contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Celtic Christianity

ST DAVID’S DAY 2022: A WALK IN THE PARK

It is 1 March, a mixed day – bringing together grey sky, bare branches, emerging blossoms and vivid daffodils. It is chilly, and rain is likely, though not just yet. Daffodils (here the strongest sign of a changing year) are linked to St. David, the patron saint of Wales. 1 March is his feast day.

David lived during the sixth century CE, a flourishing time for Celtic Christianity. His defining early achievement was the founding of a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn (the Vale of Roses) on the west headland of Pembrokeshire (Si Benfro) where St. David’s Cathedral now stands. He went on to become a Christian leader of great authority, and was eventually canonised in the twelfth century, a different historical period with the church under stronger Vatican control and Welsh identity under threat from the English. David became the patron saint of Wales and his day is celebrated in Wales with parades and other public events.

Gloucester is very much an English city, though not so very far from Wales. Today’s weather conditions would not be out of place there. My wife Elaine and I went out on a morning walk with a sense of the saint’s day and how both the day and the coming of March represent a shift in the year. I noticed, too, how I can honour a saint without thinking of sainthood as a model, or even remotely wanting to be one. I acknowledge that I am on different kind of path, less defined, less heroic, and less religious.

When out walking, I see how the ordinary world seems to transform in the light of a loving gaze. I am looking at the world as it is, not for signs of a creator’s hand or influence or expectations. For me, laid out below – at the micro level – I find grass, earth, twigs, purple crocus and dead leaves. They are simply themselves. All ordinary in an ordinary moment. But an ordinary moment, as we might conventionally call it, is an extraordinary event. It is a small miracle, in its naturalistic way, yet easy to access in a receptive frame of mind.

I do appreciate that a ‘receptive frame of mind’, as a private experience, is facilitated by favourable public conditions, like a well-managed public park. I may not be dependent on such external conditions, but they do make a difference. I am grateful for their current presence in an uncertain world.

BENDIGEIDFRAN (BRAN THE BLESSED)

Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed, is a legendary King of the Britons. He is best known to us through the medieval Welsh text The Second Branch of the Mabinogi (1). The primary theme is hope betrayed, most chillingly by Efnysien, Bran’s “brother on his mother’s side”. A marriage feast ends in a series of disasters. But this is not the whole story.

The marriage is between Bran’s sister Branwen and Matholwch the King of Ireland, intended to bring the two kingdoms together in peace and amity. But Efnysien mutilates the Irish party’s horses at the celebration hosted by Bran. It is among the worst things he could do.

In one savage, impulsive act, Efnysien opens the space for an outpouring of resentment, suspicion and hostility – eventually, from both the Irish and the British people. Bran’s efforts to resolve the situation through explanation, consultation and negotiation end in failure. The level of compensation and apology he offers is too much for the British and too little for the Irish. The time comes when Branwen is seriously abused in Ireland. The absolute breakdown of trust between the two countries leads to a bitter, brutal war.

After the war, Bran returns from Ireland with seven surviving companions, his only victory being that he has got them home. Ireland is completely devastated. Bran has been wounded in the foot by a poisoned spear, probably a mortal wound. Bran makes a radical decision, leading to a period of healing and renewal for his companions and a new protective role for his country. “Bendigeidfran ordered his head to be cut off. ‘And take my head’, he said, ‘and carry it to the Gwynfryn in London (the White Mount, now the Tower of London) and bury it with its face towards France. And it will take you a long time; you will feast in Harlech for seven years, with the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. And you will find the head to be as good company as it ever was when it was on me. And you will stay for eighty years in Gwales in Penfro. And so long as you do not open the door to Aber Henfelin, facing Cornwall, you can remain there, and the head will not decay. But as soon as you open that door you can stay no longer. Make for London and bury the head. And now set off across the sea”.

Bran has never been an average human. Too big “to fit inside any house”, he wades across the sea to Ireland “carrying all the stringed instruments on his back”. Later, he bridges the River Liffey by lying down across the river: “hurdles were placed on him, and his men walked on top of him to the other side”. Bran is more than a physical giant. There is something numinous and otherworldly about him, built into his name Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed.

The term ‘blessed’ points to something other than it would in the life of a Celtic saint. Caitlin & John Matthews call Bran the Blessed a “titanic god of the Celts … a god of earth and mountain” (2). R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson describe him as a “primal guardian deity” (3) enacting a role of sacred king traditionally concerned with music, poetry and bridging. In the narrative world of the The Second Branch, such roles are alluded to rather than fully described, but the world is full of magic and spiritually ambiguous, with formal religion little mentioned.

The decapitation of Bran is a magical act. It has two successive effects, both of them benign. The first is when the presence of the head enables an extended period of protected respite for Bran’s companions: the seven years when they feast and hear the birds of Rhiannon (4), and then eighty years as “the Assembly of the Noble Head”. During this time, they forget “all the sorrow they had themselves seen and suffered, [and] … any grief in the world”. Life is pleasurable and delightful and no one seems to age.

It has to end, for the story to continue. The western door is opened, by Heilyn son of Gwyn, driven by curiosity. Grief, loss and ageing return to the companions’ world. They hasten to London to complete their destined task. As long as the head remains buried, no enemy can conquer the kingdom. This is where The Second Branch story ends. Bran, through the agency of his buried head, is confirmed as enduring protector of the land.

There is a coda. It is said that King Arthur dug the head up in later days in the belief that no one but he should protect the country, and that subsequently the head was lost. In later days, the power of the head was transferred to the presence of resident ravens. Bran’s name means raven (also crow), which allows the ravens to take on his power. He is them. They are him. Ravens are kept in the Tower of London to this day, a practice insisted on by Charles II, concerned for the preservation of his country as a kingdom. During World War II the ravens fled after a bombing raid, and every effort was made to ensure that they were swiftly replaced. Seven ravens, the responsibility of Ravenmaster Chris Skaife, live in the Tower now. (5).

(1) The Mabinogion Oxford: the University Press, 2007. (Translated with an introduction by Sioned Davies)

(2) Caitlin & John Matthews The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition London: Arkana, 1985 (Foreword by Gareth Knight)

(3) R. J. Stewart & Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford/Cassell plc, 1996 (Colour illustrations by Chris Down)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/8/4/a-bird-of-rhiannon

(5) https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/whats-on/the-ravens

LANTERN BEARERS

“It may be that night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always grows again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.” (1)

I am contemplating the role of ‘lantern bearer’. The Lantern Bearers is the last book in a trilogy set in different periods when some people thought of themselves as both Roman and British. This makes for cultural complexity and a need to make conscious personal choices. Aquila, the main character, is a young officer in the last auxiliary cavalry cohort remaining in the province at the time of the final withdrawal*. The mission is to maintain the lighthouse at the decaying fortified port of Rutupiae (Richborough near Sandwich, Kent) to guide ships and demonstrate a continuing presence on the ‘Saxon Shore’. On being told that his unit is to leave, Aquila deserts and hides.

When night falls, he lights the beacon for one last time. Then he goes home to his family farm. His commitment is to them and the land. It is an old military family, originally from Tuscany, but his father forgives him saying that he would have done the same. They have little to connect them to fallen Rome and even less to distant Constantinople and the orient.

After a brief and beautiful family reunion, Aquila loses everything, as his farm is attacked and destroyed, his father killed, he and his sister taken captive. Then come three years of thraldom (slavery) in Jutland; return to his homeland when his owners migrate permanently; escape; a bitter discovery that his sister has become reconciled to a forced marriage with a one of the hated invaders following the birth of a son; a journey to join Ambrosius Aurelianus and his new resistance army, its heartland already far to the west, in the mountains of modern Wales. Aquila becomes militarily effective, while still traumatised and emotionally frozen. He too accepts a loveless arranged marriage with the daughter of a local warlord as part of Ambrosius’ plan to bring the ‘Roman’ and ‘Celtic’ sections of his coalition closer together.

Over time, and long years of war with peaceful intervals, Aquila begins a process of healing and increasing insight. The conversation about ‘lantern bearers’ comes at the end of the book, when Aquila and the army doctor Eugenus are talking during a victory celebration. The young Artos (presented here as a beloved hero, though not quite the Arthur of legend) has won a major battle. But it is obvious to both Eugenus and Aquila that the invaders will not be thrown back to the sea or even held back in their current territories for very long. The imbalance of population and forces is too great, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes themselves in flight from other invaders further to the east. Despite knowing this, the last Roman British will not give up. They will continue to do what they can. They will be lantern bearers, trusting in the possibility of a legacy, holding onto the hope that something of value may be carried on, even into a distant future that they cannot even imagine.

I read The Lantern Bearers when I was 11 or 12 and it made a strong impression on me. Even then I thought that the lantern bearing philosophy wouldn’t work for a nuclear war. But I thought that it might work for anything less drastic and immediate. Now we have the climate crisis, which is global and much more serious than the fall of the western Roman Empire. Military operations are no part of any just solution.

They are not the only solution even in The Lantern Bearers. Brother Ninnias is a refugee monk and bee-keeper, sole survivor of a monastic community in what is now the invaders’ territory. He isn’t the stuff of which the masterful saints of the Celtic Church are made – equally willing to become martyrs or princes of the Church as the faith appears to demand. Indeed Ninnias’ formal practice is much decayed, as he stays with a community of destitute refugees, one of them, a healing presence who helps out where he can. His occasional meetings with Aquila are a crucial part of the soldier’s psycho-spiritual recovery, because he listens and understands without judgement, also helping Aquila to save his ‘Saxon’ nephew from a massacre of fleeing wounded enemies, and then return him to his mother with a reconciling message. Brother Ninnias is not much interested in the wider context of history and culture. He scarcely seems interested in his religion, as a Religion. Rather, to use the deeper language of his tradition, he helps to open spaces where grace can come in, wherever the moment of opportunity arises. He is a lantern bearer too, though after another manner.

I can take on the notion of lantern bearing – bearing witness, choosing consciously how to live, taking appropriate action, favourably influencing events as far as lies in my power. It helps me to feel more resourceful. My recent reading of The Lantern Bearers has been a gift to me from my younger self, across sixty years of chequered history.

(1) Rosemary Sutcliff The Lantern Bearers Oxford: the University Press, 1959 (Third of a trilogy – the others are The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch).

*Sutcliff places this in the 440’s, a generation after after the departure of the legions.

Illustration: the Hermit card from Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004. Illustrated by Will Worthington.

NOTE AND SONG

I have continued to experiment with the forms of contemplative prayer and mantra work I use in connection to my Ceile De paidirean.  Having worked some time now with the heart prayer, I have started to engage with other expressions of this tradition. These are drawn from the wider range of Ceile De fuinn (chants).

My overall morning practice is customarily held within a circle cast in “the Sacred Grove of Sophia, the luminous spirit of wisdom”. I have found a fonn (chant) for my walking meditation that links back, for me, to her.  The words are:

Gun tigeadh solas nan solas air mo chridhe; gun tigeadh ais an spiorad air mo chridhe

Goon tee-guch solus nan solus air mo chree; goon tee-guch aysh an speer-utch air mo chridhe

Come light of lights to my heart; come wisdom of spirit to my heart

When I use this fonn (chant) in walking meditation, I use Sireadh Thall (Sheer-ich Hall) as a mantra, for periods of time, when sitting. It means “seek beyond” and according to the Ceile De, Sireadh Thall is “one of the many poetic names for the Great Goddess of the Gael, Brighide or Bridget”. She has sometimes been called the northern Sophia (as in Caitlin Matthews’ book, ‘Sophia’).  Sireadh Thall, as a divine name, gives me a sense of the Goddess pointing beyond herself to a place where names, forms and images of the divine dissolve.

Gun tigeadh solas nan solas air mo chridhe; gun tigeadh ais an spiorad air mo chridhe is the fifth fonn on the first Ceile De fonn CD.  Sireadh Thall is the tenth.  I find this latter especially moving.  For me it is presented here in a perfect weaving of voices.  There is no soloist, yet the loss of any one voice – each with its unique integrity – would diminish the piece.  So collectively this fonn gives voice to the Oran Mor, the great song of what is.

In working with different fuinn in this way, I can listen in to them, feel them, taste them – their resonance, their energy, and their inspiration. I get closer to finding my note within that song.

(Sireadh Thall can be accessed and downloaded on http://www.ceilede.co.uk/company/the-fonn.)

PAIDIREAN (PAHJ-URINN) II

I started wearing my Paidirean – the Ceile De prayer beads – for my morning practice on 19 December.  In the Ceile De Order they are used in conjunction with what in this tradition is called the Heart Prayer:

 A Thighearna … Solus an domhain … Chriost mo chridhe … dean trocair oirnn

 Ah hee-earn-ah … Solus on dowain … Chree-ost mo chree … Jaun trok-ir orn

O Lord … Light of the world … Christ my heart … show mercy/compassion/grace

I don’t follow the practice as prescribed, but I notice that I soon started saying this prayer aloud (having listened carefully to the Ceile De CD) when doing walking meditation – initially drawn in by the sound of the old language.  In walking meditation I am mindful to each footfall and so in working the Heart Prayer I have become mindful to each footfall and a syllable of the Heart Prayer as well (except of course when I am not).  As time has gone on I have increased the use of the prayer, sometimes said aloud, sometimes not.  I intersperse this with times of complete silence within as well as without to make the practice more spacious. Likewise in sitting meditation, essentially a plain breath meditation, I have introduced the key phrase “Chriost mo chridhe”, as an intermittent mantra within the practice.  These words in particular anchor in my sense that ‘Christ’ stands for an interior awakening rather than an external or historical being.

Why has this prayer become resonant to me?  I am reminded again of the summer of 2007.  At midsummer I went to Melrose and had the experiences I described in my previous blog post.  On a weekend late in July I was scheduled to go to a conference with my partner Elaine. The plan involved getting from Bristol, where I lived, to Stroud, where she lived.  But we were cut off from each other by floods: roads closed, railway in chaos.  So we both stayed put.  I was following the OBOD Ovate course at the time and decided to have a day of ritual derived from the course followed by a day of reflection and recovery.  The main result of all this, the one image that fully imprinted itself and which I took away, was that of a dove feather falling gently down beside me  It felt initiatic and it gave me my felt sense of connection with Sophia the Holy Wisdom.  It changed the course of my work.  My centre of gravity had shifted and I realised that I had quite a bit of work to do to make this breakthrough good.  How was I going to use the altered state of the ritual experience to create a more lasting change?  Although not fully recognized at the time, this was the beginning of my ‘contemplative’ turn.

Sophia brings a gnostic understanding to Christ consciousness, awakening the practitioner to a non-dual awareness where knower, known and knowledge, lover, love and beloved, are one.   Except that this last sentence is also a formula of sorts and formulas – even if authentic messages from those who have gone before us – are necessarily suspect.  This, at least, is what I take away from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas:

“Jesus said to his followers, ‘compare me to something and tell me what I am like. Simon Peter said to him, ‘you are like a just messenger’. Matthew said to him, ‘you are like a wise philosopher’. Thomas said to him, ‘Teacher my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like’. Jesus said, ‘I am not your TeacherBecause you have drunk, you have been intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have measured out.’  Two followers have personal and cultural presuppositions so strong that their availability for direct experience is compromised.  Only one is sufficiently open and unknowing to make the connection and the shift that goes with it.

Thich Nhat Hanh puts it another way.  “In Buddhist circles, we are careful to avoid getting stuck in concepts, even concepts like ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Buddha’.  If you think of the Buddha as someone separate from the rest of the world, you will never recognize a Buddha even if you see him on the street.  That is why one Zen Master said to his student, ‘When you meet the Buddha, kill him’.  He meant that the student should kill the Buddha-concept in order for him to experience the real Buddha directly.”  (From Living Buddha, Living Christ.)

Following my experience in late July 2007, I wrote a blackberry Lughnasadh verse for my wheel of the year tree poem.

 I am Blackberry

The bramble and the fruit and the wine

And the spirit.

Intoxication as from a bubbling spring,

Freely measured out.

It alluded to the words in St. Thomas and reflected my realization, such as it was. It was not particularly mature or fully integrated, but it did push me into seeking and developing a more rigorous and systematic personal practice.  My hope is that the new shift inspired by the paidirean will deepen and extend it.

PAIDIREAN (PAHJ-URINN)

The Paidirean are the prayer beads of the Ceile De.  Some believe that they have a Druid origin.  They have always been part of the Ceile De tradition are known to have been used in the days of Columcille (St. Columba).

I got mine from the Ceile De shop a little before Christmas.  There are 150 beads, each about 5 mm wide.  They are made of unstained rosewood and were left immersed in rose damask oil for a month.  As well as scenting the beads, the oil gives the beads a pinkish colour. An equal armed and circled silver cross hangs from the beads – at heart level when worn as a necklace.  This form of cross – Celtic, Gnostic and universal – is an ancient symbol, found in pre-Christian and Christian carvings, and sacred to many people from many cultures.

Each Paidirean is ceremonially strung in Scotland by a Ceile De Order member.  The process takes two hours and involves prayer, meditation and continuous chanting during the stringing.  Then a blessing is spoken over the completed Paidirean which is anointed with water and with oil from a local holy well, used for at least 1500 years.  Sister Fionn strung my Paidirean.  Many blessings to you, Sister Fionn, at the turning of the year.

The Paidirean is an object of power as well as beauty.  I wear it as a necklace when practicing, as well as an OBOD Awen necklace which ends just below the throat.  Wearing the two feels like a kind of completion, and I am reminded of a visit I made to Scotland at Midsummer 2007.  I was in Melrose in the Scottish border region, an area with strong family connections. And I seemed to be in business with three locations.  One was the semi-ruined Abbey, and in particular its orchard and garden.  One was the Eildon Hills, looming up into low clouds.  One was a path by the River Tweed.

I was wondering where I felt most spiritually attuned and where I wanted to spend most of my time.  In its gardens the Abbey felt like a place of peace and tradition, though clearly also compromised by conflicts between nations and orthodoxies. The hollow hills of Thomas the Rhymer fame held challenge, glamour – the heroic spirituality of the vision quest in its local form.  But I turned to the river, and had a small epiphany whilst contemplating a wild rose on the riverbanks.  And I later wrote this verse, which became part of a longer poem.

I am Rose.  I am wild Rose.

I am Rose at Midsummer.

The river flows by me.

Fragile, I shiver in the wind.

And I am the heart’s core, mover of mountains.

In a sense, that experience, and the verse that recorded it, established the direction for my subsequent spiritual life and practice.  The Paidirean sets the seal on it.

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