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When I was little, my mother would suggest my sister and I dress in green on St. Patrick’s day. She explained this was a day to celebrate the Irish people and their culture, and dressing in green was a way of doing that. Back then I wasn’t aware of nuances like: but should we be dressing in green if we weren’t at all Irish? But also back then, this issue wasn’t one that seemed highly charged – I grew up outside of Boston, lots of people were Irish, and that seemed great and those of us who weren’t were glad to celebrate with those who were. Nowadays my sister is married to an Irish guy, my niece and goddaughter is half-Irish – so we’ve finally got some cred! But even if we didn’t, I would still want to talk on this Sunday that falls on St. Patrick’s day itself, about Irish Christianity. It has an appeal, an expansiveness and flexibility even within its recognizable particularity, that would stand us – and other religions – in good stead, if we could learn from it. My only published academic work was on the early Irish church; it’s something I have a good deal of affection for – but I’m keeping it confined to this sermon, I promise. I’ll start with one of the most evocative prayers ever created, this ancient, lilting, Irish invocation for a trader setting off on a journey:
“I call on the seven daughters of the sea, who shape the threads of long life. Three deaths be taken from me, three lives given to me, seven waves of plenty poured for me. May ghosts not injure me on my journey in my radiant breastplate without stain. May my name not be pledged in vain; may death not come to me until I am old. I call on my Silver Champion , who has not died and will not die; may time be granted to me of the quality of bronze. May my form be exalted, may my law be ennobled, may my strength be increased, may my tomb not be readied, may I not die on my journey, may my return be ensured to me. May the two-headed serpent not attack me, nor the hard grey worm, nor the senseless beetle. May no thief attack me, nor a company of women, nor a company of warriors. May I have increase of time from the king of all. I call on Senach of the seven lives, whom fairy women suckled on the breasts of good fortune. May my seven candles not be quenched. I am an invincible fortress, I am an unshakable cliff, I am a precious stone, I am the symbol of seven riches. May I be the man of hundreds of possessions, hundreds of years, each hundred after another. I summon my good fortune to me; may the grace of the Holy Spirit be on me.”
It sounds almost like a prayer, doesn’t it, a Catholic prayer, especially the part at the end about the Holy Spirit. But though it is a prayer, and even a prayer that is in part christianized, more of it is pagan. That’s why though there are a few mentions of three, and one mention of the Holy Spirit, there’s a lot more mention of sets of seven, and fairies and a Silver Champion. Sounds great, doesn’t it – wouldn’t we all like a Silver Champion these days? This invocation is called a ‘breastplate,’ a traditional prayer to invoke or gird on, like armor, divine protection.
What it also clearly is, is Irish. It’s rife with that eternal Irish gift for words, their lyrical, evocative, rhythmic poetry and prose. This talent for language has strong roots in the Irish bardic tradition, those professional poets, story tellers, composers and historians who travelled or served in courts throughout Ireland and Scotland across countless centuries. It’s also tied the role of spoken and sung prayer in earlier pagan, Druid, tradition. And grounded though that breastplate is in the realms of fairy and legend, it is a clear forerunner for forms and styles in later Irish Christianity. Consider this other breastplate, alike in rhythm and beauty, an 8th c. invocation called St. Patrick’s Lorica, an English translation from the original Gaelic:
“Today I gird myself with a great strength, the invocation of the Trinity, belief in the threeness, confession of the oneness, on my way to meet the Creator. Today I gird myself with the strength of heaven, the light of the sun, the brilliance of the moon, the glory of fire, the impetuosity of lightning, the speed of the wind, the profundity of the sea, the stability of earth, the hardness of rock.
Today I gird myself with God’s strength to guide me; God’s power to support me, God’s wisdom to direct me, God’s eye to anticipate for me, God’s ear to hear for me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to protect me, God’s path to stretch before me, God’s shield to guard me, God’s host to save me from ambushes of devils, from temptations of evil, from assaults of nature, from all who wish me ill, far and near, solitary and in crowds.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ under me, Christ over me, Christ to the right of me, Christ where I lie down, Christ where I sit, Christ where I rise, Christ in the heart of everyone who scrutinizes me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.”
There again is that musical, rhythmic feeling for language, this time tuned entirely to serve Christianity. Here again is a wealth of detail, and potent phrases, but God and Christ take the place of the Silver Champion. The almost chanting invocations create a quality that is particularly characteristic of Irish Christianity: the intimate connection that the Irish clearly felt and expressed, not only to Jesus, but also to Mary and other biblical figures and eras.
Christianity was brought to Ireland in the fourth century by St. Patrick, a real person, who became one of developing Christianity’s most powerful voices, not only in Ireland but across the West. Whether or not he did as legend says and chased all the snakes out of Ireland, St. Patrick unquestionably established Christianity there, and gave it a firm grounding. This made Ireland, with its many abbeys, manuscripts, adherents and scholars, one of the most powerful bases for the faith’s further spreading throughout what would become Europe.
Saints were a great presence in Irish Christianity from the very beginning. Along with St. Patrick, there were many other individuals such as Saint Brendan, Saint Ite, Saint Brigit. Some of these were also historical figures and others were derived from Ireland’s earlier pagan faith. Regardless of their origins, one of the most striking ways Irish religious fluidity appears is that many of the Irish saints act in ways that recall and reconnect the Irish with events and individuals of much earlier, Biblical, times.
Brigit is a great example of this. She was originally one of Ireland’s most important pagan goddesses, and she survived Christianity’s arrival, becoming one of the most important of of the early Irish saints. Like Jesus healing blindness in the Gospel of John, St. Brigit also performed miraculous healing. In fact, there is striking similarity to that gospel both in the blindness the person suffers from, and in the quality of the miraculous healing she provides. These wondrous powers Irish saints were believed to possess were an important way that Ireland felt closely connected to Christianity in its earliest, purest, form – the literally miraculous era that Jesus inhabited – which was accessible also to certain Irish sacred figures, who could perform almost in his place.
Writings which celebrate St. Brigit draw heavily on her earlier pagan identities, woven together with aspects of the fairy otherworld:
“Sit safely, Brigit, in triumph on Liffey’s cheek to the strand of the sea; you are the princess with ranked … Beyond telling at any time is God’s counsel for virgin Ireland. Though the shining Liffey be yours today, it was once another’s land….
The music of its bent hard anvils, the sound of its songs from the tongues of poets; the fire of its men at the great contest, the beauty of its women at the high assembly.
Its mead-drinking in every household, its fine steeds, and its many tribes; its clanking of chains on men’s wrists under the blades of bloody five-edged spears. Its lovely melodies at every hour, its wineshop on the blue wave, its shower of silver of great brilliance, its gold neckbands from the lands of Gaul….
Brigit in the land I behold, where each in turn has lived, your fame has proved greater than that of the king, you are superior to them. You have an everlasting principality with the King (of Heaven) apart from the land where your sanctuary is.”
This is one of Irish Christianity’s most generous gifts – they didn’t see a need to wipe out earlier religious understandings and traditions. Instead they incorporated them, making the faith absolutely particular to their place and time, one with a flexibility and attraction all its own – a welcoming and adaptive attitude religion could still learn from, even now, even our own Unitarian Universalism as we work to better understand and honor the many realities and cultures that share our place and time.
And then there was St. Ite – a 6th century Munster saint supposed to have nursed the infant baby Jesus. (See what I mean about that flexibility of time and space?) This poem from the 10th century tells her story:
“It is Jesuseen I nurse in my little hermitage…The nursing that I do in my house is not the nursing of any common man. Jesus with the men of heaven lies against my heart each night.… The King who rules all things, it would be grievous not to pray to him. It is noble, angelic Jesus and not any ordinary cleric that I nurse in my little hermitage – Jesus, son of the Jewess. Princes’ sons, kings’ sons, though they come into my territory, it is not from them that I expect advantage; better I like Jesuseen. Sing a chorus, girls, to the man you own your little rent to – Jesuseen, who is in his home above, although he is at my breast.”
Compare the simplicity of the language in this poem with its complex transcendental understanding of the relationship between St. Ite and Jesus. Ite, another historical figure, is not merely an Irish woman born many centuries after Jesus’ death; in fact, she is not bound by common realities at all. Ite is also – somehow – the nurse of Jesus. Even though the very words attributed to her acknowledge that he was another woman’s baby, and a Jewish woman at that, still Jesus, at once a baby and the King of heaven lies against her heart each night, nursing even as he resides in heaven.
There is something especially poignant about this poem’s embrace of paradox – though Ite lives in a humble abode, still no distance, geographic or historical, is admitted between her or Jesus, no difference of culture or context diminishes their connection. Just as Jesus himself is believed to triumph over the most fundamental realities of life, even death, so too does Ite’s faith allow her to triumph over any estrangement from the most intimate and tender connection with her savior.
To be sure, not all prayers were so peaceful, though all bespeak that same sense of familiarity and relationship. Another aspect of the religiously flexible language and understandings of the early Irish church was that it could speak to many different values and people. This muscular prayer to St. Michael possesses the same intimacy as some of the biblical psalms, but it is more imperious and expects much more martial capacities from the saint:
“Angel! great-miracled Michael, carry my request to the Lord. Do you hear me? Ask of the forgiving God forgiveness for all my great evil. Do not delay! Carry my greedy request to the King, to the High King. Bring help, bring protection to my soul in its hour of leaving earth. To meet my waiting soul come stoutly with many thousands of angels. Warrior, against the crooked, twisting, warring world come to my help indeed. Do not spurn what I say, do not desert me while I live! I choose you to redeem my mind, my sense, my body. Intercessor, victorious fighter, angelic slayer of Antichrist!”
By far my favorite – and most surprising example of their flexibility was to do with virginity. A document from the mid-fifth century records the results of a Synod (a rule-setting meeting) of Irish Bishops Patrick (as in St. Patrick), Auxilius and Iserninus. They established 34 rules at this Synod. Check out rule 17: “A virgin who has made a vow to God to remain chaste” (in other words, taken vows to become a nun, or, as they sometimes called it, a bride of Christ) “and afterwards has taken a spouse in the flesh,” (or as we call it, a husband) “shall be excommunicated until she changes her ways; if she converts and dismisses the adulterer, she shall do penance; and afterwards they shall not live in the same house or on the same farm.” Uh… that’s it? Yeah, that’s it.
Surely this flexibility of Irish theology is tied, in part, to the paradox of Jesus’ virgin birth in the first place. But the early Irish church was uniquely expansive in leaning into this paradox, for instance The Penitential of Finian, a document from the 6th century, offers a similar dispensation for a “virgin who bears a child.” Note that language? A virgin who bears a child.
In their understanding, virginity was reclaimable state, in some sense an experiential or even spiritual state, rather than one that was physical and absolute. Nowadays in Western society, virginity is actually defined in a pretty absolute way – it just doesn’t matter that much. But back then it did – and so what this letting go of such absolutes offers us now, is this principle that people can start over, that we can learn, regret, change, start anew, that anything is possible. If we could free ourselves of the trammeling of absolutes, in this judgmental time when we all walk around so activated and raw – what does this ancient ideology offer for our consideration? It offers an absolute generosity and commitment to the values of renewal, forgiveness, fresh starts – all the ingredients, in fact, for transformation even nowadays. What a lot we might learn from a faith that says there is no history or choice that matters more than how we feel and how we act and what we commit to now.
The flexibility of early Irish Christianity was grounded in its saints – they defy the laws of time and place, they may be invoked, but also admonished, complimented, comforted, courted, even cajoled with astonishing directness and and presumption. The Irish saints, and Jesus and God to whom they are conduits, are friends, relatives, saviors, mothers, avengers. The saints are rooted in Ireland, in pagan Druid tradition, in fairy lore and local ways, even as transcend all that. The Irish saints are the bridge between the worldly life of the Irish people, and the ethereal longings of the Irish spirit. We hear the words of early Irish Christianity and we feel some of its power, spanning biblical times and lands, to Dark and Middle-age Ireland, to we moderns in America, Irish or not. What might this offer our passion or poetry or philosophy or prayer, this intimacy and honesty and heritage so richly present in Irish prayer and the approachable Irish take on holiness and sainthood. Saints, preserve us indeed. Amen.
While our service this morning is focused on the intricacies and lyrical beauty of early Irish Church thought and writings, our prayer and meditation this morning comes from the Muslim tradition, full of its own lyrical beauty, kin in some sense, to the Irish tradition. With honor and friendship for our Muslim family, friends and neighbors, let us engage the wonder and vision of universal sacredness in this poem by the beloved 14th century Persian poet Shams Ud-Dun Mohammad Hafiz:
Cloak yourself in a thousand ways, still shall I know you, my Beloved.
Veil yourself with every enchantment
and yet I shall feel you, Presence,
most dear, close and intimate.
I shall salute you in the springing of cypresses
And in the sheen of lakes,
The laughter of fountains.
I shall surely see you in tumbling clouds
In brightly embroidered meadows.
Oh, Beloved Presence, more beautiful than all the stars together,
I trace your face in ivy that climbs,
In clusters of grapes,
In morning flaming the mountains,
In the clear arch of sky.
You gladden the whole earth and make every heart great.
You are the breathing of the world.