Seas, Storms, and Thankfulness

So many of our great epics are quests and journeys. Joseph Campbell’s classic book The Hero With a Thousand Faces is famous for elucidating what has come to be known as The Hero’s Journey. The lure of unseen marvels draws us, or danger compels us. It’s almost as if Homer’s The Odyssey is written in our blood. Never forget: Odysseus longed for his home. If our seeking is fleeing from instead of moving toward, we will likewise have a strenuous journey beset with trials and labors.

Today is the Feast of St. Brendan the Navigator, a good day to remember his journeys, and all our journeys.

Mural of St. Brendan in Tralee, Ireland. This mural was formerly on the Benners Hotel in Tralee, but was lost when the building was redeveloped. courtesy of http://www.geograph.ie/photo/4369180

 

Lady Gregory of Ireland relates The Voyage of Brendan in this way:

“It is a monk going through hardship Blessed Brendan was, that was born in Ciarraige Luachra of a good father and mother. It was on Slieve Daidche beside the sea he was one time, and he saw in a vision a beautiful island with angels serving upon it. And an angel of God came to him in his sleep and said ‘I will be with you from this out through the length of your lifetime, and it is I will teach you to find that island you have seen and have a mind to come to.’ When Brendan heard those words from the angel he cried with the dint of joy, and gave great thanks to God, and he went back to the thousand brothers that were his people.”

Brendan saw many sights: sea monsters and fish, ghosts and the borders of hell, and possibly, I’d like to think, North America—long before the Vikings settled in Vinland, or Newfoundland, Canada. In 1976, Irish explorer Tim Severin built an ox-leather curragh, an early Irish boat, and sailed from Ireland to Canada to demonstrate that St. Brendan’s voyage was possible. The lack of archaeological evidence does not disprove St. Brendan’s voyage. The proof of the Vikings in L’Anse aux Meadows was not discovered until 1960, after all.

 

Tarring a Curragh, Inisheer, Aran Islands, photo by Harold Strong, 1962.  copyright Harold Strong for use under Creative Commons License.

A reconstruction of a 1st Century AD British Curragh, made of wicker work and covered with 3 cow hides; capable of carrying 10 people. It was on display at the “Heritage Village” area of the Bedford River Festival. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

A sea voyage is fraught with danger worse than any cross-country travel. Every moment on a fragile Irish canoe is one wind gust away from drowning. St. Brendan prayed, “O Christ, wilt Thou help me on the wild waves?” The Children’s Defense Fund promotes a poem-prayer I’ve taken to my own heart (and slightly edited): “Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide and I am so small.”

Lady Wilde continues her narration:

“And then he [St. Brendan] led them to the great fish and it was upon his back they said their Matins and their Mass. And when the Mass was ended the fish began to move and he swam out very far into the sea and there was great terror on the brothers when he did that and they being on his back, for it was a great wonder to see a beast that was the size of a whole country going so fast through the seas.”

Woodcut, 15th Century? A scene from Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis where the saint celebrates a mass on the body of a sea monster. Public domain. via Wikimedia Commons

I crave routine; I’m flustered by disruption. I downright despise change. Like those monks, the upheavals in my life fill me with terror. I find security—false security—in stability of place. St. Brendan reminds me that God is with us everywhere, even in the unmapped, unknown ocean; even on a shifting island that is revealed to be the back of a sea monster. Even in our wild untrammeled lives. Unlike St. Brendan, I generally forget to give thanks for my sea monsters and obstacles.

Finally, like Odysseus, like Campbell’s Hero, St. Brendan returns:

“And they sailed home in their ship to Ireland and it is glad the brothers they had left after them were to see them come home out of such great dangers. And as to Brendan he was from that time as if he did not belong to this world at all, but his mind and his joy were in the delight of heaven. And it is in Ireland he died and was buried; and that God may bring us to the same joy his blessed soul returned to!”

Life is our journey; may God be our goal. If we remember God in all things, and in all places, we will never be homeless. May we face our upheavals with thanksgiving. May we be heroes and heroines helping the people we meet along our voyages.

 

Sources

Lady Gregory Augusta. “The Voyage of Brendan.” A Book of Saints and Wonders According to the Old Writings and the Memory of the People of Ireland. Web. Scanned by Phillip Brown, April 2004. Additional proofing and HTML formatting by John Bruno Hare at sacred-texts.com. This text is in the public domain. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this notice of attribution is left intact. Web.

Korz, Fr. Geoffrey. “St. Brendan’s Journey and Immigration.” Orthodox Canada: A Journal of Orthodox Christianity. V. 2 n. 3. Dormition [August] 2007. Web.

Severin, Tim. The Brendan Voyage: Sailing to America in a Leather Boat to Prove the Legend of the Irish Sailer Saint. Random House, 2010.

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The Song of Finn in Praise of May

When Finn Mac Cumhal was a young man, he studied with the bard Finegas, ate the Salmon of Wisdom, and learned the ancient art of poetry. Before he left Finegas, he composed this poem to prove his skill:

May Day! delightful day!
Bright colours play the vales along.  Now wakes at morning’s slender ray,
Wild and gay, the blackbird’s song.

Now comes the bird of dusty hue,
The loud cuckoo, the summer-lover;  Branching trees are thick with leaves;
The bitter, evil time is over.Swift horses gather nigh
Where half dry the river goes; Tufted heather crowns the height;
Weak and white the bogdown blows.

Corncrake sings from eve till morn,
Deep in corn, a strenuous bard! Sings the virgin waterfall,
White and tall, her one sweet word.Loaded bees of little power
Goodly flower-harvest win; Cattle roam with muddy flanks;
Busy ants go out and in.

Through, the wild harp of the wood
Making music roars the gale—Now it slumbers without motion,
On the ocean sleeps the sail.Men grow mighty in the May,
Proud and gay the maidens grow;  Fair is every wooded height;
Fair and bright the plain below.A bright shaft has smit the streams,
With gold gleams the water-flag;  Leaps the fish, and on the hills
Ardour thrills the flying stag.

Carols loud the lark on high,
Small and shy, his tireless lay, Singing in wildest, merriest mood
Of delicate-hued, delightful May.

 

Source:

9th Century Poem.

“The Boyhood of Finn Mac Cumhal” [chapter 9]. Rollston, T.W. The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland. 1910WEB. Public Domain through Project Gutenberg.

See also Dr Kuno Meyer’s prose translation in Ériu (the Journal of the School of Irish Learning), Vol. I. Part II.

Easter Monday

 

Early on the day of Easter Monday

I saw on the brine

A duck and a white swan

Swim together.

CCO Creative Commons ; free use through Pixabay

From the Scottish oral tradition;  from the Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland collected by Alexander Carmichael in the late 19th Century.

Today is Easter Monday for those in the Orthodox Christian faith.

A Conception Announcement

The celebration of birthdays is common enough. But who among us celebrates our conception?  We may presume that the custom never arose because, until recently, the exact day of conception was never quite known.  In our modern era, I’ve had friends argue with their doctors about the date (or argue about their due date, which is based on presumed conception.).  I’ve heard an expression, a common response to someone who proclaims ignorance or forgetfulness for their whereabouts or activities: “Were you with yourself when it happened?” Nonetheless, some doctors think they know more than the women who were there when the act occurred.

I live in Philadelphia, where our home team, the Philadelphia Eagles, overcame great odds to win the SuperBowl this past February.   I fully expect the local news to run a report on or about October 29 about a spike in births they’ll describe as “SuperBowl Babies.” Other than that, only in literature is conception occasionally mentioned.  The character Fenchurch in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series was so named by her parents, readers are told, because she was conceived in the Fenchurch Street railway station ticket line.

We mail (or email) birth announcements.  The Annunciation holiday is unique in celebrating a conception announcement.  Delivered by an archangel, no less.

The Annunciation from a 13th Century Illuminated Manuscript; BL Lansdowne 420, f. 7; from the British Library Lansdowne Collection

Hail, Mary! hail, Mary!
Queen of grace, Mother of mercy;
Hail, Mary, in manner surpassing,
Fount of our health, source of our joy.

To thee we, night and day,
Erring children of Adam and Eve,
Lift our voice in supplication,
In groans and grief and tears.

Bestow upon us, thou Root of gladness,
Since thou art the cup of generous graces,
The faith of John, and Peter, and Paul,
With the wings of Ariel on the heights of the clouds.

Vouchsafe to us, thou golden branch,
A mansion in the Realm of peace,
Rest from the perils and stress of waves,
Beneath the shade of the fruit of thy womb, Jesu.

This poem comes to us from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Scottish oral traditions transcribed by Alexander Carmicael in the late 19th Century.  The opening line, from the Gospel of Luke, we’ve heard too many times to count; at first it seems like a lazy plagiarism of the classic prayer.  The poem starts weakly. To desire health and joy is commonplace, if vague.  Similarly, the second and third stanzas are mostly boilerplate folk-theology.  Old Testament and saintly references overflow Carmichael’s collection.  The third stanza grabs our attention with the appeal to Ariel.  (Most of us–myself included–only know of Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest; I had to research it.) This Ariel reference—a rare allusion for an Angel—suggests an intermingling of the oral tradition with the scholarly.  How odd!

The fourth stanza holds all the charm.  Abstractions are replaced with very real dangers. This is clearly one of Carmichael’s collections from the Scottish Isles. A coastal people would know the perils of waves.   It’s almost as if the poet had finished spouting Sunday School platitudes and could finally get down to his darkest fears—the Atlantic Ocean or the North Sea.

This prayer to be kept safe from the “stress of waves” also calls to mind a Celtic prayer common in the middle ages: “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord deliver us.”   Likewise, an anonymous poem from the 9th Century or so more ironically declares

“Bitter is the wind to-night

 It tosses the ocean’s white hair:

To-night I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway

Coursing on the Irish Sea” (Kuno Meyer, “The Viking Terror” in Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry).

This respect and fear for the waves is the anguish voiced by John Millington Synge’s play Riders To The Sea. His 1904 one-act play centers upon an Aran Island mother who has lost six sons to drowning. And even our own Navy Hymn has lyrics echoing the very term “peril.”  The Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father Strong To Save“) implores God to “hear us when we cry to Thee, / For those in peril on the sea.”  Some things haven’t changed. The 2016 Census of Fatal Occupational Industries lists Fishing as the second most dangerous job in America. (Only logging is more dangerous.)  It’s something to remember on our next seaside vacation.

The poem ends by returning to borrow from the classic Hail, Mary prayer. Jesus is recognized as the fruit of Mary’s womb.  The poet seizes the metaphor and runs with it. If Jesus is her fruit, he is also the tree—unexpected synecdoche—and Mary is his golden bough.  What the poet wants most is to be in the shade of Jesus, to be cooled and refreshed by His shadow.

The Annunciation is a Marian feast that really celebrates Jesus.

For fun, I’ve back-dated a due-date calendar to estimate the date of my conception. But I think I’ll stick with celebrating my birthday.  We mortals can celebrate birthdays.  Otherwise, let’s remember the conception of God.

The Annunciation from a 15th Century Book of Hours; illuminated manuscript; BL Harley 2952, f.126; from the British Library Harley Collection

Shamrocks and Four-Leaf Clovers

An Irish culture site I follow posted an infographic with a PSA to avoid confusing the Shamrock with a Four-Leaf Clover.

The same day I was reacquainting myself with faerie folklore and was reminded that the four-leaf clover offers protection against the fey.

I agree that theologically, we would do well to avoid confusing them. But culturally? As a symbol of Ireland? What could be more Irish than the fey? I’ll take all the protections against Themselves that I can get.

The Druids and ancient Irish were already a fan of triads and the number three before St. Patrick started preaching. According to legend, he explained the Trinity by holding up a small trefoil plant. St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a Lorica [protection] prayer attributed to him, begins by invoking the Trinity: “. . . believing in threeness, confessing the oneness of Creation’s Creator . . .”  In many pictures and icons of St. Patrick, he is holding a shamrock.

Technically, a shamrock is merely a small or young clover plant. The term comes from the Irish, seamróg, and even readers with as little Irish as I have may recognize óg as meaning young as in the expression Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth, more commonly known as Faerie. Fans of the movie The Quiet Man may also remember the character Michaeleen’Og, or little, young Michael; Michael Jr.  (The character is an older man in the movie, but we may presume his father was also named Michael.) Seamair is Irish for clover. Seam + og = seamróg, shamrock.

Botanical descriptions may or may not shed light.  The librarian in me wants to stick to the generally authoritative Encylopedia Britannica, although I wonder if it is reputable when speaking on matters pertaining to Éire. Clover (trifolium) apparently has round leaves. Wood sorrel (oxalis) has the distinctive heart-shape leaves we associate with the Irish shamrock. Britannica calls them both—and others—shamrocks.

Trifolium repens; white clover. By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Common wood sorrel; CCO; public domain via Pixabay

Wood sorrel, by the way, is edible. In the 16th century, English writers Edmund Spencer and Edmund Campion reported that the Irish were eating “shamrocks.” Wood sorrel tastes sour and is rich in Vitamin C., and can be used as a salad, tea, or herbal medicine to treat fever and other ailments.

Whatever its species, the three-leafed shamrock representing the Trinity is the one best associated with St. Patrick.

But let’s not rule out  four-leaf clovers.

I’ll stubbornly argue that four-leaf clovers may also be considered somewhat Irish because the Irish are considered lucky, and four-leaf clovers are rare; to find one is to be lucky.  (And if “everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” as the expression goes, then we can consider the four-leafed clover Irish on March 17 too.) Or perhaps, more to the point, one is lucky to escape an enchantment by faeries. Robert Hunt recorded in his 1865 Popular Romances of the West of England the story of a dairy cow befriended by faeries, and the milkmaid who came to see them one day by draping herself in a pile of grass in which a four-leaf clover was intermixed. A similar tale is told by Michael Aislabie Denham in his 1859 Denham Tracts, a Yorkshire folklore pamphlet. According to folklorist Katharine Briggs, four-leaf clovers dispel faerie glamour and break enchantments, which is why the above-mentioned milkmaid could see Themselves that day. An ointment made of four-leaf clovers will enable mortals to see the Good Neighbors – and keep one from being beguiled by them. While there are a few fey folk like the leprechaun who may grant boons to mortals, all the same, I’d just as soon stay clear of them.  I call that very lucky indeed.

CCO via Pixabay

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

 

 

 Resources, References, and Further Reading

Briggs, Katharine. An Encylopedia of Faeries, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, And Other Supernatural Creatures. N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1976. Print.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Shamrock.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. July 20, 1998. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.

MacConnell, Cormac. “Everything You Know About the St. Patrick’s Day Shamrock Is a Lie.”  Irish Central. March 16, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.

“Shamrock.” No author. Wikipedia. March 16, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.

“Wood Sorrel.” No author. Wild Edible. 2010-2018.  Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.

 

Evening Song of St. Patrick

To me, Winter is a time of rest and quiet reflection. The weather is cold (usually!) and we stay indoors. I joke that I am part bear.  In January, I hibernate; I refuse to leave the house if I don’t have to.

A sleep prayer is good for anytime of the year, but it seems all the more appropriate when the nights come early and last long.

Evening Song of St. Patrick from “Selections of Irish Poetry” translated by Kuno Meyer

 

May Thy holy angels, O Christ, son of living God,
Guard our sleep, our rest, our shining bed.

Let them reveal true visions to us in our sleep,
O high-prince of the universe, O great king of the mysteries!

May no demons, no ill, no calamity or terrifying dreams
Disturb our rest, our willing, prompt repose.

May our watch be holy, our work, our task,
Our sleep, our rest without let, without break.
 This poem is from Kuno Meyer’s Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry,  and the title he gives is “An Even Song” with the note: “Patrick sang this.” Just Patrick; Patrick is famous enough in all of Ireland to need no honorific.  Translater and editor Meyer notes that St. Patrick himself couldn’t have written this, not exactly, since this text dates from the 8th Century.  Literature has a long tradition of ascribing texts to more famous figures.

The first stanza begins by requesting the protection of the angels. The Celtic world was so mindful of the angels! Their poems and prayers are full of them.  And if my childhood home didn’t petition the angels per se, we still had a popular art print of a guardian angel guiding children beneath a shadowy, ominous, branchy tree. I’m reminded of an Orthodox prayer we say at various times, including night: “Encompass us with thy holy Angels, that guided and guarded by them, we may attain to the unity of the faith . . .”

As for the second stanza, I’ve a mind to never request true visions; certain gifts from God may be humbly accepted, but not importuned.  Still, I have a special fondness for Psalm 16:7: “I will bless the LORD who has counseled me; Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.”  Perhaps God comes to us at night because it is then when the noise of the day has ceased and we are finally able to truly listen.

And if the Celtic worldview was mindful of angels; it was likewise mindful of demons.  Like “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, a lorica prayer of protection which asks for shielding from many ills, including spells of wizards–one translation I have terms them ‘druids’!–this poem-prayer recognizes that demons also may visit our sleep.  I’ll tell you one thing: my bad dreams and nightmares decreased substantially–were practically eliminated–when I started saying prayers before bed, and even now when I awake from a bad dream, I think back to check if I had forgotten to pray before falling asleep.

“May our watch be holy.”  I think of the watchmen in Return of the King as popularized in the Peter Jackson movie. They watch, they wait. They light the signal fire to send a message, to request help, to warn of danger.
This Lord of the Rings segment in turn always reminds me of Bach’s Christmas cantata, 140, “Zion Hears the Watchmen Calling” [Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme].  Which is itself from the Matthew 25, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Indeed, the Midnight Office in the Orthodox Church includes hymns based on this gospel reading. We want to be wise and watchful, wide awake. Why? Because our watch and our work is holy.

I’m a bit prone to “the winter blues”–Seasonal Affective Disorder. As sleep refreshes us to continue our holy, watchful tasks, may the natural contemplation of the winter months rejuvenate us to continue our work when the sun returns to warm the earth. Meanwhile, keep taking your Vitamin D.

“The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” by Alexander Master,  ~1430, from the National Library of Netherlands. Public Domain

Fun Facts
For a discussion of the realism of Peter Jackson’s beacon-lighters, with quotations from the applicable text of Tolkien’s book, visit this Science Fiction and Fantasy Q & A page.

Wikipedia seems to give some pretty in-depth information about Bach’s Cantata 140.

 

Who Is the Stolen Child? [Book Review]

Fleeing America and on a quest of last resort, Brigid returns to the family home in Ireland, to her uncle’s cottage on a fictional St. Brigid’s Island one mile from the Aran Islands off of Ireland’s west coast. She comes seeking a miracle child, and a man — or even a womb — is not necessary if she can find the holy saint’s blessed, or magical, well. To the islanders and perhaps the author, the pagan goddess Brigid blends indistinguishably into the Christian saint.

“The Yank” Brigid has a gift, the same gift her mother had which drove her from the island all those years before: hands that heal. The gift comes with a price, and as she gives health and life to others, time and time again Brigid’s womb compensates by expelling the new life within her until she loses even that organ itself. St. Brigid’s hidden well is her one hope, but the islanders don’t reveal their secrets to outsiders.

Stalwart Emer, although born to the island,  is as much an outsider as Brigid; she is a woman with hands that give hurt, doubt, and despair. As a friendship and love between the two women develops, passion and need and desperation blur, fueled and intensified by their respective secrets. Both Emer and Brigid think Brigid’s hands can heal Emer, but some life-wounds are too immense for either magic or love to cure.

Like Yeats’ poem, which lends itself to the title, the magic of the fairies lives still on the island. Who is the titular Stolen Child? Is it all the children cast from Brigid’s womb? Is it Brigid’s mother, Nuala, who fled the island with Brigid inside her? As a child Emer hoped to be stolen by the faeries but as a mother, she lives in hawkish overprotective terror that her son Niall will be taken.

Author Lisa Carey seamlessly adds to the trove of faerie lore with an organic authority as great as Lady Wilde’s. At the same time as I inwardly accuse her of inventing folklore, I wonder if perhaps she only offers one or another fairy story I haven’t yet encountered.  I bristle because the tale of St. Brigid’s cloak expanding into a land grant for her abbey was transferred from the Curragh to the fictional island; in Carey’s world, there is no Kildare, no Church of the Oaks. Likewise, the Gaelic response to hello which I’ve learned, Dia is Muire duit — literally “God and Mary be with you [too]” — has been reinvented into “Brigid and Mary be with you.” I’m open to the possibility of regional differences and readerly suspension-of-disbelief, but I can’t help wondering: in what else has the author misled the reader? At least on the copyright page she acknowledges this artistic license to which I object. Still, Carey’s writing is so compelling and her weaving of folklore into village life is so adept that generations from now, people may very well point to the legends in this novel as authentic.

This is a powerful, intense, and haunting book.  Emer’s gift of pain and Brigid’s gift of healing are foils, and any accusations of witchcraft could equally apply to a fear of forbidden love. Carey offers the worst kind of horror, the horror of human frailties. Deep inside us, we all carry Emer’s pain. In her darkest hour,

                            “[Emer] stays alone . . . with no ability to break the ugliness

she has begun, and not enough courage to ask someone,

her son, her sister, her lover, to help pull her out from

underneath the terrible weight of herself” (296).

On the island, beside Brigid’s healing well, there is too a cursing stone.

Domestic horror as much as magical realism underpin this historical fiction about the resettling of islanders to the Irish mainland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Carey’s novel reminds us that fairies aren’t cute benign tinkerbells. The darkness of Emer’s childhood only expands as the novel progresses. The reader is briefly lulled by the quaint Celtic island culture, but we should have known better.  In the end, St. Brigid herself offers unexpected hope and redemption.  The Stolen Child is a beautiful, dark, disturbing tour-de-force. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Bonus material: I especially appreciate the “Author’s Picks: Favorite Books by Irish Authors” and web links on the islands Inisbofin and Inishark which the author provides at the end of her book.

 

Craft notes: Author Lisa Carey deftly handles point-of-view and the gradual revelation of backstory. This is an expertly crafted novel, and I look forward to reading more of this author.