The focus of this essay is an examination of a few of the contours of the spiritual search in contemporary Ireland, a society where the form and structures of a long dominant Roman Catholic tradition are becoming less influential and are being resisted, opposed, or rejected by some people. This search—to a greater or lesser extent—seeks to unite a perennial inner yearning with external practices in a new social context. Uniquely, Ireland has an indigenous, spiritual tradition that has a strong ecological core, which is in tune with the spirit of the age. A return to some of the practices of this tradition is proving attractive to many contemporary Irish spiritual seekers. The current intersection then of two spiritual streams, one hidden but enduring, the other dominant but shamed publicly through the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in Ireland, is not dissimilar to the process described by the French cultural theorist of mysticism Michel de Certeau.
When reflecting on the sociocultural context in which mysticism blossomed in sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain, de Certeau notes that the hidden mysticism present in Judaism’s historical heritage such as that which came from the Essene community, the Kabbalah and the Book of Splendor (Sefer ha-Zohar) broke through in the mystical writings of Teresa of Avila, whose paternal family line was of Jewish stock.2 Similarly, Julia Kristeva has identified an allusion to the seven palaces of Jewish mysticism’s Sheva Hekalot in the imagery of the Interior Castle.3 The blossoming forth of Spanish mysticism occurred in the context of the fragmented and contested religious landscape of a post-Reformation social reality.
Philip Sheldrake has pointed out Certeau’s insight that mystics often tend to be socially, culturally or religiously sequestered in a liminal space.4 This insight is relevant for an understanding of the process of change underway in Ireland, where shared certainties of a common religious affiliation are unravelling. For example, it is not uncommon in media interviews with those visiting indigenous holy sites such as Croagh Patrick or Lough Derg to speak of being distant from formal religious structures and yet being willing to undertake demanding spiritual practices and journeys. Sheldrake notes as well de Certeau’s analysis of themes in the history of mysticism that include an abiding [End Page 55]
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call to wander, to journey seeking a kind of mysticism of historical place. The current religious landscape in Ireland reflects this tendancy, which de Certeau describes in which the wanderer, seeker or pilgrim yearns, like Mary Magdalene, to discover the site of the presence beyond the empty tomb.5 The emergent contemporary expression of indigenous Irish spirituality embraces this pilgrim spirit through a resurgence of practices grouped broadly as “pilgrim path” practices. It is also notable that de Certeau has challenged the view that references to dark night experiences in various mystical texts refer primarily to inner, personal states of disillusionment. Instead, he emphasizes the environmental conditions which precipitate such states.6 The fruitfulness of his perspective is evident in Flanagan’s recent discussion of the close relationship between the current cultural shift in Ireland and the emergence of a renewed mystical consciousness.7
Keeping in mind de Certeau’s attentiveness to mystical awakening on the margins, we can turn to the insights of another notable group of scholars who have been to the fore in providing critical frameworks for reading everyday spiritual practice and popular piety as a window into the soul of society. These theorists include the North American triad of Nancy Annerman, Meredith McGuire and Robert Orsi.8 These three scholars have collectively developed a new way of understanding spirituality within a society. Rather than studying the practices of spirituality as it is defined by a religious organization (for example, Catholic spirituality as it is defined by the Catholic Church), they draw attention to the lived expression of a spirituality in people’s everyday lives. In this group of three, the Harvard scholar Robert Orsi has won many awards for...