Book Review | Sacred Earth Sacred Soul, By John Philip Newell

The book Sacred Earth Sacred Soul laying in a pile of leaves and greenery
Book Review | Sacred Earth Sacred Soul by John Philip Newell, Photo Credit: Georgia Sanders

Celtic Wisdom for Reawakening to What Our Souls Know and Healing the World

It’s a very tall order!  Reawakening to what our souls know AND healing the world.  I’m a bit tired already, just reading the long title of this book!  Yet, accomplished writer, teacher—and more importantly, active practitioner—of ancient Celtic wisdom, John Philip Newell, provides us with a beginning point for us to meet his own title’s lofty goals.

Self-awareness, self-growth, dare we call it “spiritual growth”—plus, the brave and audacious decision of doing something to improve the state of the world—are two sides of a very old coin.  Newell attributes that coin to the ancient Celtic people who once populated most of northern Europe, and whose intricate artwork and dogged resistance to Rome’s mighty power, have caused a modern-day resurgence of interest in this path called Celtic wisdom.  To that path, and in this newest book, Newell welcomes thought-leaders that span some 1900 years—from 2nd century Irenaeus and his much-later protégé, 4th century Pelagius, to 20th century’s George MacLeod, John Muir and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, to contemporary Scottish poet Kenneth White born in 1936 and still actively publishing as of 2021.

The term “Celtic wisdom” is broadly defined in the introduction as…

…what we know in the depths of our being, that the earth is sacred and that this sacredness is at the heart of every human being and life-form…The Celtic spiritual tradition is one that has long emphasized an awareness of the sacred essence of all things…It is a way of seeing, a path of awareness…a consciousness of the sacred at the heart of all life.  …at its core is the convection that we essentially need to keep listening to what our soul already knows, either in the particular circumstance of our lives or in matters more universal.

Celtic wisdom combines both the inward journey to embrace one’s truest wisdom and the outward journey of using that wisdom practically to better the communities with whom one is engaged.  Thus, the familiar temptation—of navel-gazing or ego-centric growth with no perceptible notice of matters beyond oneself—is gently addressed and boldly avoided.  Throughout the book, Newell emphasizes what he states in the introduction, that:

When we do release in each other a fuller awareness of the earth as sacred and of everything that has been born as holy, we will be changed by this awareness, and we will want to change the way the earth and its life-forms are being treated.

Looking back wistfully to an unlived, and mostly unrecorded, history is a challenge, and one that Newell reaches with an artist’s expertise.  Loving the Celtic path and embodying it himself, certainly helps in this endeavor!  Sidenote: years ago, I had opportunity to meet and enjoy the playful leadership of John Philip Newell over a full weekend’s time.  He not only taught us much about Celtic wisdom, his familiarity with its history and ethos caused the legends and stories he shared to dance in harmony with the spirited beat of his Scottish brogue.  Were we in a classroom or had we been somehow transported to the live music of an old-world pub?  As I’ve come to know and practice the path of Celtic wisdom, I’ve learned that the vibrancy and joy Newell portrayed that weekend are trusted indicators of the path’s integrity.  If you feel the joy, you’re probably near the path!

Back to the book itself

Organized into nine chapters, Newell devotes each chapter to one prominent figure whose life teaches some aspect of Celtic wisdom.  He presents major themes of the pathway—soul, sacred feminine, flow, song, imagination, sacred earth, matter, compassion and journey—and addresses and aligns them with historic persons.  Their stories and contributions to the overall journey of self-growth and community-action are told to inspire and engage the reader, not in further reading, but in devoted growth and action on behalf of our hurting planet home.  We humans simply must change our ways, and dramatically, if earth is to survive our species.  Newell makes this point repeatedly from the long narrative of Celtic wisdom, and, like medicine with a bit of sugar added, swallowing his message is mostly pleasant.

In addition to the persons Newell introduces to the reader, he also includes a discussion of one full (and lengthy!) text, called The Carmina Gadelica.  Carmina comes from the Latin for singing or chants, and gadelica roughly translates as materials originating from or relating to the Gaelic peoples and especially the Celtic Highlanders of Scotland.  In the case of The Carmina, as it is affectionately called, these materials include poems, hymns, incantations, lore, recipes for living, blessings, prayers, proverbs, charms, and the like.  The Carmina is delightful reading on its own, and Newell clearly appreciates both its historicity and its folksy appeal.

If you are at all aware of earth’s recent and dramatic changes—and who among us isn’t, with rising seawaters, species extinctions, and severe weather becoming more common—and if you wish to take another step in the direction of being part of a solution, then you will find this book both educational and motivating.  We have models to follow.  We need not descend into depressive isolation.  Newell offers a hopeful undergirding philosophy, a foundation from which we can move forward together, as a species, to both slow further damage and preserve the beauty and life of our beloved earth home.  Awakening to this, our most important task, is the work before us now.  End of sermon  🙂  Now go read the book!

(New York: HarperOne, 2021)