Saturday, 9 February 2013

Review: A Practical Guide To Irish Spirituality

A Practical Guide To Irish Spirituality: Sli an Dhraoi

By Lora O Brien (Wolfpack Publishers, 2012)

For some time before A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality came out, I followed Lora’s progress and heard several times how this title is not the fabled second book. Though perhaps not the planned sequel to her previous title Irish Witchcraft From an Irish Witch, at 245 pages (written over a span of only three months!) this is an impressive tome in its own right.

This book has already been out a while, but due to the experiential nature of this book it is pretty much impossible to ‘just read it’. I am writing this review without considering myself finished with this book. I have read it, considered it, and even done some of the more easily manageable exercises, but this is a book of starting points through exercises and pathworkings that could easily take a solid year or more to get through (and still feel like theres more to do).

First off we are struck by the workbook nature of this book. Already journaling and introspective practice are encouraged in the introduction with a series of questions including the readers expectations in undertaking such a process. O Brien does not mince her words, and makes clear the user (reader seems inadequate for such a format of book) will only get out as much as they put in.

The style of writing is very informal, more informal than one would otherwise encounter in a nonfiction book(or at least in the ones I read), but this element of familiarity and narrative has a special charm, though at times it leans towards reading highly caffeinated, for example in the end of the introduction:

 The stage is set, the structure is in place. And so we begin this part of our journey together. Hand in hand almost, we step onto this path, you and I. Are we ready? I feel ready. And scared, did I mention the scared? Not to worry, we’re doing the work we’re supposed to be doing; we’re ready to put in the effort, and we CAN do this. Deep breaths… and we’re off.

Such content gives for an energetic sense of anticipation, and I have to admit, though I am not used to reading material written in this style, I often found myself smiling at the ‘wee chat’ quirkiness of it all.

The core of the book is quite structured into the threefold definition of cosmology found in the Tain – land, sea and sky.

Under the realm of land we are given resources and questions around Ancestry, including a sane way of beginning to look into ancestry (though some of the indications given are for people exploring Irish ancestry, the basic method is good for people of all ethnic backgrounds), as well as the tangible relationship the Irish have with the dead, and the customs that exist around death, both contemporary and ancient. Though I am familiar with Lora as a ‘pagan’ author (boxes and labels are so troublesome), one thing I found very useful about this book is its fluid relationship to all aspects of Irish culture and spirituality, with the ancient and the Pagan, and the more recent Catholic traditions standing side by side. These are presented as a continuum. Practical indications are also given for honouring the ancestors.

This is followed by a chapter on working with sacred sites, which gives a lot of indications. I have to say I was reading this section half asleep, so I came to a ‘list of things to do at a sacred site’ and I was horrified (and surprised) only to reach a section directly afterwards that declared that yes, she was being completely sarcastic. Again, this is an unusual literary tool, but an effective one and I let out a sigh of relief. And yet many of the practices described are very common desecrations of important archaeological sites. OK, on we go.

This is followed by a chapter on rhythms and cycles. This included indications on the ancient festivals including the fire festivals and solar festivals. I really enjoyed the sections on the solar festivals because of the details of the solar alignment of sights for these festivals. Ritual marking of the festivals is recommended with a very broad form, but no ritual words or actions specifically. The reader is encouraged throughout the book to be innovative, and to enable this O Brien gives just enough help, but not too much as to make the reader reliant on her authority.

The next section, in the realm of sea, continues with a threefold of chapters on the Sidhe (the so called fairy folk), deities or Gods, and the Otherworld, and journeys or Imramma to the Otherworld. A lot of resources are given, as well as anecdote, and a series of projects for deepening knowledge, You certainly won’t find ‘this Gods name means this, has to do with this, his colour is this’. The work of specific experience is given firmly into the hands of the reader.

The final realm of sky or air also has three chapters, being Magical Craft, Literature and Priesthood and Community. Magical Craft gives an excellent overview of magical belief and practice in Ireland. Literature touches on the major sources materials of Irish mythology, as well as sections on poetry, Breton law around trees and ogham. The final chapter deals in a way with life cycles, dealing with the big events of life and how we mark them in the context of community. Out of this the question of priesthood arises – on one hand the personal spiritual authority to mark events, but also to carry this role in a community. O Brien emphasises the context of a community as central to any spiritual work where any title of priesthood is used, and that taking on such a mantle carries responsibility to the community.  She goes on to speak about coming of age, gender questions, and the transition of death.

Running through all of these chapters like a golden thread are a series of pathworkings, or inner journeys through images that allow for an inner experience of the subject being explored. In many ways these are a kind of meditation, giving both form, yet also freedom. I personally enjoyed these pathworkings and felt they form an important balance to the outer work of questions, journaling and research.

In general, looking back after reading the book, and after doing some of the exercises, I was pleasantly amused that many of the questions I have posed to myself on my path of Irish spirituality, I encountered again in this book. O Brien rightly says there is no set path, as everyone follows the road that they want to. Still, this book is a condensed version of a much more crooked and distracted road I took over many years (and I still haven’t reached the mythological end).

I have read many of the things written here over many books, and have learned some of these things out of hard experience, and yet I do not recommend this book primarily as an informative read, or as interesting anecdotes and narrative. I honestly believe that this book, if used, has the possibility to open you to new questions, or perhaps to old questions that have gone unspoken. Ultimately it is a book about you, your journey and your unfolding self. I recommend this book as a good foundation for a very personal spirituality rooted in this journey.