Treasured as a traveling companion and source of inspiration since coming to me as a gift in 1979, Alexander Carmichael’s wonderful collection, Celtic Invocations, celebrates 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.