Have you ever known something to be true in the core of your being, even if it’s counter to what you have been taught? Maybe you have heard or read something and your immediate response is, ‘I knew it.’ This reaction is instantaneous and authentic. In John Philip Newell’s book ‘Sacred Earth Sacred Soul’, he advances the idea that for us to recognize truth, there must be something within us that already knows it. Newell highlights the Celtic tradition and its emphasis on an awareness of the sacred essence of all things and its insistence that we need to keep listening to what our soul already knows.
Newell, an internationally acclaimed spiritual teacher and the former warden of Iona Abbey in Scotland, further elaborates on his thesis with essays about St. Brigid of Kildare, a 5th century beloved Celtic saint who revered the earth, John Muir, the Scottish-born American naturalist environmentalist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin the Jesuit priest and mystic, and several other avatars of Celtic wisdom. Each essay adds another layer to the theme of Celtic spirituality.
At the end of each essay are Words of Awareness and Prayers of Awareness which reinforce the message in each essay.
Throughout the book, Newell invites us to take part in a great awakening to the sacred in ourselves and to the world around us. He believes that we have forgotten who we are and, in so doing, have disrupted our relationship with the earth and with the people around us. We have paid a high price for this forgetfulness: a planet in crisis, the proliferation of hate speech, and refugees being denied sanctuary. Newell urges us to wake up to the deep knowledge of the sacred that resides in all of us. When we describe something as ‘sacred’, Newell writes, we give it the utmost respect and honour. When we see the ‘other’ and our earth through the sacred lens, we alter our responses to the creator and to creation.
In his essay on Alexander John Scott, a church of Scotland minister whose works inspired George MacDonald (who in turn was an inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis) Newell writes about Scott’s belief that what is most truly human is what is most divine. ‘A thread of the divine is woven through the fabric of the human soul and of everything that has being. This golden thread is our essence.’ In those terms, we are all sacred beings with a compelling responsibility for one another and for creation.
In the conclusion to the book, Newell reasons that if we believe in the sacredness of the earth and the sacredness of every human being, we must live in relationship with all of God’s creation. He adds that we do not have to invent a new way of seeing; ancient Celtic wisdom provides us with a timely road map for the issues that we face today. Newell reminds us that love is at the core of the sacred, and love is what makes us truly alive. This remarkable book comes with urgent advice to change our relationship with the created world; it also comes with the hopeful message that guided by Celtic wisdom we can change our perspective and our behaviour. This year, as our earth burns, Newell’s advice is both urgent and timely.