Sabbath Day – Green Martyrdom
For the last month I have let my Sabbath Day function as the center around which I have organized a week of reading different national literatures. I spent two week reading French Modernists, and a week with nineteenth century Russians. I then spent a week reading 19th and 20th century Irish writing.
This past week I immersed myself in early Irish myths and legends, as well as Celtic Christianity.
Working chronologically, I read the introduction to Jeffrey Gantz’s Penguin Classics Edition of Early Irish Myths and Sagas, and then left the copy in the bathroom for perusing!
Next, on the recommendation of two friends from college, I picked up a copy of Ciaran Carson’s rendering of Taín Bó Cúailnge, the Irish equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey (before Joyce literally wrote the Irish version of the Odyssey). The title means “The Cattle Raid of Cúailnge.” I tried to make this a bedtime story for my son, but after three days even he was sick of the violence. When the Ulster hero, Cú Chulainn, not only beheads every opponent he meets but starts using a sling and stones to take off the heads of dogs and birds, my son had had enough. I finished the book on my own – though my son wanted daily updates on the action: Queen Medb of Connacht and her husband Ailill, Medb lover Fergus, and even the Brown Bull, Donn Cúailnge, are all fully developed characters for him.
Another friend mailed me a soundtrack for the week in the form of Celtic Rock band Horslips. In 1973 they recorded music for a stage adaptation of The Taín at the Abbey Theater in Dublin. It’s crazy that I’m humming this stuff to myself now…
Of course, the soundtrack should be updated to include the 2004 single, The Tain, by The Decemberists (my son’s favorite band).
Another companion for the week was the Celtic Spirituality anthology from the multivolume Classic of Western Spirituality. In addition to Irish and Welsh poetry, devotional texts, and theology, I focused on the Patrick Tradition, in particular his Confession and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. The latter proposes excommunication and isolation as a program for ending the slave trade. Awesome! I also re-read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization which I enjoyed much more than I did on first reading. I read it this time a part of legend making rather than as a historian.
I began, but in no way finished, Frederick Buechner’s Brenden: A Novel on the life and voyages of the sixth-century Irish saint. It may be enough for the coming week, Holy Week, to finish this novel of one man’s search for Tir-na-n-Og,t he terrestrial paradise.
Finally, last week my son and I read a children’s book about Isabella Augusta, or Lady Gregory, so I picked up the Penguin edition of her selected writings. I focused on her collection of oral history, particularly the stories of witch/healer Biddy Early, translations of the blind poet Raferty, and one of Lady Gregory’s own plays. Augusta co-founded the Abbey Theater in Dublin with William Butler Yeats – where many years later Horslips would perform a Celtic Rock version of The Taín.
Everything comes around full circle, or perhaps in a Celtic knot.
My take away from this week is the poem of St. Manchan of Offaly. This disciple of St. Patrick outlines a form of Green Martyrdom (simplicity, restraint and renunciation) for the Irish Church as opposed to the Red Martyrdom (red, as in “the blood of the saints in the seed of the church”) of Roman Christianity. I read this the word green in light of modern environmentalism and earth care, and it worked beautifully.
I know that some of the current simplicity movement is a commercial consumer trend. But I am genuinely inspired by the long history of simple living in the church. When Jesus said “our life is not defined by having many things” he inspired St. Anthony, who as a teenager left all his stuff and walked out into the desert to live without stuff. And because he was not consumed with his stuff, Anthony had the spiritual power to give advice even to Roman emperors. And many more are impressed by St. Francis who took Jesus literally when he said “You lack one thing. Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Francis called the giving away of possessions an “ongoing conversion” because it always led him to a deeper relationship with God and with the poor. Father Daniel Berrigan once counseled my family to become “downwardly mobile,” by which he meant moving down on the index of material comfort so that others can have their fair share and renouncing the desire for power, recognition, and advantage. Sallie McFague has recently given brilliant formulation to this in Blessed are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint. To this tradition I now need to add the Celtic spirituality of simple monastic communities.
I have copied the poem below from the prayerfoundation website. Commentary on the poem can be found in Cahill, pages 151-155.
St. Manchan of Offaly’s Poem:
(Composed Circa 450-550 A.D.)
Grant me sweet Christ the grace to find—
Son of the Living God!—
A small hut in a lonesome spot
To make it my abode.
A little pool but very clear
To stand beside the place
Where all men’s sins are washed away
By sanctifying grace.
A pleasant woodland all about
To shield it from the wind
And make a home for singing birds
Before it and behind.
A southern aspect for the heat
A stream along its foot,
A smooth green lawn with rich topsoil
Propitious to all fruit.
My choice of men to live with me
And pray to God as well;
Quiet men of humble mind—
Their number I shall tell.
Four files of three or three of four
To give the psalter forth;
Six to pray by the south church wall
And six along the north.
Two by two my dozen friends—
To tell the number right—
Praying with me to move the King
Who gives the sun its light.
A lovely church, a home for God
Bedecked with linen fine,
Where over the white Gospel page
The Gospel candles shine.
A little house where all may dwell
And body’s care be sought,
Where none shows lust or arrogance,
None thinks an evil thought.
And all I ask for housekeeping
I get and pay no fees,
Leeks from the garden, poultry, game,
Salmon and trout and bees.
My share of clothing and of food,
From the King of fairest face,
And I to sit at times alone,
And pray in every place.