St. Patrick & the “Saining” of Speech

 

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 daily life even as it emphasized human 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, an attitude at once 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. (Click here to read more)

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 at 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 early Christian and Celtic belief reveals itself. 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.

 

 
Originally published as “Lamb, Loom and Seed”, this has been revised slightly and re-posted in gratitude to Anne Whitaker, whose Writing from the Twelfth House is one of the most interesting blogs I’ve discovered.
Unfailingly gracious and an excellent writer, Anne did me the honor of nominating me for her Creative Blogger Award.  A true Celt herself and a resident of Scotland, she knows a good bit about living a “sained life”.  Thanks, Anne ~ “May Brighid of the Mantle encompass us, Lady of the Lambs protect us, Keeper of the Hearth kindle us. Beneath your mantle gather us, and restore to us memory”

 

Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

13 thoughts on “St. Patrick & the “Saining” of Speech

  1. I agree that language has been reduced, although I will admit I am a twitter fan ;-)

    St Patrick’s Day. Ah, it’s the day when the pubs are full in the city! We have 3 staff who have booked today off, despite the fact none of them are Irish lol

    p.s I have changed blog home, you’re more than welcome to come visit me, I’d be honoured in fact :-)

    Carol,

    I suspect I’d find more use for Twitter if I had a Blackberry, or kids, or a job that required traveling ~ or any combination of the three. As it is, I do use it, but only to announce blog postings. Very handy for that, I must say.

    I just love words and language. The mystery of communication is still that for me – a mystery, and almost sacred. Needless to say, I have a bit of trouble with the way some people make use of words.

    The more I’ve learned about my Irish roots, the more I’ve enjoyed celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. I suppose my kind of celebration wouldn’t look like much of a party to some, but I have fun ;-)

    I’ve been to your new place and put its address in my book already. You know already how much I love your photography ~ it feels old-fashioned to me, in the very best way possible ;-)

    Linda

  2. Great piece on the Celtic culture – you beautifully captured and expressed what I so cherish – the blend of Christian without losing the culture of “before”. I think another place that illustates your point as well as the Celtic love of words is the Books of Kells. The art which decorated these works reflects pre-Christian culture~ snarling beasts, coiling snakes, the Celtic sense of mystery, respect for older Gods and magic of the past. A fascinating blend of past pagan culture embracing Christianity.

    BTW – The Consecration of Seed Prayer is a favorite – as my first born is named Gabriel.

    Happy St. Patty’s to all!

    Surfmom,

    When I still was in high school I ordered a day planner from the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. It was illustrated with images from the Book of Kells, and I spent hours exploring them, fascinated by their detail. I wasn’t able to begin plumbing their depths of the faith they portrayed until I’d lived in another “blended” faith culture in Africa, and I certainly didn’t begin to appreciate the beauty of the Celtic common life until I’d had my own experience with rural living. Now, of course, the sun and stars rule my life far more than the clock. It’s an anachronistic way of life, and I dearly love it.

    I’d forgotten about your Gabriel ~ you may or may not know that the angel Gabriel is considered the angel of mercy. ;-)

    Linda

  3. OK — I’ve got to come back. This is an especially meaty one and I want to savor every word!

    jeanie,

    Think of it as an Irish stew of a blog – that’s meaty! It’ll be here on the back burner for you ;-)

    Linda

  4. Isn’t it amazing how beautifully praising the creation can blend into praising the creator? I think the Celtic influence on Catholicsm and/or vice versa yield some deeply compelling results.

    This is by far the best thing I’ve read today-it completes my St. Patty’s day!

    Maman A Droit,

    The relationship between creator and creation is intriguing, whether the subjects are human or divine! And imagine ~ the Hubble telescope has made even the “saining” of space possible. Earlier this year the Houston Symphony collaborated with NASA in a production of Holst’s The Planets, and a combination of Haydn and Hubble is just wonderful.

    Celtic Christianity understood that we’re physical beings as well as spiritual, and that honoring both is essential for life and faith. It’s a lesson worth remembering.

    Many thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. I’m glad you found it a fitting end to a wonderful day!

    Linda

  5. I’m fine with saying a prayer for even the most mundane act of our daily life, the integration of the sacred and the secular. After all, even the most trivial aspect of our day points to the Creator God and His blessings.

    And I have great respect for St. Patrick, missionary who brought the Gospel to Ireland. But what I can’t comprehend is the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day today with the overloaded consumption of alcohol. What does St. Patrick has to do with all night parties and heavy drinking? How many celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with even the slightest recognition of his spiritual contributions to the people of Ireland?

    Thanks for the informative post here, Linda, for March 17th is more than just another excuse of getting drunk.

    Arti,

    Those are interesting questions you raise, for sure. What does St. Patrick have to do with all night parties and heavy drinking? Nothing, of course. And how many celebrate his day with a recognition of his contributions to Ireland? Probably more than we realize. At least, I hope so.

    It’s interesting that Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day, both religious by nature, have been transformed into cultural celebrations. In Houston, one of our large, beautiful fountains is dyed green, as is the river that runs through the heart of San Antonio. Folks here pack places like the Mucky Duck to hear Irish music, and of course there’s plenty of Guiness to be had.

    But I don’t hear the talk I used to about using the day as an excuse for over-indulgence. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s that the people I know are drinking less generally, but it’s just different – at least here. There’s some wearing of the green, some shamrocks scattered around and the annual discussion of the nickname (Patty or Paddy?) but very few requests for headache remedies. I’m glad. It’s much nicer to listen to some good music and say ” Éirinn go brách” (Ireland forever). :-)

    Linda

  6. What a St. Patrick’s Day treat for me…. thank you Linda. I was so distracted, I let the day slip through my fingers; no sharing of soda bread, no music nor story telling – not even a nice cup of tea!

    This weekend I plan to come back and read your post at my leisure and do all of those things I missed out on yesterday.
    So a late Happy day o’ the green to you!

    qugrainne,

    No tea? How could that happen? Actually, I do know how that can happen. I’ve been seeing days slip through my fingers in great bunches. I’ve been trying desperately to adjust to good working weather (fewer hours at the computer!) and the time change (home from work at 7:00 now, and the evening’s gone before I know it). I swear this weekend I’m going to get caught up, myself.

    And you know good wishes are always welcome, no matter the day!

    Linda

  7. I saw quite a bit of green here in Toronto and wondered what it was about, thanks for letting me know!

    Jackie,

    That’s it – you can blame the good St. Patrick. I grew up knowing the “wearing o’ the green” was a must for St. Paddy’s day. If you were caught without green, you got pinched!

    You’ll notice that even the lovely Mucha lady in my header has her bit of green. I don’t think she would take kindly to being pinched, so I gave her a shamrock. Those childhood lessons really take hold sometimes! :-)

    Linda

  8. What a truly lovely piece of writing. You write so eloquently about things I often think – I’ve definitely been thinking about our loss of respect towards language via social media, albeit in a different (and sadly, much less complex) manner.

    I’m 100 percent Irish but I’ve never done the whole St. Patrick’s Day thing – but reading this post makes me feel like I did, indeed, celebrate!

    Courtney,

    It makes me happy to know other people are thinking about these things. And it is important. I don’t think it’s good that, listening to the health care debate, I’m mostly reminded of Humpty Dumpty saying, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

    Sloppiness in language is one kind of lack of respect – but so are intentional misuse and purposeful limiting. That’s where twitter and texting comes to mind for me. They’re great tools, but a couple of teachers I know are pulling their hair out, as the abbreviations and acronyms make their way into classroom assignments. I can’t help but think of that great quotation from Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
    Expand language, expand a world.

    Only half Irish here, but claiming it more fully every year. I’m glad you feel like you celebrated – and best of all? No hangover! :-)

    Linda

  9. I said that in my last comment because on St. Patrick’s Day, they interviewed people on the radio for tips to sober up after a hangover. This is true for any other event too, like e.g. a hockey game. In the NHL finals, if it involved our Calgary Flames, we’d have police concentrating on the ‘Red Mile’. That’s where all the popular bars are in our city. Nowadays, the word ‘party’ is synonymous with drinking I’m afraid. Is it just our city… I wonder.

    Arti,

    Interesting that you came back with this comment ~ I was thinking about you yesterday when I heard a member of The Chieftains interviewed on NPR. He was asked about the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, and remarked how current celebration in the States (and perhaps even Ireland) differed so greatly from celebrations of the day in Ireland during his growing up years. Then, activities included going to Mass, wearing shamrocks, gathering with the family, and so on.

    In other words, it still was a religious feast day, and not a cultural excuse for dissipation. How that transition happens I’m not sure, but you can bet I was thinking about it in Target yesterday morning, as I passed aisles and aisles full of plush bunny rabbits, chocolate eggs and pastel toys of various sorts. It seems we pick one characteristic of a holiday and make that the centerpiece – Christmas is gifts, Easter is candy, St. Patrick’s is alcohol.
    And no ~ sorry to say it’s not just your city. We get the hangover tips, too. ;-)

    Linda

  10. Dear Linda,

    I was only halfway through reading this entry when it sent me rushing over to Amazon to look up CELTIC INVOCATIONS and put it on my wish list. Something in your blog resonated immediately (some affinity with the Celts as always, not the least of which is through ancestry) but then I returned to finish reading and slowly read through each of the prayers, thinking about their applications.
    Wonderful.

    I then copied the closing verse you included into my journal. This one is not just about the beauty of language, but the integration of life with prayer, where prayer is not separate from a life truly lived because it is about things real and daily.

    Just lovely.

    oh,

    Thank you so much for stopping by. I’m glad you found something to “take away”. I love that verse that you kept.

    You own words, “…where prayer is not separate…” reverberate with echoes of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

    And prayer is more
    Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
    Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
    And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
    They can tell you, being dead: the communication
    Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

    That man could write ;-)

    Linda

  11. Linda, this is lovely – I haven’t put two and two together to name my admiration of Celtic spirituality so clearly. (One of our wedding hymns was St. Patrick’s Buckler, which is also great for any ceremony of consecration.)

    I wonder what it would look/sound like to find language to consecrate my own daily life tasks. Guess I’d need to have closer acquaintance with the angels and saints for that.

    Mary Ellen,

    I had completely forgotten the hymn I know as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. Both the lyrics and music are supberb. (I would have said unforgettable, but apparently that’s not so!) I’m not even sure where I would have come across it – I suspect during my times in New York, when I often attended worship at St. Thomas Episcopal. In any event, now that you’ve reminded me of it, I can sing the first verse as though it were just yesterday, and may have the whole song reconstructed by the end of the day.

    In looking around youtube, I found an extraordinary video. You have to be patient and watch it through entirely, because there is a surprise in the middle. It speaks beautifully to the consecration of daily life, and the possibility of living in peace in the midst of chaos.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for enlivening my memory!

    Linda

  12. My dear Linda

    thank you so much for your tribute to me of the gift of this post. Today has been a day where I have felt not at all like ‘doing’, and absolutely like ‘being’. So I have been tucked away in my office doing “background research” ie lying on the settee with a cup of tea, a book, and listening to “Sanctus – music for quiet contemplation”: an album re-creating music which may have been familiar to the scribes at the holy isle of Lindisfarne as they illustrated the
    Gospels with their exquisite Celtic lettering and art.

    Then I got up and re-read this beautiful post which has reminded me of my Celtic roots and birthplace in the Outer Isles of Scotland. I find it especially refreshing to read in this stark waiting time of Lent…

    I especially love this sentence of yours: “the Celts always have nurtured and cared for language because they recognize language as a gift, necessary as fire and powerful as the sea.” I feel this to be true, at the deepest level of my being. So – thank you, my fellow Celtic wordsmith.

  13. As one of the annual honorary Irish, I really love this post. I’ve always found the Celtic traditions wonderful — and haven’t you written some of these blessings before? It seems I remember something long ago…

    I believe in the sacred space in the every day. Maybe when it’s when you feel so lucky to be alive, to have those you love around you, to greet the next St. Patrick’s Day (and Easter and Memorial Day and tulips and summer…) — well, you just know. It’s a sacred thing.

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