The Spiritual Boat People

by Ian Lurking Bear

I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.

~~ John O'Donohue ~~
(From: Conamara Blues)

The green isles still hold their mystery, and ancient spirits haunt the dreams of those who are open to the old ways.

My Celtic and pre-Celtic ancestors partook of the Salmon of Wisdom, saw visions, danced with the faeries, and lived a life deeply connected with the land.

Times changed, and imperial invaders finally overran our beautiful island. The salmon and bears had disappeared, the forests were leveled, and oppression and famine came in the ensuing centuries. Many of us sailed to the West toward the islands beyond the horizon, as is the tradition among my people. When it was time to leave the land, one would take a curragh out into the Atlantic. Perhaps some of these early voyagers actually made it across the Atlantic in their small boats. Mysterious stone monuments and inscriptions in the New World hint at this possibility, and in recorded time, Saint Brendan crossed remarkable distances in a traditional leather boat. As the tide of change swelled, of course, many fled in larger numbers in more modern ships.

Celtic legend tells of journeying through the mists on the water to the numerous islands of myth and imagination. Indeed, many fascinating islands lay to the West, and the largest and most bountiful of these was Turtle Island (North America to the vulgar imperialists). On Turtle Island, bears and salmon were still plentiful, along with all the other creatures that thrive where bears and salmon still live.

Unfortunately, imperial madness continued to sweep across the planet, crushing tribal ways as it went. Along with domination and enslavement came an authoritarian monotheistic religion that demanded that the tribes destroy and forget their rich and various spiritual heritages. Even attempts at a more enlightened, humanistic Christianity were ruthlessly repressed.

What spirit harsh monotheism had not crushed, hard edged materialism tried to rend from us. "Rationalists" imagined a world even more distant from nature, a mind even more divorced from the body, a perfect universe/machine where spirit had no place. Spiritual blindness has become fashionable.

There is no further West to flee. We have traveled so far West that we now meet fleeing people and spirits from the East. Borrowing from Eastern cultures and others, we are able to begin recovering what our own cultures have lost on their way in the march of monotheism and materialism.

In a recent vision, I saw across gray waters to the East, backlit by gathering twilight, a boatload of the Gheddes from Haiti, in their black suits and top hats. At the prow, one of them had his hat out before me as if begging. His message was, "Though our people flee starvation and cruelty across the water, you are the spiritual boat people. It is not only we who need you, but you who need us. It is no wonder that you go desperately scavenging other cultures for something that you hunger for."

We are able to find tantalizing hints of what our tribal past may have been, and some are able to recover worthy elements from Christianity, but ultimately to fill the spiritual void, we must borrow from other cultures where less has been lost.

While some native purists of Turtle Island insist that we have no place working with the spirits of this land, we are in a quandary. Our true ancestral lands are plundered by the very forces that attack native spirits here. How can we speak with the Salmon of Wisdom where the salmon are long gone? Clearly, a distinction must be made between those who wish to honor the land and spiritual teachings of other peoples, and those who exploit and appropriate the cultures of others for personal gain.

These are times of dislocation and chaos. Peoples materially or spiritually bereft flee from all directions to meet at the crossroads of change. All of us must find a balance between preserving authentic culture and sharing proven techniques, without jealously staking out territory or assimilating into sameness. Mutual respect among those sincerely seeking a spiritual path is essential here.

To continue our journey, we must sail through the spiritual realm, among the islands of the inner world to find a way to the memories and the ways of the ancestors, and to discover the fascinating islands of the other cultures. We are as much of the spirit as the ancient medicine men, the Lamas, or the Houngans of Voudun. This spiritual awareness cannot be purchased or rented. We should not be afraid to ask for guidance where it can be found in other cultures, and should also honor our roots. We have what we need, only we must embark on the voyage through the mists to our true selves.

Where moss coats grey rock
A storm gathers its airy wings
Three ravens seal the gate
A will of iron makes the lock
For the tomb of long forgotten kings
A raucous call, the time grows late

Where incandescent rotting wood
Drinks the storm tide's cloudy gift
A coracle lies beached
Its time no longer understood
Twas once a cauldron set adrift
Now broken ribs point stark and bleached

Where once the radiant brow shone forth
And harps glittered by secret fires
Illuminating poetry and song
A cold wind blows from the north
The cup is defiled by bands of liars
Whose rule extends for far too long

Where once the salmon leapt the fall
And hazel nuts enriched the brew
Wisdom flowed from every stream
Now dark factories spew their pall
A poison ruin where great trees grew
The old ways fading to a dream

Where once proud people sought the light
And made their mark on mighty stones
Lives are dulled by useless toil
Forced by those who've no such right
Claiming that which none can own
Tearing the people from the soil

Where once great heroes fought for life
And swords sang out with brilliant tone
Enriching earth with blood and bones
The land is gripped in pointless strife
Uprooted people slay their own
Oppressors kill from gilded thrones

Where dark, cold storms vent their wrath
Amongst hard bit grass and well pressed tracks
And salt stained woes would swell the tide
A battered cross stands by a path
Chipped and lichened, growing cracks
An abbey's stones lie scattered wide

Where once saints blessed the land
Keeping Brigid's flame alive
Tending to the sacred wells
The church is ruled with an iron hand
The bees burned in their hive
Heavens turned to garish hells

Atop a crumbling dolmen
The ravens cry to crooked fate
The web of wyrd lies in tatters
Destruction comes too often
Remembrance comes too late
The ancient gateway shatters

In gnarled oak the mystery lives
Suffused with captured starlight
In glittering leaves the faeries dance
The oakbound kings their dreaming captives
The realm's true shield shining bright

Protects the cup, the sword, the lance
A boat moves through the mists
Harp music across still water
A lady stands in the prow
The fair and mighty island still exists
And holds its own while empires totter

The old ways are reborn now
The thread is frayed, the trail faint
Glamourous dreams lead some astray
The cracked cauldron shall be mended
There is no record without some taint
Some we must create today

Yet the story hasn't ended
I saw the hosts gathering across the sea
In a land far, wild, and strange
Rallying small peoples to remembrance
Of ways ancient, wild, and free
I saw their shields glitter across the range

I saw them join forces in exubrant dance
I've seen them clinging with their roots
In the old country hiding in the earth
Waiting for a return to the old ways
Beneath the iron empire's boots
Like sleeping seeds seeking rebirth
In inevitable spring's luminous rays

Gathered to the light in secret temples of old
Ancestors guide the dreams of those who ken
Standing stones still vibrate with the land
Round modern hearthfires the stories are told
The stars yet mark the ways to mortal men
Waiting patiently for those who understand

So long as the vow of Amergin to Eriu is kept
The thread shall not be broken
The inmost temple none shall defile
The great ones of the land have slept
Waiting til the day the stone has spoken
To reenchant the emerald isle

© 1994 Ian D. Anderson