Learning Theology with Carmina Gadelica: The Trinity


One of my most prized books is Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Gaelic hymns, incantations, prayers, charms and poetry. Compiled by Alexander Carmichael in 1900, this collection puts to paper an infinitely valuable trove of oral culture that might have otherwise been lost.

But these hymns and prayers are more than just cultural nuggets- they reflect the deep permeation of Christianity in Gaelic lands, for the invocations of God occur in all manner of contexts, from prayers for protection to preparing the hearth-fire. There is a deep sense that God is both behind and beyond all things; nature itself- everything that is is imbued with the presence of God.

As such, there is a subtle yet profound theological richness to be found in the Carmina Gadelica.

Part One: The Trinity

Whether or not St. Patrick used a three-leaf clover to explain the Trinity, the hymns and prayers of Carmina Gadelica leave no room for doubt that Trinitarian thought infused the Gaelic imagination. We find page after page invoking the Blessed Trinity, alternating between generic descriptions (the Trinity) and mentions of each person (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). While the oneness of being is taken for granted, the missional relation of each person to creation is emphasized. But while many Western emphases such as these encompass salvation history more generally, the invocations in Carmina Gadelica tend to personalize salvation history to the pray-er himself; that is, that actual missional relation of the divine person is contextualized for the individual. An example:

I am bending my knee
In the eye of the Father who created me.
In the eye of the Son who purchased me.
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
In friendship and affection. (Carmina Gadelica, 1, p.35)

Another favorite designation for the Trinity is simply The Three, and this appellation is often used in connection with and juxtaposition to either the supplicant or creation and the world in general. Thus, the Three are something altogether removed from the world as we know and understand it, yet there is nevertheless a deep connection which infuses the very being of creation and those beings which comprise it. In the same prayer we find a supplication for fullness:

To do on the world of the Three
As angels and saints
Do in heaven,
Each shade and light,
Each day and night,
Each time and kindness,
Give Thou us Thy Spirit. (ibid.)

As can be seen, this world is indeed ‘the world of the Three.’ The Trinity is far removed in being from all other beings, yet by virtue of being creator the Trinity is intimately connected since all being flows from the divine being. Thus, each action and each portion of creation is a place to meet the Creator of it all, whether in the shade or light, day or night. The Spirit is the person who gives us the fullness in our need, fills us with graces, and leads us into the love of the Three. In some way the Spirit has a special connection to creation, in that the love and will of God flow into the world through the ministry of the Spirit. The experience of the Spirit in the heart of the one who loves God leaves no wonder where joy and peace can be found:

God with me lying down,
God with me rising up,
God with me in each ray of light,
Nor I a ray of joy without Him,
Nor one ray without him. (Carmina Gadelica, 2, p. 36)

The repetition of the phrase has its own beauty, but points to a deeper profundity- not only is there no ray of joy without God, but there is no ray of light, period. Everything in creation speaks of God and in some way conveys the beauty and grandeur of God. Further, every action on the part of human beings derives from God’s breathing life and being into us. Hence, there can be no ray of joy any more than there can be a ray of light without God. It is in this realization that the believer can come to grips with the sheer wonder that God is everywhere and in everything; thus, every thought and desire should be directed toward and led by God. We read further:

Christ with me sleeping,
Christ with me waking,
Christ with me watching,
Every day and night,
Each day and night. (ibid.)

The Trinitarian experience deepened by this communion with Christ brings the believer to an invocation of daily Trinitarian leading:

God with me protecting,
The Lord with me directing,
The Spirit with me strengthening,
For ever and for evermore,
Ever and evermore, Amen.
Chief of Chiefs, Amen. (ibid.)

The supplicant realizes that as the Chief of Chiefs, God must be directing and protecting and guiding. Every movement must be in submission to the will of the Three, for, after all, this is the world of the Three.

There is a sense in which the experience of the Three in this world is a foretaste of that which is to come, for the missional relations of each person are not superfluous but have a direction, a purpose. The personalization of each person’s mission is tied back to both the invocation for protection and blessing while also underscoring the telos of each mission:

Now to the Father who created each creature,
Now to the Son who paid ransom for his people,
Now to the Holy Spirit, Comforter of might:
Shield and sain us from every wound;
Be about the beginning and end of our race,
Be giving us to sing in glory,
In peace, in rest, in reconciliation,
Where no tear shall be shed, where death shall be no more.
Where no tear shall be shed, where death shall be no more. (Carmina Gadelica, 7, p. 42)

This beautiful innovation develops the understanding the experience of the Three in this life is ultimately leading the soul into deeper waters; the beginning and end (telos) of our race is thus located in the Trinity itself, for the missional relations have a temporal relationship to our world and to salvation, while the eternal union of the Three transcends it all and mystically provides both its initiation and its consummation.

Even in sleep the Trinity is invoked:

Spirit, give me of Thine abundance,
Father, give me of Thy wisdom,
Son, give me in my need,
Jesus beneath the shelter of Thy shield.

I lie down tonight,
With the Triune of my strength,
With the Father, with Jesus,
With the Spirit of might. (Carmina Gadelica, 30, p. 54)

There is thus no aspect of life in which the Three may not be invoked, for it is taken for granted that God is the creator of all and that all creation is a mirror of his glory and his light. Every act and every thought thus should be turned toward the Three. From lying down to greeting the morning the Holy Trinity should be invoked:

Come I this day to the Father,
Come I this day to the Son,
Come I this day to the Holy Spirit powerful,
Come I this day with God,
Come I this day with Christ,
Come I this day with the Spirit of kindly balm.

God, Spirit and Jesus,
From the crown of my head
To the soles of my feet;
Come I with my reputation,
Come I with my testimony,
Come I to Thee, Jesu,
Jesu, shelter me. (Carmina Gadelica, 27, p. 53)

Here the lyricist recognizes both that the Trinity should be invoked in everything, but also that such an invocation carries with it a responsibility to walk in the way of the Three. If the Three are to have all of oneself, then everything- from reputation to testimony- must come under His lordship. Again we notice the special connection the Holy Spirit occupies as the conduit of both power and healing, not only to cure the woundedness of the soul but to empower the believer to live into the love and fellowship of the Three. The Spirit then leads the soul to Jesus, who becomes the one who shelters and shields. The Incarnation wherein God becomes man becomes the meeting place where the Spirit introduces the believer into Trinitarian communion, and in that love the heart wants nothing more than to cling to Jesus, to offer the entirety of his being to Jesus like any lover would for his beloved.

Once introduced into this divine love, the soul can rest at ease, for, as the scriptures state, perfect love drives out all fear. The Spirit’s leading to the crucified Savior is the source and security of safety for the spirit, for in passing from death into life one has come into God’s family; now the Trinity becomes the ultimate advocate and defender:

I am placing my soul and body
On the sanctuary this night, O God,
On Thy sanctuary, O Jesus Chirst,
On Thy sanctuary, O Spirit of perfect truth;
The Three who would defend my cause,
Nor turn their backs upon me. (Carmina Gadelica, 29, p. 54)

Even though the second person of the Trinity is missionally engaged in the work of redemption and justification through his death on the cross, the lyricist senses the deep unity in the Trinity and locates the act of justification in the unity of the Divine will and action:

Thou. Father, who art kind and just,
Thou. Son, who didst overcome death,
Thou, Holy Spirit of power,
Be keeping me this night from harm;
the Three who would justify me
Keeping me this night and always. (ibid.)

In this perfect rest where the Three shield and justify the believer, there is peace and love:

I am lying down tonight with the Holy Spirit,
And the Holy Spirit this night will lie down with me,
I will lie down this night with the Three of my love,
And the Three of my love will lie down with me. (Carmina Gadelica, 34, p. 57)

What could be more beautiful than this imagery, where the consummation of divine love and unity with God does not wait until some far-removed time beyond death’s grip but rather is a present reality in those who believe and who have placed themselves under the sheltering of the Three? No fear can be present, for in life and in death the friendship of the Trinity is as near as one’s own life:

I am now going into the sleep,
Be it that I in health shall waken;
If death be to me in the death-sleep,
be it that on Thine own arm,
O God of Grace, I in peace shall waken;
Be it on Thine own beloved arm,
O God of Grace, that I in peace shall awaken. (Carmina Gadelica, 35, p. 57)

In the night- which represents the veil of death and the uncertainty of this life and the instability of our world- the love and fellowship of the Trinity stands as bright as a white Moon in the dead of night:

In name of the Holy Spirit of grace,
In name of the Father of the City of peace,
In name of Jesus who took death off us,
Oh! In name of the Three who shield us in every need,
If well Thou hast found us tonight,
Seven times better mayest thou leave us without harm,
Thou bright white Moon of the seasons,
Bright white Moon of the seasons. (Carmina Gadelica, 54, p. 53)

For the Gaelic writers, the Trinity is not an esoteric dogma to be recited and systematized but rather a living and lived reality, for God as Creator is near to us in creation, and all that he has made is a reflection of his power and his goodness. The triune life of the Three is not confined to the gates of heaven but spills overflowing onto earth, where those who call for aid find peace and rest in the divine communion. The Trinity is near to us in every aspect of our lives, and in the love of the Three we are complete and healed from our brokenness:

In nearness to the Trinity farewell to all my pains,
Christ stands before me, and peace is in his mind. (Carmina Gadelica, 346, p. 312)

The Trinity infuses all creation with being, as everything springs forth from the grace and power of God. There is nowhere one can go where the Three do not dwell, and in the final analysis all one can do is invoke the aid of the Three and stand in awe at the grandeur of the eternal mystery which invites us deeper into its embrace:

The Three Who are over me,
The Three Who are below me,
The Three Who are above me here,
The Three Who are above me yonder;
The Three Who are in the earth,
The Three Who are in the air,
The Three Who are in heaven,
The Three Who are in the great pouring sea.

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