When you think of mountains, and their connection with religion, where do you go in your mind’s eye? Mt Sinai with Moses sweeping down its slopes, burdened with divine legislation? Mt. Olympus with Zeus and a pantheon of Gods gazing with a playful eye on mortal affairs?
It’s probably safe to say that few are transported to the Dingle peninsula, on the rugged Atlantic seaboard of Ireland, but it’s on the foot of Mt. Brandon that American author Professor Chet Raymo has chosen to set his latest book, Climbing Brandon. He explains the reasoning: ”I first climbed Mount Brandon thirty years ago as I was beginning my career as a writer, The mountain was just a hill to climb. Since then I have ascended Brandon perhaps one hundred times and its natural and cultural geography is a treasured part of my life.
In this book though, the mountain could be any mountain really, it stands for a spiritual ascent and descent. It’s the metaphorical significance of the mountain that interests me in the book. In preparing for the book I became interested in early Irish Christianity, with the work of people like John Carey and Marina Smyth, who found in their study of early Irish Christianity, that is the first few centuries of Irish Christianity, before it succumbed to continental influences, something very special and unique. A wonderful respect, it seemed to me, for the natural world; a disinclination to explain things as miraculous, to see instead the whole of nature as the one great miracle. I’m not suggesting, nor do I believe it possible, to go back and embrace all the dimensions of that sort of Christianity, but I think we can learn from it, and respect it”.
Raymo, a Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Physics at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts, the author of numerous critically acclaimed works, speaks with a soft and courteous voice with a gentle American accent that to this untrained ear is hard to place. His books have, by and large, been meditations on the wonders of the natural world, and science. He has a natural ability, both in conversation and in print, to convey reverence and wonder for the Universe around him, without veering off into a fuzzy ‘new age’ romanticism. To a certain extent it is precisely this combination of a heightened awareness of the natural world, along with scholarship that he explores and celebrates in Climbing Brandon: “Much of what I admire and celebrate, and has been celebrated by scholars who I relied upon writing the book, was that very Celtic relationship with the natural world. Then the accommodation with Christianity brought Ireland this academic and philosophical dimension that wasn’t there before in the druidic tradition. So that added another very rich tradition, and it’s that accommodation that I’m celebrating in the book, the respect for the mind, for scholarship, for language, and the fusion of that with the druidic celebration of the natural world, which gave rise to this wonderful spirituality that we find in the first centuries of Irish Christianity. So it’s not all the Celtic that I’m celebrating, there’s also that Mediterranean philosophical tradition, that early Irish saints and scholars were studying. There’s that wonderful intellectual dimension”.
He’s quick to point out though the danger of over-romanticizing the period:” Well, of course, there’s the tendency to over-romanticize Celtic spirituality. It’s had a tremendous revival over the last number of years, with interest in it coming, particularly from a ‘new age’ dimension. If you go in to any bookstore in Ireland you’ll see tables piled up with books on Irish myths and Gods and Goddesses, all tremendously romanticized. It was a hard, grim time. It was a time of disease and violence, and we tend to forget that. I don’t want to suggest that this was some sort of Eden that existed in this time and place, but there was something about embedding your spiritual life in the natural world which I found very attractive personally, and that has great relevance to addressing the question of separating science from faith”.