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Retreats: Under the sacred tree

17 May 2019

From holy mountain to sacred tree, Nick Mayhew-Smith recounts his journey into the heart of the Celtic wilderness

Nick Mayhew-Smith

Nick underneath St Cynog’s yew, in Powys

Nick underneath St Cynog’s yew, in Powys

BEER can in hand, shirtless in the late-evening sunshine, one of the regulars in our suburban churchyard eyed me narrowly as I led a small congregation outdoors to stand beneath our solitary yew. We opened our Iona Worship service sheets and began to warble “For the beauty of the earth” as a bus rumbled along Wimbledon Broadway, letting out an angry pneumatic hiss. As settings go for a Celtic appreciation of God’s beautiful creation, the scene left something to be desired.

Yet the evergreen witness of this archetypal sacred tree somehow worked that Sunday evening. Drawing a deep breath, I began to talk about Celtic tree rituals, and noted anxiously that one of the beer-drinkers was starting to approach. Silently, he sat on a bench in front of me and listened as I unfurled some of the stories that surround these giant specimens: tales from the forest that resonate down the ages.

As a peaceful meeting-place between Christian and non-Christian, the natural world has much to commend it. The roots of early Christian nature-spirituality certainly run deep in our culture, and I have been surprised just how strongly they flourish today at so many enchanting landmarks across Britain.

istockThe shore of Loch Caolisport

Inspired by a primal impulse to seek out God in the margins of the land, and spurred on by a Ph.D. study of the original context of the Celtic saints’ intense rituals, I undertook my own journey into the wilderness to see if I could revive some long-abandoned hermit places. Bringing the ancient ways and wisdom back into my home parish life turned out to be just one of many benefits such deep immersion brought.

But standing at the gloomy mouth of a remote Scottish cave one evening last year, the wisdom of this calling certainly seemed questionable. For reasons that momentarily escaped me, I had decided to begin my Celtic odyssey by sleeping in this archetypal hermit’s cell: a dank cavern where the missionary abbot St Columba of Iona once stayed, hidden by midge-infested bracken near the shore of Loch Caolisport, on the west coast of Scotland.


QUITE what the Celtic saints did at these natural holy places is a moot point, but an altar at the back with a cross carved into the rock face indicated a devotional purpose. I knelt before it, knees sliding on black mould in the subterranean twilight, and began to understand why so much of the early saints’ lives was given over to prayer. Devout and holy-minded though their calling was, I can’t imagine hermits had much else to keep them gainfully occupied.

Fat drips from the roof splattered like random footsteps on the rock around me as I prayed for peaceful deliverance from the terrors of the impending night, voicing in a low whisper the line “deliver us from evil”. I briefly wondered whether sleeping in my parked car near by, with the doors firmly locked, would count as an authentic expression of desert spirituality, before settling down at the mouth of the cave to fall into a dreamless but entirely unrefreshing sleep.

In short, my first night as a sixth-century hermit was pretty horrible — and, as it happens, that was entirely the point. My study revealed that Celtic engagement with the natural world was deliberately hard-fought: a visceral battle with the elements and the limits of human endurance alike, which formed the central plank in a conscious missionary strategy designed to capture the imagination of a sceptical pagan population.

Nick Mayhew-SmithNick captures the dawn at Carningli Mountain, Pembrokeshire

The evidence is scant but consistent on this point: preaching about personal morality, marriage rules, and the need to show mercy to heavily armed neighbours spectacularly failed to impress the people of tribal Britain. The missionaries had to demonstrate the existence of a single Creator God not by philosophical argument but by action in the environment: a faith that offered visible and material benefits.

The natural world was a meeting-place where Christians could address the hopes and fears of their potential converts.

I have enjoyed many a candle-lit Iona service, gently holding a smooth-worn pebble in the comfort of a carpeted side chapel, but that is far removed from the wonderworkers who once strode our land, confronting storms and chasing demons from the depths of the earth. This was a textured rather than a textual faith, one that could only really be fully understood by my entering bodily into its rituals rather than sitting in a university library and reading about it.


TOES curled against the cold as the North Sea waves broke around my ankles, it was a little bay near Coldingham, in the Scottish Borders, where the full cosmological reach of this mission to both the people and the landscape finally made sense to me. It was here that St Cuthbert waded into the sea up to his neck one night, singing praises to the Creator, after which a pair of sea otters came to wipe his feet with their fur. Depositing 1500 years of accumulated human progress on the shore, I entered these icy green waters myself to see what enlightenment such bodily witness might yield.

Hemmed in by cliffs, the breaking surf rang in my ears as the cold numbed my thoughts, a confusion of senses that all but engulfed any high-minded ambitions. Yet, somehow, Cuthbert found focus to sing psalms “to the sound of the waves”; and, as I calmed my gasping breath and steadied my feet on a narrow platform of rock, slowly the elements of Celtic ritual swirled into place around me.

Psalms at the time were sung antiphonally, and it occurred to me here that Cuthbert used the rhythm of the waves themselves as a sort of natural accompaniment, giving a remorseless and unchanging tempo to our ancient songs of praise. The confusing miasma of pain and noise subsided as I aligned my worship to the beat of the cosmos itself, a moment out of time in which even the cold passed me by. This was an extraordinary combination of insignificance and vulnerability, alongside an overwhelming alignment to something so powerful and enduring that it remained entirely unchanged some 1400 years after Cuthbert had led the way.

The elements of Cuthbert’s ritual, on close examination, turn out to be borrowed entirely from early baptismal liturgies, from the immersion in water accompanied by psalms to the ritual foot-washing afterwards that the otters had performed. Baptism had taken on just such a cosmological significance in north-European practice ever since St Ambrose of Milan had turned to the font and performed an exorcism on the “creature of water” which it contained. So powerfully conceived were the sacraments that they could not help but bleed into the environment itself, demonstrating to sceptical locals a single Creator God with power to operate through all levels of his creation.

Nick Mayhew-SmithHorsecastle Bay (about four miles from Coldingham), where St Cuthbert (and Nick) waded in to sing their devotions  

Columba, Cuthbert, and all the great early leaders strode into the wilderness dispelling demons, taming the elements, and finding peaceful communion with the animals. The landscape offered a vast canvas, which Celtic missionaries illuminated with wondrous feats of spiritual heroism. From the demons that lurked unseen in a Scottish cave to the creatures of the deep, Celtic Christians reached out towards the land and sea in an extraordinary campaign that sought to accommodate both people and place in cosmological reconciliation.

Such clear-sighted vision no doubt inspired the intrepid St Brynach to ascend Carningli Mountain, in Pembrokeshire, and to return with a shining face to the curious locals, declaring that he had encountered angels on its rocky peak. Only place names now record the extent of such devotions; chapels with the dedication St Michael the Archangel are common across south-west Britain, such as the lonely haunt perched on a crag outside Roche in Cornwall, its hermit origins faintly visible through the Celtic mists. Even more scant is the evidence of pre-Christian beliefs, but the Celtic monk St Gildas mentions in passing that such high places were once regarded as “deadly” before Christians tamed and redeemed them.

The conversion of the tribes was one and the same thing as the conversion of their landscape, an expression of Christianity which took full heed of human relationships with the natural world. However one might choose to experience this intense spirituality today, whether on retreat or through some form of environmental action, the Celtic vision is a reminder that the horizons of our faith are limitless.

Making my way to the top of Carningli one midsummer evening, I determined to spend the night here to see creation through Celtic eyes. As the sun set over Cardigan Bay, lost in a golden haze and the distant promise of Ireland, I sat on the stone ramparts of a Bronze Age hillfort and marvelled as a little flock of butterflies flitted their way over this purple-headed mountain.

Soon, the world was asleep, but I could barely move from the rock, transfixed by the irreducible simplicity of this encounter with God’s creation. I have never felt so richly and abundantly blessed; yet I sat without a single material possession about me, having stripped even my sandals in memory of the injunction given to Moses on the archetypal holy mountain.

The next morning, I made my way down a changed man, the angels of St Brynach’s dream as clear to me as the butterflies that kept me company. I carried with me a handful of rubbish that I had gathered at the summit — plastic bags and a discarded pair of jogging bottoms. The demons that once haunted the pre-Christian wilderness have been driven to extinction, rendered entirely redundant by the encroachment of our own environmental chaos.

This is where Christianity might usefully resonate with the modern public’s general sense of loss and disorder, and it can also help to put things right. As I listen to the most rational and scientific of commentators telling us that we need to relearn how to love our severely damaged environment, the ancient wisdom of our Early Church seems starkly relevant today.

At the core of Celtic theology was an acute sense that human sin had caused a deterioration in our relationship with nature, and that the witness of a good Christian was to put that right. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God declares in Genesis 3, which I, for one, now read as a call to action.

Sitting beneath the calm of St Cynog’s yew, in Powys, it remains a retreat like no other from the short-term cares of everyday life. Now making its way unhurried through its sixth millennium, this venerable tree is perhaps the oldest living creature in Britain. No wonder St Cynog saw fit to build his church alongside; perhaps this was where he first sat down with the pre-Christian folk to unfurl the stories of the Bible.

It is hard to think of a better way to bring to life the opening chapters of the Old Testament than to sit at the foot of a sacred yew and reflect on those primal shapes of innocence and loss, the garden paradise of the first creation with two trees at its heart. The cross on which Christ died takes its place in this never-ending story, identified with the Tree of Life from the book of Revelation onwards.

Sacred landscapes are, quite literally, common ground: a place where the interests of the wider community and the Christian witness of a loving Creator can usefully converge, landscapes to protect and preserve. I can think of no other church service that might engage the constant companions in our suburban churchyard — a mission to our wounded planet and people alike.


Dr Nick Mayhew-Smith’s new book The Naked Hermit: A journey to the heart of Celtic Britain, based on his Ph.D. research, is published this month by SPCK at £19.99 (hardback).

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