Saturday, 27 October 2012
IRISH SPIRITUALITY pt1. By Diarmuid O Laoghaire„ S. J.
REPRINTED FROM "The Furrow"
SOME time ago we were honoured in this country by the visit of the well-known French author and historian M. Daniel-Rops.
Among other wise comments on Ireland he said: "I have been greatly interested by the efforts to revive the Irish language. I see it as a return to the culture in which the Irish Faith was rooted. Material progress is important I have seen your industries—but in a world haunted by 'progress,' it is also important for a nation to preserve and draw strength from what is best in its past." That is an attitude stressed repeatedly also by the present Pope. It is the attitude, not of a cosmopolitan, but of a European and more than a European, a Christian. It is not lacking in Ireland, thank God, but to have it brought forward in our midst by a man of the standing and sanity of M. Daniel-Rops is an encouragement to those who believe that it is vital even for Ireland's material well-being to steady and strengthen herself at her spiritual sources which are at once Irish and European in the fullest Christian sense.
In this short essay I intend to draw attention to some facets of our traditional Irish spirituality. There is an urgent need that every Irishman, whether at home or abroad, should have some knowledge and appreciation of that which is surely the best in our past, the traditional temper of our spirituality. From that best we can draw strength to face any future.
The liturgical life of the Church and the whole plan of our salvation cannot be understood apart from what we call the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ. We know that where realisation of that doctrine waned, Christian life in society and in the individual also waned and disaster followed. We should expect then that in such a fervent and liturgically-minded community as the Irish Church that doctrine would be central, and indeed it is. We shall quote some examples almost at random.
If we go back to the famous glosses of the seventh or eighth centuries on the Epistles of St. Paul, now preserved in Wiirzburg, we will be struck by the number of times the glossators use the expressions "in oentid coirp Crist" and "in Mug coirp Crist"—in the union of Christ's Body, meaning of course His Mystical Body. It is to be noted, too, that although the chief source of these glosses is the commentary of Pelagius on the Epistles, the glosses I will quote are not from Pelagius. Here then are a few typical extracts (I give the Scripture text and the Irish of the glosses in English translation):
The Mystical Body of Christ
Rom. 6,11. Do you reckon that you are dead to sin, but alive unto God in Christ Jesus.
Gloss: Be ye ever-living in Jesus Christ, because ye are members of His, quia ipse est semper.
Rom. 12,5. So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
Gloss: We are a body to Christ and He is a head to us.
I Cor. 1,9. You are called to the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Gloss: In unity of Christ's Body, ut sitis filii Dei et vos..
Eph. 1,22-23. He . . . hath made Him head over all the Church which is His Body.
Gloss: Sancti et iusti, they are a body to Him: (it is) Christus who is the head, the saints who are the body.
Eph. 5,1. Be ye therefore followers of God as most dear children.
Gloss: Since ye are members of Christ and ye are a body to Him.
Phil. 1,1. Paul and Timothy, the servants of Jesus Christ: to all the saints in Christ Jesus.
Gloss: In the unity of Christ's Body (interesting, as that is the general meaning of "in Christ Jesus" in St. Paul's writings).
Col. 3,10. Putting on the new, him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of Him who created him. did completeness come to the Church.
In the treatise on the Mass from the eighth or ninth century Tallaght Missal we are told that the altar is a "figure of the persecution of the Christians, wherein they bear tribulation in union with the Body of Christ" ("in ellach Cuirp Crist," as in the glosses). If we come down now to a later age, the fourteenth century, when the great Leabhar Breac was put together, we find throughout the Passions and Homilies edited by Atkinson from that book, the same sense of community in the Body of Christ. In the homily on the Lord's Supper we read once more the familiar words: For the wine signifies Christ, as He Himself says in the Gospel, "I am the true vine." What the water signifies, however, is the congregation of the believers who are accounted a body to Christ, as St. John affirms in the Apocalypse, when he says (17,15), "The many waters which were shown to me are the many peoples today in the New Testament" [Note here a gloss on St. John's words]. For it is fitting that the assembly of the believers remain always in Christ. That is why during the Sacrifice he will put wine and water into the mass-chalice.
In the same homily we have the following beautiful passage: In three ways do the holy commentators understand the Body of Christ: the first Body is the humanity born from the Virgin Mary without loss to her virginity; the second Body is the holy Church, that is, the perfect assembly of all the believers whose head is the Saviour, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God; the third Body is the holy Scripture, in which is set forth the mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ.
The Influence of the Monastery
In any study of Irish spirituality and especially of the spirituality of the ancient Irish Church it is essential to take into account monastic practice. In the early Irish Church the spiritual life of monk and layman was of a common weaving. It is well known that the Irish took to the monastic life with enthusiasm from the beginning. It appears that generally the monastic and the parish church were identical. It was not surprising then that the faithful should imitate the devotions of the monks. We are familiar even today with the like. Wherever you have a church of one of the Orders, there you will have a large number of the laity who have attached themselves to the Order, by becoming members, for instance, of the Third Order, or by taking a special part in the devotions and good works of the Order.
Significant of the close relations of the ancient Irish laity with the monastery is the common word for a people or community, muintir, which derives, according to the great Thurneysen, from the Latin monasterium.
Naturally, the chief duty of the monks in their church was liturgical, the proper celebration of Mass and the Divine Office, and we know from the detailed prescriptions for these ceremonies, especially for Mass, that they were exactly carried out. Negligence would be severely punished. Apart from these major ceremonies it is unlikely that the faithful would be found all gathered together in the church. I do not intend to describe in detail the Mass or the part the people took in it. They did indeed, as did the ancient Christians in general, take a greater part in it than we do—at least externally—today. Of course when we remember how intensely Latin was cultivated in those days, we may be sure that a great part of the laity could understand the language and follow more easily the liturgy. The churches, even the largest of them, would not have been as big as so many of our immense modern ones, where the altar is distant from most of the congregation. From the number of small stone oratories still standing from ancient days we can see how small those centres of the Mass really were. The people would thus have a much better chance of seeing and hearing the ceremonies and of taking an active part in them.
When we consider the division of ancient Ireland into its eighty or more small tuatha or states, we can appreciate how closely the people of each state would be bound with their bishop or priests. They were so many close communities, but yet with a consciousness, as we have seen, of forming part of the greater community of the Church or Body of Christ. As with us on Good Friday, it was customary to offer prayers at Mass for the different classes in the Church. These prayers were said perhaps after the sermon, as was the custom in every liturgy except the Roman. We are told in the medieval satire, The Vision of Mac Conglinne, that Mac Conglinne, the wandering and satirising scholar, gave a sermon in the morning in the presence of the King of Munster and the monks of Cork and when the sermon was ended, prayers were offered for the King, that he might have length of life and that there might be prosperity in Munster during his reign. Prayers were also offered up for the lands and the tribes and for the province as well, as is usual after a sermon. In the Rule of Mochuda we have another instance of that community-consciousness:
Masses for Christians and for all those in orders, Mass for those in distress from the least to the greatest.
We are told in one of the lives of St. Brigid that, although in Ireland, she heard and beheld Masses celebrated in the city of Rome and at the tombs of the apostles, SS. Peter and Paul. . . . Daily do I experience a great joy of spirit while I hear through divine inspiration holy songs and spiritual canticles and the strains of heavenly organs. I am also able to hear every day those Sacred Masses which are offered to the Almighty in different parts of the world, as if I were present at their celebration.
All I have said or quoted so far merely goes to exemplify and confirm what Father Donnchadh O Floinn has so well said in his essay, The Integral Irish Tradition:
The Irish Church had a deep sense of communion with the Body of Christ at prayer: I mean that it had a congregational quality of worship. Yet I am not using the word liturgical to describe it, because that might be taken as meaning that it had developed forms of worship that were precise and concise and scrupulous in adhering to received forms.
The unknown homilist of the Leabhar Breac has given us the supreme moment of union in prayer and sacrifice:
What believer doubts that at the raising of his voice by the priest at the sacrifice, heaven opens and the choirs of angels come down there and the heavenly and earthly Church are joined and united ?
As in every other Christian country, the Mass gave rise to certain idioms that found their way into everyday speech. We have a striking one which shows us how great a place the Mass had in the life of the people. This is an excerpt from the seventh Chapter in the Book of Kells:
Gilla Crist mac Manchan bought from the sons of Beollan the land on thy gospel-hand going down towards Ath Catain or on thy blessing-hand up from the ford.
The gospel-hand was the left hand, because during Mass the missal is changed to the left side of the altar and there the gospel is sung or read. The gospel side long ago used to be in the north of the church, so that the gospel could be announced towards the north, in the direction of those peoples that were still in the shadow of paganism, for in former times the north stood for cold and evil and was therefore regarded as being in the power of the devil. It is clear that the right hand was the hand of blessing, the Church following the Jewish custom.
We may now turn to another object of great veneration among our ancestors, namely the official and community prayer cf the Church, the Psalter. Throughout Christendom this used to be the first reading book of the child. In the life of Colman mac Luaehain we are told that four sons were born to Luachan and those children were baptised by four pious priests . . . and at the end of a month were confirmed and at the end of seven years were taken to spiritual directors, and with them they read their psalms and hymns and all the order of the Church.
It is told of St. Ciaran of Clonmacnois that he used, as a child, to read his psalms with St. Diarmaid. The psalms were for long the spiritual food of the individual and the faithful as a body in Europe. The Irish had a vast respect for them and for David who composed most of them. We still possess some of their ancient commentaries on them; David himself is represented on many ancient stones and crosses throughout the country, usually with his lyre in hand. 'The number of the psalms-150—was much honoured, "na tri caogaid," the three fifties, as they used to say—"three fifties of warriors," "three fifties of praises" and so forth. We know that Mary's Psalter (i.e. the Rosary) was modelled on the Psalter itself, the three fifties of Aves for the faithful who could not, whether through lack of Latin or time, sing or recite the Psalter. In the year 1580 a visitor to Ireland, possibly a Spanish or Italian cleric, noted some customs that he found strange. He wrote in Latin. "At the Our Father during the Mass they rise and listen to it standing," he said of the Irish. When the Our Father is sung during the Office it is customary to stand, and I suppose that gave rise to that fine custom during Mass. I do not know how old the custom was. We are told that the ancient Irish used to stand during the whole of Mass, except for the Consecration.
That same visitor mentions another custom of considerable interest: "At midnight they rise for prayer and meditation, to which some give a full hour, others half an hour." And he adds the homely detail, "and at the same hour they always light the fire." It will be admitted that this practice is no small sign of fervour of faith. Lest, however, one might consider such testimony as an exaggeration or that our good visitor had his leg pulled by some serious-faced Irishman, we have other evidence to show that such a custom was in vogue among ordinary Irish people in the sixteenth century. In the year 1645 was published Parrthas an Anma, a book of catechetical instruction and devotion, and incidentally a book greatly prized in that and the following dark centuries, as the number of manuscript copies of it still extant testify. The author was Antoin Gearnon, O.F.M. We quote here in translation most of the eighth chapter :
Q. What should the Christian do at midnight?
A. He should perform matins and say the canonical hours or the Hours of Mary or the Crown of Jesus or the Rosary or the Litanies of Jesus, Mary or the saints or any prayer that God intimates to him, according to his disposition, and pray for the souls in purgatory; in addition he should spend some time thinking on the Passion of Christ, on his last end and on the souls in hell and in purgatory who sleep not, but are being burned in unquenchable fires.
Let him consider likewise that the angels and saints in heaven are not sleeping, but are for ever praising God, and let him imitate them especially at that time; for there is no better time for prayer than that, since the mind is then quiet and at rest and free from worldly care and trouble.
Q. Is there any other reason besides that for making these prayers at midnight rather than at any other time?
A. Yes: firstly, because at that hour Christ was born and also, according to some of the holy fathers, will come to judgment.
As well as that, in the Old Testament it was customary to pray at that time, whence the Psalmist and King, David, says that although many things demanded his attention: Media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi. Ps. 118—I rose at midnight to give praise to thee. Christ our Lord taught the same thing in the New Testament, as we find in St. Luke the Evangelist in the 6th c. Erat Iesus pernoctans in oratione Dei i.e. Jesus spent the night in prayer; and most of the saints of the Church imitated Him in this matter.
This fine custom is still kept up as a rule by the religious Orders and by other holy people. It is not long since the same holy practice was common throughout Ireland among all sorts of people who loved God and had a care for the health of their souls.
We have even earlier evidence that the laity in Ireland were given to this holy practice. The following extract from one of 150 poems attributed to Colmcille in the fifteenth century ms. Laud 615 is clearly advice for lay-people:
Go to matins, we have great need of it; you know not but that before prime comes the King may bring you to death.
Attend Sunday Mass,
great is our awe of it;
you know not whether before Monday comes the grave will not be your bed.
The bed in which you are with your fair loving wife, not more likely your rising than your being dead tomorrow.
In a poem by Tadhg óg o huiginn written in the fifteenth century we read:
I am slow to rise in time for matins; pardon me this, setting against it every cold night he (Dominic) rose.
Going still further back, to the great religious poet of the thirteenth century, Donnchadh Mor O Dalaigh, we read:
Neglect not prayer-time thro' love of sleep or pleasure; the greater thy merit in rising if matin time be cold.
and in another poem of his am lazy to rise for matins, nodding and sleeping; weaken devil's bond on me; relieve me of the misery of my sleep.
Of course, as happens with the holiest of devotions, there is a tendency to exaggerate the virtue of this practice, as we may read in these two marginal quatrains from the Leahhar Breac:
Altho' you do constantly much evil, much of injustice and imperfection,
you will receive forgiveness of the Son of God provided you do matins.
There is none of you, either old or young, either pilgrim or pure,
who will look on the face of the Son of God unless you do matins.
I do not think that we can doubt that matins was a common devotional practice in Ireland "among all sorts of people who loved God and had a care for the health of their souls," not only in medieval times, but even in the early days of the Faith here. We know that the custom prevailed from the earliest times in the Church. The ancient Christians called it Vigilia, the Vigil. They were filled with the idea of Our Lord's second coming, the Parousia, which they believed would take place at midnight. Early on Sunday too, Our Lord rose from the dead. Therefore, before the Mass of Easter Day and the other Sundays of the year the faithful were wont to watch and pray during the previous night. Should not the restored Easter Vigil find a deep echo in the Irish heart? Evidently at the time of that visitor of 1580 matins for lay-people were so unique as to call for comment from one who must have had a fair acquaintance with the Faith in Europe. The devotion appears to have been a community one and undoubtedly, pace our visitor and Antoin Gearnon, there was also private prayer and meditation. We can safely say that this is an outstanding instance of monastic influence on the spiritual life of the Irish faithful. In modern Ireland a communal Vigil is still observed, most fittingly, on Cruach Phadraig and at Loch Dearg. There are undoubtedly many generous souls who would add "Amen" to Antoin Gearnon's plea:
We pray everyone who has the love of God in his heart and a like care for his soul's health, not to give up this good custom through laziness or comfort, but to do matins with diligence, after the example of Christ and the saints, and to beg God with fervour to give grace to himself and to his neighbour in this life, and life everlasting in the next.
There was another devotion very much esteemed and practised by our ancestors, namely, private and communal prayer for the Church suffering in purgatory. We find very often in the old books reference to the "ecndairc," that is, requiem or intercession for the dead, whether by the Mass or prayers. The 13th rule of St. Colmcille demands of the monk, "diligence in the performing of intercession, as if every dead Christian was a particular friend of yours." In this connection the old Irish were much given to the long psalm 118, to which they gave the name, "Biait", from the opening word, "Beati." "The Biait is the best prayer there is." "Better than every prayer is the Biait to save the soul from demons." An amusing story is told in the Book of Lismore (15th century) about the power of this psalm:
Mael Poil Ua Cinaetha, the abbot of the monastery of Cill Beagain had been discussing astrology with another monk. Afterwards in his sleep he saw coming towards him a gospel-nun [i.e. apparently, a nun under the guidance of a spiritual director or soul-friend] who had died six months before. She raised a great complaint. "How are things there, woman?" he said. "Much you care," said she, "discussing astrology and not saying my requiem (`ecndairc'). Woe to you," she said. "What requiem do you want from me, woman?" he said. "The Biait, of course," said she, "the Biait after the Biait, the Biait on the Biait, the Biait beneath (or above) the Biait," said she, all in one breath, demanding that the Biait be recited often for her. So that there is no requiem, except the Mass for the dead, that is held in greater honour by God than the Biait, as was said:
The best of wealth on earth and that a man give it up for his soul's sake, yet is God more grateful to him for the continual recital of the Biait.
We know too of another ancient custom concerning the dead. It is related in the life of Colman mac Luachain (a life, by the way, by no means trustworthy, but full of valuable information about religious and other matters in pre-Norman Ireland) that "after Mass a round was made of the graveyard." The custom is mentioned elsewhere also—an individual or a number "making the round of the graveyard on Sunday." Doubtless in procession such prayers as the Biait would be recited.