Posted by: Brian | February 16, 2012

The Three Books

Trí caindle forosnat cach ndorcha: fír, aicned, ecna.
“Three candles that illuminate every darkness: truth, nature, knowledge.”

In some strands of Celtic Spirituality there is the metaphor of the Three Books; a concept based on ideas which emerged in the fourth and ninth century CE, and were put together by Celtic-Christian writer Philip Newell in 2002.  I’m sharing it here because, in the absence of a complete indigenous pedagogy, I think it is a great way to organize and reflect on the vast and disorganized body of information we have available to us. This metaphor invites us to consider Three Books: the Book of the Self, the Book of Nature, and the Book of Tradition. In this metaphor, each ‘Book’ is deemed to be a valuable, but limit, resource in understanding the sacred, and can only be fully interpreted by using the other two as ‘keys’ to our understanding.

Since I usually emphasis the value of orality, and seek my roots in the pre-literate culture of the ancient Celts, starting this exploration with the notion of ‘Books’ could be seen as ironic.  But personally I’ve learned a lot from books, and the book itself has held symbolic value in Celtic culture for at least sixteen centuries.  More importantly, I think this is a useful paradigm, as it demands that we neither over privilege nor discount a particular aspect of these three ways of profound and spiritual engagement. 

The Book of Tradition

In the early Celtic writings the ‘Book of Tradition’ is primarily, by definition and cultural default, the Bible; and if one is referring to Celtic Christianity this remains mostly true. I say primarily and mostly, because the writings of other theologians, both official and heretical, must also be considered a part of the Celtic canon available to us.  Likewise a great deal of effort went into connecting Biblical lore with indigenous Celtic lore, or copying Celtic lore for its own sake (but always with the social and cultural demands of their day in mind).

With the revival of Celtic paganisms (in a wide variety of forms), and the ever present substrate of what is now often called `Christo-pagan’ folkways, this broader body of Celtic culture must also be considered as being intrinsically part of the Book of Tradition. History, law, myth, legend, folklore, folkways, traditional customs and beliefs, perhaps music, and even a certain section of the material culture are all part of the Book of Tradition from which we may gain insight into how the ancients saw the world and a distinctively `Celtic’ means of interacting with it.  The more we understand our source traditions, the more we are able to understand that our society and culture is a growing and evolving manifestation of the sacred.  This includes not only understanding Tradition, but acknowledging its context; and in making meaning in our own lives realizing that our context is no longer their context, just as their context in the fifth century BCE is different from their context in the fifteenth century CE (around which time much of what we use as myth was still finally being written down, so long after paganism ceased to be an overt socio-political force in Celtic countries.

By respecting the Book of Tradition we can avoid being labeled mis-appropriators of culture or insubstantially eclectic. By interpreting the Book of Tradition in the light of the other two books we are saved from the traps of xenophobia, cultural elitism, or ‘fundamentalism’ (be it ‘Celtic’ and/or Biblical) that drawing on this book alone might cause.

If I may mix my metaphors, of the three candles that illuminates every darkness I associate the Book of Tradition with ecna, that is to say ‘knowledge’.

The Book of Nature

By the ‘Book of Nature’, I don’t necessarily mean our reverence of nature, and I emphatically do not mean the romantic notions many people hold as the ‘idea’ of Nature, or even the scientific and philosophical disciplines we use to understand it.  The Book of Nature is nature itself: existence.

Our first glimpse that the Celts correlated the Book of Nature with the Book of Tradition comes from the Classical sources.  These sources often refer to the Druids as natural philosophers, astronomers, and physicians, in addition to theologians and law-givers (obviously tradition/culture-bearing roles). Though their works are, of course, mostly lost to us, we see its attitude prevalent in the folkways of many Celtic countries.

Much later, the finest literary flowering comparing these two ‘Books’, Tradition and Nature, is found in the works of ninth century Irish theologian John Scottus Eriugena. His work is the earliest surviving instance, in this context, of the world being referred to explicitly as the ‘Book of Nature’ and set in relationship to tradition. He was not a literalist in examining how Tradition should be understood, saying scripture “is not to be believed as a book which always uses verbs and nouns in their proper sense when it teaches us about the Divine” (P.I 509A) He is telling us, as Marshall McLuhan will eleven centuries later, that the map (Tradition) is not the territory (Nature).  This can be applied to Tradition more generally, regardless of whether one self-identifies as a pagan, a Christian, or even a scientist – a thing is not identical to the myth or the math that describes it.
Thanks in large part to the reductionism inherent in enlightenment thinking and the vitriol of fundamentalist – be they Atheists or Abrahamic – many people currently perceive science and religion to be at odds. However, for many streams of Celtic Spirituality, science is just one more way of gaining an understanding of existence, of Nature, and thereby, an understanding of the sacred. This is easily seen in the works of Augustinus Hibernicus, who using cutting edge theology and cutting edge science in concert, gained a deeper understanding of God and the world. Though seventh century science is no longer considered cutting edge, the principals that inform the effort still remains valid in our modern day. It is a sacred riddle, and an unending process of discovery and wonder.

Older models are replaced by new models through the course of history; but all models both dispel and create their own biases, illusions, and limits. And, just as old Newtonian models are ‘outdated’ compared to cutting edge quantum physics, but is still the more useful model on which to build everyday structures like cars and buildings, so too the Celtic dúile[1] model (which will be explored in future posts) of describing our relationship with existence is still valid as it still gives us a useful model and useful tools for understanding the world and our relationship to it.  We simply can not rationally and objectively experience the entirety of existence, but creating Tradition, both scientific and spiritual, Nature becomes more comprehensible.

By respecting the Book of Nature we can stay connected to the real world around us, and not be lost in romantic fantasy or ivory tower detachment. Likewise, by interpreting the Book of Nature in the light of the other two books we are saved from the traps of physical reductionism or mechanical thinking that drawing on this book alone might cause.

Mixing my metaphors again, it should come as no surprise that of the three candles that illuminates every darkness I associate the Book of Nature with aicned, that is to say ‘nature’ itself.

The Book of the Self

Introspection, contemplation, conscience, and epiphany play a role in all spiritual traditions. It may not involve sitting in unusual postures, seclusion from the world, or other esoteric practice; indeed it may demand activity and deep participation in our world and in our communities. Given Celtic practicality, it should come as no surprise that the ‘Book of the Self’ is explored both in private and in social interactions – interacting strongly with both Tradition and Nature in a no nonsense kind of way.

Our earliest surviving written call to look to the heart of the Self for answers comes from the fourth century writings of Pelagius, who was branded a heretic for (simplistically stated) his panentheistic view of the Divine, his rejection of original sin, his belief that the god of his understanding dwells not only in heaven but in each of us, the spiritual equality of women, and who denied the need for additional divine aid in performing good work – some pretty pagan thinking for a monk. These are easily recognizable as the hallmarks of modern Celtic Christianity, and are wholly consistent with modern Celtic paganisms belief in divinities that are in and of the world, that we are reflections of the world and the divine, gender equality, and (although most of us respect the experts) our spiritual wellbeing rests primarily in our own hands.

In his correspondences with a noble woman named Demetrias, Pelagius says to her, that to find the sacred, you must ‘approach the secret places of your soul’, and when she asks him for a written rule (lifestyle guidelines based on monastic practice) to live by, he tells her to, ‘write down with your own hand on paper what God has written by his hand on [your] human heart’. Then he tells her, that should be your rule.

He had great respect for Tradition but realized it was not intelligible without interpretation by the self aware heart. For him Tradition meant Biblical scripture; but for us, should we seek to emulate his teaching, it can be our cultural source material taken as a whole.

As for the Book of the Self, the more we understand ourselves, our values, goals, choices, and contributions, the more we are able to understand that we ourselves are a growing and evolving manifestation of the sacred.  As always, I would look to writers like Jung to give voice, or Tradition, to this Book of the Self, but like Nature this is an experiential ‘Book’ and anything we say about it immediately falls to the realm loosely covered by Tradition, however privately or short lived such notions may be.  This becomes a matter of epistemology and of anthropology of knowledge.

By respecting the Book of the Self we cultivate the vital awareness required to make meaning of the world around us and the lore of those who have gone before us.  Likewise, by interpreting the Book of the Self in the light of the other two books we are saved from the traps of fantasy or self deception that drawing on this book alone might cause.

Of the three candles that illuminates every darkness, I associate the Book of Self with fír, that is to say ‘truth’ – a bold statement I will explore in a future post.

In my first post, I defined Spirituality is the process of striving toward Being, Acting, and Knowing, from a stance of authentic Connectedness, Meaning, Value (moral, aesthetic, or otherwise), Purpose, and Becoming.  In closing here, I would offer that the metaphor of the ‘Three Books’ point to just such an engagement: The Book of the Self asks us to engage through our Being; the Book of Nature asks us to understand through participation and observation, so Acting; and the Book of Tradition asks us to understand through Knowing.  Taken together, whether as ‘books’ or as ‘candles’, they illuminate every darkness, as each sheds light on the shadow of the other. 

[1] In Gaelic Dúil (plural Dúile) means ‘an element’, ‘a partition’, ‘a thing created’, or ‘a living being’. Throughout the Indo-European world, creation is often depicted as an act of sacrifice, wherein a being is torn apart to make the world from its parts.  The Irish creation myth is lost, but this story is well reflect in the Norse and Hindu creation myths. Conversely, we do have some Vedic and Christo-Celtic material that depicts the creation of humanity in a way which reverses the initial sacrifice, i.e. various parts of the world are brought together to make ‘Adam’.  For example, just as the sea was formed from the blood of some primordial sacrifice, our blood is made from the sea; emphasizing that we are a reflection of the universe, the universe is a reflection of us, and both humanity and the world has been made in the image of the Living World.



  1. In reading your post, I find myself comparing the three books to a map.

    Nature is the Map itself, the area that you are looking at. Tradition is the iconography on the map, which identifies what you are seeing. The Self is the legend that is used to interpret that iconography, wither as a shared knowledge with a group of people or a personal interpretation of what those symbols mean.

    Each one on their own have some use, although limited, but it is only when all three are combined together that we have something that surpases the sum of its parts.

    I realize that this may be an over-simplification of the information you conveyed but the concepts do require some contemplation and even at that, it can be dificult to convey into words the realizations that can occur. When communicating feelings, we are bound by words and many times they fall very short of the truth of the experience.

    Go raibh maith agat agus be beannaithe

    • A chara Robert,

      Yes, that is also a good metaphor. And along the same lines we could also pull back a bit and say that Self is the person reading the map, Tradition is the map, and Nature is the territory represented. So from this vantage point Self is the subject, Nature is the object, and Tradition is the interpretation. This is true as far as it goes, but this rational, individual-centered, view is only a third of what I’m hoping to point at.

      What if each book or candle is seen as the subject, each in turn? You might need three different metaphors, but together each of these views would off-set the flaws inherent in of any one of them.

      Brian (SoA)

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