Learning Theology with Carmina Gadelica: The Communion of Saints


Part One: The Trinity

Part Two: Christ

Part Three: Christian Hope

Part Four: Holy Spirit

Gaelic lands were infused with saints: Ireland had its St. Patrick and was deemed the land of ten thousand saints; Scotland was evangelized by St. Columba (Colum Cille) and St. Brigid (Bride) of Kildare. These figures infused the imagination, both elaborating and embellishing upon their real and/or legendary deeds and providing ready models for the Christian to remember and aspire to. As one example, St. Brigid not only founded many monastic communities, but in later lore seemed to exhibit temporal bi-location in that she was also deemed the handmaid of Mary, serving as midwife during Jesus’ birth.

The Christianization of these lands also tended to carry over previous beliefs and traditions, infusing saints with what some perceive as mythological qualities form prior pagan sources. St. Brigid is commonly thought to have taken over a celtic goddess of the same name, although it is always difficult to be sure in these matters, as the sources for what comprised pre-Christian beliefs and practices often post-dates the Christianization of these lands by centuries, leaving one unsure how much Christianity is being read back. At any rate, as becomes obvious from Carmina Gadelica, whatever pagan roots might have carried over onto the saints is thoroughly Christianized; the world is perhaps filled with magic and charms, but these are all subsumed under a base assumption of God’s lordship of creation. The perception presented in Carmina Gadelica is one of realism: taking the world as it is in its concrete reality and letting one’s theology thoroughly permeate it.

Thus, for those in the world that the Carmina Gaelic inhabits, there is no necessary disjunction between the Gospel and invoking charms against fairies. One might see this as an unfortunate syncretism, but one might also notice that in invoking the saints and angels and even God himself for aid against the powers of the world, there is a presupposition of God’s headship over all creation and the reality of Christ’s presence and promise of succor in all situations.

In this sense then, the saints of the past are for the world of Carmina Gadelica not simply dead and ossified relics of a bygone era, but are alive and efficacious agents of aid. Their invocation is in no respects different from invoking the help of the living, except in this case their intercession is all the more powerful given their saintliness and closeness to God.

The communion of saints presupposes that death does not destroy the fellowship of believers but rather solidifies that bond in Christ. This bond is not simply theoretical or inspirational, but involves an active and continual exchange of spiritual goods. Thus, the invocation of the saints and angels has held a prominent place in Christian theology from the earliest days, and in the world of Carmina Gadelica was an especially real lived reality, given the tendency to concretize theology.

The hand of the communion can be seen in everything, and the entire communion is often invoked, both saints and angels according to their specific patronage:

Peter has come and Paul has come,
James has come and John has come,
Muriel and Mary Virgin have come,
Uriel the all-beneficent has come,
Ariel the beauteousness of the young has come,
Gabriel the seer of the Virgin has come,
Raphael the prince of the valiant has come,
And Michael the chief of the hosts has come,
And Jesus Christ the mild has come,
And the Spirit of true guidance has come,
And the King of kings has come on the helm,
To bestow on thee their affection and their love,
To bestow on thee their affection and their love. (Carmina Gadelica, 3, p. 38)

This is further seen in the invocation of St. Michael the Archangel, who was often invoked in connection with the sea. His connection with martial activities in the scriptures also bestowed upon him the patronage of protection and guidance, and is frequently invoked especially in connection to protecting one from sin and leading the soul to God after death:

Be Thou a hard triumphant glaive
To shield us securely from wicked hell,
From the fiends and from the stieve snell gullies,
And from the lurid smoke of the abyss.

Be my soul in the trustance of the High King,
Be Michael the powerful meeting my soul. (Carmina Gadelica, 13, p. 45)

Thou angel of God who hast charge of me
From the dear Father of mercifulness,
The shepherding kind of the fold of the saints
To make round about me this night;

I am tired and I a stranger,
Lead thou me to the land of angels;
For me it is time to go home
To the court of Christ, to the peace of heaven. (Carmina Gadelica, 18, p. 47)

In this sense St. Michael was perceived (as were all the saints) as God’s ministers of his will, carrying out his divine action is specific and concrete ways. The merit of the saint was perceived as affording prayers additional efficacy, and thus any invocation might include several saints:

The cross of the saints and of the angels with me
From the top of my face to the edge of my soles.

O Michael mild, O Mary of glory,
O gentle Bride of the locks of gold,
Preserve ye me in the weakly body,
The three preserve me on the just path.
Oh! three preserve me on the just path.

Preserve ye me in the soul-shrine poor,
Preserve ye me, and I so weak and naked,
Preserve ye me without offence on the way,
The preservation of the three upon me to-night.
Oh! the Three to shield me to-night. (Carmina Gadelica, 17, p.47)

The hand of Bride about my neck,
The hand of Mary about my breast,
The hand of Michael laving me,
The hand of Christ saving me. (Carmina Gadelica, 23, p. 50)

The invocation of the saints could be wide-ranging, but was often concerned with the state of one’s soul and finding protection from sin and evil. Those who have gone before and who “are done with sin,” as St. Paul says, can be especially efficacious because they have in their own lives through grace conquered their own sins, and thus can render aid for the one struggling against it:

God and Mary and Michael kindly
And the cross of the nine angels fair,
Be shielding me as Three and as One,
From the brow of my face to the edge of my soles.

I beseech Peter, I beseech Paul,
I beseech Mary, I beseech the Son,
I beseech the trustful Apostles twelve
To preserve me from hurt and harm;
O from dying to-night,
From dying to-night! (Carmina Gadelica, 37, p. 61)

Of course, for those who inhabit the world of the Carmina Gadelica, the communion of saints is a lived reality, and nothing is outside of its ken. The saints are not merely concerned with the “big” issues of sin and salvation and protection from harm and what-not; they are as involved with day-to-day life as if they were still alive, because, in Christ, they truly are. Thus, the saints may be invoked for even seemingly trivial things. One poem recounts St. Columba performing a sort of temporal bi-location and having a discussion with Christ and John the Baptist:

‘A horse in strangles,’
Quoth Columba.

‘I will turn it,’
Said Christ.

‘On Sunday morning? ‘
Quoth Columba.

‘Ere rise of sun,’
Said Christ.

‘Three pillars in the well,’
Quoth Columba.

‘I will lift them,’
Said Christ.

‘Will that heal him?’
Quoth John the Baptist.

Said Christ. (Carmina Gadelica, 183, p. 160)

Fishing was often an important (and dangerous) enterprise, and saints could be invoked and the entire enterprise effectively sacralized:

I will cast down my hook,
The first fish which I bring up

In the name of Christ, King of the elements,
The poor shall have it at his wish.

And the king of fishers, the brave Peter,
He will after it give me his blessing.

Ariel, Gabriel, and John,
Raphael benign, and Paul,

Columba, tender in every distress,
And Mary fair, the endowed of grace.

Encompass ye us to the fishing-bank of ocean,
And still ye to us the crest of the waves. (Carmina Gadelica, 117, p. 119)

A common malady affecting fisherman was getting herring scales in the eye (called here a “mote”), which was not only painful but also- given the profession- potentially hazardous. The saints were understood to be efficacious in the removal of motes:

Brigit, be mine eye,
Mary, be my support,
Glorious King, be by my knee,
Loving Christ, be by my body.

The mote that is in the eye
Place, O King of life,
Place, O Christ of love,
Place, O Spirit Holy,
Place upon my palm.

May the King of life be giving rest,
May Christ of love be giving repose,
May the Spirit Holy be giving strength,
May the eye be at peace.

O Brigit calm of the mantles,
O Mary mild of the poor,
O warrior Michael of the burnished swords,
See the hurt at rest. (Carminaa Gadelica, 439, p. 407)

Cold winters demanded warm clothes, and thus weaving was a crucial aspect of survival. The invocation of the saints could be made to keep a loom from warping:

My warp shall he very even,
Give to me Thy blessing, O God,
And to all who are beneath my roof
In the dwelling.

Michael, thou angel of power,
Mary fair, who art above,
Christ, Thou Shepherd of the people,
Do ye your eternal blessing

On each one who shall lie down,
In name of the Father and of Christ,
And of the Spirit of peacefulness,
And of grace. (Carmina Gadelica, 109, p. 112)

And even butter churning was not beyond the gaze or the hand of the saints:

Come, Thou Calum Cille kindly,
Hasten the lustre on the cream;
Sees thou the orphans unregarded
Waiting the blessing of the milk-wave of the kine.

Come, Thou Brigit, handmaid calm,
Hasten the butter on the cream;
Seest thou impatient Peter yonder
Waiting the buttered bannock white and yellow. (Carmina Gadelica, 383, p. 352)

Cattle form another of the saints’ concern, from the birthing to the coloration to the progeny:

My treasure thou, and thou art of the world’s kine,
Thou wilt give me milk from the heather tops;
Not grey milk of the taste of the rowan berries,.
But honey milk and white as the sea-gull.
Ho hoiligean, ho my heifers!

The melodious Bride will give thee offspring and young,
The lovely Mary will give thee colour to cover thee,
The lustrous Michael will give thee a star to guide thee,
And Christ Jesus will give thee peace and joy.
Ho hoiligean, ho my heifers! (Carmina Gadelica, 96, p. 103)

The Three who are above in the City of glory,
Be shepherding my flock and my kine,
Tending them duly in heat, in storm, and in cold,
With the blessing of power driving them down
From yonder height to the sheiling fold.

The name of Ariel of beauteous bloom,
The name of Gabriel herald of the Lamb,
The name of Raphael prince of power,
Surrounding them and saving them.

The name of Muriel and of Mary Virgin,
The name of Peter and of Paul,
The name of James and of John,
Each angel and apostle on their track,
Keeping them alive and their progeny,
Keeping them alive and their progeny. (Carmina Gadelica, 107, p. 111)

Ultimately, the communion of saints is understood to be a very real and close reality; there is nothing within life that is outside their potential aid or supplication. Their closeness to God and their sanctity form the basis of their invocation, for they, like saints in Revelation, are believed to offers up the prayers of the saints as incense before God. The fraternal love that binds all believers together in union in Christ ensures their succor and intercession. The saints and angels form a host who with divine;y-infused charity desire to aid those who ask, and to help the soul find its way to its heavenly home:

I lie in my bed
As I would lie in the grave,
Thine arm beneath my neck,
Thou Son of Mary victorious.

Angels shall watch me
And I lying in slumber,
And angels shall guard me
In the sleep of the grave.

Uriel shall be at my feet,
Ariel shall be at my back,
Gabriel shall be at my head,
And Raphael shall be at my side.

Michael shall be with my soul,
The strong shield of my love!
And the Physician Son of Mary
Shall put the salve to mine eye,
The Physician Son of Mary
Shall put the salve to mine eye! (Carmina Gadelica, 40, p. 60-61)


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