Consolations of the Forest: Alone in cabin in the middle Taiga, by Sylvain Tesson (Allen Lane, €18.99 / £16.99)
Tóchar: Walking Ireland’s ancient pilgrim paths, by Darach MacDonald (New Island Books, €14.99 / £12.99)
These two books are connected by their very different searches for spiritual insights. French journalist Sylvain Tesson, whose book has won theprestigious Prix Medici, followed what might be called the example of Thoreau. But instead of hiding himself away on a cabin on the edge of prosperous Concord, he decamped to a small hut in the remote middle Taiga.
The vast Russian wilderness has long been a refuge for Orthodox hermits and recluses. Nowadays different folk go there. Tesson recounts his encounter with a group of New Age Russians who see in nearly by Lake Baikal one of those supposed spiritual nodes that will enhance one’s wellbeing. Russia today is filled with such people.
Oddly though Tesson seems a still slightly lost soul, for he has neither the consolations of the Orthodox or the counter-cultural. This is an oddly lonely book, and in that sense perhaps well worth reading for its revelations of what a Parisian feels far removed from St Germain-des-Près.
Darach MacDonald’s book is very different. It is filled with encounters and hectic with constant movement. Indeed he might learn the lesson of Thoreau and Tesson of staying in one place. Was it not Pascal who remarked that the troubles of the world arose from our inability to sit along in our own room? MacDonald describes himself as an à la carte Irish catholic, “a healthy sceptic in matters of belief”. Yet as is so often the case with so called sceptics, he is often all too ready to accept the word of a professor.
(On the word of experts he says that Valentine Greatrakes of Affane made ‘lucrative’ trips to London as a healer. In fact aside from a sum to money paid him to visit Ragley Hall to undertake a treatment that failed, a prosperous landowner he took no money for his well documented cures.)
However, his travels take him all over Ireland, to ancient places of pilgrimage, from Lough Derg onwards. His experiences and his encounters are vividly recalled with enthusiasm, and he hopes to promote a respect for the more traditional, even early Christian ways and beliefs that we have lost in Ireland in the Tiger years.
However, there is also a virtue is staying still. A medieval Gaelic poet put it well (in the words of translator Frank O’Connor):
To go to Rome, is little profit, endless pain.
The Master that you seek in Rome you’ll find at home,
Or seek in vain.
To achieve an experience one must bring experience to it. But cannot hope to be spiritually transformed with the effort of preparation. That has been the lesson of all spiritual masters in all ages.
And similarly he seems to believe uncritically much that is written about ‘Celtic Christianity’.
He speaks of “the magical soul of Celtic Christianity” – actually it has no magical soul. This is the language of the holiday brochure. What places of pilgrimage from the taiga to the Blackwater Valley share is a sense of the numinous, the very presence of the divine, which is an aspect of revelation.
But many will greatly enjoy this book, which I suspect will inspire a good number of them to follow the ancient pilgrim paths of Ireland in future summers.