer of heather-tops, oat-bread, barley-bread and rye-bread, porridge and milk, meat and flesh, gruel and broth. That is all changed today, my dear, and this has its visible effect and its result. Everything nowadays is sold for the sake of lowland food without worth or pith. Think you is there any kind of jam in the town of Glasgow that is not found today in Uist? Not one! In my day there was no jam except the kind that we made ourselves of brambles, of blaeberries, and of our own black and red currants. The people of today have not so much as a rose-bush. The men have taken to sloth, and they have neither kail nor carrots, nor even a garden. Since the folk were cast out to the streets of Glasgow and to the woods of Canada and to the peat-hags, the gardens have stopped.


O Mary Mother, we see the effect and the result! The young women of today have neither bone nor body, nor the growth proper to women. If they make a trip to the lowlands they come home stuffed full of airs and pride, and who but they? They go to Mass and to church to show themselves off, and who but they? With a knot on their breast, a polonaise [fancy gown] on their back, a picture-hat on their head, and a sunshade in their hand held above their head, and Mary Mother! who but they? - looking down on the mothers that bore them, because they had nothing of that sort and it did not exist in their time! May God give them sense! It is themselves who should need that, and who would need to go to the knoll to see if the fairy woman would bestow the wisdom and grace of womanhood upon them.


My second example is more about soul than body, but since it concerns dancing it will be clear that this is rather a false separation. It comes from Alexander Carmichael’s description of one Mary Macrae of the Isle of Harris - which adjoins Lewis, is to the north of Uist, and Presbyterian. In 1866 she handed down to him a spiritual incantation. Let me quote just the first verse of it here to show the degree to which her spirituality expressed the presence of God as being revealed through nature. This is the nature spirituality of, for example, Psalms 104 or Job 36-39. It is not “pantheism” - the belief that God IS nature, but rather “panentheism” - the experience that God IS IN nature. As such, panentheism is a wider perspective. It allows God to be both immanent (that is, expressed in the mundane world - incarnated) and at the same time transcendent (which is to say, beyond all manifest expression and understanding). Mary’s hymn commences (p. 36):


God with me lying down,

God with me rising up,

God with me in each ray of light,

Nor I a ray of joy without Him,

Nor one ray without Him.


Such material is typical of the Carmina. What, then, happened to this spiritual tradition? It is here that we must turn to Carmichael’s endnotes and their wider historical context. Oppressed by landlordism and the destruction of their traditional culture, the people fell prey to a distorted fundamentalism. Initially this often came from established church clergy who, under the 1712 Patronage Act, were often appointed by the landlord who had a vested interest in maintaining spiritual control. Later, tragically, it became part of a self-blaming theology. Salvation became a matter of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die rather than here-and-now transformation of the world in which we actually live. People blamed their own presumed sinfulness for the sufferings imposed upon them. Such were the dynamics of what Frantz Fanon in his “Wretched of the Earth called “inferiorisation.” It was a result of what Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” called “cultural invasion.”


Carmichael tells us that Mary Macrae had come to Harris from Kintail when she was young with Alexander Macrae. His mother was one of the celebrated ten daughters of MacLeod of Rararsay, mentioned by Johnson and Boswell. In other words, she was part of the Celtic tradition of lineage partly through strong women. Carmichael says (p. 575):


Mary Macrae was rather under than over middle height, but strongly and symmetrically formed. She often walked with companions, after the work of the day was done, distances of ten and fifteen miles to a dance, and after dancing all night, walked back again to the work of the morning fresh and vigorous as if nothing unusual had occurred. She was a faithful servant and an admirable worker, and danced at her leisure and carolled at her work like Fosgag Mhoire, Our Lady’s Lark, above her.

The people of Harris had been greatly given to old lore and to the old ways of their fathers, reciting and singing, dancing and merry-making; but a reaction occurred, and Mary Macrae’s old-world ways were abjured and condemned.

           The bigots of an iron time

           Had called her simple art a crime.


But Mary Macrae heeded not, and went on in her own way, singing her songs and ballads, intoning her hymns and incantations, and chanting her own port-a-bial, mouth music, and dancing to her own shadow when nothing better was available.


And Carmichael concludes:


I love to think of this brave kindly woman, with her strong Highland characteristics and her proud Highland spirit. She was a true type of a grand people gone never to return.

Recently, when I delivered a Schumacher Lecture in Liverpool under the auspices of the Institute of Health, I played on my whistle Donald MacLeod’s 6/8 march, “Pipe Major Donald MacLean of Lewis.” I am told that many in the audience found tears in their eyes. One wrote to me saying, “When you played the flute, I closed my eyes and the images that came were of fresh faced children, living within a LIVING community, only for it to be mercilessly snatched away. My closed eyes welled up.”


To me this sort of experience indicates the power of a tradition that is not dead, but at some level of the psyche, is living. What I want to suggest is that the REMNANT of Carmichael’s “grand people” has not gone forever. It remains as traces in our music, poetry and dance. If we let these things flow in us again, the culture that gave birth to them will be recreated first in our hearts, and then in our lives and the environment around us. This is how we can learn from the ancestors. This is how we can hear their wisdom. We must open our eyes to visions, our ears to music, our hearts to love and our hands to action.


What about those who feel they have no such cultural roots to draw upon? To them I say two things. Firstly, no genuinely spiritual culture is a closed culture. God seeks the fostership of all. Draw from other cultures if your own one has dried up, but do so with permission (which is to say, with blessing), with a profound respect (which is to say, with reverence) and with a generosity that offers something back (which is to say, with love).


And secondly. Allow creativity to work its magic through you. If you do not know what to do in life, try this. Pick up a paint brush, musical instrument or any other form of creative expression - for me it was a penny whistle that actually cost £2! And centre in on your feeling of inadequacy, uselessness and brokenness. Leave aside the retail therapy of consumerism, by which you feel miserable and temporarily ease it by another boost from the drip-feed of the credit card. Leave aside, for a while at least, the alcohol, tobacco and other drugs by which you - indeed, we all - might daily anaesthetise emotional pain: pain which, if you are seriously afflicted, you probably euphemistically think of as being the hooks of chemically determined addiction.


I don’t want to deny that there mightn’t be something in our genes that influences these things. But I do want to support the view that determining factors might also be in our psyches. Nearly all of us have or have had addictions of one sort or another. Let us then consider the possibility that our addictions are not so much chemical dependencies in the brain, as emotional dependencies. These will be expressed via physiology in brain chemistry, yes, but that is not necessarily their origin.


Allow me, then, to suggest that instead of denying or masking the pain, we let ourselves feel that pain. Consider that perhaps the raw pain IS the mantra. Yes, I mean that emotional pain that you maybe feel like a knife across the guts or as a tightness in the chest; that sense of “craving” for whatever means of anaesthesia happens to be your chosen coping mechanism.


Think of that pain. I remember once hearing a Barnados care worker describe it very well. He was trying to explain what it feels like when, as a teenager or adult, a person starts waking up to the realisation that they never received the emotional nourishment they needed as a child. He said it’s like the feeling you have when experiencing unrequited love. I think we probably all know that feeling. What we maybe don’t recognise is the very similar range of emotions that we feel often without being able to pinpoint their causes, but which probably have to do with the circumstances of our lives in an imperfect world. That is what I mean by existential broken-heartedness.


Furthermore, I want to suggest that that pain is your “cross.” There is nothing original in this suggestion. Read books by spiritual teachers like the Indian Jesuit, Anthony de Mello (e.g. “Sadhana: a way to God”), and you will find much greater expertise than mine in understanding and resolving such pain.


Rather than masking it, we maybe need to recognise that it is that pain which, over the years that a lifetime provides, we are called to address within ourselves. So, don’t be uptight about it. Don’t try and be puritan in forcing yourself to give up life’s pleasures. Just try doing without the smokes or the drinks or the Prozac or the compulsion to buy or for speed in the car or whatever it is for short periods, now and again. See what it feels like when you reflect on the raw pain of the craving. Don’t moralise yourself by making commitments to give up on whatever eases the passage of life for you. That may be neither necessary nor desirable. But what is both necessary and desirable is that you control what you take in to your body or life, and not the other way round. And there is a considerable body of thought that there is only one sure way of achieving that, and it is through anchoring life in spiritual reality.


That means calling not upon the bottle or whatever to carry our pain but upon God - the deep inner self. After all, what is this existential pain but, at source, the pain of heartbrokenness. Yes, we might pin it down to a broken relationship or “failed” career or difficult childhood or birth trauma or even notions about “past incarnations” ... but ultimately it is the pain of that universal human condition that, in my experience, I’d call heartbrokenness. And what is at the root of all heartbrokenness but a dysfunction, a twisted blockage, of love. And what is the ultimate cure to dysfunctions of love but spiritual healing - reconnection with God, the Goddess, Allah, Tao, Jah, Brahman ... as the source of all love. This demands facing life - reality - with naked honesty. The Buddhists know this. It is the core of Vipassana and other meditation practices based upon learning how to feel and processing, with the insight of consciousness, the undisguised feelings. In Christianity, likewise, Jesus says in Luke 4:18 of the “Authorised” translation: “He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted.”


Meditate on that passage or one like it with which you are comfortable. And as you do so, consider starting to explore and thereby address the pain through creativity. Pick up your instrument and play; your brush and paint; or your body and dance.


Don’t worry how bad your output sounds or looks. Don’t worry how ridiculous you may appear. This isn’t for the gallery or concert hall. It is for you. Facing our emptiness, our disability in matters creative, is all part of coming to terms with where we’re at and doing so without the denial that usually masks the recognition of reality. So, do what you are doing with a PRESENCE that amounts to worship. Be present here and now in this “sacrament of the present moment.” Imagine that your God - your beloved, the love behind the love of your dreams - is there. Imagine you are expressing your soul to that being or even just to the void if that is what you experience. I am talking here about nothing other than the grounding of your deepest self. And then start to learn. Open your inner ears and see what you are taught. You will be surprised. I remember once playing a mournful wail on my whistle. Then I heard birds outside and it was like an inner voice said in my mind’s ear, “If you want to PLAY, play like you hear the birds singing.” And so it was that I learnt the meaning of grace notes.


Remember Mary Macrae. As a last resort she danced, Carmichael tells us, “to her own shadow.” That might be how low we have to stoop.


Stoop? Yes. Jung tells the story of a  student who once said to a Rabbi, “In ancient times the holy people used to see the face of God. Why is that no longer so?”


“Because,” said the Rabbi, “nowadays there’s nobody willing to stoop low enough.”


So ... opening up to our creativity to let the soul dance is my first point. Then there’s the second step. Ram Dass says that if in doubt what to do with our lives, “feed the hungry.” It’s not good enough just to get into our creativity, or sort out our inner “stuff.” We must undertake outer work too, and do so iteratively - in parallel - with the inner work. We need the “praxis” of acting, reflecting, acting again and reflecting some more in a continuous process of being and becoming.


Outer work requires an ethic of service - both to ourselves and to others. So we need to look around ourselves. In ways that are both actual and metaphorical, we need to feed ourselves. But also, feed the hungry. And be healed from our blindness, our lameness and our broken-heartedness.




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27 July 2000


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