The Otherworld by Ellyn Sanna

The miracles Jesus performs in the Gospels may strain our modern credulity. The Celts, however, were quite comfortable with stories of the impossible being possible. They lived in a world where the Otherworld was so interwoven with this world that nothing surprised them. Another reality could easily overlap with everyday reality, causing all sorts of strange things to happen.

In the old stories, Celtic saints perform miracles with a matter-of-fact air, as though these feats are a normal part of life. Brigid, for example, regularly multiplied milk, butter, bread, and ham for the benefit of the hungry; Saint Abban walked on water to prove to his mentor, Saint Ibar, that he was ready to go on pilgrimage; and Columba spoke often with angels. Many of these miraculous acts benefited someone in need but not always. Brigid, the story goes, was once observed hanging her cloak on a shaft of sunlight, as though in the reality where she moved, light was as substantial as a coat rack. We can imagine Brigid coming in from the outdoors, so busy about some household task that when she takes off her cloak, she absentmindedly hooks it over the nearest thing available. This utilitarian miracle served no purpose other than convenience.

But what is most significant about these miracles is that they were retold again and again, indicating that they meant something important to the Christian Celts. The same is true of Jesus’ miracles. Matthew recorded them for a reason: they held meaning for the story he was telling about Jesus. For Matthew—as for the Celts—miracles were signs, pointing toward something deeper than the surface circumstances.

The miracle itself was not as important as what that event said about the individuals involved. Jesus’ miracles paralleled the stories in the Hebrew scriptures of Moses, Abraham, and Elijah, indicating to his followers that he was indeed the Chosen One they had been promised. The Celtic Christians’ miracle stories served a similar purpose: they indicated that their saints shared both the power of Jesus and the compassion of Jesus. Just as Jesus’ miracles aligned him with an ancient tradition, turning a familiar belief system into a living, breathing reality, the Celtic saints’ miracles joined them with Jesus, proving that he was alive and real in their lives.

What do these stories—both Jesus’ and the Celtic saints’—say to us as modern readers? If we focus on the meaning of these events rather than the events themselves, we can step away from questions as to whether these stories are factual and instead look at the truths they convey. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Matt. 14:19­–21) tells us he has the power to meet our needs, even when our resources seem far too scarce. The account of Peter walking on water (Matt. 14:29–31) says that Jesus can empower us to do what we never believed we could, even when all circumstances indicate that we are in mortal peril. And tales of Jesus' healing power (Matt. 14:35–36) assure us that he requires no elaborate formal ceremony or specific action on our part; all we need to do to be whole is to touch even the “fringe” of his garment.

Modern-day quantum physicists also tell us that reality is not what we see, and other dimensions are not mere fantasies. We may not believe that cloaks can hang from sunbeams—but the scientific nature of light is just as mysterious, just as radically amazing, existing as both “particles” and “waves,” with its reality dependent in part upon our perceptions. Recently, scientists at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT have even found that light can indeed become a solid (upon which it would be actually possible to hang a cloak).

The Celtic Christians, however, did not waste their time being amazed, incredulous, or frightened by glimpses into another reality. For them, that wasn’t the point. Instead, like the author of Matthew, they were more concerned with how their lives could be practically influenced by the message coming to them from the Otherworld, a message that said, in effect: “Things may look bad—but there’s more going on here behind the scenes than you can perceive. You don’t need to be afraid. There’s another world, a world you can’t see, and it’s at work in the world you do see, in ways you can’t really understand.” Ultimately, the message of all these stories (both in the Gospel account and in the Celtic traditions) is summed up by these words of Jesus as he comes walking across the waves (Matt. 4:35–36): “Take courage!"

In this Thanksgiving season, as many of us feel oppressed by the darkness we see rising around us, we too can take comfort and be grateful for the same assurance that Jesus called to his frightened disciples: "Don't worry, I’m here--even in this place where you'd least expect to see me. I have things under control in ways you can’t understand right now. Don’t be scared." 

This post has been adapted from The Celtic Study Bible, coming soon from Anamchara Books. Ellyn Sanna is Executive Editor of Anamchara Books and author of numerous books on spirituality including All Shall Be Well: A Modern-Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich.