Loren Cruden, Walking the Maze: The Enduring Presence of the Celtic Spirit (Destiny Books, 1998)

"There is no return to or re-creation of the Celtic past, and, clearly, that is not what is really needed in today's circumstances. But what is powerful and good is still present in the land and our potentials of relationship with it, and in the capacity of consciousness to retrieve or to know what needs to be known." — p. 122

Loren Cruden says that the idea for this book came partly out of an experience at a Native American drumming and sweat lodge ceremony — at which there were no Native Americans present. She realized that people in America are hungry for authentic spirituality, for a spirituality with roots, and that they will look for it everywhere, even in traditions which are not their own. And she realized that, for Americans with Celtic ancestry, a vital spiritual tradition is waiting to be rediscovered and reclaimed.

Walking the Maze is divided into four parts, entitled "Clan and Culture," "Spirit," "Gender Equality" and "Land and People." In "Clan and Culture," which begins on page four and ends on page seventy-nine, Cruden gives a brief (!) overview of the cultural and political history of the people known as the "Celts," focusing chiefly on the Celtic peoples of Scotland and Ireland. I tend to be wary of writers who summarize long spans of history for large people groups in this way, because it's almost impossible for them to avoid making generalizations which compress complex issues. To Cruden's credit, she summarizes clearly and quotes other historians and scholars liberally. Her bibliography is impressive.

In "Spirit," Cruden goes on to talk specifically about the religious beliefs and practices that arose from the cultural system of the Celts (once again dealing almost exclusively with Scottish Celts). While admitting that there is little hard evidence of druidic practices, since their tradition was largely oral and almost entirely wiped out by invaders, she nevertheless speculates at large about what Celtic spirituality "must have been" like. Once again she refers to other scholars extensively, but I remain wary of generalizations such as, "Along with integration of seen and unseen worlds, and human integration with nature, was integration of intellect with heart, spirit, and body" (p. 109). This may be true, but she makes such statements with little actual supporting documentation or examples. She also makes connections between ancient beliefs and how Celts as people believe today, trying to show a continuity of spiritual traditions, if only at the instinctual level.

"Gender Equality" is a confusing chapter. At certain points, Cruden seems to be trying to say that the Celts were free of the conflict caused by gender-specific roles. Then she offers an example of a story in which women's roles were distinctly different from — and inferior to — men's and shows the conflict between the characters in that story. Then, further on, she says that, although men's and women's roles were unequal, this didn't trouble them. They valued one another and lived in harmony with one another. The chapter ends without resolving these different conclusions — or even acknowledging that they are different.

I wish the final chapter of the book, "Land and People," had come first. It works in an Annie Dillard way. It's a hymn of praise to the land, to a home that is loved in its dirt, its air, its weather and its creatures. Cruden's devotion of the desolate piece of wilderness she homesteads on in Washington state is evident, as is her deep, visceral response to the ground of Scotland; she draws on numerous memories of her visits to her ancestral home (she's of Scottish descent) while writing about the Celtic connection to the physical world. I am convinced that she finds deep spiritual satisfaction in her ties to the natural world.

Yet it's at this same point of connection that I find myself losing my own ability to connect with what Cruden is trying to say throughout Walking the Maze.

"The core perspective of Celtic spirituality," she asserts, "was integration and awareness of seen and unseen worlds. I cringed to hear neopagans say, 'Well, time to go back to the real world', after an outdoor ritual or gathering. Celtic spirituality was not a realm or experience apart from the rest of life, and it was not a pretend realm, but something profoundly ever present and influential... Pagan means 'country dweller'. Paganism arose directly from primal engagement with the land." (p. 108-109)
But this raises a troubling question: is authentic spirituality only possible in a non-urban environment? Most people, even in the affluent United States, cannot afford to live that way today. Unlike Cruden, they don't have family who will send them five hundred dollars on occasion so that they can continue to buy supplies while they winter on their piece of isolated, non-arable land in Washington. Making the deliberate choice, as a modern American, to go "back to the land" does not ally one with the ancient Celts, who were not necessarily rural dwellers in order to be more spiritual. They didn't have the luxury of choice. Neither do most people currently have the ability to make numerous trips back to Scotland to reconnect with their roots. What Cruden is doing is carefully orchestrated and contrived in a sense — even as she calls for authenticity and integration as necessary for a genuine spirituality.

Overall, reading this book was a bit like continual short-term amnesia. Cruden writes very well. Her sentences flow easily from one to the next. I read along, enjoying the experience of reading her, the feel of the words. But when I turned each page, I'd realize I had no memory of what I had just read. I began using post-its to mark points she'd made that I wanted to comment on while writing my review, simply so that I'd be able to find them later. Nothing I read mattered enough for me to remember or take away with me. I tried to speculate as to why.

In a sense, Cruden is right in saying that spirituality cannot be examined. It must be practiced.

"There is no credentialing for it, yet direct connection uncovers a basis and continual deepening of practice. My spirituality is empirical, not traditional, though it conjuncts with age-old aspects and esoteric knowledge from many cultures. It comes from a resource of consciousness rather than a process of instruction." (p. 118)

So why then is she writing a book about her spirituality? And in an instructive voice? Early on, she gives her own spin on a familiar diatribe:

"Cultivation and exercise of memory languishes around computers. Memorization's disciplines also develop acuity of observation, listening, consideration, and associative linking — vital aspects of thinking and relating. Memory is not just an organic storage system harmlessly replaced by a machine's storage system... The degree to which a person is engaged with computers already has been acknowledged as a degree to which that person is lacking or losing social skills and connection to social responsibility." (p. 59)
(Anyone reading this sitting in front of a computer monitor, this means you!) If, as Cruden insists, a face-to-face, voice-to-ear exchange is crucial to impart one's spiritual tradition, then that could explain the sense of emptiness in this book. By writing it, she's stepping outside of her own convictions about spiritual traditioning and mentoring. Which leaves the questions I walked away with: why did she take the trouble to write it in the first place? And why should you read it?

[Grey Walker]