Reflections on a Celtic approach to rambling

So what is the soul and where does it fit with the body?

Walking up in the mountains, sweating profusely as you wind up a narrow track in the heat and dust of a late afternoon, aware of the stony cliffs above and the immense fall of the land to the valleys below, your throat seeming to close with dryness - you cannot but be aware of your body. It demands that you give it attention, listen to it, be aware of its strengths and wonders as well as of its needs - your needs. You and it are one, but subtly differentiated in a symbiotic relationship.

And who is the ‘I’ that carries on this conversation with the ‘me’ of my body, learning from it as well as ministering to it?

Being aware of your body and caring for it is not just base materialism or egocentric ornamentation. When you are walking in the mountains if you do not use your body carefully you and it get hurt. A slightly misplaced foot climbing up to Kinder Scout immediately leads to a badly gashed shin. It could lead to worse, or to less. If you leave the sweat in your eyes you cannot appreciate the magnificence of the views which confront you. Wipe them dry, and perhaps from the temporary shade of a large Sweet Chestnut tree you will see and feel the rocky wilderness of the ravines and mountains all around you, humbling your sense of self and self-importance. How puny we are compared to the massive forces which shape the earth, and how transient.

At another level, if I do not look after the magnificent, intricate, naturally-occurring electro-hydrostatic system which I have inherited (my body) that performs in a flash functions that our idols, the computers, take seconds to complete or can only manage clumsily, how can I claim to care for the world in which I live or for other people whom we say need help. Something here about motes and beams I think, noticing our own blindnesses and needs first before trying to point out those of other people or other societies - rooting out our own prejudices before criticising other people for their actions. Something too about caring for ourselves, but not in a narcissistic way, as well as caring for other people in the same way.

Caring for our body is not synonymous with merely pampering it, be it with baths of asses milk or lotions and potions from various high street stores. Nor is it synonymous with stretching it until it almost breaks in a lather of keep-fit regimes and diets that leave a person with little time or mental energy to engage in all the other opportunities and inter-relationships that make us fully human. It actually involves us in sensibly feeding, cleaning, polishing, exercising and resting our bodies, pursuing what we can reasonably achieve with a little effort, as well as recognising our physical and mental limitations. And in all that, revelling to uplift our spirits.

In doing this, we begin to marvel at the wonderful complexity of our bodies as part of nature. It is nature and our parts in it, however, which is to be viewed with awe and fascination as a marvellous creation - not we ourselves arrogantly as the most successful creatures so far in the planet’s history.

This recognition and marvelling expands the sight and understanding of our soul, that intimate part of each of us that only engages with the natural world through our bodies. So we become more aware of the living spirit which engages with us all and of the need to help our souls to fulfil their journey towards it.

What I find astounding is that people have been doing this for tens of thousands of years. Our stone-age ancestors celebrated the wonders of nature in their cave paintings and engaged in burial ceremonies to help their loved-one’s spirits to some other world. Do not scoff that they were not Christians! They recognised a spirit to whom they could reach out, even if they thought the one God inaccessible, so worshipped it through intermediaries of rocks and shamans and sacred sites. We too have our intermediaries - saints, priests and churches! Indeed we seem to have less of a sense of awe for nature than our ancestors did. In western Europe, our late twentieth century understandings of God are so limited that many people prefer to revere our human creations of science, technology and economic systems (markets) so much that they willingly sacrifice a wonderful nature, personal happiness and bodily health on their altars. What false gods!

Experiencing the world through our bodies helps our souls to grow, whether walking in a street, sitting in an urban park, or standing by some rural river or waterfall or rocky crag. In a Celtic view of Christianity, the soul is part of the body and the body part of the soul. To ignore our bodies and avoid celebrating them and the natural world of which they form part, is to overlook an important channel through which we can grow in our understandings of a theo-centric view of life. There is a parallel in the church. If we ignore the body, that human framework of fellowship and community, and only focus on liturgy or fabric or scriptures, we overlook an important arena through which we can develop our understandings and wonder of what it means to be a full part of God’s world.

Hugh Busher

If you want to find out more about Celtic Christianity, I have found a useful starting point to be: "Anan Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World" by John O’Donohue (Bantam Press 1997).
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st October 1999