Healing Intercultural Wounds: A Gaelic Perspective

I wrote the following talk and delivered it today at the Unity Center of Peace in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Both of the stories used in this sermon can be found (among other materials) in my volume Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders (2009).

Opening Quote

“Healing in our cultural present will come as a consequence of healing in our cultural past. Out of a healed past, a healed present will grow. Out of a re-realized past a re-realized present will emerge. It is as necessary that we realize a past out of which to grow as it is to realize a present and future into which to grow. Our past we always have with us. Our past we must always re-realize. And to do this we need people who can live in our cultural Dreamtime, people who go walkabout, creatively, within the old myths, people who go walkabout into the unknown.” – John Moriarty, Dreamtime


This is the third in a series of talks at Unity Center of Peace about making peace, in this case between cultures. Let me warn you, however, that my talk is not intended to simply fill you with a peaceful, easy feeling. It is likely to generate as much discomfort as it is peace. It has been frequently observed that discomfort and even anguish are sometimes the catalysts necessary for us to bestir ourselves and make changes for the better. These are very discomforting times for anyone concerned about peace, equality and fairness between peoples and communities, which gives us a strong motivation to engage more deeply in these issues.

Our mission statement at Unity Center of Peace includes two relevant statements: “We connect in our hearts with others; We celebrate our journey toward wholeness.” Many personal experiences and historical circumstances can leave us broken and disconnected from others, but I wish today to speak about the brokenness that we are often born into, through no fault of our own or even of our ancestors.

It all begins with stories. We human beings think with stories – narrative seems to be fundamental to the way we see the world and interpret our own lives. Stories are made up of many things: plot lines, character types, symbols, motives, conflicts, resolutions, etc. We as individuals are caught up in larger stories that to various degrees derive from and are entangled in the stories surrounding our ancestors and ancestral communities.

Honoring our ancestors and appreciating the gifts we have or might have had from them is not an easy thing. Nearly every ethnic group in America – native and immigrant – has experienced a variety of injustices. Some times this is exactly what drove them to America. Some times they experienced terrible hardships after they arrived. Some peoples were enslaved by others, or dispossessed or subjected to genocide by those who claimed they cherished freedom. Most ethnic groups were pressured to assimilate to anglocentric norms and in the process lost their languages and cultures, with a conscious or unconscious rejection of the traditions of their ancestors. This has created and perpetrated undeniable gaps in our knowledge of what our ancestors thought, believed and practiced, and even who they were. Do we even want to honor ancestors if they were co-opted into the exploitation and subjugation of others?

Time and again, history has demonstrated that no sooner is one group of people liberated from the oppression of another and able to regain its power than it begins to use that power in cruelty against yet another group. Injustice and conflict seem to be inevitable results of power, regardless of ethnic identity, skin color, gender or sexual orientation.

Unless we return to the source of our wounds, we often seem doomed to inflict them on others. It is often the case that people who abuse others were themselves abused when young, often within the family setting itself. It is likewise with societies. Societies that seek power and use that power to dominate and exploit others are, by their very nature, societies that have internalized ideas about control and domination, have repressed aspects of their selves and diminished the fulness of their own humanity.

The stories that inform our lives and our world-views inevitably come from the culture around us. Given the power that they hold, it is crucial that we choose our stories carefully. Today our cultural environment is dominated by corporate interests, so it is no wonder that our myths, stories, characters and plot lines are permeated to a staggering degree by the myths of colonialism and capitalism. They seldom serve the purposes of nurturing our higher selves or of honoring the inherent dignity of every person, community and culture.

Healing the wounds within communities and between communities requires examining the stories that we’ve absorbed, told and embodied across generations and into the present. It means recognizing the wounds that result from dysfunctional stories, forgiving those who allowed themselves to be colonized by bad stories, and seeking for ourselves new manifestations of old stories, or entirely new ones, which serve greater purposes. And we constantly need to examine critically the stories that are being broadcast at us by those with vested interests.

These principles can be illustrated by looking at some stories from Irish and Scottish Gaelic tradition that I believe offer some insights from those particular historical experiences.

One of the major proponents of Christianity in the British Isles was a Gaelic saint named Colm Cille, better known by the Latin form of his name, Columba. Born in County Donegal in Ireland in 521, he established a monastery on an island known in English as “Iona” from which he and his followers created an international movement and influenced the religious and political development of northern Britain for generations thereafter. The power and prestige wielded by the religious institution in his name was thus enormous, and like any institution, abuses of that power were inevitable. Consider then the following translation of a folktale told about the founding of that monastery for centuries by the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland, and even by immigrant Gaels in North America.

Columba and his men set out to build a church in Iona. Each time they built it to a certain height, however, what was built in the day tumbled down in the night. Columba received a divine message that no building would ever be erected successfully until a human being was buried alive in the foundation.

Columba had a companion named Odhran who offered himself up to be the sacrifice. After Odhran was buried for three days, Columba ordered that the ground be dug so that they could see Odhran. Odhran arose and said to the astonished spectators:

‘Heaven is not what they say, nor is Hell as reported; the good are not eternally happy, nor are the bad eternally miserable.’

At this unwelcome pronouncement, Columba quickly called out to his companions:

‘Earth, earth, put earth over Odhran’s eyes before he rouses any more confusion, which would reveal secrets to the company and bring scandal to his brethren!’

Odhran was covered up with soil and was not disturbed again. The building was finished and dedicated to him.

The first-level reading of this story is that Gaels remained skeptical of the power and authority of the church, despite the monopoly that it held for centuries. I think that Iona in this story can represent the foundations of Christianity for Gaels in general. Then, as now, scandals happen in the church that the powerful try to suppress, but word inevitably leaks out. The skepticism about power and authority in this folktale is reassuring and perhaps even surprising, given Christianity’s supremacy over many centuries.

There is an even more interesting message to the tale, however. I believe that it comments on the layered nature of culture and the paradoxical nature of religion. It wasn’t possible for Columba to build his church without a foundation; that foundation was held up, at least to some degree initially, by the traditions and beliefs that existed before the coming of Christianity. The foundation sacrifice is an ancient practice, and Odhran’s testimony contradicts the Christian message. Although within the tale Columba tries to keep these facts covered up, quite literally, the actual existence of the tale and its longevity is itself a testimony to the retention of ancient memories that push against the power monolopy of the church. It tells us that the universe is more complicated and interesting than the simple Christian message claims – but it doesn’t attempt to solve the riddle for us.

Christianity was a minor challenge faced by Gaels in the last two millennia in comparison to the invasion of the Vikings and the conquests of anglophones. How did they keep up their motivation and hopes through many dark times? One way that all people do this is by telling stories of heroism.

The most popular cast of heroes in Gaelic tradition by the later Middle Ages were the Fian, a band of warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhaill, a Gaelic equivalent of King Arthur and his knights. They personified Gaelic virtues such as bravery, loyalty, fair play, hospitality, and so on. They are portrayed in tales as the defenders of Gaelic territory and ideals against the invading Norse and other would be conquerers. The Fian were role models for rebels against authority, people who prefered the freedom of the wilderness to the confines of the village.

Gaels have needed such inspiration. Their language and culture has been under seige for nearly a thousand years, and for nearly of all of that time, stories about the Fian have been retold and reshaped to help them imagine regaining their land, their cultural integrity and their pride. It is telling that many social movements and political parties in Ireland and Scotland have been named after them. A popular legend about the Fian gained new prominence as the “Gaelic revival” gained steam in late 19th-century Scotland:

The Fian were laid spell-bound in a cave which no man knew of. At the mouth of the cave hung a horn, which if ever any man should come and blow three times, the spell would be broken, and the Fian would arise, alive and well.

A hunter, one day wandering in the mist, came on this cave, saw the horn, and knew what it meant. He looked in and saw the Fian lying asleep all round the cave. He lifted the horn and blew one blast. He looked in again, and saw that the Fian had wakened, but lay still with their eyes staring, like that of dead men. He took the horn again, blew another blast, and instantly the Fian all moved, each resting on his elbow.

Terrified at their aspect, the hunter turned and fled homewards. He told what he had seen, and, accompanied by friends, went to search for the cave. They could not find it; it has never again been found; and so they still sit, each resting on his elbow, waiting for the final blast to rouse them into life.

It seems to me that this tale can be read as a parable about drawing strength from our ancestral resources when we need them most. The cave is a very old symbol in myths for the unconscious. Ancestral assets lay dormant in the unconscious, waiting to be awakened; the virtues represented by the Fian can be aroused by us so that we can embody them if we are persistent enough and bold enough.

It may be hard for us to fully comprehend the pressures that people feel when they come to be dominated by another group that makes them feel that their gods, their stories, their language and their identity are inferior, and that their only viable option is to adopt the standards of their conquerors. I think that we owe them as much compassion as condemnation, even when they were co-opted into the oppression of others.

By integrating the ideologies of oppression and exploitation in their worldview, people destroy their integrity as fully sentient beings at the same time that they dishonor those they dominate. If we do not recognize these defects, we are implicitly lending aid and comfort to the abusers in their conceit that the power they wield gives them the de facto right to molest others because of some inherit superiority and right to domination, rather than critiquing their abuse of power as a result of their wounds.

Although I have been speaking about Gaelic tradition, powerful and resonant symbols such as these exist in all ancestral traditions. I think that we should have the freedom to explore those that feel most compelling to us, although we must always do so mindfully, aware of the dangers of cultural appropriation.

I cannot reconnect you to the ancient wisdom of your ancestors by providing you with a bullet list of 3, 7, 9 or 12 points. Those types of claims are too often pressed into service by modern capitalism which, built on the conceits of imperialism, wrecks cultures and then sells selected portions of them with popular appeal for profit.

Cultural asset stripping is a corruption of the inherent value of every society’s identity and forms of expression. It has further undermined cultures by claiming the authority to evaluate who and what has value, how much, and for whom. Because of its power to dominate and exploit, the easiest path to privilege and comfort for many has been to try to climb its self-defined ladder of success and to leave behind whatever and whomever was relegated to the bottom rung. And that has necessarily meant going along with this denial of the inherent self-worth of marginalized identities, skin colors, languages and cultures.

We are left with something of a paradox: We humans are all one, we all come from the same source, and yet we belong to different groups that express our common humanity through thousands of distinct languages and cultures, each of them worthy of respect and admiration. It is up to each of us to decide how to embody the best of those distinct visions while still honoring the others, despite histories of conflict. We must consult our higher selves, and the higher selves of our ancestors, to find this path of mutual respect and dignity between our individuality and our common humanity. The stakes have never been higher.

It has become increasingly common for people to seek out symbols, myths and traditions that fill a spiritual void for them, as increasing numbers of us are cut off from those communal anchors and reservoirs of wisdom. Sometimes we seek to reclaim traditions from our own diverse set of ancestors, and sometimes we may feel strongly attracted to those from other cultures. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as we are committed to honesty and respectful curiosity, and recognize the plurality within any community and tradition.

If you decide to explore traditions from cultures other than that into which you were born, the following guidelines may ease your path:
(1) Can you find a community for whom these are living practices and beliefs?
(2) Can you connect and engage with that community in a meaningful way?
(3) What is that community’s sense of ownership over that tradition?
(4) Does your engagement with that tradition in some way threaten or impact that community?
(5) Be clear to yourself and others what your identity is and how it relates to that community and its ethnic identity.
(6) Credit your teachers and acknowledge the lineage of tradition as you received it in its own specific form.

Closing Quote

“Ultimately, modern oppression, as opposed to traditional oppression, is not an encounter between the self and the enemy, the rulers and the ruled, or the gods and the demons. It is a battle between the dehumanized self and the objectified enemy, the technologized bureaucrat and his reified victim, pseudo-rulers and their fearsome other selves projected onto their ‘subjects’. … the victors are ultimately shown to be camouflaged victims, at an advanced stage of psychosocial decay. … All theories of salvation, secular and non-secular, which fail to understand this degradation of the colonizer are theories which indirectly admit the superiority of the oppressors and collaborate with them.” – Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Alastair McIntosh says:

    It’s very good to see these issues being raised. What can be done about them today apart from, as you suggest, recovering our psychohistory? For me, as we understand the forces that shaped us whether on side of the oppressed or the oppressor (and usually one was once the other) what matters is that we work for justice in our times, so that groups that might still be experiencing intergenerational poverty and psychospiritual damage have the fairness, support and empathy they need as they begin to heal. A good message of peace and goodwill to all at this time of year, and for the coming year. Thank you for this post, Michael.

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