Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Good Reading Day

Currently Reading: The Flowering of Ireland by Katherine Scherman

It's a good reading day. While it's not as warm as it has been lately, the grass outside is green, my cat is happily claiming his territory on my lap, and the apartment is (relatively) clean. I glance up every now and again; with each glance, I contendely survey a piece of our home. Our quilts, draped over the quilt rack. The ivy, planted by Oma, resting on the end table. The Easter decorations on the coffee table. The colorful sheen of our red teapot on the stove. I love mornings, when potential and possibilities of the day ahead seem reflected in the bright sunshine flooding the room. Anything is possible in the morning.
After reading months of fiction, it is refreshing to return to a solid history book with The Flowering of Ireland. I am enjoying figuratively tromping through the monastic ruins of Ireland with Scherman, while taking mental notes for the day (in the very near future) when I am physically there. Clonmacnoise, Bangor, Glendalough, Inishmurray.... all places I've only seen in my mind's eye but I am winging my way toward the day when I can explore them with all of my senses.

I have never fully understood what it is about early medieval Ireland that has always been so fascinating for me. I love reading about the early monasteries and saints, getting lost in the hagiographers' stories of miracles and discovering what monastic life was truly like for these penitents. Irish monasticism and Christianity was quite different from that on the Continent for centuries- not until the twelfth century did Irish Catholicism start to adhere to the Roman Catholic tradition. It's utterly fascinating to examine pre-Christian Ireland and see how the pagan lifestyle and tradition influenced Christianity when it came, and also how the make-up of Ireland at the time actually fit well with the monastic life and Christian tenets. It is amazing to see how Christianity meant more than the conversion of souls- it brought education, a written language, and new ideas to a people hungry for it. But it also incorporated much of what Ireland already was, preserving its ancient literature and incorporating its traditions and festivals. It was a compromise- a new culture very much rooted in the old.

There is a romance to it, when I imagine scribes bent over vellum, their words and art an amalgam of old and new ideas, inspired by their faith and by the awesome loveliness of the nature all around them. Yet there is a bleakness and harshness to it as well, when I imagine the wind-swept rain sweeping over a lone monastery, separate from the world and lonely in its beautiful surroundings. Perhaps what I like about this era is that it was a time between and apart, known yet unknown, on the merest fringes of human memory. It is exciting to discover it and I long for the day when I will stand where they stood and look out on what they saw and know that everything I have read about and studied actually happened, right here.


And although many centuries separate us, perhaps I will find that they are still there, somehow. I cannot wait.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I Arise Today...

Green beer. Leprechauns. Blarney and pots of gold. All sorts of things come out of the woodwork every March 17th in the United States as we get ready to celebrate everything Irish for St. Patrick’s Day. This Saturday, I plan on indulging in my favorite St. Patrick’s Day tradition. No, I don’t paint my cheeks with “Erin Go Bragh” or pin a leprechaun button on my shirt. Instead, I pull my copy of The Confession of St. Patrick off of my bookshelf and reacquaint myself with the amazing man whose name has become famous but whose life and legacy are often forgotten. I won’t give you a biography of St. Patrick today, but merely a glimpse of what you can discover through his written work.
Yes, St. Patrick did exist. While exact dates of birth, death, and work in Ireland are hazy at best, the fact remains that he was real and he did spread the word of God in Ireland. He was not the first to do so but he seems to have been the most effective. While other missionaries, namely Palladius, were not familiar with the Irish people they were trying to convert, Patrick had lived in Ireland for many years and had a deep respect and love for the Irish and their culture. Two historical documents have come down to the 21st century from this holy man of long ago. One is A Letter to Coroticus, Patrick’s response to a Roman general that had been kidnapping Irish people and forcing them into slavery. A former slave himself, Patrick’s ardor and strength of character are evident in every word. The second document is my favorite. The Confession of St. Patrick is an autobiography of sorts, in which Patrick explains the beginning of his own faith and dependence on God, his call to Ireland, and his work there. It reveals a man who was very different from the well-known depictions of an aged, white-haired, stooped man in a cloak. Patrick was tough, he was strong, he was quick-witted. He greatly respected the Irish people; he knew the Irish language. He felt uncomfortable and embarrassed of his lack of learning, especially his Latin. He was adamant and he didn’t back down. He was a force to be reckoned with, but also gentle and caring. He admired women and welcomed them with equal fervor to the fold. He felt grief, he felt doubt, he felt shame for the sins he committed in the past. He embraced the Celtic Irish culture, allowing it to flourish alongside the new Christian religion, thus preserving a language and an oral literature that otherwise would have disappeared. And, most admirably of all (for me), he had a very strong faith, a true faith. Not a faith of recent times, dripping in judgment and hypocrisy. But a true, unwavering faith in a power that loved all man... not because we deserve it, but because grace is stronger than our proclivity to sin. I think I would have liked to have known him- each time I read his work, I feel a little closer to a man I greatly admire and gain a little more inspiration on how to live my own life.
There is a poem attributed to St. Patrick that is fitting for today called “Faed Fiada” in Irish and “The Cry of the Deer” or “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” in English. Simple yet profound, it is a fitting symbol of how the Christian faith and the Celtic culture converged and intertwined, creating a beautiful and powerful new culture. As Katherine Scherman writes in The Flowering of Ireland, “If Patrick did write it...it exhibits not only his glowing imagination but an intuitive appreciation of the pagan background of his adopted country.” When I read it, I picture a man standing on a hilltop, shouting his words to the sun and the wind, celebrating God, celebrating the Earth, celebrating life. It is moving in its imagery and I share it with you today.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.
I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.
I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Fate

Spring's a'coming! As I drove home from a friend's house this morning, with the Civil Wars blasting in my car and the sun warming up the picture-perfect farm fields all around me, I felt as if my soul awoke after a long winter of hibernation. Driving through God's creation is like attending a worship service, just as powerful and just as beneficial.

Three books in three weeks- my track record has been pretty good so far and I have enjoyed all three, each one vastly different from the other. So here for your perusal are the random thoughts that accompanied each book, during and after reading. Tonight, I'll discuss Frank Delaney's The Last Storyteller.


I believe in book fate. There have been times in my life where I have found myself reading the perfect book for the circumstance I am going through, completely by accident. Just like God brings certain people into our lives at opportune moments, I think sometimes He sees what we're going through and pulls the perfect book from the shelf. The Last Storyteller was my travel companion when I went to my Opa's several weeks ago to sit with him, celebrate his life, and say goodbye. As I sat there at home the next day, soaking in everything that had happened, I read voraciously. Reading is therapy, and Frank Delaney delivered. Delaney is a true storyteller, the kind one reads about in the old Irish tales about seanchai and wandering bards, weaving tales from thin air. When I listen to him read his books, I imagine him in the old tradition, pipe in hand, wreathed in smoke from a hearth fire. His voice makes each word and letter resonate, physically vibrate with depth and substance; it's an otherworldly experience.

The Last Storyteller
was the final installment of a three part series, one that is part love story, part coming of age story and entirely captivating. It follows Ben MacCarthy, a collector of Irish mythology for the Irish Folklore Commission, who has wandered the Irish countryside for decades, trying to understand his own life and the decisions he has made. Bereft of his true love, he finds solace in his memories, the words of his mentor, and the stories he collects. It was comforting to return to these places that had become so familiar to me in Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show and The Matchmaker of Kenmare. It was rewarding to revisit Ben, and James Clare, and even Billy "Flocking" Maloney. But the theme of this trilogy that especially resonated with me throughout Opa's last days and beyond was the advice James Clare gives Ben in the first novel and continues to emphasize throughout Ben's life. As James says, "Every legend and all mythologies exist to teach us how to run our days. In kind fashion. A loving way. But there's no story, no matter how ancient, as important as one's own. So if we're to live good lives, we have to tell ourselves our own story. In a good way." Oh, I love those lines. Ben's quest for the love of his life also becomes a quest to tell his own story. In The Last Storyteller, Ben is finally able to do so, to evaluate and understand his life. And it is beautiful to see.

I love stories. I have had people ask why I never studied literature (although I argue, technically I do... I just don't have a degree for it). But the reason I went into history is because I have found that the past is where we find the real stories, the true drama of human existence. Through studying history, I have been privy to the stories of men and women from Crete to Mississippi. When we live our lives, they don't seem glamorous or monumental. Daily life is just that.. marked by seconds, minutes, and hours that are equal parts triumph and disappointment, peace and stress, joy and sadness. But when we see our lives and our world today as acts in a larger play, or a chapter in a larger tale, it starts to make sense. We can see how we fit into the broader scheme of things and even how we can change it. We can look back on the stories of those that have inhabited this Earth before us and see how their stories affect ours and even how ours mimics theirs. But we have to be open to it, we have to realize the potential that comes from our collective stories. There is so much to discover when we learn to listen.

I believe I was fated to read The Last Storyteller, with its emphasis on looking back to understand one's life and the importance of sharing our stories, just as my Opa stepped from this life into the next. The book helped me grieve and made it easier to focus on the gift of life, as well as death. During the past two years, I made it a point to ask Opa for his stories, and record them for my family and my descendants. And I saw with what joy he looked back on the life he had lived and recounted details and moments that may have seemed trivial, but all added up into making him who he was. I believe we can learn from everyone's story and I know I learned much from Opa's. My job now is to make my life worthy so that I may tell him a good story when I meet him again.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Lesson of the Rubber Band

Last year, there was an entire week where I wore a single rubber band around my wrist. Nothing flashy, nothing colorful. A plain, flesh-colored, dirty rubber band.

That week, I had walked into work to find two books waiting for me on the back table that had just arrived from Inter-Library Loan. One was an audiobook, one a new release, and I had been waiting for weeks with bated breath for both to arrive. And there they were- waiting for me, arriving on the same day and banded together like a beautiful Christmas present in the middle of a soggy February. I took off the rubber band encircling the books and slipped it on my wrist, no doubt because I planned on depositing it in the nearest drawer. Yet I wore it for the rest of the night, and then into the following week. At first, it wasn't deliberate- but every time I started to take it off, I remembered the inexplicable joy and tingling excitement of seeing those books and knowing they were finally mine to explore. I never wanted to lose that feeling. So I kept it on.

I thought about that today because for some reason or other, I wound up with another rubber band on my wrist. This time it was just because I needed a place to put it, but when I glanced at it tonight, I remembered that moment a year ago and smiled. I needed a reason to smile. And a thought flashed into my mind like a snapshot- no matter what happens in our lives or what difficulties we face, there is always a reason to anticipate the future and relish in the opportunities we have stretching out before us.

Like opening a brand-new book. Enjoying a mug of tea. Taking a walk in the fresh air. Strolling through aisles at the bookstore. Buying a new outfit. Waking up to the smell of fresh-baked bread. Cuddling your niece. Making a home-cooked meal. Packing for a trip. Or celebrating the life of someone you miss.

There is so much around us. We just have to notice it, anticipate it.... and celebrate it. Even if you do so by wearing a plain rubber band.

Me and my Opa

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