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Drinking from the Sacred Well

Personal Voyages of Discovery With the Celtic Saints

by John Matthews
Book review Copyright © 1998 by Bert H. Hoff


John Matthews, Drinking from the Sacred Well: Personal Voyages of Discovery With the Celtic Saints(San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998). Order on-line


Book cover
Drinking from the Sacred Well: Personal Voyages of Discovery With the Celtic Saints.
by John Matthews
Order on-line

Another Lives of the Saints! Well, why should I read this one? When we think of the lives of the saints we think of the moralistic tales that seek to inspire and offer moralistic instruction. Have faith in God and sin not, and God's grace will fall upon you and see you through suffering. This is a shallow, "right-wrong" view of spirituality that ignores the complex depths of the interior journey.

They are like the fairy tales of LaFontaine, a product of the Age of Reason. LaFontaine saw the highest purpose of these tales as being the moral instruction of children, so civilization could advance to higher planes of Enlightenment. In that sense, they're the antithesis of the volks tales of the Brothers Grimm, who seemed to know that the advancement of European civilization would lead not to peace and prosperity but to Hitler. There is no Baba Yaga, devouring witch or wise old crone in the lives of the saints, the fairy tales of LaFontaine or Aesop's Fables.

The teaching tales of the Sufi, shades of the parables of Jesus (when taken beyond moral lessons to the Gnostic level) and the "tales within the tales" of Kalilah and Dimnah, The Panchatantra, weakly mirrored in the 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights, offer a more complete and more complex view of the interior life of spirituality that separates spirituality from many forms of organized religion.

In his telling of the "lives of the saints" of the Celtic saints, Celtic and Arthurian scholar and student John Matthews takes on a Joseph Campbell journey of a Hero with a Thousand Faces, rather than a lecture on the lives of exemplary people. He reflects a Celtic Christianity that looks for spirituality in our physical world as well as in our interior life (and that honors the roles of women and the feminine.) He does so in the mythopoetic tradition we've come to appreciate with Robert Bly and that other Celtic storyteller, Michael Meade. Mythopoesis, poet David Whyte tells us, is not just "myth+poetry" bit is about exploring a mythic dimension relevant to our lives today. So Michael Meade will stop in a story and ask "where are you in this story?" In a similar vein John Matthews takes us to that place beyond time in his recounting of Brendan's voyage to the Land of Promise. What does it mean that the last place on the ship goes to a man with the appearance of The Fool? What does that Tarot imagery mean on our own spiritual path today? Why is the Island of the Well of Sleep part of the journey to the Land of Promise? And why is it the Land of Promise and not the Eternal Garden?

Matthews does not provide answers to the questions raised in the story of Brendan's voyage and the other stories in this book. As Rilke reminds us in Letters to a Young Poet, "try and love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." Rilke also says, "Take your well-disciplined strengths and stretch them between two opposing poles. Because inside human beings is where God learns." Nor does Matthews offer long explanations of the imagry encountered in these tales. Rather, he gives a short commentary on the significance of the tale in our own lives, and raises "meditation points," questions for you to ask yourself about how the tale fits into the circumstances of your own life. Consider your own life as a voyage. Are you at the beginning, near the end, or somehwere in between? Brendon sailed to the Island of the Well of Sleep and the Island of the Ageless Elders on his voyage to the Land of Promise. What islands have you landed on in your own voyage, and how have they changed you?

More than fascinating tales, this book offers you a wonderful, deep and thought-provoking exploration of your own relationship to the physical world, your own spirituality, your own interior nature and your own voyage.


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