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"Better Than We Know to Ask"
Celtic Blessings for All The World

For Sunday May 5, 2013

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Acts 16:9–15

Psalm 67

Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5

John 14:23–29 or 5:1–9

           For sixty years the folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912) traversed Scotland's Outer Hebrides isles collecting and translating the traditions of its Gaelic-Catholic people. If you look at a map of the Hebrides's 130-mile craggy coast, you can imagine the passion and physical stamina that must have required.

           Carmichael's eventual trove contained a little of everything — their ballads, prayers, proverbs, hymns, charms, incantations, runes, poems, tales and songs. All of which constituted an ethnography, oral history and preservation of an indigenous culture. Professor Ronald Black of Edinburgh University says, "Carmina Gadelica is by any standards a treasure house… a marvellous and unrepeatable achievement. There will never be another Carmina Gadelica."

Alexander Carmichael.
Alexander Carmichael.

           Carmichael's labor of love was published in six volumes across seventy years as Carmina Gadelica ("Hymns of the Gael"): Hymns and Incantations, With Illustrative Notes on Words, Rites, and Customs, Dying and Obsolete: Orally Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Carmichael published the first two volumes in 1900. His daughter Ella continued the project. Volumes 3 and 4 were published by his grandson, James Watson, in 1940–1941. Volumes 5 and 6 were published by Angus Matheson in 1954 and 1971.

            Much of the Carmina Gadelica is a distinctly Christian form of Celtic spirituality. Some of it's a syncretism of the superstitious and pagan. All of it's a lyrical combination of the simple and yet dignified, homely and eloquent, ordinary and yet sacred. If you google "Carmina Gadelica" you'll find an online version. Even better is Esther de Waal's book Celtic Vision (2001), a collection of excerpts which she has organized into sixteen different categories. It includes poetry about birth and death, prayers for morning and evening, healing and protection, invocations to bless the land, the hunting and herding, the farming and fishing.

           I especially like the "invocations and good wishes" and "short blessings" in de Waal's book. Here's one of my favorites.

                    The love and affection of heaven be to you,
The love and affection of the saints be to you,
The love and affection of the angels be to you,
The love and affection of the sun be to you,
The love and affection of the moon be to you,
Each day and night of your lives,
To keep you from haters, to keep you from harmers,
To keep you from oppressors.

Scotland's Outer Hebrides.
Scotland's Outer Hebrides.

These simple words are a sacred act. They're both tender and profound. When we bless another person, we're not wishing them good luck, as if they had sneezed. Rather, in the words of another Celtic blessing, we're commending them to a Father who wants "to do excelling good to me."

           Psalm 67 for this week is a blessing. Originating from an ancient writer of a geo-politically marginal tribe, I'm always amazed at the universal scope of the Hebrew psalms. The psalmist says that God is not a territorial or parochial god. He's not forgotten any nation or person. Rather, his blessings extend to "all nations." He "rules the peoples justly and guides the nations of the earth." The blessings of his love and justice extend not just to Israel, but to "all the ends of the earth."

           The psalmist pushes us beyond all ethnocentric boundaries to bless every "other," and beyond every egocentric preoccupation to worship only God. The reading from Revelation does likewise.

           At first glance the "new heaven and new earth" seem narrowly Jewish — a perfected Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth, complete with twelve gates representing the twelve Hebrew tribes. But notice, there's no temple in this city.

           Four thousand years ago, God formed Israel as a special people. Israel was and always will be a "singular" people, says Elie Wiesel, but they've never been a "superior" people. God elected one people in order to bless every nation. He promised Abraham that in him "all the families of the earth will be blessed" (Genesis 12:3).

           The heavenly Jerusalem that descends to earth is an international city: "The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it" (21:24–26). Flowing through the city center is a river, and on the banks of the river are "the tree of life… And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (22:2).

Page from one of Carmichael's notebooks.
Page from one of Carmichael's notebooks.
Chan e'n glas-niallach ri [supra: prac u]
Ach an gorm shuileach o'n chuan [supra: u]
Ni[ghea]n ad thall bheil u d chadal
Tha na gillean ort a bagra
Nailli nui tha tha chead aca
S e m fhear fhe[in] dhiu b' fhear[r] liom agam
Cois[iche] na h oiche faide
Chan ann a sealg a mhart bhradaich
Ach a sealg eir damh nan cabar
Cuir an dò[bh]rain duinn o chaidrea[mh]
Na id an fheir fai an caidle dh
Sa bhric eir l[u]inge 'n aigeil
Fhir [u]d thall tha fala na fraonach
Saoil an tu mo ghrai ein [supra: ghraiein] gaolach
Cha do lai u n raoir fon aodach
Cha lai u noc ann ma dh-fhaotas
Ma chumas ball no aol u
Na coin us gillean us daoine
B annsa fear dhuisga na faoilean
Giamanach na beiste maoile
S a ro-le o bheul a chaolais
Gha'adh eir a ghia[dh] ghlas baòl

           Think about it. Dream it.Work and pray for it — absolute healing for all the nations.

           The ancient promise to Abraham has become an empirical reality. Luke's Acts of the Apostles begins in Jerusalem, then expands geographically outward. In this week's reading from Acts 16, we feel the momentum of this geographic expansion — this one chapter mentions sixteen different towns, villages, and locales. Luke's final chapter ends with Paul imprisoned in the imperial city of Rome. Under house arrest, his last recorded prayer before martyrdom was a blessing for "all nations" (Romans 16:26).

           And so we pray with this week's psalmist: "May God be gracious to us and bless us / and make his face shine on us." And with the Celts in the Carmina Gadelica: "O Being of life! / Keep us in good estate, / Better than we know to ask, / Better than we know to ask."

           For further reflection

           Another Celtic blessing from de Waal's book Celtic Vision (2001):

I am bending my knee
In the eye of the Father who created me,
In the eye of the Son who purchased me,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
In friendship and affection.
Through Thine own Anointed One, O God,
Bestow upon us fullness in our need.
Love towards God,
The affection of God,
The smile of God,
The wisdom of God,
The grace of God,
The fear of God,
And the will of God
To do on the world of the Three,
As angels and saints
Do in heaven:
Each shade and light,
Each day and night,
Each time in kindness,
Give Thou us Thy Spirit.

Image credits: (1); (2); and (3) The Carmichael Watson Project, University of Edinburgh.

Copyright © 2001–2024 by Daniel B. Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.
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