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THE IRISH CELLS ON ST BRENDAN’S ISLE

There is something unique about St Brendan’s island, something I find very difficult to put into words, because I have no term of comparison. These Celtic Pilgrimages are filled with places of such spiritual strength that they can be overwhelming. About Iona, there is a saying that no pilgrim will ever come here just once. You will always return because you need to hear once more the things you’ve heard in your heart the first time. This is true of all the isles; in some ways, it is even stronger on the smaller, more secluded ones, precisely because of their very remoteness and silence.

Let me tell you a secret. Of all the amazing places we see during our pilgrimages, my heart aches for four in particular: St Brendan’s beehive cell; the hermit caves on St Kenneth’s Isle; St Columba’s Bay on Iona; and the Nuns’s Cave on Mull. It is revealing to me, as the leader of these pilgrimages, that people tend to wander alone here. After we pray together, each of us instinctively looks for solitude to pray alone. It is as if we all answer a personal silent call from the cliffs, the hills or the coast of the ocean.

There is something deeply unsettling about these sites, something that immediately throws you out of your spiritual comfort zone. The things we learn to avoid, the aspects of our faith we gradually learn to ignore somehow become the essential, central themes here. These are un compromising places, dangerous places for anyone except uncompromising characters of dangerous, uncompromising faith. I hope to tell you about all these places over time, but let’s start with few words about St Brendan’s cell.

The ‘data’ concerning the cell is itself impressive beyond belief. Dating back to the very early 500s, it is stunningly well-preserved. Fifteen centuries later, its unmistakably Irish character is perfectly obvious, building a direct link with St Brendan’s first monastic community. All the original monastics were Irish, and they built their first cells as they did in their own country. The beehive cell on St Brendan’s are identical with those you find on the Skellig Islands, for instance.

What makes this cell even more remarkable is that it is an extremely rare example of a double beehive cell. From what I know – please tell me if this is not true – the cell on St Brendan’s is the only example of a double beehive cell in Scotland. We don’t really know why the Christian Celts built these double cells, just as we don’t know why they are so rare. The most likely explanation is that they were intended for the use of the Abbot of the monastery, who would have needed the second space to hear the brothers’ confessions and to offer them private guidance.

It is a unique experience to kneel in this cell and to pray for St Brendan’s guidance. Just kneel down and ask him to accept you as one of his community, and to cover you with his protection after your return home; just ask for the unspeakable, ask with boldness, ask with the positive desperation of the one who feels lost but refuses to give up the fight. Hope against hope. ‘Christ beside me, Christ within me.’ – these words come from the heart of a tradition that knew this feeling very well.

Come with us. Come pray with us. Come and say these words here, in St Brendan’s cell.View to St Brendan's CellThe Cell on the Coast of the oceanBeehive Cell on St Brendan's IslePraying in St Brendan's CellLooking our from St Brendan's CellDouble Irish Beehive Cell

“We will rise in the brightness of the sun”:  Patrick and hope at the edge of the world

If I have ever imitated anything good for the sake of my God whom I love, I ask that he grant me to be able to shed my blood with these converts and captives – even were I to lack a grave for burial, or my dead body were to be miserably torn apart limb from limb by dogs or wild beasts, or were the birds of heaven to devour it.  

I declare with certainty that if this were to happen, I would have gained both my soul and my body. There is no doubt whatever that we will rise on the appointed day in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ Jesus our redeemer.  We shall be like children of the living God and co-heirs of Christ.  We are children of God and heirs also: heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ and to be fashioned in his image, since it is from him and through him and in him that we are to reign. 

The sun which we see rising for us each day at his command, that sun will never reign nor will its splendour continue forever; and all those who adore that sun will come to a bad, miserable penalty.  We, however, believe in and adore the true sun, that is, Christ, who will never perish.  Nor will they perish who do his will but they will abide forever just as Christ will abide.

The world is passing away; but the one who does the will of God abides forever. He lives with God the Father almighty and with the Holy Spirit before the ages began, and now, and for all the ages of ages. Amen.

Patrick’s Confessio 59-60.

An Image of the Ground of All Being…

I Arise Today 

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me…
From all who shall wish me ill,
Afar and are near,
Alone and in multitude…. 

Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ to shield me.

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

I arise today

About St. Patrick:

Patrick was brought to Ireland as a slave, from one of many raids organised by Niall of the Seven Hostages (an Irish King).  There is no shortage of places that claim to have been Patrick’s birthplace, including the region of the Clyde, and from Carlisle on the Solway.  It is claimed he was the son of a priest (married priests were not unusual in the Celtic church).

After several years as a slave Patrick left Ireland for Gaul, embarking at Marseilles. From there he travelled to Tours, spending several years at learning before going on to return to Britain. He did not return to Ireland at this time, departing instead for further learning at Lérins. He was not the first to be sent to Ireland. The Annals of Ulster record that one Palladius receded him. Patrick went the following year, to find that Palladius was dead.

He was greeted by a local chief, who despatched his hound at Patrick. The hound was, naturally, converted. More effective was that Patrick spoke gaelic and could be easily understood. In next to no time the chief had donated a barn to become Patrick’s first church. He set off north, to pay the ransom needed to free himself from slavery to Milchu. Milchu shut himself up in house and is alleged to have burned it to the ground, pagan to the end. The following Spring he had arrived at Tara. Here he lit a bonfire when the king lit his fire to celebrate Spring. A confrontation was inevitable, the kings chariots blown around by Patrick’s voice. A contest of miracles followed, Patrick once more the winner.

A more interesting tale is his explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity to the High King and the druids. He is said to have plucked a shamrock leaf to show the idea of god the father, son, and holy spirit. Since Patrick had been a slave for some years he almost certainly had a good command of the language. The king gave in and Patrick was allowed to preach throughout Ireland. This he did with effect, but not without some discontent within his own ranks. The Irish church was under the leadership of that in Gaul and Secundius was sent as bishop to succeed Patrick. He was later reinstated, almost certainly by orders from Rome.

three-holy-children-in-the-furnace

Today is All Saint’s Day and I am posting these songs from Shaped Note resources to mark the day.  Yesterday I posted a writing of
Mary Earle who expresses so well the experience of the Celts in their understanding of the near presence of our ancestors and the heavenly dominion.

Many of the early settlers in America drew from this same wellspring and thus their music entoned their beliefs that we are on earth but for a moment in preparation for the time be spent in eternity in bliss.

THE HEBREW CHILDREN

B. F. White 

Where are the Hebrew children?
Safe in the promised land.
Tho’ the furnace flamed around them,
God, while in their troubles, found them,
He with love and mercy bound them,
Safe in the promised land.

Where are the twelve apostles?
Safe in the promised land.
They went up through pain and sighing,
Scoffing, scourging, crucifying,
Nobly for their Master dying,
Safe in the promised land.

Where are the holy martyrs?
Safe in the promised land.
They went up through flaming fire,
Trusting in their great Messiah,
Who by grace will raise them higher,
Safe in the promised land.

Where are the holy Christians?
Safe in the promised land.
Those who’ve wash’d their robes, and made them
White and spotless pure, and laid them
Where no earthly stain can fade them,
Safe in the promised land.

PARADISE

C. M

There is a land of pure delight,
Where saints immortal reign;
Infinite day excludes the night,
And pleasures banish pain,
And pleasures banish pain. 

There everlasting spring abides,
And never-withering flowers;
Death, like a narrow sea, divides
This heavenly land from ours.

Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood
Stand dress’d in living green;
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan roll’d between.

But timorous mortals start and shrink,
To cross this narrow sea;
And linger, shivering, on the brink,
And fear to launch away.

Oh! could we make our doubts remove,
Those gloomy doubts that rise,
And see the Canaan that we love
With unbeclouded eyes!

Could we but climb where Moses stood,
And view the landscape o’er,
Not Jordan’s stream nor death’s cold flood
Should fright us from the shore.

SOLITUDE IN THE GROVE

C. M.

Oh, were I like a feather’d dove,
And innocence had wings,
I’d fly and make a long remove
From all these restless things.
Let me to some wild desert go,
And find a peaceful home,
Where storms of malice never blow,
And sorrows never come.

EVENING SHADE

S. M. Baptist Harmony, p. 373.

The day is past and gone,
The evening shades appear;
O may we all remember well,
O may we all remember well,

The night of death is near.
We lay our garments by,
Upon our beds to rest;
So death will soon disrobe us all
Of what we here possess.

Lord, keep us safe this night,
Secure from all our fears:
May angels guard us while we sleep,
Till morning light appears.

And when we early rise,
And view th’ unwearied sun,
May we set out to win the prize,
And after glory run.

And when our days are past,
And we from time remove,
O may we in thy bosom rest,
The bosom of thy love.

And here from another tradition comes the story of how we mortals are given heavenly inspiration of music:

Hymn to St. Cecilia 

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Text: W.H. Auden (1907-1973) 

I.

In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.
 

Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea;
At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing
Came out of their trance into time again,
And around the wicked in Hell’s abysses
The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

II.

I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.
I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.
I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
By suffering.
All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.
I shall never be Different. Love me.
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
 

III.

O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,
O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,
Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all
The gaucheness of her adolescent state,
Where Hope within the altogether strange
From every outworn image is released,
And Dread born whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of truths that never change:
Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange.
O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.
O cry created as the bow of sin Is drawn across our trembling violin.
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain.
O law drummed out by hearts against the still
Long winter of our intellectual will.
That what has been may never be again.
O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath
Of convalescents on the shores of death.
O bless the freedom that you never chose.
O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.
O wear your tribulation like a rose.
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

And from that same tradition comes an ode describing music’s sacred place in the heavenly sphere:

Ode to St. Cecilia

W. H. Auden

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
‘Arise, ye more than dead!’

Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:

From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

When Jubal struck the chorded shell,
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound:

Less than a God they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell,
That spoke so sweetly, and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?….

But O, what art can teach,
What human voice can reach,
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,

Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.
Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place,

Sequacious of the lyre;
But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d

Mistaking Earth for Heaven.
Grand Chorus.
As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,

And sung the great Creator’s praise
To all the Blest above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,

The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky!

stceciliaraphael45

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I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory