Lamb, Loom & Seed ~ Touchstones for Life

 

Treasured as a traveling companion and source of inspiration since coming to me as a gift in 1979, Alexander Carmichael’s wonderful collection, Celtic Invocationscelebrates a faith and world-view I find deeply appealing. An English translation of Carmichael’s famed Carmina Gadelica ( or Gaelic Songs), it was compiled as he traveled Western Scotland from 1855-1899 and  is rooted in the culture of the highlands and islands, stretching from Arran to Caithness and Perth to St. Kilda. The prayers, invocations and blessings it contains represent a combination of Celtic vibrancy and Christian richness.  When St. Patrick arrived in Ireland and Irish St. Columba (521-597)  carried the faith on to Scotland, the culture, theology and spirituality which resulted was unique.  It remains so today.

Our modern tendency to separate sacred and secular would have seemed laughable to those early converts.  In the words of Avery Brooke, “the Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.”  Brooke also notes the unusual tolerance of Christian missionaries toward Celtic religion and traditions.  Because so much of Celtic life was “sained”, blessed and taken up whole into Christianity, Celtic tradition which might otherwise have been lost is accessible today in the wonderful prayers, blessings and invocations which were woven into daily life.  To quote Brooke again, “Christ was the Chieftain of Chiefs, but the old tales, songs, runes and customs, along with the crops, the fish, daily work and nightly sleep were sained - marked with the sign of the cross – as were the fæiries, the banshees and the people.”

When I think of  Celtic Christianity, the word which seems most appropriate is “consecration”.  We tend to think of consecration as a “setting aside” or “setting apart” for a holy purpose.  In our world, the consecrated is separate, quite removed from the realities and routines of daily life.  For the people of the Isles, consecration served to elevate and hallow all the circumstances of the day even as it emphasized their dependence on life’s giver and sustainer.  

Certainly there were morning prayers and evening prayers, invocations of the Saints and hymns to Jesus.  But there was far more than obviously “religious” prayer woven into the fabric of Celtic spirituality.  There were rituals which marked the passing of the days and the cycles of the year. There were blessings for households, for the “smooring” (smothering) of fire at night and for the kindling that “lifted” the fire in the morning. There were songs for the heifers and milk cows, prayers for protection of cattle and songs of praise for the ocean and moon.  There were blessings for fishing, hunting and reaping,  prayers for traveling and prayers for sleep.  Celtic prayer was less something one “did” than an attitude toward life: grateful, receptive and filled with recognition that divine grace and providence is the mysterious ember glowing in the heart of humanity.  Like the home ember nurtured each morning and protected each night with ritual and prayer, the spark of the divine was meant to be tended by humanity.

Three of my favorites among the blessings and invocations collected by Carmichael are The Clipping Blessing, The Loom Blessing, and the Consecration of the Seed.  Because he did his work in the mid-to-late 1800s, collecting from people still grounded in Celtic oral traditions,  these wonderful words shimmer with light reflected from a nearly forgotten time.  Modern prejudices about how to approach the divine are quite missing.  In The Clipping Blessing, for example, there’s no embarassment in asking for quite particular favors: 

Go shorn and come woolly,
Bear the Beltane female lamb,
Be the lovely bride thee endowing,
And the fair Mary thee sustaining,
The fair Mary sustaining thee.
Michael the chief be shielding thee
From the evil dog and from the fox,
From the wolf and from the sly bear,
And from the taloned birds of destructive bills,
From the taloned birds of hooked bills.

 In the Outer Isles, on the Island of Uist, Carmichael tells us that “when the woman stops weaving on Saturday night, she carefully ties up her loom and suspends the cross or crucifix above the sleay. This is for the purpose of keeping away the brownie, the banshee, the ‘peallan’ and all evil spirits and malign influences from disarranging the thread and the loom.  And all this is done with loving care and in good faith, and in prayer and purity of heart.”    Again, the concreteness of the petition and the obvious certainty that the smallest detail of life is of concern to the divine is made clear:

In the name of Mary, mild of deeds,
In the name of Columba, just and potent,
Consecrate the four posts of my loom,
Till I begin on Monday.
Her pedals, her sleay and her shuttle,
Her reeds, her warp, and her cogs,
Her cloth-beam and her thread-beam,
Thrums and the thread of the plies.
Every web, black, white and fair,
Roan, dun, checked and red,
Give Thy blessing everywhere,
On every shuttle passing under the thread.
Thus will my loom be unharmed
Till I shall arise on Monday.
Beauteous Mary will give me of her love,
And there shall be no obstruction I shall not overcome.

Finally, in The Consecration of the Seed, the intimate relationship between Christian and early Celtic belief is obvious.  Carmichael notes that “three days before being sown the seed is sprinkled with clear, cold water, in the name of the Father, and of Son, and of Spirit, the person sprinkling the seed walking sunwise the while.”  The baptismal and Trinitarian influence is clear.  What is less obvious at first is the  meaning of “sunwise” walking, a reference to pre-Christian ritual which is reflected in the words of the Consecrations itself: 

I will go out to sow the seed
In name of Him who gave it growth;
I will place my front in the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high.
Should a grain fall on a bare rock
It shall have no soil in which to grow;
As much as falls into the earth,
The dew will make it to be full…
I will come round with my step,
I will go rightways with the sun,
In the name of Ariel and the angels nine,
In the name of Gabriel and the Apostles kind.
Father, Son and Spirit Holy
Be giving growth and kindly substance
To every thing that is in my ground
Till the day of gladness shall come.

 

 Hearing the invocations and blessings, runes and dedications of the rich Celtic culture and reading accounts of their daily life, it is clear that language itself was regarded with a respect and love  not always obvious today.  Filled with power, intimately lodged in the hearts of the people, spoken out of silence to hallow and elevate every aspect of life, words themselves were understood as gifts to be cherished.  In a Morning Prayer collected by Carmichael, this phrase stands out: Praise be to Thee, O God, for ever for the blessings thou didst bestow on me – my food, my speech, my work, my health.

Perhaps gratitude and praise for speech come more naturally to those who live with oral tradition. Perhaps it is a function of isolation and difficult conditions, or only a cultural quirk limited to particular times and place. In any event, the Celts always have nurtured and cared for language because they recognize language as a gift, necessary as fire and powerful as the sea.

We live in a world where language has been reduced – to twitter and tweets, text messages  and instant messages.  Language itself is desecrated on a regular basis, in advertising, politics and human relations.  To have contempt for language, to willingly reduce the heart of our humanity by refusing the power of words, is utterly astonishing.  And yet, it happens.

In the midst of our remembrance of St. Patrick and our celebration of all things Irish, we might well take a moment to remember the people of the lamb, loom and seed.  The Celts have given us far more than green beer, shamrocks and River Dance.  They offer a vision of life lived whole and complete, in harmony with the universe and content with its ordinary days.  Sained by history as by the cross, they still give us words to celebrate and consecrate our lives.

Be the cross of Mary and Michael over me in peace,
Be my soul dwelling in truth, be my heart free of guile.
Be my soul in peace with thee, brightness of the mountains.
Morn and eve, day and night, May it be so.

 

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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Beautiful. I can feel the rhythm of the incantations throughout; clearly, this is one you feel “in the deep heart’s core.” I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but there were (to me) definite echoes of your piece on the three Fates, and also–and I do not consider myself to be an overly religious person–the Parable of the Seeds (Sower?). Perhaps it was drawn from the Celtic?

    And you are right: we need to attend to language as carefully as the Celts tended their precious fire. It is the core of our humanity. So thank you once again for your thoughtful, well-tended words. But I still like RiverDance ;)

    ds,

    And I like River Dance, too, just as I like a fiddle and Bodhran.
    But I’ve roots in County Down, and still have memories of my grandfather singing the “old songs” to me. Produced shows can be wonderful, but they are quite different than music and words woven naturally into the fabric of life.

    As for those echoes from “Hanging by a Thread” ~ you’re exactly right. At first glance they appear to be posts about quite different subjects, but the connecting thread (!) is the nature of humanity, and our place in the world. And I like that you included the Parable of the Sower. In many ways our words are the seed, and our harvest depends on how carefully we choose that seed and nurture its growth.

    Now – go listen to that Bodhran and get those toes a-tappin’!

    Linda

  2. Hey again ‘Shores’ – don’t think I ain’t been keepin up with your writins -I’m well n’ truly hooked- but this latest lovely essay moved me enough to tell ya thanks again for all the fine work ya do. Mike

    Mike,

    Nice to “see” you again. I do hope all is well in your part of the country. Thanks for the kind words – I appreciate them very much.

    And a happy St. Patrick’s Day to you!

    Linda

  3. Indeed the love of language is deep in the love of life and the words that express the beauty of the mystery and magic of being. As ever be well, Stephen Craig Rowe

    Best wishes and quick healing to you, Stephen, and many thanks for stopping to add a comment. I do appreciate it, and wish you ever more of that beauty!

    Linda

  4. While the TV natters on in the background, I read your entry and comments. How do I come to love St. Patrick’s day more and more? Only because it’s a reminder of many things positive – the music, the dance, my own b’day parties always ‘themed’ on SP Day as a kid, love the green, the celebration in the midst of March and yeah, I love Ireland. Is there Irish in my family tree? Oh yes. Thanks for this entry.

    And your note on my blog, regarding your Mom’s perception of what comes out of the PC (like ax murderers, etc.) made me laugh, in a good way, mostly because I am walking my own Mom through the Internet and the ways of blogging and emailing and it’s quite a crazy path we weave, but we keep going. So, glad your Mom is smilin’ about it and hugs to her!

    oh,

    You’d love San Antonio just before St. Patrick’s day – a green River Walk! As I recall, they color it green (with environmentally friendly green dye) and then hold their parade on the river. I’m sure there’s plenty of River Dancing, too!

    It seems to me – with no hard evidence at all – that one of the great benefits of groups such as River Dance is that they’ve helped interest people in the roots of the entertainment. What a blessing that we can enjoy both!

    Linda

  5. I have loved visiting Ireland 3 summers in a row partly because it is a country, a culture, a people who love words and whose heroes are wordsmiths. I also love the runes and symbols that you’ve shared here.

    Yes, all the layers of belief woven into life, that is what one feels, and you’ve caught it beautifully.

    Ruth,

    And isn’t love the key to understanding? There’s a vast difference between using words and entering into a relationship with words, and the Celts maintain that relationship beautifully.

    Having spent a good hour with your chickens and raised beds and such last night, I suspect your understanding of that kind of life reaches significant depths. Farming, photos and words – a perfect combination!

    Many thanks for the visit, and the kind words.

    Linda

  6. Beautiful, Linda. My son loves all things Celtic and has visited Ireland. I have to run because we’re leaving in a couple of hours. We’re going to meet him and his family at our house. I’ll be back next week. Have a wonderful week.

    Bella,

    A roadie! That means you’re feeling better – all good. Enjoy the day, the trip and the family time. I surely appreciate your taking the time to stop by before leaving, and I’ll look forward to your updates.

    Linda

  7. So. I took you up on your Bodhran suggestion; it will be in my head all night, now. Amazing amount of physics in that deceptively simple instrument; amazing amount of talent in that man to work it so well.

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you (what’s left of it)!

    ds,

    I’m always rich in music after St. Patrick’s day. It serves to remind me how much I love it all. The truth is I admire a violin, but a fiddle makes me dance and a harp makes me dream. As for the bodhran, drumming is drumming, and we all love that!

    Linda

  8. Another gem.

    “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

    Our world is awash in information and so many mindless distractions. The Celts set a model our modern world would do well to study.

    Thanks again for an enlightening, meaningful and entertaining piece.

    Mike,

    I truly believe that, wonderful as walking upright and opposable thumbs may be, it’s language that defines our humanity. Not only do words express our spirit, our choice of words continually shapes our spirit. Now, I wouldn’t suggest that a couple of generations of acronymn -laden texting will necessarily start us on the path to renewed knuckle-dragging, but…. I’m not willing to take the chance.

    And such a wonderful quotation from Wittgenstein. It’s going directly into my small “favorite quotations” collection on my “About” page.

    Many thanks for another wonderful contribution.

    Linda

  9. Linda, this is simply magnificent!

    I was so moved by it as a true Celt myself. I wish you were right by me so that we could talk long and deeply about the various strands you have woven into this beautiful piece. I will come back when I have more time and steep myself in it. I came on also to say I was convinced you have a Celtic soul, and to ask you about antecedents from the Celtic fringes. I see you have already confirmed this!

    Blessings Anne W

    Anne,

    Knowing what I do of you, of course I’m especially pleased that you were able to appreciate the essay. While the focus of the piece was primarily language, it’s also true that the Celt’s “place” in the world, their grounding in the natural world, influenced their art, poetry and music. As someone who never has enjoyed the privilege of visiting Ireland or Scotland, I depended on those Celtic words to communicate their place in the world to me, and they didn’t fail.

    Enjoy your busy-ness, and many thanks for taking the time to visit.

    Linda

  10. Hello Linda,
    As a Celt-o-phile (is there such a word?) myself, I thouroughly enjoyed your post. I love Celtic music. The lilting melodies, instruments and voices never fail to produce within me a profound and sweet melancholy of soul.

    A lovely tribute for Saint Patrick’s Day.

    tee,

    And if I’m not mistaken, Celtic music can even move someone like Ed to dance! But only at midnight, under a full moon, with faeries and elves for companions.

    And, “Celt-o-phile”? If there isn’t such a word, there should be. The world is full of them.

    As always, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed my little “alternative” for the day.

    Linda

  11. Above my desk hands a calendar of Celtic mandalas . . . such beauty and silent strength in those images. Thanks for that reminder.

    By the way, I gave you a blog award this morning. Thanks for what you do – http://www.andilit.com/?p=411

  12. How very beautiful. I’ve always found Celtic music as my personal “soul music” (sorry, Motown), and am intrigued by all things Irish — from the Druids to present day. But you really hit on some powerful elements of the Celtic tradition that I think many of us — certainly I — have glossed over. The words, the prayers.

    I confess that more than once I’ve offered a bit of an off the cuff prayer — “Please grow,” I might mutter as I plant my seeds or starters in my dreadfully clay-laden soil. “Don’t overcook, don’t overcook, don’t overcook” I mumble as try to master the delicate timing of fish dishes. But a daily homage to the common, the essential — I have missed that. I think that may need to change.

    I loved this point you made: “Perhaps gratitude and praise for speech come more naturally to those who live with oral tradition…”

    I think that’s probably quite true, though I never thought of it. One speaks more eloquently, more gracefully in the oral tradition. And of course, that extends to praise as well as the stories themselves. I fear what is happening to the texters these days. They tend to have trouble when it comes to face-to-face discussions. At least the ones I know do! They’ve narrowed their thoughts to Twitter-length texts and facebook blurbs, and it may be fine for keeping in touch, but not really learning or sharing with one another.

    Splendid, as always.

  13. Linda,

    I’m late to the St. Patty’s Day Party, but I loved it anyway.

    It was lovely writing on a topic close to my heart — close to the everyday life and world of my dreams.

    Sometimes I feel out of sync with the period I’m planted in — I would have fit in so well with those ancient Celts.

    I think I’ll begin wearing my Celtic cross again.

    Janell

    Janell,

    It looks like I’m late to my own party. I hate discovering I missed responding to comments.

    The impulse to imbue the most ordinary tasks of life with significance seems to have almost disappeared from our society. The thought that we’re dependent, that the things we need most for life come as gifts for which we ought to be thankful – well. That’s not modern America.

    Whatever the sociologists and anthropologists of religion might say, I see little difference between the Celtic view of things and what I experienced in West African villages. While the nature of the spirit or deity might differ, the tasks of planting, building, healing, weaving, were approached in the same way – with an acknowledgement that results are outside human control, and the blessing of the divine is critical.

    I do wonder from time to time what would happen if our political, religious and scientific “leaders” would take that message to heart ;-)

    Linda

  14. Thank you for directing me here Linda – I hope to eventually read all your back-posts, but I’m not setting a time limit. Your writing is not something to gulp down, it’s something to chew over quietly, to savour. In your way, you are bringing me to a state of mindfulness – because after all, that is just what you have described here with the acts of prayers, rituals and blessings. The elevation of the mundane by paying attention.

    I celebrated my 21st birthday, many moons ago now, in Dublin. When I arrived in Ireland, I was arriving ‘home’, although I didn’t know it in advance, I was simply responding to a ‘call’.

    Your comment about how the ‘leaders’ would respond leaves me thinking that they’d be loath to acknowledge the lack of control. Modern society likes to pretend that they have control, whereas so-called primitive societies are under no such illusions. Perhaps that’s why today we’ve mostly lost our sense of wonder……

    • Thanks for forwarding this comment to me, Linda! It reminds me happily of the start of our web friendship …..and I have been trying to find time to return to your latest much appreciated piece bringing in Eliot again. Will drop by and comment hopefully tomorrow/Saturday.

    • eremophila,

      When I first began blogging, many people advised that the way to get traffic was to post every day. I didn’t want traffic, I wanted readers. Hence, I post less frequently and give people a chance to read and ponder. I leave open the ability to comment, too, even on my oldest posts. I’ve never had a bit of trouble with the practice. Sometimes, choosing to ignore the experts works out just fine.

      It’s very interesting – the current struggle about guns in the U.S. is very much a struggle over control. While the government says they want to control violence, many more people than you’d imagine fear their government is intent only on controlling the populace. It’s possible to unpack the fear/control dynamic on multple levels, but the responses often are quite primitive. There are legislators who seem to view passing more laws as a kind of rattle-shaking – as though if they just put more laws on the books, the tide of chaos will be held at bay.

      When I begin to get upset about the current idiocy foolishness in Washington, I just imagine everyone of those “leaders” dressed as a Liberian dancing devil. It increases my cheerfulness quotient immeasurably, and makes rational thought possible again.

      Linda


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