A Celtic Legacy

The widow Mackinnon and Mrs. Neil Ferguson ~ St. Kilda, 1909

From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled: two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people.  The beautifully colored lantern slides of  George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod,  an iconic collection put into book form by Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland.

Even as Wilson and Macleod pursued their photography, Alexander Carmichael was traveling the highlands and islands from Arran to Cithness, from Perth to St. Kilda, collecting traditional prayers, invocations and blessings. Between 1855 and 1899, he compiled his Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs),  magnificent examples of Celtic tradition combined with Christian faith.

After St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland and St. Columba’s missionary journey to Scotland, a unique culture, theology and spirituality began to evolve: one not at all inclined toward our modern separation of the sacred and the secular. In the words of Avery Brooke, “Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.”  

Tolerant of  Celtic beliefs and practices, Christian missionaries wove adapted Celtic prayers, blessings and invocations into the fabric of their daily lives. As Brooke writes in his introduction to Celtic Prayers:

Christ was the Chieftain of Chiefs, but the old tales, songs, customs and runes – not to mention the crops, the fish, the daily work and nightly sleep – were sained, or marked with the sign of the cross, just as were  fæiries, banshees and people.

At its heart, saining was a matter of consecration, though not in our modern sense of setting aside, or apart. We tend to understand consecration as removal from the realities and routines of daily life, but for the people of the Isles, consecration elevated and hallowed every ordinary circumstance.

Certainly there were morning prayers and evening prayers in Celtic devotion,  invocations of the saints and hymns to Jesus.  But far more than obviously religious prayer was woven into the fabric of Celtic spirituality.  There were rituals to mark the passing of the days and cycles of the year. There were blessings for households, for the smooring of fire at night and for the rekindling that lifted up morning fires.

There were songs for 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 travel, and prayers for sleep. 

Celtic prayer was less something to ‘do’ than an attitude to nourish: an attitude at once grateful and receptive.  Like hearth embers nurtured each morning and protected each night with ritual and prayer, the spark of divine presence, the mysterious ember glowing at the heart of the world, was meant to be tended by a grateful humanity.

The maids and matrons of St. Kilda ~ 1886

Among the blessings and invocations collected by Carmichael are “The Clipping Blessing,” “The Loom Blessing,” and “The Consecration of the Seed.” The words shimmer with  reflected light from a nearly forgotten time, charmingly embraced without hesitation or embarassment. In “The Clipping Blessing,” the petitions hardly could be more specific.

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:

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 certainty that even the smallest detail of life concerns 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 is laid bare. 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, while “sunwise walking” refers to pre-Christian ritual.

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.

To hear these invocations, blessings, runes, and dedications is to experience the Celts’ love and deep respect not only for life, but for language. Filled with power, intimately lodged in the hearts of the people, spoken out of silence to hallow and elevate every aspect of life, the 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.

Praising God for food, work and health is understandable. Including speech as a blessing worthy of praise is more remarkable. Perhaps praise for the gift of words comes more naturally to those steeped in oral tradition; perhaps isolation and difficult conditions increase a community’s gratitude for speech.

Whatever the motivation, it cannot be denied that Celts always have nurtured and cared for language because they recognize language as a gift as necessary as fire and powerful as the sea.

To live in a world where language is being reduced by our technologies and desecrated in advertising, politics and human relations is remarkable.  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, it would be well to remember the people of the lamb, loom, and seed. Celtic peoples offer us a legacy far greater than green beer, shamrocks and River Dance.  They offer a vision of life lived whole, life well-attuned to the universe and content with ordinary days. Above all, they offer to us the possibility of sained speech: words spoken and received with dignity in order  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.

Comments always are welcome.

Iesous Ahatonhia: The Huron Carol

“A Huron-Wendat Hunter Calling Moose” ~  Cornelius Krieghoff, 1868

Known as the first North American Christmas carol, “The Huron Carol” was written by Père Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary and accomplished linguist who supervised the preparation of a Huron grammar and dictionary.

After arriving in Quebec from Normandy in 1625,  de Brébeuf (1593-1649) lived and worked among the Huron from 1626 to 1629, and then again from 1634 until his torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois in 1649. Canonized in 1930, de Brébeuf became one of the patron saints of Canada.

Like so many early missionaries, de Brébeuf necessarily became an explorer. After being assigned to Huronia, he found himself crossing the 800 miles that separated Quebec from the Hurons by canoe. It was far from an easy trip, as  the Dictionary of Canadian Biography makes clear:
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Seeing With A Grateful Eye

Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda ~ Winslow Homer (1899)

Years before I encountered my first palm tree — decades before I dove into the watery azure, lapis, and turquoise ribbons connecting tiny and often unnamed Caribbean islands — I lingered in shadows of tangled bougainvillea and tumbling poinciana: a world of tropical dreams limned by Winslow Homer’s art.

One of America’s premier watercolorists, Homer moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. While his love of the New England coastline is obvious from his paintings, he often vacationed in Florida, Bermuda and the Caribbean. His unique vision of the islands, combined with mastery of his medium, resulted in exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, synchronized palms, and great, vivid falls of blossoms that seem to scent even the printed page. Continue reading

The Poets Birds: Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) taking the sun at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Despite neither appearing nor behaving precisely like a falcon, the crested caracara is considered a member of the falcon family. Resident in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, its range extends southward through Mexico into tropical areas of Central and South America. Its name, Caracara, may be an anglicization of the Guarani Indian traro-traro: an imitation of the unusual rattling sound the bird makes when agitated.

Often referred to as a Mexican eagle, the caracara is thought to be the bird originally depicted on the national emblem and flag of Mexico before being replaced by the golden eagle.
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Spending Time

On the timeless prairie

Amid a flurry of autumn traditions old and new — carved jack-o-lanterns, homecomings, pumpkin spice latte —  discussions of a less happy tradition arise, inevitable as falling leaves. As the clock adjustments required by the end of daylight saving time grow nearer,  a little inconsequential and mostly congenial grumping about the practice can be heard across the land.

Some don’t care which official time prevails; they only wish for an end to switching back and forth. Others, in favor of keeping the practice, argue the case for a national policy. Most seem to consider the fuss over “falling back” or “springing forward” nothing more than a relic of the past, like barn-raisings and butter churns. Continue reading

Storms, Survival, and Stories

Houston’s Buffalo Bayou after  Hurricane Harvey

Matt Lanza, forecast meteorologist for Houston’s Cheniere Energy, shares responsibilities with Eric Berger for Space City Weather, a blog dedicated to providing the greater Houston area with what Matt and Eric like to call “accurate, hype-free forecasts.”

Before and during Hurricane Harvey, their blog and social media postings served as excellent sources of information, making a complex system understandable even as they refused to engage in histrionics.

Only after the hurricane’s departure did the toll of providing that information become clear. Writing for Space City Weather, Matt included these comments in a post titled “My Harvey Story”:

Weather models constantly indicated risks for 30, 40, or 50 inches of rain in high confidence fashion somewhere between Beaumont and Victoria. I couldn’t comprehend that amount of water in such a short time. How do you reconcile a patently absurd forecast with the reality that it’s probably going to verify?
We’d see messages from people wondering if they should just leave. I got emails from co-workers, worried about losing their homes on the coast near Port Aransas. What do you tell people? How do you express this?
As the event unfolded it got harder and harder to do. Seeing pictures of devastation, getting text messages from family who live nowhere near a bayou and still took water into their home, getting messages from friends who worried about water coming into their apartments, I came close to breaking down on Sunday morning, completely.
I’ve never felt so heartsick and helpless in my life. Disasters which had, for all my life to this point, been mostly impersonal, finally became real, raw, and very personal.

Matt and his wife Denise were fortunate. Their home didn’t flood, and their property losses were minimal. But for Matt, haunted by other, less tangible losses, the struggles continued:

Somewhere along the line [Hurricane] Gloria ignited a passion for meteorology… As I sit here 32 years later, I openly wonder if a rain-laden hurricane in Texas is what extinguishes it.
Do I still love weather? I guess so, but if we’re really being honest here, I don’t know right now. I honestly think I’m not going to be able to sleep now when it’s raining. There’s no rain gentle enough that will allow me to drift off to sleep in peace. Maybe that “fear” of rain will disappear with time… But I do wonder where my passion for weather goes from here.

And then, tucked into the middle of his reflective paragraphs, there is the simple statement: “I have survivor’s guilt.”

I understand Matt’s feelings. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, I produced a few blog entries, but the joy of writing, the sense of unfettered creativity, the easy flow of words, disappeared. Ideas came to mind, but nothing seemed worth the sustained effort a coherent piece of writing requires.

Like the Lanzas, I had emerged from a terrible storm unbelievably blessed, with my home and business secure. Even the stray kitty I worried over had survived, and a camphor tree I’d planted lost hardly a leaf.

With my possessions intact, no permanent financial losses, and power restored, Hurricane Ike had left me essentially free of problems.

And that, in the end, became the problem.

Despite the sheetrock I knocked out, the supplies I furnished, and the contributions I made, every time I sat down to write, paralysis overtook me.

It seemed selfish to be sitting at a desk while only five miles away ice, water, and food were being handed out. There seemed no way to justify spending hours engrossed in reading and thought while others struggled to find showers or a job. What good could come, I wondered, from a story, an essay,  or a poem for people left with nothing but a tent, a cot and a void in their soul so deep it seemed impossible to fill?

The paralysis lingered.

In the end, it was a friend’s quite different experience that helped me untie the knots. Scheduled to be in New York City on September 11, 2001, he had remained at home because of a cancelled meeting. As he put it:

I never felt relief, or gratitude for having been unbelievably lucky.  I was consumed with guilt, feeling consigned to live forever in the shadow of those who died, unable to make amends.

As he later learned, his sense of isolation, numbness, and helplessness is common to people who escape a disaster which seriously affects others. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 are only one example. Train wrecks, building fires, robbery attempts, refinery explosions, mass murders, or natural disasters of every sort can trigger the same reaction. 

The arbitrary nature of such events makes survivors especially vulnerable to stunned disbelief and guilt. One house survives, while a neighbor’s does not.  A concertgoer survives, but his friends do not. Asking, “Why?” is natural, but there are no answers.

While survivor’s guilt isn’t identical to clinical depression, many of the same remedies are proposed by those familiar with the syndrome. They advise talking about the event, nurturing a sense of safety and stability, and returning to usual routines as soon as possible.

Challenging irrational thoughts is especially important, as is focusing on personal strengths, and taking action wherever possible.

After Ike, I heard that final piece of perfectly reasonable advice as a bit of an accusation. Having been raised to believe that actions speak louder than words, the aphorism’s truth appeared self-evident.

Words weren’t going to patch a roof, or feed a child.  Metaphors couldn’t produce ice or water, and cooking up pithy paragraphs certainly wouldn’t transform a single MRE into a gourmet meal. Similes don’t scrape sand off roads, and even the most well-written chapter rarely captures the chaos of utter destruction.

Entangled in these thoughts and exhausted by the struggle to escape their pull, I found release in the form of a quotation from the author Ingrid Bengis:

 Words are a form of action, capable of producing change.

Thinking more clearly than I had for days, I asked myself, “What can words do?” Somewhat astonished, I watched my list grow as I reminded myself that words can console and hearten; strengthen a spirit; clarify  vision, and enliven hope. When necessary, words challenge or confront, describing  realities we prefer to ignore with sharpness and clarity.

Words can sting a conscience, or soothe a heart.  Words help to create community in the midst of chaos.  Most importantly, words humanize, breaking down barriers that inevitably arise between the lucky and the unlucky, between victims and survivors.

Eventually, I heard a powerful plea on behalf of words from a true storm survivor: a man living in his truck and tent on a Galveston beach. Like others who chose that way of coping, he had his reasons. When I asked why he hadn’t gone to a shelter, he said,

“You’re never sure what you can do and what you can’t do.  And it’s depressing, being shoved into a place with a bunch of people you don’t know,  having to look at that mess all the time.”

Out here, I got the waves, and the moon and the stars are pretty, and there ain’t nobody to bother me. At night, it’s real peaceful. I just lay here, and kind of think. If I get real bored or lonesome or nervous, I tell myself stories.”

So it is. Despite our slightly naive trust in the permanence of our homes, our friends, our jobs, and our health, each of us lives as a sojourner: strangers in a strange land, creatures destined to be stripped by time and fate of youth, power, and pride as surely as natural events strip communities of structures and possessions.

When that time comes, we need words. We need stories to sketch a vision of the future, and poems to hold the scattered remnants of the past. We need blankets of words to wrap around cherished memories, and baskets of seed-words to sow for hope.

There always will be people convinced words don’t matter, just as there are people who believe writing is frivolous — rather like origami, or learning to make puff pastry.

But writers and storytellers, playwrights and poets know a deeper truth. Human beings are creatures of language, and crafters of words. Words give birth to our hopes and attend the death of our dreams. Words lead us through the mazes of life, and sanctify our struggles. When the world we know is destroyed, words help us reclaim our humanity, even as we rebuild our lives.

Words are a form of action, but they are far more than a tool, capable of producing change. They are a wellspring of life.

To speak, to write, to dare to utter a word in the shimmering, moonstruck darkness is human. And when the darkness is complete; when the moon has set and the stars have gone; when there is only the silence and waves of loneliness and grief, the world needs its writers, its wordsmiths, and its ordinary speakers to tell their stories — offering them as gifts for those whose own words have been silenced by the vicissitudes of life.


Comments always are welcome.




this breeze
refused an
evening rising,
we might have missed such
clouds; such silent, feathered
gliding down hidden, sharp-edged
currents; such easy slope toward night.
Had this breeze not risen, there might have
been no falling, nor memories at all.


Comments always are welcome.
Newer readers might not be familiar with one of my favorite poetic forms: the Etheree, a syllabic poem containing, in its basic form, ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables. For more information about the form, please click here.