Book Review | The Celtic Way of Prayer by Esther de Waal

An aesthetic photo of the cover of The Celtic Way of Prayer.
Book Review | The Celtic Way of Prayer, by Esther de Waal

Something whispered in your ear as you were listening to a book on your power walk last night. “Slow down…” “Look up…” “Take a deep breath in…”

In the same way, The Celtic Way of Prayer is a treasured echo from the last millennium, speaking across the decades through author and scholar Esther De Waal. Now in her 90s, de Waal wrote this classic while living in the borderlands of the Welsh countryside, and as a primer for those curious about the Celtic way.

She invites her readers to pause and notice the rhythm of their daily routines. To see meaning and purpose within. To connect oneself to the larger cycles and seasons of life. Even to find connection to a divine presence—a Force or Energy—that permeates all living beings.

The Celtic path dates itself to the historic Celtic communities that flourished from the 800s BCE to about 800 CE and spanned much of northern Europe, and is deeply embedded in nature. As de Waal writes in the introduction:

“In Celtic understanding… everyone sees themselves in relation to one another, and that extends beyond human beings to the wild creatures, the birds and the animals, the earth itself. This has brought a sense of being a part of the whole web of being. There is something here of ‘the breathing together of all things’ as Teilhard de Chardin put it…”
(p. xv)

This in stark contrast to the individualistic, independent, often competitive perspectives valued by contemporary society. To practice the Celtic way is to place oneself in an equitable relationship with all of life. Hence, the Celtic way can provide a helpful foundation in current conversations about ecological realities and can guide the work necessitated by climate crisis.

Beginning with the theme of journeying, de Waal teaches that the traditional Celtic way starts with a willingness to leave behind what is safe and known in favor of launching out into unfamiliar waters. This is birth, the birth experienced by each of us as we take our first breath. This is also the birth of a new idea or new thought or new project, for also true, each moment or day or year offers fresh starts to the journey of our lives. De Waal reminds us:

“The whole of life is…a journey from birth to death…there are the short daily journeys that are a part of [your] working life…there are the longer journeys, when [you] leave home…” (p. 9).

Within these many journeys, there is conversation. De Waal writes of these as friendly ongoing chats with the divine as we travel through our days and nights. For the ancient Celt, these conversations began in the early morning stoking of the day’s hearth-fire, the gathering of the wood, the sparking of the flint, the cooking of the meals, and continued on through each activity and task of one’s day. The divine presence was both acknowledged and appreciated as a guide and friend along the day’s journey.

Throughout the remainder of the book, De Waal recounts prayers, poems, images, songs, and incantations from a variety of Celtic sources, accompanying the rhythm of one’s life “…from birth to death, from dawn to dusk, from season to season.” (p. 29).

These various types of writings within the Celtic way are generously understood as prayer. De Waal writes that, in the Celtic path, prayer is the undercurrent of whatever the people are doing that day. She refers to this practice as “essentially contemplative…and entirely unselfconscious…” No rote prayers here, people! Instead, prayer includes thoughts, images, actions, words, music, “…a life full of dance and celebration, not at all pious or solemn…a life lived close to God just as it was close to neighbors and to the natural world.” (p. 74).

She concludes her narrative on the practice of wide-reaching, far-flung, non-traditional Celtic prayer by noting that these prayers:

“…do not beg or ask God to give this or that. Instead, they recognize what is already there, already given, waiting to be seen, to be taken up, enjoyed. What a waste to go through life surrounded by all the good gifts that God showers on me ‘gently and generously’ yet blind and deaf to [God’s] presence hidden in all things, human and nonhuman…” (p. 211).

The Celtic path is thus a path of gratitude for the work of one’s hands, for the home in which one lives, the family one loves, and for the many infused moments of one’s daily routine.

While the book is set within de Waal’s own familiar community of the Christian tradition, the book isn’t limited to a Christian audience. The notion of bringing divine-human conversation into one’s daily routine is not a uniquely Christian teaching, as many indigenous pathways and religious traditions suggest the same.

De Waal’s unique contribution is, I believe, her ability to name and include so much of one’s daily life in that ongoing conversation. From one’s committed participation in such friendly conversations, she encourages each reader to grow stronger as a human advocate for this planet we love.
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