The Last Ecstasy of Life: Celtic Mysteries of Death and Dying, by Phyllida Anam-Áire
Findhorn Press, 9781644112656, 175 pages, June 2021
Death plays such a huge role in our lives. It is something that a lot of people would rather not think about even though it is all around us every day. Though some may call it morbid, I have an interest in learning about how different cultures view death. Seeing how communities treat those who are dying can reveal so much about them. Ireland in particular has such a fascinating culture, steeped in rich history. I wondered what insights I could glean from reading more about how a person from that culture would view topics such as death and grief. Thanks to Phyllida Anam-Áire and her book The Last Ecstasy of Life: Celtic Mysteries of Death and Dying, I have the answers to that question.
To say that Phyllida Anam-Áire is intimately familiar with death would be an understatement. Throughout her life training as a nun and then as a therapist where she trained with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, she learned to view death in a unique way. To her death is not a looming spectre waiting menacingly off in the distance. Death is a constant companion that she has embraced with love. Having found the sacred nature of what it means to live while facing one’s own mortality, she passes on this wisdom through flowing poetry and thoughtful prose.
The first chapter introduces us to some core topics and important information about the author’s beliefs about the nature of life itself. An overarching question of this section revolves around the concept of identity and just what really is the “I” that we speak of when we talk about ourselves. What parts of us can really be considered the true expression of our ‘self’? She shares the Celtic belief that “creation came about by the out-breath of life force and so it was”. This breath that gives us life does not belong to us, but it is something to savor while we get to experience it. She chooses not to question the specifics of what this “breath” might be, instead she surrenders to the mystery and encourages us to do the same. Pondering the unknowable will distract us from living out the fullest expression of life. At the same time she states that it is important to make some personal sense out of what we can observe about the nature of life around us.
With references to works by others in the scientific community, she speaks about the natural energetic field within and around all living organisms. Anam-Áire states that to her the life force that fills and balances all things is a force of love. “This Love does not judge or condemn as its core is the Universal Heart, the heart of compassionate energy.”1 This Universal Heart can act as a source of love of life in the world. It is a beautiful way to view life. Viewing things with compassion and empathy in mind leads to a kinder, more understanding world.
From there the author spends the majority of the book discussing the types of processes we undergo as we die. The energy within us starts to weaken and eventually is released from us as we die. She uses sprinklings of poetry throughout the book to help highlight the emotional themes she brings up. Even the prose she writes reflects her poetic spirit. While the words she uses are not overly complex and the tone very conversational, Anam-Áire weaves together beautiful sentences that evoke certain deep feelings throughout the book.
There are a number of blessings and visualization exercises written throughout the book. Trying those exercises for myself I felt myself more at peace as I went through them. It was interesting to explore these types of thoughts and feelings from the safety of my home. One of the exercises that I found the most impactful was located at the end of chapter three. This exercise, entitled “Let Love Heal…Now”, led me into a deep meditation of healing and self love. The text went on for a few pages, the experience diving deeper as things progressed. I felt the sacred nature of my own divinity and the healing power of love from the Universal Heart. Afterwards I felt at peace and relaxed, having healed bits of myself that required it. Luckily this was near the end of that chapter, which gave me time to reflect.
At the end of each chapter the author leaves a list of questions for the reader to ponder. Taking a few moments to digest and reflect on what I had just read, I found those questions enlightening. They cause us, as readers, to reevaluate our preconceived notions about ourselves, divinity, and the nature of life and death. Taking time to think on these questions, I was led to some interesting personal conclusions that I had not previously considered. With that in mind I was able to sit with a more complete knowledge of myself. Contemplating those questions has given me a greater understanding of what I want from my life as well as my death.
Reading The Last Ecstasy of Life was a journey of self discovery. Led by a guide who speaks with wisdom and a clear reverence for life, the reader is led to examine themselves. I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn to approach death with compassion and have a deeper appreciation for life. This is an excellent book that was a pleasure to read. Anam-Áire has managed to breathe such a vibrant sense of life and love into a book all about the topic of death and dying. She has left me with questions to ponder for the remainder of my life as I try to shape what that life will look like. Though when death finally does come for me, I believe I will be more prepared.
Dennis Quinlan is a writer, a horror enthusiast, and a student of the occult. His practice is a personal blend of Witchcraft, Chaos Magick, and Druidry. When not writing you may find him reading tarot on the subway, inscribing chalk sigils on the sides of buildings, or performing sacred rites near an oak tree in the park. He currently resides in New York City with his partner and their dog. You can find more of his work on dennisjohnquinlan.com