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

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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.

 

The Storm Has Spread Over All

Snow_blizzard

Cold, cold!

Cold to-night is broad Moylurg

Higher the snow than the mountain-range,

The deer cannot get at their food.

 

Cold till Doom!

The storm has spread over all:

A river is each furrow upon the slope,

Each ford a full pool.

 

A great tidal sea is each loch,

A full loch is each pool:

Horses cannot get over the ford of Ross,

No more can two feet get there.

 

The fish of Ireland are a-roaming,

There is no strand which the wave does not pound,

Not a town there is in the land,

Not a bell is heard, no crane talks.

 

The wolves of Cuan-wood get

Neither rest nor sleep in their lair,

The little wren cannot find

Shelter in her nest on the slope of Lon.

 

Keen wind and cold ice

Has burst upon the little company of birds,

The blackbird cannot get a lee to her liking,

Shelter for its side in Cuan-wood.

 

Cozy our pot on its hook,

Crazy the hut on the slope of Lon:

The snow has crushed the wood here,

Toilsome to climb up Ben-bo.

 

Glenn Rye’s ancient bird

From the bitter wind gets grief;

Great her misery and her pain,

The ice will get into her mouth.

 

From flock and from down to rise—

Take it to heart!—were folly for thee:

Ice in heaps on every ford—

That is why I say ‘cold’!

 

Source: Meyer, Kuno, trans. Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry. London, 1911. p. 57. In the Public Domain.

 

Cold till Doom!

With the first cold snap in the Northeast, many of us are whimpering like babies. The Midwest has seen a sizable snowstorm, and there has been record-breaking weather, including ferocious winds, throughout England and Northern Ireland. I offer, in honor of the weather, a traditional Irish poem:

 A Cold Night

–attributed to MacLesc of Finn’s household

Translated by Kuno Meyer

Cold till Doom!

The storm is greater than ever;

Each shining furrow is a river,

And a full lake each ford.

 

Big as a great sea is each angry lake,

Each keen thin company a host,

When big as the face of a shield each drop of rain,

Big as a white wether’s* skin each flake.

 

Big as a pit each puddle,

A standing-stone each level, a wood each moor;

No shelter finds the flocks of birds,

White snow reaches right up to the breech.

 

Swift frost has bound the roads

After a sharp struggle round Colt’s standing stone;

The storm has spread on all sides,

So that none say aught but “Cold!”

 *wether = a castrated male sheep

 Collected in:

O’Faolain, Sean. The Silver Branch: A Collection of the Best Old Irish Lyrics, Variously Translated. Freeport, NY: Books For Libraries/Viking Press (Granger Index Reprint Series), 1938, 1968.

 This work was originally published in Kuno Meyer’s 1903 Four Old-Irish Songs of Summer and Winter. Works published prior to 1923 are in the Public Domain. If you are the copyright holder and believe that I am in error, please contact me.