by Gordon Nary
Gordon: You are a Celtic priest. Please explain to our readers what a Celtic Priest is
Dara: Hi Gordon, a Celtic priest is a name I give myself. I also call myself a druid and a monk. The title priest and druid describe the work I do in the world, but the title monk identifies me as a person dedicated to the spiritual life. I have not been ordained by some Celtic religion or institution (although I was ordained a Catholic priest). I am freelance and independent. However, my work is steeped in the Celtic spiritual tradition, both pagan and Christian. That is why I call myself Celtic. Part of my life's mission is to revive interest in this tradition and find ways to apply it to our lives today. I live on Inis Mór, one of the three Aran Islands, in Ireland.
I perform spiritual ceremonies for people who request them. For several years, we held a ceremony locally every Sunday here on Inis Mór for those who wanted to attend. It included a form of eucharistic meal plus readings, hymns, and some personal sharing. However, I got so busy responding to requests to perform ceremonies all over Ireland, that I was not able to keep that weekly commitment. These ceremonies I perform nationwide include weddings, vow renewals, baby naming or christenings, funerals, and other rites of passage. I also respond to requests for prayers, mentorship, and accompaniment (I call this latter: ‘travelling together on the Road to Emmaus’). I am also a published writer and a pilgrim guide.
Gordon: Why are you also known as Dara Ó Maoildhia?
Dara: My names come from the Gaelic language. Dara means ‘oak tree’. It is a first name for mostly males (some females are also called Dara) and has become popular in Ireland in recent years. Ó Maoildhia is the Gaelic for Molloy. Many surnames and place names in Ireland are derived from the Gaelic and only make sense when you look at their meaning in Gaelic. So, for example, Ó Maoildhia has three parts to it. ‘Ó’ means ‘from the family of’. ‘Maoil’ is a Gaelic word for ‘bald’, but the reference is to monks who tonsured their hair to signify they were monks. The Irish tonsure was a shaved head at the front from ear to ear—so they looked bald! Their hair at the back of their heads stayed long.
Anybody with a surname that has 'maoil' in it is descended from a Celtic monk (these monks were not celibate). We have many examples of Irish surnames that begin with a version of 'maoil', e.g. Mulraney, Moloney, Mulkerrins, Mulcahy, Muldooney, Mulligan, Mullarkey, Mullen, etc. The Irish monks were a fertile bunch!!!
The last part of my name is a reference to the monastery or tribe of the monk. In my case, 'dhia' could refer to the Gaelic word for 'God’ but is more likely to be something else which I cannot trace.
Gordon: What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had upon your congregation?
Dara: Covid has had a massive impact on my work in the world. My appointments for marriages and other ceremonies were either cancelled or postponed for the best part of 2 years. I lost 80% of my income for that time and we had to live off our savings and simplify our lifestyles. However, it was not difficult for us to do this. In the earlier part of my life, I had lived with virtually no income at all, when I lived as a hermit. So having no money did not frighten or intimidate me. Nonetheless two of my children were at college and had to be supported, so it was challenging.
On the other hand, the pandemic freed my wife and I up to do other things. The house and grounds here got a good make-over. I cleaned and tidied my work-shed for the first time ever, and both my wife and I concentrated on the books we were writing. I am happy to say that both books have now been published.
My wife finished a book she has been writing all her life. Her passion is for the psychology of Carl Jung, so her book is called "Jung At Heart: Tools for Psychological Hygiene". My book is called: "Reimagining The Divine: A Celtic Spirituality of Experience". We own a small non-profit publishing company here which published them. It’s called Aisling Publications. See www.aislingpublications.com.
Gordon: Where did you attend University and what was your major?
Dara: I attended secular university at University College Dublin (UCD). It was a 4-year science degree. My major subjects were Psychology and Computer Science.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was your favorite course, and why was it your favorite course
Dara: I attended seminary at the Religious Institute for Theology and Philosophy in Milltown, Dublin, and finished my theological studies with one year at the Angelicum University of Rome. My favorite subject was 'Liturgy'. This was a short one-year course in Rome which opened my eyes to the transformative power of ritual. The lecturer showed how liturgy developed within the Church and how the rituals were designed to be full of meaning and inspiration. This had not been my experience of liturgy in the real world, but in this course, I saw its potential.
Many years later, I brought a group of young people to the non-denominational monastery of Taizé, in France, led by Frère Roger. For the first time I experienced liturgy as it should be, with the full involvement of a large congregation of young people. The nearest description I can give for secular people is the feeling you get when you are fully involved at a football match, singing, and shouting, and waving in the crowd, with your heart fully behind your team, involved in every move.
This is how I try to perform liturgies such as wedding ceremonies nowadays in my work. I aim to make it an unforgettable spiritual experience for those who take part.
Gordon: Why did you leave the Roman Catholic Church?
Dara: When I started my seminary training in the late 60s, the Vatican Council had just ended. Huge changes were coming in the Catholic Church. It was an exciting time. I was inspired by many of the documents that came from that Council. When I was ordained in 1977, my vision was to continue that reform in the Church, started by the Council. This reform had to happen in every aspect of the Church's life. I was involved in the Charismatic Prayer movement; set up a youth prayer group that grew to nearly 400 participants at one stage; developed a youth Mass with a lot of youth participation; brought young people to Taizé, and so on.
With other young priests, religious, and lay people, we had a vision of forming lay communities, creating centers for promoting the spiritual lives of youth, and building up what we called a new church. However, one by one I watched each of these initiatives throughout our country being snuffed out by older bishops and religious leaders, who did not understand, and who saw these movements as a threat to themselves.
After 7 years in the mainstream ministry, I chose to head west to the islands of Aran to live as a Celtic hermit and monk. This was a way for me to survive a church that had become suffocating for my spiritual life. I was not leaving, but I was moving to the edge. I lived as a hermit for 10 years on this island of Inis Mór, learning from and imitating the monks who had been here before me in early medieval times: St Enda, St Ciarán, St Surnaí, and many more. My work for that period became the running of an open house next to my hut. People came and went all the time in a constant turnover. Some came to seek direction, others came for solace, for healing, to find a new way of living, some even for escape.
During that period, I studied the Celtic tradition and became more immersed in it. I discovered that we had had a Celtic version of Christianity in Ireland for 700 years before the Roman version eventually took over. My schooling had taught me that we were Roman Catholics in Ireland from the time of St Patrick, but I found this to be untrue. As I was drawn more into the Celtic tradition, I was also becoming more disillusioned by the Roman tradition.
The breaking point came in 1995 when I was invited to take part in a conference on "The Celtic Soul" organized by St Catherine's University in St Paul, Minnesota. St Catherine’s is a Catholic college for women. My friend Ed Sellnar was a professor of theology there. After the conference, I went to visit the college and met Ed in his office. He told me the college was in crisis. They had received a letter from Pope John Paul II saying that the subject of women's ordination was a matter that was now closed. It was now the 'ex-cathedra' teaching of the Catholic Church that women's ordination was off the agenda. It could no longer be a subject of study in Catholic colleges, it was no longer open for debate, either in homilies, lectures, or anywhere else. The college would lose its Catholic status if it did not comply.
Something snapped in me at that moment. I no longer wanted to be a member of this Church. Nor did I want to be the public face of this institution, having to advocate such a policy or belief. It threw me into the deepest crisis of my life.
I had always wanted to be a priest, but now I thought I would have to leave the priesthood. From that October 1965 to June 1966, I reflected on it. Then I came to a decision: I would try to be a priest outside of the Catholic Church (or any other church). The only container for my priesthood that attracted me was the Celtic spiritual tradition. But I knew nobody else who had done this. I did not know if I could survive. When I told people what I was about to do, they were mystified. How could I be a priest without a congregation, a parish, a bishop? I felt like I was standing on the cliffs at Dun Aongusa (an ancient fort on Inis Mór) and about to jump.
But jump I did, out of the world I had known and lived in since my childhood, into the unknown. Things were shaky for several years. I lost some friends and supporters, I could have lost my family (my parents took a few years to come round), and I lived on virtually no income for a while. But slowly a new life and a new ministry emerged. I am now full-time in this ministry and serve whoever comes to me.
Gordon: What is your primary source of income?
Dara: My primary source of income nowadays is the performance of Celtic wedding ceremonies. It is supplemented with the performance of other ceremonies, the guidance of pilgrim groups to Inis Mór, and my writing and public speaking.
Gordon: Please provide an overview of your book “Reimagining The Divine: A Celtic Spirituality of Experience”
Dara: This book took seven years to write. Its origin was my insight that the image of God I had grown up with was no longer appropriate for the world we live in. Our world is facing an existential crisis of apocalyptic proportions. We are in the throes of climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
When I speak of the image we have of God, I'm not talking here about belief in the existence of God or of a higher power. For me it is a given that some higher power is behind and within all our lives. But how we imagine that higher power, or how we name it, is something we do, using our imaginations.
The image of God I am referring to here is the dominant image we have had of that god, since the time of Jesus. That image is contained in the words "Our Father who art in heaven" and "I believe in God, the father almighty...". It’s a fundamental image of the Christian faith in all denominations. It will be hard to dislodge!
Why is that image no longer appropriate? Because it speaks of an old-fashioned way of looking at the world: a man in charge, no sign of an equivalent woman, a top-down authority figure, no sense of democracy, situated far away in heaven, when we now know that what is sacred is here on earth, namely nature and the earth we live on.
What the book is saying is: let's look for other more appropriate ways to think of and imagine this higher power. I don't give any answers, but I give lots of suggestions. I look at the earlier cultures in our history, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Celtic, all of whom imagined the divine as multiple personalities both male and female. One could also look at native traditions such as Native American or Aboriginal Australian.
In particular, I focus on the Celtic spiritual tradition. This tradition not only offers some insights through its pagan polytheistic beliefs, but even in the Celtic Christian period of it, there are big insights we can gain.
The Celtic monks were mystics. I never knew what a mystic really was, despite all my studies. Mainstream Christianity did not have much time for mystics, with their visions and dreams. But now I see that being a mystic means putting an emphasis on what you experience. It means ‘experiencing the mystery’.
Mainstream Christianity, historically, put all the emphasis on what you believed. You had to be orthodox in your beliefs or you were a heretic. But these Celtic monks had no interest in the theological debates of continental Europe in medieval times. They were busy experiencing the divine (and perhaps living in permanent ecstasy).
Why did they live in the most remote and magical places? Because there they would be surrounded by beauty, by wonder, by the magic of nature. They also lived in these places to remove themselves as much as possible from distractions. This also required them to live simply and frugally, something that is again needed today, for the sake of the environment.
This is my suggested new way forward. I call it the "spirituality of experience". We all have 'wow' experiences. How many times a day do we describe something as 'incredible', 'amazing', 'unbelievable', 'awesome', 'beautiful', 'wonderful". These are all words which describe an experience of something beyond us. What is beyond us is the divine. Put the name 'God' on it, if you like, but I am looking for other words. The word 'God' is too much associated with male patriarchy.
John O'Donohue, the famous Irish spiritual writer, speaks about 'living in the presence of wonder'. This can be our spirituality. Our challenge then becomes the creation of a lifestyle, a way of life, that immerses us in the divine presence, revealed to us in experiences of wonder. If we do this, we will come to recognize the presence of the sacred in all living things, and in the earth and universe itself. It will lead us to live in a different way, more in harmony with everything else around us.
So that's what my book is about. It is an exploration. Hopefully, it will generate debate and discussion, but not controversy.
Gordon: Thank you for an interesting interview.