I’m all Irish. Ryans on one side; Lanigans on the other. It was a big deal. Our family’s favorite color was green. The trucks my dad bought for the family’s construction business were always green – a nice dark green. My eldest brother chose tuxedos for his wedding that were a tasteful forest green. No shanty Irish, we! We were “lace-curtain” Irish – or we tried to be! When I visited Ireland for the first time in 1983, I was a traveling companion and care provider for a our former parish priest, my friend and mentor Father Bernard Brennan. (Father Brennan is a story for another time). But the minute I arrived, I felt so at home. I remember sitting in people’s parlors. I smoked at the time. I’d open up a pack of cigarettes, and out they’d be passed around the room. Whoever wanted one took one – and offered silent thanks with a nod and a wink. In the faces of Father Brennan’s family I saw the faces of my family…..
Anyway, I’m all Irish. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I read these first few paragraphs in Esther de Waal’s book, The Celtic Way of Prayer:
THE REDISCOVERY OF the Celtic world has been an extraordinary revelation for many Christians in recent years, an opening up of the depths and riches within our own tradition that many of us had not before suspected. As I reflect on what it has meant to me, I think that above all it has enriched my understanding of prayer. It has taught me, and encouraged me into, a deeper, fuller way of prayer. I have come to see that the Celtic way of prayer is prayer with the whole of myself, a totality of praying that embraces the fullness of my own personhood, and allows me not only to pray with words but also, more important, with the heart, the feelings, using image and symbol, touching the springs of my imagination.
I like to think of it as a journey into prayer. The Celtic understanding of journeying is in itself so rich and so significant. It is peregrinano, seeking, quest, adventure, wandering, exile—it is ultimately a journey, as I try to show in the first chapter, to find the place of my resurrection, the resurrected self, the self that I might hope to be, to become, the true self in Christ. This journey is possible only because I am finding my roots—that familiar paradox known in all monastic life and a reflection of basic human experience, that only if one is rooted at home in one’s own self, in the place in which one finds oneself, is one able to move forward, to open up new boundaries, both exterior and interior, in other words, to embark on a life of continual and never-ending conversion, transformation. To find my roots takes me back to the part of my self that is more ancient than I am, and this is, of course, the power of the Celtic heritage. In my own case there are both my family roots, which are Scottish, and the place where I was born, and where I now once again live, which is the Border country of Wales. But for any of us the Celtic tradition is the ancient or elemental—a return to the elements, the earth, stone, fire, water, the ebb and flow of tides and seasons, the pattern of the year as it swings on its axis from Samhaine, November 1, when all grows dark, to Beltaine, May 1, the coming of light and spring. To pray the Celtic way means above all to be aware of this rhythm of dark and light. The dark and the light are themselves symbols of the Celtic refusal to deny darkness, pain, suffering and yet to exult in rejoicing, celebration in the fullness and goodness of life. This is in itself a recognition of the fullness of my own humanity.
Coming from the farthest fringes of the Western world, Celtic Christianity (an expression I prefer to use rather than speaking of the Celtic Church) keeps alive what is ancient Christian usage, usage which like that of the East comes from a deep central point before the Papacy began to tidy up and to rationalize. This was more difficult in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany, the main Celtic areas, simply because of geographical distance and the lack of towns. This point is of more than antiquarian interest: It also speaks to me symbolically, taking me back to the ancient, the early, both in my own self, and in the experience of Christendom, where I encounter something basic, primal, fundamental, universal. I am taken back beyond the party labels and the denominational divisions of the Church today, beyond the divides of the Reformation or the schism of East and West. I am also taken beyond the split of intellect and feeling, of mind and heart, that came with the growth of the rational and analytical approach that the development of the universities brought to the European mind in the twelfth century. Here is something very profound. This deep point within the Christian tradition touches also some deep point in my own consciousness, my own deepest inner self.
This tapestry of the riches of the Celtic way of prayer has about it something of the variety of shapes and colors that I find in a page of the Book of Kelts, and so I find myself asking where and how we can begin to unravel one of these extraordinary spirals or threads so that it leads us on into our exploration. I think that the essential starting point is the fact that Celtic Christianity was essentially monastic, as indeed the origins of Christianity in the whole of Britain were strictly monastic. The Celtic way of prayer was learned from the monasteries; it was from its religious communities that the people learned to pray. As a result, they learned that there was no separation of praying and living; praying and working flow into each other, so that life is to be punctuated by prayer, become prayer. If ordinary people took their ideas on prayer from this ideal of continual prayer, it should not really surprise us that when we uncover something of the way of praying that was handed down in the oral tradition and was collected in Scotland and Ireland at the end of the last century, what we find is lay spirituality, a household religion in which praying is inseparable from an ordinary daily working life.
Those earliest years in Ireland and Wales forged a powerful mix between monastic Christianity and what existed already in the people to whom this Christian message was now brought. It was the way in which Christianity responded to what it found in these lands that gives it its unique character and emphasis. The Celtic countries lay on the edge of the known Western world, largely outside the Roman Empire, a people lacking the social molds and mental framework and cultural infrastructure the Roman Empire brought elsewhere. These were a rural people, living close to the earth, close to stone and water, and their religious worship was shaped by their awareness of these elemental forces. They were a rural people for whom the clan, the tribe, and kinship were important, a close-knit people who thought of themselves in a corporate way as belonging to one another. They were a warrior people, a people whose myths and legends told them of heroes and heroic exploits. Above all, they were a people of the imagination, whose amazing artistic achievements in geometric design, filigree work, and enameling can be seen in La Tene art, and whose skill with words (spoken not written) flowered in poetry and storytelling. This was a society in which the poet held a highly respected place, played a professional role, and where storytelling was taken seriously and demanded many years of study and learning. All this was taken up by a Christianity that was not afraid of what it found but felt that it was natural to appropriate it into the fullness of Christian living and praying. So the Celtic way of prayer is a reflection of this: It is elemental, corporate, heroic, imaginative. This is its gift to us.