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Spirituality and Sustainability

In order for humankind to create a sustainable lifestyle on this planet, it must find for itself a spirituality to underpin it. Without an oppropriate spirituality, even the idea of sustainability is unsustainable.

By Dara Molloy

The present unsustainable lifestyle of westerners is underpinned by a Christian spirituality that supports it. This spirituality has to change and change radically if sustainability is to be achieved.

Present day Christian spirituality has its roots in Judaic theology. When the Hebrews came out of slavery in Egypt they developed a new theology which rejected any notion of a pantheon of gods, and all feminine images of the Divine. There was to be one God and that God was male. This removed the direct connection of the Divine with the land and the seasons. A feminine deity was more easily identified with the moon cycles, the fertility of the land, and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Human consciousness of time changed from a cyclic understanding, the cycle of life endlessly repeating itself, to a linear understanding, and the concept of progress and development. History began.

As the idea of the Father-God developed and all other images of the Divine were successfully repressed, it came to be understood that this Father-God lived in the heavens and not on the earth. There was a clear division between the world in which the Father-God lived and the human world. These worlds could be bridged on occasions, but only by the holiest of people. The majority would have to live by the law, handed down.

With the advent of Jesus, some new ideas were added for Christians. The two main ones were the idea that love lies behind everything and the idea of the Holy Spirit. Both of these ideas softened the starkness and harshness of the Old Testament Father-God. God could now be called Abba, the loving term a child uses for its father. The idea of the Holy Spirit gave people the sense that they could touch into the spirit of the divine within themselves and allow themselves to be directed by that.

Onto this was added a third idea: that Jesus himself was divine. This idea was not promoted by Jesus but by his early followers and by Christians from then on. It was the notion of the incarnation. God becoming man.

When Christianity entered the mainstream in the fourth century and became the religion of the Empire, power and control gradually became centralised in Rome. This led to the reining in of all the diverse expressions of Christianity throughout the known world and to the imposition of uniformity. There was to be one language (Latin), one way to celebrate the rituals and liturgies (the Roman Ritual), one date for Easter and all the other festivals (the Roman calendar), and one way to dress as a monk (the Celtic tonsure was forbidden).

Christianity had now created the first multinational product. Religious expression had been stripped of its diversity, its cultural and geographical connections, its integration with seasons, climate and local festivals. Christianity was now an abstract and its expression was recognisable regardless of place or time or culture or language.

Just as McDonald's is recognisable for its premises and its food no matter where it is situated in the world, Tokyo, Buenos Aires or London, so Christianity had done the same. It was Christianity that gave McDonald's the idea! Christianity invented, tested and marketed the prototype of 'the consumer product'.

The 16th century marked the beginning of the age of colonialism, and now the Christian multinational product, which had already been developed, could be exported throughout the new world. Further structures were developed to do this, and the model of the multinational corporation, aggressively entering new territories, was born. The doctrine of 'no salvation outside the church' was promulgated and people from indigenous cultures were regarded as savages and uncivilised, with no intrinsic value. The Christian churches created and practised the concept of globalisation long before the present day corporate world had thought of it. The effects of that ecclesiastical globalisation, especially on cultural diversity, offer a clear lesson to those who promote globalisation today.

With colonialism came also the Scientific Revolution. In the initial stages of this revolution, the Christian Church clashed viciously with the scientists. Any teaching of scientists that did not tally with a Biblical understanding of the universe was anathema. However, after some time, when it was obvious that the scientists were winning, the Church took a stand-off position. This position copperfastened the theology of the Creator-God being far removed from his creation. Scientists could tamper with the material world and animal world as these worlds contained no soul. God had created the world as a carpenter makes a chair. Others could use and adapt the chair without offending the maker.

The way was now open for a change of language. Everything could now be regarded as a resource. What had been regarded as a holy mountain, could now be seen as a resource from which gold could be mined. Animals and plants could be resources for medical products and food. The land itself, the sun, the wind all are now resources for the use of humankind.

When we create an image of the Divine for ourselves, we are naming an ambition this is who we wish to become. The God we have created is absent from the world and looks on from heaven. So we too have come to see ourselves in this way. We see ourselves more as creators of this world than creative expressions of this world. Our ultimate achievement has been to propel ourselves outside this world into outer space, where we feel even more like God. The photographs of the earth taken from outer space have become a modern icon. Now we can imagine ourselves as managers of the earth. We can adjust the earth as a person might adjust his TV set. We can use the earth, control the earth, kick it round like a football, blow it to smithereens if we wish. The picture from outer space supports the belief that we are not really dependent on the earth, but that the earth is dependent on us. We have become like the God we have imagined.

A new spirituality of sustainability cannot accommodate this old theology. Institutional multinational churches of whatever denomination have little to offer precisely because they are caught into this theology. For this reason many people are taking an interest in indigenous spiritualities. Native American, Australian Aboriginal and Celtic spiritualities have all experienced a huge resurgence of interest. This makes sense, because what has been lost is diversity on the one hand, and connectedness to culture and landscape on the other. The indigenous cultures invite us to treasure and learn from what they still preserve, before it is too late.

I am most familiar with Celtic spirituality and it is to this I now turn in order to find some signposts for a spirituality of sustainability. I do not believe that any ancient spirituality will be adequate to provide the complete answer to our needs, but many elements of them offer firm foundation stones for a new spirituality.

The essence of indigenous spirituality is that it is woven into the life of a people their culture, their history, their landscape, their climate. It cannot be extracted from this without being radically altered. The Celts for example had a pantheon of gods. Of these, Dagda was the great male provider who dragged a cauldron around after him that was always full of food for everybody. The great mother goddess had various names, notably Danu and Brigid, however she could appear in three forms: as a mother, a maiden or a wise hag. There were many other Celtic gods: Lugh, the god of light, Aonghus, the god of youth and romantic love, Mananan, the god of the sea. Each of these divine personalities offered an image of the Divine that was connected with an aspect of the people's lives. In this way the Celtic people were able to see the divine energy present in an integrated way in their lives.

A good example is the Celtic harvest festival at Lughnasa (August 1st). This was a celebration of the first harvest of corn which had survived the threats of disease and pest and had come through with a good yield. Celtic people understood the struggle of the corn for survival to be the continuation of the archtypal battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians. The Tuatha Dé Danann were gods of sunshine, light, growth and fertility and Lugh led them into battle alongside their king Nuada. They were evolved. The Fomorians were non-evolved dark sea-gods who spread blight, stinginess, bad-weather and decay. Their leader was Balor of the Evil Eye.

Until the decisive battle of Moytura, the Fomorians regularly harassed the land-dwellers, stealing their animals and extracting huge taxes from them. At the battle of Moytura, the Fomorians were defeated and Balor was killed by Lugh. Nuada was also killed and so, after the battle, Lugh was crowned king in his place. Lugh then married Baoi, the goddess of the land. She conceived and nine months later a child was born. This child is the harvest at Lughnasa, represented by the first sheaf of corn.

From then on, the Fomorians were kept down although not wiped out completely. So each year the battle goes on. When the first corn is ripe it is time to celebrate, and this is done by placing the first sheaf of corn on the ceremonial Lughnasa hill.

Here we have a theology which explains why it is so difficult to grow food to harvest without it being attacked. It is caused by a battle of light over darkness, summer over winter. Lugh, the god of light, marries Baoi, the earth goddess and together they produce the harvest. The sun and the earth form a marriage bond which brings fertility to the land.

This wedding was called the Bainis Rí, the king's wedding, and was repeated each time a king was enthroned in any of the kingdoms of Ireland. The enthronement was symbolically enacted as a marriage of the new king to the land. As long as the king acted justly towards his people, the land would produce and be fruitful.

There are many places in Ireland where the Lughnasa festival was celebrated. The most well-known of these is Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. This has now become a Christian festival, honouring Saint Patrick who spent forty days fasting at its peak. However, the rituals that are performed to this day have their roots in the ancient story of Lughnasa.

From a certain standing stone outside Westport1 in County Mayo, it is possible to watch the sun setting on Croagh Patrick. If the time of year is chosen correctly (around April 18th or August 24th), the sun lands with pin-point accuracy on the sharp tip of Croagh Patrick. Then the miracle happens. Instead of disappearing behind the mountain as it sets, the sun gives the appearance of rolling down the north side of the mountain. This phenomenon was captured by a photographer and published in The Irish Times in 19922.

Croagh Patrick, or Cruaghán Aigle as it was known then, became a suitable location for a Lughnasa festival for this reason. The sun, or god of light Lugh, lies down with the earth, or goddess Baoi, at the height of the summer. Pilgrims climb the mountain during the night carrying lighted torches. Symbolically, they lie down in the same bed as Lugh and Baoi at the top of the mountain, spending the night with them. In this way they immerse themselves in the divine source of fertility and harvest, and so bring it into their own lives.

A clergyman in the mid-nineteenth century denounced these practices saying: "The abominable practices that are committed there ought to make human nature in its most degraded state blush"3. Yet these rituals had a clear and obvious meaning to the people who performed them, and allowed them to connect with the divine energy that lay behind these aspects of their lives. The modern practice at the top of Croagh Patrick is the celebration of Mass and the hearing of confessions a practice that has no particular connection with that mountain or that time of year and could be performed anywhere without the slightest variation.

I use this elaborate example to illustrate a number of key aspects of Celtic spirituality that point the way towards a spirituality of sustainability.

Firstly, the Celtic pantheon of gods and goddesses gave people a clearer understanding of how divine energy was present in the many and varied key aspects of their lives. Baoi was the Mother-Goddess whose presence was in the land. Lugh was the divine presence behind the sun and the light. Balor and the Fomorians were the dark gods that caused poor harvests, disease, and pests.

Secondly, the Celts understood that divine energy could be masculine or feminine. They also understood that fertility and progeny came from a male and female lying down together both in nature generally and in humans and so had little difficulty imagining the gods lying down together also and attributing to that act the source of their own fertility and that of the land.

Thirdly, the Celts built their theology into the rituals that were integral to their lives. The ritual crowning of a king was a Bainis Rí which wedded the king to the goddess of the land and bound him to act justly in return for successful harvests.

Fourthly, Celtic mythology was constructed around the people's actual history. There had been an actual battle at Moytura, which is near Lough Arrow in County Sligo. Also, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians were real historic people. The Jews did the same, mythologising their escape from Egypt and their journey through the desert. But Christianity has not done this, other than in relation to Christ himself.

Fifthly, Celtic mythology is integrated into the landscape. Croagh Patrick is but one of many examples. Ireland abounds in holy mountains, hills, wells, islands, pilgrim paths and other sacred sites and places. The river Shannon gets its name from the river-goddess Sinann who drowned in it and thereby gave it life. Its source is in the Otherworld where sacred hazelnut trees drop their ripe fruits into the water to be carried downstream by salmon. These hazelnuts carry all the wisdom of the world. The Celts, as we can see from this example, also mythologised trees and fish, as well as other animals and plants. In Celtic times, it was impossible to live in this environment or travel through it without being highly sensitive to the divine energies in the surroundings. In modern times, it is quite the opposite.

Sixthly, Celtic mythology is integrated into the passage of time. Each season Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lúghnasa, Samhain takes on its own mythological story. The solstices and equinoxes are celebrated with appropriate rituals. Even certain times in the day are more open to the Otherworld than others, namely the transition times of dawn, midday and dusk. There are rituals for planting and for harvesting, for sending the cattle up to hills and for bringing the cattle in for winter; for lighting the fire in the morning, the candle at dusk, and for bedding down the smouldering embers at night.

And yet Celtic spirituality, nor any other indigenous spirituality, cannot be transported into this modern age without major adaptations. Even if major adaptations are made to adjust these spiritualities to our modern way of life, my feeling is that it will still not be sufficient or satisfactory.

A new spirituality is needed that on the one hand rejects the multinational and institutional approach and on the other builds on the strengths of the indigenous approach.

When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper before his death, he was sitting down to the highly ritualised meal of Passover. All the items on the table, all the prayers to be said, all the rituals to be performed were fully prescribed under the Law. This was not an ordinary meal, but one that every family throughout Judaism celebrated on this night in exactly the same way, as prescribed by the Law.

Yet Jesus had the courage and the imagination to take this celebration as a starting point for introducing a new ritual that Christians were subsequently to take up. Without destroying the meaning of Passover, Jesus added another layer of meaning to the ceremony with his disciples by adding to it key elements of his own life and teaching in a ritual form. The bread and wine on the table became his body and blood for his friends to eat as spiritual food. He washed the feet of his disciples, the job of a slave or servant, and told his disciples to do the same.

We can choose to imitate Jesus by repeating physically and verbally everything he did exactly as he did it, or we can imitate him in a deeper sense by exercising that same courage and imagination and by coming up with creative new rituals ourselves.

The latter is, I believe, what we now have to do. We take what has been passed on to us in our traditions and we creatively and imaginatively add new layers to these from our own lives.

I would like to give some examples of this from the work we are doing at An Charraig in this area.

A standard ritual within Christianity is the sign of the cross made with the right hand to the brow, the abdomen and to both shoulders using the words 'In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit'. This ritual poses some problems to those who share the thinking outlined at the beginning of this article. It is male dominated, it omits anything to do with the earth, and it uses only one hand which seems unbalanced.

In pre-Christian Celtic theology, the earth was a goddess who could appear in human form in three guises as a maiden, a mother, or a wise old woman. For this reason, the Celts had little difficulty with the concept of the Trinity they had their own triple goddess. Even prior to the Celts in Ireland, the triple spirals on the stones in front of Newgrange illustrate the ancientness of this idea.

We have now begun to practice an integration of these two ideas. We call it the Celtic sign of the cross. We say: 'In the name of the Father and the Mother, the Son and the Maiden, the Spirit and the Wise Old Woman'. As we do so, we use both hands to make the sign to the brow, the abdomen and to both shoulders.

Another example:

The Eucharist in Christian churches is generally celebrated by a male. Some denominations now also have female celebrants, but the words and actions remain the same. It seems to me that replacing a male by a female, while it does honour the rights of women, does little to enhance the ceremony or adapt it to the modern mind.

We have decided to have the leadership of the celebration shared between a male and a female. This allows both the masculine and the feminine face of the Divine to be reflected in the ceremony. Where possible, a married couple take the leadership together, as this is an even stronger image.

We have also added new layers of meaning to the ceremony, and brought out some of the hidden layers from the past. To begin with the latter:- the Eucharist has its roots in the Passover of Judaism. This was a key moment in Judaic history when Moses led his people out of slavery into freedom. At our Eucharist, we celebrate the Passover as representing the struggle of all people to be free. While celebrating the Jewish struggle, we also celebrate the Irish struggle, the South African struggle, the East Timorese struggle, and so on. We add to this the celebration and remembrance of the personal struggle that individuals may go through to free themselves from whatever oppressions, limitations or addictions are on them.

We also add a new layer of meaning by focussing in on the chalice of red wine. The chalice connects us to a great Celtic legend, the Holy Grail. This was the chalice used at the Last Supper, said to have been brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimethea. It then went missing and a great search for it began. Searching for the Holy Grail came to signify the archetypical search for the Divine. In this case, the Divine is symbolised in feminine form the chalice being a container with a female shape. It is no accident, I believe, that this legend grew popular at a time when the Celtic beliefs in female deities were being superseded by the Christian male god.

We use the chalice and its connection to this legend to celebrate all those who are on a personal search for spirituality and for an experience of the Divine.

The red wine in the chalice furthermore gives us an opportunity to add yet another layer of meaning, especially as Jesus already gave us its connection with blood. We use the red wine to signify the blood of women. We celebrate the blood of women and their menstrual cycle as the source of life for us. In this we are celebrating womanhood, fertility, birth and motherhood. It also allows us to connect with the moon, and to give thanks for its influence over us and over creation.

While adding these layers of meaning and changing the traditional ritual in various ways, we still remain faithful to what Jesus gave us. We pray that his Holy Spirit will come upon the bread and wine to make it holy. But we also pray that the Divine lifeforce that comes through the earth will cooperate in its transformation. Our hands go over the gifts to represent the Holy Spirit coming down, and under the gifts to represent the earth energy coming up. We then sing the words that Jesus used: 'This is my body ; This is my blood ' and all join in this singing.


I have argued that traditional Christian spirituality, based as it is on monotheism and a male deity that is removed from the earth, is at the root of the present unsustainable lifestyle that the Western world has created for itself. While indigenous spiritualities, such as Celtic spirituality, can offer us some aspects of a new spirituality that could underpin a more sustainable lifestyle, my main argument is that a new spirituality of sustainability will be the result of creativity and imagination and will add a new layer of meaning to some of our old traditions.

1. The Boheh Stone, close to Drummin and Lettebrock east of Croagh Patrick.

2. Photograph by Gerry Bracken in The Irish Times, September 5th, 1992, page 11 of the Weekend Supplement.

3. Page, J.R., Ireland: Its Evils Traced to their Source, 1836, 33.

The land itself, the sun, the wind - all are now ressources for the use of humankind.

We can choose to imitate Jesus by repeating physically and verbally everything he did exactly as he did it, or we can imitate him in a deeper sense by exercising that same courage and imagination and by coming up with creative new rituals ourselves.
The Celtic sign of the cross...'In the name of the Father and the Mother, the Son and the Maiden, the Spirit and the Wise Old Woman'.

The chalice connects us to a great Celtic legend, the Holy Grail.

  Dara Molloy is a priest in the Celtic tradition. He is the co-editor of The AISLING Magazine.

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