The lazy, hazy days of a very hot summer are giving way to fresher air, a softer light, dewy grass. The crickets are still singing their sweet, sunshiny song in the cool Autumn evenings. And it is time for travelling. The Bar-tailed Godwits, summer visitors to New Zealand, are winging their way to an Alaskan summer and Shining Cuckoos follow the light to the Solomon Islands.
It is still Lent. More days of self-denial. Or, perhaps days of resolving to love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally amidst the brokenness of the world. I have held close to my heart in this Lenten season, the words of Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese,
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.[i]
Mary wrote this poem in the years following the terrorist atrocity in New York on September 11th, 2001, which were devastating and fearful, sorrowful and despairing. Her words acknowledge an enduring pain yet she imagines a mystical beauty and peace that still exists and gives expression. She reminds us that as we share our stories, we gift one another love.
I have a silver brooch of a wild goose that was given to me by my father. The early Celtic Christians adopted the Ah Geadh-Glas[ii], the wild goose, as their symbol for the Holy Spirit – wild with love, flying free and high, steadfast and strong, loyal and nurturing, protective and encouraging.
They were a people who chose to live their faith in their own way, close to the myth-haunted lands of the rugged western places of Ireland and Britain and far from the wealthy and decadent power centres of religion and politics.
When I wear my little brooch, I am enfolded by a liberating love that is utterly timeless, yet sheltering and safe, courageous and rhythmic. It is a love that calls me to return to the home that is in my heart.
Saint Patrick, who lived in the 5th century and was a pivotal figure in early Irish history and spirituality, is remembered in a global celebration of Irish culture this weekend. The Irish have observed the 17th March as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. Families used to go to church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibition against the consumption of meat was waived and people would dance, drink and, feast on a traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage.
We do not know much about Patrick, except that he left behind a unique piece of writing, his Confession and, Letter to Coroticus[iii], offering us a glimpse into the life and faith of this quiet and simple man, who became a great bishop.
Kidnapped from his birth place (some say Scotland, others, England), by Irish pirates, at 16 years old, Patrick was sold into slavery in Ireland. Over six years, he found an inner liberation when he discovered God as his Anam-cara – which is Gaelic for soul friend. The depth and shelter of this Anam-cara belonging sustained him and enabled him to endure the harrowing experience of exile and isolation, keeping the beauty of God alive in his heart, and transfiguring his outer bleakness. [iv]
Eventually, Patrick escaped the tyranny of slavery and later, returning to Ireland, he shared his Christian faith with the people. His presence, John O’Donohue writes, was full of uaisleacht, the Irish word for nobility, honour, dignity, poise.
Patrick exercised uaisleacht in relation to the people he shepherded. He served, defended, and cared for them, yet he refused any gifts or attempts to claim him. He also exercised uaisleacht in relation to his destiny. He constructed no kingdom of the ego. He opened himself to the ultimate calling and challenge of Otherness in its social, territorial, and spiritual forms.[v]
Patrick’s theology, like that of many Celtic Christians, before and since, declared that people could come to know the Divine through creation. He integrated pre-Christian Celtic beliefs with an emerging Christian faith. Not for him the exploitative whitewash of some missionaries.
In a rather long protective prayer, attributed to him, known as the Lorica, the Saint Patrick’s Breastplate or the Deer’s Cry, Patrick writes,
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven,
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightening,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
As people around the world come together to listen to music, dance, drink Guinness or Irish whiskey or wine, wear a whole lot of green, shamrocks for luck and take part in parades, might we be glimpsing the imaginative stirrings, in some, of a Celtic soul, a Celtic consciousness…a contemporary spirituality that more and more seeks to free itself from the shackles of organised religion? Might there be a yearning for new ways to belong and live in the world and discover wisdom, beauty and love, and a sense of the sacred and of thankfulness restored?
©Hilary Oxford Smith
Image ©Wilde Geese, Jen Delyth (reproduced with permission)