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One of the best ways of celebrating St. Patrick’s day is to enjoy nature and thank God for it. In  his book, Farming in Ireland, History, Heritage and Environment, Dr. John Feehan writes, that, “the sacred places of pre-Celtic Ireland were not the caves and buildings of stone which Christianity inherited from Rome, nor were they like the temples of other great religions. For the Celts the sacred place was the nemeton; the grove of trees, living, full of spirit, whispering of things in our own spirit we can hardly comprehend and barely articulate.

Groves and individual trees played an important role in the lore of the Druids, and there is no doubt of the pre-eminence of the oak, tree which of all the trees was most full of symbolism for European druids and the Celtic people they served.”[1]

Feehan tells us that the sacred groves of the pre-Christian era were carried over into the Irish Christian Church of the 5th century. “It is more than likely that many or even most of the early Christian churches were founded on the site of druidic oaks or other sacred trees which still echo faintly in the names of these places; cill dara,(Kirdare), dair-mhagh (Durrow), doire Calgaich (Derry).”[2]

Columban and creation

In his Sermon, ‘Concerning the Faith,’ Columban wrote about the  presence of God in nature and the importance of understanding nature if we wish to know God. Seek no further concerning God; for those who wish to know the great depth of things must first know the natural world. [3]

Bishop Chamnoald, at one time a disciple of  Columban tells that Columban would call out to the creatures when he went into the woods to fast or pray, and that they would come to him at once. He would stroke them with his hand and caress them: and the wild things and the birds would leap and frisk about him for sheer joy as pups jump on their masters. Even the squirrels would answer his call, climbing into the hands and onto the shoulders of Columban and running in and out of the folds of his cowl. Chamnoald said that he himself had seen this, and that we should not marvel that bird and beast should obey the command of a man of God.

With this intense Celtic love for nature it is understandable that nature poetry developed in Gaelic almost one thousand years before it appeared in English or other European vernacular languages. One of the best known of these poems comes from the monk Marban. He feels nurtured and protected by nature, especially when he is alone.

For I inhabit a wood

Unknown but to my God.

My house of hazel and ash

as an old hut in a rath.

And my house small, but not too small,

Is always accessible:

women disguised as blackbirds

take their words from the gable.

The stag erupts from rivers,

brown mountains tell the distance;

I am glad as poor as this

Even in men’s absence.

death-green of yew,

huge green of oak

Sanctify,

and apples grow

close by new nuts;

Water hides.

Young of things,

bring faith to me,

guard my door;

the rough, unloved,

wild dogs, tall deer,

Quiet does.

In small tame bands

the badgers are,

Gray outside;

and Foxes dance

before my door at night.

All at evening

The day’s first meal

since dawn’s bread;

Trapped trout, sweet sloes,

and honey, haws

beer and herbs.

Moans, movements of

silver-breasted

birds rouse  me:

Pigeons perhaps,

and the thrush sings,

constantly.

Black-winged beetles

boom, and small bees;

November

though the lone geese

a wild winter

music stirs.

Come fine white gulls

all sea-singing

and less sad,

lost in heather,

the grouse’s song

little sad.

For music I

Have pines, my tall

Music-pines.

So who can I

Envy here my

Gentle Christ.[4]

The Christian community must begin to see itself once more as part of the wider community of life. This will help us celebrate the beauty and wonders of  forests and trees with poets, musicians and other artists.  They will also help shape an ethical consensus which will guide human interaction with trees, forests and the wider natural world.


[1] John Feehan,  Farming in Ireland, History, Heritage and Environment, Walsh Printers, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, page 304.

[2] Ibid

[3] Scriptores Latini Hiberniae, Volume II, Sancti Columbani Opera, ed. G.Sl M. Walker, School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1957 page 65.

[4] John Montagues (ed.) The Faber Book of Irish Verse, Faber and Faber, London, 1974, pages 57-58.

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