I first climbed Mount Brandon thirty-two years ago. I had come with my family to the west coast of Ireland for a year, and the mountain called — a great, black, boggy, cloud-capped hump rising from the sea, nearly cutting the Dingle peninsula in half — and I could not resist.
I have now climbed the mountain perhaps a hundred times, by every practical path. Every footstep recalls the passage of Celtic warriors and Christian saints, soldiers of the English crown and the native Irish they drove into the hills, 19th-century rack-rent landlords and 20th-century revolutionaries. My own interest in the mountain is twofold: it is a landscape of great scientific interest, revealing in its crumpled strata and glacially-scarred features much of the geologic history of Ireland; it is also a landscape of great religious significance, one of Ireland’s holy mountains, a microcosm of Ireland’s Celtic soul. This is a place where 19th-century geologists debated the meaning of the twisted strata and helped unravel the surprising history of the ice ages; and this is a place where early medieval saints repaired to encounter their God. Two geographies — one physical, one spiritual — are interwoven on the mountain in ways, it seems to me, that have a particular relevance for our times. In particular, I have sought on the mountain a way of easing the tension that resounds in Western culture between empirical knowledge and traditional faith.
Nearly two thousand years ago men and women who lived on the Celtic fringe of Europe grappled with this same tension and — for several extraordinary centuries — lived in a way that seamlessly celebrated both reason and mystery. Ireland was converted to Christianity, traditionally by Patrick, in the 5th century A.D. The Norse-men arrived in the 9th century and established colonies around the coast. The period between is sometimes called the Age of Saints and Scholars, and Ireland was then home to a culture — and a kind of Christianity — that was unique in the world. It was a culture and a faith intensely intellectual, yet fiercely attuned to ineffable intimations of nature, skeptical yet celebratory, grounded in the here-and-now and open to infinity. On Mount Brandon I found happy traces of that time, and ways to accommodate apparently contending demands of head and heart.
Christianity is by and large a faith of settled cities — of shoemakers, tax collectors, tally clerks, potters, tailors, weavers, bakers, professional soldiers, surveyors — a faith that could only have had its origin in the settled civilizations of the Near East, and only flourished in the temperate latitudes of the Mediterranean basin and within the political orbit of the Pax Romana. Unlike Celtic paganism, in which light and dark, order and chaos contend in the world with equal force, Christianity raises light and order to a position of supremacy; darkness and disorder are lesser forces, always with us to be sure, like a nattering toothache, but destined to yield to the Light of the World. The Christian deity is supremely aloof to the comings and goings of the Sun, sweating beasts and growing plants, sex and procreation. The God of orthodox Christianity only deigns to enter the world in the guise of his desexualized Son (consider the universal androgynous image), the offspring of a virgin, and then only temporarily. His message is clear: the world of nature is a base and fallen place, to be abandoned as soon as possible for the transcendent and immaterial advantages of heaven. All flesh is grass and its glory is like the wild flower’s; the grass withers, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.
To be sure, prominent elements of Christian faith — incarnation, transubstantiation, resurrection of the body, the liturgical year and canonical hours — speak to the embeddedness of spirit in matter, perhaps more strongly in the Catholic than the Protestant tradition, but my own religious education turned one’s attention away from the world of the senses towards things ethereal and eternal. Our liturgical lives may have been wedded to bread and wine, fire and water, smoke and wax, but those elemental contingencies were understood to be mere stepping stones for our immortal souls on their way to the mysterious and immaterial Beatific Vision. The important thing was not the patterns of nature, but the interruptions of pattern, the miracles that were the signatures of God’s separateness from creation (not least, the singular miracle of Christian faith, Christ’s rising from the dead). Western culture’s long quest to weigh the respective claims of natural and supernatural, matter and spirit, tipped in the historical Christianity of my childhood towards supernatural and spirit in ways that (as I would later learn) do not sit comfortably with a modern scientific understanding of the world.
There is a poem that may give us a glimpse into the minds of the ancient Irish: the so-called Song of Amergin, sometimes called The Mystery, attributed to one of the Milesian princes who supposedly colonized Ireland several hundred years before the birth of Christ. Tradition has it that these are the first verses made in Ireland:
I am the wind on the sea.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
What makes the human species different from all other creatures is the fire in the head, the never-ceasing wonderment behind the eyes, the questions that fill the mind in the darkest hours of the night, the longing, the uncertainty, the perception of mystery. It is all there in the repertoire of the Celtic storyteller: the magical births, the youthful exploits, the wooings, the elopements, the adventures wrapped with miracles, the voyages in search of the Land of Delight, the heroic deaths and transformations. All animals and plants have sex, but only humans embellish the procreative act with romantic tales. All animals kill; only humans kill their own kind for honor or glory, or willingly surrender their lives for faith. The fire in the head, always burning. Every-where. In the sea, in the deep pool, on the plain, in the mountain fastness. Burning, burning.
It is absurd to say, as many moderns do, that religion is mere superstition. Religion is the natural human response to the inexplicable in nature, the fire in the head evoked by mystery; to extinguish the response is to extinguish the fire. But what sort of response is appropriate in our scientific times? What response is consistent with a modern sense of our common humanity? How can awe, reverence, and the perception of mystery coexist with skepticism and empiricism? How can we think metaphorically, as we must, without becoming prisoners of our metaphors?
I stand on the mountain and feel the mystery all around me, the fire burning on this wild, cloud-shrouded shoulder of the mountain. There is a tendency, certainly cultural, perhaps genetic, to fall to my knees, to speak praise, to give thanks — but in what words, and to whom? The Song of Amergin comes easily to my lips, especially in this place, but they are not my words, and do not reflect my world. My world is not the world of the salmon and the stag, but of the laptop computer and telescope. What I share with Amergin is a sense that the world is shot through with mystery in ways that even our sophisticated science cannot begin to comprehend. In the face of that mystery I feel compelled to speak, to pray; but cannot find words that feel comfortable on my tongue.