Monday, 29 October 2012
IRISH SPIRITUALITY pt.2 By Diarmuid O Laoghaire„ S. J.
REPRINTED FROM "The Furrow"
Another type of liturgical and community prayer always beloved of Christians was the litany. The Irish too were greatly attached to this form of prayer. It seems to be (or to have been) a characteristic of the Irishman that he likes completeness and dislikes leaving gaps. That accounts for much of what is tedious in our literature. The writer or poet is not content to leave things to our imagination or sense of logic, but must describe or enumerate in detail things that needed but to be mentioned. That defect destroys form and balance in writing. In the best (and it is a big best) of our literature there is a notable discipline and economy of word and description. It is, I think, because of this passion for completeness (study some of those magnificent, crowded pages of the Book of Kells!) that the Irish took to the litany and composed such wonderful litanies themselves. Naturally too the litany is a form of prayer in itself soothing to soul and mind and capable of inspiring a Christian. Certainly no prayer apart from the Mass prayers emphasises more the solidarity of the Church. None of our native litanies are more marvellous than the litanies of the saints of Ireland, in which groups of holy people in thousands, living and dead, both Irish and foreigners settled in Ireland, pilgrims, both incoming and outgoing, are called on. You would say that nobody with any claim at all to sanctity was left out! Here are a few examples: The seven hundred and seventeen holy bishops of those in the grace of the Lord in great Cork, with Barra and Neassan, quorum nomina scripta sunt in cells, hos omnes inuoco in auxilium meum per Iesum. The thrice fifty men of orders, true, royal heroes each one of the Irish, who went on pilgrimage in one company with Abban mac ui Chormaic per Jesum. Three fifties of currachs of Roman pilgrims who settled in Ui Imele under Notal hos omnes inuoco, per Iesum Christum. The three thousand anchorites who assembled with Mumhu (or in Munster) to discuss one question together with Bishop Ibhar, to whom the angels of God brought the great feast that St. Brigid made to Jesus in her heart, hos omnes etc., The foreigners in Saillide .. . The Saxons in Cluain Mucceda .. . Some of the titles given to Our Lord in these litanies are very beautiful and show true affection and personal love. In English alas! I am afraid they may not sound quite so warm or natural. From the litany De Confessione: O Love above loves, forgive O first priest, o chief priest, forgive O true priest, true physician, true prophet, true friend, forgive. O forgiving heart, forgive O Son of the sister [i.e. Mary our sister], forgive O true Brother, forgive. From the Litany of Jesus (II in Plummer's Irish Litanies): O holy Jesus O gentle friend O true, loving Brother O clement, meek and friendly One For the sake of thy kindliness and affection and charity and mercy, hear the entreaty of this poor one and miserable wretch, who on behalf of the whole Christian Church and on my own behalf, begs for the acceptance of this sacrifice. For the sake of thy own Body and Blood which is sacrificed on all the holy altars which are in the Christian churches of the world. It seems to me that this litany may have been recited at Mass. The second last invocation above would be fitting in the mouth of either layman or priest. We see again that awareness of the universal Church which we have been stressing in this essay as a dominant note of ancient Irish Catholicism.
There is yet another devotion of the Irish and it may truly be said that it is a devotion, or practice of piety, which is quite characteristic. We may call it hospitality, although "almsgiving" or "charity" might describe it equally well. For the ancient Irish the guest was Christ. So it was also, for instance, among the ancient Egyptian monks. We have endless examples in Irish literature and the lives of the Irish saints of this devotion to Christ and the miracles that on occasion are said to have followed on it. We cannot stress enough the reverence the Irish had for the famous words of Christ at the Last Judgment as given by St. Matthew in the 25th chapter. Those words, understood so literally by our holy ancestors and followed out so faithfully, are the key to ancient Irish sanctity and all its missionary zeal. That is the deep motif in all our religious literature and helps to explain the lovable humanity of the saints, even if usually joined to great austerity. Once again, with this text a reality for the generality of the ancient Irish Christians, we see that the whole idea of Christ's Mystical Body was not for them a notional one. There are six divisions [says the homilist in the Leabhar Bread of that alms (that is given to the neighbour's body)—food to poor, drink to thirsty, clothes to naked, kindness and hospitality to those who need it, visiting the sick, humility and service towards those who are in prison. Said Colmcille: A share of what you have to the hungry man; it is Jesus who has demanded it of you. And another: O King of stars! whether my house be dark or bright, never shall it be closed against any one; may Christ not close His house against me. And here is a modern echo of that from Sean ó Conaill of Uibh Rathach: I am Cian of the golden crests, more lasting my wealth than my life, I never put anyone from my house, nor was I myself put out of God's house. Nothing could be more explicit than this from the ancient past: If there be a guest in your house and you conceal aught from him, 'tis not the guest who will be without it, but Jesus, Mary's Son. From the life of Colman mac Luachain: Great is the harm, Christ's guest-house neglected ; if it have but the name of Christ's house of fame, it is as tho' Christ were houseless. It is certain that that fine custom of hospitality spread from the monasteries. In the Latin life of St. Cronin there is related a pleasant little incident in which the "villain" is a type of the immature and rather censorious religious: Once when St. Mochaemhog came with many others to St. Cronin, St. Cronin made a great supper for him out of little material, for St. Cronin was generous and charitable and did not keep things in reserve. And the cellarer of the monastery had nothing that night but one container of ale and a modest dish of butter and a little meal. When these were placed before St. Cronin he blessed them in the name of Christ and ordered them to be prepared and served to the community and the guests. And at the supper, these things multiplying through the blessing of St. Cronin, one hundred and twenty men received their fill of what they wanted. While they were feasting thus far into the night, a certain novice (or lay-brother) said in a loud voice, "I see there will be no matins celebrated in this place tonight." To whom St. Cronin said, "Brother, in the guest is received Christ; therefore at the coming of Christ we ought to feast and rejoice. But if you had not said that, the angels of God themselves would have prayed on our behalf here this night." And afterwards when the feasting was ended, the saints gave thanks to God and blessed His gifts. One could multiply texts from all the ages of Irish literature to illustrate the native love of hospitality. We have it in verse and prose and proverb—"nfor chuaigh fial go hifreann," they say in our day. It can be truly said that that spirit of hospitality, especially towards Christ's poor, flourished—and flourishes—as long as the Faith meant personal love and service of Christ. It is clear, I think, even from the necessarily limited amount of evidence provided in this essay that the Irish were not accustomed to think of Christ apart from His members, i.e. His Church. One other quotation from the homilist of the Leabhar Breac will help to bring this most important point into relief: Nature is against it [homicide], for we are the children of one father and one mother, Adam and Eve, and we have one spiritual father and mother, Christ and the Church. If so, since all of the race of Adam are doubly brethren, it is unnatural in us to murder one another. And in another place he says, as St Augustine said before him: For he truly possesses love who loves his friend in God and his enemy for God. Space will not allow me to treat of other aspects of Irish spirituality, the attitude of the ancient Irish towards exile, for instance—and they had developed a whole theology or asceticism of exile. We can sum it all up by saying that in their mind there was no true exile or pilgrimage, save for love of Christ and His gospel. Some of those who have written on ancient Irish Catholicism have tended to emphasise the bizarre and even pagan elements of it. As regards traces of paganism, certainly there are such here and there, but is that any wonder when paganism was still such a recent thing throughout the whole country and when we realise how attached the people were to their ancient traditions and so slow to break with the past? Whatever traces there were of paganism, we have no need to prove that Faith and practice were in the fullest sense Catholic. By their fruits you shall know them.
Ancient and Modern
If we compare ancient Irish piety with our own, we cannot fail to be struck by the difference. Popular devotions have increased greatly in modern times. Is it not strange that the faithful of today take a greater external part in minor devotions than in the major liturgical devotion of the Mass? The devotion of the Miraculous Medal is proof that the people like to pray together with the priest in the Church. Long ago in Ireland---and throughout Christendom—it was at Mass that the people prayed together and made their common offering--for the Church and all its members, as we have seen. We have seen too that the most popular prayer was the public prayer of the Church, the Psalter. The psalms left their mark on all other popular prayer, as anyone who is familiar with Irish prayer throughout the centuries will testify. One other characteristic of ancient Irish piety which I cannot treat of here was their great devotion towards and trust in their own saints—they even put the greatest of them in the Mass. Yet this by no means lessened their veneration for the great saints of the Church their devotion to Sts. Peter and Paul, St. John the Baptist and the other apostles and early saints was surpassed by no other people. In fact they honoured their own saints by seeking parallels between them and the apostles etc. It is superfluous to mention their affection for the Mother of God. It is finally worthy of note that when Ireland was truly Irish then was she least insular and most Catholic.
Irish and European
As I began this essay with a quotation from a fine modern French thinker, I should like to end it with a quotation from another distinguished Frenchman. Although he speaks of his own country, I think that any thoughtful Irishman who has persevered till now in the reading of this essay will have no difficulty in applying the words to his own beloved country. The passage is from a paper entitled Perennite du Message de Saint Colomban, read at the Congress held in honour of St. Colomban at Luxeuil a few years ago and the author is M. Andre Varagnac (Conservateur au Musee des Antiquites Nationales): Are we not once again face to face with a materialism whose victory seems in the eyes of some to be a foregone conclusion, just like that won by Caesar and his land-surveyors over Vercingetorix and his druids? Have we not evidence before us, that, lacking an ideal, our beloved and most dear fatherland no longer possesses the vigour to be a fatherland and seems to be about to turn itself over to some distant fatherland, some imaginary fatherland? In face of this dreadful uncertainty, has not the French intellectual a duty to question himself and to ask of himself in the presence of the giant stature of St. Columban if he has fully-assessed all that heritage of which he in common with the people of France is the bearer—but of which he is the responsible bearer? Have we really defined the spiritual problem of France when we have proclaimed, even pledging our life to it, that our choice is Rome and Greece? For my part, I do not believe that they are the sole constituents of our West. Too many archaeological treasures show it to be at once richer and more fervent, fervent with an ever-ready faith, without which a thousand years later the flame of the Crusades would have been an historical impossibility; fervent with a Celtic idealism, without which the history of our France would have been but a miserable growth. And (why hide it?) such an ancient idealism is more in keeping with our modern West, the West of tomorrow, than strict Romanism, than pure Latinism. If we really wish to seize an opportunity of making good the terrible material ruin of France and the Germanic countries, we must look for it, not merely in industrial statistics, but in a study of this Celtic spirituality, which within us and deep down in us, is more powerful and more creative than our Latin heritage. And what vision will lead us more surely to this end than St. Columban, than that high message of the Celts which rests ever in the depths of the continental soul—than this hero of the Faith who marked out by his very life the bond that unites the distant Isles and the Latin country where he died?
DIARMUID O LAOGHAIRE