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Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul

Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul Written by John Philip Newell

Reviewed by Leah Rampy

Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it and find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16

In the darkness of the COVID-19 winter, I was drawn again to the wisdom of Celtic spirituality. Perusing notes from tattered journals I’d filled over the years, I immersed myself more deeply in this tradition of deep knowing that each and every being is sacred. While the pain of the lonely pandemic was compounded by the increasing awareness that racism, injustice, and power “over” still flourished in our country and our hearts, I was sustained by this ancient path of oneness that holds diversity and a loving connection with Earth in all aspects of daily life. Written over a century and a half ago, the words of the Celtic sages still rang true for this time.

Over the years I have benefitted by the writings and teachings of John Philip Newell so my journals are fairly robust on the topic of Celtic spirituality. John Philip was one of the first recipients of Shalem’s Contemplative Voices Award and so holds a special place in our broader contemplative community. When I reached out to him with questions about additional resources, he graciously sent me an electronic copy of his soon-to-be-published book: Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul. And so it was that a COVID-time gift resulted in a deeper exploration of generations of voices that offer “Celtic wisdom for reawakening to what our souls know and healing the world” – the subtitle of the book.

Before introducing individuals who have shaped the heart of Celtic tradition though the ages, John Philip cautions us that this is not a tradition that can be “reduced to a set of principles or beliefs.” “At its core, is the conviction that we essentially need to keep listening to what our soul already knows….” This aligns with the contemplative practice of listening from our spiritual hearts. Sacred Wisdom lives all around and IN us. Of course we do not always live out of this wisdom because we suffer from “soul forgetfulness.” Our challenge is not to learn more; it is to wake up to the deep knowing already woven into the “very fabric of our being.”

You will want to read this book to follow the stories and teachings of 9 individuals who light the way to holding God at the heart of everything. Perhaps no writer of this lineage has been more mischaracterized than Pelagius (ca. 360-430) who taught that what is deepest within us is of God, and that the soul is sacred, earth is sacred, and compassion is sacred. Those teachings did not sit well with the Roman authorities, setting the stage for trials of heresy, disturbing the peace, bans, excommunication, multiple edicts condemning his work, and even an encyclical over 200 years after his death demanding that this wicked superstition be purged from Ireland!

From Pelagius to St. Brigid, from Alexander John Scott, to the collected stories and prayers of the Carmina Gadelica, and more, John Philip brings alive the wisdom of Celtic prophets and points us toward the “good way” that offers rest for our souls in troubled times. I was inspired to meet for the first time the Scottish poet, Kenneth White, who calls for us to rediscover the earth; allow it to reshape how we see, speak and act; and let it guide us to a new way of being. Like many of the Celtic lineage, White viewed the earth as a sacred text.

After exploring the contributions of a Celtic wisdom figure, each chapter ends with a guided reflection and prayer so that the reader can take into their own hearts the wisdom that resonates with them. In this book, John Philip has provided a great resource of Celtic treasure with relevance for our lives today. “It is a stream of wisdom that nourishes the deepest knowing of our being, that earth and every human being is sacred.” May it be so for each of us.

“Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul” by John Philip Newell and published by HarperOne will be available in July 2021 and can be preordered through major book sellers and your own favorite small bookstore. https://www.earthandsoul.org/sacred-earth-sacred-soul

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